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Background Research

What is Background Research?

Background research (or pre-research) is the research that you do before you start writing your paper or working on your project. Sometimes background research happens before you've even chosen a topic. The purpose of background research is to make the research that goes into your paper or project easier and more successful.

Some reasons to do background research include:

  • Determining an appropriate scope for your research: Successful research starts with a topic or question that is appropriate to the scope of the assignment. A topic that is too broad means too much relevant information to review and distill. If your topic is too narrow, there won't be enough information to do meaningful research.
  • Understanding how your research fits in with the broader conversation surrounding the topic: What are the major points of view or areas of interest in discussions of your research topic and how does your research fit in with these? Answering this question can help you define the parts of your topic that you need to explore.
  • Establishing the value of your research: What is the impact of your research and why does it matter? How might your research clarify or change our understanding of the topic?
  • Identifying experts and other important perspectives: Are there scholars whose work you need to understand for your research to be complete? Are there points of view that you need to include or address?

Doing background research helps you choose a topic that you'll be happy with and develop a sense of what research you'll need to do in order to successfully complete your assignment. It will also help you plan your research and understand how much time you'll need to dedicate to understanding and exploring your topic.

Tyes of Background Information

Some types of information sources can be particularly helpful when you're doing background research. These are often primarily tertiary sources meaning that, rather than conducting original research they often summarize existing research on the topic.


Current Events Briefs
Databases like CQ Researcher are focused on understanding controversial topics in current events. They provide information about the background of the issue as well as explanations of the positions of those on either side of a controversy.

Encyclopedias are ideal sources for doing background research in order build your knowledge about a topic sufficiently to identify a topic and develop a research plan.

Dictionaries include both general dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary as well as more specialized dictionaries focused on a single area. Dictionary entries are usually shorter and less detailed than encyclopedia entries and generally do not include references. However, they can be helpful when your research introduces you to concepts with which you aren't familiar.

Your textbook is a potential source of background information, providing an explanation of the topic that prepares you to focus and dig deeper. Textbooks give a general overview of lot of information.

While you may find that it's difficult to make sense of statistics related to your topic while you're still exploring, statistics can be a powerful tool for establishing the context and importance of your research.

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