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Library Research Step-By-Step Guide: BIOL 206: Step 1: Pre-Search Prep

A class guide for Biology 206 Spring 2020.

Get Organized Before You Go Searching

It's easy to assume that in the age of Google there's no need to think about our research before we start. We can just type a few keywords into the search box on the library homepage and be done with it, right? No! Scholarly research, which includes the literature search you're about to conduct for this class, is an involved process. In order to do it in the most efficient way possible, it's best to spend some time before you get started thinking about what's ahead of you.

Be sure to watch the two short videos below: Peer Review in 3 Minutes, and One Perfect Source?

Establish a Baseline: What Do I Need In Order To Complete My Assignment?

Take a look at your assignment. What kind of information do you need? A good first step is to establish what sources are required for your assignment. This information is usually included in the assignment description, and may also be described in a grading rubric.

You may ask yourself:

  • How many sources do I need? Of those sources, do a certain number of them need to be peer reviewed?
  • Was I specifically asked to find primary sources? How many?
  • Do any (or all) of my sources need to be recent, i.e. published within a certain number of years?
  • What citation style am I being asked to use? (Common styles include APA, MLA, and Chicago style, but there are many other styles that your instructor might be asking for.)

Establishing a baseline will help you to streamline your research process. If these basic requirements are unclear, contact your instructor ASAP rather than waiting until the last minute. You don't want to get caught off-guard!

Background Research

Having some background knowledge, history, and vocabulary will of course help you understand your topic better, but it will also equip you to do more sophisticated, targeted searches, which will save you time and energy.

Avoid the Most Common Research Pitfall

Scholarly research is not about finding sources you can use to prove a point you already decided on. It's also not about looking for a single source that somehow covers all the areas of your topic. As you explore your topic, you should be constantly learning, getting new ideas, and expanding your vocabulary. Your job as a scholar is to analyze a variety of sources and use what you have learned to come up with your own conclusions.

WATCH: Peer Review in 3 Minutes

Establish a Basic Strategy: From General to Specific

The best overall search strategy is to start general and get more specific as you go along. This applies on a number of levels.

  1. Starting with broad keywords will bring you a big pool of results, which you can sort through and filter using tools in the database. As you proceed through your search, you'll pick up additional keywords you can add to your search.
  2. Similarly, it's important to start by picking up some background knowledge, history, and language around your topic using encyclopedias and other reference tools (see options below). Next, searching in a large interdisciplinary database will bring you lots of results from many disciplines so you can see the full range of what's available to you. Using a smaller, more specialized database is a smart next step,
  3. If your topic is interdisciplinary (example:  fish ladders), you may want to check multiple specialized databases (Environment Complete for the fish part, Engineering Village for the ladder part).

Establish Essential Scholarly Research Terms and Their Definitions

It's important for us to all be on the same page regarding the language we use to talk about scholarly research and publishing. Here are some essential concepts you'll need to be familiar with to do your research:

  • What's a scholarly journal? What's a scholarly article?
    • A scholarly journal is a publication dedicated to advancing scholarly knowledge in a particular field. Scholarly journals primarily publish scholarly, or "peer reviewed" articles, as well as other short pieces related to the scholarly community, such as opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and book reviews. The latter are not peer reviewed, but they may appear in searches limited to peer reviewed publications.
    • Scholarly articles describe original lab or field research and analysis that contributes to the development of knowledge in a field, or points the way toward new areas of study. Scholarly articles are usually lengthy (5 pages at minimum, often closer to 20-30), and include extensive cited sources in a bibliography and/or footnotes. Published scholarly articles have been peer reviewed.
  • What is peer review? Why should I care?
    • Peer review is a highly involved process by which original, unpublished scholarship is evaluated by the authors' peers in the field. A peer reviewed article that appears in a scholarly journal has been thoroughly reviewed by 3-5 subject experts as well as the journal editors, and has likely been through several revisions based on their feedback. The peer review process can take months or even years!
    • We trust peer reviewed articles more because we know they've gone through this rigorous process. This doesn't mean any peer reviewed article is beyond reproach, but it does mean that a lot of experts had to approve of this article before it reached you.
  • ‚ÄčWhat's a primary source?
    • A primary source is a first-hand record or report of what was done, thought and felt at a particular time and place. The most common types of primary sources in STEM are:
      • Published, usually peer-reviewed works describing original research that was conducted by the author(s). Dissertations and theses. 
      • Laboratory notes, field journals, technical reports, and other pre-publication descriptions of a research process.
      • Photographs, videos, audio, maps, diagrams, originally created simulations..
      • Raw data, source code, original computer programs, mathematical proofs, technical specifications.
  • How about a secondary source?
    • Secondary sources rely on primary sources to provide analysis, interpretation, and commentary on a topic. Secondary sources should always provide a record of the primary sources they are relying on in the form of in-text citations and a bibliography or footnotes. Common types include:
      • Peer reviewed articles that describe, synthesize, or analyze existing research.
      • News and magazine articles, documentaries, podcasts, and other media describing scholarly research for a broader audience.
      • Books describing the history of a topic.
  • Tertiary source?? I've never heard that word before.
    • Most people haven't. A tertiary source is a step removed from secondary sources. Most commonly they are encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and other "reference" sources, but also include textbooks. Tertiary sources exist to provide overviews of existing knowledge. They don't make new claims or provide analysis or criticism.
  • What is a database? Is that just another word for search engine (i.e. Google)?
    • A database and a search engine are not the same thing! They do not work in the same way, and they can't be used interchangeably.
      • A search engine, like Google or DuckDuckGo, is a complex software system that uses algorithms called spiders to index unrestricted websites on the internet. When you enter a keyword search in Google, you are searching Google's index of the web, which the spiders are constantly updating. Google also has algorithms to suggest spelling corrections, search synonyms, and parse our long-winded questions ("how do salmon know which creek to return to?") to produce meaningful results. 
      • A database, such as Academic Search Complete or Web of Science, is actually much less complex than a search engine. When you enter a keyword search in a database, the system searches within the contents of that database using the exact keywords you gave it. Databases are great precisely because they are much smaller than Google. They only include specific types of content, and that content is carefully organized and described by humans to maximize discoverability.
    • Search engines are great for many kinds of information. Do you want to see the official American Chemical Society website? That's not going to be in a database. But if you want to read articles from the Journal of the American Chemical Society, you'll need to go through a database if you don't want to pay for each PDF.
  • OK but what about Google Scholar? Surely I can use that instead of bothering with databases.
    • Google Scholar is a great tool in many ways, but it's not a substitute for a database, specifically because so much of the content in databases isn't freely available online. When you search Google Scholar you are likely to find citations for articles you want to read, but you may have trouble getting the full text to read if the articles aren't available openly on the internet (either legally if they are published "open access" or illegally via file-sharing sites like SciHub).
    • That being said, you can hook Google Scholar up to your GU library account to make this process a little easier by following these instructions.
  • What are citations? Why was I asked to use x citation style?
    • Citations are the formal way that scholars let their readers know which other sources they have referred to in their work. If a scholar does not properly attribute ideas and quotes they didn't come up with themselves, this is considered plagiarism or even fraud. Even if the author did not intend to mislead, missing or inaccurate citations are frustrating for readers because they disrupt the process of independent verification, which is foundational to modern scholarship.
    • Different citation styles have been developed in different fields and even for specific journals, but the most common styles are MLA, APA, and Chicago styles. Ask your instructor what their preference is if you can't find it in the assignment description.
    • Citations are also helpful for researchers because we can quickly learn about new sources on a specific topic without searching a database!