Whenever I start a research paper, I either feel like I can’t find anything on my topic or that I'm only finding useless information. Am I doing something wrong?
I know exactly how you feel.
My best friend’s wedding is coming up, and I need a dress. THE dress.
It can’t be too dark – I’m not going to a funeral, after all.
It can’t be white – wouldn’t want to upstage my friend.
It can’t be too short – I plan on dancing all night.
…and also not too tight – this lady likes to eat.
For hours I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop and sifting through one online shop after another.
THE dress must be out there somewhere.
It’s no different when searching for quality sources for your research paper.
You'll want the perfect fit:
- A source that covers your topic exactly and doesn’t just discuss one specialized aspect of it.
- A source that deepens your knowledge of the topics you’re already familiar with but also gives you new ideas.
- A source that’s written by a scholar in your field, has undergone peer review, and was published by an academic publishing company.
You should be exactly as picky as you would be when looking for the perfect dress.
The problem is that it can start to feel as if you're looking for a needle in a haystack. Hours fly by as you randomly search a never-ending string of online shops.
For your research paper, there's a better way:
- Get to know your topicFirst, search online or in Wikipedia to quickly familiarize yourself with your topic and some of the key terms used. These kinds of sources should be used for background information only and usually should not be cited.
Next, visit your library. Search the catalog with some of the terms you discovered, and then browse the shelves for the books you find. Scanning titles and reading book descriptions will help you become familiar with some of the commonly-used terms for your topic.
- Identify specialized databases for your disciplineNow that you know a little bit more about your topic and some of its subject terms, it's time to look for current information in scholarly journals. While you could browse the print journals at your library, it's much faster to use a research database to find relevant articles.
Why not just search Google? Most academic journal articles either aren't listed online or are difficult to find among all the non-scholarly and unverified information on the internet. A good database for your subject area helps you locate high-quality peer-reviewed articles efficiently.
Find databases you have access to by visiting your university or college’s library website. Look for a “databases” or “electronic resources” section.
Keep an eye out for subject guides as well, which list some of the best databases, websites, and reference works for a particular subject area or topic.
- Select a database and perform your searchOnce you've found a good database for your topic, select search terms that aren't too broad or too narrow. Use some of the terms you found during step one above.
Don’t get frustrated if your first attempts don’t give you what you want. Usually you’ll have to try a few searches before you find the optimal combination of terms.
Let’s say you're looking at how social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram are currently affecting social media marketing strategies. Here's how you might search for sources in the Business Source Premier database:
Search term Number of results Evaluation What to do next Marketing 1,111,436 Way too many results! Use a narrower search term or search for a subtopic. Snapchat content marketing 39 Too narrow Look at your results and try to identify a broader search term. Social media marketing strategy 4,808 Better Use the publication date filter to view only recent results. In addition, some databases allow you to limit results to peer-reviewed or scholarly journals. Use this option whenever it’s available. Social media marketing strategy
[Filters: 2016 or later, limited to scholarly journals]
155 Good View your results and then export them to a reference management program where you can examine them in more detail.
If you're using Citavi, follow these steps.
- Refine your search terms with other methodsStill getting too many or too few results?
Look at the keywords your database displays for some of your results and use these terms in a new search. Or go back and perform steps 1 and 2 again to find new terms.
Place multiple word terms in quotation marks. This tells the database to search for the exact phrase. For more complex searches, see Citavi's guides to using Boolean operators and wildcards.
If your course textbook covers aspects of your topic, check its glossary for potentially useful search terms. Or search for an online term glossary for your discipline, for example this glossary of terms from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In these lists, you can quickly find broader or narrower search terms and identify related topics and subtopics.
- And if there's still no perfect fit, try thisFinding relevant sources can sometimes require a great deal of persistence.
If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, look to others for help. Ask your peers what they did to find their sources or set up a research consultation session with a librarian.
Meet with your professor or teaching assistant and show them what you’ve found already. They will let you know if you’ve gone off track and give you some new ideas for what to try next.
Another good strategy is to take a look at the references in articles or books you already have on your topic. Do you see a particular source being referenced by many different authors? That could be your perfect fit.
And if after all this you’re still not finding sources that are a good match, take heart. When you’re taking a new or interdisciplinary approach, there simply might not be anything written on your exact topic. In this case, use good-quality sources that cover individual aspects of your topic.
What would you recommend that Lisa do? Are there any strategies you use to avoid frustration when locating sources for a research paper?
Let us know on our Facebook page!
- The University of Leeds offers an excellent video introduction for developing a search strategy from your initial research question: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/researcher-literature-search-strategy
- Do you struggle with identifying whether an article is scholarly enough for your papers? The following guide from the University of Wisconsin Library will help you distinguish between popular and academic sources: https://www.library.wisc.edu/help/research-tips-tricks/evaluate-sources/
About Jana Behrendt
Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look dow