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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anthropology 399JD: Sustainability, Humans, and Animals: From Research Topic to Search Strategy

Library guide for Fall 2017 ANTH 399JD

Selecting a research topic/research question

A research topic is a general term for the subject you are interested in learning about. Examples: Sustainable fishing; Pet Overpopulation.

Once you know your topic, you will need to come up with a more specialized research question that will be the focus of the paper. This will guide your search and help you narrow down your resources to the ones you need to answer this question in your paper. This might involve more specific geographic regions, sub-topics, or problems related to the topic. For example: What regulations have been effective in promoting and enforcing sustainable fishing practices in Alaska?

If you need help coming up with a research topic or research question, try looking at your course readings and the reference books linked below for ideas. You can also try searching a database for a general topic, and look for patterns or trends of related articles to use as the focus of your research question.

Activity 1 Brainstorming Keywords

Consider your research topic and research question, and list as many words or phrases related to that topic as you can. Include synonyms, and look at the reference books linked above or your course readings and textbooks for help finding more words and phrases.

Activity 2: Group related words and phrases

Group related words and phrases you listed in Activity 1 into separate "clouds" or "clusters." For example, each of these groups would be in its own "cloud": 

fish, salmon, and haddock

fish farming, fisheries, aquaculture

Alaska, Arctic, Kodiak, Aleutian

regulations, enforcement, rules, policies


Activity 3: Linking words to construct searches

Based on your clusters of search terms, devise your search strategy:

  • use boolean operator OR for terms within the same cluster (ie. synonyms); this tells the computer to search for all the terms at the same time:
    fish OR salmon; regulation OR policy

                 fish or salmon


  • use boolean operator AND to link words between different clusters; this tells the computer to restrict retrieval to both concepts:
    fish AND sustainable

           fish and sustainable


  • Put them together to form one big search: (fish OR salmon) AND (regulation or policy)

More search tips:

  • use truncation (*) to broaden your search to include variants of a term:
    fish* will retrieve fish, fishing, fishermen, fishes.
  • use quotation marks to group two or more words into phrases:
    "sustainable farming"

Snapshot of a Literature Search

A literature review is a survey of current (you determine time frame) literature relating to a particular issue, problem, theory, etc. The review involves a comprehensive search of all of the known/findable scholarly literature related to the issue or topic. The written review provides a summary of this literature and can be a publication in its own right, or may be part of a larger academic research publication.


  • Identify the problem
  • Formulate the research question

  • Conduct preliminary search(es) of the literature as appropriate in order to:

    • find out if the same or similar research has already been published
    • broaden or refine the scope of the problem
    • bring to light new issues or quesitons related to the topic
    • provide models or frameworks that can inform your research
    • identify experts or scholars in the field
    • provide background or context for your research
  • Refine the topic

  • Conduct a second review of the literature using multiple databases and other appropriate resrouces

  • Review/evaluate/analyze results

    • Glance at the title; if you think the publication may be relevant look at the abstract.
    • If the abstract indicates that the article will be important go to the full text and skim the intorudction, methods and results. (If you find a structured abstract this process will be much easier.)
    • Save citations/full text for all potentially important literature.