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Online Students Use of the Library

This guide is intended for students who are using the library online to help guide the experience and make the library website easier to understand and use!

Selecting a Research Topic

Pick a topic you enjoy! You want something that is broad enough that you can find information and yet narrow enough that you are not overwhelmed with sources. 

Focusing the Scope of a Topic

It is very easy to go overboard with really big ideas! Remember, a quality topic is one that you can address thoroughly in the full length of your assignment. Avoid single concepts, generally. Some examples are: 

  • Entire wars or conflicts. 
  • Social issues that are constantly discussed (ex. abortion, or legalizing marijuana)

Instead think about focusing on:

  • How a specific group was affected by a war (ex. how children were affected by conflict in Iraq)
  • A specific element of a social issue (ex. how the criminalization of marijuana has affected black men) 

It's also very easy to get an idea that is so focused that it is essentially impossible to research, often because scholars just haven't looked at that issue yet. Check when you pick a topic that you can find a variety reliable sources on what you plan to address. Some examples are: 

  • Why a little-known athlete is underrated. 
  • How a single video game should receive more awards. 

Instead, think about focusing on:

  • The system that allows excellent athletes to be ignored despite excellent performance, using your athlete as one example.
  • The flaws in the system of evaluation for video games, using your game as one example.  

Creating a Research Question

Research questions serve two purposes:

Firstly: Research questions focus your topic from something very large into a more focused query that you can answer in your assignment. Sometimes assignments focus on a single large research question, others build in multiple smaller questions. 

"Gun Control?" is not a research question. "Do assault weapon bans decrease violent gun death?" is a research question. 

Secondly: Research questions allow you to use multiple concepts to create a more powerful search. Databases don't always produce good results when searching for a single concept. 

I would type "assault weapon ban" and "gun death" and into LionSearch, or a related database to research this question.  

Evaluating Resources

Think critically about web sites and print resources.  

  • AuthorityWho is the author or creator?  What are their credentials for this topic?
  • Content: What is the author's bias? Who was the information written for?
  • CurrencyWhat is the publication date?  When was the website last updated? Does this matter for your topic?
  • ValidityIs the information accurate or valid?  Are there references to other works that support the information?
  • Publisher: Do they have a good reputation?

Citing Your Sources

When using information from another source you must give credit to the original author or you are plagiarizing. You give credit by citing the source. Make sure your citation contains everything you would need to backtrack and find the information again. It is best to pick one citation style and be consistent. 


Plagiarism, whether you copy a paragraph from a book or cut and paste someone else's words from an e-mail, is a violation of Penn State's academic integrity policy.