Following the Path of Research

Searching for Information in a New Field

This page is intended to walk you through the basic research process — from becoming familiar with a new topic with information found in an encyclopedia article, to locating in-depth research in books and current research in journal articles. Research is an activity that is no longer tied to a library — quite a bit can be done online, and even physical libraries are making more and more resources available via the internet. I’m going to show you the process of research, using these web resources to illustrate the information you need to look for. (And, along the way, we’ll talk about the information these particular online resources provide.)

The Research Path

When you need to do research and it’s been years since you tried, starting a research project can be challenging.

There are so many books out there, on *SO* many topics! 

And so much other material out there on the Internet!

There are all sorts of computerized indexes and search engines that everyone else seems to know how to use.

It can be hard to know where to start.

First off (and here I’m showing my age!), remember what was written on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic! 

There are lots of people who have been in your place before (and there are many people who will follow you), and we librarians are here to make sure you have a good chance of finding what you need.

What you need is not random research sites to visit. You need to have a path — a process to follow that will take you to success.

That’s why I want to take you through the Basic Research Process, a path through all of the research material surrounding you, so that you know where to find what, in the way of information.

The very first thing you need to do is define your topic (and, along with that, figure out how much you already know now)

I’ll walk through where to find Basic Background Information in Encyclopedia articles, and what *else* an encyclopedia can give you.

Then I’ll show you how to use those encyclopedia articles to find In-depth Research in Books

Finally we’ll go looking for Current Research in Journal Articles and Preprints, and also look for Conferences and the Proceedings that come from those conferences.

And I’ll show you where you can do it all on the Web — probably in a few places you’ve never run into.

Defining your topic

For the purpose of going through this process, it will help if you have a (reasonably) specific topic in your head that you want to research. (You don’t need to actually *do* the research for that topic, but it helps to have one topic you can drop in everywhere.)

Think about it. How much do you already know about your topic? Which one of these statements is what you would say:

1. I can write a sentence about it.

You’re probably going to find starting with a good Encyclopedia article helpful, in order to get more basic background Information

2. I can write a paragraph about it.

Encyclopedia articles will help you, too, and give you more background to help you flesh out your idea more. Then you may want to get into some Books, so you can get In-Depth Information (and pictures!)

3. I can write a short paper already. I’m Upping My Game and I want to do more!

Good for you! I’m glad to see you want to do that! I’m counting on you to be able to provide the background information, and you probably know how to find at least some of the in-depth research you need to lengthen that paper.

Now, to really up your game, you need to find out what is going on now, and who is researching in what areas. You need to start looking for the Current Research in the Field, in Journals and Conference Proceedings

For the purpose of going through this process, when I show you a resource, I’m going to use “Color” as my research topic.

A Starting Point for Research


Encyclopedias are good place to start your research into a new field, as they will give you a broad overview of a topic, often with sections that cover different aspects of the field. They can help you sort out the different aspects of your topic, and help you decide which area you want to research.

Encyclopedia articles are normally written by an expert in the field, and they may have a bibliography, listing important books and articles on your topic. Check them out as a starting point for your research, *not* as an end point. They are great for leading you to more Information!

Here are a few examples of online encyclopedias that we can explore, and I can show you some features that you may find useful.

Wikipedia is an online free content encyclopedia project helping to create a world in which everyone can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. The project is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of freely editable content. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, except in limited cases where editing is restricted to prevent further disruption or vandalism.
As for as this particular entry, note the many different aspects of color that are included, each with a reference to another Wikipedia entry where you can follow up. Wikipedia has also been improving the citations to support the noted item, with hot links to outside sources, and a section of external links to potentially interesting articles not specifically cited in this entry.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002) was founded in 1995 to provide open access to detailed, scholarly, peer-reviewed information on key topics and philosophers in all areas of philosophy. The Encyclopedia’s articles are written with the intention that most of the article can be understood by advanced undergraduates majoring in philosophy and by other scholars who are not in the field covered by that article.
The submission and review process of articles in the IEP is the same as that with printed philosophy journals, books, and reference works. The authors are specialists in the areas in which they write, and are frequently leading authorities. Submissions are peer-reviewed by specialists according to strict criteria. The peer-review process is rigorous and meets high academic standards.
Note that, in this article on color, the topic is used to illustrate the different schools of philosophy, and to show how each school would approach the topic. The table of contents provided helps to reinforce this structure in the article, and the References and Further Reading at the bottom of the article list both overviews and general discussions on the topic, and specific positions within the field.

The IEP article on “Color” has been written by Eric M. Rubenstein, and his email address and university affiliation are given at the end of the article. You can find out more about his background and work here:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), as of March 2018, has nearly 1600 entries online. From its inception, the SEP was designed so that each entry is maintained and kept up-to-date by an expert or group of experts in the field. All entries and substantive updates are refereed by the members of a distinguished Editorial Board before they are made public. Consequently, the dynamic reference work maintains academic standards while evolving and adapting in response to new research.
Once again, in the SEP, we are given an extensive entry on color as it is approached by philosophers, with the entry beginning: “Colors are of philosophical interest for a number of reasons. One of the most important reasons is that color raises serious metaphysical issues, concerning the nature both of physical reality and of the mind. Among these issues are questions concerning whether color is part of a mind-independent reality, and what account we can give of experiences of color. These issues have been, and continue to be, inextricably linked with important epistemological and semantic issues.” The provided outline of the article reinforces this structure, and the sections clearly state how they will approach the different aspects. The bibliography is, again, extensive, but only occasionally provides links to online resources, concentrating, instead, on a wide variety of published works, with a few internet-based sources and related entries within the encyclopedia linked at the very end. The author is Barry Maund, and his email is listed.

In-Depth Research


Once you have some background information, you can go looking for in-depth research – the type you can find in books. There are, in fact, a *LOT* of different types of books, which can give you information at many levels:

Textbooks will give you an overview of a field. Depending on what education level they are intended for (say, undergraduate or graduate level), some textbooks can be quite specific.

While textbooks tend to cover a general subject field, Research Monographs (as the name implies, “single book” or “single writing”) go into a single topic in depth. 

Conference proceedings are an even more interesting type of “book”. In some ways, actually, they resemble research journals (which we will get to soon) in that they are a collection of research papers from a (normally single-)subject conference.

There are a *LOT* of online places where you can find full-text books of all types, online:

The Library of Congress – which, by extension, is *the* Library of the United States, with a (large!) section of books you can read online. – a collection of Classics that can be read online, separated into age-appropriate categories.

WorldCat – the world’s largest network of library content and services, it is connected to collections from over 10,000 libraries worldwide. WorldCat libraries are dedicated to providing access to their resources on the Web, where most people start their search for information. If your local library doesn’t have a book, this is (probably) the service where they will request it through Interlibrary Loan for you.

Other Online Books

Here are some other sites with online books you might find useful:

Directory of Open Access Books – a community-driven discovery service that indexes and provides access to scholarly, peer-reviewed open access books and helps users to find trusted open access book publishers. All DOAB services are free of charge and all data is freely available, with 49,419 academic peer-reviewed books from 691 publishers.

Open Library – a project of the Internet Archive, and has been funded in part by a grant from the California State Library and the Kahle/Austin Foundation.“ One web page for every book ever published. It’s a lofty but achievable goal.”

Project Gutenberg – a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, with free epub and Kindle eBooks to download or read online. You will find the world’s great literature here, with focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired. Thousands of volunteers digitized and diligently proofread the eBooks, for you to enjoy.

Current Research

Journal Articles and indexes 

Once you have all of the in-depth material you need from books, you still need to find current research on your topic. Books usually take several years to be written, edited, typeset and published, so the information will be interesting and useful, but won’t reflect the most current research in the field.

Journal articles, on the other hand, can be turned around in six months or less, depending on the practices of the journal, so the articles are much more likely to reflect the current information and interests of the field.

One way you can locate these articles is by using journal indexes and search engines to help you. Wikipedia has compiled a long list of both multidisciplinary and single-subject databases and search engines.

Another way to locate useful articles is to find one or two current articles on-target for your research, and start looking for other articles written by the author or co-authors. Keep looking at other researchers who write articles with the authors you have found, and work outward from there. Gradually, you can pull together the entire Research Network for the area you are interested in.

Also, *always* look at the articles being cited in the articles you like. See how they might relate to the article you are reading. Go find those articles, and see what information they can add to your knowledge of the field. The most important part is to KEEP READING, and looking for other articles to read.
Ultimately, to write up a complete research paper, you need both current articles *and* older articles, so that you have the background to understand what the current articles are building on.

Here are a couple good online search engines that you may not have heard of.

BASE – one of the world’s most voluminous search engines especially for academic web resources. BASE provides more than 240 million documents from more than 8,000 content providers. You can access the full texts of about 60% of the indexed documents for free (Open Access). They are indexing the metadata of all kinds of academically relevant resources – journals, institutional repositories, digital collections etc. – which provide an OAI interface and use OAI-PMH for providing their contents. BASE is operated by Bielefeld University Library.

JURN – A multidisciplinary  engine, linking to various scholarly, free access or open access websites, articles, and journals – specifically covering the fields of the arts, humanities, business, law, nature, science, and medicine. JURN harnesses all the power of Google, but focusses your search through a hand-crafted and curated index. Established in 2009 to comprehensively cover the arts and humanities, in 2014 JURN expanded in scope. JURN now also covers selected university full-text repositories, some business and most law journals. In 2015/6 JURN expanded again, adding over 600 ejournals on aspects of the natural world. (You may want to look over their FAQ for hints on what’s included and how to better use it. )

GRAFT — [Global Repository Access Full-Text] a beta service from JURN, GRAFT allows you to search the world’s academic repositories, across full-text and records alike, in 4,765 repositories.

Preprint Archives

Preprints are another type of current research article — these are articles in the process of being written for journals and conferences. Researchers will post early drafts of their research articles, as they are refining them before submitting them to journals, in hopes of getting critiques and suggestions for revisions from their peers. 

Wikipedia has an extensive List of Preprint Repositories,  which is certainly worth browsing in order to find an archive of interest to you.

arXiv e-Print Archive is one of the earliest archives set up. The site has been around since 1991, and is a well-known resource in the fields of mathematics and computer science. Other specialized arXiv sites have now been created, and are listed in the Wikipedia list.

Conferences and Proceedings 

And yet another place to see current research is at Subject-Specific Conferences where researchers can present their findings fresh from their offices and laboratories. The papers presented at conferences are often gathered together and published as Proceedings. These may take a little longer to publish than journal articles, but are a valuable resource for finding several papers on closely-related subjects all published together. Note: Sometimes the questions and reactions from the audience might be published at the end of the individual papers, or the editor of the proceedings might write an introduction to the volume that helps tie all of the papers together.

Here are two places where you can locate proceedings online. 

Web of Conferences – managed by EDP Sciences, is an open access platform devoted to the publication of scientific conference proceedings. The platform offers high quality services for the publication and dissemination of conference proceedings in the areas of Physics & Astronomy, Engineering & Technology, Health Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer Sciences.

Digital Commons Network – free, full-text scholarly articles (journal articles, book chapters, dissertations, working papers, conference proceedings, and other original scholarly work) from hundreds of universities and colleges worldwide.

Timeless Information

Reference Materials

And to wrap things up, I want to remind you of some resources that you might find useful almost anywhere along your research path: Museums — like the British Museum — have many online collections and presentations. Look for them using online search engines, and don’t limit yourself just to sites where you can read the language easily. With a bit of practice (and an online translation source), you should be able to figure out the gist of what is being shown in most online exhibits, and many museums provide English translations to their primary-language postings.

The British Museum – filled with centuries’ worth of artifacts and online exhibitions of interest to everyone. They also have a helpful online guide to their collection, here:

Many libraries, like the British Library, are scanning in more and more of their archival material, and making it readily available to everyone. Go looking for it — you may be amazed at all the primary sources you might find. 

The British Library – another place filled with centuries’ worth of archives, manuscripts and online collections. You can look through an overview of the collection, here: 

Many universities are scanning in their graduate theses and dissertations, and making them available to the public. EThOS happens to be a very large collection, based at the British Library, and covering most, if not all, of the doctoral dissertations produced at British universities.

EThOS – over 400,000 Doctoral Theses from many disciplines. Some are behind paywalls, but you can limit your search to items available for immediate download, either directly through EThOS or through an institution’s website. One of the British Library special collections.

And if you need a starting point to find out some basic background information about a particular country, the CIA World Facebook might be just the place you need to get a good start.

CIA World Factbook – facts about every country in the world: history, geography, transportation, and much more.

To wrap this up, remember that you will always have a reference librarian available to you at your local (or university) library. Don’t stress out about doing research, and finding the information you need. Ask us questions. (We enjoy them!) We don’t necessarily know everything, but we know where to start looking for information, and we know what to look for to guide us along the path. 

This is what we, as instruction librarians, are striving for in our classes:
“You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.”
— Seymour Papert (1928 – 2016)

(Note: Much of this presentation is based on work from my time at Carlson Library, University of Toledo, Ohio.)

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