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Guide to Searching

Develop a search strategy using keywords and boolean operators. Dig deeper to learn about different ways to search and locate information.


This page will help you:

  • Understand the difference between a general topic and a research question
  • Practice writing research questions

Already have your research question?

Asking Research Questions

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:

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Richard. Research Questions. Continuum Research Methods Series. London: Continuum, 2003. Library Catalog
  • Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. 2015. Library Catalog

Learning Objectives

This page was designed to help you:

  • Understand the difference between a general topic and a research question
  • Practice writing research questions
Did this page help you meet these objectives?
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