One of the first steps in researching your topic is to begin developing the key words you’ll use in searching both hard copy and computerized databases. For instance, perhaps you’re interested in writing about media coverage of the Vietnam War. You might generate words such as “press,” “journalism,” “radio,” “television,” “reporters,” besides, of course, “Vietnam War.” In a preliminary search of the topic using those words, you might find that the topic is much too broad for a 15-page paper, and a better focus might be the role television played in popular perceptions of the Tet Offensive of 1968. You would then develop a new set of key words. You’ll find that research, like writing, never continues in a straight line. It is recursive, always building on what has gone before, and adapting to new concepts and knowledge. It’s a good idea to keep a research journal–a simple list of which sources you’ve consulted, and which key words you used to search each. Take it from researchers who have had to back-track: it’s much easier if you’ve kept track of where you’ve been!

As you research, begin to develop a bibliography. Once again, the class text will likely offer some titles of books and articles that deal directly with the topic. Check the library to see if those resources are available. Remember that reference librarians are an excellent resource for helping you to find materials. Books can be readily located using VANPAC, our computerized catalog, or Melvyl, the University of California online catalog. Periodicals can be covered through hard-copy guides like the Humanities Index and the Social Science Index, as well as on- line resources like JSTOR and InfoTrac. The best way to prepare a bibliography is to use 3×5 index cards on which to note the pertinent data. For each source, write the name of the author, title of the book, the edition, place of publication, publisher, date of publication, and volume number when appropriate. It is a good idea to note the library call number for future reference. If the material is contained in a journal, the necessary data include the author, article title, name of the journal, date of publication, and the page numbers of the article.

What Sources Are The Best?

Finding the best sources is critical to doing quality work. No matter how good of a writer you are, your paper will ultimately be based upon your ability to find, analyze, and evaluate your sources. While some students use the first sources that they find, it is important to search for the very best ones. Here is a guide to help determine what the best sources are.

First Choice Second Choice Third Choice
Primary Sources Secondary Sources Dictionaries
Newspapers and Magazines Textbooks Encyclopedias
Scholarly Journals Web Sites ending in .edu or .org Anonymous Web Sites
Oral History Interviews Television Shows or Documentaries

Where You Can Look For Sources

High quality sources are easy to find, but it does require more than searching online. Do not assume that since you have checked the library and online search engines that you have found all that you need to.

Here are some other places to find sources.

  • Presidential Libraries (Richard Nixon’s is 20 minutes from campus and Ronald Reagan’s is about 2.5 hours away.)
  • Libraries at other universities (There are ten colleges and universities within 30 minutes of campus.)
  • Public Libraries (Some, like Anaheim, even have a special collections section.)
  • Government archives (The Federal government has archives in Laguna Niguel, 20 minutes south of campus.)
  • University archives (Cal State Fullerton has a wonderful Oral History archive.)
  • Local Historial Societies (Most cities have them.)

Searching Online Resources

Today, students have a wealth of research databases literally at their computer keyboards; periodical databases, World Wide Web (WWW) pages, and library catalogs via the WWW are all types of resources you will be using. To search these resources wisely, you must understand Boolean logic–using the words AND, OR, and NOT to combine terms and thereby narrow or broaden searches. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, you can consult many WWW sites that explain it, including one from the University of Albany. For the Vietnam War paper mentioned above, for instance, if you were searching InfoTrac, you might combine terms in this way: Tet AND (media OR television OR report*). The asterisk (*) is a wildcard that enables you to search for variations in a base word (reporters, reporting, etc.). Parentheses allow you to group searches efficiently. Some search engines, such as AltaVista, allow you to use a to link terms and a – to eliminate terms: communism -Russia. Most search engines allow the use of quotation marks to search by phrase (“Vietnam War reporting”). These tactics help narrow the number of hits considerably. Although these basic search strategies may sound daunting now, you can learn many of them with only a little practice.

Periodical databases. Most of the databases you’ll be using will be accessible from the Vanguard University Library Home Page. Two exceptions are Religious and Theological Abstracts and ATLA, both religious databases available in the library. These are excellent resources if your topic has a religious orientation. JSTOR will be particularly useful because it contains entire full-text runs (excluding the most current 3 years) of many of the most prominent history and political science periodicals, such as the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, and American Political Science Review. InfoTrac and ProQuest UMI are more general databases covering a wide range of subject areas, and both contain many full-text articles. The library Web site gives a full explanation of these and other databases.

Online Book Catalogs. VANPAC, the Vanguard University online catalog, and Melvyl, the online catalog for the University of California system, will give you access to books. Remember that there may not be entire books written about your topic and you will often need to consult books that cover your subject more broadly. For the Vietnam War topic mentioned above, for instance, you would certainly want to consult the indexes of books such as Stanley Karnow’s Pulitzer Prize winning general history of the war for references to the Tet offensive and/or the media coverage of the war. Further, the bibliography in a general book like this is likely to provide you with some of your best leads for specialized treatments of your more narrow topic.

Searching the WWW. Unlike scholarly periodicals such as the ones mentioned above that contain peer-reviewed articles, the WWW is a smorgasbord of the useful and the useless, the profound and the trivial. Libraries and history and political science departments often have online “gateways” (such as the list of links on our library’s Web site that have tried to index WWW sites to help you locate information.

For researchers in history and political science, the WWW contains information from at least three pertinent sources:

  • University-sponsored projects meant to preserve and make accessible collections of primary documents and other materials. Two examples of these are the Perseus Project at Tufts University, which offers photographs of ancient Greek architecture, art and pottery, and the Oral History Archives of World War II located at Rutgers, which records stories of those who fought in the “good war.” There are many others like this, and you can find links to some of them at the library’s History Web page and Political Science Web page.
  • Personal projects developed and maintained by individuals interested in a particular topic. A good example is a Vietnam War bibliography compiled by Edwin Moise, professor of history at Clemson and author of several books on the war. WWW sites maintained by experts in a field can be invaluable sources of reliable information.
  • Government projects meant to make primary documents such as treaties, diaries, letters, and many other materials accessible. The CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, for instance, has published a lengthy analysis of CIA performance during the Vietnam War, entitled “The CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers, 1962-1968.”

Besides consulting the sites mentioned above, you can use search engines like HotBot, Google, AltaVista, Infoseek, and Excite and a directory such as Yahoo! to locate good resources online. However, it’s good to have a strategy before going online since hours can be wasted searching for the elusive “something on the net” that doesn’t exist or doesn’t fit the scholarly nature of the assignment.

Like hard copy resources, WWW sites must be evaluated for accuracy, authority, bias, perspective, currency, and relevance. The VU Library web page has a number of sites offering solid tips on evaluating materials from the web. In addition, Robert Harris, a past professor of English at Vanguard University, has developed CARS, an excellent evaluation tool that is good to consult before tackling the WWW. A summary of the CARS Checklist appears below.

How To Check The Reliability of Online Sources

Robert Harris’ Summary of the CARS Checklist for Research Source Evaluation

Credibility Trustworthy source, the quality of evidence and argument, author’s credentials, evidence of quality control, known or respected authority, organizational support. Goal: an authoritative source; a source that supplies some good evidence that allows you to trust it.
Accuracy Up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, comprehensive, audience and purpose reflect intentions of completeness and accuracy. Goal: a source that is correct today (not yesterday); a source that gives the whole truth.
Reasonableness Fair, balanced, objective, reasoned, no conflict of interest, absence of fallacies or slanted tone. Goal: a source that engages the subject thoughtfully and reasonably; a source concerned with the truth.
Support Listed sources, contact information, available corroboration, claims supported, documentation supplied. Goal: a source that provides convincing evidence for the claims made; a source you can triangulate (find at least two other sources that support it).

Taking Notes On What You Read

Once you have gathered your research materials, you must read them and take from them all pertinent information. As you do so, keep an active mind. This means you should keep the whole paper in mind as you scan your resources. Ask yourself where you can use material, what might make a good anecdote for an introduction or a stunning quotation to nail down your conclusion. It is easy to fall into the trap of plodding along and writing down everything while your mind is coasting along in neutral–this takes more time and produces a poorer paper. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, available in the VU library, has some thoughtful tips on how to make the most of your reading.

Write the notes clearly and concisely on, say, 5×8 cards or a 5×8 notepad, being sure to note on each card the title of the book or article. When you paraphrase an author, be careful not to distort his/her intent. When quoting, be exact. Make your notes as brief as practical–this will encourage you to write the paper in your own words and help reduce inadvertent plagiarism.

When a note is completed, make a record of the page or pages where you found the material. A word of caution: never use the back of a note card. If you avoid doing so, you will always be able to spread your information out in front of you. If you make even one exception, you may find yourself searching for a long time to locate that one note on the back of a card. It’s better to make a strict rule and stick with it.

Now that you have read the original material and gleaned all you want from it, you should be ready to flesh out your preliminary skeletal outline. Your subject is all there in the index cards, waiting for you to shape it. Read the notes carefully, gaining in this manner a comprehensive overview of your material. Become aware of supporting and contradicting material, and then–using the outline as a guide–begin to build the essay step by step from the information amassed.

At this point you may decide that your material indicates that a new or different tack should be taken, that more research is necessary to fill in gaps, that it is advisable to alter the original outline, perhaps drastically, or that you were on target right from the start. Whatever the decision, draw up a final outline, the one on which the facts of the research must ultimately hang. When the dust has cleared, that new outline should contain the main theme, a list of points to be emphasized, and the placements of those points in the finished paper. You are now ready to write.

This document last updated February 19, 2010.