Skip to Main Content

PSYC 221: Physiology & Behavior (Bitran): Getting Started

Fall 2023

Developing Your Topic [incl. worksheets]

Brainstorming to Focus

Once you choose a general topic, you will need to decide how you will focus your research to examine  a particular aspect of that topic. What interests you about this topic? What do you want to investigate more deeply? You might find it helpful to do some brainstorming about this right away.  

Here are some pointers to keep in mind: 

  • Expect to find uncharted territory. It's temping to search endlessly for that article that perfectly conveys what you are interested in. But sometimes, that elusive source doesn't exist -- it may not have been written, may not take the same perspective as your original text, and/or may write about this idea from a different angle or with different words. 
  • Be flexible, and realistic. Your professor (and perhaps a librarian) can help you with this aspect. It's important that you choose a topic that is both appropriate for the course and that, practically speaking, can be researched. 
  • Think bigger. Don’t just think about your chosen texts and its arguments, but its bigger context.  What larger issues/conversations in the study of physiology and behavior factor into your topic? 
  • Think holistically. Look for research that contributes different ways of thinking and analyses that you can bring together. Make sure you
    are exploring your topic thoroughly rather than limiting yourself to the perspective in your text or in the first article or two you encounter. 

Here is a handout that you can use to work through this process (originally created by Peer Research Consultant Kyle Irvine '21):

Expanding on Existing Research:

No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. You can use a single article  or other resource to find other, similar research by tracing the paths of that conversation:

Keywords – Check the abstract, subject terms and full-text to discover the vocabulary being used in this particular scholarly conversation.

Subject Terms – Subject terms not only provide insight into vocabulary you should use but also serve as search tools – click on these tags in any database (or the catalog) to find more resources on a given topic.

Cited References – Check the references list (or bibliography) to see what previous research this resource is drawing on. From here, you may wish to consider: 

- Previous articles or books published on your topic
- Other authors who have published on your topic
- Journals where your topic is frequently discussed

Times Cited – Check Google Scholar to see which articles or books have cited your sources, and to find
more-recent research which builds on your original information.

** Once you find a new resource, you can also trace the scholarly conversation around that book/article to find even more resources! **

For a simpler, graphic representation of this research strategy, download the handout below: 

Recommended Tools: 

Research Strategies [incl. worksheets]

How Searches Work: 

There are two different ways in which research tools tend to function. 

Some tools -- Google and other web searches as well as certain databases -- conduct what is called a full-text search, which scans every word of the document(s) being searched from beginning to end. 

Others, including the majority of our research databases and the library catalog, conduct what is called a bibliographic or metadata search. These tools scan only the metadata, or descriptive information about the documents they contain -- titles, abstracts, subject keywords and other info. This is why searching for sentences or entire phrases often works poorly in the research databases, and why Google produces so many more matches. 

So which do you choose? 

bibliographic search will bring you fewer results, but will be tailored to results that mention your terms in the descriptive information (and therefore, are more likely to be relevant). 

 full text search will bring you a greater number of results, but more of them are likely to be irrelevant (for example, if your search term appears only once in the document in an off-hand mention). However, it might catch some articles that you might not see otherwise, and may help you find articles whose bibliographic information uses different terminology to describe your topic. 

You may want to experiment with tools that conduct both kinds of searches, to get the widest range of resources on your topic. 

Choosing Search Terms:

Here are some general tips to guide you in choosing your search terms:

  • Use keywords or brief (2-word) phrases instead of sentences -- one or two for each part of your topic.
  • Use concepts and other nouns as your keywords.  Think of words that are likely to be used in titles (or that you have seen in titles).
  • Depending on your topic, you may want to include specialized terminology, including concepts, types of methodologies, etc. 
  • Remember to look for and include alternate spellings

If your keywords aren't turning up many results, you may need to:

  • Try thinking of synonyms or other ways of phrasing your topic. If you can find one or two relevant articles, check to see what subjects are listed for them and try to build keywords from there. 
  • Try a broader search (broader topic, broader date-range, etc.).
  • Try a different database.

Coordinator of Research & Information Literacy

Profile Photo
Jennifer Whelan
Coordinator of Research & Information Literacy

Dinand 203