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Environment and Sustainability: Using Library Resources

Looking Carefully at Your Research Topic/Question

After reviewing the material on this page, you will be able to

  •     deconstruct research topics into main concepts
  •     determine synonyms and related terms for the main concepts
  •     understand why this preliminary work is important

Before heading to the library databases to search for scholarly information pertaining to your topic, it is good to sit down and think about what you are looking for. Write your research topic or question down and determine the main concepts. There is no one right way to do this, and there need not be related terms for every concept. You do not have to search for every single related term you have come up with. You just want to make sure you are not missing an important alternative concept that a researcher might use to describe an element of your topic or question. Here is an example of a research topic broken down by your librarian.

  1. Main concepts:

Example research topic: Examine sustainable forest management in Canada's boreal forest, focusing on Indigenous perspectives.

Concepts are highlighted/underlined: Examine sustainable forest management in Canada’s boreal forest, focusing on Indigenous perspectives.

Here are the main concepts: forest management, sustainable forest management, Canada, boreal forest, Indigenous perspectives.

  1. Think about how else these key concepts can be described. Are there synonyms or related terms? A table for this activity works well:undefined

Your librarian came up with these synonyms and related terms by exploring the main concepts online. There may be other synonyms or related terms. Here is some description about determining these related terms:

  • Forest management is a branch of forestry. Silviculture, protection, and forest regulation are all pieces of forest management. For this concept, we have gone broader (forestry) and narrower (silviculture, protection, forest regulation).
  • Sustainable forest management consists of many elements. Your librarian has decided to just go with this concept for now.
  • Canada – while we are focusing on Canada’s boreal forest, there are also forests elsewhere in the circumpolar north. Looking for articles specifically using “circumpolar north” could result in articles that also mention Canada. So here, we are using a broader related term.
  • Boreal forest – also known as taiga or taiga biome. This is an important related term as you do not want to miss any papers that only refer to the boreal forest as taiga.
  • Indigenous perspectives – Indigenous can be broken down into more specifically-named groups. The term “perspectives” is not a strong term. There are many synonyms for perspective. You could choose to search for some of them and to search for “Indigenous” alone in relation to other main concepts. You will see what I mean when we create a search strategy.
  • What about examine? That is the activity that you will be doing so it doesn't constitute a key concept.

Importance of the preliminary work