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The favourite part of every librarian's job is to sit down with students and faculty and help them find the information they require. Many users, however, want to do their own research and so this guide has been developed to assist them in the process. It takes the best tips librarians have and passes them on to you. If you follow threm carefully, not only will you become a better researcher-but you will experience the fun librarians have almost every day. Enjoy.
Before you start:
- understand the key terms you may be using as well as the general area that interests you;
- think about ways to narrow your topic, making it as specific as possible (unless you have been given a specific topic to research!). Why? The narrower your focus, the less extraneous research you have to review.
- create a thesis statement;
- list the main concepts (key words) included in your thesis statement (research question) and here's a tip, unlike searching Google, at the start try, to limit your keywords to two or three and avoid using vague concepts such as "cause" or "effect" or "why",...
- find as many synonyms as you can for each main concept. You are now ready to start searching in the library's catalogue and databases.
When you are looking for definitions or if you don’t know much about a specific subject, reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopedias become invaluable because they contain relatively short—and understandable—articles. These articles often lay out the parameters of a subject and can assist you in trying to narrow your topic. Often such articles are accompanied by lists of readings (bibliographies) which allow you to explore your topic further.
Example: Is post secondary education worth it?
- The key terms are "post secondary education" and "worth" The general area is...Education...but maybe Economics or Sociology
- Narrow your topic. How about start with "university education" That term will exlude all forms of college and career education.
- Create a thesis statement: While many students graduate from university heavily in debt, over the course of their life-time, their income will be higher than students with only secondary school qualifications because the highest paying jobs tend to require university education.
- Key words; university education AND worth
- Synonyms. universty or college (the US term); worth or value.
The library has several categories of sources that you may wish to use. Here are the most common:
Books. Often referred to as "monographs" because of their scholarly nature, books are now purchased both in print and, increasingly, in electronic format. You will want to use a book if you are looking for an extensive, in-depth treatment of a topic. Of course, even parts of books can be useful. You should always check to see which titles are available and then make a beeline to the book's index to find relevant material.
Dissertations. A dissertation is what a scholar must produce to secure a Ph.D. or equivalent. (A thesis is typically what is produced at the Master's level). In many ways a dissertation is like a book--and some are transformed into books and published professionally.
Journal Articles...Not to be confused with magazine articles. True, such articles have their place for those doing research on current topics, but peer reviewed academic articles are de rigueur if you are doing serious academic research. to learn more about peer reviewing.
Because they are shorter than books, journal articles usually only focus on a particular aspect of a subject. If you are having trouble narrowing your topic, you may instead uncover a scholarly article that interests you. And of course, since it has been peer reviewed, it comes with a bibliography which you can then use to jump start the rest of your research!
Data. Over the years, various levels of government have played an important role in the collection of information, especially data. If you need data to help make your case, then you will likely need information collected by the government. Increasingly governments are making more and more of their data available only on the Web.
Databases and Database Structure
A database is a collection of electronic records that lead you to the various sources you may wish to use. The Catalogue is one example and it will lead you to books available in the library; Proquest's Dissertations and Theses will lead you to those sources. The library has a huge number of other access tools you can use. Some are subject specific, and the library's individual subject guides will point you towards the best ones to use; others are multidisciplinary, and of these probably the best is Academic One File.
Within each database, each electronic record is divided into fields. It is important you understand this because this information allows you to appreciate the database search process. Here is an example of an electronic record from the catalogue (focussing on the value of university education) with the fields identified:
Expanding Your Search Results
When you search an appropriate database, there are three possible outcomes:
- You get a sufficient number of relevant hits to allow you to proceed with your research. Maybe you want 4 references and you get that number straight away.
- You don't get enough relevant hits. You get 4 but you need 15.
- You get too many irrelevant hits: think Google searching. You get 800 and you need 15.
We are now going to explore strategies to get more relevant hits. (The pane to the right gives you advice on how to reduce your results if you get too many).
Strategy I to Expand Your Search Results: Truncation
Truncation allows you to do: Search for variations of a word using a code or symbol.
Truncation is used to replace the last characters of a word. Depending on the database, the truncation symbol will vary (example: $,*,?,!). Consult the database’s help file to learn which symbol you should use.
In this example, value, values, valuable be picked up. Caution: Don't truncate too early. If you typed in val* you would also pick up Val, valerie, etc...not what you want.
Truncation can also be used to replace letters within a term. This is useful when the spelling of a search term proves to be problematic.
Example: Friedrich Nietzsche [the German philosopher]
Truncation: Niet???he or Niet***he
Exercise: Try this yourself. Go into Academic One File and type in the word value. (If you are off-campus, you must first sign in with your university username and password.) Make note of the number of results; then redo the research and type: valu*. Why do you think there are more?
Strategy II to Expand Your Search Results: The (Boolean OR in Parentheses)
When you started your research, we suggested you think about synonymous or related terms. In the example "Is University education worth it?" a synonym for worth could be "value" or "valuable". Instead of searching each concept separately, which coud lead to all sorts of combinations, the Boolean OR in parentheses allows you to group related concepts together--and the end result is more hits.
Exercise: Try this yourself. Go into Academic One File and type in the the following search: (valu* OR worth) (If you are off-campus, you must first sign in with your university username and password.) Make note of the number of results and compare this to the reumber you got earlier when you just typed in valu* Why do you think you got more?
Contracting Your Search Results
Normally it is a good idea to get as many hits as you can before trying to reduce the number. As there are two good strategies to expand the number of hits, so are there two good strategies to reduce that number.
Strategy I to Reduce the Number of Hits: The Boolean AND
When you separate one set of terms from another using the word AND, you force the database to retrieve records that contan both terms. Here is an example of a record that contains the concepts of University education" and "value." Can you identify the field(s) in which these concepts appear?
Strategy II to Reduce the Number of Hits: Restrict Your Search to a Specific Field-- preferably, Subject but often Title.
Have you noticed that databases are set up to search ALL Fields at the start. Check out the Catalogue and you will see that by default, you search Keyword. Then take a look at Academic One File, and you will see that you also search all fields, unless you decide to select one. One of the most powerful ways of reducing a large number of search results to the most relevant is to start restricting your search to specific field. Many experienced students restrict their search to title in the first pass, since titles usually reflect the topic being searched. Librarians may do this--but they will then check out the Subject Headings (or Descriptors) for ones which best match the topic.
These subject headings do not get slapped into the record without thought. In fact for each databse there is a standard list of such headings and database owners apply the appropriate subject heading to all records matching that subject regardless of whether the rest of the record contains those terms. In the preceding example, who would have thought to search "Higher Education--Return on Investment" if one were interested in the value of university education.
This feature of databases CANNOT be matched by any internet search engine and it is the reason that good students always do their searching in library databases--think of the time saved.
Searching the Catalogue
The catalogue is your primary tool for finding books in the J.N. Desmarais Library. You can also use the catalogue to find other materials, including government publications and journals (the journals themselves--not individual articles).
You can search the catalogue by:
- Journal Title
When you know the book you are searching for, pick Title or Author; when you are searching for a topic, start with Keyword unless you know the exact Subject heading describing your topic.
More on searching the Catalogue is available in Module 5 of the Research Skills Tutorial in D2L.
E-books are located in two different places:
- Some may be located by using the library’s catalogue. These records will have [electronic resource] in the title.
- E-books can also be located by searching in e-book collections. Searching in these collections is the same as searching in a database.
Here is a List of E-Book Collections held by Laurentian
The Library subscribes to about 85 different databases. Many are subject specific and the various subject guides in this collection will alert you to the best ones.
You have to be a bit careful with databases--some limit themselves to articles, some include popular sources within them. Many cover various languages, and however carefully you follow the search tips we discussed earlier, you might still get irrlevant or unusable references. Fortunately almost all databases allow you to restrict your results according to criteria you can set. Here is an sample from an Ebsco database:
Can you identify at least five ways the search has been limited?
Why Peer Review?
Peer Review is the evaluation of creative work by scholars in the same field in order to maintain or enhance the quality of the work in that field.
In the case of peer reviewed journals, which are usually academic, peer review generally refers to the evaluation of the articles in them prior to publication.
Because peer review represents an aspect of quality control--in university, you are normally expected to rely on peer reviewed literature.
For more follow this link.
Newspapers and Magazines
Sometimes you will need to look for current material that has not made it into the peer reviewed literature. For inspiration take a look at the subject guide entitled Newspapers and Magazines.
Finding the Full Text of Articles
Within a database, the full-text of articles is often attached to the bibliographic record. If it is not, "Get it @Laurentian" allows you to get the full text if: a) it exists in another library database; b) it is held in print on the library's shelves; or c) it is held in another library.
You will often see this icon-button in various databases you're searching:
Clicking on this button activates an application called the SFX link resolver. Hereafter we will refer to it simply as SFX. Most bibliographic citations in your search results will have this SFX button attached to them.
It also appears occasionally in Google Scholar.
SFX performs three major functions in the following order:
- First, SFX will search the library's numerous electronic resource sites to locate the full text of the bibliographic citation to which it is attached. If it finds the full text, SFX will link to that text. If the full text is found on line, SFX has done its job and stops.
- If SFX has not found the full text, it moves to the next step by giving you the option to search Evergreen, the library's catalogue. The library may have a print subscription to the journal in which the article was published. Evergreen can provide that information. If Evergreen can't find the journal in print format, SFX will move to its final function.
- SFX will give you the option of initiating an interlibrary loan request via RACER. If Laurentian doesn't have the article it, RACER can get it elsewhere!
1. Online in Another Database
What happens when an article is available online?
Here's a screen shot (Figure 1) of search results retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
To retrieve the full text of article no. 6, simply click on the Get it @ Laurentian button. The SFX opens the following screen.
The full text of the article is available through three different sources. Clicking any of the three circled GO buttons will retrieve the full text online.
2. In Print through the Catalogue
If an items is not available on-line, either in the database you are using, or in another one, you are then given directed to the catalogue to see whether the item is held on the library shelves in print as in:
If your item is not available in the library's own collection, you have the option of ordering it through interlibrary loan (RACER)
3. Racer (Interlibrary Loan)
Check out the RACER site here to learn more about this service.
Five Criteria for Evaluating Web Pages
Librarians use the Web. Daily..and on the Web, there is now a huge amount of useful information. But it's not all good. Here are five criteria a librarian uses to assess web content. You should use these as well.
When you undertake research on the Web, it's important to critically evaluate everything you read. These five criteria will help you determine if the information is reliable and appropriate to use for your research.
1 - Accuracy
Is the author citing his/her sources of information, including statistical data? With the information provided, will you be able to verify the contents with another source? If the author provides links to other websites, would you consider these reliable sources of information?
As with any other source you would consult, the information provided needs to be verifiable. If you can't verify something that is stated as fact on a website, you can safely assume that some of the information may not reliable and that you should look elsewhere.
2 - Authority
When consulting a website, is it clear who authored the content? Can you locate contact information? What are the author(s) credentials? If it's a website run by an organization or professional association, what's its mission?
Authority is important since anyone can create content on the web. If there is no authoring and contact information for a given website, I would recommend that you continue your search.
3 - Objectivity
Is the information on the website fact or opinion? Can you tell if the information is biased? If it's a controversial topic, does the website take a neutral stance or is it slanted to a particular point of view? Are the authors trying to present opinion as fact? Is the website sponsored? Do ads appear on the website? What other sites does the website link to?
Remember that just because something looks reliable on the web, it may be slanted towards a group's or company's own interests. If the website is sponsored or has ads, look at the content to determine if the site was created as a means of promoting a particular product, service or ideology. If links to other websites are provided, take the time to examine these other sites. For example, if a website about abortion is mainly linking to anti-abortion groups, it's safe to assume that the information on the site may not be neutral.
4 - Currency
When was the website last updated? Are there dead links? Can you find information telling you when the website was created?
If you can't find a date anywhere, it may be difficult determine the website's currency. A website with no dates and broken links may indicate that the site is out-of-date and / or poorly maintained.
5 - Purpose and intended audience
Who are the author(s) trying to reach with the website (children, adults, professionals)? Why do you think the author(s) created the website? Are the author(s) trying to sell you something, collect your personal information, etc.?
When you approach content on the web, the first thing you should consider is the target audience. A website constructed for children, in most cases, is not appropriate when you're doing research at a university level. If you're doing research on the internet, preferably, you should be consulting sites geared towards specialists in a given field. Another point to consider is the website's purpose. Websites whose aim is to sell you something or gather your personal information may not be reliable sources to consult. Furthermore, if a website is looking to promote a particular group or ideology, it may not be the most objective source of information
Our Two Favourite Web Resources
The purpose of research is to develop an informed opinion and perspective on your topic that, in turn, can lead to meaningful conversation and insights, whether in written, oral or visual form. it is essential to the critical method that the sources you consulted are acknowledged and documented. This makes clear the literature you reviewed in developing your perspective. In the process, you may also discover analysis and facts that you were not aware of, and this helps you to avoid the pitfall of simplistic thinking. Last but not least, you also improve your own research and writing skills, which results in a stronger presentation. These are skills that will last you a lifetime.
Plagiarism, on the other hand, is the failure to acknowledge sources. Worst of all is handing in work that is not your own, but copying or paraphrasing the work of others without acknowledgement is also plagiarism. This shows disrespect for a major standard of academic conduct that can result in disciplinary action.
The Process of Citation
The intent of the citation process is to list a resource that you utilized, such as a book, article or website, in an open and transparent way that makes it easy to locate. Thus the citation for a book normally gives such key attributes as:
- title, author, place of publication, publisher, date, and page number.
For journals, you would give:
- journal title, article title, author, volume number, issue number, date, and page numbers. Note that you do not have to list the place of publication.
For government publications, you would list the document in terms of the agency that created it, e.g.:
- the country, state or province, the ministry, department and/or committee, and so on.
In general, with these kinds of publications, the more bibliographic detail you can provide, the better. The same is true of local or "alternative" publications as well as archival materials, all of which are frequently hard to locate in library collections.
Style manuals help you to set out your sources and presentation in an organized, logical and consistent way. Below is a sampling of the most important ones:
APA Style Manual. The seventh edition (2020) of this standard publication, used especially in the social sciences, includes recommendations for citing online materials.
Chicago Manual of Style. Now in its 16th edition (2010), this book is the bible for writers, editors and publishers. It is replete with examples and advice on all aspects of form and style.
A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Kate L. Turabian. This is the classic short form of Chicago style, used in the humanities and social sciences.
MLA Style Manual. Published by the Modern Language Association, this 3rd edition (2008) is the standard resource for scholarly work in the humanities.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a terrific website for learning how to cite using the APA and MLA manuals.
- Always ask your professor which citation style you should use.
- Keep accurate notes on each source you consult. These notes will ensure that you have all the necessary information needed to create a complete bibliography. Using an application such as RefWorks will facilitate this process.
- When citing information from the internet, be certain to jot down the exact date the item was consulted and bookmark the website.
- When taking notes from a source, put quotation marks around anything you haven't paraphrased or summarized. This will ensure that you don't accidentally plagiarize later on when you begin writing your assignment. For more information, consult the guide titled “How not to plagiarize” (Source: Writing Centre - U of T)
- Information that falls under common knowledge does not need to be cited. An example of common knowledge would be that the earth revolves around the sun.
- To properly paraphrase and summarize, it requires that you thoroughly understand the passage or article you’re reading. When you don’t fully grasp the concepts presented, it’s best to try and locate another source with similar content presented and/or explained differently. For more information concerning par
is a free, web-based citation manager that allows you to:
- Directly import references from article databases, the library catalogue, e-book collections, etc.
- Manage and organize your references.
- Create a bibliography.
- Share your references with others
- Add in-text citation and a bibliography directly into your assignment
Connect to Zotero
Getting started with Zotero:
- Follow this Guide specially prepared for Laurentian Users by Ashley Thomson (Sept. 2020)
- Contact the librarian supporting your faculty.
- Sign up for library workshops when available.
- View Quick Start Guide (video) or Tutorials (videos)
- Consult one of Zotero's own User Guides or McMaster University's Quick Start Guide or the Zotero Guide by Ontario Tech University