Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsCHRIS: Searching for information on your chosen topic is a twofold process. Not only does that searching allow you to see what sources and evidence already exist that relate to your area of study, but the accuracy needed for a good search helps you narrow down your title. Take this title, for example. The problem with it is it's just too broad and vague to make a good academic research project. Good academic writing is mostly about knowing a lot about a little, not vice versa. You want to try to keep the theme of your research narrow, focused, and ideally something that's measurable. Take this first key term for example, cybercrime.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsAt the moment, if this were your title, you'd be committing yourself to write about any kind of cybercrime, so that means your topic relates to any crime committed using online technology. That's just a massive task. And that is not likely to be one you're going to be able to complete to a satisfactory standard within the typical time scale or word count of a research project. Having said that, it's not a bad starting point for a project. You've identified that you want to study online crime. So the next point is to begin exploding out this term to start thinking about as many different kinds of cybercrime as you can come up with.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 secondsSo it might be that you want to study hacking or identity theft or spreading of viruses. Any of these are areas that you could pursue your research on. Next, let's take a look at these two terms, "businesses" in the "globalised economy". Again, this is far too broad. At the moment, this project is committing itself to look at the impact of cybercrime on any business anywhere in the world. And that's just going to be impossible. So again, you need to start exploding out these terms. What kind of businesses are you interested in? And in particular, you want to focus on ones that are particularly vulnerable to cybercrime.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 secondsSo that might be that you're going to look at banks or social networks like Facebook, or maybe particular businesses and corporations like Amazon or eBay or Google. Now it might even be that during the course of this early research, you find that the impact of cybercrime on governments is actually more interesting to you. Now that's not a problem if you want to change the title and the direction of your research at this stage. The only thing you need to remember is that you make a note of it in your research log, and you explain the thinking behind that change.

Skip to 2 minutes and 28 secondsIn terms of the location of the research, just try to narrow it down to something that's manageable within the time scale and word count. That might be a specific country or an organisation. Just keep in mind access to resources and language. Make sure you're actually going to be able to read the material you're going to get hold of. The final term to consider here is impact. Again, this really needs to be something that is measurable. So what kind of impact are we talking about here?

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 secondsIt might be that you want to look at the financial impact or the impact of the loss of specific data or the wider impact on consumer confidence of a company being hit by a hacking attack or identity theft. So ultimately, once you've exploded out all of these terms, what you'll have is a much more specific title. To give an example, it could be that what you end up here with is something like, "What was the financial impact of the hacking of Google's email service in China?" And you can see that's a much more manageable project than what was originally set out here.

Skip to 3 minutes and 37 secondsUltimately, exploding out your terms is a really useful way of narrowing down your title and coming up with those specific terms that will allow you to search for evidence much more accurately. It also enables you to experiment with different combinations of terms and wording so you can come up with a title that you're really happy with.

Exercise: 'exploding' out terms for searching

‘Exploding’ out terms is an extremely useful way of both narrowing down your title, and coming up with specific terms to use when searching for sources.

It also enables you to experiment with different combinations of your terms until you find a title that you’re happy with.

In this animation with voiceover Chris illustrates, with a practical example, how you can ‘explode’ out your search terms.


After having watched the animation, practice ‘exploding’ out the terms of your own title. We have found that it can be helpful to find someone else to do this exercise with.

You may find it useful to:

  • use ‘sticky notes’

  • create a mindmap (on paper or online)

Do share your experience in the comments below. Don’t forget to look at other learners’ comments. If you can relate to a comment someone else has made, why not ‘Like’ it or leave a reply?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Developing Your Research Project

University of Southampton

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: