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Controversial Issues

Writing a debate or argumentative research paper? Here's how to get started researching controversial issues.

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Coming up with search terms

When searching for information about your topic, whether in the library catalog or Google, it's important to come up with a good list of search terms.

Search terms are important concepts related to your topic. They also might be synonyms for words that mean the same thing. You need to look for different variations of words because not everyone will use the same terms to describe a topic. Think about the death penalty. If you only searched using that phrase, you would miss out on a lot of good information that refers to the same concept as capital punishment.

Let's say you are looking for information about whether it's ethical for researchers to use animals for drug testing.

Step 1:  Identify the main concepts in your search.

Animals   Testing   Medical research   Ethics


Step 2: Take each one of those concepts and brainstorm related words that might be useful. You might have to consult other sources for help.

Where do you find keywords and synonyms?

  • Do background research in an encyclopedia or Wikipedia to come up with a list of terms.
  • Use a dictionary or thesaurus (either print or online).
  • Do a search to find a few initial articles, and read them with an eye toward discovering new terms that might be useful.
  • Look at subject terms on articles in library databases.
  • Ask a librarian or your instructor if you are having problems.

For our research question, we might come up with the following words:

Animals Testing Medical research Ethics
mammals experimentation biomedical research morals
dogs experiments experimental research morality
cats animal research laboratory moral principles
monkeys in vivo testing animal rights
rats animal liberation
mice animal cruelty

Step 3: Now that have a list, combine these terms using Boolean Operators to create searches. The video below explains what the three main Boolean Operators are and how you use them.

Step 4: Try combinations of these words when you go to search for information in the library catalog, the library databases and Google. Searching is a trial-and-error process, so be prepared to try a lot of different searches before you learn which ones will produce the best results.

Need help to do this on paper? See our Search Strategy Worksheet in the box below the video.

Boolean Operators

Library databases frequently rely on Boolean Operators to connect search terms and find the best articles. This video shows you what Boolean Operators are and how to use them. Adapted by Georgia State University from materials created by The University of Auckland Library, NZ.