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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Science Research Projects

Develop a Research Strategy and Find Sources

At this point in your research, there’s a tendency to start searching databases in any random manner that strikes your fancy, but this strategy usually proves to be ineffective, both in terms of time and effort. If you want to avoid wasting your time and effort, then you need to develop a productive research strategy. You need to plan how you will do your search. Your plan should include the types or kinds of sources, how you locate and access the sources, and the relevancy, significance, and/or importance of the sources. Part of your plan should include managing your sources using a Bibliography software tool (see tab on “giving credit where it’s due) for links to popular citation management tools.)

1) What types of sources do you need?

The assignments will require you to first find primary sources. Primary sources are original, firsthand documents such as laboratory studies, field research reports, letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts, and legislative bills. Because primary sources are firsthand accounts, e.g. a scientist reports on the results of their work, they are thought to be more reliable than secondary sources. Articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals are usually, but not always, primary sources. Your sources for your first assignments should be drawn from peer-reviewed scientific and/or scholarly sources. A peer-reviewed source is a source that has been been sent out for anonymous review by qualified scientists/scholars. Before having the article published, the author must correct any major problems highlighted by the anonymous reviewers.

The assignments will then ask you to find secondary sources which may be drawn from a variety of sources including newspapers, popular magazines, government documents, etc. Secondary sources are secondhand sources offering commentary that may be subject to personal belief or opinion about primary sources. Because secondary sources may be subject to bias, they are thought to be less reliable than primary sources. But a primary source may not be more reliable than a secondary source, e.g. an individual firsthand report of an accident may not be a completely accurate report because the individual observed the incident from only one perspective. Thus, all sources must be evaluated for their accuracy and validity.

When you read any source, especially a secondary source, be alert for any sign of bias. Read secondary sources with a critical eye as even reputable secondary sources, including major newspapers, may have editorial biases. You will be better placed to evaluate a secondary source if you read its primary sources, too. If the author of a secondary source refers to a particular study or report, then you should quickly read that particular report so that you can evaluate the accuracy of the secondary source.

I recommend you start by searching the large, general scientific databases for peer-reviewed articles. (Note: some published material in scientific/scholarly journals is not peer-reviewed. For example, editorials and letters to the editor do not usually undergo peer-review. While this published material may be interesting, it most likely is classified as a secondary source, except for the letters!)


Here's a link to all databases at UCSC, all 390+ databases: some of the more popular ones, such as Academic Search Complete, Biosis Previews, or JSTOR first. (Look through the alphabetical list to find the three I just named.) If these more popular ones don't turn up anything and you get stuck, see the subject guides listed here  Find the biology, environmental studies, health sciences, or ocean sciences databases.

After you’ve exhausted the databases, you should think about particular journals that may not be listed in the databases. (Most of them will be listed in some database, but the databases in the library may not list really small or specialized journals, so search by journal type, too.)

Some of the more popular journals are here:

You can also search for journals by type here.
Look under environmental sciences and life sciences. Did you find the listing for journals specializing in biodiversity?

Ok, so now you’ve searched the databases and journals, but there are other online and print sources to search as well. Some of the small journals, perhaps specializing in research on the Arctic, can be located by searching by journal title. To look for specific journal titles (and don’t forget book titles) use Find Journals from Library Search.

The above link gets you into the UCSC McHenry library catalog or the all UC-campuses MELVYL catalog. Do not forget---you can always get a copy of an article or an entire book from the MELVYL catalog in 1-4 days via inter-library loan.

I also like to visit the library with the call numbers for several books on my topic. I go to that section with those call numbers and then scan the surrounding shelves for other, possibly relevant, sources. I often turn up really good stuff this way!

Need another way to find the literature on your species? Be on the lookout for what is known as a “review article,” which is nothing more than an article summarizing individual findings of many researchers in order to make broader conclusions about the state of scientific knowledge on an issue. You may not find one, but they are especially helpful if you do since someone else did some of your work for you!

And finally, don’t forget to read the list of references/Bibliography at the back of every journal article or book. If you discover an article that seems relevant, chances are the author of that article has already done some of your work for you---so find and read their sources, too!

Ok, some final words of warning. You cannot reject a source because it says something you do not want to hear or because it goes against your tentative hypothesis. You must be fair and open-minded, so do not “cherry-pick” your sources. Additionally, as you work your way through the literature, you will need to make decisions about the relevancy, significance, and importance of each source. Look for clues that will help you evaluate a source: its credibility (who is the publisher, who is the author), when was it published, who is the audience, why was it published, how accurate is the source, and is the source cited (cross-referenced) by other sources?

Now you see why you need to develop a plan for how to proceed with your research! Figure out an organizational strategy that works for you, then keep accurate and precise records of where and how you search.

2) Accessing your sources
OK, so now you’ve found some sources, but you’re having trouble finding the full text of the article. You need to learn how to access your sources. Take a look at the video below to find out this information.