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Life beyond Google: the best way to search for academic sources

Using an academic library catalogue to find appropriate material for your subject
Scrabble letter tiles spelling out the word 'search'
© University of York

So as we’ve seen, an academic library can provide you with thousands and thousands of books and articles on your subject, and we mentioned that you will use the library catalogue to find resources – but how do you find the right resources?

This step looks at electronic searching for academic purposes. Most of you know Google; many of you will use it as your first port of call whenever you want to find something out. But is it always the best place to look?

In this step, we share a colleague’s tips on searching for academic resources. This is her story:

“I just did a Google search for ‘dinosaurs’ and the top results were as follows:

  • Wikipedia (2004) Dinosaur. Wikipedia. Last updated: 3 April 2020.
  • Natural History Museum (2018) Dino Directory A-Z. Natural History Museum, UK.
  • Natural History Museum (2018) Dinosaurs. Natural History Museum, UK.
  • DKFindout (2020) Dinosaurs. DKFindout.
  • BBC (2014) Science & Nature: Prehistoric life. BBC, UK.

These all look like interesting information sources for gaining a basic understanding of dinosaurs, they cover the definitions, origins, species and geographical locations. However, none of these provide me with the detailed historical and scientific information that would be useful for developing my academic understanding of the study of dinosaurs and paleontology.

Using Google Scholar

For academic sources, I will need to search beyond Google to access scholarly information sources. I could try a search on Google’s own scholarly sources search engine: Google Scholar. Here’s what I found for dinosaurs there:

  • Sereno, P. (1999) The Evolution of Dinosaurs. Science, vol. 284 (5423), pp. 2137-2147.
  • Alexandar, R. McN. (1976) Estimated Speeds of Dinosaurs. Nature, vol. 261, pp. 129-130.
  • Fossum, E.R. (1993) Active pixel sensors: are CCDs dinosaurs? IS&T/SPIE’s + Symposium on Electronic Imaging: Science and Technology, 1993, San Jose, CA, United States.
  • Qiang, J., Currie, P.J., Norel, M.A. & Shu-An, J. (1998) Two feathered dinosaurs from northeastern China. Nature, vol. 383, pp. 753-761.
  • Currie, P. & Padian, K. (1997) Encyclopedia of dinosaurs. Elsevier.

I am getting very different information sources in my Google Scholar search than my previous Google search. The majority of the information sources I am accessing are much more specific and focused on one particular topic or research finding, with the exception of the encyclopedia. The Evolution of dinosaurs article looks like an interesting read to get me started on my academic studies of this topic but the other three articles look too focused on specific topics and one isn’t even about dinosaurs!

Neither of my searches brought back results that are going to be particularly useful for getting started with my academic studies. The Google search results were too general and the Scholar ones were too specific. This brings me to my top tip for accessing academic sources: make sure you select the right search tool for the task.

Search the library catalogue

When you come to university and start looking for academic sources, it’s best to skip Google and go straight to the library catalogue. As we explained earlier, the library catalogue will index all the books and journals in your University Library collection. The majority of the resources in the library collection will have been selected by your lecturers and University librarians. This means that when you search the library catalogue you are searching a curated collection that is smaller and focused on the learning and research needs of your university.

So, if I conduct my search for dinosaurs again on the University of York’s library catalogue, I get the following results:

  • Paul, G.S. (2016) The Princeton field guide to dinosaurs. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Allaby, M. (2013) Dinosaurs. In A dictionary of geological and earth sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Holt, D. (2013) Dinosaurs. Appalachian Journal, vol 41(1-2), pp. 25-25.
  • Fastovsky, D. E. (2016) Dinosaurs: a concise natural history. 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Benson, R. & Barrett, P. (2020) Evolution: The two faces of plant-eating dinosaurs. Current Biology, vol. 30(1), pp. 14-16.

Now, the search results I’m getting from the Library catalogue aren’t perfect (the third hit by Holt turns out to be a poem) but there are a couple of books that will be useful and I can access the full text.

By selecting to search the library catalogue I have narrowed my search to the University of York print and electronic collections. However, I’m still searching across over 1 million records of printed items and millions of electronic articles from our e-journals and other online collections. This brings me on to my next tips: use advanced search features to focus your search and improve the results.

Whenever you search online you usually bring back thousands of results; finding information isn’t an issue but finding the right information is a skill that you will need to master to locate useful academic sources. Here are my tips on how to access academic reading:

  • Start with your reading list: your tutors have spent time identifying resources so make sure you read the essential texts.
  • Search the library catalogue, this will take you to full-text books and journals that have been curated by librarians.
  • Use the advanced search features, this will enable you to filter results by information source (eg books, articles), year, subject and much more.
  • Try searching on different platforms, in my example I looked at Google, Google + Scholar and the library catalogue but there are loads of search tools available, so explore what you library has to offer.
  • Think about your search terms. Don’t just search for one term, try alternatives and combine search terms to improve your results.

Lastly…

Searching for information is not an exact science, if you don’t find what you need with your initial search, try searching a different search tool or changing your search terms to access what you need. If you can’t find what you need, ask a librarian: librarians are really helpful and know a lot about searching.”

© University of York
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