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How to select a topic for your research paper

Authors | Early career researchers
How to select a topic for your research paper

How can you select a research topic to help maximize publication success.

As an early-career researcher, selecting a topic for your research paper for potential publication can be both exciting and daunting. Fortunately, there is a well-established pathway to follow. Here we share some tips and advice that will help you navigate the process smoothly.

Consult your colleagues

First, talk to colleagues, such as members of your research group, to spark ideas, reveal novel angles for research, and flag up knowledge gaps in existing literature. Draw on senior colleagues’ expertise: talk with them, ask questions, and listen.

As you identify potential topics don’t lose sight of the fact that will you be investigating the one you chose for several, perhaps many, years. Ideally, you will select a topic that really interests and engages you now and that will continue to do so in the future.

Review the existing literature

Once you have your research idea - or at least a short list of possibilities - you will need to methodically review existing literature on the topic. This will help you get up to speed with the latest thinking, pinpoint what makes your idea different and clarify how it will expand current knowledge.

Identify keywords within your topic and use these in your literature searches. Multiple resources are at your disposal: some are open-source and others will be accessible via your university’s library. Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, ResearchGate and EBSCO are useful starting points and contain millions of journal articles and eBooks. Specialist databases, such as Medline and Project Muse, help hone searches within specific subject areas.

Don’t forget to tap into social media platforms, such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Gold Open Access publishers like Hindawi, who offer free access to all, will regularly share high impact papers and the latest research in specialist fields on their social channels.

As you review the literature, be methodical: identify themes, look for knowledge gaps, and evaluate previous methodologies and results. Ask yourself:

  • What are the current theories and latest thinking?
  • What are the debates?
  • Is the topic contentious?
  • If so, what are the consequences within academia and wider society?

Remember to keep an open mind: a literature review may yield unexpected findings that make you want to rethink your idea or even take an entirely new direction.

Checklist the key questions

Devising a checklist of key questions will help keep you on track as you review the literature and refine your idea. Questions could include:

  • Is my proposed topic too broad or too narrow?
  • Is it important and interesting?
  • What might the implications of my research be?
  • How does it fit with and/or challenge existing knowledge?

Keep your checklist handy throughout the process from initial ideas until final topic selection.

Thinking ahead is also prudent. Targeting the right journal to publish your work - one that is a good fit for your topic - will be important for future success. If you already have a journal in mind, scrutinize what they are publishing and familiarize yourself with their submission processes. If you are still looking for a journal to publish your manuscript, make sure to read the aims and scope of a journal to decide if it is the right fit for your research. Choosing a topic for your research paper takes effort but there is an established pathway to follow.

Tapping into the expertise around you, methodically reviewing existing literature and keeping an open mind will help you select a topic that is important, relevant and engaging - both to readers of your research and to yourself.

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This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration adapted from Adobe Stock by David Jury.

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