Category Archives: Research tools

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


Research Tools: Creating Your Own Google Custom Search Engine

As valuable as individual search engines are, whether Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo, they do have their limitations. Some of these include getting inundated with too many results, which can be somewhat alleviated by knowing how to structure your search.

You can modify your search terms to narrow your search. For instance, when looking for material on pioneering film director D.W. Griffith and film editing, I could just enter his name in Google and get “about 466,000 results.” Adding the term “parallel editing,” a film editing technique associated with Griffith, gets me “about 4,200 results.” This is more to the point and a lot less intimidating. However, there is an even better method if you’re willing to put in some time and effort by building your own Google Custom Search Engine.

Like a number of instructors, I created my own Custom Search Engine to help students in my film, television, animation, motion graphics and visual effects classes with their research: “Cinema Studies 101 Search Engine: A Search Engine for the Moving Image Arts.” Though I’m retired from full-time teaching, I still maintain it for my own use and for readers of my blog. I designed it to enable researchers to find articles that would be suitable for use in academic papers of all kinds, from term papers to PhD dissertations; needless to say, it does not include Wikipedia. You can check out my listing of sites searched to give you some idea of what can be done. But there is nothing that says you can’t construct one to fit your individual needs.

I have found that in using the free Google Custom Search Engine, there are some limitations. The main one is that it limits you to 100 search results. This is balanced, however, by the quality of the results. As such, I have usually found it more useful than a standard Google search.

Nancy Minicozzi’s YouTube video embedded above is a good introduction to how to do your own Google Custom Search Engine. However, it has been my experience that you do not necessarily need your own website or blog to make use of it; for instance, I first tested mine out by putting the code on my desktop and launching it with a browser. (If you do plan on using one in a Google Site, then check out Minicozzi’s comments here.)