Remember that you’re expected to research scholarly sources; Google Scholar and various databases, which house collections of peer-reviewed journals, books, newspapers, and more, are good places to search for scholarly articles. In order to use these resources, you need to understand the concept of keywords.
You use keywords already when you do a basic Google search—you figure out what you want to search for and put in a few specific terms. For the most part, you probably use nouns and eliminate verbs, adjectives, and small linking words. If you want to know how birds are affected by wind turbines, for example, you most likely type in birds wind turbines. Those are key words. As you identify key words, it may be useful to think of synonyms for—and more specific versions of—those words in case you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for with your initial key words. For example, if your essay is about the mental health of immigrants in school settings, you might also consider synonyms such as well-being or more specific synonyms such as depression or anxiety instead of mental health. Know that you can manipulate key words to focus your research when you use both Google Scholar and research databases, and know that you can add words to specify your search strategy.
Google Scholar at scholar.google.com is Google’s academic search engine that searches information from academic publishers, professional organizations, university repositories, professional websites, government websites, and case law. Google Scholar also has a “cited by” link found below each search result. If you find an article you like, this link can lead to other articles that reference that same work. However, Google Scholar may not be totally sufficient for your research, because it does include some non-scholarly and/or non-peer reviewed material. So pair your search in Google Scholar with a search in library databases to access the fullest array of scholarly sources to help answer your research question.
The following video offers a clear, easy-to-follow explanation of how to search using Google Scholar. (Note that the advanced search may appear in the thee line icon, as opposed to being in a drop-down at the end of the search bar, as the video states.) Once you understand the basics of searching this source, you may also want to link to the Google Scholar Tutorial Part 2 follow-up video that offers more advanced search strategies.
Your college library should have a link to search databases. Database searches use additional words (called “Boolean operators”) to specify what you are searching for; operators show connections between your search terms and help you specify your search. Boolean operators are and, or, and not. You can also add quotation marks to search for exact words or phrases.
- Use and to narrow a search. For example, if you search for “vegetables” and “genetically modified,” you will only get results that include both of these search terms (as opposed to getting results that deal with just one or the other).
- Use or to broaden your search. For example, if you search for “vegetables” or “genetically modified,” you may get some results that include both, but may get other results that include articles on genetically modified fruits, meats, and other items.
- Use not to leave things out of your search. For example, if you search for “vegetables” not broccoli and “genetically modified,” you will get results that may include a variety of articles on genetically-modified vegetables but will exclude articles that mention broccoli.
Databases also have options to limit your search to peer-reviewed articles, articles within a specific time frame, or articles from a specific type of source or publication.
The video below presents tips for using library databases.
You’re researching more fully based on the article “How Crisco Toppled Lard.” You think that you want to know more about brand marketing strategies used by the manufacturers of Crisco and other foods in the 1920s-1940s, right after the product gained popularity. You know that this is not yet leading to a final research question, because you eventually need a more complex concept about which you can offer an insight or make an assertion. But you need to do some initial research to see if you can find enough sources to make this burgeoning idea worthwhile to pursue.
For both Google Scholar and your library’s database search, test out the importance of search terms in managing your research.
- Use the following three search terms in succession to see how many sources you find each time; note the numbers of sources.brand marketing
brand marketing 1920-1940
brand marketing 1920-1940 and Crisco
- Also, as you scan the lists of sources, find 2-3 that look as though they might yield useful information, sources that you would bookmark to skim and evaluate for fuller reading. Are these readily available sources, either freely offered online or via your library?
1. Numbers of sources found (on the particular day this was accessed; answers may vary)
|Search Terms||Google Scholar||ESC Library’s One Search|
|Brand marketing||2,830,000 results||6,045,786 results|
|Brand marketing 1920-1940||5,640 results||194 results|
|Brand marketing 1920-1940 and Crisco||54 results||5 results|
From these results, you can see immediately the importance of refining your search terms to make research manageable when you start out with a general idea. Another approach to refining your search is to work first on developing and refining a research question, which will indicate specific search terms to try.
2. Both Google Scholar and ESC Library’s One Search turn up the following sources which look as though they might be worth fuller investigation:
- “Eating Cotton: Cottonseed, Crisco, and Consumer Ignorance,” by Helen Zoe Veit in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Volume 18, issue 4, pp. 397-421.
- Alchemy in Eden: Entrepreneurialism, Branding, and Food Marketing in the United States, 1880-1920, by Terri Lonier, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940, by Roland Marchand, University of California Press, 1985.
- Product Placement: Literary Modernism and Crisco, by Gail McDonald, Modernist Cultures Journal, 2006.
These sources look promising. However, when searching for source availability, you find that you would have to get the two books on interlibrary loan, and that the two articles are in journals that your library does not subscribe to (and you do not want to pay for copies of the articles). So you realize that you may need to re-think a research idea.
This is why it’s important to start any research writing early, well before a research essay is due.
Once you find sources appropriate to your research focus, and/or sources that seem to answer your research question, skim and/or scan those sources as soon as possible to see if they actually do offer the information you expect. Refer to the page on Titles, Skimming, & Scanning to review these techniques.
Skimming is an important step, as you may find articles that seem appropriate, but then turn out not to be useful to your particular research focus or question. You then need to circle back and re-think or refine your key words to find the researched evidence you need. Alternatively, you may circle back to re-think or refine your research question.
Although searching Google Scholar and various library databases should yield information from more appropriate sources than a general Google search, you still need to evaluate each scholarly source you find. Evaluate sources in different ways, at different points of the research writing process.
Evaluate Sources as you Find Them – Initial Evaluation
- Consider the publication in which you found the source. It is a publication that tries to present information objectively, without overt bias?
- Is the date of the information appropriate for your research question?
- Is the author of the text cited by others? Numbers of citations should provide some idea of whether others consider this a valid source to use in their research writing.
- Does the author cite the sources of their own information?
- After a quick skim or scan, ask whether the source directly relates to your research focus and/or answers your research question or at least a portion of your research question. If so, set the source aside to read more fully. If not, even if the source fulfills the other evaluative criteria on this list, you may want to eliminate it, as it may not yield the information you need. Resist the urge to use a source just because you found it. If it doesn’t directly relate to your research question and ultimately to your thesis, it’s not a good source for the particular research essay.
If your source fulfills the criteria in the initial evaluation, then read the source more fully and critically. The next page in this text offers strategies for reading journal articles.
In general, to read critically, consider the author’s purpose. Consider the logic and completeness of the author’s argument. Determine whether the author inadvertently (or by design) uses logical fallacies, and how they affect the validity of the text. Consider the quality of the author’s own sources. Refer to the page on Evaluating Researched Sources in the section on Evaluating a Text for full information about doing a CRAAP analysis and more completely evaluating the content of a text that you’ll use to answer your research question and support your working thesis.
A Note on Managing Sources as you Skim and Evaluate
Especially for longer research projects, it may feel like an overwhelming task to keep everything organized. You may find yourself going back over some of the same ground each time you return to your research, or you may forget the search terms you used; there are countless details that, if forgotten, can waste your time. This is where using a graphic organizer may help, to keep track of sources you’ve looked at.
For example, a graphic organizer designed to help mange sources as you find them might look like this (adapted from the How to Create Your Research Log video below):
|Keywords Used||Title of Source||Author||Date of Source||Date Accessed & Link for Online Sources||Content Summary||Use or Not Use? Why or Why Not?|
If you record basic information, you should be able to move forward more easily each time you return to the research process, choosing alternative key words to refine your research, keeping track of how many potentially usable sources you have, and maintaining a record of where the source is located, so you can re-access it when it’s time to read it more carefully. Here’s a downloadable word version of a table for Source Management.
And here’s the video on How to Create Your Research Log. Note that the video was created for a specific course. From approximately 6:25 in the video to the end, the instructor talks about how to use Google Sheets to create a log. You may stop the video at 6:25, or you may decide to learn how to use this tool. Know that you can create the same kind of graphic organizer with any spreadsheet tool or with a simple table—the tool itself does not matter; the concept of managing your sources does.