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Environmental Science: Introduction

Subject Librarian

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Erin O'Toole
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Willis Library, Room 080
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Getting Started with Research

Not sure where to start your research? Below are four common types of sources used in research. Read about what they can contribute to your research and then explore the rest of the guide to learn how to find the sources. Remember the library staff is always here to help you! Contact our AskUs service or subject librarians if you have any questions.

Reference Sources, such as encyclopedias, handbooks and dictionaries, are a good place to start your research because they provide:

  • background on a topic 
  • historical research
  • potential keywords for your catalog and database searches

Books in both print and electronic format provide:

  • in-depth coverage of a topic, broad in scope and usually historical
  • information that is two to three years old by the publication date
  • indexes where you can check if the book contains your topic

Articles in both print and electronic format provide: 

  • the most current source of peer-reviewed information
  • focused research, narrow in scope
  • literature reviews

Websites must be evaluated for credibility, authority and accuracy before using and provide:

  • the most current information on a topic (but not necessarily peer-reviewed)
  • obscure, hard-to-find information

What is Peer Review?

Many instructors require you to use peer-reviewed sources for your papers and projects, but what does that mean?

  • Peer review is the process of having experts in a field review the quality of an article or book before it is published
  • Most articles in scholarly and academic journals are peer-reviewed
  • Books published by university or academic presses are peer-reviewed

Most databases allow you to limit your search to peer-reviewed articles. Here are two examples:

Steps to Creating Search Strategies

Six Steps to Smart Searching

Identify the keywords in your research question.

Keywords are words that carry content and meaning. The keywords in the research  question "What is the feeding range of the blue whale in the Pacific Ocean?" are feeding range, blue whale and Pacific Ocean.

Brainstorm synonyms for your keywords.

Think of words similar to your keywords in case a database doesn't use your original keywords. Synonyms for blue whale are baleen whale and Balaenoptera musculus.

Create Boolean searches using the keywords.

A Boolean search is a search using the words AND, OR and NOT between the keywords. These words have a special function when used in a database.

  • The search [blue whale AND Pacific Ocean] will find all of the articles that contain both words. AND makes your search narrower.
  • The search [blue whale OR Balaenoptera musculus] will find all articles that contain one word, or the other, or both. OR is placed between synonyms and makes your search broader.
  • The search [blue whale NOT Atlantic Ocean] will find all articles containing "blue whale" and exclude the articles that also contain "Atlantic Ocean." NOT excludes articles that you don't want.  

Use the truncation symbol (or wildcard symbol) to search for word variations.

You can avoid doing multiple searches for variations on word endings using the truncation symbol * (the asterisk) in most databases.  Entering the keyword "blue whale*" will look for both blue whale and blue whales.

Add keywords to limit the type of article you retrieve.

If you want a literature review, add "AND review" to your keywords. To find a research study, add "AND study" to your keywords.

Enter your Boolean searches in the Advanced Search of a database.

Always go to the Advanced Search in a database to enter your Boolean searches because it gives you multiple boxes with the Boolean operators between them. If you are using a search with multiple search strings, enter OR within the search boxes and AND between the search boxes, e.g., [blue whale OR Balaenoptera musculus] AND [feeding range OR feeding grounds] AND [Pacific Ocean].

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