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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

College Writing

English 112

Steps in Researching your Topics

General steps in the process of doing library research:

  • Identify a topic of interest
  • Do a little bit of background reading on the topic (Wikipedia is a good tool for this)
  • Refine your topic to a manageable argument if it's too broad a topic
  • Identify keywords that you can use later on in a search. These include: events, people, places, ideas
  • Gather and read resources
  • In searching for Journal Articles and Newspapers, select the database that is most appropriate for your topic area
  • Try a wide range of search terms to locate information. Rarely is there ever a perfect search
  • Ask for help if you get stuck at any place in the research process
  • Talk with your professor, your fellow students or make an appointment with me if you have any questions

Primary vs Secondary Sources

  • Primary sources are produced by participants in a specific event or time period, or witnesses to an event or period in history.  The event or experience may have happened centuries ago or seconds ago. Examples are letters, diaries, official government records, artifacts, contemporary newspaper articles, interviews, original photographs, memoirs and autobiographies
  • Secondary sources are typically books and articles written about a topic, by a non-participant in an historical event or time period. Authors of these works utilize evidence to formulate a thesis and develop a conclusion based on this evidence, which often are primary sources

Searching TIP: Many primary sources can be found within the bibliographies and notes in secondary sources.

If you are unsure about a source, check with your professor or a research librarian to determine whether it can be considered primary or secondary.

Search Tips

Top Search Tips

Use AND to combine keywords and phrases when searching the electronic databases for journal articles.

  •  china and film and history
  •  veterans and pensions and legislation
  •  united states and foreign policy

Unlike in Google and in other search engines, you will not get satisfactory results if you type an entire sentence, such as "the effect of advertising in mass media on teenage consumers." You need to pick out the key phrases, words, and concepts.

  • advertising and mass media and teenagers and consumers

If you type several words without AND in between, some of the article databases will assume you want only items where those words appear right next to each other, and in that exact order.

Use truncation (an asterisk) and wildcards (usually a question mark or exclamation point).

  •  child* and education
  •  globali?ation and analysis

Child* brings up child, children, childhood, and any other word that starts with the root "child." This works in most of the databases.

Globali?ation brings up items with the words globalization or globalisation.

If you don't use truncation and wildcards, some databases will look for an exact match to the words you type, and you may miss some relevant materials.

Warning: If you shorten the root word too much, you will bring up irrelevant items (soc* will bring up society and social and socioeconomic, but also Socrates).

Find out if the database you're using has a "subject search" option.

  • In Academic Search Premier, look for Subject Terms. 
  • In Ethnic Newswatch, in the Advanced Search, find the Thesaurus or click on "Look Up Subjects."
  • In CINAHL, use CINAHL Subject Headings

For some topics, subject searching works better than keyword searching, which is usually the default. 

This may bring up fewer results, but you'll be searching with more precision.

Use the results of a keyword search to discover subject headings (descriptors) used in the database. Usually, they will appear at the bottom of the article or somewhere in the citation. For example, by doing a keyword search for "girls and prostitution" you will discover that Academic Search Premier uses subject terms such as "Child prostitutes" and "Child sexual abuse."

And of course, ask a librarian if you have questions!

Don't spin your wheels and waste a lot of time if you get stuck or encounter something confusing. A librarian can save you time and help you find better information, more efficiently. For example, we can suggest the best databases for your topic. We can show you the most efficient way to search for articles by a particular author (HINT: usually not by keyword searching). We can advise you on search strategies and techniques tailored to your topic.

Also, a librarian can provide referrals to other sources and collections outside of UMass Amherst. 

Schedule a Research Consultation.

View a list of Subject Librarians.

For more assistance, use Ask Us.

Writing Center Help

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