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Developing Your Topic: Background Reading

This guide offers instruction and helpful tips on how to develop your topic for an academic paper or class assignment.

Background reading

Do some background reading. No matter what the class, you can check out the following to get a general sense of your topic:

  • Your course readings or textbook for relevant reading or background information.
  • Ask your instructor for any suggested readings or references.
  • Check an encyclopedia for a broad overview of your topic. You can use a general encyclopedia or a more specialized one (ex: Encyclopedia of Sociology, Encyclopedia of Psychology or Shakespeare Name Dictionary).
  • Use a dictionary for terminology or concepts which you aren't sure about (ex: the word "crazy" in a common dictionary is very different from "crazy" in a legal, medical or psychological one).
  • Read articles in popular or newsstand magazines if the assignment is contemporary and topical. (While these are not considered scholarly, they can be useful in identifying current issues.)

Using Wikipedia for Academic Research

The video below, created by the now-defunct Cooperative Library Instruction Project, explains that you cannot cite Wikipedia as a source for your academic paper. (Just like you would never cite any other encyclopedia!)

However, reading articles on Wikipedia, just like in any other encyclopedia, is a good way to get an overview of your topic. You can find keywords and background information, which you can then use to search more effictively through the library catalogue or journal databases for scholarly sources.

You can also use the Wikipedia article's References list and External Links to help you find more sources.