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Health Sciences Research Guide: Formulate the Question

A guide to library research for students in Health Sciences programs

Example Sources of Background Information


When you start your research you may have only a general idea about your topic. You may know that you want to write about tuberculosis testing, for instance, but not know much about the disease or how it is diagnosed. Before you can start gathering information sources that will be used in your paper, you need to better understand your topic.
Background information summarizes and distills the primary literature (original research) about a topic. It appears in sources, such as encyclopedias, textbooks, credible Web sites, review articles, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses. These types are sources are called tertiary literature. Use background information to help define and better understand your topic. 
Once you have gathered background information you will have a good foundation for starting more detailed research and will have formulated strategies for broadening or narrowing your topic should this become necesesary later in the research process.


Find background information

1. Search Discovery for textbooks or encyclopedias that address your topic. View the Discovery tutorial for information on limiting your search to books. These types of resources summarize common general knowledge about your topic. Try broad terms when searching the catalog. Your topic may be just a chapter in a book that discusses a larger subject. For instance, you will find a chapter about tuberculosis in the book Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases.

2. Search Discovery for review articles. View the Discovery tutorial for information on limiting your search to articles. Review articles summarize the research literature on a particular topic. They help you become familiar with the research done in your area and identify seminal papers. You can often limit your search results to review articles, rather than sifting through the results of a general search. If you do not see how to limit this way ask a librarian for help with the database you are using.
3. Browse our subject guides to see if there is one that addresses your topic.
4. Search the Web for general information about your topic, but be sure to evaluate what you find. Not all information on the Web is reliable. View this short tutorial for tips on making your own evaluation.
As you work with background sources start to keep a list of key words. These will help you as you begin to formulate your search strategy. Keep in mind that tertiary resources that provide background information rely on the primary literature to inform them. Check the bibliographies of any tertiary sources you consult for leads to relevant primary sources. Keep a list of sources consulted, along with any references from the bibliographies that you want to track down.
With the initial understanding of your topic through background information, you will be well on your way to conducting efficient and effective research.


Phrase your topic as a question

After your initial information gathering, see if you can phrase your topic as a question.  Be as specfic as you can. You know you have a good working topic if this is easily done.

Example: What advantages does interferon-gamma release assay have over the tuberculin skin test in detecting tuberculosis?

In this case, you have gone from a general idea (tuberculosis testing) to a specific question about the efficacy of a new method of diagnosis versus a more established one. Since these specific questions are the kind researchers try to address, it's likely that you will find studies that will help answer your question.


At the end of this step you should:

  • Have an initial understanding of your topic through background information
  • Have your topic phrased as a question



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