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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

IMPACT! Service, Contemplation and Social Justice

Guide to library research for Service Learning 192: Service Learning Residential Academic Program

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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: fundamentalist, extremist, militant…
  • Some databases let you truncate—search for part of a word, and bring back many versions of that word. For example, searching for fundamentalis* would bring back articles that mention fundamentalist, fundamentalists, fundamentalism…
  • 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!