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Research & Information Technology

Instructor: Anna Hiller

Anna has taught world literature in several universities and has a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature.

This lesson describes various techniques for identifying reliable secondary sources when using online databases and bibliographies for research. It also discusses the importance of writing strong search strings when doing online research.

Research in the Information Age

Imagine we were transported back in time to 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Everything would be unrecognizable. Things like plants, animals, and even the dinosaurs themselves would be strange and unfamiliar, and perhaps more than a little scary!

Now, let's take a step back in time that's a little closer than the time of the dinosaurs: 1975. Though T-Rexes were not exactly roaming the land in 1975, things were still pretty different from the way they are today. There were no hybrid cars, no laptops, no smartphones, and there was definitely no internet. People still read books - even the print kind! And if you wanted to get a book, chances are you went to your local library to borrow one.

At the library, there was always a piece of furniture there that is now almost extinct like the dinosaurs: a card catalog.

Large cabinets of index cards used to be common in libraries
Library Card Catalog

A card catalog was a directory of all the books in the library, arranged on index cards by author, title, and subject. You had to flip through them to find the book you wanted or needed by hand! Now, of course, we can go to our computers, access the internet, and learn about any subject in the world in a matter of seconds. There are over a billion websites now, and over 4 billion web pages online. Imagine if you had to print all that information out on index cards. That would have to be one very large card catalog!

Is the Information on the Internet Reliable?

Even though the internet is huge and is a vast store for human knowledge, many of these websites are considered to be unreliable. The biggest example of this is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is editable by the public, not just experts in their fields. For reliable information, we turn to the databases and bibliographies created by scholars for researchers and students like you. It is easy to do quick research now that we have the internet, but it must also be quality research.

'Reliable' Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a piece of criticism, data, or official study that a scholar has performed regarding your topic of interest. If you want to find a legitimate secondary source for your research, you will have to access an official database or bibliography online. In general, databases have a wide scope and are multidisciplinary, sort of like the card catalog with an index card for every single book in the library.

Bibliographies, on the other hand, are often specific to a discipline or subject, like physics or history. The vast majority of the secondary sources listed in databases and bibliographies have been written by scholars in their fields, and frequently other scholars review them before they are published. They are therefore considered to be 'reliable' resources.

More on Databases and Bibliographies

As previously mentioned, bibliographies frequently include a search engine that is targeted to one specific area or collection. This is particularly useful if you are doing a research project within one precise area of study. For example, if you were writing a paper for an English class on Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, you could use a tool specific to English literature, like the MLA Bibliography.

If you were doing research in more than one subject area, you might need to use a multidisciplinary database instead, like WorldCat. WorldCat is a library card catalog, only it indexes almost every major library on earth. There you can find out where to locate reliable sources from all over the world. Pretty amazing!

Other Resources for Conducting Reliable Research

Google Scholar

Google scholar is a search engine for secondary sources that tells you how many times a certain article has been cited by others. You can use this information to give you a sense of how reliable the secondary source is.

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