Dispatches: Find reliable sources online
Finding sources that meet the requirements of Wikipedia's policy on reliable sources is one of the most challenging parts of writing a featured article. Whether you are conducting research before writing or searching for sources to back up claims that are already in an article, your chances of finding an excellent source increase if you search scholarly databases.
The June 26, 2008 dispatch discussed how reliable sources figure into the featured content processes and how featured content reviewers assess sources. The June 30, 2008 dispatch discussed finding sources in biology and medicine. This dispatch discusses using a variety of research databases, including Google Scholar, to find general sources for a variety of topics, including popular culture topics.
Most research databases can be accessed through subscription-based web sites. Public libraries and school libraries usually maintain subscriptions to these databases, making research possible for anyone who has physical or internet access to a library.
If you visit a library in person, you can typically access research databases from computers in the library that act as "portals" to the databases. When you browse a given database, the library computer passes on the library's subscription credentials (sometimes known as a proxy) and gives you full access to the database. If your library has a web site, you may be able to access research databases by browsing the library web site from any internet-enabled location. This type of access is less common for public libraries but standard for university libraries. If you are a university student, you most likely have access to research databases using your student credentials. When accessing research databases this way, your university credentials (login/password) are usually requested when you begin searching. If you are researching from a public library web site, the library may provide public-access credentials by request.
If you do not have access to any of these databases but discover through other means, such as Google Scholar, that you need articles from them, you can request that other Wikipedia editors obtain the articles for you at the Resource Exchange. Some WikiProjects, such as the Military History WikiProject, have set up lists of editors who have access to these databases for their members.
Choosing a database
The type of source you are looking for determines the database in which you search. Some databases are generalized and contain many kinds of sources and some are quite specialized. A librarian can assist you in choosing a research database, searching for sources, and viewing or printing sources. Depending on your topic, you may wish to seek out a specialist librarian such as a science or music librarian.
This article focuses on a few general databases where you will have the best chance doing wide searches on your topic, assuming you are not searching for a specific article.
- EBSCOhost provides a set of full text databases which are available via subscription. Its Academic Search databases index thousands of scholarly publications, many of them peer-reviewed, covering a wide range of subject areas. The quality and range of the indexing depends on the publication.
- Access World News indexes full-text newspapers from all over the world.
- Gale General OneFile focuses on magazines and periodicals dating back to 1980. The database includes over 11,000 titles, and is a good place to search if your topic is in popular culture (music, film, video games, etc.)
- JSTOR is a database containing scans of print journals in thirty distinct arts, humanities, and social science disciplines.
- LexisNexis Academic indexes many newspapers, trade publications, legal periodicals, and scholarly journals.
- The MLA International Bibliography is an indispensable database for articles about literature, modern language, folklore, and linguistics.
While these generalized databases are helpful for the first stages of your research, you should aim to become familiar with the specialized databases in the areas which you typically research. For example, there are numerous databases dedicated to primary source materials, such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and there are specialized online encyclopedias, such as the Grove Dictionary of Music, and there are specialized databases that bring together secondary and primary sources, such as the Victorian Popular Culture collection. The riches are endless and a good librarian can help you find what is appropriate for the article on which you are working.
The search process for the aforementioned databases and most others is to search fields like "full text", "keyword", or "title". Full-text searches are the most powerful but will also return the most results if not used precisely. The more specific your search, the better your results. For example, if you are writing an article about a musical group, performing a full text search will return all articles in the database that mention the band. Full-text searches are often helpful when you are researching an obscure topic. If there is little published research on your topic or it does not have a keyword in the database, for example, full-text searches can help you find scattered references to the topic that you might not otherwise have found. Keyword searches return a list of articles where the database host entered your search term as a keyword. For example, if you perform a keyword search on "peanuts", you will get a list of articles that are at least partially about peanuts. Title searches return a list of articles whose titles contain one or more of your search terms.
Once you obtain a list of results, you have to determine if the database owns a "full text" version of the article. If the full text is available, you can usually view it, save it, or print it from your computer. Some databases only store abstracts of some sources—in those cases, record the title, author, journal, and other information, and see the next section. Most databases allow you to email this information to yourself.
It is worth mentioning that each database has its own quirks and the search techniques that work in one database might not work as well in another database. The first time you search a database, the experience might not be fruitful and it might even be a tad frustrating. However, if you keep trying, you will become an expert searcher. Librarians often know these quirks well and can offer hints for searching in particular databases.
Searching for known articles
If you already have information on one or more articles you want to use as sources but don't know where to find them, Ulrich's Periodicals Directory is where you should start looking for electronic versions of the article. Ulrich's keeps an index of almost every magazine, journal, and newspaper in existence. For example, if you want to use a specific article that was printed in Omni Magazine, you can look up the magazine in Ulrich's and discover which databases electronically index back issues of the magazine. If your library has access to that database, you can find an electronic copy of your article.
Using Google Scholar
Google Scholar is a powerful searching tool to which everyone has access. However, for most copyrighted works, it only has "limited preview"—that is, you cannot read the entire work. Usually, however, you can read enough to determine if the work will be helpful and sometimes you only need to read a few pages and therefore the limited preview is sufficient.
Here is an example of how a query might work with Google Scholar. Suppose you are interested in the history of daylight saving time. As of 2008-07-03 at about 20:00 UTC, the Google Scholar query history of daylight saving time returns about 30,300 sources; in the first page listing ten sources, only three are relevant. The better query history daylight-saving returns only 2,400 sources, but this time only one of the first ten sources are relevant. Clicking on "Recent articles" narrows the search's results to 470 total articles published in the last five years, where four of the first ten sources are relevant. Of these four sources, two are books and are not freely readable; one is freely readable and on the net; the other is also freely readable but you'll need a further web search to find it.
Often, narrowing the search parameters using the "advanced scholar search" can help increase the relevance of your results. Selecting a subject area or a range of years for publication is often helpful. For example, after narrowing our search of "history daylight saving" to the "Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences" category, we receive slightly better results. It is also sometimes helpful to click on "related articles" and "cited by" under the more promising entries. This will help you generate a research bibliography.
However, you should not rely solely on search engines to find sources, because they often miss sources. A good strategy is to find a few recent high-quality sources, and then follow their citations to see what your search engine missed.
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