Collecting sources for a research paper can sometimes be a daunting task. When beginning your research, it’s often a good idea to begin with common search engines, like Google, and general descriptions like you can find on Wikipedia. Often though these are not the sources you ultimately want in your paper. Some tips for getting from this beginning research to finding “good” sources include the following.
- Make a list of research terms you can use when searching in the library or even online. Start with your core list, but also add other keywords and phrases that you notice as you research.
Also, when you find a good source, look to see if it has “tags.” You can add these phrases to your list search terms. Sometimes the tags are also links that you can follow which will take you to lists of similar sources.
- Think about the kind of sources required by the assignment and also the kind of sources that are “good” for your question or topic. Many library search engines and databases have the option to return only “peer-reviewed” or “scholarly” sources—which are sources that have been read by other scholars before being published. Also, the UofL library offers a list of Research Guides which can help you find useful databases for finding sources.
When considering what counts as a “good” source, it’s smart to consider what question you’re asking. If you’re making an argument about how a term is commonly understood, then using dictionaries or Wikipedia would be a good source. If you’re making an argument about developing research in Psychology, then you’ll want to focus on those peer-review or scholarly sources.
- Review the works cited or bibliography section of sources that have already been helpful. The sources they are using will probably be helpful to you also. Some search engines, like Google Scholar, include a link under a source that says “Cited by”—which brings back a list of other sources that have used the source you’re looking at. Google Scholar provides varying quality in their results, depending on the subject area and other things, but it’s a great place to start.
- The reference librarians in Ekstrom library (right next door to the University Writing Center) are available to help you with your research. You can make appointments to meet with them here. During these appointments, they can help you find the most helpful databases, decide what sources might be most helpful, and more.
What can the Writing Center do to help?
Writing Center consultants can meet with you to help you get started and find a good direction when working on a research project. This includes but certainly isn’t limited to brainstorming lists of research terms, deciding which kinds of sources will best help you answer your research question(s), looking at some preliminary helpful sources, and more. Talking about these topics can help you figure out how to approach searching for and finding good sources. We also know how and when to refer you for a follow-up appointment with the Reference Assistance and Instruction department.
- Find credible sources using tools that are designed to find the types of sources you need.
Here are some fantastic resources and tips on how to use them to their fullest extent:
Librarian/Digital Media Specialist/Teacher
– Tell one of these people your research topic and ask them to point you towards useful sources. Chances are that they know more about what’s available about your particular topic than you do. Depending on the size of your school, you may have a subject area librarian for the particular type of research you are doing. Some universities, for instance, have specialist librarians for topics like music, art, and humanities.
Tip: When asking your librarian or teacher, just be sure to be tactful. Remember: librarians are there to help, but they won’t do all your research for you.
– These journals are a great way to find cutting edge research on your topic. Academic journals add credibility and professionalism to a paper. They work well for both humanities and scientific papers. Most schools/universities have a subscription to a large database of academic journals. Some commonly used databases are JSTOR and EBSCO Host. If you don’t know what types of services your school subscribes to, ask your teacher/librarian about them.
Another great way to access academic papers is Google Scholar. It is a search tool that finds scholarly articles–academic journals, patents, theses, court proceedings, and more. Google Scholar displays how many times an academic piece of literature was cited, which is a rough numerical indicator of how influential the research was. Google Scholar also has link under each posting to help you find related articles.
Microsoft has a competitor to Google Scholar that is very similar, Microsoft Academic Search. Microsoft’s tool works particularly well for technical papers in fields such as physics, mathematics, biology, and engineering.
– Books are still one of the best ways to find credible information about a source. Some fields such as the humanities prefer their students use books for sources rather than websites, since books typically contain more detailed information (and perhaps more in-depth thinking) than websites do. Books can be found on your school or public library website. Type in keywords related to your topic in the search field, and see what kinds of literature comes up. Write down the call number of the book so that you can find it within your library. Ask your librarian for help if you’re not sure how your library is organized.
Google has another service, Google Books, that will help you find books related to your topic. Just type your research topic into the field and Google Books will provide you with a list of relevant books. Once you click on a book you like, Google Books will give you a preview of the book and information related to buying the book or finding it in your library.
– Websites are sources you should approach with caution. Some experts publish great information on the Internet, but there’s a lot of bad information out there as well. The trick is to weed out the unreliable information. The section entitled “Evaluating sources for credibility” is all about that process. Here, we’ll discuss some great resources that will help you find good information.
Tip: Multipurpose search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo) aren’t necessarily trying to provide you with the best academic results. They help people with a lot of things (shopping, searching for flights, comparing restaurants). You don’t want all of these sorts of results to get mixed up in your research!
Here are some tools that help you find information for a particular field of interest:
|Subject||Name of tool||Comments|
|Medical||PubMed||Searchable database of academic medical literature; managed by the US National Library of Medicine.|
|Medical||GoPubMed||A feature-rich compilation of academic medical literature.|
|Medical||Medline Plus||Easy-to-read guides and videos; not as technical as other medical search engines; managed by the National Institutes of Health,|
|Humanities||JURN||A curated search engine for humanities researchers.|
|Humanities||Project Muse||A database of over 200 non-profit publishers.|
|Economics||NBER – National Bureau of Economic Research||Searchable database of economic papers.|
|Crime||National Criminal Justice Reference Services||A database of articles about issues pertaining to the justice system, including court cases, crime prevention, drugs, etc.|
|General||OAIster||Feature-rich search tool for a variety of different sources; managed by the OCLC.|
|General||Refseek||A powerful, general-purpose search engine that finds websites, academic papers, books, newspapers, and more. The site has a variety of features that help you narrow down your search.|
|General||Sweet Search||A search engine crafted specifically for students. Every website that shows up as search result has been hand-picked by research experts.|
|General||iSeek||An education-focused general search engine with helpful tools to narrow down your search|
|General||ipl2||The site contains a search engine and an index of helpful, credible sites arranged by topic.|
|General||EasyBib Research (Beta)||EasyBIb research makes the bibliographies on our site searchable, so you can look at sources about your topic that other students are using.|
|Chemistry||PubChem||Contains academic chemistry information; managed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.|
|Philosophy||PhilPapers||A database of academic papers related to philosophy.|
|Science||Science.gov||A resource of scientific papers and information; overseen by the US government.|
|Science||Scirus||A search engine geared towards scientific information.|
|Science||Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)||A database of scholarly scientific information.|
|Statistics||US Census Bureau||Statistics in the US, arranged topically (Education, Business, Agriculture, etc.).|
|Statistics||CIA World Factbook||Statistics, reports, maps, history, and other information about 267 countries.|
Tip: Many schools have online topic pages, where the school’s librarians have grouped together helpful resources dedicated to a particular topic like chemistry, history, or religious studies. The LibGuides at Rice University is one example.
1) A note on large search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo)
- Use Google when you are doing preliminary research or looking for a particular source
- In other cases, you’re probably better off using a more academically-oriented source.
As far as research is concerned, Google is a double-edged sword. (The pros/cons of Google apply to other major search engines such as Bing and Yahoo as well.)
First, the benefits of Google’s search engine: It’s fast and provides you with a lot of information.
But the list of negatives is weighty:
Many of Google’s search results are biased and non-academic.
Several of the websites that appear in Google’s results are written by businessmen who are trying to sell you something. They aren’t interested in presenting you with unbiased data.
Google’s search results are tailored to you
(based on your past browsing history, your location, the sites you’ve visited previously, etc.). The problem with this individualization of search results is that Google is not providing you with the best information, it’s giving you what it thinks you’ll click on. Those may be two separate things.
Google’s results are focused on information available on the internet space that is easily accessed.
There is a large amount of great information available on the “invisible web” that Google cannot find. The invisible web consists of sites that are not linked to externally, which makes them hidden from Google’s searching and indexing software.
For these reasons, we have a couple of reservations about using Google’s search engine for research purposes. To help, we’ve drafted a couple general rules about when and when not to use Google.
Use Google’s search engine…
- When you’re doing preliminary research (assessing the depth and breadth of your topic).
- When you know of a specific source, and you just need to find it on the Internet.
Try using another resource other than Google’s search engine…
- When you want to find an academic article.
- When you’re looking for a primary source.
- When you’re looking for a technical paper.
2) A note on Wikipedia
- Information on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert.
- Use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research.
- Check Wikipedia’s references at the bottom of the page. Those sources are more likely to be credible than Wikipedia itself.
Like Google’s search engine, Wikipedia is a mixed bag. It provides a great deal of relevant information in a very fast manner, but that information is not necessarily credible. Content on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert or credible author.
The editors at Wikipedia have come a long way in policing the site for bad posts and flagging items without citations; but you should always be suspect of information on the site because of its public nature.
Therefore, Wikipedia is best used at the start of your research to help you get a sense of the breadth and depth of your topic. It should never be cited in an academic paper.
Another reason why Wikipedia should not be cited in an academic research paper is that it aims to be like an encyclopedia–a source of reference information, not scholarly research or primary or secondary sources. One must delineate between general reference for general knowledge and scholarly sources for in-depth knowledge and research. Facts from reputable encyclopedias or similar sources can be used to supplement a paper, but keep in mind that these sources won’t contain any juicy analysis or scholarly study.
Perhaps the most useful part of a Wikipedia page is the “References” section at the bottom, which contains links to relevant sites that are often more credible than the Wikipedia page itself. Use a discerning eye when viewing these citations and apply the best practices of evaluating credible information (see “Evaluating sources for credibility”).