Research Tips: How I Search for Information

Ed note: We know November means that we’re approaching the end of the semester and many of you will be working on research projects. In light of this time of the semester, and that November has become known as both National Novel Writing Month and Academic Writing Month, we’re bringing you a couple of posts this month with our favorite research tips to help you get to writing that research paper. We’d love to hear your favorite research and writing tips. Please share them with us on Twitter (@AldenLibrary) or Facebook. Be sure to also check out our Writing Tips Pinboard.

One of the early steps in writing an article or paper is researching for information. Being a librarian, I naturally enjoy the thrill of the hunt for information-rich,data-filled articles and papers. When writing an article or paper, we research the work of others to

  • determine what has already been done,
  • find gaps in knowledge on the topic,
  • provide background or contextual information, and
  • support our findings and/or insights.

Regardless of whether we are searching for articles on a specific topic or for one particular article or paper, there are similar tools and techniques we can employ. To demonstrate some search techniques, let’s look for this paper:

Paper title: Supervision of discrete event systems

Authors: W.M. Wonham

Source: Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Cybernetics and Society

Year: Maybe 1983 or 1984

Normally with a known item, ALICE Catalog is a logical beginning since it indicates what we have access to in print and online. However, we are not sure about the date, so it may behoove us to verify the citation information. There are numerous databases we could use to find citation information but I know most everyone’s favorite search engine is Google.

Now that we have selected our research tool, Google. Let’s consider what search terms we will use. The author’s name appears to be unique. And let’s includes a few keywords from the title, such as “discrete event systems” (in quotes). We will discover many journal articles by Dr. Wonham but not the conference paper (even if we look at several pages of Google results**). Next we will probably add a few more keywords like supervision and cybernetics. Again, we will find a lot written by Dr. Wonham but not the conference paper.

Our search strategy is solid — determine relevant search terms, use quotes around search terms that are two or more words, and combine search terms with AND (Google automatically does this). Why cannot we verify the date? Let’s try a different research tool (ask us, if needed).

Record from Compendex
Compendex record for Dr. Wonham’s paper.

Given the topic I recommend searching the database, Compendex. Compendex indexes engineering journals, conference proceedings, etc. Again, we will determine what search terms to enter and if quotes, Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), or other search techniques are appropriate. Success! There is a record for the conference paper indicating the date as well as the correct conference title.

Why did Google fail? Google relies on others for its content. IEEE does expose its citation information to Google but they do not include the papers from the Proceedings of the IEEE Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. The author has not included this particular citation on his CV or website and it appears not to be heavily cited. In fairness, there are gaps in Compendex’s coverage as well. The moral is if you are conducting comprehensive research, search at least two research tools.

Regardless of whether we are looking for articles by subject or topic or just one specific article, we follow a very similar process.

Venn diagrams explaining AND, OR, NOT.
How Boolean operators impact search terms
  1. Select research tool(s)
  2. Determine search terms (including related terms)
  3. Develop a search strategy
    1. Use quotes around search terms with two or more words
    2. Connect search terms with Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT and use parentheses around ORed search terms)
    3. Determine if search terms should be truncated i.e., look for the stem and any possible variation of the word e.g., light → light, lights, lighting
    4. Apply any limits i.e., date, language, etc.

Happy searching and good luck writing!

** As of October 14, 2013, citation information for Dr. Wonham’s conference paper could not be found using Google.