How to source topics for an academic paper

Those in and outside academia write academic papers. Choice of a good topic is usually the first step before conducting research or even writing a proposal. This task is usually tricky for newbies in the research world and can sometimes be difficult for experts. This post gives different methods you can explore in choosing your research paper topic.

Defining the research area

For a student, it is imperative you define your research area based on your interest, and abilities and also based on your supervisor’s area of research. This is very important for your supervisor to be able to supervise your work effectively and efficiently.

Even for independent researchers, defining the research area is primary. Research areas can be based on interest, abilities, and funding availability, among others. Research can be broad, but it should not be too narrow. Various research ideas and questions that you will come up with should be within that research area.


Brainstorm for ideas

After defining the research area you are interested in working on, one strategy to get your topic is brainstorming for ideas. Questions are usually beneficial in evoking a research topic.

What are the questions that need answers in this area?

What are my personal life experiences in this area?

What are the questions troubling me in this area?

This and many more can guide in brainstorming for an idea. You can conduct this alone or with a group of people. These persons do not necessarily have to be in the academia or research world.

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For example, if your research area is Nigeria’s education system, you can ask the following questions to get a good and sound research topic

  • What are the problems in Nigeria’s education system?
  • Which of these problems am I interested in solving?
  • Why this particular problem?
  • Is this problem prominent in my locality?
  • Do I have the resources to study it?

Also Read: Learn How to Write Research Project Methodology (Chapter 3)

Read General Background Information

Conducting a literature search is another way to get academic topics to work on. Literature in academia means academic articles such as research articles, conference abstracts, and academic books, among others.

Reading through numerous research articles in your chosen research area will help in choosing a good topic. Not only that, it will give you ideas of different methods you can use, findings from across different studies, different limitations and recommendations, notable scholars and research institutions in that area and many more.

One common source of research topic based on this method is the limitations of the various research works. Outstanding research or academic work is required to point out clearly what might affect the quality of the work.

Hence, you can work on research that overcomes this limitation. Also, you can work on research that overcomes several limitations of research in that area. This is an excellent method as this would make your work a good reference point for research in that area. Also, this would make your work a very top choice for meta-analysis (where data from research in an area are pooled together and analyzed) as the level of bias of the work will be relatively low.


Another source of ideas for a topic of an academic paper is the recommendations from academic papers in that area. Papers usually have a recommendation section where authors present what should be done or removed based on their findings.

You can pool or combine recommendations from studies in your area of choice to form a topic. Also, if you are an established researcher, you can work on the recommendations you presented in your previous papers in that area. This would make your work has a better impact, sustainability and continuity. Also, this can make you an expert in that area.

Also, another method that can aid the choice of academic topic is the methods section of papers in that area. If a study, for example, was conducted in Brazil, you might conduct yours in Nigeria. However, you must do a further literature search to understand if the problem you intend to study or work on is prominent in Nigeria.

Also, you must be able to give valid, scientific and unbiased reasons for your choice of topic. You can also vary the method of data collection, even if the study has been conducted in your area.

For example, if a social issue was explored using a paper-pen questionnaire, you might go further and deeper by using Key Informant Interviews and Focus Group Discussions. These are known to give more in-depth and more precise insights.

Time frame is another factor that you can consider in choosing an academic topic. For instance, if you found a very old article on an area of interest, you can replicate the study. This is very important as this would help in knowing whether the state of things is the same, better or worse.

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However, in replicating old topics, you must ensure that such an area is still of relevance today. For instance, the role of secretaries in a modern office. We all know that what was perceived as Modern Office in the 1980s is very much different from that of today 2020.

The world of research or academics is advancing and changing hence models or methods that were favoured today might not be tomorrow. Also, with improvements in our world, some problems already have solutions and do not need to be continually studied. Hence, you have to check the old study choice in light of all these factors or situations

Make a List of Useful Keywords

Your literature search should be based on keywords in the area. You have to, therefore, identify the critical area, models, methods, concepts, and topics that are through your brainstorming session.

Another method used in some institutions or when there I a close deadline is topic choice by the supervisor if a student is involved in this case. Supervisors are usually very experienced researchers in an area; hence the choice of research topics is usually quite easy. The limitation of this method, however, is that the student or novice researchers are not groomed to make choices in something as basic as choosing a topic for an academic paper.

Are you still finding it difficult in getting topics for your academic paper? We can help. Comment below or contact us today.


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