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Research is formalized
curiosity. It is poking
and prying with a
—Zora Neale Hurston (Hurston
& Hemenway, 1984)
American folklorist and writer
(1903–1960) soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 65 Conducting
In this chapter, we discuss how Internet search engines and electronic
databases function and how to use them effectively and efficiently to
find sources for your college research papers. This chapter also provides
you with guidance for determining the types of information you have
gathered and for evaluating whether that information is acceptable and
appropriate for college papers. 7/7/10 2:03 PM As we have discussed in previous chapters, research involves locating, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating
information related to your narrowed research topic and then forming conclusions and integrating information into a
coherent final research paper. When you conduct research in a physical library, you may be able to check out materials and
spend time reviewing them at your leisure. You may also find the information about the author, the date of publication,
and the publisher much more easily than with materials you access electronically through the Ashford Online Library
or an Internet Web page. However, because much of the research for your university courses will be conducted online,
how can you quickly find useful information for your college papers without wasting time going down blind alleys or
searching through hundreds, thousands, or even millions of Web pages or documents in an electronic database? To
answer this question, let us begin by examining how Internet search engines and electronic databases operate. 5.1 How Search Engines and Databases Function
Students sometimes contact their instructors and say, “I can’t find any information on my topic.” If you cannot find information, it does not necessarily mean that information is not available. It usually means you are
not searching for that information in the right way.
When we look for information electronically in the Ashford Online Library or on the Internet, most of us simply
type in a word or phrase related to the topic of our paper and click “Search.” For example, suppose you want
to research the types of examinations psychologists use as diagnostic tools. You might go to an online database
in the library such as ProQuest or an Internet search engine such as Google and type your topic as “methods of
conducting psychological examinations” in the search field. If you are lucky, you might find a few good results
with that method; however, search engines and databases do not search phrases such as “methods of conducting psychological examinations” very effectively. They usually are not designed to yield significant results if you
enter phrases or questions in everyday English. One exception is Ask.com, which will search everyday English
phrases. However, it focuses on personal questions rather than on academic research topics.
Internet search engines such as Google, Yahoo! Search, Alta Vista, Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves), and Bing
(formerly MSN Search and Live Search), and databases such as those in the Ashford Online Library all operate
a little differently from one another. Some search engines will find results that others will not, and information
on the Web changes so quickly that a search engine may not display the latest information. So, it always pays
to get a “second opinion” by using more than one search engine or more than one database for your research.
Some search engines, called “metasearch engines” scan other search engines and databases for information.
These metasearch engines—such as Dogpile, MetaCrawler, and WebCrawler—can obtain results from multiple search engines, newsgroups, and databases with a single search. However, they do not have access to
the sophisticated mathematical formulas each search engine or database uses to retrieve information, so the
results may not be as good as you might obtain by searching the different sites yourself. So, for the most precise results, I suggest you use two or three different search engines or check electronic databases separately.
Although search engines and databases conduct their searches in slightly different ways, they all perform the
following basic functions:
• They send out software robots called “spiders” or “crawlers” to search for words found on Web pages
or in documents and usually tell the spiders to ignore certain other words, called stopwords. (See
more information about stopwords later in this chapter.)
They then compile an index of the words the spiders found and the page/location of those words.
An Internet search engine might index hundreds of millions of pages per day. When you conduct a
search, you are searching only the words or combinations of words in the index; if a word was not
indexed, the search will not find it. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 66 7/7/10 2:03 PM • The pages or articles retrieved are ranked in a certain order when they are displayed, using internal rules
of the search engine or database. Each search engine and database uses a different method to determine
this ranking (Franklin, 2010). When you search for words or phrases electronically, you are asking (called “querying”) the index to search
for all those words, usually minus the stopwords. The results you obtain, called “hits,” are displayed in a
page order determined by the search engine or database. For example, in our topic above, “methods of conducting psychological examinations,” search engines will usually look for pages that contain any of the four
main words: “methods,” “conducting,” “psychological,” and “examinations,” in any order. When I entered
the phrase “methods of conducting psychological examinations” in three Internet search engines, I received
7.33 million, 3.6 million, and 1.3 million hits, or responses, to my query. Some of these hits had all four
words in the order I wanted, but many had only one or two of these words and they may have been in a
different order. For example, I received pages that had only the words “methods” or “conducting examinations,” which were unrelated to my topic of psychological examinations.
When I eliminated one or two of the terms and searched for “conducting psychological examinations” or
“psychological examinations” in the search engines, I did not improve my odds of finding good information.
In fact, in some cases the number of hits I got actually increased. Obviously, you do not have the time to
review millions of Web pages looking for information you obtain from this method of searching. Instead, use
the basic and advanced search techniques we discuss below to narrow or limit your search to a manageable
number of potential sources and to focus your research efforts
Databases such as those in the Ashford Online Library also look for specific indexed words. However,
databases search for information in a different manner from that of an Internet search engine. A database is
an organized collection of information and data, similar to information filed in a file cabinet. The information is structured in a specific way, and database searches follow that structure to find words in a query.
Databases are usually designed to search for exact words in their indexes or for phrases or words near each
other (Search Tips, 2010). For example, when I entered the phrase “methods of conducting psychological
examinations” in the ProQuest databases, I received only eight hits; when I entered the same phrase in the
EBSCOhost databases, I received zero hits. 5.2 Basic Online Search Techniques
Most Internet search engines and databases allow you to conduct two different types of searches: a basic search
and an advanced or refined search. With a basic search, you simply enter a word or phrase related to your
topic. As we have just seen with our example, basic searches are not always the most efficient way to find information. You usually have either too many hits to sort through or too few hits to use as sources for your paper.
However, basic searches can be useful when you are doing preliminary research to determine what aspects of
a topic that researchers have studied in the past. A basic search can help you limit your topic to ensure that it
is not too broad to cover well in your research paper. You can improve the quality of your basic search results
if you follow the tips below and master the techniques of subject searching and keyword searching. Basic Search Hints
• Most search engines and databases allow you to type in either all uppercase or all lowercase letters;
you usually do not have to use standard capitalization rules. However, if the search engine has a heading titled “Search Tips,” be sure to check it for information on how to use that particular search engine.
Use the numeral keys for typing numbers (0, not the letter o, and 1, not the letter l). If you are looking
for a book or an article that begins with a number, such as 1984, try searching for it both as a number
(1984) and written in full (nineteen eighty-four). soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 67 7/7/10 2:03 PM •
• Do not use punctuation such as commas or apostrophes in your search terms. Hyphens usually do
not significantly affect search results.
Omit articles (a, an, the) as the first word in your search. (See the section “Stopwords” later in this
Avoid using common words such as “business,” “computers,” “students,” or “education” unless you
combine them with another term. Using these words by themselves will give you too many hits to
If you get no results for your search, check your search entry for spelling or typing errors, try alternative spellings of the words (if available), or refer to information in the section “Advanced or Refined
Online Searches” later in this chapter. Also remember that search engines and databases do not
think or understand concepts; they merely match words and phrases. If your results are not the type
of information you are seeking, try one or more of the advanced techniques in this chapter to more
precisely define the search. Because search engines and databases do not handle long phrases or everyday language well, you can save
yourself hours of time looking for research sources if you understand the two basic search techniques of
subject searching and keyword searching discussed below. Subject Searching
Most databases search only the language in their indexes, called “controlled vocabulary” or “subject”
searching. Making a word plural (for example, “examinations” rather than “examination”) will not usually
affect your search results; database searches will generally capture both singular and plural forms of a word.
However, if researchers and scholars in psychology do not often use the phrase “psychological examinations” but instead refer to these exams as “psychological tests,” you will find few or no results for “psychological examinations.” If you use the subject terms the database has in its index, you will most likely obtain
sufficient sources you can use, and you will find them faster than
if you try to search using your own words. © Photodisc/Thinkstock How do you learn the subjects in the index of a particular database? You have two primary alternatives. First, most databases
will give you the option of browsing a list of their subjects. Look
around on a database search page for the words “subjects,”
“subject terms,” “index,” “thesaurus,” or “descriptors.” Click this
option and you can usually scroll through the list to find terms
related to your topic or type in your search term or phrase and see
if it is in the index. If it is not there, the index may direct you to the
appropriate term to use. Like a file cabinet, a database can be
searched by using the index to find
subjects of interest. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 68 For example, in the EBSCOhost database on the Ashford Online
Library, the top of the EBSCOhost search screen has a menu item
titled “Subject Terms.” If you click that menu item, you will see
a field to enter your search word or phrase and browse the subject terms. I entered the term “psychological examinations” and
clicked “Browse”; EBSCOhost informed me that phrase was not
an exact match. However, it provided me with a list of other
terms that were in the subject index and might be useful for my
research. Be sure you record all these other suggested terms.
Searching is sometimes a process of trying something to see what
happens. A second way you can learn the database subject terms
is to go ahead and use your own word or phrase in a search and 7/7/10 2:03 PM see what results you get. Whether you get few results or many, a database will usually give you suggestions
for other search terms. Make sure to record any suggestions you think may be useful. For example, as I mentioned earlier, when I conducted my search in ProQuest, the database returned only eight hits. However, at
the top and bottom of the results page, ProQuest displayed the following four suggestions for other terms I
• Methods AND Psychological aspects
Methods AND Physical examinations
Teaching methods AND Psychological aspects
Methods AND Psychological tests (Note the capitalized word “AND” in these suggestions. Use of this capitalized term will be explained later in the
section “Boolean Searching” under “Advanced and Refined Online Searches.”) Databases often provide you with
pairs of terms like these to help focus your search. I decided to eliminate “Methods AND Physical examinations”
and “Teaching methods AND Psychological aspects” because they did not seem related to my topic. However,
I recorded the other two suggestions, so I could search them later. I also thought I might want to search just the
term “psychological tests,” so I wrote down that phrase as well. Keyword Searching
Keyword searching is probably the most popular search technique people use for searching the Internet, and
most Internet search engines retrieve information using keywords. Many databases will also give you the option
of searching by keywords as an advanced or refined search technique, which we discuss later in this chapter.
Keywords are alternative terms, important words related to your topic, or phrases that describe your topic.
When search engine spiders crawl through Web pages, they record how many times a word appears on a
page. If the word or phrase is the topic of an article or a main point related to that topic, it will usually appear
several times on a page and the search engine will capture it as a keyword. Before you begin a search, it is a
good idea to list all keywords you can think of that might be associated with your topic. These keywords might
be other terms such as “tests” for “examinations,” or they might be words that are related somehow to your
topic such as “psychologist,” or “test scores.” Search under each of these keywords and phrases to see which
ones give you the most useful results. Internet search engines, like databases, will often give you other terms
that may be related to your search.
For example, when I entered the phrase “psychological examinations” in Google, I received ten suggestions at
the bottom of the results page that Google titled “Searches related to ‘psychological examinations.’” When you
receive suggestions such as these, determine which ones you think will be useful and record them just as you
recorded database suggestions. Figure 5.1 illustrates how I recorded the suggestions and related keywords and
phrases I obtained for my topic in my database and Internet searches. Figure 5.2 is a blank suggestion form you
can print and use to record suggestions in your own searches. 5.3 Advanced or Refined Online Search Techniques
Most databases and search engines have a tab or menu item near the search field titled “Advanced Search”
or “Refine Search,” which lists options you can use to narrow and focus your search. Advanced options differ from one search engine to another, but some of the possibilities include the ability to search more than
one word, to give more weight to one search term than to another, and to exclude words that might clutter
your results. In the Yahoo Advanced Search, for example, you can choose to search only .gov or .org Web
sites if you wish. The search engine might also allow you to search by author or by date or to find words that
are close to other words. You can save yourself many hours of research time and generally get higher quality soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 69 7/7/10 2:03 PM Topic: Methods of conducting psychological
examinations Search Engine/Database:
Search Word or Phrase:
Suggestions: ProQuest—All databases
methods of conducting psychological examinations Methods AND Psychological aspects
Methods AND Psychological tests
Psychological tests Search Engine/Database:
Search Word or Phrase:
psychological examinations psychological assessment
psychological screening tests
psychological inventories Search Engine/Database:
Search Word or Phrase: Suggestions: Google
psychological examinations mmpi psychological test
types of psychological testing
psychological personality traits Figure 5.1 Completed Search Suggestion Form soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 70 7/7/10 2:03 PM Topic: As you search for your research subject or topic, use this form to record suggestions,
subject terms, related terms, or keywords suggested to you by the database or Internet
search engine that you think might be useful for your research.
Search Word or Phrase:
Suggestions: Search Engine/Database:
Search Word or Phrase:
Suggestions: Search Engine/Database:
Search Word or Phrase:
Suggestions: Figure 5.2 Blank Search Suggestion Form soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 71 7/7/10 2:03 PM results (results that are more closely related to your topic) if you make it a habit to use advanced or refined
search techniques instead of performing basic searches.
Because the advanced options on each database and search engine are different, the best way to learn them
is to read the Help files, the advanced search or refined search information, or the search tips or Help menu
of your favorite search engines and databases to see what alternatives are available. Then practice different
techniques to see what results you obtain with different types of searches. Also click the ENG 122 tab in
the Ashford Writing Center to view a tutorial on the Ashford Online Library and the use of many of these
advanced search techniques.
Below are the most common advanced search options. Experienced researchers use these advanced techniques to save time and to pinpoint their search results; you can easily learn these same techniques and use
them in your college research. You may want to experiment by choosing one of the techniques. Then, when
you feel comfortable with that technique, add other techniques to your searches. Before long, you will be a
professional at quickly and easily finding information, and you will not waste time poring through unrelated
and useless results. These techniques are not difficult to learn, and they can make research an exciting process of discovery rather than a tedious struggle to wade through irrelevant information. Field Searching
Databases house data in separate fields such as types of documents, authors, and date of publication. You
can usually query the database to retrieve only information in a specific field. For example, if a database
contains journal articles, magazine articles, and newspaper articles and your research assignment specifies
that you use only information from scholarly journals, you can usually limit your search so that only journal
articles are displayed (Database Search Techniques, 2010). Field searching can also be used to limit results
to full-text results that include the entire article rather than just an abstract of the article. Truncation
One of the easiest and most useful advanced search techniques you can use is called truncation. The word
truncate means “to shorten,” and truncation involves using special words or symbols, called operators, to
shorten a search word and obtain variant spellings or word endings from that symbol forward. The most
common operator used for truncation is an asterisk (*). However, some databases use a question mark (?).
For our topic “psychological examinations,” entering “psycho*” in the ProQuest database search field produced articles that contained the words “psychologist,” “psychology,” “psychophysiological,” “psychometric,” “psychosocial,” and “psychopathic,” among others. Truncation is especially useful when your database
searches provide very few results. Remember that databases usually search for exact words in their indexes.
So, if you use the words “psychological examinations” and the database index lists “psychology examinations,” you will not retrieve any results from your search. Truncating the first word “psycho*” will give you
results for both words. With truncation, be careful where you place the operator. If you enter “psy*,” for
example, you will get results for words not related to your search such as “psychic” and “psychotherapy.” Wildcards
An asterisk (*) may be used for truncation, or it may be used in a different manner as a search engine or database
wildcard. A wildcard is a symbol used as a substitute for a letter, word, or other character or as an instruction
to a database or search engine to perform a specific function. Wildcards can give you increased flexibility and
efficiency in your searches and may sometimes be combined with one another to pinpoint your searches. Table
5.1 describes some wildcards and their common meanings. However, you must check the search tips or Help
screens of each search engine or database to determine how they use wildcards. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 72 7/7/10 2:03 PM Table 5.1
+ Common Meaning Example Used to retrieve any words that begin with the
characters preceding the asterisk. Searching for “book*” in the title field in the EBSCOhost database retrieved articles with titles that contained the words “book,” “books,” “bookbinding,”
“booking,” bookish,” “bookkeeping,” “booklet,” and
“bookmark,” among others. Searching for “booksh*”
retrieved only titles that contained “bookshop,” “bookshops,” “bookshelf,” and “bookshelves.” Used to represent exactly one character; two
question marks would indicate two characters,
three question marks would indicate three characters, and so on. (Note: Some search engines
use a question mark to perform the function of
an asterisk.) Searching for “book???” in the AU (author) field of the
EBSCOhost database retrieved only articles written
by authors whose last name began with “book” and
contained three additional letters. For example, results
included authors named “Bookman,” “Bookout,” and
“Bookser.” Used to retrieve stopwords. If a search engine or database omits the stopword
“with,” using the wildcard before the word “with”
(“+with”) will usually retrieve phrases containing that
word, such as “with respect” or “with exceptions.” Square brackets can represent any of the characters enclosed in the brackets. Use of “*.[gov]” in a Google search retrieved only
Web site URLs that ended in .gov (government Web
Stopwords are short or linking words that you should not use in your online searches. In our topic “methods
of conducting psychological examinations,” the word “of” is a stopword. Using stopwords can add clutter to
your search and give you irrelevant results. Try not to think of your topic as a phrase that includes these words,
but search for single-subject words or keywords instead. If you want to use more than one word in a search,
use exact phrase searching or Boolean logic, explained below. Table 5.2 lists some common stopwords.
be for is such using about been from its than was both has no they where an but have of this what are by if on to who as do in same upon will at Common Stopwords a
all Table 5.2 each into some used with Exact Phrase Searching
Remember that most Internet search engines search every word in your search phrases, regardless of the
order in which the words appear. If you want to search for the exact phrase “psychological examinations,”
you must usually enclose the phrase in double quotation marks. However, a danger of exact phrase searching is that you might accidentally miss good results. For example, by searching for the name “Alexander
Bell” (in quotation marks), you will not get Web pages that refer to Alexander G. Bell (Google Search Basics,
2010). So, check the search tips for each engine search to see how it handles exact phrases, or try to search
phrases with and without quotation marks to see if you get different results. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 73 7/7/10 2:03 PM Boolean Searching
Also called Boolean logic or Boolean algebra, Boolean searching can be one of the most useful tools you
have for searching both Web sites and library databases. The best news, though, is that it is easy. One author
describes this search technique by saying, “Boolean logic (or at least the parts you need in order to understand the operations of computers) is outrageously simple” (Brain, 2000, para. 2).
Boolean searching is named for George Boole, a self-taught 19th-century British-born mathematician. In
his writings, Boole pointed out the possibilities of applying principles of algebra to the solution of logic
problems (Redshaw, 1996). As computers were developed, many software developers adopted Boolean
techniques and used them in their search engine and database programs. Today, most search engines and
databases use Boolean search techniques, at least as an option for advanced searching.
To use Boolean searching, you simply type your search words into the search engine or database, using the
word “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT,” typed in all capital letters, to limit or broaden your search. These capitalized words, called Boolean operators, focus the results of your searches in defined ways. Table 5.3 lists the
primary Boolean operators and how to use them. Table 5.3 Boolean Operators
Operator Function Comments AND Links words that are different. Example:
“psychological AND examinations”
You can use more than one AND operator.
Example: “psychological AND examinations
AND methods” Use to narrow your search by indicating terms that must
be included in the results—for example, a search using
“psychological AND examinations” will retrieve records
only if both words appear on the Web page or in the
article. You can use more than one AND operator in a
search. The more terms you search with the AND operator, the fewer results you will obtain. OR Links words that are similar in meaning or
Example: “examinations OR tests” Use to broaden your search by retrieving records that
mention any of the words linked by the operator—for
example, a search using “examinations OR tests” would
retrieve any records in which the word “examinations”
or “tests” is mentioned. A search using “examinations OR
tests OR assessments” would retrieve any records that
mention any of these terms. AND and OR Combines the functions of both AND and
OR operators. If you use both operators in
a search, put the OR terms in parentheses
so that the search engine treats them as
a unit (this technique is called nesting).
Example: “psychological AND (examinations
OR tests)” You can combine AND and OR operators to more precisely
focus your search—for example, a search using “psychological AND (examinations OR tests)” will retrieve any
records in which “psychological examinations,” or “psychological tests” appear. NOT Removes unwanted terms from a search.
Example: “examinations NOT physical” Retrieves all records in which the first term appears and
excludes records in which the second word also appears. AND and NOT Combines the functions of AND and NOT
operators. When using the NOT operator, be
careful that you do not eliminate potentially
useful records. Example: “psychological AND
examinations NOT physical” will eliminate
a sentence like this one: Psychological
examinations are different from physical
examinations. You can combine the AND and NOT operators to more
precisely focus your search—for example, a search using
“psychological AND examinations NOT physical” will
retrieve any records in which the words “psychological”
and “examinations” appear on the page but will exclude
any records in which the word “physical” also appears in
the record. (Reminder: Not all search engines and databases allow these Boolean operators, and some use different operators. Be sure to check the Advanced Search, Refine Search, Search
Tips, or Help menu for each search engine or database.) soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 74 7/7/10 2:03 PM Boolean searching can be extremely useful when you get thousands or millions of hits on your search and
need to narrow down the results to a manageable level. It can also be used to broaden your search when
you do not get enough information for your research topic. Study Figures 5.3 through 5.7 for illustrations of
how Boolean searching focuses search results. AND Figure 5.3 Boolean operator AND (Two
Words) psychological examinations AND Figure 5.4 Boolean operator AND
(Three Words) methods psychological OR Figure 5.5 Boolean operator OR (Two
Words) examinations soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 75 examinations tests 7/7/10 2:03 PM OR Figure 5.6 Boolean operator OR (Three
Words) assessments examinations tests NOT Figure 5.7 Boolean operator NOT examinations physical Proximity Searching
Proximity searching is similar to Boolean searching and involves the use of operators to find words that are
near one another, within a specified number of words away from one another, or that follow one another.
Review the search information for each database to determine if proximity operators are available. 5.4 Understanding Uniform Resource Locators
Every Internet resource or document has an address that indicates where it is located. This address is known
as its Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. The URL usually appears in a box in the upper-left corner of your
browser, the program such as Internet Explorer, Netscape, or Firefox that you use to surf the Web. Let us
take a look at what each section of the URL means. We will use the Ashford University Academic Catalog
as an example. The Internet address, or URL, for the catalog is <http://www.ashford.edu/student/forms/
catalog0910.pdf>. Refer to the illustration in Figure 5.8 as we discuss each section of this URL. Knowing
the structure of this address can help you determine what information to include when you document an
Internet source in your research papers. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 76 7/7/10 2:03 PM Figure 5.8 Understanding URLs http://www.ashford.edu/student/forms/catalog0910.pdf
protocol domain name
or host name path to document file name Each section of a URL is separated from other sections by one or two forward slashes (/) or (//). For consistency, always type the URL in all lowercase letters. Do not insert a hyphen if you need to break a URL
at the end of a line. Instead, break the URL before a punctuation mark, such as before a forward slash or a
period. (Exception: Do not break a URL after http://.) Do not add a period after the URL when you include a
URL in your reference list at the end of a paper; readers may think the period is part of the URL (American
Psychological Association, 2010). Protocol
The first part of the URL indicates the protocol, or the rules for carrying out a function such as transferring
data between computers. Most Web addresses begin with the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http://) because
this protocol controls communication between a server (a computer that receives requests and returns information) and World Wide Web customers (Castells, 2000). Other protocols are used for email transfers of
information and transfers of other types of data over the Internet. Domain Name, or Host Name
The domain name, or host name, is the name of the provider that sends information to other computers. On
the Web, it is often the address for an organization’s home page. Many domain names begin with “www.”;
however, not all do. Each part of the domain name, or host name, is separated from other parts by a dot (.).
In our Ashford example, the domain name is www.ashford.edu, which indicates the domain is on the World
Wide Web (www) and the educational institution’s name is Ashford. We know that Ashford is an educational institution or university because the domain name ends with the extension .edu. Domains outside the
United States also add a two-letter domain suffix. For example, the Web site of the Canadian postal service,
called Canada Post, is <www.canadapost.ca>. Table 5.4 shows the most common domain name extensions
you are likely to find in your academic research. Path to Document
This portion of the URL shows the path, or list of the directories, the computer uses to locate a particular file.
At times in your research, you may be reading a document at the end of a long path and need to know the full
name of the organization that published the document or the date the Web site was last updated, to document
the source. If you go to the URL address box, you can delete characters in the URL until you back up the path
to the domain name and the home page of the organization. Then click “Enter” and look for your reference
information. For example, if you were on a page of the Ashford University Web site at <http://www.ashford
.edu/online/degrees/bapsummary.php> and were examining a summary of the university’s Bachelor of Arts in
Psychology program, you could get back to the home page of the university by going to the URL address box,
putting your cursor after the extension “php” and delete characters until the URL reads <http://www.ashford
.edu/>. At this point, if you click “Enter,” you would return to the home page of the university. This technique
can be useful when you are very deep into a Web site and need to back up to find information about a source. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 77 7/7/10 2:03 PM Table 5.4 Extension Common Domain Name
Extensions Meaning .ac Suffix for academic institutions in the United Kingdom (England,
Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). Suffix is always followed
by the .uk country code; for example, the URL for Oxford University
is http://www.ox.ac.uk/ .au Country suffix for Australia; for example, the URL for the
Australian Customs and Border Protection Web Site is
http://www.customs.gov.au/ .biz Generally small-business Web sites .ca Country suffix for Canada; for example, the URL for the Canadian
postal service, Canada Post, is http://www.canadapost.ca/ .co A commercial company outside the United States (always followed
by a country code)— for example, www.amazon.co.uk .com A commercial entity or business in the United States .edu A university or educational institution in the United States .gov A government entity in the United States .info Represents the word information and is used for a wide range of sites
from reputable resource sites to personal Web sites with information
about the site owner .mil A military domain in the United States .net Represents the word network and is commonly used by organizations
involved with the Internet, such as Internet service providers and
Web-hosting companies .org Domain for nonprofit organizations and trade associations, but may
also be used by other organizations .uk Country suffix for the United Kingdom File Name
This section of the URL specifies the name of the document and, often, the document type. For example, in our Ashford University Academic Catalog URL, this section of the URL reads “catalog0910.pdf” and specifies that the name
of the document is “catalog0910” and the file type is PDF (a file that can be read by free Adobe Reader software). 5.5 Types of Information
Your research is likely to result in a great deal of information that is acceptable for college-level research
and a great deal of information that is not. Once you have found some information online or at a physical
library that you believe could be potentially useful, how can you determine if that information is acceptable
for your college research paper?
First, you must consider whether the information is a fact, an inference, or an opinion. Facts are definitely
acceptable for academic research; inferences and opinions may or may not be acceptable. Figure 5.9 summarizes the differences between facts, inferences, and opinions that we discuss in more detail below. Let us
examine these three categories of information individually. Facts
For purposes of academic research, facts can be defined as statements that can be proven to be true and
are not in dispute. Remember, researchers are concerned with data that are observable and measurable, soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 78 7/7/10 2:03 PM FACT
A fact is a statement that can be proven to be true and is not in dispute. Facts can be verified
through our senses or proven by measurement. Facts are definitely acceptable for academic
An inference is an interpretation or a conclusion we make based on facts or on observable
or measurable evidence. It is a logical assumption based on something we or others have
observed, measured, or have deduced from evidence. When we make inferences, we are
interpreting information, and interpretation is an important part of research. However, to be
acceptable for academic research, we must make sure our inferences meet four criteria:
• They must be reasonable and logical.
They must be based on sufficient and relevant evidence.
They must be valid.
They must be reliable. OPINION
An opinion expresses thoughts, feelings, judgments, or value. You can often recognize an
opinion by use of words such as feel or believe; by emotional language such as “I like/hate”;
by words that indicate the speaker is comparing or judging something such as most, least,
better, best, worst or by words such as always, never, all, or none. Opinions also may use
descriptive words such as beautiful, fun, exciting, or smart. Opinions are not acceptable or
appropriate sources of evidence for college-level research, except in situations where the
opinion is given by someone who has special knowledge or expertise on a subject. Figure 5.9 Recognizing Facts, Inferences, and Opinions
and facts are statements that we can verify through our senses or prove by measurement. When we observe
something, we make contact with that object through the use of our physical senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling.
It is true that not everyone gets the same result by using their senses. For example, some people can taste
wine and detect a hint of pepper or wild cherries in the wine. Others may not detect those tastes at all. One
reason for this difference is that observation is affected by experience, knowledge, training, and attention.
Law enforcement personnel are trained to be observant of certain behaviors and details and will often spot
potential problems on a city street before a member of the general public might notice anything is wrong.
With training and experience, we can all train our senses. Musicians are trained to hear if a musical note is
sharp or flat. And, with training in wine tasting, we can improve our ability to discern different flavors in the
taste of various wines. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 79 7/7/10 2:03 PM © John Howard/Digital Vision/Thinkstock Similar to how a musician may train
his ears to detect certain notes,
researchers are trained to observe
phenomena. Scientists and researchers are often educated, trained, or have
experience in observing phenomena. However, they are also
careful to record their observations and, if possible, to find a way
to quantify or measure them. Because measurements are more
finite and less likely to be disputed than observations, researchers
rely heavily on numbers or statistical measures of phenomena,
whenever possible. For example, in stating a fact about air pressure, a scientist might write, “At sea level, the standard air pressure is 29.92 inches of mercury” (U.S. Geological Survey, 2010).
This fact has been proven through scientific research and is not in
dispute. The term standard air pressure has been defined scientifically as the pressure of the atmosphere at sea level, at 0 degree
Celsius. It can be measured in several different ways: 1013 millibars, 101.3 kiloPascals, 760 millimeters of mercury, 29.92 inches
of mercury, 14.7 pounds per square inch, or a figure known as 1
atmosphere (National Earth Science Teachers Association, 2010). So, when stating a fact about boiling water, a researcher might
qualify the statement by saying, “At sea level, at a standard air
pressure of 29.92 inches of mercury, water boils at 212 degrees
Fahrenheit” (Georgia State University, 2010). Notice how specific this statement is. When you paraphrase information and
data from research sources you find, be careful that you do
not make sweeping statements and that you are specific when
you paraphrase and restate factual information. Do not forget
to cite the source of the factual or numerical information, as I
have done above. © iStockphoto/Thinkstock In your research, you may often find research studies with very
lengthy titles because researchers are careful to state facts in specific terms. They do not make broad generalizations such as
“water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit” because that statement would not be a fact that is true in all places at all times;
the boiling temperature of water depends on altitude and
barometric pressure. In Denver, Colorado, for example, nicknamed the “Mile-High City” because its elevation is 5,280
feet, water boils at approximately 203 degrees Fahrenheit,
depending on barometric pressure (Cornell University, 2007). Researchers are careful to state facts
in specific terms. A generalization such
as “water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit” would be inaccurate. Inferences
An inference is an interpretation or conclusion we make based on facts or on observable or measurable
evidence. For example, if we see dark clouds moving into the area, or if the atmospheric pressure drops on
our barometer, we infer that a storm is coming. Conclusions such as these are logical assumptions we make
based on something we have observed, measured, or have deduced from evidence. We also make inferences from the conclusions others have drawn from their observations or measurements. When you conduct
research, you make inferences when you interpret facts and form conclusions based on data. If you recall
from previous chapters in this text, interpretation and making inferences from observable and measureable
data are appropriate and essential tasks in the research process.
However, it is important to recognize that inferences are statements of probability, not certainty. Whereas
facts deal with what is, inferences can be made about the past, the present, and the future, and they have soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 80 7/7/10 2:03 PM © iStockphoto/Thinkstock varying degrees of probability. To be acceptable for academic
research, we must make sure that the inferences we make and
those we accept from others meet these four criteria: If we see dark clouds, we might
infer that a storm is coming. •
• Inferences must be reasonable and logical.
Inferences must be based on relevant evidence.
Inferences must be valid. Validity means that the statement is supported by objective truth (facts) or a generally
accepted and trusted authority.
Inferences must be reliable. Reliability is a test of consistency. A research result is reliable when the same test is
repeated and gives the same result. In the next section of this chapter, we discuss how to evaluate sources
you find and to make sure that inferences meet these criteria. Opinions
If we cannot observe or measure a phenomenon and cannot make reasonable inferences based on facts,
a statement may not lend itself to academic research. For example, the question “Is the Colorado River
beautiful?” is not a fact and is not a researchable question. We cannot measure the term beautiful because
no objective criteria exist to determine beauty. As we say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (Netting,
2005). A statement such as the one above about the Colorado River is an opinion and a statement of value.
An opinion is a personal belief, a point of view, or a judgment that is not founded on any proof. We hold
opinions on many issues ranging from personal behavior to religious and political issues to aesthetic concepts such as what is beautiful and what is not and to moral issues such as concepts of right and wrong.
Often you can recognize opinions because they contain words that indicate personal feelings or adjectives
that relate to personal values or beliefs. Below is a short list of some words that often indicate an opinion:
Descriptive words such as beautiful, fun, exciting, or smart For example, a licensed physician may render a medical opinion on an issue, and this person may have credibility because
of his or her knowledge of medicine. However, the opinion
may be disputed or challenged by other medical experts,
who also have expertise in the field. Opinions from experts
are acceptable and appropriate for academic research. However, it is important to remember that these opinions must be
supported by factual evidence as well as simply the expert’s soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 81 © iStockphoto/Thinkstock Opinions are not acceptable or appropriate sources of evidence for college-level research, except in situations where
the opinion is given by someone who has special knowledge
or expertise on a subject. Even in these situations, however,
the opinion may be challenged, and we must always examine
the credibility of the “expert” making the statement. What valid research question could
you ask about the Colorado River? 7/7/10 2:03 PM personal opinion. It is also important to acknowledge other opinions, if they exist, and to discuss why those
opposing opinions are not valid.
Another type of opinion is that of a legal opinion issued by a court. A legal opinion is a formal statement or
conclusion made by a court stating the reasons and principles for the court’s decision. Again, this type of
opinion is acceptable for academic research. However, it is important to remember that legal opinions may
be challenged and possibly overturned by higher courts. When citing legal opinions in your research, make
sure to carefully document your sources, so others can check your references.
Opinions can be used, however, in argumentative research papers. Because opinions are debatable, they
can be argued. You may be asked to write research papers in which you form an opinion and then argue
your point of view. In that type of assignment, your goal is to use logic, reasoning, and factual evidence to
convince readers of the validity of your point of view on an issue. To accomplish this goal, you must conduct
research and gather evidence to support your opinion. This evidence might consist of examples from your
own experience, facts, statistics, and statements from authorities in their fields to prove your point and to
build a case that readers will accept. You will also be expected to take opposing views into account and to
counter or overcome them using reason and logic (Campsall, 2010).
You might think of an argumentative research paper as teaching your readers the facts about an issue. Your
task in this type of research paper is to show your readers that you are well informed and understand the
issue, that you have considered different points of view, and that, after careful consideration, you have
decided that the point of view you advocate is the correct one. You must also convince them that you have
solid, specific reasons that support your thesis or point of view. Once they see the facts, you reason, they
will have no choice but to accept your opinion on the issue. 5.6 Evaluating Information and Evidence
Once you have determined that you have acceptable information for your college paper, you have one final
step to take before you use the data or information in your paper: You must make sure it is appropriate for
college-level research. When we discussed the research process in Chapter 3, we mentioned that an important step in the process is evaluating the materials you use for your research papers. Evaluation involves
critically judging the meaning, quality, importance, or value of the information, and this evaluation takes
place while you are conducting research and examining the sources you find. When you evaluate research
information, you are doing so to make certain you have enough information about your topic and that the
information is relevant, credible, valid, reliable and appropriate for your paper. Let us look at how to conduct these evaluations. Tips for Evaluating Web Sites
When a periodical, book, or a company document is published, editors and reviewers often read it before it
is published, and errors and omissions are often corrected before the publication goes to press. When you do
research on the Internet, however, no one has to review or approve material; anyone can post almost anything
on the Web. Thus, it is your job as a researcher to make sure that what you found is an appropriate source for
your research paper.
Below are some tips to help you in your Web site evaluation. Remember to use the information in this chapter to help you find acceptable research information on the Web.
• Check at the top and bottom of Web articles to see if the author cited his or her sources. If so, it is
more likely that the source is reputable. These citations may also be sources you can use. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 82 7/7/10 2:03 PM • •
• We stated earlier in this text that Wikipedia and similar sites are not acceptable sources for academic
research papers. However, they can lead you to acceptable sources. At the bottom of every Wikipedia page is a list of references and links. Check them out. Many of them may be good research
sources for your papers.
In the text of Web articles, if you see footnote numbers or links to other material, take time to
explore them. They may provide explanatory information, background information, or links to other
Go to the home page of a Web document to see if you can learn more about the article, author, or
organization that published any material you find.
Look for links titled “Additional Sites” or “Related Links” on Web pages and explore them. Six Tests of Evidence
When researchers make statements that are not factual but represent inferences or opinions, they must back
up those statements with evidence. Remember that evidence consists of examples, facts, statistics, or the
words of credible sources. Again, you must evaluate this evidence to ensure that it is sufficient. Below are
six simple tests of evidence you should conduct to make sure the information you use is appropriate for your
paper. Ask yourself the following six questions about each source. If you can answer yes to all these questions, you probably have a great source for your research paper.
• Is the source credible?
Is the source unbiased?
Is the source relevant?
Is the source complete?
Is the source logical?
Is the source recent? Let us look at each of these questions in more detail and discuss what to look for as you attempt to answer
each question. Is the Source Credible?
Credibility refers to whether the information and the source of the information are believable and trustworthy.
We make important decisions every day based on our judgments of credibility. For example, if someone told
you that your company was going to lay off workers, would you believe the statement? Chances are the answer
would depend on who made that statement, whether that person has any knowledge about personnel issues
in the company, and whether that person has a reputation for being honest and trustworthy. In other words,
you would need to know if the person and the information were credible. You must make judgments about the
credibility of your research sources as well. You should use only credible sources for your research papers. A
printed or electronic source is more likely to be credible if the following is true:
• The author’s name is given.
The author’s education, training, or credentials are in a field relevant to the subject.
The author’s job title, position, or organizational affiliation is provided and is relevant to the subject.
The organization publishing the information is a government, military, or nonprofit organization; an
educational institution; or a known corporate entity.
The information is in a reputable publication or posted on a reputable organization’s Web site.
The URL is .gov, .mil, .edu, or .org (check .org sites to make sure they are hosted by a reputable
The information is written in a professional manner, does not contain grammatical errors, provides
evidence to support inferences and opinions, and does not contain emotional statements. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 83 7/7/10 2:03 PM •
• Sources are named and a bibliography or reference list is provided.
The tone of the information is objective.
The reasoning is logical.
If the source is a periodical, the type of periodical is acceptable for academic research. Do not be misled by articles that try to make you believe that they are presenting credible information
when they are simply trying to sell a product. Many articles about weight loss or diet products, for example,
include photographs of people supposedly taken before and after they use the product and who have had
dramatic “results.” The articles may also present testimony from people wearing white lab coats, but whose
medical background is not stated. Photographs can be manipulated with software programs to make people
look heavier or thinner. Credible sources will always include their credentials so you can judge their credibility. Obtain your information from reputable publications, as discussed in Chapter 4, and you will have
fewer problems with issues of credibility of your sources. Is the Source Unbiased?
Bias refers to the point of view or the slant of information. Some sources present information about a subject
objectively and fairly discuss both sides of a controversial issue. Other sources provide only one side of the
issue and do not discuss points of view that are contrary to its own. A source that presents only one perspective, that slants information to favor its opinion on an issue, or that tries to persuade readers that its viewpoint
is the only one that should be considered is said to be biased.
Bias is not necessarily bad; we all have points of view, or biases, on subjects. You can use biased sources in
your research papers. However, it is important that you recognize the bias and perhaps even mention it in
your paper. If you have a biased source and are writing an analytical research paper in which your purpose
is to objectively examine, analyze, and evaluate an issue, you must find other points of view about the issue
so that the presentation of material in your paper is fair and balanced.
If you are writing an argumentative research paper, a biased source may be helpful as a source to support
your point of view. However, you should seek out other points of view on the subject as well and take them
into account as you write your argument. It is also important to examine biased sources to see whether the
author supports his or her point of view with facts and statistical data or with only personal opinions and
Bias can be found in the language of a source and the manner in which the subject is presented. Bias can
also be present in the author; in the newspaper, magazine, or Web site itself; or in the publisher. You can
refer to the comments section in the examples of journal and magazines that were presented in Chapter 4
to help you determine the bias of well-known publications.
As you read potential research sources, use your critical thinking skills to evaluate whether the author is
fairly and accurately presenting information. Be suspicious of highly emotional language and judge whether
the author is presenting a reasonable argument. Even the arguments of opponents should be presented fairly.
None of us is totally objective, but writers should not be afraid to address differences of opinion and control
their own biases when they present information.
One of the biggest problems with objectivity is conflict of interest. At times, studies are conducted that are
funded by financial grants, and an organization may benefit financially or politically from publishing information that presents a certain point of view. For example, a study sponsored by a liquor producer is unlikely
to recommend that people stop drinking or may place more emphasis on the benefits of their products than
on its hazards.
Make sure you recognize your own biases as well, as you conduct research. Bias usually stems from our
feelings, which are based on our personal experiences, beliefs, values, and attitudes rather than on rational soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 84 7/7/10 2:03 PM thought about an issue. As a researcher, remember that you must try to set aside your own biases and conduct your research objectively to try to find the truth about a subject. What you learn may cause you to
strengthen your own biases, or it may cause you to change your opinion about a subject. In either case,
though, you will grow from the experience. Is the Source Relevant?
As you search for sources on the Internet and in libraries, make sure that all material you retrieve relates
to your topic. Rather than read hundreds of articles you found in a database search to see if they contain
information you can use for your paper, quickly scan the abstracts of any articles that look promising. If an
article appears to be a useful source, read it carefully and thoroughly to see if it relates to your topic. Ask
yourself the following questions:
• What subject areas does the source cover?
Are these areas ones that I will address in my paper?
Is this publication meant for academics or others who are well informed in the field? If so, does it
contain any references that can help me obtain background information on the subject? Is the Source Complete?
No source ever presents totally complete coverage of a topic; that is why we must find more than one
source pertaining to our topic. Remember that research is ongoing, and we never completely understand
a subject. However, when we say that a source should be complete, we mean that the writer should be
thorough in discussing the subject and should not leave out information because it does not fit his or her
point of view.
When you read information about your topic, ask yourself if the author presented enough evidence to support his or her point of view. Also ask yourself if you have enough evidence to present a clear and complete
picture of the topic in your paper. Do not take information out of context and mislead the reader by using
only the portion of the information that supports your opinion about a topic. Is the Source Logical?
Examine the information to ensure that it makes sense and is consistent with other known evidence. If it is
inconsistent, the inconsistency must be explained in your paper. If a claim does not make sense or is hard to
believe, look to see what type of evidence the source provides to back up that claim. Test claims you read on
the basis of your own knowledge and experience. If you read, for example, “Ninety percent of all students
love college math courses,” would that statement fit with your experience? Do you believe that the percentage is that high? If not, try to find other sources that support this claim before you report it in your paper. Is the Source Recent?
Make sure the sources you use are as current as possible and have not been replaced by more recent
research findings. Check to find the date an article was written or, if it has no date, check the copyright or
revision date on the Web page to determine how recently the information was updated. To determine if
information is current enough for your paper, you must consider how frequently topics in that field would
change. If you are writing a paper about English grammar rules, for instance, an article about grammar and
punctuation rules that is two years old is probably current enough. However, if you are writing about computer software, a two-year-old article about the latest software applications will be out of date. In fields such
as technology, science, medicine, and business, be especially careful to ensure that you have very recent
information about your topic. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 85 7/7/10 2:03 PM 5.7 Summary
Internet search engines and databases contain materials that could be useful for your college research
papers, and they all perform the same functions of searching for certain words or phrases, compiling an
index of these words and phrases, and ranking the pages and articles in which these words appear. Because
every search engine or databases performs these functions in a slightly different way, though, it pays to
always use more than one search engine and more than one database when you search for research information and data.
Searching for words and phrases on a search engine or database is called querying. You are actually querying the index to determine if it contains the words or phrases you entered in the search field. If you do not
find the type of information and data you are looking for, it usually means that you have not been performing
the search in precisely the right way. You can obtain results by using the basic search techniques of subject
searching and keyword searching. However, you will most likely have better results and spend less time
with your research if you master the techniques of advanced searches such as truncation, wildcards, and
It is helpful to understand the four sections of a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL, when you search the
Web for research information and data. The URL will give you useful information to help you locate research
materials and to aid you in understanding, evaluating, and citing your sources.
When you find potential research information, whether it is online or at a physical library, it is also important to identity the type of information you have found. Information can be classified into three categories:
facts, inferences, and opinions. You must determine if the information is acceptable for college research
papers. Facts are definitely acceptable for academic research. Inferences and opinions may be acceptable if
they fit certain criteria. Inferences must be reasonable, logical, based on relevant evidence, valid, and reliable. Opinions must be credible statements made by someone who has special knowledge or expertise on
Once you have found acceptable information for your research papers, the final step in conducting research
is to evaluate that information. Use your critical thinking skills to ask and answer six important questions
about each source to determine if it fits the criteria for an appropriate academic research source.
Finally, remember that a great deal of research is trial and error. So, if you do not get the results you want
with your online searches, do not despair or become frustrated. Simply adopt one or more of the advanced
search techniques you learned in this chapter or search using a different search engine or databases. Be as
precise as you can be about your search terms, and you will soon find that conducting research is not just
challenging, it can be rewarding and fun as well. soL82373_05_c05_p065-086.indd 86 7/7/10 2:03 PM ...
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