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CMTH 102: Introduction to Communication: Starting Your Research

Use this page to learn more about choosing search keywords, choosing and evaluating sources, determining bias, and identifying scholarly and peer-reviewed articles. Understand the key differences between library resources and internet websites.

Choosing Search Keywords

Choosing Search Keywords

Before you start to search for information, you should take some time to think about what search words (keywords) will get you to information about your topic.

Most search tools default to a keyword search (even Google). This type of search looks for your search words exactly as you typed them. If those words appear anywhere in an item or website's title, summary, publication information, and sometimes even the text, that item or website will show in your results. 

Because of this, you'll want to be direct, precise, and specific with your search keywords. Do not search using entire sentences or questions. Focus on important words that have the most meaning in regards to your topic. Sources may use different language to discuss the information you are trying to find. Brainstorm a list of possibilities, including synonyms and related terms. 

Learn from the information you are finding to pick up new or different search keywords as you go.

 

Combining Search Keywords

You can combine search keywords in a few ways to help make your search more precise.

Connecting search keywords using AND, OR, and NOT (known as Boolean operators) allows you to work with multiple keywords in one search.

  • AND: all words must appear. Climate and chemicals and runoff will show results that have all 3 of those words. 
  • OR: either word must appear. Climate or environment will show results that have either of those words. 
  • NOT: one word will appear but another will not. Chemicals not microplastics will exclude any results that have the word microplastics in them. 

Most search tools automatically add "and" in between your search words, though you may not always see it in your search. If you have a phrase that you want to search for in its entirety, group the words in the phrase together using quotation marks so that the search tool will search for them as one idea instead of separately. Example: "climate change"

It's also important to mix and match your keywords. Different combinations of keywords will lead you to different results. 

 

Make Adjustments

If you aren't finding enough information, your search terms might be too specific. In some resources, you may need to take a step back and search a bigger idea. Sometimes sources about a broader idea will include information that can be applied to your more specific topic. 

See this video from our friends at Lloyd Sealy Library demonstrating how to get from your topic to your search keywords:

Attribution: Lloyd Sealy Libraries at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Choose Appropriate Information Sources

Think about your topic, the information you need to present about it, and the questions you have about it. Decide what types of materials and sources are likely to give you that information and those answers.

You might need to use:

  • books and reference books
  • articles from scholarly or peer-reviewed journals
  • articles from magazines
  • articles from newspapers
  • websites

These sources may all be about the same topic, but the information they give about that topic can differ greatly. For very new or recent topics, you'll likely use newspapers, magazines, and websites. For topics that have a longer history, books, reference books, and scholarly journals might be options. 

Using a variety of sources is generally recommended because it presents well-rounded, comprehensive research. However, some kinds of sources are more appropriate to use for academic and college research than others.

Your professor may ask you to use specific types of sources but not others. Always follow their requirements.

What is a Scholarly Article / Scholarly Journal?

Scholarly or peer-reviewed articles will present very specific ideas about your topic. They will detail research studies that have been done about it or will analyze a topic in depth. 

They are unlikely to provide basic or general information about a topic, so they may not always be a good fit for what you are trying to find. Look for other, reliable, credible information sources to use for background information.

Some topics (especially if they are very recent) may not have a lot of scholarly, peer-reviewed research or studies connected to them specifically, so they may not be a useful source for every topic. You may need to look at larger ideas connected to your topic that there is scholarly research for.

If your professor requires you to use scholarly, peer-reviewed research for your assignment, you will likely use that information to answer specific questions or present specific ideas or evidence in your speech.

How can you tell if something is a scholarly or peer-reviewed source?

Online and in databases, it can sometimes be difficult to know if the sources you are seeing in your results are scholarly or peer-reviewed.

If it's from a scholarly and peer-reviewed journal:

  • It's written by authorities (scholars, researchers, or experts) in the field and is meant to be read by other researchers or experts.
  • It includes details of research studies or very in-depth analysis that the authors themselves did.
  • The article may have undergone a peer-review process before it was accepted for publication.
  • The author(s) always cites their sources and lists their references.
  • Examples: Journal of Experimental Psychology, New England Journal of Medicine

 

 

 

 

 

Some other sources look very similar to these articles at first glance. But there are key differences to look for as you start to read over the details and full-text of the sources. 

If it's from a magazine:

  • It's written by staff reporters and meant to be read by a general audience.
  • It provides basic facts and overviews, commentary, or personal anecdotes.
  • The article is heavily illustrated or graphically design with photographs, advertisements, and more visual aids.
  • It has not been through the peer-review process, and it may not cite sources or list references. 
  • Example: NewsweekTimeNational Geographic

If it's from a newspaper:

  • It's written by a staff reporters or service and is meant to be read by a general audience.
  • It provides basic facts and the most recent or current information and updates.
  • It can provide a historical snapshot of a topic at a given point in time.
  • It has not been through the peer-review process, and it may not cite sources or list references. 
  • Examples: The New York Times, The Morning Call, The Washington Post

If it's from a trade or professional journal or magazine 

  • It's written by members of a profession or a technical writer and meant to be read by other members of the profession.
  • It includes terms commonly used in the profession or trade.
  • The article provides practical information for members, including news, trends, products & research summaries.
  • It has not been through the peer-review process, and it may not cite sources or list references. 
  • Examples: Control Engineering, Electronic Design, Education Monthly

For help searching for these articles in our databases, see the Articles in Library Databases tab. 

Evaluating Sources & Determining Bias

How do you determine what you are reading is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy? How do you decide that a source is appropriate for academic research?

When working with a potential source, ask yourself if you know the source, it's reputation, and the reputation of the information itself. If you don't, you will need to look further into it with some additional searching. This might mean looking for the author and publisher's expertise, reputation, background, or their agenda. Or it might mean confirming the individual pieces of information in other sources and considering what the consensus is. 

If the source credits their sources, trace any claims or questionable information back to its original context. It's usually better to use the original source of the information, not the secondary source. This may lead you to more information and other sources you can use as well.

You'll also want to make sure that the information is current enough for your topic. Lastly, remember your purpose. Does the source really meet your needs and answer your questions about your topic? Does it give you the information you need?

The source should be the best source for your needs, not just a source or the first source you found. 

It can be especially difficult to determine and avoid bias. 

Determining Bias

Additional resources for evaluating information:

Comparing Library & Internet Sources

Many sources available from the library, like newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, can be difficult to find and access with a basic internet search. They might require a paid subscription in order to read them and may not be meant to be available to the general public. The library pays for access to these articles through our databases so you can use them for your research. Library database search results are also unbiased, which is not always the case with Google and other search engines (which can include frequently visited websites or sponsored and paid advertisements in its results). 

Library resources compared to Internet websites

Library

Internet

Information and content from thousands of academic and popular sources including books, encyclopedias, magazines, journals, newspapers, films, and more. From collections the librarians chose.

Information and content from millions of personal, commercial, government, professional, educational, and popular websites. Every publicly available website is searched.                       

More likely to have been published after a review process. Quality of information is consistent.

Less likely to have been reviewed prior to being posted. Quality varies from website to website. 

Are free to NCC students (part of the library's subscriptions).

Some information is free, but you may also encounter pay-walls and be asked to pay a fee for information.

Publication dates stated clearly. 

Currency and update history not always clear.      

Search tools will search for exactly what you enter into the search. 

Search engines may auto-correct your search or try to predict the answers you are looking for based on previous searches or searchers. 

Searching an entire question, request, or sentence does not work, because every word included is searched for.

Searching an entire question, request, or sentence works. Less important words are automatically ignored/removed. 

More control over your search and results, more search options. 

Less control over your search and results, fewer search options.

May be difficult to search. Not easy to find/use the right search keywords. 

Generally easy to search. Less difficult to use the right search keywords.

May not have to evaluate the results very critically. 

Have to evaluate results and sources more critically. 

 

While we generally recommend you use our library resources over internet resources, the librarians can help you search both places for the information you need. One is not necessarily better than the other. Which you use depends on your assignment, your topic, your professor's guidelines, and the information you need to find. 

When You Don't Know Anything About Your Topic

If you have absolutely no knowledge about a topic when you are starting your search, it may be helpful to become more familiar with it by searching for it on Wikipedia or doing a Google search. Be careful:

  • Don't use any of the information you find in a Wikipedia article in your speech. 
  • Don't use any information from a web site that isn't credible or appropriate for academic research

What you can do instead:

  • Gather ideas and terminology that applies to your topic.
  • See the possibilities for where your research could go.
  • Make notes of ideas and concepts to find later in credible, reliable, appropriate sources.
  • Check any listed references or external links -- those original sources might be appropriate to use.
  • Check the library's resources (books, reference books, and articles) that may give you the same information.

See the Finding Books and Articles in Library Databases tabs for help with library resources.