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Help with Online Research

In today's Information Age, with new electronic resources appearing on a daily basis, it can be difficult to know where to start when you're beginning a research project. Maybe you need background information for a research paper, or maybe you're conducting a full fledged literature review for your thesis. No matter what the assignment may be, there are some suggestions we can offer as you start your research project.

Listed below are the questions we hear most frequently from student researchers. Click on the questions to review their answers before starting out on your own quest for online information sources.


Resource Selection
1. How can I know which database is best suited to my topic?
2. What are some general databases that cover a broad range of topics?
3. What is the difference between a full text and a citation database?
4. How do I locate the full text of an article when all I have is the citation?
5. Where can I find some good background sources for my research?
6. What should I be looking for when I use the Web for research?

Search Strategies
7. How do I convert my research topic to a search strategy?
8. What are Boolean operators?
9. Why would I want to use Boolean operators?
10. How can I limit my search results?
11. Are there any rules for conducting effective research?

Access to Online Resources
12. How do I access online databases off campus?
13. How do distance students access online resources?
14. How do I report online database access problems?

More Help with Your Research
15. How do I place an interlibrary loan request?
16. Where can I find help with preparing citations?
17. Where else can I go to find help with my research?


1. How can I know which database is best suited to my topic
Williams Library subscribes to more than 80 online databases. You can find an alphabetical listing of the databases available to you on the library's Online Databases page. To make it easier for you to identify the right databases for your research we've created a Databases by Subject page. This page provides a listing of many of the major subject areas. Click on your subject area to see a list of the databases we suggest for your research.


2. What are some general databases that cover a broad range of topics?
You might try Academic Search Premier, MasterFILE Premier, or ProQuest to conduct a search over a broad range of topics.


3. What is the difference between a full text database and a citation database?
Typically, a full text database provides the citation, an abstract (article summary), and the full text for many of the articles included in that database. Often you'll have the option of viewing and/or printing the article in HTML format and as a PDF.

When you're conducting research in a citation or abstract database, the records you see in your search result will not include an option to view the full text of an article. You'll need to take note of the citation information from the records that interest you and attempt to locate the full text of those articles elsewhere. We talk about locating full text articles when all you have is a citation in the following question.


4. How do I locate the full text of an article when all I have is the citation?

Use the Online Journals List to locate specific journals that appear in full text in one or more of our online databases.

When you've found the citation for an article you need:

    1. Go to the Online Journals List. A link to the Online Journals List appears on the library's home page.
    2. Type the name of the journal in which your article appears in the Find: box in the upper right corner of the screen.
    SEARCH TIP: If you're searching for a journal title that begins with an initial article (for example, The Economist), omit the initial article from your Find: search. Using the example of The Economist, you would drop off the initial article The and type Economist in the Find: box.
    3. The Online Journals List is searched to locate the journal you've requested.
    4. If we have the journal in full text in one or more of our online databases, you'll see a list of those databases, with hyperlinks to take you to the databases, appear on the screen.
      a. Click on one of the database links and conduct a search in that database for your specific article. b. To conduct the search you might enter the first few words of the article title in one of the search boxes and specify that your search is to be conducted as a title search.
    5. If the journal is not found in full text within our online collection, you'll receive a message of No Titles...
    6. Check to see if the journal you need is in our print collection. Go to the library catalog and conduct a search using the journal title.
    NOTE TO DISTANCE STUDENTS: If you find the journal you need in the library's print collection (that is, you find the journal title in the library catalog), you still need to place an interlibrary loan request for the article. When we receive your request we'll locate the article in our print collection, make a photocopy, and mail it to you.
    7. If you are unable to find the full text of an article you need in one of our online databases or in our print collection, you can place an interlibrary loan request for the article. See how to place an interlibrary loan request for more information.
    8. Contact a librarian for assistance if you aren't sure of your next step in locating an article you need. See where to find help for contact information.

5. Where can I find some good background sources for my research?
Encyclopedias and dictionaries are great places to start your research. Williams Library provides online access to reference resources (encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks) through Reference Center (netLibrary), Encyclopedia Britannica, Oxford English Dictionary, and Oxford Reference Online. Look for links to these resources in the alphabetical listing on the library's Online Databases page.


6. What should I be looking for when I use the Web for research?
The World Wide Web can be a great resource for information on a research topic. Bear in mind, however, that the Web is unmediated. There is no peer review process on the Web. This means the Web researcher must be particularly vigilant in evaluating information before using it in scholarly research.

Think about these things when you’re surfing the Web:

  • Who is the author or producer of the page?
  • What is the authority or expertise of the individual or group that created the site?
  • Is the producer of the page likely to have a particular bias on the subject? Or is the producer likely to provide an objective interpretation?
  • Is there a revision date on the page? Is it current?
  • Is contact information on the individual or group creating the page readily available?
  • Are the links functional? Do they take you to sites that have moved?
  • Has the site been carefully crafted to make navigation easy?
  • Is the site comprehensive? Or does it cover only a small fraction of the information available?
  • Is the site well written? Are there numerous grammatical or spelling errors?
  • Why is the site online? Are there other resources (print and nonprint) available on this subject?

For more information on evaluating information resources you find on the Web, as well as tips to evaluate the books and articles you use in your research, check our Evaluating Information Resources page.

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7. How do I convert my research topic to a search strategy?

Start thinking of your research question as a grouping of concepts. Write down each main idea in your question as Concept 1, Concept 2, Concept 3, etc. You'll probably have no more than three or four concepts in your research question.

Consider the sample research question: Do people who start smoking as teenagers have a greater risk of developing cancer than those who start smoking later in life? You might break this research question into the following concepts:

Concept 1 - smoking
Concept 2 - teens
Concept 3 - cancer

Once you've broken down your research question into distinct concepts or ideas, find more than one way to describe each concept using a few words or phrases. Think about using synonyms and broader or narrower terms. For example, consider Concept 1 in our sample research question-smoking. You might use "tobacco" or "cigarette" as alternate ways to describe this concept.

Now that you've made your list of concepts for each element of your research question, it's time to put the concepts together to form your research strategy. We suggest that you use Boolean operators to link your concepts and create a comprehensive search statement. Read on in the question and answer below to learn more about Boolean operators.


8. What are Boolean operators?
Charles Boole, an 18th century English mathematician and logician, developed a form of symbolic logic (aka mathematical logic) called Boolean Logic. In online research we use the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT to combine search terms. Think of Boolean operators as a way to search for more than one thing at a time.

AND searches for occurrences of ALL of the search terms in a single record
OR searches for records that contain ANY of the terms
NOT searches for records that contain the first term but not the second term

Using our sample research question above, we might create the following search strategy:
(smoking OR tobacco) AND (teens OR children) AND (cancer OR health problems)

Learn more about Boolean operators at the following sites:
Library of Congress Online Catalog Help Pages - Boolean Searching
University at Albany: A Primer in Boolean Logic
Utah Academic Library Consortium - Create Searches


9. Why would I want to use Boolean operators?
Using Boolean operators will make you a more efficient researcher. By linking multiple concepts with the appropriate Boolean operators you can refine your searches to get the type of search results you want in fewer search attempts.

Most of the online databases provide a online search form on their Advanced Search screens that includes the use of Boolean operators. Start your search on an Advanced Search screen and look for the small drop-down menus that appear next to each of the boxes for your entry of search terms. You'll find the Boolean operators at work there automatically combining your search terms.


10. How can I limit my search results?
Look for check boxes in the online search form on an Advanced Search screen that will allow you to limit your search. It's as easy as that—just check the right boxes. Most databases will allow you to limit your search in the following ways:

By date
Only scholarly/peer reviewed/refereed journals
Only full text articles
Publication type
Publication name
Document type

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11. Are there any rules for conducting effective research?
There are no magic answers when it comes to research. Sometimes persistence is the most important element of a research strategy. But you might keep these basic rules in mind when you're starting to research:

    1. Analyze your topic and break it down into individual concepts.
    2. Identify different ways to describe each concept in your topic.
    3. Combine your concepts or search terms to broaden or narrow your search using the Boolean operators OR, AND, NOT.
    4. Select the appropriate electronic resource; check the Databases by Subject page for ideas.
    5. Enter the search commands with the appropriate Boolean operators.
    6. Evaluate the search results.
    7. Revise the search in light of your results.
    8. Check the Online Journals List to try to find the full text of an article if it wasn't available in the database you searched.
    9. Check to see if the journal you need is in our print collection. Go to the library catalog and conduct a search using the journal title.
      NOTE TO DISTANCE STUDENTS: If you find the journal you need in the library's print collection (that is, you find the journal title in the library catalog), you still need to place an interlibrary loan request for the article. When we receive your request we'll locate the article in our print collection, make a photocopy, and mail it to you.
    10. If you can't find the full text of an article in our online or print collections, make an interlibrary loan request for the article.

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12. How do I access online databases off campus?
Our licensing agreements with database vendors require that we limit access to faculty, students, and staff of Northern State University. When you're on campus using one of our networked computers, we know you're part of the Northern State University academic community and can provide you with immediate access to these licensed resources. When you're off campus, the only way we can know that you're part of the NSU community is to ask you to enter some type of identifying information.

Here's how to access databases from off campus

Start with the Online Databases page and click on the name of the database you want to search. You'll be presented with a login screen that prompts you to enter the 14-digit barcode number from your NSU ID. After you correctly enter your barcode number you'll be connected to the database and can start your research. It's quick and easy and allows you to access online resources anytime, anywhere.


13. How do distance students access online resources?
We have an online application form that you can complete to request a student ID/library card. Allow 2-3 working days for processing your request. You'll receive an ID/library card in the mail that has the barcode number you'll need to access the online databases and place interlibrary loan requests.


14. How do I report online database access problems?
Contact our reference desk by phone at 605 626-3018 or by email. We'll look into the problem and get back to you as soon as we can.

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15. How do I place an interlibrary loan request?
When you've exhausted all possibilities for finding the full text article you need in the Williams Library print and online collections, we can try to obtain the article from another library. For us to make such a request, you must place an interlibrary loan request for the article. We have an online form that's easy to use. Here's how to place your online interlibrary loan request:

    1. Click on the InterLibrary Loan Form link that appears on the library's home page. You will be taken to a screen that explains the log in process.
    2. Click the button or link for Submit an InterLibrary Loan.
    3. Log in using the 14 digit barcode number that appears on the back of your NSU ID in the Library Barcode field. Your Password is your last name. Set Library to NSU.
    4. Click Enter.
    5. You will be taken to a screen containing information about your library account. Click on the InterLibrary Loan form to the upper right.
    6. An online form appears. Please fill out as completely as possible. The form defaults to a Book order form. Click Journal to order a journal article.
    7. Copy and paste information from the article citation in the remaining blanks in the form. Skip the fields for which you have no information. Choose a date range in the Deadline field. Allow for mail time, but realize the item will be sent to you as soon as we receive it. Click the Copyright statement box if you are ordering a journal article.
    8. Click Enter.
    9. The article will be mailed to your on-campus address as soon as it is received.


16. Where can I find help with preparing citations?
Citation styles are used to format certain pieces of information (for example, author, title, publisher, place and year of publication for a book; author, article title and periodical title, date, volume and page numbers for a periodical) about an information source.

Complete and properly formatted citations are used to identify and locate an information source. Typically, a list of citations is included at the end of a scholarly paper as a Reference or Works Cited page. You'll find that citation styles vary by academic discipline. While APA and MLA citation styles are most commonly used on college campuses, there are other styles your instructors may ask you to use.

Check the library's Citation Styles page for links to cheat sheets, examples of citations, and additional information about formatting citation information from your resources.


17. Where else can I go to find help with my research?
We offer a variety of ways for you to get help with your research:

In Person. Stop in to see our reference librarians or reference assistants at the reference desk during the hours the library is open and classes are in session. Check the Library Hours Web page for a schedule.

By Telephone. Call 605 626-3018 or toll free at 800 678-5330 (press 1 for Admissions) to speak with a reference librarian or reference assistant. Call the reference desk during the hours the library is open and classes are in session. Check the Library Hours Web page for a schedule.

By Email. Use our email form to send your question to our reference librarians. You can expect a response within 24 hours when classes are in session (excluding weekends and holidays). Check the Library Hours Web page for a schedule.

Live Chat. Try our live chat reference service, Ask the Librarians-Live. Log on to ask your question and receive a quick response, online and in real time. The live chat reference service is available Monday-Thursday, 2 pm to 9 pm, when classes are in session.

By Fax. Send a fax to 605 626-2473 and direct it to the attention of the reference desk. You'll receive a response in return by fax, if you so indicate, or by email, within 24 hours.


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