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Resources for Background and Context in Nursing

Videos and Information on The Research Process

How much do you already know about your topic? If you don’t know much, use encyclopedias to find background and context. If you know a little bit, use magazines and newspapers for context and discussion. If you know quite a bit, use scholarly journals and books for details and specifics.

Guide to writing a research question. Step 1: Choose a topic and do some preliminary research in an encyclopedia or online. Step 2: Find an interesting aspect of the topic by looking at the people involved (the who), the context of the time period (the when), or the context of the place (the where). Step 3: Ask a question about that aspect. Use “How” and “Why” questions. Here are some examples: How do wind turbines in the Midwest United States affect bat population? How are researchers attempting to determine the role that genetics plays in depression? How does severe weather affect the Caribbean economy? Why are rates of childhood obesity climbing in rural U.S. communities? Why is Shakespeare’s Iago considered his vilest villain? Why do researchers use animals in experiments and are there alternatives? Think of a question that will take more than one sentence to answer. Step 4: Is your question focused and complex? You should include specifics in your questions. If your scope is too broad, you will have to write a ton. If you can answer your question with a single Google search, it is not effective. Good questions are multi-faceted and require investigation and evaluation. Step 5: Now, Evaluate your question: Are you still interested? You’ll be spending a lot of time on this question, so make sure you’re not already board. Is the question researchable? Some questions simply can’t be answered (e.g. Who made the first cave painting?). Don’t choose a question that will only frustrate you. What information will you need to answer the question? Types of information might include: research findings, statistics, survey results, personal accounts, news stories, opinions, scholarly interpretations, etc. Congratulations! You have a research question. Your librarians can help you find the information you need to answer it.


screenshot of module showing Developing Keywords title

Why Plan Your Search?

Once you have written your research question, it is tempting to jump right in and start searching. However, it actually pays to spend some time thinking through the search process and coming up with a plan. This will make your searching more efficient and save you time and frustration in the end.

The Planning Process

Step One: Look at your research question and try to determine what the main ideas are. If you had to tell someone what your topic is using only three or four words, what words would you use? Imagine your research question is "What are the ethical considerations around genetic modifications in humans?" If you told someone "ethical considerations," "genetic modification," and "humans," they would have a pretty good idea of what your topic is. 

Step Two: Now, for each of your main ideas, brainstorm some synonyms and related terms that scholars might use when writing about that idea. As in the example below, use the Keyword Matrix to organize your ideas and terms. There is a PDF link for the Keyword Matrix at the bottom of this box. 


The Keyword Matrix is a table that has three columns labeled “Idea 1,” “Idea 2,” and “Idea 3” respectively. Enter one of your main ideas in the first row of each column. In our example, “ethical considerations” goes in the Idea 1 column, “genetic modification” goes in the Idea 2 column, and “humans” goes in the Idea 3 column. Then enter the synonyms and related terms for each idea in the corresponding column, with each term in a separate row. For example, “ethics,” “morals,” and “ethical implications” go in the Idea 1 column. “Genetic engineering” and “genome editing” go in the Idea 2 column. “People” and “human beings” go in the Idea 3 column. Between each column, there is an “AND.” Between each row, there is an “OR.”


Step Three: Determine which databases are most likely to have sources on your topic. This research guide can help you. You can also consult a librarian.

Step Four: Finally, it is time to start searching! The Keyword Matrix is your search road map--it lays out how you should enter your search terms into a database. On the "Advanced Search" page in a database, enter Idea 1 and its synonyms into the top search box, with an "OR" between each term. Idea 2 and its synonyms, with an "OR" between each, go in the middle search box, and Idea 3 and its synonyms, with an "OR" between each, go into the bottom search box. Put quotation marks abound any term that is made up of two or more words--this tells the system to treat the term as a single unit. The "AND" option should be selected in the dropdown boxes to the left of the middle and bottom search boxes. Using this strategy will give you a set of results that are targeted to your topic, and takes into consideration the various terms that scholars might use in their writing. 

In our example, the top search box should have: “ethical considerations” OR ethics OR morals OR “ethical implications.” The middle search box should have: “genetic modifications” OR “genetic engineering” OR “genomic editing.” The bottom search box should have: “humans” OR “human beings” OR people. The “AND” option should be selected in the dropdown boxes to the left of the middle and bottom search boxes. The “Keyword” option should be selected in the dropdown boxes to the right of all three search boxes.

Often, the most challenging part of the research process is figuring out the best terms to use and the right database(s) to search in. It is frustrating when your first (or second, or third) search doesn't give you useful results. However, this is not failure. Searching is just as much a process of eliminating what doesn't work as it a process of figuring out what does. 

Infographic depicting types of sources. Books provide in-depth, detailed coverage of a topic and background information. Scholarly Journals articles provide up-to-date and highly specific information for scholars and researchers. Trade Publications publish articles targeted towards professionals in a discipline or industry. Magazines publish articles giving broad summaries of issues for a general audience. Newspaper articles give up-to-date, regional and national information for a general audience. The internet provides a wide variety of information that requires careful evaluation.

Sara Lowe, University Library, IUPUI, Used with permission.