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WRITIN WRITING & RESEARCH G ANCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

405RADIOLOGIC TECHNOLOGY March/April 2012, Vol. 83/No. 4

Developing and Narrowing a Topic Tricia Leggett Melissa Jackowski

“Writing & Research” discusses issues of concern to writers and researchers and is typically writ- ten by members of the Editorial Review Board. Comments and suggestions should be sent to communications@asrt.org.

research. Another search engine to examine is About.com, which has various Web pages that provide topics such as Best Site of the Day, How to Find Anything on the Web, and Web Search 101 (websearch.about.com).

Defining the Scope Once the topic is selected, your scope

will be determined by how much detail you want to incorporate. It is important to evaluate the chosen topic to conclude if it is too broad or too narrow. If too narrow, it becomes difficult to find supportive literature or affects only an extremely small audience. A topic is broad enough if there is a definite effect on a specific audience.

One of the most common errors is having an overly broad topic with too many different ideas (eg, thousands of sources appear in your search). To narrow a topic, first ask who, what, where, when, why, and how about the topic. These questions can guide you to specific points within the selected topic. From these basic questions, use more directed, formal rhetorical areas to develop a specific focus.

■ Analyzing a definition can help you define the topic.

■ A comparison provides associations to other topics.

■ Relationships promote examination of possible causes and effects.

■ Testimony asks the researcher to determine the current body of knowledge available on the theme.

Looping is a technique that can limit or narrow a broad topic. With looping, the researcher begins with a 5-minute free write on the topic, which generates an idea of interest. That idea then focuses the next round of free writing, inspiring a more limited idea of interest. This process repeats until you narrow the research topic and derive the problem statement.2

The last method to narrow a topic is topic cross. This visual strategy helps bring out common themes. In the

When you decide to do research writing, preliminary development is critical for success. First, find ideas for a research topic. It sounds simple, but selecting a topic and developing the problem statement or hypothesis is fundamental to the entire research project. Look around; topic ideas are every- where. Are you interested in a particular subject? Was there an issue you experienced in the clinical setting? Do you have an intuition about something, but need specific data to confirm it? Your colleagues may even have suggestions for areas of investigation, and collaborative research efforts are always welcome! Most importantly, because you will be spending a significant amount of time exploring a subject, select one that truly interests you.

Topic Selection When determining a topic, you can

generate ideas using brainstorming, free writing, and clustering (or concept mapping), to name a few approaches. In addition, you can use many search engines — besides Google (www.google .com) — to identify credible sources, such as books, journals, and websites. You can ascertain if there is a significant body of knowledge to work with or if there is a gap in the literature where original research is needed (see Box 1).

One search engine is Yippy (www. yippy.com), a metasearch tool that clusters search results from a variety of sources and directories. It is a worthy tool to use when initially investigating viable topics for research. Kartoo (www .kartoo.com) is a bit different, present- ing search results visually rather than in text format. Infomine (infomine .ucr.edu) is a “virtual library of Internet resources relevant to faculty, students, and research staff at the university level.”1 Its databases may include electronic journals and books, bulletin boards, mail lists, online library card catalogs, directories, and published


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Advanced Search Techniques With some topic awareness, you can begin with a

basic search that is broader and more useful in topic development. Using an advanced search with limiters to refine results is the next step. A limiter restricts or narrows a search based on certain criteria, including year, article or document type, journal or text name, full text, or subject (see Figure).

first step, brainstorm pertinent words or phrases that come to mind when thinking of the broad topic. Next, determine which words and phrases are most appealing and organize them hierarchically from broad to specific on a vertical axis. Once you select an accept- able topic, provide a list of words and phrases relevant to the identified topic (horizontal axis) to develop a workable topic.2

Box 1 Outline for Comprehensive Literature Reviews

Define and Refine Your Topic ■ Choose a research topic of interest, think critically about it, and formulate a title. ■ Start a general review (browse textbooks, encyclopedias, journals, and Web pages). ■ Identify the major ideas, issues, and researchers. ■ Define the time period (ie, how far back do you need to search the literature?). ■ Formulate keywords, main concepts, and related terms; use a thesaurus and subject headings. ■ Craft search statements for indexes, databases, and catalogs; use Boolean operators, truncation, etc;

record your methods. ■ Narrow or broaden your topic as appropriate based on literature search results.

Search All Relevant Sources Comprehensively and Efficiently ■ Use journal indexes, databases, and e-journals to find citations of articles and full articles. ■ Use bibliographies from relevant journal articles, books, etc. ■ Use citation indexes (eg, Web of Science or Google Scholar) to find the most cited articles on your topic. ■ Identify and browse current issues of journals relevant to your topic. ■ Set up e-mail and RSS alerts to journal tables of contents, indexes, and Web pages. ■ Explore grant databases (eg, National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health), newspaper

indexes (eg, LexisNexis Academic and Newsbank), and Internet discussion groups, listservs, blogs, etc. ■ Browse library and book catalogs to find books, government documents, media materials, theses, and

dissertations. ■ Use Web search engines. ■ Talk to experts (eg, scientists, scholars, and librarians) at institutions. ■ Reference other literature guides.

Find, Evaluate, and Manage the Information ■ Analyze your database search results (citations) and revise or improve your search statement (balance

comprehensiveness and precision). ■ Understand the scholarly research and peer-review publication processes. ■ Evaluate the type of information found and its relevance to your topic (eg, determine the source, author

credentials, objectivity, accuracy, and currency). ■ Retrieve the information source from the database or library. ■ Critically read and analyze articles. ■ Gather, store, and annotate relevant citations.

Synthesize the Literature and Integrate It Into Your Writing ■ Choose the appropriate type and style of publication and presentation. ■ Move back and forth between writing and further literature research.

Modified with permission from Brown BN. Research methods for comprehensive science literature reviews. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship website. www.istl.org/09-spring/experts1.html. Published spring 2009. Accessed January 13, 2012.

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plural terms or use of the same stem (eg, carcinogenesis* would yield carcinogenesis, carcinogenetic agents, etc). A wildcard, often a question mark, permits searching for terms with variant spellings or plural (eg, col?r would yield color or colour).3

Proximity operators help locate 1 word with- in a certain distance of another word. The sym- bols generally used are “w” for within and “n” for near. For example, “television n2 violence” could produce results of television violence or violence on television; however, searching for “Franklin w2 Roosevelt” would produce results of Franklin Roosevelt, but not Roosevelt Franklin.4

Phrase searching involves enclosing specific terms or phrases in quotation marks to ensure the search will keep those words as a group in the specific order provided.

It is important to combine several techniques to narrow your search effectively (see Box 2). Perhaps the selected topic is osteosarcoma, for example. This topic is too broad to research everything, so a specific aspect of osteosarcomas would be better. Pediatric osteosarcomas could be pursued, but this is still widely published on and the topic can be narrowed even further. A bet- ter topic could be the development of osteosarcomas in pediatric patients after radiation exposure. Now ask: Is the topic interesting? Is there significant literature available on this topic? Is there a specific intended audience? Is it manageable for the intended research project? Because the answer to these questions is yes, the topic is sufficiently narrow.

Other tools to develop a research topic are Boolean search operators, truncation symbols, proximity opera- tors, and phrase searching. Boolean operators connect and define the relationship between the search words and include and, or, and not. A search with and qualifies that all the terms provided in the search must be contained in the results; or means that just 1 of the provided terms needs to be present in the results; any words following not will be excluded from search results. These are applicable when using database searches such as CINAHL or PubMed and may not be functional in all searches.

Truncation symbols permit you to search various sources easily. An asterisk allows for searching of

Figure. Planning a search of science literature databases. Used with permission from Brown BN. Research methods for comprehensive science literature reviews. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship website. www.istl.org/09-spring/experts1.html. Published spring 2009. Accessed January 13, 2012.


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comprehensively to become an expert on what has been published on your topic. Then you can articulate how your new research will fill a gap in the literature.

Comprehensively Search the Literature To be sure you search your topic thoroughly, consider all of the search strategies discussed previously. Once you have developed the topic, write down a specific topic statement and determine keywords associated with it. They will become the search terms for your formal database search.

It is important to consider synonyms of each key- word so you do not miss any important articles written on your topic. For example, if 1 of your key terms is “radiographer”, you must remember that this job title has changed throughout the years and older articles published about radiographers may have used the terms “radiologic technologist,” “x-ray technologist,” “radiology technician,” or “x-ray tech.” In this case, it

Additional Considerations Writing and research is a continual refinement process. Typically, the researcher performs searches on the selected topic, evaluates the results, adapts search strategies, narrows or broadens the topic, reviews and synthesizes the literature, and integrates the information into a research manuscript. Knowing when to stop the search process can be as challenging as initiating it. When you discover credible resources repeatedly in a variety of sources, be assured the topic has been well searched and developed. And who knows, your manuscript could spawn new or additional research.

Research submitted for publication must fill a gap and add to the existing body of knowledge to be considered significant. When determining a new researchable problem, consider whether the research question or methods of answering it are original and not published previously. When narrowing the topic, you must make every effort to search, analyze, and map the literature

Box 2 Improving Bibliographic Database Search Results

If Your Database Search Produces No Citations ■ Check for misspellings. ■ Check for terms that are too specific or unlikely to be used by an author. ■ Check for incorrect or missing field terms or limiters. ■ Ask yourself: Can I expect to find articles with these terms in the title, abstract, or subject headings? ■ Check assumptions (eg, Are you in the right database?)

If Your Database Search Produces Too Few Citations ■ Drop multiword phrases and use and between words instead. ■ Decrease the use of the and operator or the number of concepts searched. ■ Increase the number of synonyms or alternative terms (combined with or). ■ Use the scientific name and the common name (eg, “wolves or canis lupus”). ■ Use a search term appropriate to the database (subject headings/descriptors). ■ Use a broader search term; use a thesaurus. ■ Search earlier or more years of the database. ■ Search a different database.

If Your Database Search Produces Too Many Citations ■ Decrease the number of synonyms by choosing the most specific subject headings or the most relevant

keyword. ■ Increase the number of search concepts with and. ■ Do not search by full text (ie, change the field limiter to keyword). ■ Limit search by field (eg, restrict search to terms found only in the article title). ■ Limit search to peer-reviewed articles, articles in English, etc. ■ Limit search by time period to the past 5 years. ■ Exclude less relevant concepts with not.

Modified with permission from Brown BN. Research methods for comprehensive science literature reviews. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship website. www.istl.org/09-spring/experts1.html. Published spring 2009. Accessed January 13, 2012.

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list each article and key findings. The purpose of this documentation, analysis, and mapping is to determine similarities and differences in the published literature. You must become an expert on the gaps and discrepancies in what has been published so you can explore a new significant research problem.

Conclusion Once you have gone through the steps described

previously, you will be able to make a case for how your research topic will add to the existing body of literature. An original research topic must answer the question, “So what?” The audience should recognize your topic as significant, new, and relevant. It should also answer the “Who cares?” question. As an author, you must know who your audience is and consider what is important to them throughout the topic development, original research, and writing process.

Developing and narrowing a topic is a process (see Box 3). It takes much work but yields great reward and satisfaction when you see the process to completion.

References 1. Boswell W. Use the Web to find research paper topics.

About.com website. http://websearch.about.com/od /referencesearch/a/research_topics.htm Accessed January 13, 2012.

2. Research considerations. Colorado State University web- site. http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/processes/topic /pop15d.cfm. Accessed January 13, 2012.

3. Choosing the right database. Oceanside Library website. www.oceansidelibrary.com/how_to_use_databases.htm. Accessed January 12, 2012.

4. Proximity operators. University System of Georgia Online Library Learning Center website. www.usg.edu/galileo

would be important to use all of these terms separated by the Boolean operator or to find all articles written about this group of professionals.

Choose the Correct Databases When conducting a scholarly search, search the cor-

rect databases. In health care research, take your key- words and search a minimum of PubMed (www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), CINAHL (www.cinahl.com), and Google Scholar (scholar.google.com). Also, work with a reference librarian to assist in choosing other databases that may hold articles related to your subject.

Document All Searches Searching a topic comprehensively takes time. To

avoid wasting time by duplicating your efforts, record every search you do and include date of search, data- base searched, keywords and search strategies used, and the number of results. By analyzing your records, you can see which keywords and strategies are helping narrow or broaden your search. A reference librarian can be of more help if you share your logs so he or she can see how you have searched previously.

Evaluate Articles for Topic Relevance Once you have the best search strategy in place,

determine which articles are relevant to your topic statement. You may find that your best search strat- egy produces 200 articles. To further narrow that list, simply look at the titles. Many of the articles likely are not related to your intended topic. Once you have nar- rowed that list, read the abstracts of the articles still in your list. From the abstracts, you can determine which articles relate to your topic and then you have your final reference list.

Analyzing and Mapping the Literature Now that you have your comprehensive list of

articles related to your topic, read them all, looking for themes and evaluating the findings of each article. It is important to create a summary of each article, including the full citation, key findings, information about the methods used, and any flaws you find in that specific study. As you do that for each article, common themes may emerge; note them on each summary as well. Then group articles into common themes as you create your outline. It is also a good idea to include page numbers next to each theme so you can find that information easily when you begin writing. You can even create a map in the form of a flowchart or table to Box 3 Common Questions to Test Proposed Research Topic


■ Does this topic really interest me?

■ Do I know enough about it now to plan and write

the research manuscript? Have I researched the subject matter comprehensively?

■ Is the topic manageable? Is it sufficiently narrowed?

■ Is it pertinent to a specific audience? Does it answer the question “Who cares?”

■ Does it answer the “So what” question? Is the topic new, relevant, and significant?


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/skills/unit04/primer04_10.phtml. Accessed January 15, 2012.

Tricia Leggett, DHEd, R.T.(R)(QM), is the radiography program director and an associate professor at Zane State College in Zanesville, Ohio.

Melissa Jackowski, EdD, R.T.(R)(M), is an assistant professor in the radiologic science division at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Both authors are members of the Radiologic Technology Editorial Review Board.



Instructions: Compete the following questions regarding possible topics for your Capstone project.

One topic is required but feel free to include up to three topics if you are undecided. At this point, we are at an informal not set in stone place. This exercise is to get your ideas flowing.


· Topic:

· What is/are some questions you are interested in answering or knowing about your topic?

· What resources have you read/reviewed/visited to learn about your topic?

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