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Tips for Doing Online Research

Tips for Doing Online Research

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Strategies for making the most of Harvard's e-resources
Strategies for making the most of Harvard's e-resources

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Published by: Lamont Research Services, Harvard U on Aug 28, 2009
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01/10/2013

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Tips for Doing Research Online
 
 
 WHAT?
First and foremost, you need to state, however vaguely at this early stage, what your researchproblem is. See if you can rephrase your research topic in terms of a
question
. Doing so has certainpsychological benefits: questions help you to define and direct your area of inquiry; and because they needanswers, they propel you into motion and toward a goal.
 
HOW?
Recognize that the success of your research will depend upon how well and flexibly you can uselanguage. Library catalogs, indexes and abstracts, electronic databases, web search engines
the typicalinformation finding tools
—are all built out of words. So start with what’s easy.
Break your research
 
question down
into its component parts: the one, two, three or more basic words, phrases, or concepts thatidentify the information you might be after. What
vocabulary
would YOU use to describe the key issues youwant to research? How many
other words
could you use to describe these issues? Who else talks about theseissues: professionals, laypersons, scholars, etc.? How might they do so? Would they use a differentvocabulary? Are there certain combinations of words that better or more powerfully describe the informationyou are after?
 
Understand the difference between
keywords
and
controlled vocabulary
(variously know as
subjectheadings
,
descriptors
,
identifiers
, or
thesaurus terms
).
 
Understand the ways to locate controlled vocabulary terms so that you can exploit their power[Reference librarians can point you in the right directions].
 
Recognize that you may have to
try a search several different ways
before you strike gold. If one
word or phrase doesn’t do the trick, others might, so be sure you have alternatives at the ready.
 
 
Remember that
one size does not fit all
. Finding tools may or may not use the same controlledvocabulary; nor will they respond equally well even to the same keywords. You may discover, forinstance, that broader terms work better in one database and more specific terms in another. As youmove among online resources, be aware that they may behave idiosyncratically, and adjust yourstrategy accordingly.
 
 WHERE?
Even for students who are adept with language or who are confident in the knowledge of whatthey want to do, database selection can be tricky. Make sure that you:
 
 
Know that you have options
. From the Library home page, you will find multiple paths toinformation. Many print resources exist as well; ask a Reference librarian to help you locate them.
Once you’ve
decided on a topic and have thought of some ways to talk about it, ask yourself whereyou are MOST LIKELY
to find relevant discussions of such a topic. If you’ve already posed thequestion, “Who talks about my topic?” you can now go one step further: “W
here can I find out what
they say about my topic?”
 
Never take a database at face value.
Even databases that may seem to cover the same terrain (e.g.,Biology or Medicine) can cater to different audiences (specialist, non-specialist, etc.) and differentemphases. You should routinely access the HELP files of a database, especially one that is new toyou, to confirm its suitability for a particular research project.
 
 
Understand that every database is SELECTIVE.
Databases are produced by agencies, groups, orcompanies that have certain agendas and thus make choices about
what information
to include(popular magazines, scholarly journals, or a mix of both, e.g.), and
at what depth
(citation only,citation and abstract, full-text). Moreover, there are always issues of
comprehensiveness
(how far

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