Top 10 Tips for Doing E-Research at College

A research librarian at Harvard University offers advice on how to find information for that paper.

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The situation: You've just been given your first 15-page college research paper assignment. Your professor wants you to use books and scholarly journals in writing your paper, and doesn't want you to rely solely on Google and Wikipedia to do the research. What do you do? You could call your parents or ask advice from a friend. But a far better idea would be to follow these 10 best tips, offered by visiting blogger Cheryl LaGuardia, research librarian at Harvard University's Widener Library:

1. Start with Google and Wikipedia. Sure, your professor doesn't want you to rely solely on these e-sources for your research. But they're both good for giving you an overview of your topic. Once you get a general view and some descriptive words from Google and Wikipedia defining your topic, you can move on to the meaty stuff.

2. Proceed to your library's Web site. Once you've Googled and Wiki-ed to your satisfaction, you'll be ready to use more serious, scholarly sources that will provide you with dependable information. Go to your college library's Web site and consult the online catalogue. The main library home page ought to give you detailed instructions about how to search. Here's an example of a library catalog that requires you to search a certain way for keywords, authors, titles, and subjects. Some library catalogs have you search the way you do in Google; here's an example of that kind of catalog.

3. Use your library's online databases. While the online catalog helps you find books, it doesn't usually let you find individual articles within scholarly journals. For that you have to go into online library databases (take a look here to see how popular magazines differ from scholarly journals). Usually there's a way to locate databases by subject. Some databases you'll find on your library's Web site might include Academic Search Premier, InfoTrac, JSTOR, ProQuest Central, Readers' Guide, and Science Citation Index. Be sure to read the instructions on the opening screens of databases to learn how to search them; it's worth taking the few minutes, because this is where you're going to find the current information your professor wants you to use. A bonus in using these databases is that you may get the full text of articles on your computer: a real time saver.

4. Try Google Scholar. Another good resource for finding scholarly articles is Google Scholar, which combines ease of use and rich content. If you go into Google Scholar from this public link, you can search the system, and get full-text access if you'd like to pay. However your college library may have a link into Google Scholar in its list of library databases, in which case the full text of the articles will be f-r-e-e.

5. Use online research guides. At many colleges and universities, librarians create online library research guides for use by students and others. Here's a link to that section of my library's Web site to give you an idea of the kinds of research guides you may find at your college.

6. Evaluate Web sites. In the course of doing research, you may need to use some Web sites on the open Web. You should evaluate these sites for Authority, Bias, Currency, Documentation and Delivery. Here's a guide that can help you evaluate sites for your research.

7. Use real, print books. You may find many research materials online, as new books and journals are increasingly appearing in electronic format. But you may find a wealth of research material in books and journals that are not yet online—and the "secret bonus" is that many of your peers will not go after that material, so you'll do the better, more complete research, and probably get the better grade.

8. Use ILL. One resource that beginning students aren't always aware of is the interlibrary loan department. Here students can borrow books from other university libraries—usually at no charge and quite quickly. To find out what library has the books, check out WorldCat (used to be called FirstSearch) at your library or in its public version.

9. Use citation tools. It's smart to create your paper's footnotes and bibliography as you go along; it saves time and backtracking later. There are lots of different softwares for doing this; your college will probably give you access to one of these or you can go online and locate free software. Here's a guide that outlines the citation tools in use at my library; and here's an example of a free online citation tool, EasyBib.

10. Ask a librarian. As soon as you get that 15-page research paper assignment, go to the library and find a librarian who can help you. Librarians will save you enormous amounts of time, help you find research materials you otherwise wouldn't, and help you get the "A" as painlessly as possible. Locate a librarian as a first-year student and, with any luck, you'll be set for your entire college career.

Good luck with your library research, and may the best researcher win that "A"! Write me at claguard@fas.harvard.edu.

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