Background Research


Background research is essential because it helps:


  • understand the broader context, controversies, prominent ideas, and sub-topics of your topic
  • provide a basis from which ideas can be generated and questions asked.
  • find further readings and
  • ultimately make developing a workable topic much easier.

Here are specific techniques you can use to help generate ideas and conduct background research to help form your ideas for your assignment.


There are several approaches to brainstorming, but the primary goal is to generate lots of alternative issues, perspectives and aspects of a topic without censoring them or worrying about their organization.


For any theme and/or issue that you consider, note as many aspects or ideas as they come to mind. Think freely and broadly. You just want to develop a list of possible avenues for further consideration.

Using Encyclopedias and Dictionaries:

The Ryerson Library provides access to many encyclopaedias and dictionaries (in print and online) that focus on, or specialize in, particular subject areas. dictionary


They can define terminology and provide the intellectual history or landscape of issues and subjects. They can also be useful for generating ideas since they often highlight ongoing controversies.


In addition, Wikipedia articles can be useful for generating ideas but it is important to think critically about the information you find since it can be edited by anyone and you will need to verify and evaluate the online source.


*However, when you start to write your paper, remember, encyclopedias (online or print) are not valid scholarly sources.

Using Research Databases:

Searches in the Library research databases will provide lists of articles that address your topic. Skimming the article titles and abstracts can quickly reveal the range of issues that scholars are investigating, and suggest aspects of a topic that you may not have considered.

Browsing Library Shelves:

Visit the library’s book stacks! Use the library’s catalogue to find one or two books on your topic, and visit the row the book is located on. Perform a scan of the surrounding books. This can help generate ideas and provide context and background information.


When you conduct the search using the catalogue – take note of the subject headings the Library has assigned. You can search by them as well.


You can also quickly scan books using their table of contents to generate ideas and possible key terms.

Surfing Websites:

You can do a quick search on Google etc, but it can be useful to identify and consult specific types of websites relevant to your subject. For example:

unplug from internet

  • Company (e.g., Apple Inc.)
  • Educational institution (e.g., Ryerson University)
  • Government (e.g., federal, provincial, municipal)
  • Personal, archive (e.g., Nelson Mandela Digital Archives)
  • Professional or scholarly associations (e.g., American Psychological Association)
  • International body (e.g., United Nations)


These types of sites can be useful for generating ideas and can provide a good starting point for further exploration. For more information on using websites in your academic writing assignments read our “evaluating websites.”