Background Reading

A pair of binoculars

Get a good look at your topic through background reading.

It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic once you have it. For one reason, you probably don’t know much about it yet. For another, such reading will help you learn the terms used by professionals and scholars who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms are certain to be helpful when you’re looking for sources later, so jot them down or otherwise remember them. For instance, if you were going to research the treatment of children with coronavirus, this background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term instead COVID-19 instead of coronavirus when they write about it. Often, they also use SARS-CoV-2 infection or 2019-nCOV infection to identify the strain. If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment. Keep in mind your ability to think slowly in order to throughly explore a given topic.

Most sources other than journal articles are good sources for this initial reading, including the New York Times or other mainstream American news outlets, Wikipedia, encyclopedias for the discipline your topic is in (horticulture for the crabapple bud development topic, for instance), dictionaries for the discipline, and manuals, handbooks, blogs, and web pages that could be relevant. This initial reading could cause you to narrow your topic further, which is fine because narrower topics lead to greater specificity for what you want to find out. After this upfront work, you’re ready to start developing the research question(s) you will try to answer for your assignment.

Tip: Keeping Track of Your Information

While you are in the background reading phase of your research you will come across a lot of sources and don’t know yet if they will prove useful in the long run. A handy type of software to help you keep track of all your findings is called citation management software. It will also be extremely valuable when it comes to using the resources you end up needing. There are several that are freely available.  Take a look at Zotero, Mendeley, or Citavi.

Fuel Your Inspiration

It’s worth remembering that reading, scanning, looking at, and listening to information resources is very useful during any step of the process to develop research questions. Doing so can jog our memories, give us details that will help us focus, and help us connect disparate information–all of which will help us come up with research questions that we find interesting. The time spent exploring your topic will aid the direction of your research and ultimately the information resorces that you will utlize during the search process.


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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