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ENVI 320: Methods in Environmental Research

Breaking Down Your Topic

A clear understanding of your topic and its components can help you formulate a strategy for a successful literature search.

For example, imagine that you have chosen the topic:

"variability of stream E. coli concentrations"

For each of the components of your topic, think about the following:

Synonyms: What other words or phrases could I use for each component of my topic? 

  • For example, in addition to variability, you might search for fluctuation.

Word variants: In many library databases, a search feature called truncation lets you search for variants of a word.

  • So, to find articles that mention fluctuation, fluctuations, fluctuate, fluctuated, etc., you can type something like fluctuat* . The asterisk in this case is called a wild card, and it stands in for the various endings that might be attached to the root of the word.

Related topics: Literature that deals with topics related to, but not identical to, yours may contain relevant findings that you will want to consider in your work.

  • For example, searching for the broader topic bacteria in addition to E. coli could turn up important information.

The following worksheet can help you analyze your topic and brainstorm words and techniques you might use in your literature search. 


One Perfect Source?

Your research proposal topic will consist of several components.

Example: Connecticut River AND shortnose sturgeon AND dams AND spawning migration

As you begin your literature search, you may not find any one article that deals with all of the components of your topic. That's OK -- it can even be a good thing, as it means you are poised to make a unique contribution to the scholarly literature on your topic!

Instead, try searching for different combinations of your subtopics. For example, you may find a vast number of articles on the effects of dams upon the spawning migration of other fish populations. The findings in these articles are likely to help frame and ground your own research on the Connecticut River and shortnose sturgeon, specifically.

This video from North Carolina State University Libraries discusses the myth of "One Perfect Source."

Entering the Scholarly Conversation around Your Topic

Try to identify the primary names and issues that make up the scholarly conversation you are entering.

  • As you sift through search results, note the names of the authors who are writing papers on your topic. Find out what universities or labs they are associated with. You can perform an author search to find more articles by these researchers.
  • Can you identify different approaches or schools of thought within the area you are researching? Are researchers responding to one another's work in the literature?
  • If you look up an article in Google Scholar, you can see how many times it has been cited in other papers indexed by Google Scholar. While this number may not be 100% accurate, it can help you gauge the relative importance and influence of a paper.

More Like This: Use One Good Article to Find Others

If you find one article that is a good match for your research, you can use it as a starting point to find more. This is also a great way to follow the scholarly conversation about your topic as it has developed over time.

Use the article's bibliography to find previously published articles

Look at the article's bibliography to see the sources that its authors cited in their work. Some of these sources may be helpful in your own research.


Use Google Scholar's "Cited By" feature to find more recently published articles

Look up the original article in Google Scholar. Underneath its entry, you'll see a link that says "Cited By" and a number. 

Click on this link to see a list of sources published after your article that cite it. Note: The list includes only citing sources that appear in Google Scholar and may not be complete. 

You can search just within the articles that cited the original article by clicking the "Search within citing articles" box at the top of the screen and performing a search.