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3 Big hints for doing research the easy way

Isn’t research supposed to be EASIER with the advent of the Internet? Then why is it so hard to find that perfect piece of information for your journal article or textbook?

It’s hard because there are a couple of tricks you may not know..…yet. Those tricks (let’s call them “hints”) can help prevent junk information overload – and instead hone in on what you really need.

The three big hints:

  1. Your starting point: Use the web as a starting point for research, then use that information to verify and expand upon your research. Wikipedia and other websites can offer great background information – dates, major names, key terms, and so on. But these same sites may not be authoritative – the information could be MISinformation. So use them to quickly learn more about your topic so that you can then verify and/or add to the information using more traditional tools, such as books or journal articles.
  2. Those traditional tools: Find a library where you have privileges. Most city residents have privileges with their city – and county – public library system, It only takes about 2 minutes (literally!) to get a library card. The library card and a pin allow you 24/7 access to tons of databases and electronic books – free! And….most every publicly funded university will let you use all of their resources in-house, even if you cannot check out the books or use the databases from home.
  3. Article databases: You’re in a database, but you’re stymied about what to enter into its search box. Short (2 or 3 word) phrases are best, like “economic downturn” rather than “why the U.S. economy is in decline.” Quite often, it is better to combine words with “and” rather than enter a phrase. For instance, “cloning and sheep” is better than “cloning sheep.” In the first case, you get “hits” as long as the article has the words “cloning” and “sheep” somewhere in the article text (or abstract, depending), but in the second case, unless the article uses the exact phrase “cloning sheep”, you won’t get any hits. So, unless the phrase is very standardized, such as “assisted suicide”, “minimum wage” or “renewable energy,” combine terms with “and” instead of using a phrase.

And when you get stuck: ask a librarian. These days, librarians can help you in person, by phone, e-mail, or even online chat!

Patty Morrison is a librarian at Grossmont College in San Diego, and also does independent consulting as a researcher for authors. Contact her at