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Library Guide to Research: 1. Identify Key Concepts

Before You Do Anything...

The first and most important step in the research process is to identify the key concepts of your topic.

From these key concepts you will generate the keywords needed to search the library's catalog and article databases.

The box to the right explains how to identify key concepts.

NOTE: This is not necessarily a thesis, but an exploration of concepts to help focus your thesis and argument. 

Picking Your Topic Is Research

*Courtesy of North Carolina State University Libraries

Identifying Key Concepts

Let's look at the following research question/topic and determine the key concepts to use (and also the words you won't use) when searching: 


"Special education is a field of contradictions. Historically rooted in the unease that disabilities evoke, special education has inherited both the charitable urge to accommodate the unfortunate among us and the opposite desire: to keep those who remind us of our human vulnerabilities safe from view. This tension between accepting and rejecting the individual with disabilities can be observed throughout the relatively short but eventful history of public special education in the United States” (Bursztyn xv).  


After reading the above passage, a student has decided to research special education.  S/he wants to determine if educational equality is preserved or hindered as a result of such programming.


First, identify a few major concepts to use as keywords and phrases for your initial searching in online databases and the library catalog.


EX: special education, equality, inclusion, exclusion


Bursztyn, Alberto M. Ed. The  Praeger Handbook of Special Education. Praeger: Westport, 2007. 29 Mar. 2010 <>

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