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Introduction to MU Libraries: Understanding Research

Provides an overview of library services and how to do research.

What is research?

Research refers to the sustained investigation of some topic or question-worthy matter, in which one evaluates her sources as to their accuracy or reliability.

Search engines, the "open" internet, and scholarly research

When we are interested in learning more about a topic, we often turn to a search engine like Google. This is because it searches such a large number of different internet sources and quickly provides us with what are often simple, general answers. If we are doing research the way professional researchers and scholars do it, though, Google will not be as helpful. This is because search engines typically provide results from the open internet. Anyone can put up a webpage, and the information provided by sites like Wikipedia can come from people who are not experts on a given topic. This "open" nature of the internet is what can make it unreliable. The "closed" parts of the internet are generally where you can find resources authored by professional researchers, and there are specific databases which search through them. Access to those authoritative journals and databases often requires paid registration ("paywalling"), but as a Marshall student, faculty member, or staff member, you will have open access to these resources through the library.

Popular and scholarly sources

When scholars or professional researchers want to make their work available for other people to read, they will often publish it in a scholarly journal. A journal is something like a magazine, but with articles written by professional researchers who have received specialized training in the field they are writing about (university professors, etc.). Most of these journals use a process called peer review, in which other experts check the quality of an author's work, to decide which articles should be published. If they want to publish a book with an academic press (like Oxford University Press or Indiana University Press, etc.), the process is similar.

The websites returned by a Google search may or may not have been checked for quality or accuracy by an expert in the relevant field. When looking for scholarly articles, you will want to use a tool which searches only through these journals. Marshall Libraries' "search engine" for scholarly resources is called Summonwhich searches through books, journals, and other resources (such as articles in major newspapers) which have been checked to make sure they adhere to a certain standard of quality and accuracy.

Primary and secondary sources

Researchers will often use the terms "primary" and "secondary" to distinguish between different types of sources of information. Generally speaking, a primary source provides firsthand or direct information about some topic, while a secondary source provides information in a secondhand way (drawing upon the information provided by primary sources).

Primary sources include government and legal documents (court proceedings or contracts, etc.), interviews, surveys (like census reports), films or movies, reports on fieldwork, laboratory reports, diaries or journals, original artistic productions, and more. Secondary sources might include movie or book reviews, analysis of historical events and trends, summaries of experiments in the newspaper, and so on.

Evaluating sources

We mentioned above that when searching the open internet (by way of a Google search, for example) that you may come upon resources and information which are of unreliable quality. As a general rule, what is published in scholarly journals or books will be more reliable because of their peer-review process. But while it is perhaps more likely to be trustworthy, it is nevertheless important to approach all resources with a critical perspective, regardless of where they are found. To be critical about sources means to maintain reasoned (that is, based on clear reasons) skepticism about their accuracy and validity. 

When evaluating a source, start by asking yourself some questions like the following:

  • Where is the information published, and by whom? What interest does (or might) the person or organization making the information available have in it?
    • For websites, you might consider the suffix in the address (.com, .mil, .org, .gov, etc.).
    • Websites often have an "About" page which provides information about the organization or author.
    • Who sponsors the source? (Advertisers, etc.) Might they have any interest in what is being published?
  • What is the broader purpose of the website or venue of publication?
    • Do they want to sell something? Entertain?
  • Who is the author of the information?
    • What are the author's credentials (that is, what makes the author competent to speak about this matter)?
    • What affiliations (to universities, companies, government agencies, advocacy organizations) does the author have?
  • Has the source been checked and approved of by other experts in the field?
  • Does the author cite, or refer to, other sources and authors pertinent to that topic or field?
  • Furthermore, what kinds​ of sources are listed (or linked to)?

Citation and plagiarism

Citation, as briefly noted above, means referring to other sources relevant to a topic. A major part of research professionals' job is keeping up with what has been said and written about the topic or field which they study. As a student researcher, your readers will expect that you have learned about what others are saying about that issue or topic, and why they are saying it.

You have probably heard of plagiarism, which is presenting intellectual work, ideas, or information other people have produced as if it were your own. It is important to cite, or document, your sources fully and accurately, so as to give credit where credit is due. It is important to remember that plagiarism is basically stealing, or a form of fraud, which is why universities have serious penalties for it.