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11.3: Finding sources: Academic databases

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    • Alexandra Glynn, Kelli Hallsten-Erickson & Amy Jo Swing
    • North Hennepin Community College & Lake Superior College

    As a student in college, you’re lucky because you have access to an amazing wealth of solid research sources via free access to academic databases. What’s a database? It’s a search engine for sources that are usually only found in print: academic journals, magazines, and newspapers.

    You know what magazines and newspapers are, but you might not have a lot of experience with academic journals. Journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet, are where experts in a field publish their studies. These essays are peer reviewed, meaning that other experts read the studies and agree that the findings therein are correct. What this means for YOU is that an academic journal is often a great source for your essay. The scientific journals are especially helpful.

    The other sources found in databases, magazines and newspapers are also good sources. The best thing about looking for, say, a newspaper article on a database rather than online is that in a database, the access is free and goes back for years and years. When you look online at a newspaper, sometimes you can only search so far in the past or can only look at a few articles before you have to pay for access. No, thank you! Use the databases instead.


    When using a database, use search terms like for an internet search engine. Don’t ask questions, however. Remove unnecessary words, like “the” or “in”. For example, you might Google “What are the main symptoms of Lyme disease?”, but in an academic database, you would search “symptoms Lyme disease.”

    There are a variety of other ways to limit your searches. If you do an “advanced search,” you could search “Lyme disease” AND “symptoms” AND “Minnesota.” You can often limit the results based on published dates. For example, by looking at just 2016 and 2017. You can limit your results by “Full text,” meaning that all the search results will be the full articles. Sometimes you only get an abstract, which is a summary of the article, and if you want the whole thing, you need to do an interlibrary loan, something your librarian can help you with.

    Speaking of librarians, use them! They are specially trained to be experts on research strategies and love to help students who are proactive about finding solid sources. Conduct your research in the library where it’s quiet, the resources are free, and live human help is right there for you.

    The other great thing about an academic database? It will create a full citation for you, so you don’t have to worry about starting from scratch to create it yourself. Of course, it’s your responsibility to double-check the correctness of the citation generated by the database, but it’s likely to be right.

    Finding sources: Print books, magazines, and journals

    While you’re in the library, why not search through the available print materials? You can’t get much more scholarly than a good old-fashioned published book. Plus, some topics that don't change a great deal (such as the geology of Minnesota or anatomy) lend themselves better to book research.

    Print books can be wonderful. Though it might seem intimidating to think about looking at an entire book, worry not: use the Table of Contents in the front of the book or the Index in the back as a way to ferret out the sections in the book that will be useful for your research.

    What about magazines and journal articles? Though you can find more magazine and journal articles in an academic database than you’re likely to find in print in your library, sometimes browsing through those print sources can spark other ideas; you might run across information in a journal you didn’t previously think about, or sometimes your eyes get tired of staring at a computer and you need to rest them by looking at a printed page. Whatever the reason, it’s worth looking at the printed resources in your library.

    Finding sources: Interviews

    Probably one of the most often overlooked resources when doing research is to use other people. Why not talk to a person, or interview them via email? Specifically, why not talk to an expert on the topic you’re researching? Who better to learn about Lyme disease from than a doctor or someone who has it? These experts can provide solid information that can also put a personal touch on the topic.

    There are a few things to be careful of when considering a person to interview, though:

    • The person should actually be an expert. Your cousin might know a friend who had a brother whose friend has Lyme disease. The cousin is NOT an expert, and neither is the brother; only the person who has it is the expert. Also, don’t confuse usage with expertise: a friend might use Snapchat constantly, but that doesn’t mean she’s an expert (except, perhaps, being an expert on addiction to social media).
    • Ask with plenty of lead time and explain what you’re doing. People are busy. How would you like it if a random person contacted you with a bunch of questions they needed answers to tomorrow? You’d ignore that person. Instead, make it easy for the expert to help you out:
      • Say who you are, what you’re doing, and how you got the expert’s contact information (it’s especially good when you’ve been referred to the person by a common acquaintance—that’s networking at its finest).
      • Explain when you need the information (at least a week ahead of time).
      • If you’d like to meet in person, give as much lead time as possible and as many time options as possible.
      • Include your list of questions. You shouldn’t overwhelm the expert: give him or her five questions or so.
      • Give the expert several ways of getting ahold of you; a return email is likely, but offer a phone number for the person to call or text if that’s more comfortable.
      • Always thank the expert for his or her time. Remember, time is a valuable resource!
    • If it’s an email conversation, cite as an email source. If conducting the interview in person, it’s cited as a personal interview.

    Tips on interviews

    There are also several things to consider when you’re creating a list of interview questions:

    • What’s the purpose of your research? Focus in on a specific aspect of the topic that needs an expert’s ideas. DON’T rely on an expert for everything you need in your research.
    • Don’t overwhelm your expert with a huge list of questions. Three to five questions is a “polite” number: this would get enough information but wouldn’t be an overwhelming number for your expert to answer.
    • When writing questions, phrase them so they are open-ended and neutral.
      • Closed-ended questions get a limited amount of information. For example: Does this hospital have a policy on hand washing?
      • Open-ended questions allow for expansion. For example: What are the hospital policies on hand washing, and how have employees responded to those policies?
      • Leading questions suggest an answer and can demonstrate an incorrect assumption that can make your interview subject feel negatively about you and the interview. Don’t ask leading questions. For example: Some employees here have been angry about the hand washing policies, right?
      • Neutral questions are best; they’re just looking for information. The open ended example questions above are neutral.
    • When asking questions, make sure they’re organized in the same order you’re planning on using the information in your essay. That makes your life much easier when you’re going to use it. For example, if you're talking with someone who has had chronic Lyme disease, it would be worth putting your questions in chronological order:
      • When did you first notice symptoms that made you go to the doctor?
      • When did you receive your diagnosis? Was it difficult to get that diagnosis?
      • What was your treatment plan?
      • How are you still feeling the effects of your Lyme disease?
    • Use this interview information just like other sources: by quoting, paraphrasing or summarizing, and be sure to cite the information, too. In MLA, you cite an interview of John Lennon as:

    Lennon, John. Personal Interview. January 1, 2018

    Finding sources: Videos, podcasts, and audio sources

    As you’re conducting your research, consider utilizing non-print sources such as videos or radio programs. TED Talks, Youtube lecture series, National Public Radio, and specialized podcasts can be excellent sources of information and can help break up all the reading you’re doing. Just as you’d do when searching online, though, make sure the sources you’re using are appropriately useful and academic.

    Just as anyone can start a blog and spout off their opinions on any subject under the sun, anyone can make a YouTube video and do the same.

    Beware of bias.


    Keep in mind that none of the items listed above are deal-breakers (and it’s not even an exhaustive list!). Also, the above could just as well say The website and app litmus test these days. When you start to see several of these red flags, though, and you’re starting to get the feeling in your gut that this source might not be good, move on. There are many, many, many more sources in the online sea.

    It is not a huge deal to use a biased source, but you must acknowledge it as such in the writing or risk being dismissed by your readers. Again, audience is key.

    Finding sources: Pictures


    Sometimes a judicious insertion of a picture can help break up a text, or orient the reader, or give a visual cue. Graphic artists are often employed by firms to do the visuals of a text, once the writers have written the text. For most college writing courses, visuals are not required, as creating visual art is usually thought of as a separate skill. But you should be aware of the possibility for needing visuals. For example, in much science writing, graphs and charts are very important parts of the text.

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