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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Commonwealth Honors Seminar (Honors 201H)

Find information on topics related to this semester's readings.

Three Steps to an Effective Literature Search

1. Look in the right places.

  • Did you know that the library subscribes to over 300 research databases—specialized search engines that lead you to scholarly information on different topics?
  • You can see a full list of all 300 databases on the library website—just go to and click Databases.
    To find the best database for your topic, try our Subject Research Guides (linked from the Libraries’ homepage).
  • Librarians are also always happy to suggest good places to start—from the library homepage, click Ask a Librarian (upper right) to see how to contact a librarian in person, by phone, email, or instant messenger.

2. Use the right words.

  • Part of the mystery of searching is figuring out what words the database uses for your topic. Sometimes, these are different words than you might use! Brainstorm lots of synonyms for the concepts you are looking for. For example: American Indian, Native American, indigenous…
  • Some databases let you truncate—search for part of a word, and bring back many versions of that word. For example, searching for homeless* would bring back articles that use the words homeless or homelessness.
  • Some databases have a thesaurus or subject heading list—meaning that each article has been reviewed by human beings and assigned certain subject headings. When you view the record for an article that you find, its subject headings (sometimes called descriptors) are usually displayed. Take note of these terms—you can use them to focus your search.

3. Choose the right types of sources.

  • Make sure that you cite trustworthy, scholarly sources in your academic work. The following are some traits of scholarly journal articles:
    • They are written by authors who are experts in the field. Look for credentials such as academic degrees and institutional affiliation.
    • They cite references and list their works cited so that you can refer to the original sources of information.
    • They are published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as American Journal of Sociology or Journal of Religious Studies, NOT popular sources such as magazines or newspapers.
  • If you are unsure whether a given source is scholarly or appropriate, check with your instructor or a librarian.
  • Be especially careful about citing sources that you find using Wikipedia or major search engines like Google or Yahoo. Anyone can publish anything on the Web! Evaluate!


TIP: When you look for a particular book on the shelf, make sure to browse the shelf and nearby shelves for related books. Take your time! Open the books!

people browsing book shelves

Tips for databases

  1. Use RefWorks to manage your citations and create your bibliography. 
  2. After you've run a search, use the button to retrieve articles or to be taken directly to the Interlibrary Loan request page, so you can order the article if UMass does not have it.

We order for you

Use your Interlibrary Loan account to:

  • Borrow books, videos, and other materials not available in the Five College system.
  • Request electronic copies of articles and book chapters not available at UMass.

In databases, and in your Refworks account, use the button to be taken directly to Interlibrary Loan, so you can order articles if UMass does not have them.

Learn about journals and journal artices!

What's a peer-reviewed journal?
Many of our journals are peer-reviewed. If you don't know what that means or why it matters, watch this video.