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HIST 3770 Pandemic! Infectious Disease in Global History (Roth): Developing Your Topic

Topic Development Strategies

Every research paper has a topic, but some topics prove to be more workable than others.  What makes a topic workable?

  • A workable topic poses clear and specific historical questions that your research will explore rather than merely describing events that happened in the past.  It focuses more on analysis than narrative.
  • A workable topic fits the length and deadline requirements of your assignment.  A semester may seem like a long time, but it won't be long enough for every topic.
  • A workable topic is developed with available historical sources in mind.  The most interesting topic in the world won't be fun to work on if the right sources don't exist, if they are poorly organized and would take too long to sift through, or if they exist only in a language you can't read.

Historical research is an evolutionary process that requires careful thought about the process itself in addition to the accumulation of information about the topic. Here are some tips to help you have a productive and successful research experience.  

  • Identify a broad area of interest to you rather than immediately fixing on a specific topic.  You will definitely need to refine your topic, but it's better to do that as you go along, based on what you're finding and reading, rather than trying to narrow it down before you know what sources are available or what they reveal about the subject.
  • Do some brief background reading to orient yourself before plunging into the full-length works.  This will give you a better idea of what's important to look for in the primary and secondary sources that you will be spending most of your time with.  Specialized reference books and websites can be especially helpful at this stage.
  • Start looking for primary sources right away.  In the secondary sources that you read, primary sources can appear to be nothing more than occasional colorful quotations used to illustrate an author's arguments, but they should really be at the heart of your research.  As you begin to read the primary sources, consider what historical questions they could answer, and use these insights to refine your broad area of interest into a specific topic.  This will work better than trying to force a pre-determined topic onto sources that may not support that line of inquiry, or hunting all semester for sources that may not exist.
  • Also start looking for secondary sources as soon as possible, with the goal of exploring historiography as well as accumulating facts.  Scholars typically engage in conversations with each other through their research and publications.  For the study of history this is called historiography:  the history of how a topic has been approached by other researchers, including what historical evidence they used and how they interpreted it.  It might be helpful to think of historiography as the "genealogy" of any topic; not only does it represent research that has already been done, but individual publications often make references to each other, creating a web of relationships not unlike a family tree with its various branches.  Because you, too, are attempting to make an original contribution to historical scholarship, it will be important for you to "join the family" and become familiar with the historiography surrounding your topic rather than reading only for facts.
  • Take time to read the preface, introduction, literature reviews or bibliographic essays, and footnotes (or endnotes) in the books and articles that you find for your topic.  These parts that you might otherwise be tempted to skip are often precisely where the author explains the historiography of the topic and the types of sources used. This is also where you can find additional sources that may be more relevant to your topic than the ones you can locate by searching databases.
  • If your topic is at all interdisciplinary, plan to search databases that cover other fields besides history.  Databases are often organized by subject fields, and you can expect to find at least one database for every major discipline.  Researchers working in other fields may have a perspective that would be valuable for your topic.  You will find some overlap and repetition of content, but you will also find new articles and books because each database covers its own unique set of resources.  The Multi-Search option can also be helpful for interdisciplinary research.
  • Everyone knows to search by subject, but information is often organized in other ways.  Consider what types of publications you need (books? articles? images?); what time period(s) you are seeking information for; and whether you need primary and/or secondary sources.  Then make sure that the databases you're searching actually include the types of material you require.
  • Expect your topic to continue to evolve as you read through the primary and secondary sources.  Keep "listening" to the primary sources;  as you become more knowledgeable about your topic, you may find that they contain different or additional insights from what you first identified.  Secondary sources may also provide information that changes the direction of your next steps.  This kind of development is normal and beneficial.  Try to avoid abandoning a topic if you hit a rough spot in your research, especially if this happens later in the semester.  You can almost always adjust your topic rather than having to start over with a completely new topic.
  • Pause often to review your progress.  What have you learned that you didn't know yesterday or last week? If you had to write a summary version of your paper today, what would you be able to say? 
  • Remember that in the end your own analysis of the primary sources is the most important dimension of your paper.  Most students are more comfortable with secondary sources because they are written by experts who tell readers what to think.  Familiarity with secondary sources is certainly important, but in the senior seminar you are developing your own expertise, and that is what your professor wants you to demonstrate in your work.

Is It Scholarly?

Your professor may require you to use sources that are scholarly or peer-reviewed.  What does this mean, and how can you tell?

No single factor by itself makes a book or journal article scholarly, but looking for a combination of factors should help you identify scholarly sources with reasonable confidence.

Peer review is an important element that contributes to the scholarly nature of a publication.  Peer review means that before being published, a proposed article or book is evaluated by experts in the same field.  Some journals identify themselves as peer reviewed, or list an editorial board composed of scholars from different universities.  Peer review is also a standard part of the publishing process for some book publishers. But because it isn't always easy to find confirmation that an individual article or book has gone through peer review, it can be helpful to look for additional clues.

Journals published by scholarly societies and books published by university presses or academic trade presses are usually scholarly.  But publication by some other type of publisher does not in itself disqualify a publication from being scholarly, and publication by a university press does not guarantee that a given book is scholarly.

Authors of scholarly articles and books are usually specialists in their fields with advanced degrees from recognized universities.  They often hold positions at universities or other institutions of higher learning.  If no author is listed, this is an indication that the source is not scholarly.

Scholarly sources almost always include footnotes, endnotes, reference lists or bibliographies.  This is done to give proper credit to the original sources of information and to provide other scholars with a "paper trail" to follow to the original sources if desired.  Non-scholarly sources occasionally include these features as well, but they are typically not as extensive.

The intended audience for scholarly sources is other experts and serious students in the same field rather than general readers or less advanced students.  The language may be technical or otherwise challenging to understand without some background knowledge.  But some scholarly sources are written in a more engaging style and are accessible to a wider range of readers.

Scholarly publications are written primarily to advance knowledge.  Though authors may support one point of view over another, their arguments are based on evidence rather than personal opinion.  By contrast, popular publications are often written to entertain, air personal views, and sell the publication.

Appearance can also provide many clues.  Scholarly journals usually have a plain rather than decorative cover; ordinary rather than glossy paper; charts, graphs, and occasional illustrations rather than an abundance of graphics; and little or no advertising.  Articles tend to be long, and the journal is published quarterly or semi-annually rather than weekly or monthly.

These distinctions apply to secondary sources for the study of history.  Primary sources are selected for their relevance as original evidence that addresses historical questions rather than whether they are scholarly or not.