Conducting research for papers, reports, and other assignments involves more than just typing a word or phrase into a search box. Understanding both the systems and the sources sets a foundation for retrieving relevant research. Before you jump into a search, take the time to think about where you should start and what types of sources you seek.

Evaluating Search Systems

Search systems contain the information, data, and search interfaces used to locate sources. Some examples of search systems include search engines, databases, wikis, institutional repositories, and other information collections. Search interfaces are the entry points for databases, search engines, and other systems. They can be simple (such as most databases’ basic searches or Google’s standard search), or more detailed (such as most databases’ advanced searches or Google’s advanced search). Think about which search systems will give you the best sources. For example, some search interfaces provide more detailed searching methods than others. Some systems contain sources across a broad spectrum of subjects, while others contain subject-specific sources. Before you choose a database or other system, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I researching an interdisciplinary topic? Does my topic fall under one specific subject?
  • Am I researching a controversial issue? Do I need historical information? Do I need international information? Does my assignment focus on pro/con comparisons that require subjective points of view?
  • Has my professor required specific types of sources, such as books, scholarly journals, or newspapers?

Once you’ve determined the answers to those questions, review the systems available in your library.

  • Locate systems based on the subjects they contain.
  • Look for descriptions that include coverage of historical sources, international research, controversial issues, etc.
  • Confirm which types of sources are included in the systems. Check the “Advanced Search” pages to find options to limit to scholarly journals, newspapers, etc.

Choose a database or other system (or two or three) and perform some searches. When you locate a source that fits your topic, review the subject terms and abstract. Adjust your search terms to incorporate this information. Remember to take advantage of limiters, such as source type (scholarly, full-text, etc.), publication date range, geographic location, language, etc.

 Beall, Jeffrey, "Search" 31 October 2010 via Flickr. Creative Commons
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Evaluate the sources themselves to determine their usefulness for your research. A source’s abstract will usually give you everything you need to evaluate the source. (It’s also much less time-consuming to check a one-paragraph abstract than to read an entire article before finding out that it doesn’t fit your research needs.)

Decide whether you need popular or scholarly sources. Popular articles generally haven’t been as fully researched and reviewed as scholarly articles. Verify whether a source is popular or scholarly by considering:

Type Popular Scholarly
Purpose current events, entertainment, summaries research
Audience general readers scholars, researchers, students
Author not experts, often unnamed experts, researchers, always named
Characteristics shorter in length, informal langauge, few citations longer in length, formal language,
more citations, peer-reviewed*

* Peer-reviewed articles have been reviewed and accepted for publication by a selected panel of recognized experts in the field of study covered by the journal.

Beyond a source’s popular or scholarly nature, consider the importance of these characteristics: authority, currency, objectivity, coverage, accuracy, and relevance.

  • Authority—Authority focuses on the author’s background in the topic. Determine if the author is an expert or has conducted sufficient research.

  • Currency—Check to see if the information provided in the source is current. For some research, older information is okay. Sometimes we even want to find historical documents. Other times, it’s best to have current research. Think about how the age of the information affects the research and conclusions.

  • Objectivity—As you read the article, establish the author’s objectivity about the topic. Are you finding that the author has a particular point of view, or is he or she objective? For argumentative papers and controversial issues, subjective research can be useful to develop arguments and supportive evidence. However, other research requires objectivity. Keep in mind how these views could affect your own research.

  • Coverage—Review the source to see if it covers the entirety of your topic. If it only covers a portion of the topic, is that enough for your research needs? If not, discard the source.  If the source covers a broader range than your topic, does it provide enough information for your needs? If it only summarizes your specific topic, it may not be the right source for you.

  • Accuracy—Your sources should also be accurate. One way to determine accuracy is to check a source’s reference list to see if it has a good number of sources. (Ten or more is usually good.) Another way to determine accuracy is to verify the source’s information from other sources.

  • Relevance—Finally, confirm that the source is relevant to your topic. Sometimes when we perform research, we locate interesting sources only to find that they’re tangential to our topic. Be careful not to veer off-track.