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An introductory overview of the literature, data and other sources of information for research in economics.

Introduction: Prepare for research

How do you ask useful, impactful, critical questions in economics research? Why do questions, sources, and searches matter so much?

Here are some steps to guide you in your journey:

  1. Adopt a critical approach to research
  2. Develop your research question
  3. Review background guides and resources to refine your question
  4. Use keywords to develop a search strategy

Adopt a critical approach to research

Note: This section is still in-progress and based on the work of our talented colleague, Dr. Leo Lovemore!

The Brown University Library facilitates and supports critical research practices that ask how bias, power, and uneven access to resources are at work in the labor of scholarship. 

Consider reflecting on the following set of questions and resources to develop and integrate critical perspectives into your research plans:

  • What makes a source authoritative in economics? Who decides?
  • How do dynamics of power shape citational practice?
  • Is economics an objective deicipline? What counts as evidence?
  • How is bias embedded in knowledge-making

Key resources for learning more:

Develop your research question

What is a topic you care about?

When doing research for courses at Brown, you might be asked to "choose a topic" for an assignment. While being so open-ended can be freeing for some, it can be anxiety provoking for others. When you are starting on a new project ask yourself: What is a topic I care about?

We can take your curiosity and translate it into a research question.

What makes a research question?

Research questions in different fields, like physics, sociology, or theater, might seem like they are radically different from one another, but they share some basic elements.

Research questions are:

  • Answerable

  • "Scaled" or "scoped" to be answerable within your time frame

  • Framed in a context, discipline, and/or rationale

If you are stuck, try framing your initial topic like this: “I’m interested in learning more about __________because ___________.”


Topic: I'm interested in learning more about industrial pollution because I'm concerned about pollution and climate change.
Research Question: What are the concentrations of heavy metals in the drinking water in riverways surrounding recently closed coal-fired power plants in New England?

Topic: I'm interested in queer history in the Middle East.
Research Question: What is the history of sexual reassignment in Morocco during the French Mandate?

Topic: I'm interested in censorship and democracy, especially examples of censorship in pop culture.
Research Question: What were the music censorship policies in Franco's Spain, and how did the transition to democracy affect the policies and practices of censorship?

In practice

Find a news article you read recently that left you excited to learn more. The subject doesn’t matter; it could be about athletics, the outdoors, gaming, government, cooking, robotics, music, you name it — as long as it's something that piqued your interest!

Pick a research field that you are interested in. Browse Brown Academic Departments if you need ideas.

Write three research questions that someone in that field might ask about this topic.

What more do you need to know?

Practice developing and scoping research questions with one of the following activities:

  1. Ask yourself the who, what, where, when, and why of this issue.
  2. Draw a concept map of the topic, noting areas where you have questions, made assumptions, or want to learn more.
  3. Do more background reading on the topic. Some good places to start are:
    • Wikipedia
    • Newspaper/online magazine articles
    • Review articles (a type of academic article)
    • A reading that your instructor previously assigned


See more:

Review background guides and resources to refine your question

How do researchers in your discipline approach the topic you'd like to investigate? Before diving into case studies, working papers, and other specific evidence, it may help you to take a step back and look at what we call background resources. These include:

  • Handbooks and subject encyclopedias
  • Annual reviews
  • Books with an overview/pedagogical approach
  • and more!

Below are some specific places to start with economics research:

Use keywords to develop a search strategy

Did you know that you can vastly improve your ability to find key relevant sources by employing a keyword strategy? Keywords are the specific words you identify as useful for investigating your research question, and the words you often put into database searches. But there's more nuance in finding, refining, and experimenting with keywords than you may expect.

Below is a quick video tutorial (6 minutes) about search strategy, and a link to our full guide for learning more.