Step 1: Readings for Review Resources on Conducting Research

Reading 1: Finding Print, Online, and Field Sources

7.2 Finding Print, Online, and Field Sources

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand the value of your university library to you as a researcher.
  2. Be aware of the different research options that are available online.
  3. Know that you might find some field sources helpful in your research.
  4. Be aware of other online tools that will help you in your research process.

Your status as a student grants you access to your college library, and it is in your best interest to use it. Whether you are using your library online or in person, you will most likely need some guidance so that you know the research options available and how to access them. If you are attending a traditional brick-and-mortar college, the quickest way to learn about your library options is to physically go to the library and meet with a librarian. If you are attending school mostly or completely online, look for online tutorials offered by your college library. College libraries still have print holdings that are worth checking out, but the landscape is quickly going digital. In recent years, libraries have been digitizing their print holdings and spending an increasing percentage of their budgets on acquiring better and richer academic databases with vast holdings you can use for most of your research needs.

Within the array of online options available to you, the academic databases to which your library subscribes are generally more authoritative because they have been edited and in many cases peer reviewed before being approved for publication. These sources often appeared in print before being collected in the database. However, databases can take you only so far in your research. If you have questions that need quick answers, especially involving facts or statistics, there’s nothing wrong with using popular search engines like Google or even online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, provided you use them critically. Confirm the truth of the information you find by finding corroboration from at least two other sources, and follow up on the sources listed in the sites to which you are directed. For more on evaluating online sources, see Section 7.5 “Evaluating Sources”.

Along with the search engines, databases, and directories, the Internet also offers a variety of additional tools and services that are very useful to you as a researcher. Some of these options include citation builders and writing guides, dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, RSS feeds (providing subscriptions to specific blogs and podcasts), collections of famous quotations, government data, stock photo collections, collaboratively produced wikis and websites, and much more. An effective research project will likely combine source material from both academic databases and more popularly available online sites.

In addition to print and online sources, you might also wish to find some field sources, such as interviewing an expert, sorting through relevant documents, making observations, or attending an event that relates to your topic. For example, if you are researching the effects of inclusion on third grade students with special needs, you could add meaningful information to your paper by speaking with a local educator who has reviewed achievement scores before and after they have received inclusion services.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • You should use your school library services as a starting point for your research project. Your library staff can direct you to the most appropriate online databases for your project.
  • The Internet includes a variety of directories, databases, and search engines that provide excellent sources for academic research.
  • Some of the useful online tools for researchers include citation builders, dictionaries, thesauruses, RSS feeds, quotation sites, writing guides, government sites, stock photo collections, wikis, and blogs.
  • Field sources, such as interviews, documents, observations, and events, often provide meaningful information for research papers.

EXERCISES

  1. Provide contact information, including personal name(s), for school library staff you could turn to for help when you start a research project.
  2. Using an annotated bibliography format, list five academic library databases and the URLs for five nonacademic sites that you could use to locate sources for a research paper. For each address, provide a paragraph explaining what the source offers.
  3. Once you’ve gotten to know more about your library’s online databases, use what you already know about popular search engines to decide which would be an easier method of finding reliable, trustworthy sources for the following information: an academic database or a popular search engine?

    1. rates of military service in the United States since World War II
    2. arguments in favor of and against the existence of climate change
    3. studies on the effects of television viewing on infants
    4. average age of first marriage among men and women every year since 1960
    5. proposed solutions to unemployment
    6. the highest grossing films of the last twenty years
  4. Indicate three research topics of interest to you. Then describe a field source for each topic that you could use as a resource.

Reading 2:  Choosing Search Terms

7.3 Choosing Search Terms

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand how to use synonyms and topic components to expand a search.
  2. Know how to use multiple words, quotation marks, asterisks, question marks, and parentheses to improve your search results.
  3. Recognize how to use “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” to strengthen a keyword search.

Whether you are searching research databases or conducting general online searches, the search terms and phrases you use will determine what information you find. Following some basic search term guidelines can make the process go smoothly.

When searching for articles within a database, start by using keywords that relate to your topic.

Example: alternative energy

To expand your search, use synonyms or components of the initial search terms.

Synonym Example: renewable energy

Components Example: algae energy, wind energy, biofuel

Another technique you can use is to refine the presentation of your search terms using suggestions in the following table.

Use multiple words. Use multiple words to more narrowly define your search. renewable energy instead of energy
Use quotation marks. Place quotation marks around two or more words that you want to search for only in combination, never individually. “renewable energy”
Use “AND” to connect words. Use “AND” between words when you want to retrieve only articles that include both words. algae AND energy
Use “OR” to choose one or the other. Use “OR” to find information relating to one of two options but not both. This option works well when you have two terms that mean the same thing and you want to find articles regardless of which term has been chosen for use. ethanol OR ethyl alcohol
Use “NOT” to eliminate likely options. Use “NOT” to eliminate one category of ideas you know a search term will likely generate. algae NOT food
Use “*” or “?” to include alternate word endings. Use “*” or “?” to include a variety of word endings. This process is often called using a “wildcard.” alternate* energy
alternate? energy
Use parentheses to combine multiple searches. Use parentheses to combine multiple related terms into one single search using the different options presented in this table. (renewable OR algae OR biofuel OR solar) AND energy

When you find a helpful article or Internet site, look for additional search terms and sources that you can follow up on. If you don’t have time to follow up on them all when you find them, include them in your research log for later follow-up. When possible, copy and paste terms and links into your log. When you have to retype, take great care with spelling, spacing, and most of all, attributing direct quotations to their original source.

The aforementioned tips are general ideas for keyword searching. When you are searching within a database or a certain search engine, pay attention to any search tips or help screens that present methods that work well with the specific database or search engine. For example, you may have the option to narrow your search to “full text” entries only or to refine it to texts published within a certain time frame.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A quick and easy way to increase your search results is to try synonyms of your initial search term, such as “ethanol” for “ethyl alcohol.” A similar step is to try components of an idea, such as “wood,” “ethanol,” and “algae” when you are searching for biofuel.
  • You can use special techniques to more accurately target your search. Using multiple words will typically narrow your search more specifically to the information you want. For example, “ethyl alcohol” will bring up a wide range of uses of ethyl alcohol, such as fuel, drinking alcohol, chemistry, and lotions. A search for “ethyl alcohol as fuel” will limit the results to only the use of ethyl alcohol as fuel. Similarly, the use of quotation marks will limit search results to a complete term rather than to individual parts of a term. For example, within quotations, “algae energy” returns only results that include both words. Following a word with an asterisk or a question mark invites results including alternate endings of the word. And using parentheses allows you to combine multiple searches.
  • Using “AND” allows you to make sure a search includes identified words. Inserting “OR” between two words lets you conduct two individual searches at once. Placing “NOT” between two words excludes all results including the second word.

EXERCISES

  1. Write a search term you could use if you wanted to search for sites about the Eisenhower family, but not about Dwight Eisenhower.
  2. Write a search term that would work to find sites about athlete graduation rates but not about nonathlete graduation rates or other information about athletes.
  3. Brainstorm a list of search terms to use when researching the topic “television violence.” Include all the techniques from this section at least once. After finding at least ten sources, work with your writing group to develop at least three different statements of purpose (specifying your desired voice, audience, message, tone, attitude, and reception) for possible research projects of eight to ten pages. Discuss how the sources you found in each case affected your decisions about purpose.

Reading 3:  Conducting Research

7.4 Conducting Research

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand that attitude and stamina are important when writing a research paper.
  2. Grasp the importance of keeping an open mind and reading critically.
  3. Know when to read a source completely and when to read selectively.
  4. Understand that different genres require distinct kinds of research.

When you are researching for an essay, your attitude and stamina are key to your success. If you let either of these issues get out of hand, you can seriously weaken your project. Before you begin what is essentially a month-long relationship with a topic, you should choose something that interests you, something about which you have an opinion. Even when it is on a topic you care deeply about, researching is often tedious and demands stamina. Assume from the beginning that the project will be time consuming and sometimes exhausting, so make sure to allot the needed time and energy to complete it.

If you feel strongly about a topic, you might find it a challenge to keep your attitude in check and to read your sources with an open mind. It is critical not to let your personal opinions drive the information you choose to include. Try to create a well-rounded paper. If all the sources you find appear to agree with your viewpoints, actively search out a different viewpoint to strengthen your paper. Or consider changing your path entirely because if there really isn’t a range of sources out there, you’re probably not working with an arguable topic. (See Chapter 6 “Drafting”Section 6.2 “Testing a Thesis” for more on how to test a thesis or topic for whether it is arguable.)

Along with keeping an open mind (attitude) and keeping to a schedule (stamina), you should, of course, read critically, using some of the guidelines discussed in Chapter 2 “Becoming a Critical Reader”. In other words, you should evaluate the arguments and assumptions authors make and, when appropriate, present your evaluations within your paper. You can include biased information if you choose, but be certain to note the bias. This move might be appropriate in a persuasive essay if you are taking issue with a source with which you disagree. But be careful not to settle for too easy a target in such an essay. Don’t pick on a fringe voice in the opposing camp when there’s a more reasonable argument that needs to be dealt with fairly. If a source is simply too biased to be useful even as an opposing argument, then you may choose not to include it as part of your essay. Your basic principle of selection for a source, regardless of whether you agree with it as a matter of opinion, should be based on whether you think the information includes sound assumptions, meaningful evidence, and logical conclusions.

You also need to pose productive questions throughout the process, using some of the guidelines in Chapter 1 “Writing to Think and Writing to Learn”. If you are writing on a topic about which you already have a very clear stance, consider whether there is common ground you share with your ideological opponents that might lead to a more productive use of your time and theirs. In general, persuasive essays are more effective if they also solve problems instead of just staking out an inflexible position based on a core set of inflexible assumptions. It’s not that you shouldn’t write about abortion or capital punishment if these issues mean something to you. It’s just that you don’t want to go down the same path that’s been followed by millions of students who have come before you. So how do you ask fresh questions about classic topics? Often by rewinding to the causes of the effects people typically argue about or simply by pledging to report the facts of the matter in depth.

Old Question about Classic Topic New Questions about Classic Topic
Is abortion acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What forms of sexual education have been shown to be effective with teens most at risk of unplanned pregnancies?
  • What are some of the social and cultural causes of unplanned teen pregnancies?
Is capital punishment acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What are states doing to ensure fair and thorough trials for capital crimes?
  • What are the results in the capital crime rate in states that have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment?
  • What is the relative average cost to conduct a capital prosecution and execution versus life imprisonment without parole?
Is censorship acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What is the recent history of legislative and judicial rulings on First Amendment issues?
  • What are the commercial motivations of advertisers, music, television, and film producers to push the boundaries of decency?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

EXERCISES

  1. Choose a persuasive research topic of interest to you about which you already have a strong opinion. Find four sources:

    1. One that agrees with your stance and presents a nonbiased view
    2. One that agrees with your stance and presents a biased view
    3. One that disagrees with your stance and presents a nonbiased view
    4. One that disagrees with your stance and presents a biased view
  2. For the two biased sources from question 1, print out a copy of each source or copy and paste the text into a Word document. In the margins, either by hand or by using Insert Comment, identify moments that help show why you consider each source to be biased.
  3. Using the chart in Section 7.4 “Conducting Research” come up with questions to ask for each genre of a research essay for the following topics:

    1. Policies to combat global warming
    2. Decline in the marriage rate
    3. Impact of video games on student learning
    4. Gender roles in the middle school years
    5. Counterterrorism strategies in the current administration

Reading 4: Finding and Examining the Sources in your Sources

Textual research is a complex process, and it does not end with identifying some appropriate sources. A text, once identified as useful, can be the starting point of a vein of useful resources that stretch across databases, journals, and fields.  This article will help you figure out what to do once you get through the database and start finding articles that may be useful. Citeable sources abound both in print and online, and the challenge of any researcher, new or experienced, is to determine what information in which databases are useful. There is some great guidance on using databases, as well as finding useful databases, elsewhere in Writing Commons. When you find a useful article, you have hit the start of a trail. The trick is to keep on the trail without falling off into other, less useful sources, and one way to do that is to follow the citations made in the useful articles you find, using their arguments as a way of determining the possible utility of other texts. The possible utility of these texts can be determined according to four keys: context, time, citation prevalence, and a review of the text.

The first time a reader encounters a citation, it will–for obvious reasons–not be divorced from context. The reader will be in the midst of a text that calls forth, for one reason or another, a different text. The context of this citation—that is, the way the citation is organized into the surrounding text by the author—will sometimes be extensive (i.e., a quote, a block quote, an extended summary or paraphrase), and sometimes consist of nothing more than an indirect reference (see Figures 1 and 2). Whatever the amount of detail, however, there is always some context from which the reader can draw in order to better glean some indication of what the text is about.

Figure 1: An Extensive Reference

New materialism is a transdisicplinary effort to reshape materialist critiques in order to acknowledge and reckon with a much-expanded notion of agency, one that includes humans, nonhumans, and the environmental surround. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors of New Materialism, argue that “any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century” requires focus on a multidimensional understanding of materiality, one that does not launch a de facto dismissal of nature and biology on grounds that they are “naively representational or naturalistic” (3). They find textual analysis, structural Marxism, and “radical constructivism,” for example, incapable of describing complex material realities and resulting radical agencies (2-3). Intersecting forms of matter frame our existence in large and small ways; political and cultural theory cannot afford to ignore or belittle this insight, as the following makes clear:

Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. (1)

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate some of the various contexts that a reader may have to work with. In Figure 1, the author (Micciche) provides a great deal of context about her source. They provide not only a framework within which to think about Coole and Frost (i.e., through “New Materialism”), but several extensive quotations that helps the reader understand exactly how Micciche is taking up these authors. This extra text allows the reader, as someone considering Coole and Frost as a potential source, to glean a great deal about whether or not it would be useful. Figure 2, on the other hand, shows an indirect reference. In that passage, the references to Heath and Bartholomae are embedded within a wider review of literacy and academic writing. In this case, the reader cannot learn the specifics as in Figure 1, but the texts can be put into a context of the field of literacy and academic writing studies, which may clue the reader into whether or not the texts may be useful.

Figure 2: An Indirect Reference

The social turn configured writing as a mode of social action – a tool for enacting agency and, quite often, change on a large and small scale. Writing also became a tool for expressing cultural identities, developing awareness of experience as both personal and collective, and joining a conversation that does not begin or end with a single individual. In contrast to cognitive models, writing was theorized as a process embedded in sociopolitical, familial contexts, complete with power inequities and uneven access to literacy tools (see Heath). And academic writing was often viewed as inseparable from the politics of discourse and the complexities of community membership, belonging, and outsider status (see Bartholomae).

The second important element to consider is the issue of time. In what year was the publication that you found written? Was it recently–within the past five years or so–or was it a decade or more ago? An older citation is not necessarily a useless citation, of course, but the data used and the conclusions arrived at may be dated, or perhaps superseded by the more recent work of others. It is also important to decide whether the work is a seminal text–that is, a well-established text that acts as a cornerstone of a field or a sub-field. If that is the case, then the fact that the article is dated is less important than the fact that the article is instrumental in a field or sub-field’s understanding of the world. In addition to the context around the citation (some authors will quite pointedly claim that a given text is seminal), you can also look to the citation count (i.e., how often the source is referenced in other texts) to determine how often the work gets used (and in what context).

Determining how often a citation is used is referred to as citation prevalence. Who else has cited this text? Toward what ends? Under what circumstances? The fact that a work has not been cited does not necessarily mean that it is not helpful–most articles are rarely, if ever, directly cited. However, figuring out whether and how others have cited a work is an effective way of determining the power of a given article. Tracking the citation references of a given article is relatively easy these days, thanks to Google Scholar. Typing an article’s title into the Google Scholar search bar will lead to not simply the article, but how often that article has been cited, as well as who has been citing this article. This is a quick, easy way to determine the relative importance of a given text (although to rely on this alone may be a bit of a bad idea – after all, it’s hardly easy for Google to track all of these citations, and there may be important works that are missed).

The final test in determining whether to use a source is, of course, to read it. However, it often seems (in the eyes of a novice researcher, at any rate) that the act of reading is itself an admission of surrender on some level: that reading is no longer deciding on the importance of an article, but is in fact the result of deciding that an article is important. This, of course, is not the case, as there are many steps between deciding an article may be worth reading and reading that article from start to finish. Understanding how to use these steps to your advantage is part of the broad collection of skills that fall into the category of information literacy. There are many different ways of assessing the worth of a text, such as Joe Moxley’s questions to bring to a text. Approaches like this one are efficient ways to consider articles without being overwhelmed with the mass of data in front of you—in other words, they are ways to sharpen and expand your information literacy skills.

There is a large and ever-widening world of research out there, and, to a novice researcher, this can be a little intimidating, even overwhelming. However, by finding ways to optimize both your article searches and your time, you can make the most of your research efforts. Paying attention to context, time, citation prevalence, and a review of the texts you encounter is a useful step forward in increasing your own productivity.

Works Cited

Micciche, Laura. “Writing Material.” College English 76.6 (2014): 488-505. Web.

Walker, Clay. “Composing Agency: Theorizing the Readiness Potentials of Literacy Practices.” Literacy in Composition Studies 3.2 (2015): 1-21. Web. 30 August 2015.

Supplemental Reading 1: The Research Process

Excelsior College OWL – The Research Process

Supplemental Reading 2: Research Strategies

Excelsior College OWL – Research Strategies