Category Archives: Bibliographic management

Research Methods: Evaluating Scholarly Sources with Google Scholar

The weight of Gods word against traditions

In writing term papers, many students instinctively do a Google search and pick the first few items that come up, which will frequently include a Wikipedia article. This, however, is not the best way to find sources that your professor might accept. For those doing more scholarly research, such as doing a review of literature, the challenges are more substantial

Fortunately, there are a number of good websites, usually maintained by academic libraries, which go over the basics of identifying and evaluating scholarly sources. For instance, the University of Southern California Library’s page on “Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: What are Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources,” does a good job of going over the basics. It is also useful for delving into the peculiarities of research in the arts and humanities; for example, it notes that in certain instances, “The author may be a multi-disciplinary intellectual of a transnational stature, who does not rely on the commonly acceptable scholarly apparatus.”

This is all well and good, but once you’ve identified a number of sources, how do you judge their relative value? One way is by using a feature of Google Scholar, which limits its searches to scholarly books and articles in English, which provides a handy way of finding out the popularity among scholars of particular sources.

The YouTube video above, from Charles Sturt University, in Australia, provides a good overview of how to use Google Scholar, especially in conjunction with a school’s library and with whatever bibliographic management software you’re using—in this instance Endnote. (Zotero isn’t one of the options listed, but the program can easily import citations from Google Scholar. You can also generate citations that you can copy into your paper.)

One feature the video doesn’t really deal with it is how many times an item has been cited by others. All things being equal, the number of citations can be used as a barometer on how much the scholarly community values a source. For instance, the top result for a search I did on “global warming” was for Root, Terry L., et al. “Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants,” by Terry Root, et al., which appeared in Nature in 2003, which shows it was “Cited by 3471” sources. In comparison, James E. Hansen’s “Sir John Houghton: Global Warming: The Complete Briefing” that appeared in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry in 1998, was “Cited by 1566.”  (If you click on the “Cited by…” link, you can bring up the sources which cited the item in question.)

While the Root article has been cited twice as many times as the Hansen, the comparison is not really that cut and dried. The former was published in a relatively popular natural science journal, while the latter is a book review from a more specialized publication dealing with atmospheric chemistry. Used with care, though, it’s one more way to identifying useful scholarly material.

Research Sources: WorldCat

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsWorldCat is not the sexiest research tool out there, focusing as it does on bibliographic information concerning books, DVDs, CDs and articles. But it can also be very useful in a number of small but handy ways.

WorldCat is the public face of the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC), which began life in 1967 as the Ohio College Library Center. It eventually replaced the National Union Catalog, a mammoth ongoing publishing project which compiled and printed the 3” x 5” catalog cards prepared by the Library of Congress and others in libraries around the United States.

It remains the place to find out where you can locate a particular item in over 10,000 libraries around the world. For instance, I often use it to see which local library has a particular book. Libraries do the same when they are trying to borrow something for a patron through interlibrary loan. It is also a source for cataloging information that institutions use to create entries in their own library catalogs.

Google Scholar and Google Books have, in a number of ways, superseded WorldCat as a way to identify useful sources of printed information. Still, it does provide a rather handy way to compile bibliographies, though its abilities in this regard are greatly enhanced by using a bibliographic management program like Zotero.Worldcat MLA Citation for Capital

However, if all you need is a bibliographic citation for a term paper, it can do the job quickly with a reasonable degree of accuracy. See, for instance, the MLA citation created a 1967 edition of  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Capital above.

Like other sites which automatically generate citations, you have to realize that they are not always infallible. An example is the following entry, in MLA style, for the 2009 DVD of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

Hand, David, Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Maris M. De, Dorothy A. Blank, Webb Smith, Walt Disney, Adriana Caselotti, Roy Atwell, Eddie Collins, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Verne L. La, Scotty Mattraw, Harry Stockwell, Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Wilhelm Grimm, and Jacob Grimm. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2009.

Listing 24 people as the film’s authors is somewhat absurd and unwieldy. As a film’s director is usually considered the film’s author, a better citation would be:

Hand, David. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2009.

Last update: December 26. 2016


Citation Styles: Which One Should You Use?

, Purdue University OWL Online Writing Lab's website page on Research and Citation Resources
Like many college libraries, Purdue University OWL Online Writing Lab’s website provides much more than  help in formatting citations.

The selection of a citation style for your term paper, dissertation or journal article is often easy: Use what your professor, academic department or publisher mandates. Sometimes, you may have a choice: I used to allow my students to pick between MLA, APA and Chicago/Turabian; in such a case, select the one you are most comfortable with or perhaps flip a coin. In any case, you need to follow the style as closely as possible, as it otherwise might hurt your grade.

In academic and professional writing, it’s useful to remember, citations are designed to identify the sources of your information and/or ideas, including direct and indirect quotes (i.e., paraphrasing what someone else wrote). As Vickie noted yesterday, “Basically you must cite any time the question arises in the reader’s mind: How do you know that?”

Citation styles can sometimes seem rather arcane and petty. For instance, the APA Style Manual suggests using two spaces after a period, though most professional writers use only one. (Two spaces made sense in the days of typewriters, as it made manuscripts more legible; today’s word processing programs, which generally use proportionally-spaced fonts, made this practice largely obsolete.) For the most part, though, they represent a set of conventions which makes communication easier.

There are several ways to get help doing citations for your paper or book. The approach you use is up to you.

  • College libraries often provide online guides to using the school’s approved citation styles, which can also be illustrated with YouTube videos. A popular one is Purdue OWL, hosted by Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. They are particularly handy if you are doing citations manually for something like a term paper.
  • Published style manuals, such as Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students & Researchers. These are usually available at library reference desks. Buying one is only necessary is if you’re writing a thesis or dissertation, or doing a lot of scholarly writing.
  • When in doubt, ask your instructor or, better yet, a librarian at your school or public library.

Digital solutions, aka bibliographic management software, are readily available in both commercial and free varieties. Some of the commercial programs, such as Endnote, may be free if you’re a student or professor at some schools. I don’t have time to go over them in detail right now, but here are a few options:

  • The latest versions of such programs as Microsoft Word and LibreOffice Write have the capability of creating citations and lists of works cited (bibliographies). Bibliographic data has to be entered manually and they are somewhat limited in scope, but they can often get the job done.
  • Zotero is a full-featured freebie from George Mason University. It began as a Firefox extension, but is now also available in a standalone version. It excels at easily capturing bibliographic information from websites and library catalogs. Like the next two entries, it can format citations in a host of specialized styles, including those required by journals like ACM Transactions on Computer Systems and Clinical Pediatrics. It’s also one of the two programs we use.
  • Endnote is an oldie but goodie, which has long been a standard for many colleges and scholars. I use it because of its ability to modify citations to suite my needs; I sometimes use it in conjunction Zotero, which has its advantages. Endnote Basic (formerly Endnote Web) is a free  online version of the program, which is somewhat limited (e.g., it only allows 50,000 references, only uses 7 basic citation styles and lacks the ability to edit citation styles). However, this might be good enough for those looking for a free alternative to Zotero.
  • Citavi is a Swiss program that’s fairly new to the American market, but it’s a worthy competitor; however, it’s doesn’t seem as easy to modify as Endnote. If you’re not writing a book or dissertation, you might consider downloading Citavi Free, which allows you to use the full program gratis for up to 100 references.

Post last updated: December 2, 2016.