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SPARK: Background Research

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Background Research

Generating ideas and doing background research are best done together.

Background research lays a foundation for understanding the broader context, controversies, prominent ideas, and sub-topics of a particular area. It provides a basis from which ideas can be generated and questions asked.

Background research can help guide further reading and build your understanding of specific issues. It can ultimately make developing a workable topic much easier.
Review the sections below to review specific techniques you can use to help generate ideas and conduct background research to help form your ideas. Also review Brainstorming and Plus, Minus, Interesting (PMI) located on the Resources for Choosing a Topic page.


There are several approaches to brainstorming, but the primary goal when brainstorming is to generate lots of alternative issues, perspectives, and aspects of a topic without censoring them or worrying about their organization.

For any theme and/or issue that you consider, note as many aspects or ideas as come to mind. At this point, don’t worry about whether they are suitable or well-organized. Think freely and broadly. You just want to develop a list of possible avenues for further consideration. Also review Brainstorming located in Resources for Choosing a Topic.

Brownsing Library Shelves

A quick scan of relevant books can help generate ideas and provide context and background for a topic. A useful strategy is to identify one or two books relevant to your topic, find the call numbers, and then browse the library’s bookshelves around those books or use the virtual browse feature in Quick Find. See the Research Strategies module for more information on how to identify relevant books.

When browsing books, an effective and efficient way to generate ideas and get clarification on what a book will cover is to scan the table of contents, skim the introductory chapter, and check the index for key terms that you are interested in investigating.

Surfing Websites

In addition to general searches of these using tools such as Google, it can be useful to identify and consult specific types of websites relevant to your subject. For example:

  • company (e.g., Apple Inc.)
  • educational institution (e.g., University of Regina)
  • government (e.g., federal, provincial, municipal)
  • personal, archive (e.g., Nelson Mandela Digital Archives)
  • professional or scholarly associations (e.g., American Psychological Association)
  • international body (e.g., United Nations)

Information found by more focused reading and navigation of these types of sites can be useful for generating ideas and can provide a good starting point for further exploration.

Browsing Journals

Scholarly journals are available both in print and online through all the campus libraries. A quick scan of tables of contents and articles in journals relevant to your subject area can reveal issues that are currently being investigated.

Your searches in periodical indexes (see the Research Strategies module) will help identify relevant journals for your topic. The Archer Library's Library’s Research Guides will lead you to appropriate periodical indexes for your subject area.

Using Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

The library provides access to many encyclopedias and dictionaries that focus on, or specialize in, particular subject areas. In addition to defining terminology and providing the intellectual history or landscape of issues and subjects, they can also be useful for generating ideas since they often highlight ongoing controversies.

In addition, Wikipedia articles can sometimes be useful for generating ideas, particularly for popular culture topics and when you want to find recent developments on a current topic. Since Wikipedia entries are not necessarily written by people who are well informed on a particular topic, it is important to think critically about the information you find and to be sure to verify that information with other sources. While Wikipedia can provide helpful background, you should use published academic sources for the assignment itself.

For examples of relevant encyclopedias and/or dictionaries, go to the Archer Library’s Research Guide for your particular subject area.