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Boatwright Memorial Library

FYS 100 (20): Drugs In America: Basic Research Tools and Strategies

Basic Library Tools

Preparing to Search

Good research begins with clear thinking about the assigned task. The best way to start a research paper is to make sure you know what you are supposed to do, so reread the assignment and underline or highlight the critical phrases.  These are the ones that tell you the subject, the kinds of resources you should use, the expected length, and the due date.

Choosing search terms

Some of your search terms will describe your specific topic and some the nature of your interest.  In both cases, you need to be flexible, observant, and imaginative.  Before searching for journal articles, look for encyclopedia articles or books that might give you an overview of the subject area, describe aspects of it that you were unaware of, and expose you to terminology that had not occurred to you. Look up articles from your syllabus and check the subject terms assigned to them, as well as the language in the articles themselves.  For example, here are the subject headings assigned to "Workers' Weed: Cannabis, Sugar Beets, and Landscapes of Labor in the American West, 1900-1946."

Cannabis; Agricultural land; Workers; Socio-economic aspects; Raids; Landscape; 20th century; Marijuana;
Agriculture; Landowners; Deportation; Sugar beets; Farms; Criminal sentences; Landscapes; Sugar; Mexican Americans;
Farmworkers; Foreign labor; Working class; Manual workers; Net income

Getting Started

 Start with Thinking about Your Topic

I recommend that you start by asking yourself concrete questions. As you gain a clearer picture of what you want to accomplish you can generate, and then refine, a plan of action.

  • What do I want to know? (Make yourself an initial list of questions)
  • What are key terms in these questions?
  • Am I asking a question that can be answered with fact based research, or is this really a values/opinion/beliefs question?
  • What aspects or viewpoints of this topic interest me most? Examples include social, ethical, psychological, aesthetic, economic, political, and philosophical.
  • Do I need background information on people, places, concepts, events?
  • What subject area or academic discipline is most likely to study this question?
  • Remember, there are two layers of research:
    1) a broad search to discover resources and to read some background information
    2) specific searches for information once you've focused your topic.

Link to Narrowing Your Topic: 5 Quick Tips

Searching for Articles

The most effective researchers use what they know to find what they don't know, so here's where your topic analysis will serve you well..  The databases also have some special features that will aid your search and help you modify your search strategy.

1. You can use keywords from your analysis or the articles you read for class as search terms. Look at the subject headings assigned  to the articles you find; you may want to use some of them in a new search.

2. You can use the names of authors of known articles to see if they have written other articles on the same or similar topics.

3. You can use articles cited in the bibliographies of articles you  already know about.

4. You can use articles that cite the articles you know about in their bibiliographies.

5. You can look at the tables of contents of the journals that have published relevant articles, to see if they have published other, similar articles.

Social Media

Of course you're familiar with social media, but you may not have thought of it as a resource for finding primary resource material.

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Tips to Take Away

Tips to Take Away

  1. You need background information to develop a research question.  The best sources are encyclopedias (including historical encyclopedias, when appropriate).

  1. You need to know what’s happening recently that makes this topic interesting. News sources, including newspapers, popular sources that you can find in general databases like Academic Search Complete, even blogs and Ted Talks can help you narrow your focus to a defined and answerable question.

          3. You need to know how other scholars have approached this subject.  Has anyone tried to answer the same    question? What related questions have they studied.
            Does older research need to be updated or approached from a different point of view?  Any of the databases in Sources of Journal Articles, depending on your topic,
            will help you find such scholarly articles.  They will also have other information, like assigned subject headings and, often, abstracts, that can help you
            quickly assess how relevant they are to your research and help you learn the vocabulary that experts are using when they write about your topic.

               4. If you get stuck, email me,

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