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Research is not as linear as you may think. As you find yourself discovering new information, your research question or hypothesis may change, and that's OK! Here are the basic steps involved in writing a research paper; the percentages hint at the effort/time required of each step, but this can vary depending on your topic. Remember that the beginning part of your research is likely to be the most difficult. Librarians are standing by to help!
1. Identify a topic - 5%
2. Brainstorm - 10%
3. Gather background information - 15%
4. Focus your research - 30%
5. Write your paper - 40%
The library's databases rely on a method of searching called Boolean logic. It is a system of showing the relationship between ideas using the operators "AND," "OR," and "NOT." This logic is recognized by many searching tools as a way to define a search string.
Basic Search Techniques
Once you decide on a topic, develop a list of keywords.
What are keywords? I think they function a bit like tags. So you know that #jwu and #johnsonandwales will find you different sets of information, but they refer to the same thing. Keywords work kind of like this - you’ll want to explore synonyms or similar words that relate to your concept to make sure that your search is an effective one.
You will need to brainstorm a list of keywords in order to start your search. Include synonyms for each of the topics you want to search. This worksheet can help you plan your search. Once it is complete, use AND and OR to connect your keywords.
AND is used to to search a set of two or more related ideas. So, if you want to look for articles that contain both the words or concepts fishery and harvest, you would search for that string.
For example, my search for "fishery and harvest" returned over 2,000 results, which is too many for me to browse through. So, I had to think another aspect of the topic I was interested in. When I changed my search string to "fishery and harvest and bioindicators," the number of results became more manageable.
OR is used when there are synonyms of a term that may appear in relevant articles. Searching, for example, reindeer or caribou will cast the widest net for seraching.
NOT eliminates a term from your search. If, for instance, your initial search for "fishery and harvest" returns mostly articles about salmon, and you are not interested in that particular fish, you can search "fishery and harvest not salmon."
The databases will allow you a variety of options to refine your results, typically on the left hand side of your results page. Pay attention to these and especially consider limiting your results by their publication date. Chances are, you do not want articles written more than a few years ago.
If you are searching for content about, for instance, higher education, consider that this is actually a phrase (consisting of more than one word), and search for it explicitly using quotation marks. As in, "higher education."
In many cases, there will be multiple suffixes to a single root word that you'd like to search. Most databases allow the * to be used in place of the ending for a word in order to capture all forms.
For example, a search for "nation*" will return all forms of the word - including nations, national, nationalism, nationalistic, etc.
Avoid adding the plural "s" to a word where possible, and use the truncation symbol when you search should allow for multiple forms of your search terms.
Finding Peer Reviewed Articles
Scholarly, or Peer Reviewed Articles are subject to a rigorous publication process. These articles are written by researchers or academics then passed on to other experts for review before they can be published. This process is a lot different than, for example, the effort it takes to publish a blog. Peer Review publications are well-researched, and authors rely on other research in their field to contextualize their own writing. You will see many references to other works in a scholarly article.
Sometimes you can find peer reviewed articles online, but because the publishing process is so involved, scholarly journals are very expensive, so the university subscribes to several databases in order for you to access scholarly content. Use the databases tab in this course to start looking for peer reviewed articles. Narrowing your search to include only scholarly articles may look like either of these examples:
You can access all library databases here.
If you've never searched in a database before, it can be a bit different than searching online. Check out our quick tutorial to get started! Additional help on a variety of topics is available here.
Anyone can post anything they want online. I'm not an expert in astrophysics, but I could build a pretty nice looking web page with bogus information about the topic, and some people might take it seriously. While your "gut" feeling about information is important and you should pay attention to it, there are a few criteria you should consider every time you think about using an online source in your academic work. I borrowed these items from the MLA Handbook.
Who is the author of the source? Is the author qualified to address the subject? Does the author draw on appropriate research and make a logical argument? Do you perceive bias or the possibility of it in the author's relation to the subject matter?
What is the source? Does it have a title, and does that title tell you anything about it? If it lacks a title, how would you describe it? Is it a primary source, such as an original document, creative work, or artifact, or a secondary source, which reports on or analyzes primary sources? If it is an edition, is it authoritative? Does the source document its own sources in a trustworthy manner?
How was the source produced? Does it have a recognized publisher or sponsoring organizations? Was it subjected to a process of vetting, such as peer review, through which authorities in the field assess its quality?
Where did you find the source? Was it cited in an authoritative work? Was it among the results of a search you conducted through a scholarly database or your library's resources? Did you discover it through a commercial search engine that may weight results by popularity or even payment?
When was the source published? Could its information have been supplemented or replaced by more recent work?
source: MLA Handbook. 8th ed, Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
Additional thoughts on evaluation
It is common for articles posted on sites, especially those published by a news organization, to reference the release of a "study." As an academic researcher, you should realize that the article you are reading is a secondary source, and consider the fact that the reporter writing about a study may not represent its findings correctly. It is in your best interest to locate the primary source, the study itself. In many cases, the content of the study is linked in the article. Just click on it!
image source: Rizov, Vadim. "New Study Puts Numbers to the Lackof Minority Representation in Film." The Dissolve, 5 Nov 2013, thedissolve.com
There are a few ways to limit your Google search to make your results more effective. Of course, a Google Scholar search will bring you lots of academic results, and it is a great place to start. The problem is that accessing the full text of those resources may require a subscription - if you run into this problem, please email me so I can help you locate the article in our subscriptions.
Here are some tips for making your Google search a better one
1. Domain limiting
If you don't know the difference between .org, .edu., .com, .gov, read this first.
Google allows you to limit your results to those articles appearing only on websites with certain domains. For example, to return results only from government sites, you would type your search string followed by "site: .gov"
In fact, you can search any website using this technique - just enter the entire address after "site:"
2. Explicit phrase
If you are searching for content about higher education, consider that this is actually a phrase (consisting of more than one word), and search for it explicitly using quotation marks. As in "higher education."
3. Related search
If you find a website that has really great content, and you want to find something else that is similar, perform a related search by typing - related: yourwonderfulwebsite.com
The library has a guide that can answer some of your questions about MLA. Click here
If you use the library's databases for your research, you can copy and paste pre-generated citations - look out for the option as it may appear differently in each interface but is generally represented by an icon of quotation marks.
If you need to cite a resource not located in a database, I recommend using the OWL as a reference. Alternatively, reach out to me for help with citations!
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