9.1: Getting a Handle on Academic Research
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Likely born in the Information Age, you are probably quite adept at researching on the internet for information you use in your daily life. From finding a replacement screen for your broken cell phone to determining who wrote the terrific song you heard yesterday on the radio, you probably find it fairly easy to track down certain kinds of information. However, most students find it challenging to navigate university library search tools to find an academic article for a class project. Why the difference?
First, because academic search engines do not turn a profit as Google and Yahoo do, refinement of these systems happens at a much slower pace. If you type “tamixifen” into the Google search bar, you will be asked if you meant to search for “tamoxifen,” and you’ll be presented with a list of sources on that correctly spelled topic. Conversely, if you type “tamixifen” into your college library’s science index search bar, you’ll get a message that there are “no matches” for your search—a dead end. This is an example of the sophistication of commercial search engines as compared with academic ones. It may seem odd that scholars of today use substandard tools, but this is an effect of the differing economic models used by the for-profit and not-for-profit realms. In doing your research, you might be tempted just to revert to the Google search instead of struggling with Academic Search Complete. However, if you do so, you will find that publications on the most cutting edge research in your field cannot be accessed through Google. Academic journals usually require a paid subscription for anyone seeking to read their articles. Scholarly books recently published will not be distributed free of charge on the internet. The authors and publishers of these works function with a production model that requires funding but, for important ideological reasons, does not depend on advertising for that support, and thus access to these academic sources is limited. The chart in Chapter 3 will help you distinguish between popular sources, like those most often found on Google, and scholarly sources like those found in your college library.
Perhaps the most distinctive factor of the scholarly article or book is the peer-review process it must undergo before being accepted for 250 Writing and Literature: Composition as Inquiry, Learning, Thinking, and Communication publication. Through this process, the professionals of each discipline uphold its standards to ensure that the body of research in that field is truly expanding and is maintained at a high quality.
With these points in mind, let’s consider the best ways for finding up-to-date scholarly resources for your academic research paper. As a student enrolled in a college or university, you have likely paid fees that give you access to your library’s holdings. These include the many books (both physical and digital) that your library has purchased as well as subscriptions to academic journals in a multitude of fields. Consider the example of Rebekah Fish’s poetry research paper assignment. She has chosen for her topic the poem “The Hunting of the Hare” by Margaret Cavendish.
On the advice of her instructor, Rebekah goes to her college library’s web page and clicks on MLA International Bibliography. In looking at the other indexes available, she can see that there are indexes dedicated to research in biology, art, education, business, the medical fields, and many other disciplines. She makes a mental note in case she needs to use one of these for an assignment in another class.
In MLA, she types “The Hunting of the Hare” into the search bar, and under “Select a Field” she clicks on “subjects.” She clicks on “Search,” and soon the tool yields a list of article and book titles. Not all of these titles indicate a focus specifically on the poem she has chosen to write about—it appears that some articles simply include a paragraph or two on the poem. But Rebekah does not rule out these sources. Her professor has advised the class to start narrow and then broaden their search as necessary. Since Rebekah has found only a few sources written specifically on this poem, she does a new search on the poet, and again selects “subjects” as the field since she is not currently interested in finding works written by this poet. After printing the resulting list of articles, to go just a bit broader, Rebekah finds the web page listing the library’s book holdings. Rebekah types “seventeenth century women poets” into the search bar, and finds two helpful book titles: Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile, by Emma L.E. Rees, and Reading Early Modern Women’s Writing, by Paul Salzman.
Now that Rebekah has a good list of possible resources, she begins tracking them down and reading them. She makes notes about the focus of each work in case she needs to consider any of them again later. As she reviews her list, she puts a star next to the most promising articles and books. She needs five secondary sources for this project, and there is no use trying to force into her essay sources that do not match her focus. She picks those that will be most helpful to her as she defines and develops her argument.