The research essay season is in full swing and I thought it would be useful to begin a series of posts over the next several weeks covering the different steps in seeing an essay topic to the final written paper form. And if if there is only one piece of advice I can give you now, it is to START EARLY! Once you finish reading PART ONE, you can find PART TWO of this post here.
I want to begin with discussing the process of locating sources first even before identifying a specific topic (the subject of Part Two to be posted later in the week) since it is an area of research that has become increasingly more complicated, but also more dynamic, in the range of possible places to search and consult. Also, a good knowledge of searching sources can trigger ideas for your essay topics. Bottom line for students to understand when looking at sources for academic papers-- information must be critically assessed for its sources and tested for its rigour (i.e. how many people actually read and checked the information before it was published). Your professors will be looking for evidence that you did more than a Wikipedia search and a glance through your textbook to complete your research essays.
Ideally, you should conduct your search in this order:
Your first line of research should begin with an actual trip to the library and a physical search equipped with a title or two that you located with a quick online library catalogue search. Why, when there is so much available on-line? Two major reasons. First, because scholarly books are among the very best and most rigorously peer-reviewed of all the resources you will consult for your papers and very few of them exist online in complete form. Ask any of your professors how long it takes to get a book published and distributed in the world of academia, and you will understand why academic sources are so highly privileged in the world of research. Second, once you locate books of interest, you are able to look at related books on the shelf and quickly identify other good resources. This is where chance finds and good common sense prevail in research, and there is no virtual or attempted online equivalent to duplicate this very necessary step of the research process.
After books, scholarly journal articles published in reputable peer-reviewed publications are your next line of research. These articles (mostly available in PDF and HTML full-text format) often represent individual dissertation chapters or long-established projects of academics, thus they are packed with fantastic sources and targeted critical discourse on the given topic. These are the articles that are most available through Academic Index searches through popular online database search engines such as Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, Project Muse, etc. Every academic library has their own system of organizing these databases and instructions and topic guides are often published on the library’s web pages (SFU students look here, KPU students look here). Also check out this "Is this journal scholarly" chart to assess your source.
For research involving the arts, it is often important to consult trade and industry journals (i.e. Artforum, Art News, and Canadian Art) that publish up-to-date art related information, exhibition reviews, and artist interviews. These can often be located in database searches (such as the Art Index) that include these kinds of materials.
important and widely read reviews of exhibitions/films/performances in newspapers and media sources (i.e. New York Times, CBC Arts, Globe and Mail, and the Guardian) are excellent sources of information and can also be found through appropriate newspaper/media databases.
please see my previous blog entry concerning Google Scholar, and note that a search of Google Books is also a great step once the actual visit to the library has been made. The problem with Google Books lies with its unreliability/narrow scope and the simple fact that many pages of books are removed for copyright purposes. It is a wonderful resource however to check out tables of content and bibliographies, but should never be relied upon as a first stop in the search for scholarly books.
- Artist websites: if researching an individual artist/performer/filmmaker, see if they have their own website. These are often useful places to find gathered sources on their work, interviews, and links to projects. Do keep in mind however that any biographical information and/or discussion of the artist’s work by the artist must be weighed for its objectivity.
- Specialty websites and blogs: many good websites and blogs are organized around key topics and themes that may relate to your area of research. Once again, use these sites very carefully and look for links back to scholarly resources. You can also use the Google blog search to target your research.
- YouTube: videos and excerpts showing artistic works, documentaries, and interviews are increasingly available on YouTube. Look in the video’s description for any information regarding the date and original producer of the video, and keep in mind that many of the videos are edited and arranged outside the original context of the visual material presented.
- Twitter: you can do a search for a key term, person, or individual performance/work in Twitter to assess the general conversation around the idea in the present moment (i.e. search "John Lennon" to see the recent discussion around what would have been his 70th birthday). Often, these searches lead you to useful information in the form of links to reputable on-line media sources.
TIPS AND HINTS WHILE SEARCHING:
- Once you have a solid selection of books and journal articles, consult the bibliography of each and you can quickly find other potential sources of information for your topic to research and locate. Also, if you are able to consult the table of contents of any journal that you find an individual article in, you will often find related articles, especially if the article is part of a thematic group of essays (i.e. a special issue on Andy Warhol or German Expressionism).
- If you find a book or journal article that is unavailable at your home institution, you can ask for an Interlibrary Loan and have the material located and delivered to your school. Check with your librarian about how to do this, or search for the term “Interlibrary Loan” through your home library website (SFU students look here and Kwantlen students look here).
- If you live in a larger city or community, check the library websites of nearby universities/colleges/city libraries/art museums for resources. A trip to another library in town is often worth the extra effort.
- Visit www.amazon.com and check out books that are related to your topic. Once at the website, you can also preview many of the books’ table of contents and quickly assess whether the book is worth checking out and available at a local library.
- While Wikipedia should never be cited directly or appear in your bibliography, it can be used to identify good scholarly sources for further research. Simply scroll to the bottom of any Wikipedia entry and look for the Notes, References, Further Reading, and External Links to identify the source of the information given on the page, or to locate a more reliable source of information.