Academic Database Essays

Back in 2010, we shared with you 100 awesome search engines and research resources in our post: 100 Time-Saving Search Engines for Serious Scholars. It’s been an incredible resource, but now, it’s time for an update. Some services have moved on, others have been created, and we’ve found some new discoveries, too. Many of our original 100 are still going strong, but we’ve updated where necessary and added some of our new favorites, too. Check out our new, up-to-date collection to discover the very best search engine for finding the academic results you’re looking for.

General

Need to get started with a more broad search? These academic search engines are great resources.

  1. iSEEK Education:iSeek is an excellent targeted search engine, designed especially for students, teachers, administrators, and caregivers. Find authoritative, intelligent, and time-saving resources in a safe, editor-reviewed environment with iSEEK.
  2. RefSeek:With more than 1 billion documents, web pages, books, journals, newspapers, and more, RefSeek offers authoritative resources in just about any subject, without all of the mess of sponsored links and commercial results.
  3. Virtual LRC:The Virtual Learning Resources Center has created a custom Google search, featuring only the best of academic information websites. This search is curated by teachers and library professionals around the world to share great resources for academic projects.
  4. Academic Index:This scholarly search engine and web directory was created just for college students. The websites in this index are selected by librarians, teachers, and educational consortia. Be sure to check out their research guides for history, health, criminal justice, and more.
  5. BUBL LINK:If you love the Dewey Decimal system, this Internet resource catalog is a great resource. Search using your own keywords, or browse subject areas with Dewey subject menus.
  6. Digital Library of the Commons Repository:Check out the DLC to find international literature including free and open access full-text articles, papers, and dissertations.
  7. OAIster:Search the OAIster database to find millions of digital resources from thousands of contributors, especially open access resources.
  8. Internet Public Library:Find resources by subject through the Internet Public Library’s database.
  9. Infomine:The Infomine is an incredible tool for finding scholarly Internet resource collections, especially in the sciences.
  10. Microsoft Academic Search:Microsoft’s academic search engine offers access to more than 38 million different publications, with features including maps, graphing, trends, and paths that show how authors are connected.
  11. Google Correlate:Google’s super cool search tool will allow you to find searches that correlate with real-world data.
  12. Wolfram|Alpha:Using expert-level knowledge, this search engine doesn’t just find links; it answers questions, does analysis, and generates reports.

Meta Search

Want the best of everything? Use these meta search engines that return results from multiple sites all at once.

  1. Dogpile:Find the best of all the major search engines with Dogpile, an engine that returns results from Google, Yahoo!, and Bing, with categories including Web, Images, Video, and even White Pages.
  2. MetaCrawler:MetaCrawler makes it easy to “search the search engines,” returning results from Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.
  3. Mamma:Check out the mother of all search engines to pin down the best resources on the web. Mamma even searches Twitter and job postings!

Databases and Archives

Resources like the Library of Congress have considerable archives and documents available, and many of them have taken their collections online. Use these search tools to get access to these incredible resources.

  1. Library of Congress:In this incredible library, you’ll get access to searchable source documents, historical photos, and amazing digital collections.
  2. Archives Hub:Find the best of what Britain has to offer in the Archives Hub. You’ll be able to search archives from almost 200 institutions from England, Scotland, and Wales.
  3. National Archives:Check out this resource for access to the National Archives. Find online, public access to find historic documents, research, government information, and more in a single search.
  4. arXiv e-Print Archive:Cornell University’s arXiv.org offers open access to a wealth of e-prints in math, science, and related subjects. Search this resource to find what you need among 756,133 documents and counting.
  5. Archivenet:An initiative of the Historical Centre Overijssel, Archivenet makes it easy to find Dutch archives and more.
  6. NASA Historical Archive:Explore the history of space in this historical archive from NASA, highlighting space history and manned missions.
  7. National Agricultural Library:A service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you can find global information for agriculture in the National Agricultural Library.
  8. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System:Get access to the considerable resources of the Smithsonian Institution through the Research Information System, a great way to search more than 7.4 million records from the Smithsonian’s museums, archives, and libraries.
  9. The British Library Catalogues & Collections:Explore the British Library catalogues, printed materials, digital collections, and even collection blogs for a wealth of resources.
  10. CIA World Factbook:As the center of intelligence, the CIA has certainly done its job with The World Factbook, offering information on major reference information around the world. History, people, government, economy, and more are all covered in this online publication.
  11. State Legislative Websites Directory:Use this database to find information from the legislatures of all 50 U.S. states, DC, and the Territories. You can look up bills, statutes, legislators, and more with this excellent tool.
  12. OpenDOAR:In the Directory of Open Access Repositories, you can search through freely academic research information with more directly useful resources.
  13. Catalog of U.S. Government Publications:Search through the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications to find descriptive records for historical and current publications, with direct links where available.

Books & Journals

Instead of heading to the library to bury your face in the stacks, use these search engines to find out which libraries have the books you need, and maybe even find them available online.

  1. WorldCat:Find items from 10,000 libraries worldwide, with books, DVDs, CDs, and articles up for grabs. You can even find your closest library with WorldCat’s tools.
  2. Google Books:Supercharge your research by searching this index of the world’s books. You’ll find millions for free and others you can preview to find out if they’re what you’re looking for.
  3. Scirus:For scientific information only, Scirus is a comprehensive research tool with more than 460 million scientific items including journal content, courseware, patents, educational websites, and more.
  4. HighBeam Research:Research articles and published sources with HighBeam Research’s tools. You’ll not only be able to search for what you’re looking for, you can also choose from featured research topics and articles. Note: HighBeam is a paid service.
  5. Vadlo:Vadlo is a life sciences search engine offering protocols, tools, and powerpoints for scientific research and discovery. Find what you’re looking for, and then stick around to check out the forums.
  6. Open Library:Find the world’s classic literature, open e-books, and other excellent open and free resources in the Open Library. You can even contribute to the library with information, corrections to the catalog, and curated lists.
  7. Online Journals Search Engine:In this free, powerful scientific search engine, you can discover journals, articles, research reports, and books in scientific publications.
  8. Google Scholar:Check out Google Scholar to find only scholarly resources on Google. The search specializes in articles, patents, and legal documents, and even has a resource for gathering your citations.
  9. Bioline International:Search Bioline International to get connected with a variety of scientific journals. The search is managed by scientists and librarians as a collaborative initiative between Bioline Toronto and and the Reference Center on Environmental Information.
  10. SpringerLink:Search through SpringerLink for electronic journals, protocols, and books in just about every subject possible. You can also browse publications by collection and content type.
  11. Directory of Open Access Journals:When you need top-quality journal writings for free, the Directory of Open Access Journals is a great place to check out. You’ll get access to a searchable journal of full-text quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals.
  12. Jurn:In this curated academic search engine, you’ll get results from over 4,000 free scholarly e-journals in the arts and humanities.

Science

With a focus on science, these academic search engines return all-science, all the time.

  1. SciSeek:In this science search engine and directory, you’ll find the best of what the science web has to offer. Browse by category, search by keyword, and even add new sites to the listings.
  2. Chem BioFinder:Register with PerkinElmer to check out the Chem BioFinder and look up information about chemicals, including their properties and reactions.
  3. Biology Browser:Biology Browser is a great resource for finding research, resources, and information in the field of biology. You can also check out their Zoological Record and BIOSIS Previews.
  4. Athenus:Athenus is an authority on science and engineering on the Web, sharing a directory and full-featured web search.
  5. SciCentral:Use SciCentral as your gateway to the best sources in science. This site has a literature search, journals, databases, and other great tools for finding what you need.
  6. Strategian:Strategian is a great place to find quality information in all fields of science. Featured resources include free full-text books, patents, and reports, as well as full-text journal and magazine articles, plus a special collection of Vintage Biology with important articles and books in biology.
  7. Science.gov:In this government science portal, you can search more than 50 databases and 2,100 selected websites from 12 federal agencies. This is an incredible resource for millions of pages of U.S. government science information.
  8. CERN Document Server:This organization for nuclear research serves up a great search and directory for experiments, archives, articles, books, presentations, and so much more within their documents.
  9. Analytical Sciences Digital Library:Through the Analytical Sciences Digital Library, you’ll find peer-reviewed, web-based educational resources in analytical sciences, featuring a variety of formats for techniques and applications.
  10. WorldWideScience:Use WorldWideScience.org as a global science gateway, offering excellent search results in the sciences, and even the option to select specific databases and find resources in your own language.

Math & Technology

Keep your results limited to only the best math and technology resources by using these search engines.

  1. MathGuide:Check out the MathGuide subject gateway to find online information sources in mathematics. The catalog offers not just a search, but a database of high quality Internet resources in math.
  2. ZMATH Online Database:Zentralblatt MATH’s online database has millions of entries from thousands of serials and journals dating back as far as 1826. Nearly 35,000 items were added in 2012 alone.
  3. Math WebSearch:This semantic search engine allows users to search with numbers and formulas instead of text.
  4. Current Index to Statistics:In this bibliographic index, you’ll find publications in statistics, probability, and related fields. There are more than 160 preferred journals, plus selected articles from 1,200 more and 11,000 statistics books to draw from in this search.
  5. Inspec:This database was made for scientists and engineers by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. You’ll find nearly 13 million abstracts and research literature, primarily in the fields of physics and engineering.
  6. CiteSeerX:Get searchable access to the Scientific Research Digital Library by using the CiteSeerX website.
  7. The Collection of Computer Science Bibliographies:Find more than 3 million references to journal articles, conference papers, and technical reports in computer science with this bibliography collection.
  8. Citebase:Still in experimental demonstration, Citebase Search is a resource for searching abstracts in math, technology, and more.

Social Science

Researchers working in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and related subjects will find great results using these search engines.

  1. Behavioral Brain Science Archive:Check out this searchable archive to find extensive psychology and brain science articles.
  2. Social Science Research Network:In this research network, you can find a wide variety of social science research from a number of specialized networks including cognitive science, leadership, management, and social insurance.
  3. Psycline:Find a journal with Psycline’s journal and article locator, a tool that offers access to more than 2,000 psychology and social science journals online.
  4. Social Sciences Citation Index:The Thomson Reuters Social Sciences Citation Index is a paid tool, but well worth its cost for the wealth of relevant articles, search tools, and thorough resources available.
  5. Ethnologue:Search the languages of the world with Ethnologue, offering an encyclopedic reference of all the world’s known living languages. You’ll also be able to find more than 28,000 citations in the Ethnologue’s language research bibliography.
  6. SocioSite:Use this site from the University of Amsterdam to browse sociological subjects including activism, culture, peace, and racism.
  7. The SocioWeb:Check out this guide to find all of the sociological resources you’ll need on the internet. The SocioWeb offers links to articles, essays, journals, blogs, and even a marketplace.
  8. WikiArt:With this custom Google search engine, you can find open access articles about archaeology.
  9. Encyclopedia of Psychology:Search or browse the Encyclopedia of Psychology to find basic information, and even translations for information about psychology careers, organizations, publications, people, and history.
  10. Anthropology Review Database:Through this database, you can get access to anthropology reviews, look up publishers, and find resources available for review.
  11. Anthropological Index Online:This anthropological online search includes both general search of 4,000 periodicals held in The British Museum Anthropology Library as well as Royal Anthropological Institute films.
  12. Political Information:Political Information is a search engine for politics, policy, and political news with more than 5,000 carefully selected websites for political information.

History

Find awesome resources for history through these search engines that index original documents, sources, and archives.

  1. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection:Use the LUNA Browser to check out David Rumsey’s Map Collection with more than 30,000 images, searchable by keyword.
  2. Genesis:Find excellent sources for women’s history with the Genesis dataset and extensive list of web resources.
  3. Fold3:Get access to historical military records through Fold3, the web’s premier collection of original military records and memorials.
  4. Internet Modern History Sourcebook:Use the Internet Modern History Sourcebook to find thousands of sources in modern history. Browse and search to find full texts, multimedia, and more.
  5. Library of Anglo-American Culture and History:Use the history guide from the Library of Anglo-American Culture and History for a subject catalog of recommended websites for historians, with about 11,000 to choose from.
  6. HistoryBuff:History Buff offers an online newspaper archive, reference library, and even a historical panoramas section in their free primary source material collection.
  7. Digital History:University of Houston’s Digital History database offers a wealth of links to textbook, primary sources, and educational materials in digital history. The database has multimedia, an interactive timeline, active learning, and resources for teachers.
  8. Internet Ancient History Sourcebook:The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook is a great place to study human origins, with full text and search on topics including Mesopotamia, Rome, the Hellenistic world, Late Antiquity, and Christian origins.
  9. History and Politics Out Loud:History and Politics Out Loud offers a searchable archive of important recordings through history, particularly politically significant audio materials.
  10. History Engine:In this tool for collaborative education and research, students can learn history by researching, writing, and publishing, creating a collection of historical articles in U.S. history that can be searched for here by scholars, teachers, and the general public.
  11. American History Online:Through American History Online, you can find and use primary sources from historical digital collections.

Business and Economics

Using these search engines, you’ll get access to business publications, journal articles, and more.

  1. BPubs:Search the Business Publications Search Engine for access to business and trade publications in a tool that offers not just excellent browsing, but a focused search as well.
  2. Virtual Library Labour History:Maintained by the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, this library offers historians excellent content for learning about economics, business, and more.
  3. EconLit:Visit EconLit to access more than 120 years of economics literature from around the world in an easily searchable format. Find journal articles, books, book reviews, articles, working papers, and dissertations, as well as historic journal articles from 1886 to 1968.
  4. National Bureau of Economic Research:On this site, you can learn about and find access to great resources in economic research.
  5. Research Papers in Economics:Find research in economics and related sciences through the RePEc, a volunteer-maintained bibliographic database of working papers, articles, books, and even software components with more than 1.2 million research pieces.
  6. Corporate Information:Perfect for researching companies, Corporate Information offers an easy way to find corporate financial records.
  7. Inomics:Economists will enjoy this excellent site for finding economics resources, including jobs, courses, and even conferences.
  8. DailyStocks:Easily look up stocks with this search engine to monitor the stock market and your portfolio.
  9. EDGAR Search:The SEC requires certain disclosures that can be helpful to investors, and you can find them all here in this helpful, next-generation system for searching electronic investment documents.

Other Niches

Find even more specialized information in these niche search engines.

  1. PubMed:From the U.S. National Library of Medicine, PubMed is a great place to find full-text medical journal articles, with more than 19 million available.
  2. Lexis:Find reliable, authoritative information for legal search with the Lexis site.
  3. Circumpolar Health Bibliographic Database:Visit this database to find more than 6,300 records relating to human health in the circumpolar region.
  4. Education Resources Information Center:In the ERIC Collection, you’ll find bibliographic records of education literature, as well as a growing collection of full-text resources.
  5. MedlinePlus:A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus offers a powerful search tool and even a dictionary for finding trusted, carefully chosen health information.
  6. Artcyclopedia:Search Artcyclopedia to find everything there is to know about fine art, with 160,000 links, 9,000 artists listed, and 2,900 art sites indexed.

Reference

Get connected with great reference material through these search tools.

  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus:Use this online dictionary and thesaurus to quickly find definitions and synonyms.
  2. References.net:Through References.net, you can get connected with just about every reference tool available, from patents to almanacs.
  3. Quotes.net:Need the right thing to say? Check out Quotes.net to reference famous words from famous people.
  4. Literary Encyclopedia:Check out the Literary Encyclopedia to get access to reference materials in literature, history, and culture.

This is a cross-post from content partners at onlineUniversities.com; image attribution flickr user fotografaleen

Start With Good Academic Sources

If your college instructor has asked you to write a research paper, Google is not your friend.

A reference librarian is specially trained to help patrons find the best sources. An Internet search engine, on the other hand, will show you plenty of sources that will waste your time.

 An Internet Search Engine Will Show You…

  • newspaper or magazine articles (written by professional writers who are not experts in the subject matter, such as brain surgery or international politics),
  • commercial or activist web pages (written by people who are trying to sell you a thing or an idea, and have no interest in giving you a balaced and accurate overview of a complex issue),
  • instructional web pages (such as this one) or student projects (neither of which have been approved by the peer review process)
  • spoof web pages that are posted by pranksters; or creative works that imitate scholarly websites
  • some perfectly acceptable scholarly sources (though most will be locked behind paywalls; your library pays for access to these materials, so you won’t have to).

Don’t Trust Everything You Read Online!

See the creative hoax “History of a Victorian Era Robot,” which looks more professional than my own page on “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” My page states (correctly) that the word “robot” didn’t even exist until decades after the Victorian era ended. The page about the victorian robot is a wonderful work of creative storytelling, supplying a backstory for a comic book series, but it has been used by students who mistake it for fact.

See also this article on prankster Joey Skaggs, an artist who makes a career out of tricking gullible journalists.

A Free Search Engine Won’t Emphasize…

  • meticulously-researched articles,
  • written by full-time researchers (who spend several months on each article, while a journalist may have to write several different stories each day),
  • screened by an academic journal’s panel of experts, and
  • published as a service to the academic community.

Having said that, scholar.google.com is a specialty page that gives prominence to resources that look like academic articles. (The site is not perfect — some projects that students wrote for my undergraduate classes get high prominence in scholar.google.com, but that doesn’t mean they are peer-reviewed academic sources.)

Finding Academic Articles

The best place to start is by talking to the human being working the reference desk at your local library. If it’s currently two AM and your paper is due tomorrow, you may still be able to find some sources online, but you have to start in a library database, not a commercial one like Google or FindArticles.com.

See:

Beginning Your Research

Find a recent academic article that seems at least somewhat related to your topic. For example, if you want to write about pioneer women of Wisconsin, you might find a review of a recent scholarly book on the pioneer tradition of America

  • Plunder the “Works Cited” page. Even if the article itself is of little use to you, it may point you towards books or other articles that will be more valuable. (If there is no list of works cited, then you aren’t reading an academic source.)
  • Scan books on related topics. You will probably not find a whole book that examines the specific set of questions I am asking here. You may have to look at chapter or sections of different books, and piece together your own argument.
  • Walk to that section of the library that has books on your topic, and look on the shelf for similar books. books. Open each book up and scan the table of contentsat first; if you’re looking for something in particular, scan the index. If a book looks promising, set it aside; otherwise, put it back and keep looking

The Value of Scholarly Sources

Anything that takes time is valuable to someone.  And things that are valuable generally cost money; that’s why you won’t usually find the best articles through free search engines.  Does this mean you will have to pay to find good sources?  Not directly… your university or public library probably subscribes to dozens or hundreds of databases, all of which are free to their patrons.  And a growing number of journals publish their full contents online, in order to reach a wider audience. But a site like www.findarticles.com will emphasize the sites that want to sell their content to you.

Nearly any library database will include some way for you to limit your searches to “peer-reviewed,” “scholarly” or “juried” sources. But some periodicals include editorials, letters to the editor, and opinion columns; further, some periodicals that identify themselves as peer-reviewed are not necessarily scholarly.

For instance, a search for “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed” Journals” in the “Academic Search Elite” regularly turns up articles from a periodical titled, The Humanist: A Magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Concern.  The word “magazine” in the title should be enough to make a researcher suspicious.  Further, the authors of these articles write like magazine authors — they don’t fully cite their sources (giving the page number where they got each fact; instead the author will call up an expert on the phone and print what he or she says), and magazine articles don’t include a scholarly reference list.

The authors of articles in The Humanist do not appear to be scholars, but rather political activists.  There is of course nothing wrong with referring to a political opinion in an academic paper, but on the website for The Humanist you will find the following statements: “The Humanist is a non-profit magazine of opinion. The Humanist has a distinctive slant and therefore does not publish all viewpoints” (“Submission Guidelines for The Humanist“).  Student researchers who do not distinguish between opinion and fact in their sources will probably have a hard time separating them in their own writing, so I do not recommend The Humanist as a source of complete, unbiased information for use in freshman research papers.

Note: It’s perfectly permissible for an academic paper to cite non-scholarly sources.  For instance, if you wanted to argue that Selena Gomez is a commercial product designed to appeal to the anxieties of preteen girls, you would probably be expected to quote song lyrics, analyze social media posts in which preteen girls talk about Gomez, and refer to a news report that described a recent Gomez project.  But such a paper — which refers to song lyrics, girls’ social media posts, and a journalists reporting — wouldn’t be a researched academic essay, unless it was also grounded in recent research published by scholarly experts on such subjects as mass marketing, child psychology, popular culture, and gender studies.

This checklist will help you determine whether a source you find online is scholarly.  This checklist won’t cover every possible situation, but it will offer some clear criteria that you can use to judge your sources for yourself.

Did you find the source by instructing a library database to display only results from “peer reviewed” publications?

You may very well find scholarly sources through an ordinary web search engine (such as Google or Yahoo!), but your chances are much better if you use one of the databases provided by a library.
  • A peer-reviewed journal may publish a letter to the editor, an opinion column, or a short story.
  • Even if you tick the right box on the database, you still have to look critically at what the database serves up. (See the next item.)
Does the article conclude with a bibliography?

If your source documents its claims, it is probably a scholarly document.
  • If your online source ends with a statement like, “This document was compiled from the following resources,” then it’s not a good academic source.  You should go directly to the sources that the compiler used.
  • A list of “recommended links” or suggested titles for “further reading” is not enough.  (Such a list is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a scholarly source.)

Note: Even if a source does document its claims, it may not be a credible, peer-reviewed article. If you found your source through a web search engine, there’s a good chance that you found a student paper.

Telltale signs of a student paper:

  • Posted on a “.edu” website, but author’s title is omitted (nothing identifying the author as an assistant professor, Ph.D. candidate, etc.).
  • URL includes a course number or title.
  • No outbound or navigation links on the page (you may have to hack the URL looking for clues).
  • Spelling mistakes, unsupported claims, or wordy introductions.
  • Garish colors; page titles such as “My Paper” or “New Page 1”
Does the source specify the authorpublisher, and date?

A peer-reviewed academic source will always include this information. If you can’t find all three, then you aren’t looking at a good academic source.

Author: Academic researchers always want credit for their work. They won’t give away the result of months or years of hard work without putting their name on it.  The author’s name, position, and university affiliation will be clearly listed.  (Sometimes groups of scholars will publish policy or opinion statements under the name of an organization, but if your source is an academic article, every author will be listed. If the author is identified as a “freelance writer,” “staff reporter” or “contributor,” then the source is probably not a scholarly essay.)

Publisher: If your source is posted on the author’s own website, or if an article about a particular organization is hosted on that organization’s website, it’s almost certainly not a peer-reviewed academic article.  (Some authors will repost versions of articles they’ve published elsewhere, but if the publisher is credible, the author will certainly identify the original source prominently.)

Date: The date is extremely important to researchers who wish to evaluate the content of a particular source.  For example, an article about airline security written before Sept. 11, 2001 will be evaluated very differently than an article written shortly afterwards. If you can’t find a date, you can’t tell how relevant the information is.

Does the author support his or her argument by citing academic articles?

The author of an academic article will almost always position his or her document against recent related academic publications.  After the initial thesis paragraph, look for a short section that refers briefly but specifically to ideas found elsewhere in published literary scholarship.
While the accumulation of cookie crumbs in typewriter keyboards has long been recognized as a factor affecting worker productivity (Smith; Jones; Able and Baker), few have gone as far as Charles’s statement that workers who eat lunch at their desks are 10% more likely to cause “egregious damage” to their workstations (134).

If your source writes “I hate cooke crumbs” or claims that “recent studies have shown” or “some people say” something about crumbs (without citing specific academic publications), then it is probably not reliable academic source.

Does the source have a long, dry title?

 

“Incidental Memory and Navigation in Panoramic Virtual Reality for Electronic Commerce”
This is perhaps a matter of opinion, but academic articles like the one above are typically long, dry, and very specific.
“A World Without Landmines”
“Republicans with Heart Give Democrats Hope”
Magazines and newspaper articles typically have short, snappy titles. If you are writing a current events paper, or you need recent statistics, it may be defensible to cite a news article published within the last few months. (Ask your instructor about his or her willingness to let you use recent journalism.)

Academic Research on Current Events

Finding academic articles devoted to emerging issues or cutting-edge technology may be difficult.  While you may find dozens of newspaper reports and a good handful of magazine articles, you may not be able to find a peer-reviewed academic article devoted to your topic.

Find academic articles on related or historical topics, and fill in the gaps by citing the non-scholarly sources.

You might find it hard to locate academic sources that examine current events, or the latest developments in computer technology or Internet culture.  If so, you can quote from older studies of related topics, and connect the dots. Point out where the conclusions of those earlier researchers did or did not predict the issues that emerge when you examine the new technology.

The the Internet will probably serve up dozens or hundreds of news reports, magazine articles, and corporate public relations materials surrounding a current event or an emerging technology.  But everything that happens in the world is the result of a complex network of causes and effects.  We can learn quite a bit about the current war in Afghanistan by examining scholarly analyses of the years that the Soviet Union spent fighting (and ultimately losing) under very similar conditions.

While you might never find a whole article devoted to the specific issue you wish to cover, you can still find peer-reviewed academic sources that will give you a solid historical, cultural, scientific, or global background.

  • Where else in the world, and when else in history, has a similar thing happened before?
  • How does the situation you wish to examine compare to those other instances?

If you want to write on a current event or the latest technology, you will likely find that Google will point you to lots of social media posts, blog entries, and news articles; however, when you go to look up the same event in a database of scholarly database, if you find anything at all, it will seem out of date and possibly irrelevant.

When Google shows you a list of dozens or hundreds of short, easy-to-read articles on your topic, why does your instructor want you to focus instead on the dry and out-of-date scholarly work?

When you start any subject, you have to do a lot of memorizing. This bone has this name, this author wrote this poem, this composer lived in this country.

Academic research, at the higher levels, is not about looking up the right answer as quickly as possible. Instead, scholarship — including your own scholarly work — is about generating brand new knowledge. And doing that kind of work takes time.

Because good scholarship takes time, the most thoughtful, most insightful, most comprehensive reactions to any current event are rarely the first ones published. Looking up your topic in a library database (making sure you tick the box to limit your searches to peer-reviewed journals) will help you scour a body of work that experts have already decided is among the most rigorous available.

For instance, when I first drafted this page, a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, bloggers and journalists were writing opinions and analyses. Some of what appeared at that early stage was useful and informative, and some of it was completely wrong (including fears that more jetliner attacks would cause further deaths, or that viruses or radiation bombs would be released in the cities) — but we didn’t know that at the time. Those early emotional and speculative responses did not rely on verifiable measurement or the ability to see patterns that only emerged over time. Those early responses — readily available through Google — weren’t academic scholarship.

A scholarly book may take a year or two to write, and another three months to be edited, printed, and distributed to booksellers.

Articles have a faster cycle; many academic journals publish issues two or three times per year, but the articles in each issue probably took their authors a year or more to take their idea from conception to publication.

Does this mean current events are off-limits as the topics of student papers? Far from it. For current events, journalism is often the only source of information, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use it. But there are different levels of journalism.

  • An article published in PC Gamer is not as credible as an article published in The Washington Post.
  • An TV interview with a senator is not as credible as a direct quotation from a bill the senator is trying to pass.
  • A passage quoted in a review of a book is not as credible as the same passage quoted from the book itself.

Using Your Materials

Avoid summary.  If you don’t have a clear thesis, you will be tempted to fill up lines, either by making random observations or by quoting long passages from your source texts.

Are you falling into a pattern of spending a paragraph on each outside source, and then starting a new paragraph to introduce a new source?  If so, you are probably summarizing other arguments, instead of developing your own. (Integrate brief quotations in academic papers.)

Documenting Evidence

Back up your claims by quoting reputable sources.

If you write, “Recent research shows that…” or “Many authors believe…”, you are making a claim. You will have to back it up with authoritative evidence. This means that the body of your paper must include references to the specific page numbers where you got your outside information. (If your document doesn’t have page numbers, you can give a section title or you can count the number of paragraphs.)

Avoid using words like “always” or “never,” since all it takes is a single example to the contrary to disprove your claim. Likewise, be careful with words of causation and proof.

For example, consider the claim that “television causes violence in kids.”

  • The evidence might be that kids who commit crimes typically watch more television than kids who don’t.
  • But maybe the reason kids watch more television is that they’ve dropped out of school, and are unsupervised at home.
  • An unsupervised kid who doesn’t watch much television might still commit more crimes than a supervised kid who doesn’t watch much television.
  • If you really do have evidence like that described above, then claiming that television causes crime confuses correation with causation.

To Cite… or not to Cite?

You do not need to cite common facts or observations such as “a circle has 360 degrees” or “8-tracks and vinyl records are out of date,” but you would need to cite specific claims such as “circles have religious and philosophical significance in many cultures” or “the sales of 8-track tapes never approached those of vinyl records.”


Dennis G. Jerz
23 Oct 2001 — draft first posted
10 Dec 2002 — updated
03 Oct 2007 — inserted material removed from a handout on integrating quotations
13 Jan 2011 — updated; contextualized out-of-date “current event”; removed an outdated Britney Spears reference

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