Finding Sources – Initial Searching with Google Scholar

decorative imageWhether you start with a working thesis or a broader topic, you will need to start researching early in the research writing process, to determine 1) whether you have a researchable topic/working thesis, 2) whether your topic/working thesis is too broad or too narrow, and 3) whether there are major differences of opinion about your topic/working thesis.

Google or another search engine is an easy way to quickly get an overview on your topic. Even more effective than Google Search is Google Advanced Search , and even better than that for academic resources is Google Scholar. Let’s consider Marvin’s experience.


Finding Sources

Marvin: So can I just use Google or Bing to find sources?

Prof: Internet search engines can help you find sources, but they aren’t always the best route to getting to a good source. Try entering the search term “bottled water quality” into Google, without quotation marks around the term. How many hits do you get?

Marvin types it in.

Marvin: 1,180,000. That’s pretty much what I get whenever I do an Internet search. Too many results.

Prof: Which is one of the drawbacks of using only Internet search engines. The Internet may have cut down on the physical walking needed to find good sources, but it’s made up for the time savings by pointing you to more places than you could possibly go! But there are some ways you can narrow your search to get fewer, more focused results.

Marvin: Yeah, I know. Sometimes I add extra words in and it helps weed down the hits.

Prof: By combining search terms with certain words or symbols, you can control what the search engine looks for. If you put more than one term into a Google search box, the search engine will only give you sites that include both terms, since it uses the Boolean operator AND as the default for its searches. If you put OR between two search terms, you’ll end up getting even more results, because Google will look for all websites containing either of the terms. Using a minus sign in front of a term eliminates things you’re not interested in. It’s the Google equivalent of the Boolean operator NOT. Try entering bottled water quality health -teeth.

Marvin types in the words, remembering suddenly that he has to make an appointment with the dentist.

Marvin: 784,000 hits.

Prof: Still a lot. You can also put quotation marks around groups of words and the search engine will look only for sites that contain all of those words in the exact order you’ve given. And you can combine this strategy with the other ways of limiting your search. Try “bottled water quality” (in quotation marks) health -teeth.

Marvin: 225,000. That’s a little better.

Prof: Now try adding what type of website you are looking for, maybe a .gov or an .edu. Try typing “bottled water quality” heath -teeth

Marvin: Wow, under 6,000 results now.

Prof: Yes, a definite improvement. Sometimes you want to be careful though not to narrow it so far that you miss useful sources. You have to play around with your search terms to get to what you need. A bigger problem with Internet search engines, though, is that they won’t necessarily lead you to the sources considered most valuable for college writing.

Marvin: My professor said something about using peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals.

Prof: Professors will often want you to use such sources. Articles in scholarly journals are written by experts; and if a journal’s peer-reviewed, its articles have been screened by other experts (the authors’ peers) before being published.

Marvin: So that would make peer-reviewed articles pretty reliable. Where do I find them?

Prof: Google’s got a specialized search engine, Google Scholar, that will search for scholarly articles that might be useful. But often the best place is the college library’s bibliographic databases. 

To be continued. . .

Google Scholar

Google Scholar at is Google’s academic search engine that searches across scholarly literature. It has extensive coverage, retrieving information from academic publishers, professional organizations, university repositories, professional websites, and government websites.

The benefits of searching within Google Scholar are numerous, but a search solely using Google Scholar will not be sufficient for your research, because non-scholarly and/or non-peer reviewed material may also appear in Google Scholar. You will also need to use library databases to research a topic/working thesis fully. Both Google Scholar and library databases have their own benefits.

Google Scholar accesses more government resources than available in library databases, as well as case law. One of the greatest features of Google Scholar is the “Cited by” link found below each search result. If you find one article you like, you can click on the link to find other articles that reference that same work.

Library databases allow you to limit your search to full-text, peer-reviewed, scholarly articles and to specify more information fields (subject headings, abstract, author, etc.) where you want your search terms found.

View the following video for a good introduction to using Google Scholar. Note that although the video references the University of Wisconsin, you can easily link to your own college’s library through the “settings” option in Google Scholar.

Click on the following examples to get a sense of how Google Scholar works.  You may also want to configure your settings to link to your own college’s library and try the search terms again, to see what’s available to you and how it can be accessed.

Google Scholar Search Results

Click on the links below to see how search results vary when using different search parameters.