Aphorisms on Finding Scholarship

Planning Your Research: Before beginning your research, think carefully about how much criticism you want to bring into your paper: do you want to be the authoritative statement on this issue (which might mean 50-100 sources), or do you want to be one voice among many (maybe 5-10 sources).

Research Across the Disciplines: What follows is a sequence of actions for finding scholarship in any field or discipline. A big part of finding scholarship is knowing the discipline-specific academic resources available to you, but there are some things that can be generalized for research in all fields.

Identifying Keywords: Before you do any searching, first identify some search keywords for your research project. When researching, as when thinking or writing, the more specific you can be the better. Create a list of keywords, and expand that list by adding synonyms for your keywords. For example, a research project on “Renaissance theology” could include synonyms such as (for “Renaissance”) “early-modern,” “sixteenth century,” and “Elizabethan” and (for “theology”) “religion” and “spirituality.” As you perform your searches, you’ll discover which keywords/synonyms work best together, and you’ll probably discover new keywords that you didn’t know applied. The best place to discover the keywords library catalogues use is in the “subject” field of a record.

Search Strategies: After identifying your keywords for searching, familiarize yourself with advanced searching strategies such as Boolean connectors (AND, OR, and NOT), searching for phrases (e.g. “dumb cop stereotype”), truncated searches (e.g. psychopath* will return psychopath, psychopaths, psychopathy, psychopathic, etc.), and wildcard searches (e.g. wom?n will return woman or women).

Start a Working Bibliography: Once you know your keywords and search strategies, you should start a working bibliography to fill with references that you think will be important for your research project (alternately, you may choose to use a research program such as Endnote). Exactly how many references to include in your bibliography will depend on the kind and length of the paper you’re working on. If I had to give a number, I’d say that one reference per assigned page is a good number to shoot for.

Mining References: To help you populate your working bibliography, you should practice two strategies as you search. The first is to mine the references of the books and articles you read. That is, when you find an article or book that is closely related to the specific issue you’re dealing with in your research project, look at the references and notes in that article closely because you’ll probably be able to find in those references other sources that are also very relevant.

Identifying Landmark Scholarship: The other strategy you’ll want to employ is to identify the classic or landmark scholars and scholarship on your topic. Make note of the names and studies that continually arise as you search for your topic, since this constancy probably indicates a certain popularity and influence, which often (though not always) means it includes a quality argument to which you'll want to give special attention. What is the absolutely essential reading (1-3 sources) that everyone who writes on your topic needs to address? What names or works are repeatedly referenced in a wide number of studies? Often, identifying a landmark scholar or study and then spending extensive time with that one writer or work will provide you with a better grasp of your topic than spending the same amount of time with the more recent but less valuable commentators on that classic.

You Get the Research You Pay For: Now it’s time to start searching. As in life, in academic research you get what you pay for. Analysis freely floating around the internet is usually very poor analysis. Don’t go Google your keywords and expect the first ten results to be the ten best sources for your research. Additionally, the analyses found on a Wikipedia or a Sparknotes page are meant to be helpful to a vast number of people, but you’re entering the stage in your development as a writer when you’ll be having focused conversations with professionals who are already aware of these generalities. Some of your tuition goes to the library to pay for the university's access to professional academic resources, so you should get your money's worth by using these resources. Two students can spend the same amount of time and energy searching for scholarly sources, and the one who spends that time and energy in the right places (i.e., with the academic resources available through the library) will end up with much better results than the one who spends his or her time and energy in the wrong places (i.e., with the internet at large).

But Public Resources are Not Evil: It is not a crime to search around on the internet to familiarize yourself with a topic. All of us do it. This web-surfing should be thought of, however, as introductory research rather than advanced research, which is what you'll need to conduct in order to write a compelling academic paper.

Public Resources:

  • General internet searches on Google (https://www.google.com) can be helpful for identifying sources.
  • Public online databases like Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/) are wonderful for the curious mind, but they aren't reliable enough for an academic analysis. The same can likely be said of sites linked to from a Wikipedia page, which should be consulted only to familiarize yourself with an issue. For example, a website created by a professor for a course might be composed in haste, thus sloppily, but it can still guide you to relevant texts and ideas. Use such websites to familiarize yourself with an area of inquiry, and possibly to help populate your working bibliography, but don't read or cite them as authoritative.
  • Try Google Books (https://www.books.google.com) as well. This database is helpful because it allows you to search full texts in very specific terms, and it includes recent books that might not have made their way into databases, but it also offers only partial previews (20 pages or so), snippet views (3-5 lines), and no previews of many texts. For this reason, it is important to search Google Books while physically at the library, where you can then seek out and access hard copies of any books needed for your research.
  • And you may want to spend a little more time with Google Scholar (https://www.scholar.google.com). Two features on Google Scholar are especially helpful. First, the “Cited By” feature will take you to more recent works that cite the older article you originally found. The “Cited By” system isn’t perfect, but it often allows you to trace the descendants of important articles and to find (by intelligently repeating “Cited By” clicks) the most recent scholarship relevant to your research topic. Second, the "Related Articles" feature will take you to older articles that are cited by the original article you found. Clicking around with the "Cited By" and "Related Articles" features will help you build up your list of newer and older sources. 

Academic Resources: After you’ve clicked around on the internet enough to familiarize yourself with a topic in general, begin your serious academic research by going to your academic library's homepage. 

  • Textbooks, Encyclopedias, Handbooks: Start your academic research with some discipline-specific resources: textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias. These works are great for finding overviews of trends, topics, common ideas, and classic studies in a given field, and their references will provide a good place for you to begin or refine your working bibliography.
  • Bibliographies and Companions: Next, go to some slightly more involved discipline-specific resources: bibliographies and companions. These research aids are usually much more extensive than textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, which is good for finding sources that aren’t widely known.

Discipline-Specific Resources: After you’ve reviewed these introductory and reference works, it’s time to start searching for the scholarly articles and books upon which those overviews are based. In the words of the Renaissance humanists (the first modern scholars), ad fontes, “to the sources.” There are primarily four ways that you can discover and track down articles and books:

  • Discipline-Specific Research Directory: Often, you can find (through the library or on the internet) a discipline-specific research directory that can point you to various resources.
  • Discipline-Specific Databases: You’ll want to make sure that you spend some serious time in some discipline-specific databases.
  • Discipline-Specific Journals: You should also identify and explore some discipline-specific academic journals.
  • General Academic Databases: Finally, look at some general academic databases such as Academic Search Complete and JSTOR.

At the Library: At the university's library, continue your research by looking for an annotated bibliography on your topic or text. Also search the library’s catalog for any books that didn't appear in your other searches. Finally, go to the section of the library stacks devoted to your text or topic, and browse the shelves for any titles that might be relevant to your research (some of the most valuable sources in my own research have come from picking up a book that I saw on a shelf near the book I was actually looking for).

Repetition and Confidence: If you search for your keywords in these resources, you’re likely to get some duplicate results from your earlier database searches, but you may also get some important articles that may not have popped up in your earlier searches. Moreover, you’ll start to gain a sense that you actually know what’s out there. Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking to say, for example, that previous critics haven’t addressed some issue that you want to address, because you aren’t entirely sure of everything that’s out there. The more you search around, the more confident you will become that you’ve seen all that’s out there.