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Writing a Research Paper

Finding Books & eBooks

It may seem like overkill to use a book-length source for anything except a long paper. However, many books contain article-length chapters that are easily read, analyzed, and incorporated into your work without requiring you to read an entire book. (These chapters may even be reprinted versions of scholarly articles.) Cushing Library's catalog is searchable through WorldCat Discovery.


When you find a book that's of interest to you, take a look at the View Description tab in the book's record, and scroll down to the Contents section. This will give you a clearer idea of the book contains a chapter that is of interest.

Using Google More Critically and Effectively

It's hard not to have mixed feelings about Google. It's a remarkable information source, and yet it's not the neutral "public utility" we often treat it like. It allows for under-heard voices to get access to broader audiences, and yet it amplifies many of our worst tendencies towards disinformation, rumor-mongering, and impulse-posting (or -buying). So what are we to do? This section will provide you with both food for thought and techniques to improve your Google-using experience.

Google is a remarkable tool, but it's hardly the benevolent public utility we sometimes treat it like. It's easy to forget that Google Search is a software program created by a for-profit company, Alphabet Inc., that makes its money by selling targeted advertisements based on the user data we all provide it with when we search. So it's important to understand what's actually happening when we search and what's going on behind the scenes when this search engine provides "personalized" results.

First, let's take a look at how Google's software works:

Google searches an index of the internet to provide us with search results, but what this video doesn't mention is exactly how much of the internet Google indexes. Since the internet is constantly growing and changing, it's hard to be exact, but estimates have ranged from as little as 2% to as much as 10%. That's still billions of webpages, but there are billions more than that that you'll need to access through other means--like paid library databases, for example. 

Another key point to remember is that Google doesn't provide a neutral ranking of the "best" information. Google's algorithm customizes results based on your search history and the search histories of other people "like you," and this can have some nefarious unintended consequences, as discussed here:


Google's algorithm also shapes search results in ways that can reflect biases both of programmers and of society as a whole. As Safiya Umoja Noble discusses in this video, this seemingly neutral technology can end up perpetuating oppressive race- and gender-based stereotypes:

So, what do we do in light of these challenges? It's immensely difficult to escape Google's ubiquity, and it remains a useful tool. Instead of trying and failing to avoid Google, we can approach our search results with a more critical eye, as well as learning tricks to be more careful and deliberate in our searching process. By doing that, we can make more of the decisions that Google would otherwise be making for us.

We've seen Google's results page so often that it can be easy to forget that it's made up of a bunch of different components. Here's an annotated version of one results page:


Here's another results page feature we often run into:

You've probably also run into maps, direct links to purchase products, or links to scholarly articles. The Google's algorithm's "choice" of what to present to you may sometimes seem obvious--maps to stores, for example, are based on your search terms and your location information--but we don't know all of the information that goes into producing our search results, so as always, it pays to approach results pages with a skeptical eye. 

So how can we leverage Google to improve the quality of our search results?

Be Mindful of Confirmation Bias

The terms you use to search will shape the results that are delivered to you. If, for example, you search using the terms "Does social media cause loneliness," you're going to get different results than if you searched using the terms "Does social media strengthen relationships." So, before you search, ask yourself: Have I already decided what I want the answer to my question to be? Are my search terms biasing the algorithm to provide me with those answers?

Whether you answer Yes or No to these questions, it's a good general practice to vary your search terms and explore (and critically evaluate) the range of what comes up. 

Choose the Right Tool for the Job

As we've discussed, Google Search is many different search engines wrapped into one. So ask yourself: What sort of information am I looking for? Is it in a particular format--text, image, video, etc.? A particular kind of author--news reporter, academic, etc.?

If you already know some of what you're looking for in terms of author or format, try selecting a specific search tool rather than sticking with a general Google search. Increasing the precision of your search will save you time and, more importantly, bring to the surface webpages that might otherwise be buried in the noise of irrelevant search results.

Use Search Limiters

Continuing on the topic of search precision, there are all sorts of tools built into Google Search that allow you to refine your searches.

Excluding Results

If you're using a search term that has multiple meanings and want to increase relevant results, use the minus (-) sign to exclude results containing a particular term. For example, if you're looking for information on jaguars (the cat) and keep getting results for Jaguar (the car company), you can exclude cars from your search results like this:

jaguar -car

Other Boolean operators (see Going Deeper Into Article Databases for more) can also be used.


Searching for Specific File Types

If you're looking for information that you know commonly appears in a specific file type--for example, numerical data, which often appears in .csv format--you can limit the search results to that file type using the "filetype:" function:

otters atlantic ocean filetype:csv


Narrow Results to a Date Range

If you find yourself looking for, say, news articles on a topic but only those published during a particular time period, you can narrow the search by publication date of the webpage by using the "before:YYYY-MM-DD" and/or "after:YYYY-MM-DD" functions.

overton window after:2021-03-02

Note: these functions can be used together to create a very narrow or very broad range.


Additional Limiters

Numerous other search limiters can be found in Advanced Search page (in the Settings menu):

Finding Data Sources

There are innumerable sources of data available on the open internet; listing even a small sample barely scratches the surface of what exists. However, when looking for data on the open web, pay close attention to the source. Have you found an interesting Excel or CSV file that you might want to use? Make sure you do a bit of detective work to find where it originated, and make doubly sure that you have a clear sense of what that data represents. Many flimsy arguments have been built on questionable readings of data.

If you're looking for national or international data on many major areas of social-scientific concern, this list will provide you with a starting point: