Finding information - literature searching
- 1 Learning Objectives
- 2 Defining Your Information Needs
- 3 Information Types
- 4 Amount of Information Required
- 5 Likely Information
- 6 Finding Information - Literature Searching
- 7 Question
- 8 Question
- 9 Question
- 10 Question
- 11 Question
- 12 How to locate literature?
- 13 Search strategies
- 14 Web Resources
- 15 Identify a searchable question
- 16 Define the search terms
- 17 Choose your database and search each term separately
- 18 Question
- 19 Web Resources
- 20 Combine the search terms
- 21 Review the results
- 22 Interloans
- 23 World Wide Web
- 24 Search Engines
- 25 Web Resources
- 26 Web Resources
- 27 Note
- 28 Primary and secondary evidence
- 29 Reflection
- 30 Web Resources
One of the very first steps in beginning any research project is figuring out what you're going to write about. It sounds easy but once you set to work on your project, you may discover that you have many unanswered questions about getting started with a topic and finding 'research' to support your arguments.
This tutorial will provide you with an overview of how to choose a topic, determine the nature and amount of information you need, and select which sources to search for information. By the end of this tutorial, you will be able to:
* Identify various methods for finding a topic * Identify the key concepts within a given research question * Describe different types and sources of information * Distinguish web search engines from article indexes/databases * Create an effective search strategy * Define key terms related to the research process
Defining Your Information Needs
Once you have chosen a topic for your research paper, you may feel ready to search the library catalogue or the Internet for information. But if you want to save yourself time in the long run, you should take some time now to prepare an effective search strategy. Developing a search strategy involves examining your research topic and determining the type of information you need, the amount of information required, likely sources of information on your topic, and the best order in which to approach these information sources.
The type of information you need depends on the course in which you are enrolled, your research topic, and the nature of your assignment. Once you have determined the types of information you need, you will be better able to select the information sources that are most likely to contain that information. If you have any doubt about the type of information you need, be sure to talk to your instructor and/or a reference librarian.
Here are some examples of questions you might want to ask yourself regarding information types:
1. Is the information required for your assignment scholarly, popular, or both? 2. In which general discipline(s) (e.g. Sociology, Psychology, Biology, History, etc.) is your research topic situated? 3. Do you require current information, historical information, or both? 4. Does your topic have a geographical focus, e.g. are you interested only in a Canadian treatment of your subject? 5. Do you need an overview of your subject, very specific details about a certain aspect of your subject, a combination or something in between the two? 6. Do you need primary sources or artifacts? Primary sources include statistics, research reports, letters, diaries, and minutes of meetings. Artifacts are secondary sources - usually books and periodical articles. Or do you require both?
Amount of Information Required
Before you start your research, you should be aware of the amount of information you require. Are you expected to have read virtually everything that has been written on your subject or do you simply need a few authoritative sources to support your arguments? If you are not sure what is expected of you, ask your instructor.
Remember that time is an important factor when you are doing research, especially when you are writing a paper that requires you to read a large number of sources. It may happen that your library does not have all the materials you need for your assignment, in which case you may be able to obtain these materials from another library via Interlibrary Loan. Whether or not you will require materials from outside your institution, the best way to avoid disappointment is to start your research early! Not only will this give you more time to gather research materials, but will also give you more time to read, analyze, and synthesize information you gather into a cohesive paper, report, or presentation.
Finding Information - Literature Searching
In order to undertake research, one has to be familiar with what scholars reverently refer to as "the literature." "The literature" is the body of scholarly work which focuses on the topic of interest to the individual researcher. When people refer to a "lit review" they are making reference to an essay or report which reviews the body of work on the topic they are developing.
The first step that all researchers take when they are scoping out a study or a subject is a review of the literature which is often a big challenge. What work has been done on this subject? Where is it located? How will I find it? Unfortunately, the world of academic reflection does not have one uniform filing cabinet with a specified filing system that all and sundry use. Information is spread wide and far, and bringing it all together to assess or review is a big and exciting challenge.
There are a range of strategies which make this task simpler. This module focuses on strategies to help locate information.
How to locate literature?
There a numerous places that literature is held. Books and journals are held in libraries, and libraries have catalogues enabling you to determine which titles they hold. Furthermore, if your own library doesn't have the journal or book you are looking for, they will be able, in most cases, to "interloan" it, or request a temporary loan from a partner library elsewhere in the country or in the world. Other documents can be held in archives, in on-line facilities, or on the world wide web. Some journals, for example, will be printed up and stored on the shelves of the library, but will also have full-text on-line editions.
Visit http://www.doaj.org and scan the range of academic journals which are completely available on-line.
But when you start a literature search, you probably don't even know in which journals or books the information you are trying to locate is contained. So how do you start?
What is a search strategy?
A search strategy is a systematic method for taking an idea, transforming it into a searchable question, and implementing a plan around this question for locating information.Check your answer
Boolean search strategies
George Boole was a nineteenth century mathematician and philosopher who developed a system of logic which is utilised in searching for information. It uses the algebra of sets, with operations of union, intersection and complementation to identify articles which contain common and unique terms from various sets.
Boolean search strategies form the basis for almost all database and catalogue searches available in our libraries and on our computer desktops. To perform a Boolean search, you establish sets of information and then search for how these sets may overlap and complete one another.
There are four steps to the Boolean search which we will review on the subsequent pages of this module.
- Identify a searchable question,
- Break the question into its component parts, and find synonyms for the parts of the question,
- Search each term separately,
- Combine the search sets to find the most relevant sources of information.
Identify a searchable question
Let's say you are interested in a particular topic, like deep vein thrombosis in long haul air travel. You are wondering whether there is any research to support wearing elastic socks to prevent getting thrombosis while travelling. Rather than reading the promotional brochure provided by the elastic sock manufacturer, you would like to understand exactly what the literature says, and perhaps you'd even like to do your own mini-study on the subject when you travel to Europe next summer with a group of 30 other students. At the base of all research is a clear question, and from this question will emerge your search strategy.
Define the search terms
Once you have a question, you need to look at it critically and determine how many parts it has, because each part will become a search term in your Boolean strategy.
You will be putting each one of component parts into a search engine to locate results. However, the challenge is that sometimes the authors of research will use different terms than you will to refer to the same concepts. To reduce the impact of this, you will need to make a chart with each of these terms, finding as many words as possible that others might have used to describe the same concept you are searching. Your chart needs to include terms that are more specific and more general.
For example: Here's what your chart might look like:
Choose your database and search each term separately
Databases are organised sets of information. We use common ones every day, like music libraries and telephone books. But, in the academic setting, there are databases for a range of disciplines which organise research material in an electronic index. Some databases are freely available on the world wide web, but most academic databases are available by subscription in the library of a tertiary institution. You need to choose a database which carries articles in the area that your topic is situated. For example, to find research on the health impacts of air travel one would want to look in a database containing medical and health information.
You can peruse the list of databases available at the Bill Robertson Library on http://www.library.dce.ac.nz/dtabase.asp
All databases work on the same searching principles. Once you have opened the appropriate database (ask the reference librarian for help if you are not able to do this), you will see a page which looks something like this:
From this page, you should search each term separately. You will be tempted to search all of them at the same time - as there are three blank slots, but don't give in! One at a time!
Consider a few points when you start searching. Note the drop down box with "keyword" highlighted in grey. You will see that you can search for a text work, a keyword, a title word, and many other options. Choose this field carefully. You will hope to find your search terms in the title, but may have to search more widely in text or keyword fields.
When you push the search button, the search engine will generate a list of publications using the term you have used. You may scan the list of titles, but usually, it is a very big list, and it would be futile to look at the tens of articles and chapters containing just one of the search terms in which you are interested. Before you pay too much attention to the publication lists, search each term, as suggested above. On the next screen of this module, we will see how to refine the list to contain the most pertinent material.
So for now, it looks like you are just searching, without paying any mind to the results. That may seem strange, but it's OK. You can see the beginning of your search strategy on the "history" or "previous search" page of the search engine. It will probably look something like this:
If you have searched for your terms as well as the synonyms, you will have a history page which looks more like this:
Links to more information on choosing a database:
Combine the search terms
The next important step in your strategy is to refine the relevant search as appropriate. In some cases, it may be important to WIDEN your sets, and in others, to NARROW them.
To widen your sets, use the word OR (this may be referred to in some instances as a "boolean operator"). For example:
compression socks OR elastic hose OR support stockings. This will result in a wider set of articles containing either compression socks, elastic hose, or support stockings. The illustration below shows three expanded search sets.
Once you are satisfied that your search sets are adequately populated with references, you will try to see which of the articles actually sit in all three sets, for an article which does so contains all three search terms, and is likely to be about your question. To discover these overlaps, we use the word AND.
You can see that the articles likely to inform you about this topic will be contained in the area containing the yellow star. Each one of these will contain all three terms.
In order to combine sets with the Boolean operators, AND and OR, you will need to follow the steps prescribed in the specific database you are using. Usually, you will do this through the "history" page of the database. If you can't figure out how to combine the search sets in your particular database, check with the reference librarian, or with your tutor.
Which Boolean operator allows you to expand to search sets by combining similar terms? a) AND b) OR Correct! OR will identify documents which contain ANY of the search terms. Sorry, wrong answer! AND will identify only those articles which have ALL of the search terms in the same document. Check your answer
Which Boolean operator allows you to combine sets so that all the terms are present in the final documents? a) AND b) OR Correct! AND will generate a list of articles which include ALL of the search terms you entered.Sorry, wrong answer! OR will generate of list of articles which include ANY of the search terms you entered. Check your answer
Review the results
After you have combined your search terms, the database will produce a list of results. In the best case scenario, this list may contain a few tens of titles, closely aligned to the question you have asked. In other cases, there may be thousands of results (far too many to scan), or in others, there may be a very small list of results, no results, or results that don't actually answer your question.
You may have to do more work to find the literature addressing your specific question. The flow chart below gives suggestions about how to proceed.
What is an interlibrary loan? (see http://www.library.dce.ac.nz/interloans.htm for full details)
An interlibrary loan is a way of obtaining information which is not held at the Bill Robertson library but which is available in other libraries with which the Bill Robertson has an agreement to exchange.
Interloan check list:
- Check to make sure that the article you are requesting is important to your research;
- Check if the source is held in the Library - the Bill Robertson Library for Otago Polytechnic students;
- Make the request at least two weeks before the information is required;
- Carefully complete the interloan request form available at the information desk, or the on-line form at the Bill Robertson Library http://www.library.dce.ac.nz/interloans.htm
Apply this process to the world wide web
World Wide Web
What is the world wide web?
It is a system of internet servers and computers that allows information in WWW form to be transferred between users.
Features of the world wide web
- easy access for publication,
- more open review processes,
- easy access for researchers,
- links to many other sources.
Ways of searching on the Web
What is a search engine?
It is an automated indexing system that locates words and phrases and answers search queries
All search engines have advanced search facilities that will allow you to use a simplified version of Boolean search strategies. See below, for example, the advanced search page from Google (all search engines will have a similar page).
Notice that there are many helpful features on this page. For example, you can restrict the results to domains ending in .org, or .ac.nz, and in so doing, ensure that you only receive information from non-profit organisations, or academic institutions in New Zealand.
What do domain names mean?
The domain name has a number of components - in the example http://www.op.ac.nz the www refers of course to the world wide web, op is the name chosen by Otago Polytechnic. ac indicates it is an educations web site and of course .nz indicates the country New Zealand.
| All information is not equal.
As a budding researcher, it is important to ensure that the information you have sourced is relevant, and above all, reliable.
Reliability of information
There are many ways to test the reliability of information. Test yourself below:
Primary and secondary evidence
Does the article contain primary evidence?
Primary evidence is evidence discovered or produced by the actual writer of the article. Secondary evidence, on the other hand, is evidence reported by the writer. This means that they didn't actually do the research, they are telling you about the research that someone else did.
Primary and secondary evidence have different uses. While, on the one hand, you usually want to get information directly from the source, to avoid the risk of the information being diluted, or misinterpreted by the reporter; sometimes, you must rely on secondary sources. For example, in historical research, you may not physically have access to the primary source, as it may be held in a faraway archive which you cannot access. When possible, and practical, it is advisable to use primary sources of information.
Every discipline will have its own priorities for evaluating information, in health care, for example, one speaks of "levels of evidence" and in commerce, of "the hierarchy of evidence." These are be based on the amount of background information and the methods by which it was generated in the creation of the source.
Click here to visit an example of a hierarchy of evidence table in science. Contrast this with the table provided by the University of Westminster by clicking here. This kind of hierarchy is typical of the sciences and social sciences, but is not used in the humanities.
|Work in progress, expect frequent changes. Help and feedback is welcome. See discussion page.|