- 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”).
Library Search includes articles from many journals and is an excellent starting point for most searches:
More advanced techniques for finding journal articles
You can find journal articles by mining the bibliographies of sources you already have, by searching for articles on your topic in the Library's databases, or using search engines, including Google Scholar.
Bibliographies, also known as references, works cited or further reading, are lists of sources the author consulted, and are (almost always) found at the end of an academic book, chapter or article, including encyclopedia entries.
Once you have one good resource, check the citations in the bibliography and then use these citations to get more articles.
Using journal or article databases
Libraries subscribe to databases that provide access to thousands or millions of articles published in journals. You can search these by subject, keywords, author, or by citation if you already have this information.
Selecting a database
We subscribe to hundreds of electronic databases that cover different subject areas. Because the same search in different databases will give different results, a good search strategy includes using more than one.
How to find the right databases to search?
- Start with the Library's research or subject guides for your discipline or course. These include recommendations from subject-expert librarians for the best databases and search strategies.
- You can also go to the SFU Library databases page and search by database title or by subject area.
Already have a journal title (or citation)?
You can also browse or search a specific journal title.
- Search for your journal title in Library Search (the default search box on most Library pages), or:
- To search for only journal titles, go to the A-Z Journals list (available at the top of every Library Catalogue page)
- Tip: this strategy is especially useful for very common titles like "Science."
Looking for a Harvard Business Review article, or another article where there is no direct link?
Not all articles are available directly through Library Search or the Library Catalogue. The "drilling down" approach will often turn up articles that can't be found in other ways.
Drilling down: Searching for a specific article or issue within a journal
Once you have found your journal, you can often search its contents, or "drill down" to find specific issues.
If you already know the article and journal title, along with author information, you can also use your citation to get an article.
To improve your searching, use the tips below on defining the topic and identifying concepts, combining terms, truncation, and what to do if you have too few or too many results.
Defining the topic and identifying concepts
Before you start searching, you need to know what you are looking for. One way to define your topic is to write it out as a question you hope to answer in the paper or assignment. For example:
- What effect does water temperature have on sea urchins?
- Are left-handed people more intelligent?
- Are drug-users more likely than non-users to commit robbery?
Next, you need to identify the important concepts included in your question. For example:
- What effect does water temperature have on sea urchins?
- Are left-handed people more intelligent?
- Are drug-users more likely than non-users to commit robbery?
These important concepts provide the terms you will use in your search. Search for the specific words you use in your question plus synonyms, variant spellings and related words from your background reading.
The connectors and and or have special meanings in database searching; they allow you to combine terms in two different ways.
- Retrieves records which contain ALL the search terms
- Use this to find two or more concepts in the same source
- E.g. water temperature and sea urchins
- Retrieves records which contain ANY of the search terms
- Use this to find synonyms, variant spellings or related terms
- E.g. robber or theft or burglary
Truncation or wildcard symbols
Truncation symbols allow you to search for all variations of a word at once, e.g. singular and plural, by searching for all the words beginning with the letters before the symbol.
- * is the most common truncation symbol
- E.g. robb* will retrieve robber, robbers, robbery, robberies, robbing, etc.
- $, ?, ! are other common truncation symbols
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase rather than individual words, e.g. or
Too few sources found?
If you are not finding enough information, broaden your search to find more sources by using these techniques:
- Truncate your search term to find all variations of a term, e.g. instead of search for (retrieves , etc.)
- Search for synonyms and variant spellings of your topic, e.g.
- Search for broader or more general terms, e.g. instead of search for , or the even broader
Too many sources found?
If you are finding too much information, limit your search to find fewer sources by including another concept in your search. Often the second concept is what you want to know about the first concept, e.g. .
If you still have too many results then include a third or even fourth concept in your search, e.g.
Evaluate the articles
Some sources of information are more reliable than others. Check your assignment. Your instructor may specify the types of sources you can use, and will expect you to evaluate the articles you have found to determine their relevance and authority.
- For most research papers, instructors will require students to use scholarly or academic articles.
- However it may be appropriate to use publications other than academic journals, including blog posts by scholars and reports by associations and government agencies. See Evaluating Resources for more citeria for evaluating sources generally.
For more help in person or online, Ask a Librarian.
Articles in peer-reviewed (scholarly) and other types of journals provide sharply focused information on specific discoveries, research and recent events.
For background and basic information, and to find keywords, names, and subject terms that will improve your search results, start with reference sources (such as academic encyclopedias and bibliographies).