Identifying concepts in a research topic

Research topics verses research questions

A “research topic” is the area of study that you are researching, while a “research question” is the more focused question that you aim to answer.

Depending on your starting point, you may arrive at a research question by taking different routes. Your research question might come from a topic you are interested in, or that you see being discussed in literature. If you are working in an applied sciences field or as a clinician, your research question might be informed by a problem, or a scenario encountered in the lab or in practice.

Developing a research question

A good research question is:

  •  a single question
  • researchable by collecting and analysing data
  • open to the possibility of different outcomes
  • clear and specific
  • narrow and focused.

About searchable concepts

A concept is an idea, theme, or aspect of a research topic being explored and analysed.

Identify the main concepts in your research topic or question to make it searchable.

Most research questions will have 2–4 concepts.

Searching for a single concept will return too many results on a topic, and these results will be too broad to answer your research question.

Too many concepts in your search will have the opposite effect and may not find any results at all.

How to identify searchable concepts

A quick way to identify concepts in a research question is to find words or phrases that represent your main topic(s):

  1. Start with the nouns: these are often main concepts.
  2. Check the definitions of key words in a dictionary, encyclopedia or textbook.
  3. Exclude any words that tell you how to answer the question (e.g. “evaluate”, “compare”, “outline”, “discuss”).

Here is an example of a research question and the main concepts:

  • How is the process of vegetation recovery after bushfires affected by the actions of water?

The main concepts in this research question are:

  • vegetation recovery
  • bushfires
  • water.

Find alternative words for your concepts

Once you’ve identified your main concepts, the next step is to find synonyms or alternative terms for each concept.

Using synonyms in a search

Synonyms are alternative words or phrases that can be used to describe a concept.

Using synonyms is important in a search, as not everyone uses the same term for the same concept. It can help overcome limitations, such as:

  • variations in terminology
  • regional language differences
  • the possibility of missing relevant information due to a narrow choice of search terms.

For example, if searching for “film”, you could also include terms such as “movie”, “motion picture” and “cinema” to find more relevant results.

How to find synonyms

To find additional terms, search your original word or phrase using:

  • Google Search, or other search engines (you can search for your keyword together with “synonym”)
  • Wikipedia, or other online encyclopedias
  • a dictionary
  • a thesaurus.
  • Contact

    For more help understanding your research question and how to translate it into a search strategy, contact our library staff.

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