Doing effective research with databases

Yuting Wang has been a graduate student intern with us at the Weigle Information Commons for the past year. In the post below, she reflects on her research experiences at Penn as she completes her Masters of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL):

Having submitted my 50-page thesis paper for my master’s degree, I eagerly await commencement.  I feel so excited and relieved at this moment.  However, looking back on all the assignments I have done in the past two years as a graduate student, I wonder how much time I have spent on doing research on literature reviews before starting to write my papers.  I guess every student in college or graduate school has experienced the process of searching for suitable articles/sources for assignments. I would like to thank all the librarians who have helped me to go through this process . It is their help that makes my research more effective.

When I was a first-year graduate school student, I attended a library orientation to learn about a number of databases that Penn students and faculty can access. You can find your relevant subject databases by clicking the label Subjects/collections under the category of Find Journal Articles & Other resources on the Van Pelt Library home page. Also, many librarians have their own recommended resources in different subjects on Research guides, which you can find next to Subjects/collections.  I found my favorite database, called LLBA (Linguistic and Language Behavior Abstracts) from Patty Lynn’s education guide. LLBA is a comprehensive and authoritative database in linguistics from ProQuest. However, just using the right database is not enough to ensure effective research. Sometimes, you will find that too many articles come up in the search results. The number can be reduced if you select the peer-reviewed checkbox under the search box. Usually, your professor will require you to use peer-reviewed research papers to ensure the quality of your citations.

And most often, we need to switch to advanced search to be more accurate about research topics. For example, multiple key words are allowed under the advanced search. You can use ‘and’ to narrow down your topic or, you can broaden your topic by choosing ‘or’.  What is being searched needs to be noted too. The default search in LLBA of ‘anywhere’ in a record, usually will lead to too broad a result. In this case, we need to set the fields being search as ‘abstract’ or ‘subject’. For example, searching for the phrase “English as a second language” under the ‘subject’ field, instead of ‘anywhere’ can narrow down the number of papers by more than half. Another skill is to truncate words by putting an asterisk sign (*) at the end of words to get varying endings and expand the number of results.  For instance, when I tried to search using the phrase “Use educational technology to implement Content-based instruction” only 10 papers came up with the keywords ‘content-based instruction and ‘technology’. However, if I truncated the second keyword to  “technolog*”, over 30 papers emerged.  Using the asterisk caused words like “technological” to be searched as well.

However, that does not mean starting from ‘anywhere’ is an ineffective technique. According to Ancil George and Karrie Peterson, two Penn librarians, actually, searching broadly is often the first step in research, especially if you are unsure about the topic. They suggested using Google Scholar before exploring a particular subject database so that you can find papers from different disciplines before narrowing your search.  You can access Google Scholar via the Van Pelt library page, so that Google recognizes you as a Penn person. This way, the PennTEXT link will appear next to sources you have access to through the Penn Libraries . You can do that on your own laptop. It doesn’t have to be a computer in the library. I didn’t notice that until recently after a tip from Lori Rowland.

All of the above are some of the research techniques I have learned from my experience as a Penn graduate student. Please don’t hesitate to share your experience and ideas about researching with me. And remember, if you meet any difficulty in finding appropriate sources, Penn librarians are always there for you to consult with.

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