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ENG 305W - Writing in Disciplinary Communities

Step 1. Formulate a research question.

To begin clarifying your topic, think about what you already know and write that down. Next, write down what you want to learn about your topic -- or, write down what problem needs to be resolved. When you look over what you've written, you should be able to formulate a research question.

chart to formulate research question

Here are some example research questions, to help you get the idea:

  • What can be done to prevent photodamage to cells manipulated by optical tweezers?
  • How can indoor pollutants from cookstoves be decreased in rural China?
  • How are windmills being used in desalination projects?

Step 2. Identify main concepts

Suppose your research topic was: How are windmills being used in desalination projects? (In case you are wondering, desalination is the removal of salt from seawater so the water can be used for irrigation or drinking water.)

If you type this question into a database, you probably won't get the results you want. Databases match the words you entered in your search to words that appear in articles or article records. So, it makes sense to search only main concept words and eliminate the words you don't really care about. Like this:

eliminating non-essential words for search

Step 3. Build a keyword list.

Now that you have main concept identified, draw a table and enter your main concepts in the first column. Then, start filling in the rows with relevant synonyms and related terms. (Synonyms are words with the same or similar meanings.) The reason you are looking for synonyms and related terms because authors tend to to refer to concepts in different ways. One author might use the term windmill throughout her entire article, while another author might use the phrase wind turbines throughout his article. Both articles might be relevant to your research. So, to retrieve all the articles that might be relevant for your research, you'll need to think about including synonyms and related terms in your database search.

The purpose of this table is to help you understand how you will combine your synonyms and main concepts using "AND" and "OR" when you enter your search into a database.

Need help? Try our How to fill out a keyword table tutorial, or Ask Us!

Keyword table example 1


Or, if you prefer, you can construct your table this way: 

Keyword table example 2


Having trouble thinking of synonyms or related terms? Try these 3 tips:

1. Try some web searches on your topic and see if you land on any websites that give you keyword ideas.
2. Check Wikipedia (or another encyclopedia) for entries on your topic -- this can lead you to keywords you might not have thought of. See below:

finding synonyms on Wikipedia

3. As you search databases and begin to find a few articles or books that look promising, look to see if keywords have been assigned to these publications like in the example below. 

finding keywords in publications

Step 4. Choose appropriate databases to search.

The best place to choose appropriate databases is right here on this Guide to Engineering Research. Click the tab at the top of this page to find Articles, proceedings, & reports. Or, if you need books, click the Find books tab.