The internet has changed how libraries work and what undergrads expect from them. Gone are the days of scribbling down 12-character reference numbers, digging through card catalogs, or waiting days for an interlibrary loan to get your hands on primary sources. Online archives have made finding information faster and easier for students who know how to search and evaluate resources -- but that's the hard part. The web can be a misleading and treacherous place for inexperienced researchers. Even in academia, a statement is not necessarily true just because someone wrote and published it online.
This guide covers source material for academic papers: how to find it, organize it, share it with fellow researchers, and cite it.
Where to Find Academic Resources
While many of us automatically turn to the internet for information, a quick online search will probably not yield the kinds of sources you need for academic work. But what qualifies as a credible source? Use the steps below to find, evaluate, and use scholarly resources.
Recommended First Steps
- Step 1: Identify your topic and relevant keywords. Clarify the issue or question you plan to research.
- Step 2: Conduct an initial internet search. Looking at how others discuss or present your topic online provides a general idea of the information you need to find.
- Step 3: Examine online sources. In your initial search, note the sources referenced by websites and article authors. Look for experts or sources that appear repeatedly.
- Step 4: Analyze source and expert bias. Search for information about your identified experts and sources to determine if they display a particular bias or perspective.
- Step 5: Identify ways to find scholarly articles on your topic. Determine locations for articles that you can access, such as your school library, research databases, open access journals, and advanced online search commands and search engines.
Using Search Engine Operators
Advanced Google search commands and operators can help you find credible and relevant academic sources. For example, using quotes around a search term or phrase will yield results that match your search exactly, rather than more broadly (e.g., "first aid"). If you would like all search results to include an additional word or phrase, use a plus sign before the word or phrase. (e.g., “first aid" +CPR).
You also can use a minus sign (-) to exclude terms, which allows you to fine-tune your search for the most relevant results. For example, to focus on the causes of climate change, you might enter: climate change causes -effects. You can add as many terms to exclude as you wish.
Finally, you can search for results from specific websites by using the site: operator (e.g., "immunology" site:stanford.edu). Google also provides an advanced search page with additional capabilities for filtering and displaying results.
Dr. Kristin Bertolero
Kristin Bertolero is an inclusion facilitator at the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, where she collaborates with educators to implement instructional strategies that foster inclusion. Prior to earning her doctorate in education, Kristin served for 10 years as a special educator in two of northern New Jersey's urban, Title I school districts. Besides teaching, her responsibilities included new teacher mentoring and curriculum writing.
- What is the first step you suggest students take when beginning a research paper?
You need to know the purpose of the assignment. Academic papers generally fall into three categories: expository, narrative, or descriptive. All require scholarly resources, but the tone is different based on purpose and audience.
- Can you outline the process you believe students should take while they begin collecting, organizing, and citing their research?
- Identify at least five terms or phrases related to your assignment.
- Narrow the number of resources.
- Narrow the search criteria.
- Gain some knowledge on the topic.
- Clarify any points before beginning to use academic research engines.
- Note: You may need to use popular resources such as magazines or Wikipedia.
- Make sure you have an online account to your school’s library.
- Depending on the school, you may need to go to the library for an account. Don’t wait until the last minute!
- Once you are logged in, there are two places to search for resources:
- Searches provide resources across publications in the field.
- ex. BioMedCentral Open Access
- Usually contain full text.
- Only available if school has a subscription.
- Limitations based on when the journal began publishing online.
- Select search parameters.
- Besides your search terms, you can select:
- Publication type
- Document type
- Time frame
- Note: Depending on your topic, the time frame parameter may not be applicable for some resources.
- If you are not seeing many search results:
- See if there are equivalent search terms or phrases.
- Requesting full-text only:
- If your school has online eJournals, use them!
- Publication name and search for it within your eJournals
- Year the article was published
- Volume and issue number
- Note: You school may own the journal but the database you are using may only have the publication information.
- What are common research mistakes you have seen people make during your work as a dissertation advisor?
- Collecting too many resources without reviewing.
- Start with 5-10 resources and scan the articles.
- Keep what you like.
- These initial resources are a jumping-off point.
- As you read, pay attention to the citations.
- You can find more resources through the references made within the article.
- Not utilizing the electronic versions of resources. Many people prefer printing and reading hard copies of PDFs. This is fine for close reading and annotating. But as you gain more knowledge of a topic, you may not remember if what you are about to write is your own statement or something you read. Instead of searching through pages of highlighted text, you can keyword search within electronic documents. If the statement or phrasing you are about to write is found, then you need to cite the resource. You can also search documents to ensure you have collected enough relevant information from your current resources before you begin looking for more.
- How important are university libraries in the research process?
This really depends on the topic. If the assignment includes statements such as “state of,” “current issues,” or “how to improve,” you will most likely use resources from last few years and find them using the library's online search engines.
You may need to go to the library if it has resources that may not be available online, such as older editions of scholarly journals or newspaper articles only available on microfilm. Depending on the school, the library may copy the resource for you.
Again, you cannot wait until the last minute! You may believe you can leave out a resource or two. But your professor most likely knows the most relevant resources for the assignment. So if those are not included in your paper, your professor will question your ability to critically analyze resources and will question your knowledge of the topic. Pay careful attention to the claims you make in your paper and how you support those claims.
- How can students best utilize their university library as a resource?
Libraries have shifted from being repositories of information to places where people can meet, collaborate, and work. Most libraries have quiet areas, which enables you to focus without the distractions of the dorm, dining hall, or student center. Due to a library's environment and the social expectations, most students understand it is a place to complete assignments -- it is very easy to get off task when working with a group in other settings. Plus, if your device's battery runs down, you can always find an outlet or use one of the library's computers!
Evaluating Academic Resources
You can easily find yourself mired in information. Be sure to organize your research and spend time wisely. It's always good practice to view sources with a critical eye, especially when it comes to academic research. Some data, such as a published research paper, are clearly citation-worthy. Other sources warrant a closer inspection.
For instance, Wikipedia is a great place to gain a broad understanding of a research topic but is not viewed by professors as a legitimate source. Wikipedia entries can contain good primary data sources, but you must verify them by checking the source links. In general, seek primary data sources you can confidently cite by conducting your own research.
When analyzing the validity of an online resource, ask yourself:
- Does the site have a purpose other than to educate readers? Data sources that may appear legitimate are sometimes published by entities that have something to gain. For example, a pharmaceutical company may publish only favorable data about its newest drug. You should always be skeptical about data on websites that promote sales of a product.
- What is the intended audience for the published information? Academic research often requires citation of detailed data and results; the presentation of these results in a peer-reviewed academic journal is superior to an overview article written for an infotainment news source.
- Is the data current? Check the date the information was first published. Is older data confusing or conflicting? Has outdated research been updated? Has the author properly cited the original sources?
- Is the information presented professionally? Evaluate the site from a big-picture perspective. Do links function well and videos load? Does the author list proper credentials? Does the site appear to be well-maintained? Inconsistencies in details can point to a resource not being worth your time.
How to Organize Your Research
You will need to keep all the articles and sources you find -- as well as your notes -- organized and searchable. A good system allows you to manage all the documents and text you uncover in your research. You also need a way to organize the notes you take on what you read.
Some people prefer hard copies of their articles and notes. However, having your research in an electronic format allows you to search and find what you need more efficiently. Regardless of which method you prefer, good organization saves you time by helping you find what you need to make your point.
In addition, organization enables you to use and cite your sources correctly. Professors consider a lack of citations (or even incorrect citations) to be plagiarism. To avoid this, implement a system to keep your notes and ideas connected to the sources you used to generate them.
Your school, instructor, or librarian may recommend tools or techniques for organizing your research, or you can develop your own method. Today’s college students have access to a wealth of online tools that can replace the time-honored techniques of printed articles, handwritten notes, and index cards. If you need help finding a research tool, take a look at the list below. The important thing is to find a system that works for you and stick with it.
Tools to Organize Your Research
This free tool creates citations according to the style you select. You can sort, organize, and tag items for easier citing and sharing.
This product enables you to search for online resources, annotate PDFs, create bibliographies, and share research with collaborators.
With a free account, you can import papers from your browser or desktop, create citations, and build a research network.
Ideal for longer projects, this product enables writers to create a manuscript outline, access research while writing, and compile work into a finished document.
This advanced search engine enables researchers to search the internet for scholarly articles or case law and create a personal library of sources.
Academic writing requires proper documentation of sources, including the correct use of a citation style such as those listed below. You must cite your sources for any information or ideas that are not your own or considered common knowledge; not doing so amounts to plagiarism. Luckily, students can use citation generators that make proper documentation much easier. Your instructor may tell you which style to use or let you choose.
As the official style of the American Psychological Association, APA is widely used in the social sciences.
Last, F. M. (Year Published). Book. City, State: Publisher.
Last, F. M. (Year Published). Section title. In F. M. Last (Ed.), Book/Anthology (Edition, Page(s)). City, State: Publisher.
Commonly used in humanities courses, Modern Language Association (MLA) style emphasizes the use of the author’s name in citations. It also requires a "Works Cited" page at the end of a paper.
Alonso, Alvaro, and Julio A. Camargo. “Toxicity of Nitrite to Three Species of Freshwater Invertebrates.” Environmental Toxicology, vol. 21, no. 1, 3 Feb. 2006, pp. 90-94. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1002/tox.20155.
Source: Purdue Online Writing Lab
Favored in the sciences and history, the Chicago Manual of Style/Turabian citation style requires footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography.
In the footnotes and endnotes:
First name Last name.Title of Book. (Publication Place: Publisher, Year).
In the bibliography:
Last name, First name. Title of book.
Many universities, nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations offer resources to help students and other researchers find scholarly articles and credible sources. When conducting your research, make sure to use research databases and open access journals such as those listed below.
Innumerable databases of scholarly work exist, many of which are available to students at no charge or at a discount. Listed here is a breakdown of some of the most commonly referenced resources in academic research.
Explore among your colleagues for fellow researchers interested in your topic, or research the background of a paper's author with this database of school-sponsored social networks. Arnetminer can also alert you to conferences about your topic or courses being taught.
Cornell University offers free archived research in statistics, finance, quantitative biology, physics, computer science and mathematics. Search parameters may include new, recent and find.
The Bielefeld Academic Search Engine, or BASE, is hosted by the Bielefeld University Library. BASE offers indexed metadata of more than 50 million documents, about three quarters of which are full-text. Sorting options include author, subject, language, collection and year of publication.
Developed at the University of Pennsylvania, CiteSeerX indexes scientific literature on computer and information science and uses unique algorithms and software to make the search process most effective. Alerts for new material from an individual or on a particular topic are also available. All data is free.
A nickname for the Cognitive Sciences Eprint Archive, CogPrint is a self-archiving tool for scientists. Researchers in psychology, biology, neuroscience, and linguistics may be uploaded. Site content is free and may be searched by subject, publication year, author name or keywords.
Operated by the U.S. Department of Education, ERIC is a collection of peer-reviewed full-text documents that have been previously published in industry journals. All original source materials are held to strict professional standards. This resource has recently undergone a significant upgrade and is currently adding documentation to its repository.
Google has indexed web content in the form of articles, court opinions, theses, books, abstracts and more in this data repository. This free search tool produces research in multiple languages. Paid subscription-level access is allowed for libraries; this, in turn, allows you to search through data housed in other member libraries.
he NBER is a not-for-profit organization formed in 1920 to promote the understanding of economics. Today, its online database offers free publications related to economics, health and aging; subscription offerings include books, book chapters, and working papers.
This enormous resource is a federally funded database of scholarly information on drug-related policy and criminal justice. All repository information is available to the public for free; registered members may also receive a bi-weekly newsletter, customized publication alerts, and access to online discussion groups.
Created by librarians, this vast resource is an online cooperative of participating libraries worldwide. This database's cloud-based structure allows for unique collaboration opportunities. OCLC members maintain the WorldCat database, which is free to the public.
This database houses existing and ongoing academic research in philosophy. An open access archive and advanced search functionality make it easy for interested parties to access refereed journals, books, and personal notes. Data is available via search, RSS feed and emailed content alerts.
hemistry researchers may find PubChem's informational database on the biological activities of small molecules to be of use. Its three-part retrieval system searches by substance, compound and bioassay. A separate publication site link provides access to original research articles.
Maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, this database is a massive collection of biomedical literature. Full-text articles, books, book chapters, journals and MEDLINE database content are all retrievable in PubMed. Users may also search by citation and topic.
Styled as the gateway to federal science, this resource is operated by an alliance of 15 federal agencies. Free user queries tap into over 55 smaller databases and 200 million pages of scientific inquiry and analysis. Searches may aggregate data by topic, subtopic, author or dates, and may trigger alerts with personalized reading suggestions.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy is host to this database of scholarly research activity in STEM. Users may sort data by subject, citations or customize datasets. Account registration is required but there is no fee to access the database.
This award-winning resources combines multiple content streams into a one-stop shop for social sciences research and analysis. Both abstract and full-text data are available on topics ranging from humanities to management to political science.
Also known as the Global Science Gateway, the WorldWideScience database pulls national and international data portals into one resource for the research sciences. Extensive customizable search options include information in ten languages.
Innumerable databases of scholarly work exist, many of which are available to students at no charge or at a discount. Listed below are some of the most commonly referenced resources in academic research.
Open Access Journal Indexes
Open access journals are subsidized in some way, often by the publisher and sometimes by the author. This subsidization allows research that is held to rigorous academic standards be accessible to the public at low cost or no cost. By contrast, subscription services for academic journals pass this cost along to the consumer and therefore are not free. Either way, undergraduate students luck out; most students at traditional brick-and-mortar schools are given JSTOR accounts.
For students who don't have JSTOR accounts and/or would like to access open access journals, the following resources may prove useful:
Run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this database focuses on agricultural science and technology. Recent articles discuss the drying of carrot pomace, meiotic behavior of wild caricaceae species, and biodiversity conservation.
The DOAJ collects and indexes peer-reviewed articles, primary research results, and literature overviews on nearly all scholarly subjects and disciplines. Usage and online registration are free.
This site serves as a clearinghouse for peer-reviewed research and the latest publications in the scientific community. The "Online Tools" tab allows users direct access to numerous Elsevier publications.
This resource claims to be the largest fully categorized source of free journal information online. Containing over 100,000 journal articles, JournalSeek links directly to full-text research in all disciplines.
This site aggregates research articles from several large external portals, including DOAJ, PubMed, and BioMed Central. Direct links to full-text articles are included.