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Step One -- Selecting a Topic

Your instructors may assign a topic for your research paper, but very often your instructor may let you choose your own topic within a certain area of the course you are taking. To select a topic for your research paper, you need to choose a subject that interests you as well as to consider the availability of the resources.

Sources that can help you select research topics:

  • Subject Encyclopedias
    • Can familiarize you with some of the different contents within which your topic has been discussed in a discipline.
    • You can find encyclopedia in the library reference collection easily by limiting your search to "Reference"

    • Examples of subject encyclopedias:
      • Asian American Encyclopedia
      • Asian Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook.
      • Asian American Chronology
      • Asian-American almanac
      • Asian American biography 
      • Dictionary of Asian American history
      • Encyclopedia of and ethnic studies
      • Encyclopedia of race and racism
      • Encyclopedia of race, ethnicity, and society --ebook
      • Encyclopedia of minorities in American politics
      • Greenwood encyclopedia of women's issues worldwide: Asia & Oceania

    • CQ Researcher
      CQ Researcher provides you with resources on current events and controvercial issues.  It covers overview, background, current situation, outlook, pro/con, chronology, maps/graphs, bibliography as well as the next step and update for a particular event. You can search CQ Researcher database both on- and off-campus. 
      • Click on Articles from the Library web homepage (
      • Select CQ Researcher from the database A-Z list or select the database by clicking the name of the database from "Choose a database by name" pull-down list
      • Please take a close look at the bibliography, and many of the citations are linked to the original articles, so make a good use of them. 
    • Clio Notes

      • Clio Notes included in America: Histroy & Life and Historical Abstracts databases provide research topics by time period, event, and issue. 
      • You can find a link to the Clio Notes within the two databases on the top of the page. 

    • Textbooks -- Introduce a topic and generally include a bibliography of books and articles consulted

      • Aoki, Andrew L. and Okiyoshi Takeda. Asian American Politics.
      • Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, Paul J. Karlstrom, and Sharon Spain. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970.
      • Collet, Christian and Pei-te Lien. The Transnational Politics of Asian Americans.
      • Dong, Lan. Transnationalism and the Asian American Heroine: Essays on Literature, Film, Myth and Media.
      • Dudley, William. Asian Americans: Opposing Viewpoints.
      • Espiritu, Yen Le. Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love
      • Fong, Timothy P. The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority.
      • Fong, Timothy P. and Larry Hajime Shinagawa. Asian Americans: Experiences and Perspectives.
      • Kitano, Harry H. L. and Roger Daniels. Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities.
      • Lott, Juanita Tamayo. Asian Americans: From Racial Category to Multiple Identities.
      • Louie, Steve and Glenn Omatsu. Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment.
      • Min, Pyong Gap. Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues.
      • Ono, Kent A. and Vincent N. Pham. Asian Americans and the Media.
      • Tewari, Nita and Alvin Alvarez. Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives.
      • Wu, Jean Yu-wen Shen and Thomas C. Chen. Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader.

  • Articles -- Give you a chance to see what's been written on your topic.

Step Two -- Narrowing Down Your Topic

Once you have decided on a topic for your paper, you need to make sure your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow and your research question can be researched. For example, “school integration” is a topic. You need to ask a question or form a statement about the school integration, such as:

Some people view Asian Americans as a successful minority that excels in education. 

These questions or statements can help you narrow down a general subject area into a manageable topic that focuses on a clearly identified issue so that you can examine it thoroughly within the allotted time and space. Some of the methods you can use to narrow down your topics are:

  • Time period: last 10 years, 20th century, …
  • Place: U.S., California, So Cal, L.A., …
  • Person/Group: politician, actor, ethnic group, …
  • Event/Aspect: Millennium, religious, …

Once you have a focused topic (normally in a question or statement format), you can mark keywords and develop alternate words and ready to use them to conduct searches in library catalogs or databases. Using the example above, we can develop a list of keywords:

Question or Statement

In her article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 8, 2011), Amy Chua stereotyped that not only most Asian Americans are overachieving, but also that their high achievements are due to overbearing parents

  • Does Chua's article reinforce or contribute to how Asian Americans are misunderstood in American society, and how Asian Americans are stereotyped?
  • A majority of Asian Americans face an array of other educational challenges that are incompatible with the overachieving student stereotype.


  • Asian Americans, American Chinese, American Japaneses, American Koreans, American Vietnamese..
  • High achievements, scholastical achievements, academic achievement
  • Stereotype
  • Parents, role of parents 
  • American society, society

Step Three -- Understanding the Needs for Secondary and/or Primary Sources

First, we need to understand what primary and secondary sources are. 

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format. (Primary Sources at Yale:

To find more information about primary sources, how to find primary sources, go to Primary Source Guide

Secondary Sources are materials that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret inforamtion contained within primary sources or other secondary sources. Examples of secondary sources are:

  • Books, such as biographies (not autobiographies), textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Articles, such literature reviews, commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • Criticism of works in literature, art and music

You want to find a list of secondary source materials relevant to your topic, or if necessary, you need to conduct a literature review to get a list of essential books and articles for your topic.  The purposes of starting your research with secondary sources are:

  • to find background information about your topic
  • to be aware of scholarly research in teh area of your topic
  • to be able to narrow down or broaden your topic

Subject encyclopedias, text book, databases, and CLIO Notes in America: History & Life and Historical Abstracts are all good places to start your secondary sources research.

Step Four -- Understanding how to use AND, OR, WILDCARD, and TRUNCATION

  • AND -- narrows your search to retrieve only records that contain both or more words
  • OR -- retrieves matches for either of the two or more terms, so you get more records
  • WILDCARD -- uses a symbol within a word to replace one letter, e.g.: wom*n will search both women and woman
  • TRUNCATION -- uses a symbol at the end of a word to replace any number of letters, e.g.: child* will search both child and children

Watch a Boolean Logic Video at:

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300