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11.4: Researching

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    Selecting good research involves supporting your ideas with credible sources which means being able to evaluate the quality of outside sources. Doing good research also involves using smart search strategies.


    • You will lose credibility and not be convincing if your sources are questionable or not reputable.
    • You could end up presenting false information which will mislead your argument, your reader and yourself.
    • You will save yourself a lot of time if you learn how to search effectively using focused and systematic approaches.
    • You will engage in a larger academic community that will broader your thinking, understanding of, and connection to the issues and topics you are investigating.



    When you write a research paper, you need to support your thesis by using academic quality sources. Sources come in many shapes and formats but some of the most common include:

    • articles from magazines, newspapers or journals,
    • books (either print or e-books),
    • web pages
    • other media (e.g. video or audio sources)
    • personal interviews
    • non-published documents (e.g. letters, flyers, handouts, etc.)

    Before you begin to search for sources to support your ideas, you need to learn how to decide what are credible, academic-quality sources. Often the easiest sources to dig up won’t pass muster as valid sources for a college research paper.


    To evaluate any source you find, you first need to find out the identity of the author or group that wrote or created the source, as well as the names(s) of the organization that published or produced the source. If you cannot identify these, stop here! Only sources that can be identified can be determined to be credible, right? You should not use any source whose author/organization cannot be identified.

    If you can identify both the author and the publisher of the source, you’ll want to find out something more about them to determine whether they have the expertise or qualifications to produce a credible source for a college research paper. Here is a good question to ask yourself: Is the author of my source an expert in his/her field?


    Here are some important criteria to use in evaluating the quality of a source:

    Criteria 1: Length and substance of the text: Does this source provide a substantive, in-depth discussion of the topic, or merely a cursory, superficial overview? Is this a brief “sound-bite,” or a longer, more in-depth analysis? (In general, for web pages with less than about 10 medium-length paragraphs of text would be considered brief.)

    Criteria 2: Author’s purpose: Is this a straightforward summary or overview of the topic, such as you would find in an encyclopedia article? Or is the author presenting a new interpretation, view, or explanation of the topic?

    Criteria 3: Academic quality and reading level of the text: Is this a serious, complex, detailed, academic treatment of the topic, or is it lighter “popular” discussion geared for the general public?

    Criteria 4: Originality of the text: Is this original writing, or is it copied and compiled from other sources? For a web site, is this primarily a list of links?

    Criteria 5: Objectivity: Is the text primarily personal opinion rather than an objective discussion? If the text is primarily opinion, is this clearly stated, i.e. is the author clear about the fact that he/she is presenting a subjective view of the topic? Does the author acknowledge that there might be other worthy points of view?

    Criteria 6: Sources & Documentation: Where did the author gather the information presented? Was it from original research, experiments, observation, interviews, books and documents? If lots of factual information is given, does the author cite his/her sources? Verify that the author used authoritative sources to back up his/her arguments and conclusions.


    Magazine, newspaper and journal articles are typically reviewed and edited by publishers, editorial boards and copy editors before they are published. However, it’s still important to evaluate articles on your own using the same criteria we’ve discussed. Remember to:

    • Check the article’s author(s) just as for other types of sources, and
    • Check the publication (magazine, newspaper or journal) in which the article is published. If you’re not certain if the publication is valid for research, check the publication’s website to find out more about it. See if the publication has a Wikipedia article that might give some background on the publication. Is the publication linked to an educational institution or professional organization?
    • Has the author cited his/her sources in footnotes or at the end of the article?
    • Additionally, check the date of the publication. Is the research presented recent enough to be useful to your topic?


    Web pages can contain valuable information for your research. However, information that you find on the web must be evaluated even more carefully than information found in books or articles. Why? In contrast to books and articles (which are reviewed for accuracy and quality by publishers, editorial boards or reviewers before they can be published), anyone can create a web page with no screening at all. Therefore, it’s especially important that you carefully evaluate information from the Internet if you intend to use it for your research.

    When you evaluate a web source, you’ll need to ask yourself a few essential questions:

    1. What do you know about the author of the site?

    Is the author an expert in his/her field --or just someone with an opinion? Remember: If you can’t identify a reputable author and/or organization responsible for the page, you should not cite it for college research.

    1. Web pages by/for individual authors

    If an individual has written the page and/or site, determine the author’s qualifications by asking:

    • Is biographical information about the author available?
    • What is his/her background in terms of education, experience, occupation, position, affiliation, publications, etc.
    • Why does or doesn't this make him/her an expert?

    Tip: Do a Google search to see if the author's name comes up in other web pages. Can you find reliable information about the person and determine his/her credibility?

    1. Web pages by organizations

    If an organization has authored the page and/or site, is information available about that organization, including its purpose or history? Tips:

    • Look for a link such as "Who we are", “About Us”, "Philosophy," "Background," etc. on the page or the site home page.
    • Is it an impartial group (like a university) or a group established to promote an idea or point of view (like the National Rifle Association or a political party or a religious group)?
    • Do a Google search to see if the institution's name comes up in other web pages. Can you find reliable information about the organization?
    1. What is the basic purpose of the site?

    Knowing the author’s reason for providing the information is key to evaluating it. It’s the same kind of common sense you use to make decisions every day. Understanding the purpose of the site will help you judge its validity for your research. Which type of site would you think is most objective? Would you trust a commercial site to provide objective information when you know the organization’s goal is to make a profit? Is the site:

    • Scholarly? It’s written by researchers or experts in the field See: popular magazines vs. academic journals.
    • Professional? It’s written by and primarily for those in a specific profession.
    • Popular? It’s written for the general public. See: popular magazines vs. academic journals.
    • Advocating? It’s promoting particular opinions/causes, including blogs
    • Commercial? It’s promoting/selling services or products, or including advertisements for products or services.
    1. What type of site is it?

    Identifying the domain type within the URL will give you additional clues about the type of site you’ve found, and therefore about your source of information. Ask yourself: which type of site do you think is most likely to provide information that is objective? Of high academic quality?

    Some of the most common domain types are:

    .edu: an educational institution (often reliable, but can be anything from scholarly research to students’ personal pages)

    .gov: a government body (usually dependable)

    .org: a non-profit organization (may or may not be biased), may be relatively objective or may present any political point of view

    .com: a commercial enterprise (may be trying to sell or promote a product or service)

    .net: originally for networking organizations, such as internet service providers, but now often used as an alternative to .com


    Not surprisingly, to evaluate information from books, you can reuse your six criteria. Most importantly:

    • Check the book’s author(s) just as for other types of sources,
    • Check the publisher (the company or organization that edited, designed, printed and distributed the book) of the book. What to look for?
      • Some publishers are known for publishing particular types of books and have reputations for producing a certain level of quality in content and academic level. For example, a university press is a publisher closely affiliated with a university. University press books are considered to be highly respectable and reputable. They are often identified by (you’ll never guess) the words "university" and "press" in their names. Example: University of California Press.
      • Various academic and professional organizations also publish books which can be extremely valuable for researchers because the materials tend to be written by experts in a field.
      • Be careful about using self-published books! These books are less likely to have been reviewed by professionals in the field for the accuracy of the information presented.

    You’re ready to start searching. But hold on! Though it’s natural to want to dive right in, you’ll save a lot of time and effort by devising a strategy before you do.


    Before you begin searching for the perfect information on your topic, you should prepare for your search.

    1. Divide the research topic into "concepts" (different subtopics or elements). Concepts should not include question words, e.g. "who", "what", "why", nor words describing the relationship of different concepts, e.g. "effect of", "impact on." For example, a specific research question might be: How did Frederick Douglass regard women’s rights with respect to the abolition movement ? Were his views on these topics contradictory?

    Look at the words in your research topic and identify the main ideas or "concepts."

    This research question can be divided into two or three "concepts":

    1. Frederick Douglass
    2. women’s rights
    3. abolition movement
    1. Next, for each of the three concepts, think of other search words or phrases that might be used for the same idea.

    Place an “OR” between each search word for the same concept. (The "OR" tells the search engine to look for documents with at least one of the words in each concept). For example,

    1. Frederick Douglass
    2. women’s rights OR women’s suffrage OR suffragist*
    3. anti-slavery OR abolition* OR “abolition movement”


    The best way to find good quality sources for college research papers will almost always be to use an article database accessible through the college library website.

    On the Skyline College Library homepage, the "Quick Article Search" box will allow you to search for articles in tens of thousands of magazines, journals and newspapers, as well as eBooks, in the EbscoHost premium databases. Searches from the Quick Article Search box do not provide the full searching capabilities of the EbscoHost databases. To do a more precise search, you should use the "Advanced Search" mode by clicking the "Advanced Search" link. You can email yourself the articles you find in your search.

    To access this and other article databases from home or off-campus, you will need a PLS library card, which is available for free from Skyline College Library (or any public or community college library in San Mateo County. Remember to access the database links from the Skyline Library homepage).

    You can see a list of all of the databases available by clicking on the "Select a Database by Subject/Title" pull-down menu. To select a database to search, click on any title from the menu and then click the "GO" button.


    Let's strategize. How can we use Google to search for information on our topic?

    How did Frederick Douglass regard women’s rights with respect to the abolition movement ?

    When using Google, it is most effective to put quotation marks (" ") around any search phrases-- any group of more than one word that should be searched together in a specific order. For example, for our topic, "women’s rights" and "abolition movement" are search phrases.

    Also place an OR between each search term or search phrase for the same concept (The OR tells Google to look for documents with at least one of the words in each concept). So a Google search for our topic would look like this: "Frederick Douglass" AND “women's rights" OR “women’s suffrage” AND "abolition movement"


    1. Limit your Google search to a specific domain

    When searching the Web, it can be very useful to limit your search to just websites with a particular domain type, such as .edu for college or university sites, .gov for government sites or .org for organization sites. These domains will commonly have better quality sites than .com sites.

    In Google, you can use the powerful site: command to limit the search to a specific domain. To limit the search to just .edu sites, for example, you would add: to your search. To limit the search to just .org sites, add: to your search, or to search for just .gov sites, add: to your search.

    Here is an example of how we limited our search to only .edu sites by adding: to the search:
    "Frederick Douglass" AND “women's rights" OR suffrage AND "abolition movement" and site:edu

    1. Use Google’s Similar option

    Another useful Google feature is the “Similar” option. When you find one page in a Google results page that provides very good information on your topic, you can find other pages that have similar information by clicking on the pull-down symbol to the right of the web address for that page (just below the title of the page on the Google results list) and then click on the “Similar” link. Google will then display a list of similar web pages.

    1. Limit Google to News Articles

    A basic Google search will find all types of web pages, but you can limit Google searches in various ways to improve your search results. One easy way to limit on Google is Google News, which includes only newspaper articles. To limit to Google News after doing a general Google Web search, click on the News button on the Google task bar below the search box on the results page (or if the News button is not shown, click on the More pull-down menu bar below the search box on the results page and select News from the menu). After clicking the News button, the results change--from web pages to news articles.

    1. Using Google Scholar

    When you only want to find information written by academics, Google Scholar - Google’s academic search engine - is a good place to go. Instead of searching for websites, Google Scholar searches a wide range of academic articles and books from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, and universities. In many cases, the sources are only abstracts (summaries) of articles, which do not provide the full-text of the article (or a significant charge is required for the full article), however you may usually be able to retrieve the full-text of these articles by using the Skyline College Library Article Delivery Service (if you are a Skyline College student doing research for a class assignment.) Go to:

    This page titled 11.4: Researching is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Skyline English Department.

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