Gather background information

Since everyone knows that books and journal articles are great sources for research papers and projects, many students start their research by looking for books and articles. This is often a bit premature. You can save a lot of time by scanning synthesized treatments of topics —like encyclopedia articles—before committing to a topic and delving into the primary literature.

Wikipedia. You've heard it before and we'll say it again: Wikipedia is an acceptable place to begin your research, but not to end it. What appears in Wikipedia may or may not be factual, so you can't use it as a source - but sometimes the sources listed in Wikipedia bibliographies are acceptable for academic work. Use with caution, and don't spend too much time here. Wikipedia is a stepping stone. Keep on moving!

Why I ♥ academic encyclopedia articles

  • They present concise summaries (aka, SHORT - not a lot to read)
  • Academic encyclopedia articles are written by scholars who are experts in their fields, scholars whose work you may want to use
  • These articles often include short bibliographies that identify the most important works on a topic (again, you may want to cite these in your work)
  • Scholarly encyclopedia articles are a quick way to get up to speed on subject-specific jargon, important people and places, critical events, etc.

How to find great subject-specific encyclopedias

  • Search MUSCAT (our library catalog) and limit results to items in the reference collection
  • Search our online encyclopedias and dictionaries - most (but not all) are concentrated in Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL) and Oxford Reference Online (ORO)
  • Check the research guide for your department to learn about any major reference sources in that field (ex: Grove Dictionary of Art & Artists is THE source for visual art research)
  • Ask a librarian or your professor what the most important reference work is for this class!

Timesaver! Remember, even if you can't use an encyclopedia article as a source for your final project, encyclopedias can give you a jump start, lead you to quality sources you CAN cite, and save a lot of time!

For upper-division science and social science students: consider seeking a review article on your topic. A review article is akin to the book reports you did in elementary school, only much more thorough - the author reads all the research published to date on a topic and synthesizes it in a single article. Review articles have lengthy bibliographies that are gold mines for student writers. If you can find a review article on your topic, read it early in your research process. Where can you find review articles?

  • Search the Annual Reviews database - all articles in this database are review articles, and they are all fulltext
  • Review articles are also in subject-specific databases, and often you can specify that you want review articles as the publication type. Check! Every discipline has a subject-specific database; if you're not sure what it is, see the library research guide for the discipline. Or, just ask a librarian or your professor.

 

Evaluating your sources

You should think critically about the information sources you're using in your work, especially if you're citing them in a research paper or presentation. It's one thing to use the Internet when looking to buy a cell phone, but it's another thing when you're finding sources for an academic paper.

A few of the things to consider when evaluating sources:

  • Who is the author? What do you know about them?
  • What audience is the information intended for?
  • Is the information appropriate for the topic that you're researching?
  • Is the information up-to-date? (This won't always matter!)
  • Are sources cited either in the text or in a bibliography at the end? (Sometimes this is important. Sometimes it isn't. It depends on the type of source and your information need.)

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

Video Source: North Carolina State University Libraries, "Peer Review in 5 Minutes."


For much of the research that you do at Gettysburg College, professors will request that you use scholarly articles (from peer-reviewed journals, rather than popular magazines and websites.) If you need help telling the difference, see our guide on the library website (PDF).

Website Evaluation

We know that the Internet is more than old music videos on YouTube. There is also a lot of academic information available. While the great thing about the Internet is that anyone with a little time, some knowledge, and a small amount of money can make a webpage, we have to keep in mind:

  • No person, persons, or organization reviews the content on the Internet.
  • Search engines retrieve pages based on the page content, not the relevancy or quality of the page.
  • Have you seen a webpage from 1996? It's not pretty. A lot of pages are not updated regularly.

If you need help evaluating websites, check out the CRAAP test. The test guide will help you wade through the muck you pick up when searching the web.