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Although your research projects might require different approaches because they are dissimilar in focus, type, or discipline, there are some general principles of searching that can be applied to most situations. Use the following guide, based on the Big6 information literacy model, as a starting point. (The "Big6T" is copyright © (1987) Michael B. Eisenberg and Robert E. Berkowitz. For more information, visit: www.big6.com.) If your search results are inadequate, please do not hesitate to contact a reference librarian for guidance.
STEPS IN SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION
Choose a general topic
Focus your topic
Determine the boundaries of the project
Identify the main concepts
As you read through background sources, try to identify the main concepts associated with your topic. Make a list of the terms used to refer to these concepts. You can later search for words from this list in reference books, periodical databases, indexes, and other information sources. Keep in mind that these sources may not use the same terms to identify your topic that you would. When looking at citations in periodical databases you can see the headings, or terms, used to describe a certain article in the "subject heading" or "descriptor" field. Find other articles on the same topic by searching under these headings. The same applies to book catalogs.
Find background information, if necessary. If you do not know enough about your topic even to get started, you will need to find background information. The best place to go for background information is to the reference collection. The reference collection is a group of non-circulating, highly used materials such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographical works, maps, almanacs, etc. These sources often represent the most current information the library owns. They answer who, what, where, when and why questions and are more useful for purposes of identification than for in-depth research. The reference section is an excellent "first place to look" when conducting research.
In addition to the general encyclopedias with which you may already be familiar, the Shorter University Libraries have a number of subject encyclopedias that provide background on discipline-specific topics. Some of these include:
As you search for sources, keep in mind what type and variety of sources you need, if specified by your instructor. For example, do you need books or journal articles to support your paper? Do you need recent or historical sources? Do you need statistics? News items? Articles from scholarly journals? Will Internet documents suffice, or should you limit your sources to items found in print?
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Your instructor may ask you to find some primary sources and some secondary sources. Primary sources are those that provide firsthand knowledge of a topic, or that constitute an original topic in themselves. For example, the live radio broadcast that captured the crash of the Hindenburg is considered a primary source because it provides us with firsthand knowledge of that event. William Faulkner's novel, Light in August, is considered a primary source because it is an original work of art, not a commentary on another work.
Secondary sources are those which interpret primary sources, such as biographies, reviews, and books or articles about a historical event written after the fact. An historical account of the Hindenburg crash that got its information from the live radio broadcast would be a secondary source because it is a secondhand account of the event. A book review of Light in August would be a secondary source because it interprets the primary source, but is not an original work of art in itself.
Your instructor may also make a distinction between peer-reviewed and popular (non-peer-reviewed) sources when referring to articles from periodicals. Peer review refers to a method of choosing articles for publication in a journal that is scholarly or professional in nature.
Whereas articles in popular magazines are typically chosen by an editor, articles in peer-reviewed journals are chosen by an author's peers in his field of study. For example, The New England Journal of Medicine, which is peer-reviewed, employs physicians as peer reviewers. These physicians read submissions and make recommendations about whether to accept or reject them for publication. The term "refereed" is a synonym for peer-reviewed.
Identify and locate specific sources of information. Instructions for identifying and locating different types of information sources are given elsewhere in this guide, as outlined below.
Books typically treat a particular topic in great detail. They can provide thoughtful commentary and historical perspective. Books generally have bibliographies of sources the author(s) consulted, which can provide you with a list of potential additional sources. For detailed information on finding books, see the tutorial on how to find books.
Articles provide current information on a topic. You may want to include articles among your sources, especially if your topic is too new to be the subject of a book. To learn how to find articles using both print and electronic reference tools, see the tutorial on how to find journal articles.
The Internet is another possible source of information on your topic, though caution must be exercised when choosing among search results, since Internet sites are not all created equal. You should also be sure that your instructor will accept internet information as a source. For Internet search techniques, see the tutorial on How to Search the Internet.
Sometimes your research centers on an individual. An encyclopedia is a good place to start to find out about a well-known figure, but if you need detailed information about a person's life and accomplishments, you will need to consult biographical sources. See the tutorial on How to Find Biographical Resources to learn how. .
In literature courses, you may need to find criticism and interpretation of a particular author's work, or reviews of plays or books. The critical sources tutorial guides you through this process.
Obtain the sources identified
Many materials, both print and electronic, will be available at your campus library. Books and journal articles not available at your location can be requested through intercampus or interlibrary loan. See the pages on intercampus and interlibrary loans, located under “Request Forms” on the library’s main page, for more information. .
Evaluate the sources. Be aware that not all information available to you is valid or trustworthy. You must evaluate the relative worth of each item according to slightly different sets of criteria, depending on its source.
Evaluating Print Sources
Generally, materials that have made their way into library collections have undergone several levels of review, and can usually be counted upon to be reliable. Librarians typically base their purchasing decisions on reviews written by experts qualified to judge a book's content. Bibliographies and other evaluation aids are also frequently consulted before making the decision to purchase a book. Librarians think carefully about the information needs of their constituents and how a particular source will fill those needs before acquiring it. Also, reputable publishing houses choose only manuscripts that meet their standards and for which there is an identifiable need, and libraries tend to buy only from these publishers.
Still, it will benefit you to think critically about the sources you encounter, whether inside or outside the library. Consider the following aspects of a printed work when evaluating its quality. Note that e-books and articles found on Galileo are reprints of items originally published in paper, so you should treat them as print sources for purposes of evaluation.
When was this information first published? Even if the date is current, a book or article might be a reprint of older information. Many things change almost daily-even country names- and, depending on your topic, you may need the most recent information available.
Is the author simply presenting information or trying to convince us of something? If the latter is true, is it possible that the author only gave one side of the argument in order to make a point, thereby leaving out other important information about the topic?
Is the writing based on fact or opinion? The opinion of the author may be quite valuable, depending upon his or her qualifications. The most erroneous ideas can qualify as opinions; facts, however, are consistent with reason, and in academic writing are usually substantiated by references to research.
Who is the intended audience of the publication? This is particularly important in the case of periodical articles, which may be written for either a scholarly or a general (popular) audience.
EVALUATING INTERNET RESOURCES
Anyone with a computer and a modem can access resources from anywhere in the world and from many types of information providers. These providers include governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals making their pet projects accessible to the world.
But whereas the books, journals, and other resources which you find in any library have already been evaluated before purchase, there is no editorial board for the Internet. Internet resources frequently lack the publishing industry's filters of need and worth, may be poorly maintained, and may be only transiently or intermittently available. Anyone can create an Internet site which may contain incorrect or misleading information, whether accidentally or deliberately.
Esther Grassian, in her article, Thinking Critically About World Wide Web Resources, discusses important Internet evaluation criteria, and makes additional points regarding Web sites for subject disciplines in Thinking Critically About Discipline-Based World Wide Web Resources.
USE THE GATHERED INFORMATION ETHICALLY
When conducting research, you must credit the sources you used which contributed to your final product. This attribution, or documentation, serves several purposes:
1) It provides a way for your readers (or professor) to read more about your topic;
2) It allows readers to evaluate the sources you used to reach a conclusion with which they may or may not agree; and
3) Documentation is necessary so that you will not appear to be plagiarizing, or claiming as your own, someone else's work.
Documentation is given in the form of a bibliography, or list of sources (sometimes called "references") consulted; footnotes or endnotes (depending on documentation style) are often included as well. Parenthetical citations-brief notes in parentheses that direct the reader to citations in the bibliography-are given in the body of the paper and are used to attribute a direct quote or idea. A bibliography is found in the last pages of a research paper, article, book, etc., and should be a complete list of all sources the author consulted. See the tutorial on documenting sources, for more information.
Ask yourself the following questions about everything you write:
For material that is directly quoted:
For all material:
Be sure that you can answer yes to each of these questions before submitting an assignment.
The synthesis stage involves the repackaging, or restructuring, of the information you have gathered to fashion your own product. Creating such a product entails far more than simply presenting a list of assembled facts; material from many sources must be read, digested, and combined in the mind of the student, then re-expressed in the student's own words. The purpose of scholarly writing is to create new knowledge by bringing together several strands of thought and integrating them in ways not imagined before. Your product should reflect the new and creative ideas inspired by the information you encountered in your search.
Synthesis also involves selecting an appropriate format in which to present one's research findings. In addition to such typical fare as term papers and oral reports, there are feasibility studies, employee handbooks, business plans, web pages, and other examples.
Ultimately, both the product and the process must be evaluated. Unless the product is evaluated thoroughly, it is difficult to know whether or not the process has really come to an end; that is, if the goal of the project was not reached, it may be necessary to go back and repeat one or more of the steps above to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion.
Evaluation of the Product
Consider the following when evaluating your product from an information standpoint:
Evaluation of the Process
Evaluate the process of your search for, and use of, information by asking yourself the following:
*Part of the Database Offerings in GALILEO, Georgia's Virtual Library.
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