Researching your Essay/Report

How to search for information.
 

Where to Start

The best place to find information is your library.  Whether you need a book, a research paper or on-line resources, your library is the best place to start. If you are at university or college your library will have the resources you need. Also you will find helpful library staff to show you how to find the resources you require. Most libraries also run courses to teach you how to locate information quickly and efficiently so you don't waste time. Make sure you sign up for these courses if you're not sure how to use the catalogue system, how to search on-line, what databases and journals the library subscribes to or how to access them.

Libraries are wonderful places and some of them are very beautiful. They are perfect places to study in calm among the resources you need. Use them or they will disappear.

How to Search Online

Anyone can type a few words into a Google search box and hope to find find something useful. But that's not the smart way to get the information you need. First of all, is Google the right search engine to use? There are others and they may be more useful to you. Secondly, did you think about the search words you used? Did you think about your topic at all? Do some smart thinking about key words for your topic and you'll save a lot of time. Let's look at some useful search engines, how to find good search terms, and how to narrow down your search results to find the information relevant to you.

 

Search Engines


  • Google: The most used search engine worldwide.
    • For: Easy to use. Fast. The biggest database of web content available.
    • Against: Collects information about you as you use it. Unless your search query is very specific it will give you far too many results to sift through.
    • Advice: Make sure you control your Google privacy settings and Activity Controls. Use very specific search terms or if you are searching in a particular content area, search journals or databases in that area.
    • Go to: https://www.google.com/.

  • Bing: Microsoft's search engine.
    • For: Easy to use. Fast. Very big database of web content.
    • Against: Collects information about you as you use it. Like Google, it's a commercial search engine so it's not designed fro academic research. It collects information abut you and your searches.
    • Advice: Make sure you control your privacy settings by signing into your Microsoft account. Use very specific search terms or if you are searching in a particular content area, search journals or databases in that area. Or use Microsoft Academic.
    • Go to: https://www.bing.com.

  • Mojeek: UK based non-tracking search engine.
    • For: Non tracking. Green credentials.
    • Against: Indexes far fewer pages than Google or Bing.
    • Advice: Use if you are concerned about privacy.
    • Go to: https://www.mojeek.com.

  • DuckDuckGo: USA based non-tracking search engine
    • For: No tracking. Fast searches.
    • Against: Not as big as Google. Uses Bing.
    • Advice: Use if you are concerned about privacy.
    • Go to: https://duckduckgo.com.

  • The Internet Archive Search: "Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge". A strong claim put a worthy one.
    • For: Great site to find material which may no longer be otherwise available. Very good advanced search controls. Offers many useful resources.
    • Against: Takes time to learn how to use the advanced search tools.
    • Advice: Keep this search tool in your search toolbox. Learning how to use the advanced search tools pays dividends.
    • Go to: https://archive.org.

  • SweetSearch: "A Search Engine for Students"
    • For: Easy to use. Safe. Directs students to suitable resources.
    • Against: Not a tool for a serious researcher.
    • Advice: A good place for students to start learning about how to research. Good introduction to research skills.
    • Go to: https://www.sweetsearch.com.

  • Google Scholar: The search engine for serious research.
    • For: Contains serious academic material. Allows you to the save articles for later reading. Gives you a citation tool for bibliographic references.
    • Against: Advanced search not very advanced.
    • Advice: If you don't narrow down your search very carefully, you'll have too many results to search through.
    • Go to: https://scholar.google.com/.
    • How to Use Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/.

  • Microsoft Academic: Microsoft's version of Google Scholar.
    • For: Limits results to serious academic material.
    • Against: Based on the Bing search engine.
    • Advice: Useful for finding research in particular fields and following citation trails.
    • Go to: https://academic.microsoft.com.

  • BASE: "one of the world's most voluminous search engines especially for academic web resources, e.g. journal articles, preprints, digital collections, images / videos or research data"
    • For: Only provides serious academic content. Sophisticated search possibilities.
    • Against: Not recommended for students who are just beginning to learn how to write a research paper.
    • Advice: Get to know how to use the research parameters in order to narrow down the search results.
    • Go to: https://www.base-search.net.

  • Other Search Engines:

  • More about search engines: https://www.searchenginemap.com.

Other Search Options

The library in your university may have access to an extensive collection of databases, some of which may cover your area of interest. The library should be the first place you look for information. Library staff are there to help you. Don't be afraid to ask. They can save you a lot of time.

Make sure you sign up for any courses your library offers on how to search. If there are no courses, there may be on-line materials to help you get up to speed.

Some bibliography management software allows you to search databases without leaving the application. This can be very useful and time-saving. (see below)

 

The first thing to do is stop and think. Ask yourself some questions about your topic. Did you choose it? If so you must already have a reason for wanting to write about it. What is it? Is your paper going to be expository (just presenting information) or persuasive (you want to convince the reader about your point of view)?

Let’s say I’m interested in the importance of music in education. I already have two keywords: music and education. But these are very broad fields. If I put music and education into Google, I get more than 4.5 billion results. If I use Google Scholar I get 1.6 million results. Better, but more than an afternoon’s reading. So I need to narrow down my search. I could ask myself some questions about the term "music". What type of music? Classical? Rap? Opera? Rock? Jazz? "classical music" and "education" gives me 50,000 hits. Similarly, education is a very broad field. I’m interested in the educational benefits of teaching music so I add this term to my search. I now have "classical music" "educational benefits" in my search box and I have 600 hits, so it's getting more manageable. I'm interested in the effects of teaching music to young learners, especially preschool children, so "pre-school" seems like a useful search term to use. "classical music" "educational benefits" "preschool" gives me 130 hits. So now I'm at the stage where I could begin to scroll through and see if there is anything useful. I could narrow these down even further by selecting only publications after a certain date. You could perform a similar search using Microsoft Academic which would give you results from academic journals.

Spending a little time learning how to search can pay rich dividends and save you a lot of time. Here are a few suggestions.

You should use multiple rather than single word searches (which will give you too many results to be useful). You should use phrases enclosed in quotes if you can, and you can use multiple phrases. "tropical fruit" AND "southeast asia" will give you much better focused results than these words written separately. Note that you do not need to capitalise. You should also avoid common words such as the, an, a, of, who, which, is. These will be ignored in any case.

  • Boolean Operators

    The common ones are AND, OR, NOT. Here's how they work:

    • AND: This requires both search terms to be present for a result to be returned (it narrows the search). Be aware that you don't need to use this in most search engines. If you write apples oranges, you will get the same results as apples AND oranges.
    • OR: This only requires one of the search terms to be present for a result to be returned (it broadens the search). With Google you can use the the pipe symbol (|) instead of OR.
    • NOT: Use this to eliminate particular terms. fruit NOT bananas will return articles containing any mention of fruit but none mentioning bananas. Note that Google uses the minus (-) operator instead of NOT (fruit -bananas ).

  • Truncation

    This concerns ways of finding words with different word endings. The truncation symbol is usually * . So illuminat* would find illuminate, illuminates, illuminating, illuminated, illumination, illuminations. Google does this automatically. They call it stemming. If you don't want this to happen, you can put quotes around the word you don't want stemmed. So "illumination" will not return results with the other variants of illiminat* but only those containing "illumination".


  • Wild cards

    The wild card symbol is usually ? . It is used to find variant spellings and plurals. So systemati?e will return systematize and systematise.


  • Google Search Operators

    These can be very useful for narrowing down results. They are case-sensitive so you should always use lowercase letters. Here are some of the most useful:

    • inurl: Restricts the search to sites which contain the search word within a particular site or sub-domain. For example, "nucleotide database" inurl:ac.uk returns pages containing the phrase "nucleotide database" only from academic site in the UK.
    • filetype: Returns pages of a particular filetype. For example, schubert impromptu filetype:pdf returns only pdf files containing the terms schubert and impromptu.
    • site: Searches within a particular site or domain. For example, bach invention site:https://www.mutopiaproject.org/ returns only pages related to Bach inventions within the mutopiaproject site.
    • intitle: Returns pages with word or phrase int the page title. For example, intitle: "coherence and cohesion" returns mainly pages concerned with coherence and cohesion in texts

    There are many others: Google - intitle: "google search operators" to find others.


  • Google Advanced Search

    Some of these operators can be set in Google Advanced Search. Go to Settings on the Google Search Page and choose "Advanced search" or enter https://www.google.com/advanced_search?. You can restrict your search in other ways on this page such as for language, date range and last update.


If you are writing a simple essay (maybe as an English language learner) you probably did a little research to get a few ideas and maybe one or two quotes to support your argument. You probably didn't use any primary sources - perhaps you just found a couple of simple newspaper articles. For a simple essay that might be fine and you have satisfied the requirements of the assignment. However, a serious research report requires an understanding of the types of sources you use and an ability to evaluate those sources. You need to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources are published accounts of original work. They are usually published in academic journals which deal with particular field. In the scientific field they are usually accounts of experiments conducted by the researcher and her team. Many of these journals are very specialised. For example, a microbiologist specialising in food research might publish her results in the International Journal of Food Microbiology.

Secondary Sources recount information from other sources, both primary and secondary. Textbooks are examples of secondary sources. There are also many journals aimed at interested non-specialists which give accounts of original research written written in simpler language. New Scientist is an example.

Primary Sources are often difficult to read and understand for the non specialist. If you are writing a report or a thesis in your own specialist area, you would be expected to cite mainly primary sources. Secondary sources are often useful for getting an overview of a particular topic.

If you are a historian, then primary sources mean any original text or historical object from the period under study. If you are a lawyer, primary sources are are original sources of law such as Acts of Parliament, whereas secondary sources are books, journals and commentaries.

Before you use any source of information, either for background information or for use in your report, you need to make some decisions about the quality of information you have found. Much of the information you find on the web is misleading or inaccurate. You need to be able to critically evaluate the information you find before you decide to use it.

You should consider:

  • Provenance

    This means where did the information come from? Is it an authoritative source? You should consider:

    • Authors: Are they acknowledged authorities in their field of study?
    • Institution: Do the authors work for a university or research body?
    • Citations: Have the authors been cited by other authorities in this field of research?
    • Source: Is the information or research published in an authoritative journal? Is the journal peer reviewed?
    • Special Interest Sources: Is the information published by a body with commercial or political interests. If so, are they just promoting their products or ideas, or can the information by regarded as objective and reliable?

  • Currency

    When was the information published? You should consider:

    • Date: Is the information or research up-to-date? Can you see a date in the article or on the web site?
    • Website: Is the website well maintained and up-to-date? Are the any out-of-date links on the site? Is the website run by an acknowledged institution (for example, an academic institution hosted on a site with a sub-domain such as .ac or .edu?)

  • Audience

    Who is this information aimed at? You should consider:

    • Target Audience: Is it clear who the target audience is? The general public? Students? Academics?
    • Relevance: Is the content fully relevant to your topic? Or have you just found something you thought might touch upon what your are writing about?

  • Objectivity

    Is the information biased? True objectivity is difficult to achieve but you should consider:

    • Argument: How is the information written? Does it follow a logical flow?
    • Evidence: Are arguments supported by reliable evidence?
    • Style: Is the information written in a balanced and impartial style?.
    • Facts and Opinions: Are opinions presented as facts? Make sure you understand the difference.
    • Sponsorship: is the information promoting a commercial or political interest? Is it promoted by a special interest group?

  • A Word about Wikipedia

    Wikipedia is a wonderful resource. However, it is not a reliable or authoritative source to be cited in any essay or report (unless you happen to be writing about Wikipedia itself). Use it as a research tool to find information and links to more authoritative sources, but don't cite it in your work.


 
 

Keeping Track of your Search Results

Once you have found some sources which you think you can use in your research, you need a way of keeping track of these. You don't want to waste time searching for something you vaguely remember seeing somewhere or trawling through your browser history. You need to be well organised. You need to build up a database of sources so that you can

  • Find the resource quickly by author, topic, date, etc.
  • Have a full accurate bibliographic reference for each resource for insertion into the bibliography of your report, in the style you are required to use.
  • Generate an in-text citation for each resource you wish to quote or paraphrase
  • Have access to this database wherever you are working.

Luckily, there are plenty of choices .

  • Zotero: User friendly open source software.
    • For: Easy to use. Free. Can sync across devices. Works with Word, Interoffice and Google Docs.
    • Against: Not completely web-based; you'll need to download Zotero to each of your devices.
    • Advice: It's easy to get straight to work using Zotero once you've downloaded the program. If you just need to create a bibliography, use ZoteroBib. Set up syncing with a user-name and password so that you can work from different devices and also to make sure you don't lose your data if your computer crashes or is lost. You'll have to pay for cloud space above a certain limit.
    • Go to: https://www.zotero.org.

  • Mendeley: User friendly Bibliography Management App.
    • For: Easy to use. Free. Syncs across devices. Works with Word and LibreOffice.
    • Against: Requires sign-in. Requires extra plug-ins for citations and importing content.
    • Advice: Install the plug-ins. You'll have to pay for storage space above a certain limit.
    • Go to: https://www.mendeley.com/.

  • BibDesk: A bibliography manager for Macs.
    • For: Free. Private (it resides solely on your machine).
    • Against: Clunky. Old-school interface. Takes time to learn how to use.
    • Advice: If you're strong on computer skills, this is a perfectly usable option.
    • Go to: https://bibdesk.sourceforge.io.

  • JabRef:Open Source Search Tool and Bibliography Management App.
    • For: Free. Private (it resides solely on your machine). Good search facility (e.g. access Google Scholar within the app). Works on Windows, Mac and Linux. Uses the BibTex bibliography format.
    • Against: Old-school interface.
    • Advice: Takes a little time to learn but worth the effort.
    • Go to: http://www.jabref.org.

  • CTFM (Cite This For Me): An on-line tool for creating bibliographies.
    • For: On-line. Access from anywhere.
    • Against: You need to pay to access tools which are free elsewhere (such as download to Word).
    • Advice: If you are willing to pay, it's a simple tool to use.
    • Go to: https://www.citethisforme.com/.

  • Cite Them Right: Resources by Macmillan
    • For: Lots of good advice about citing and managing bibliographies.
    • Against: Only available through an institutional licence (your university may provide you with access: ask).
    • Advice: Use it if you have access through your institution.
    • Go to: https://www.citethemrightonline.com/.

  • RefWorks: Resources by Proquest
    • For: Plenty of material showing you how to use this tool.
    • Against: Only available through an institutional licence (your university may provide you with access: ask).
    • Advice: Use it if you have access through your institution.
    • Go to: https://www.refworks.com.

  • EndNote: Commercial bibliography manager and search tool.
    • For: Comprehensive tool for researching, sharing resources and managing bibliographies.
    • Against: Unsuitable for cash-strapped students unless you have access through an institutional licence.
    • Advice: Use it if you have access through your institution.
    • Go to: https://endnote.com/.

 

Learn to use your software

Once you have decided what bibliographic software to use, learn how to use it. Read the instructions, watch the video demonstrations, attend a workshop ... whatever it takes. You need to be comfortable using whatever tool you have chosen so that you don't waste time and you can concentrate on what matters; learning how to research and write your reports.

The software you use is not infallible and it doesn't relieve you of your responsibility to check the accuracy of your citations and the references in your bibliography.