The University 411: A Crash Course in Research Part 1: How to Find Sources

It’s been about 10 years since I’ve tackled a new project (I.e where I know absolutely nothing about it) and hitting up databases makes me feel like a lost and confused first year undergrad student again. So today we’re taking a a crash course in how to start researching a paper.

You might’ve seen around the web amusing tweets or memes chiding anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers that their 20 minute of googling the internet or watching a youtube video doesn’t count as “research”. I’m also aware that a lot of university students will ignore that advice and go to google as their first step in the hopes that someone else on the internet has the answer magically prepared for them. If you know what you’re doing and are properly vetting this sources (which we’ll talk about tomorrow) then it’s okay to use the internet for research. As well, as I said when discussing seminar prep, it’s perfectly acceptable to use google or wikipedia to identify key points of a topic; you’re not using it as research in this case – so don’t cite in in your paper! – instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate key phrases and ideas. Once you’ve made a list of words and phrases, you can then hopefully approach your library and database searches with a more focused approach.

The first step though is identifying what database to use. Your university library webpage is likely to have done some of this work for you, so have a look if they’ve divided up databases or search engines by areas or fields of study. If they haven’t, ask your instructor for suggestions. Universities may also have subject-specific librarians; if you’re looking to access a newly released book or journal issue, they may decide to order one for the library; or if you are struggling to find an out-of-print one, they might have further resources they can offer you (for instance, arranging interlibrary loans or providing information about nearby special archives). I also recommend that you take advantage of any tutorials or workshops that your department or university library might have arranged. From the organiser’s side, I can assure you that we are absolutely ecstatic when students take advantage of these services, as we’ve put work into arranging them and we genuinely want to help students with their questions and concerns. Even if you’re a postgraduate/graduate student, you might want to pop into these services again – sometimes universities allow their masters and PhD students access to more services than they do their undergraduates, so it’s worth figuring out what are all your options. And if you’re studying at a new university make sure you’re aware of any differences between procedures and regulations. You don’t want to end up wracking up a massive overdue fine because the rules are different.

When using any search engine, try to narrow down your focus so that you’re not getting 10,000 results back. Some engines have an “advanced search” options and take advantage of that when you can. Alternatively, you can use Boolean operators:

  • + or AND
    • finds results that include both terms and not just one or the other
    • Example: Surrealism AND Paintings
  • | or OR
    • to find either word when they mean roughly the same thing.
    • Example: Seashore OR Seaside.
  • – or NOT
    • when you want to omit results.
    • Example: Fantasy NOT Football
      • will make sure your search of fantasy fiction doesn’t come back with “fantasy football”
  • Quotation marks
    • to find exact phrases.
    • Example: “fantasy football”
    • operates different from AND as it makes sure the two words will be found together
  • Use Brackets if you need to include more than one of these signs/operators.
    • Example: (oil OR water) AND painting
      • means you want to find either oil or water paintings.

As well, the following are more specific to google:

  • ..
    • to search within number ranges.
    • Example: 1990..2021 to
      • find results from that year range
  • :
    • for limiting type of search to location, website, or filetype.
    • Example: Cyborg Manifesto filetype:pdf
      • to find a pdf copy of The Cyborg Manifesto. 
    • Example 2: abortion laws location:Texas
      • to limit to your search to news articles originating from Texas (rather than being about Texas)

As an independent researcher, I completely understand that not everyone has access to a library. Maybe you access is limited if you’re not on campus or you’re doing preliminary research for a proposal for postgrad/grad school and don’t have library access yet. First see what databases are available to the general public; some sites offer a handful of free articles a month if you create a private account. Google Books and Google Scholar might also have excerpts, and the latter is a database too. Once you have access to a datebase to help you find the title of a piece, then there are a few options for acquiring that article even without university access. If you’re a postgraduate/graduate student, see if your former university offers alumni access to the library. Also don’t rule out public libraries. They may be able to acquire interlibrary loans from the university.  As well, investigate if there’s a programme that offers a regional library card rather than city library card. With a regional card, you may be able to acquire material from across the state/province/country and this may include universities in your area. And download the Libby app so you can combine ebooks and audiobooks from all these libraries in one place. Finally, if you absolutely cannot acquire a copy of the article you’re looking for, see if you can google the author; if they’re currently a student or staff member at a university, their contact details should be on the university website and you can email THEM directly to ask for a copy. In most cases, people don’t get paid for the article they’ve published (money goes to the publisher not author), so they might be willing to help you as it’s not a financial loss to them.

If you ARE using google for research, then try your best to vett the website to make sure it’s reputable. Do they have copyright information? Can you find details of the publisher and do they look authentic? If you’re using a library database rather than google, then you may still want to have a quick look at the publisher or journal. How long have they been established? Or if the article you are looking at is more than a few years old, are they still operating? If so, what are their peer review policies? (You can check out their submission guidelines to find this info.) This becomes more important if you are in graduate/postgraduate school especially if are considering publishing work yourself. As well, you will want to get a good understanding of the journals and book publishers in your field so that you can check them regularly for new publications. You may also be able to get a free copy of the book for yourself if you contact a subject-appropriate journal and ask to review the book. You will have to write up a 1000 to 2000 word critical review of the book, but you get a free (and likely expensively-priced) book in return.

Tomorrow we’ll talk further about how to vett your research once you’ve found them – i.e. how to to evaluate the academic rigour of a source. Until then, take care.

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