Students very often begin with a Google search to get a sense of what's out there and what different approaches are being taken to a given topic. Wikipedia articles are often one of the first results listed in a Google search, but librarians can also point you toward specialized reference works such as the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics or the Encyclopedia of Sociology that do a great job of filling you in on a topic before you dive in any deeper - and are much more likely to be considered credible sources by your teachers.
Until you know a bit about your topic, you can't narrow your focus. Try one of these strategies to get the big picture:
Many students turn to Wikipedia for background information because it's easy to use, it's vast, and it has become so popular its articles often turn up within the first few links of a Web search. For some topics, particularly in the realm of popular culture, the articles can be valuable. However, there are two things to bear in mind.
First, because authorship is not limited to experts, but is open to anyone, there are times the articles are written by enthusiastic but ignorant amateurs.
Second, the quality varies considerably depending on who is interested in editing articles on a particular topic. Quite a number of scientists and lawyers have spent time improving articles on topics they understand well, but other subjects may have only skimpy articles. Apart from subjects, the Wikmedia Foundation that manages Wikipedia has expressed concern about the lack of diversity among editors, including the lack of women editors, which some feel results in uneven coverage of subjects of interest to or about women.
In general, Wikipedia is often a great place to get basic background information and often will provide links to useful sources. However, it is not generally considered a solid source for most college-level research. Even its founder, Jimmy Wales, cautions students against using Wikipedia for research papers. He told a reporter, "If you are reading a novel that mentions the Battle of the Bulge, for instance, you could use Wikipedia to get a quick basic overview of the historical event to understand the context. But students writing a paper about the battle should hit the history books." In 2005, the prestigious science journal, Nature, caused a stir when it published an analysis that claimed science articles in Wikipedia contained an average of four mistakes, whereas the Encylopaedia Britannica contained three - something Britannica hotly denied. Nevertheless, for college research you should go beyond general encyclopedias, whether online or in print.
If you'd like to know more about Wikipedia, check out this article in The Atlantic. Or for a politically-barbed, satirical take, see how it was covered by The Colbert Report.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Wikiality|
Serendipity plays a big role in research, so long as you put yourself where it's most likely to happen. When looking for books, you may want to start by searching the catalog - but once you find a book that looks promising, browse the section of shelves around it. Our library uses the Library of Congress system that, in the same way as the more familiar Dewey Decimal system, puts books on the same topic near each other. You may want to browse in more than one section: the general collection, oversized, reference, or for international studies the Hasselquist Room. Each of these sections has its own A-Z set of Library of Congress system call numbers.
Some topics are more easily browsed than others. For example, books by and about a particular writer are shelved together, but books on interdisciplinary subjects such as environmental science may be in several places. Check the Majors pages for a list of browsing areas by major.
Keep an eye out for current books as you scan the shelves. One easy tip for doing that is to look at the call number labels. In recent years, call numbers end with the year of publication. This makes it easy to see if a book is current without having to open it up and look at the back of the title page.
Browsing is trickier in the periodicals section on the lower level, because journals and magazines are shelved alphabetically by title rather than by subject. However, the Majors pages have lists of what journals we get by major if you want to flip through issues of core journals in the field. This works particularly well if you're in the "I'm still trying to decide what sort of topic I might tackle" phase. You might also take a browse through recent issues of a general magazine such as The New Yorker, Harper's, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, or New Scientist just to spark ideas.
As you decide which sources to look at more closely think about these ideas.
Be sure you do some skimming before you print anything off or haul books back to your dorm room. Quite often, a source that seems to be exactly on your topic turns out to be not very helpful after all. You don't want to discover that when you're sitting down to write a paper that's due tomorrow.
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