Monday, December 13, 2010

Online Research: What do you want to know? Part 2: Keywords and Boolean Operators

The blinking cursor of the search bar may be as intimidating as deciding what topic to research. Typing a general search term, such as literacy, will return thousands upon thousands of results which must be narrowed down. How does one go about sifting through all those results?

In this case, the topic can be further clarified by thinking what about literacy the search is trying to determine — say the paper the writer is working on discusses whether literacy education helps people overcome issues of poverty. From this question the writer can use:

 Keywords: literacy, education, poverty

Or phrasing: literacy education overcoming issues of poverty

For either, Boolean operators (which are words algebraic logic operators) can be used to create sets of search results by joining or modifying keywords. Three common Boolean operators familiar to most students are “AND,” “OR,” “NOT.”

The usage of the term AND seems pretty obvious (i.e. this AND that). But its effective use is not quite as simple. If searching for this and that, one merely needs to type – this that – and a search engine will factor in the missing AND in the space between the two words. However, if the search is more complicated (i.e. literacy education overcoming issues of poverty in Chicago housing projects) the term AND can help design sets that might bring back better results.

For example: literacy education AND poverty AND Chicago housing projects

However, this query will still not be quite accurate enough. In fact, unless the person implementing the search uses “quotation marks” to group the words together in the phrased query, the search will return every result that contains at least one of the words in the phrase. In order to narrow the search even further it becomes necessary to group these words together.

For example: “literacy education” AND “poverty” AND “Chicago housing projects”

The search should now only show results that contain these words somewhere in the returned documents.

A quick breakdown of other Boolean operators:

OR: This operator affords for at least one term or phrase to be present in the search, e.g. “literacy education” or “reading education”

NOT: This operator tells the search engine to exclude a term in a search. Also, NOT is often used in conjunction with another operator such as AND, e.g. “Literacy education” AND “poverty” NOT “housing projects”

NEAR: This operator asks the search to find a term near another term (at least within 16 words of the other keyword), e.g. “Literacy education” NEAR “poverty” or if the goal is to find literacy education in Chicago — “Literacy education” NEAR Chicago.

( ) or Nesting: Parentheses are used to clarify conditions in complex searches. The operation requires a keyword or a group of keywords to be searched first before the entire search is completed. For example (“literacy education” NEAR “poverty”) AND (“Cabrini Green” OR “Housing projects”)

*: Asterisk signifies a string; for example if a word has multiple suffixes or the searcher only knows partial spelling of the entire then an asterisk can be used to pull up terms that contain part of that word, e.g. “project*” for projects or project.

-: Minus symbol indicates a similar operator to NOT. For example, the search “Literacy education” AND “poverty” -Chicago would result in searching for literacy education and poverty but exclude any documents that contain the word Chicago.

N.B. Special thanks to Joe Barker of the Teaching Library at The University of California, Berkley. He has created comprehensive PDF explaining Boolean terms with visual aids which readers can find here.

Bernard M. Cox

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Online Research: What do you want to know? Part 1: Search Engines and Online Resources

When embarking on writing a research paper, writers can be stymied by the vast online marketplace of information. Let’s say a writer at least has designed an argument, where is the writer going to find the appropriate information to support this argument? The following is a breakdown of websites that one may choose to start from.

The Roosevelt Library Search Engines: The Roosevelt Library Homepage should be a student writer’s first place to start researching a topic for three main reasons:
1.      The library has multiple search engines including for students to use which are often specialized for academic topics and current news sources (For example: Search RU Catalog for University book holdings; Academic Search Premier and LexisNexis Academic Universe for academic journals and news sources)
2.      The homepage offers “Research Guides by Subject” in a pull down menu right under “Search RU Catalog.” These research guides are compiled and organized by librarians and professors in an effort to help students more quickly find the information they’re looking for.
3.      Two vast interlibrary loan systems: ILLiad and I-Share. I-Share gives students access to over seventy university and college libraries across the state. ILLiad extends that reach to the World Catalog, so if a resource can’t be found locally, ILLiad will find it globally.

Above all, tuition dollars go towards securing these resources for students. Don’t let the money be wasted by avoiding use of these great sources of information.

Google: Google is a wonderful place to start but the main homepage often provides an overwhelming amount of search results. Try clicking on one of the hyperlinks at the top of the page such as “News” or “more.” The “more” hyperlink offers options such as Google Books and Google Scholar, both of which can lead to more academic/peer reviewed information on the subject searched.

Wikipedia: Many professors decry the use of Wikipedia. Most of this criticism stems around the idea that the information on Wikipedia is unreliable. However, this feeling turns out to be often unfounded. A 2005 study published in the academic journal Nature found that Wikipedia was no more or less reliable than the Encyclopedia Britannica when it came to scientific information. Additionally, many of the academic subject areas (science, history, etc.) are reviewed by people who are experts in these particular subjects. This being said, many articles (including those managed by experts) are not peer reviewed in the strictest sense. Furthermore, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and as such is a popular source of information rather than the academic source that professors are often looking for. It can be a good place to start in order to understand the basics of a topic (and a writer can then use the hyperlinked articles in the “References” or “External Links” sections to read further on the topic), but in most cases it should not be a primary source of information. If you are still not sure about use or want to include the material found in a Wikipedia article, then clarify concerns of use with your professor before citing as a source.

Determining qualified websites can be tricky. Be advised that not all websites contain pertinent or accurate information that one may use in an academic paper. Use the below suffix list as a general rule of thumb.
            Often qualify as useable websites for sources:
      .edu (Universities, schools)
      .gov (Governmental agencies)
      Sometimes .net (Usually networks or networked organizations, but not always)
      Sometimes .org (Usually refers to not-for-profit organizations, but not always)
      Very infrequently .com (Companies, commercial websites)
Often do not qualify as useable websites for sources:
·         .biz
·         Usually .com
·         Sometimes .org
·         Sometimes .net 

Bernard M. Cox