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AI and Research for College Writing: Topic Selection and Search Terms

This guide demonstrates how AI such as ChatGPT, Perplexity, and other text generators can be effectively used for research in college courses. It also addresses the limitations of text generators for research.  Before using ChatGPT or similar text or image-generating technology for an assignment, confirm with your instructor the acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI in class.

All of the ChatGPT examples listed below were created using ChatGPT version 3.5. 

Choosing a Research Topic

Choosing a research topic can be overwhelming. How do you know if a research topic is "good?"  Testing out potential topics before committing to one is an important first step. ChatGPT and other AI text generators can assist with this. 

Before choosing a topic generated by AI, use other search tools such as library databases, Primo Library Search, and Google to determine if you will be able to find the information you need to meet the requirements of your assignment. 

ChatGPT Prompt: is TikTok a good topic for a college research paper?

ChatGPT Response

Primo Library Search results for privacy AND TikTok

Generating Search Terms

The words you use when searching make a big difference in the sources you find. Often at the beginning of the research process, you have just a few broad search terms to describe the topic.  ChatGPT can be used to generate a list of search terms and related topics that can be used in Primo Library Search, library databases, Google, and Google Scholar.  It's important to test search terms. Do you find potentially useful information if you search for "digital aggression" in a library database or on Google? 

ChatGPT uses natural language. You can ask questions or make requests as if you were having a conversation. Library databases do not use natural language.  They do not respond to questions and requests in the way that AI chatbots do. Do not ask Primo Library Search or other library databases to "find five sources about digital aggression."  The library database search would simply be  "digital aggression." 

ChatGPT Prompt: List keywords that can be used in library databases to find information about social media and bullying

ChatGPT Response

Primo Library Search results for "digital aggression"

Just as the search terms you use make a difference in the information you find, the questions you ask ChatGPT make a difference in the responses you get.  The following are examples of prompts for generating search terms and exploring topics.  These prompts were produced by ChatGPT version 3.5.

ChatGPT Prompt: "Explain how chatgpt can help college students generate keyword terms for research papers"

Can you suggest keywords related to [your research topic]?

 Provide me with synonyms for the keyword [specific term].

What are the main concepts I should focus on in my research about [topic]?

Can you suggest keywords to narrow down my research on [topic] to a specific aspect?

Suggest keywords that connect [field A] with [field B] in the context of [your topic].

What are the specialized terms used in [your field] regarding [your topic]?

What keywords are frequently used in research papers about [your topic]?

Can you help me clarify the meaning of the term [ambiguous term] and suggest relevant keywords?

Citation: “Explain how chatgpt can help college students generate keyword terms for research papers" prompt. ChatGPT, version 3.5, OpenAI, 19 January 2024,

Narrowing Down a Broad Topic

Part of the research process is narrowing down a broad topic into something that can be well-researched and written about. ChatGPT can suggest subtopics.

ChatGPT Prompt: Narrow down the topic of happiness for a college research paper

ChatGPT Response

Topics from the narrowed list can be narrowed down again. For example, ChatGPT can further narrow down the topic of happiness in the workplace to Flexible Work Arrangements and Employee Happiness, Work-Life Balance and Employee Well-being, and Organizational Culture and Workplace Happiness.  For example:

ChatGPT Prompt: Narrow down the topic of Happiness in the Workplace for a college research paper

ChatGPT Response

You can test the topics in Primo Library Search, library databases, Google, and other research databases to see what potential sources you can find on the topic. For example:

Primo Library Search results for workspace AND "employee satisfaction"

Google Scholar results for workspace and "employee satisfaction"

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