The DCS Independent Learning forthcoming publication, “Getting Ready for a Writing Intensive Course,” includes a section on online research. As an introduction to this publication and for a resource to share with your students right away, we have excerpted that section here:
Researching to Write
Writing often involves research. Before we can begin writing about the impact of Twitter in the 2016 Presidential election, the symbolism of bullfighting in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or whatever topic our professor may assign, we need to get at the relevant information. However, as the advent of fake news stories clearly illustrates, identifying/finding reliable sources in crucial.
Considering the Source
We need a set of standards for evaluating the reliability and appropriateness of resources for college-level writing. Many universities recommend the so-called CRAAP test, originally developed at the Miriam Library at the State University of California, Chico. The letters in the CRAAP acronym refer to the five areas of the test: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. To see if a given source is appropriate for our scholarly purposes, we answer the questions associated with each heading. So, for example, under the heading of Currency, the California State University, Chico, lists the following: “When was the information published or posted?”; “Has the information been revised or updated?”; “Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?”; “Are the links functional?”
For accessing the CRAAP test, we can do no better than going to the original source, by clicking the above link. For a video overview of the test and its importance the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies provides:
Conducting Online Research
If we have ready access to the internet, in a matter of moments we can do a Google search and find an abundance of sources. And, we could use the CRAAP test to evaluate them. The trouble is that we cannot possibly apply the CRAAP to all of the sources that could pop up when we do a Google search. Suppose our professor assigns an essay on the symbolism of bullfighting in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises and we get started by typing the name of the novel into Google and searching. The result would be 7 million links. The reason millions of links pop up is that if we type in The Sun Also Rises, but do not put that title in quotation marks, then our search engine looks for any phrases with “sun,” “also,” and “rises.” However, these phrases could contain other words as well. For example, if there were an internet site with the sentence, “Picasso paints sun rises but also moon rises” the site would come up as one of our results.
To limit our results to just the words we want in the order we want them, we need to use quotation marks, that is, search for “The Sun Also Rises.” Searching with quotation marks, our results drop from 7 million to 557,000, a considerable reduction but still a wildly unmanageable number of results. We need then to be even more specific in our search.
Since our topic concerns symbolism in Hemingway’s novel, we can add the word “symbolism” to our search to reduce the results even further. Putting both symbolism and The Sun Also Rises in quotation marks, and joining them with and, that is, searching with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” reduces our results by more than 200,000, but still leaving us with an impossibly large number of sites, 321,000.
If we are ever going to arrive at a manageable number of relevant internet sites, we need to be increasingly specific. Searching with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” AND “Bullfighting” drops the number of sites down to 26,000; searching with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” AND “Bullfighting” AND “Critical Discussion” reduces our total number of sites to 240. So, by using quotation marks, AND, and adding search words, we have gone from 7 million results to 240. That is good but not good enough.
To get from good to good enough, we need to begin with a search engine that presorts sites so that many of the ones that would fail the CRAAP test never show up in the first place. If we switch from the Google search engine to the Google Scholar search engine (we can find it easily enough by searching with Google Scholar in the Google search engine) and repeat the above search pattern the difference in results in dramatic. An initial search of The Sun Also Rises in Google Scholar gives us 456,000 as opposed to 7 million initial results. Searching with quotations marks: “The Sun Also Rises,” yields 10,000 results instead of 557,000. Searching with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” gives us 1,450 sites in Google Scholar, as opposed to 321,000 in in Google. A search with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” AND “Bullfighting” in Google Scholar give us 233 sites as opposed to 26,000 in Google. Finally, searching with “The Sun Also Rises” AND “Symbolism” AND “Bullfighting” AND “Critical Discussion” in Google Scholar gives us 12 results instead of the 240 with the general Google search engine.
The moral from the above comparison is that where and how we search matters a great deal. General search engines are too general. We want to begin our search with search engines that have done a lot of presorting for us. Google Scholar is but one of these. For an annotated list entitled “100 Time-Saving Search Engines for Serious Scholars (Revised)” see http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2012/07/100-time-saving-search-engines-serious-scholars-revised/ For tips on how to search efficiently, using AND, OR, NOT (so-called Boolean operators), the following sites are helpful: “Database Search Tips” Boolean operators”