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WHSL Introduction to Research in the Biomedical Sciences: 1. Identify and Develop your Topic

Helpful information for undertaking the research process in the biomedical sciences

Write your Topic as a Question

Restate your topic as a question. Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:

  1. An entire topic is hard to cover completely because it typically covers many related issues. A question however has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial. Related issues can then be stated as subquestions, if required.
  2. A clearly stated question helps you decide what information will be useful. A broad topic may encourage you to gather information that may be helpful, but you're not sure how. A question makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research.
  3. Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in the activity of engaging with the community of scholarship in your discipline.

For example, if your topic concerns the merits of exercise for pigs, your question might be "Is jogging good for pigs?"

  • Now identify the key concepts or ideas in this question
  • In this case the concepts are "jogging" and "pigs"
  • You need to consider if "good" will be a concept that you will search as such in a database
    • You will not be able to search only for the term "good" because if you do so, you might miss articles that state categorically that jogging has no benefit whatosever for a pig; or information that shows that jogging is in fact "bad" for pigs.

A useful way to determine the concepts that you will inlcude or exclude in your topic might be to make a concept or mind map.Concept maps may be elaborate or simple and are designed to help you organise your thinking about a topic, recognize where you have gaps in your knowledge, and help to generate specific questions or subquestions that may guide your research. Find a list of free software to use for mind and concept maps here.

  • Finally test the main concepts in your topic by looking them up in the appropriate background sources 
      • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic
      • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic. For example, look for information on farm animals or mammals, rather than just pigs. You could also link synonymous search terms (eg. running or exercising, in addition to your term "jogging"), which will also broaden the search and increase the number of items you find.

With kind permission this content is based on original material created by Olin Library Reference, Research & Learning Services, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, USA. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.5 License 

Additional material attributed to the University of Washington Information Literacy Learning Tutorial 2001. Available: [Accessed 18.03.2012]

Write your Topic as a Clinical Question

A clinical topic can often be turned into a clinical question by using the PICO model. See the WHSL Clinical Questions using PubMed guide for more information regarding the PICO model.