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TRIO McNair Undergraduate Research Guide: Expanding the Timeliness of a Topic Idea

Importance of...

It is often the case that a research problem, even one assigned by your professor, interests you because it relates to a current issue in the news, or it is something you have very recently experienced. Choosing a research problem that connects to current affairs is an excellent way to remain engaged in the topic; you feel a connection to the issue or event because it's happening now, and a definitive outcome has yet to play itself out. However, you could experience a number of problems if your topic focuses on a very recent issue or event, including: 

  • It can be particularly difficult to find scholarly sources and, as a consequence, your study may be considered less rigorous and valid because it does not cite studies that include a detailed analysis of the topic. 

  • Ironically, examination of a very recent event or issue may force you to draw upon historical precedents in order to effectively frame the research problem and, as a consequence, the scholarly sources supporting your paper ends up being more about the historical context than the current event or issue. 

  • The consequences or results of a current event or issue have yet to be determined and, therefore, the conclusions or any recommendations presented in your paper may be rendered less relevant as things unfold. 

Strategies for Extending the Timeliness of Your Topic Idea

A topic is too current if the only information you find is from news service organizations, blogs, articles from popular magazines and newspapers, and other non-scholarly sources. Depending on the assignment, relying on non-scholarly sources may be acceptable. More frequently, though, professors will require you to cite scholarly research studies as part of your analysis. However, the nature of scholarly research in the social sciences [also referred to as "academic" or "peer-reviewed" research] is that papers submitted for publication can take over a year between editorial review of the manuscript to when it is finally published. In response to this, many journal publishers provide access to what is termed "pre-prints." These are essentially online versions of the final draft of a manuscript and, thus, should not be considered the authoritative copy of an article. Given these issues, it will often be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to locate scholarly research studies about a very current issue or event. 

The obvious solution is to choose a different research problem to investigate. However, if the topic is of particular interest to you, here are several strategies you can use to find scholarly or related research-level analysis of a very current issue or event: 

  1. Look for related literature that provides opportunities for comparative analysis. For example, only now are scholarly research studies emerging that investigate the roots of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its impact throughout various sectors of society. However, by reviewing the research literature about past protest movements in the United States, you can extrapolate key lessons learned or identify new ways of understanding the central research problem associated with the current event. 

  1. Locate opinions/statements of prominent authors and researchers. Leading scholars are often called upon by news organizations, editors of leading newspapers and other media outlets, both in print and online, to comment and provide insight during and immediately after an event. For example, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many prominent experts on disaster management and recovery were interviewed and asked to comment on how New Orleans should be rebuilt. Although these sources do not constitute a body of scholarly research, the writings of leading scholars can be considered authoritative because they represent the opinions and observations of experts who have gained in-depth knowledge on the topic as a result of conducting prior research. 

  1. Identify research centers and special interest organizations that focus on studying current issues and events. Research centers and special interest organizations often lead the effort to study and publish in-depth reports about a current issue or event. In the case of research centers, this is because their purpose is to bring together scholars and practitioners who have special expertise or interest in a particular subject area. The mission of many special interest groups is to attempt to influence policy or to promote a specific agenda. Note that because many research institutes and special interest group organizations are privately funded, you must watch out for any bias in their analysis or recommendations. 

  1. Look for Congressional Hearings and government agency reports. Congress often holds hearings shortly after an important event [e.g., the J. P. Morgan investment loss] or a very new topic of interest. Although political-driven, the testimony to Congress often includes leading scholars and experts in the field that provide detailed explanation and analysis of an issue. However, unlike the opinions of experts in media outlets the testimony of witnesses at Congressional Hearings are under oath. In addition to Congress, governmental agencies may issue reports produced by experts in the field. To locate Congressional Hearings:  GO HERE. To locate other government documents, GO HERE