Sherratt Library

Research Question and Search Statements

Why Write Research Questions?

After you've explored some library resources previously mentioned and have found possible sources for your research, you need to concentrate on developing a research question that will help you focus on the information you'll need to support your writing.

Stating your topic as a question has several advantages:

  1. A research question will be the beginning of a research plan or research proposal.
  2. A clearly stated question helps you determine if the topic is too broad or too narrow.
  3. Writing a topic question will help you to state the purpose of your paper and help you focus your research.
  4. A good topic question can be used to generate keywords which you can use to build search statements to search library databases for articles.

keywords and search statements

Research Questions vs Thesis Statements

What if your professor asks you to write a thesis statement instead of a research question? There are distinct differences:

Research question

Writing Research Questions

Good research questions should state precisely what is to be answered. The question CANNOT be one that can be answered with a yes or no answer, or one that could be answered with a single information source such as an encyclopedia article.

Research question examples

For additional information and help on writing research questions, see:

Broaden a Research Topic

If you write about an obscure person, event, or subject, you may find the topic too narrow and you may not find enough information to do your research. For example, if you wanted to write about

"the effects of spruce beetle invasions on logging in Utah"

you may find that only a few articles have been published. The topic may be too new and sources, especially scholarly sources, may not yet exist.

You then might want to broaden your topic so that you find more sources.  For example:

"future of the logging industry in Utah", or

"effects of insect invasions on the Western logging industry"

This expands the scope of the topic so that you might find more relevant and scholarly information.

Narrowing a Research Topic

Many students pick topics that are too broad in scope. Drug abuse, for example, is a major social issue today. Thousands of books and articles have been written describing the history and factors contributing to drug abuse. A topic such as,

"drug abuse and athletics"

would be too general and broad for a short paper of 5-10 pages.  It would be necessary to narrow the focus of the topic to some aspect of drug abuse.  For example:

"drug abuse and school athletes"

This topic could be narrowed even further.  For example:

"drug abuse and high school athletics", or

"drug abuse and college athletics", or

"drug abuse and professional athletics"

Here are some strategies you might consider to narrow the scope of a research question:

  1. Time: focus the time of the topic you are considering - this year, the last few years, the future.
  2. Place: focus the location of your topic to a particular location - the U.S., Utah, Russia.
  3. Population: focus on a specific population - gender, age, occupation, ethnic group, education, species.
  4. Viewpoint: focus on a particular point of view of the topic - social, medical, legal, ethical, biological, economic, psychological, political.

Search Statements

When searching Google you can type an English sentence describing the information you are looking for and you'll probably get some results. This can work in very large online databases like Google with billions of pages to search, but this technique would give you very few results when searching a library article database or catalog requires you to more specific when you search.

Research question: Should colleges be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions?

ASP search NO results

Library databases and catalogs require that you search for articles and books using search statements that are entered into the search box. These search statements include only the important words that describe your topic (e.g., keywords, phrases, or subjects). These words can be entered into the search box with Boolean operators, truncation, and refining your search to make your search results more specific.

ASP search with results

Boolean Operators, Truncation, and Refining Your Search

Database searching is based on the principles of Boolean logic. Boolean logic is named for British-born mathematician George Boole and refers to the logical relationship among search terms. Boolean Operators link concepts and are used to broaden or narrow your search. Briefly, here's how they work:

Boolean operators


By adding a symbol, sometimes called a wildcard symbol, to the end of a word, truncation allows you to search the "root" of a word to find all its different endings. The most common truncation symbol is the asteriskasterisk. However, some databases use different symbols, so check online help to find the correct symbol.

Example:  You are looking for information "the banking industry."

bank* finds: bank banks banking bankers bankruptcy


Refining or Modifying Your Search

Many databases and search engines allow you to refine searches to specific criteria such as format, language, publication date, and periodical title.

For example, the Academic Search Premier database provides several useful limiters,

Limiting will NARROW your results. Limiters let you narrow the focus of your search so that the information retrieved from the databases you search is limited according to what you select.

Research Question ---> Keywords ---> Search Statement

Follow these steps to create search statements to maximize your results when searching library databases and catalogs:

  1. Identify the main concepts or keywords in your research question.
  2. Identify synonyms (alternate keywords) for your keywords to help you find additional and related sources.
  3. Combine your keywords into search statements.

keywords and search statements

More examples of search statements created from research questions:

Research question: How do oil spills damage the environment?
Search statement: oil spill* AND damage AND environment

Research question: What dangers do school sports pose for students?
Search statement: danger* AND school AND sport*
Search statement: danger* AND school sport*

Research question: What foods do grizzly bears eat in the Yellowstone area?
Search statement: food* AND yellowstone AND (bears not black)