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Research Process: Visualize Your Topic

Break your topic into keyterms; map terms to subject headings; use AND/OR to combine searches. Learn the difference between peer reviewed & scholarly sources.

Map your topic to a Venn diagram

Sometimes your topic starts fairly broad, like "Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality".

Clearly two search terms are:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Spirituality

Venn diagram of two terms

But this is not yet a research topic. What about these terms do you want to learn? When you try to refine a topic consider:

  • How your terms could relate to each other.
    • How spirituality impacts the success of those in Alcoholics Anonymous?
    • How being involved in Alcoholics Anonymous changes someone's ideas of spirituality?
  • What population
    • Recovering alcoholics?
    • Society's perceptions of alcoholics?
    • Therapists' perceptions of recovering alcoholics?
    • Therapists' perceptions of spirituality?
    • Specific demographic? (gender/age/ethnicity/sexual orientation/etc.)
  • How does this topic relate to your program?
    • Consider treatment outcomes, theories, techniques

​From these two terms, here's an example of a full topic:

  • "What are therapists' attitudes towards Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality?"

We could think of "therapists' attitudes" as a third circle in the Venn diagram, but sometimes it's helpful to break it down further into "therapists", "attitudes":

Venn diagram with 4 topics

Look at the small intersection point between all the topics. That small space is YOUR TOPIC. It's very likely there are not many articles written about that exact topic. That's why it's helpful to visualize your topic by separating the facets. 

Next, think of other terms for each of the circles or bubbles. Think of both narrower & broader terms. So your diagram might look something like this:

Add more terms for each Venn diagram bubble

Most topics can be visualized with only 3-4 bubbles. However, some will get more complex, especially for dissertations, and might need 5-6. if you only have 1-2 bubbles, it is not yet a topic. If you have 18 bubbles, you have a bit of a mess, as that would be unwieldy for a single topic.

To learn how to apply these terms in a database, see the next few tabs on this guide about choosing a database & using subject headings. To learn how to narrow/expand your results by combining these terms effectively, see the tab on combining terms.

Want help? Meet with the Library!

The one perfect article

Ever get zero results? Here's a video from NCSU Libraries about why that might be: