Overview of College-Level Online Research Options at MCCC
Dr. Halbert's Courses
Last Update: 14 June 2020
Each of us currently lives in the so-called "Information Age": via the Internet, we have access to a nearly infinite number of sources on almost any topic. The challenge we face is to find sources that are credible and valid, to be able to tell the difference between factual pieces, opinion pieces based on factual information, and poor sources that either rely on false information or are deliberately falsified for propaganda or misinformation purposes. A mark of an educated person is the ability to locate factual information or opinion pieces based on factual information while recognizing and rejecting false information or the propaganda built from false information. A major learning outcome for this course is to help you learn to distinguish between valid and questionable information.
To help you, this guide covers the following information:
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN EVALUATING A SOURCE
When you encounter a source of information, there's a lot consider as you try to decide if it's a legitimate source or not.
- Is the source a primary or secondary source? Primary sources are texts that come from eye witnesses or people conducting scientific research. They can also be a "text" that you are studying: I Am Legend was a primary text for students in my "Monsters" class because students read the book and offered their interpretations about it. Secondary sources offer a second-hand look at a research topic: a article in a newspaper summarizing a scientific article to explain it to the average reader is a good example, as is an article about a literary work that interprets the primary text. Academic writing favors the use of primary texts because the information it contains is considered to be unfiltered. Bear in mind, though, that some primary texts may express ideas and opinions that have since been ruled false or no longer valid, such as when new scientific research discovers a new idea that invalidates old ideas we thought were true.
- Who is the author of the source, what authority do they have to speak on the subject, and what biases do they have? Many times, knowing who is talking about an issue helps us to evaluate if the idea or opinion expressed is more likely to be valid. For example, if Michael Jordan, arguably the best professional basketball player in history, declared that an NBA draft pick was the best player available that year, his opinion would have an impact on the status of that player because his expertise in basketball is unchallenged. Similarly, scholars often have reputations based on their various academic diplomas, where they got them, and where they currently work. A Harvard-educated PhD doing research at the University of Chicago on the efficacy of a specific drug to treat a disease may be considered more knowledgeable than a high school dropout pushing his favorite home remedy on Instagram, for example. On the other hand, first-hand accounts of historical events by people who aren't experts may be more useful when trying to study history than the words of a professor who wasn't actually there, so consider what value an eye witness brings to a discussion. As you weigh all those factors, trying to consider what biases the source may have can be challenging: news stories on Fox and CNN may present the same facts but with a different narrative spin on them because each news source has a particular political perspective. When you encounter sources like a special interest group (like the National Rifle Association or the American Federation of Teachers), you may not know what their biases are, so taking time to look them up and how people talk about their biases and agendas may be helpful.
PREPARING TO CONDUCT RESEARCH
Before we begin researching, we need to think through what we know, what we don't know, and what we are hoping to do with the information. Consider the following:
- Develop a research question. While you may know what topic you want to write about, developing a more specific question than "I want to find out more about Topic X" can help you to get into the heart of your research more quickly. For example, in an election year, you may want to know more about the voting process, but you may not know much about it. Read encyclopedia or wiki articles about your topic to find out what issues related to your topic, like accusations of voter fraud or voter suppression, exist. Then you may find a much more specific issue to narrow the scope of your research. Write that topic down as a very specific question: Is the fear of voter fraud worth policies that suppress voter access in the American democracy? Use that question as a way of filtering which sources are worth your time or not.
- Develop a working vocabulary specific to your topic. While your interest in a topic may be built upon your own prior knowledge, in college, you will have to write about topics you don't know much about. To prepare for your research, review encyclopedia or wiki articles about your topic and take notes on key terms, important people related to the topic, dates and events tied to the topic, and other information that people familiar with the topic would be expect to know. You can use these names/terms/etc. as actual search terms to help you. For example, I gave a paper at a national popular culture academic conference on films like Hostel and Wolf Creek, and I wanted to argue that the films showed a new trend towards non-supernatural horror. I wanted to call these types of films "reality horror," but when I started to read articles about the films, the term "Torture Porn," coined by film critic David Edlestein, kept popping up, providing me a new term to search under and to use in my paper. I even found the original article about the concept. WRITE DOWN THESE TERMS TO HELP YOU WHEN YOU ARE ENTERING SEARCH WORDS INTO A SEARCH ENGINE.
DEALING WITH SOURCES ON THE OPEN INTERNET
Once you have prepped for your research, you can use the open Internet, but you need to very carefully evaluate the sources as described above. For example, a paper for or against gun control should look at the National Rifle Association's web site, but you should consider if you are going to use their information without qualification, use it with qualification, or cite it to refute it with information from other sources. Make sure that when you use information from the open web, you detail the authority of the source to make definitive statements or why you are choosing their set of facts over another set of facts.
USING ACADEMIC LIBRARY RESOURCES AND DATABASES
Perhaps most important in your research for college-level papers is to use the resources available through our academic library. For the purposes of this class, I will point out that our library has physical books at two different libraries as well as a large number of subscription-based academic databases of articles and information that are not generally available to the public. These sources are generally considered by academic writers to be superior because they have been approved through a process called "peer-review": other scholars have reviewed the source and deemed it to be credible.
- Don't be afraid to use a real book. Books generally offer a more complicated argument on a particular topic and be excellent sources packed with information. Books from an academic press are often perceived as more scholarly (and therefore more reliable) by your professors, but many books that are published by major publishers are equally valid. Books are still arranged by "call numbers": identification numbers listed in the "card catalogue" of books in our online search engine. The numbers line up with a specific shelf, and each shelf is clearly marked in the library. When you look up a book, you should check which library the book is at: books could be at the Central/Blue Bell campus or at the West/Pottstown campus. Your search results will give you the campus location and call number of the book. If a book is located at a different campus than your home campus, you can request the library have it sent to your home campus' library through interlibrary loan: it normally takes 24 hours to do send it from one campus to the other. You can also request that our library borrow a book that we don't have from another library via interlibrary loan.
- Check for e-book versions of print books. The library has access to lots of ebooks that give you a much easier way to search a book than depending on the index in the back. Searching our book collection at the library will show some of these ebooks, but you can also search for ebooks exclusively using the ebook database. In this class, an ebook is the same as a print book; it's only "delivered" in a different mode than paper.
- Databases are where you find articles, particularly academic/peer-reviewed articles. A database is a collection of information normally hidden behind a subscription paywall. As a student at MCCC (or another college), you can access these databases because your tuition and fees helps to pay for them. At MCCC, you can do a general search of a broad range of databases by entering a search in the "Find the best sources..." search bar on the library's home page in the College's portal. You can also review the many different databases we subscribe to and find a specific database better suited to your needs. Key databases for my courses tend to be these:
- Use the "email article" feature. In most databases, you can email yourself the article. If you do so, make sure you use the subject line to indicate what the attached article says that you want to remember so that you don't have to open thirteen messages from yourself all titled "source." Likewise, if you can choose between an HTML or PDF version of an article, choose the PDF because it will have page numbers plus any charts and photographs that the HTML version will not. Finally, some databases allow you to email the source to yourself and pick a citation style: pick MLA style. Note, you still have to verify everything is correct (including capitalization and the choice between quotation marks and italics for the title).
- Click on "peer reviewed" or "scholarly sources" when searching. In some databases, this option is there because the database includes non-scholarly publications. This option helps to find actual scholarly articles.
- Be patient and recognize that you may have to change your search strategy. An ugly truth is that research takes time, particularly when you are expected in college to use the best sources, not the first sources you find. If a project requires three sources, in college you probably need to look at twice the number to find good sources worth including, which may be different from your high school experiences. You may also need to come up with different words that have similar meanings as you search to get the results you want.
- Get help! The library homepage includes a chat option to ask help from a librarian. If you get stuck, don't hesitate to ask for help.