Once you have chosen a workable topic, you should then try to find as many sources as possible on that topic. Ideally, you want to try to find as wide a variety of sources as possible--books, anthologies, scholarly articles, ect. The more sources you have to work, the easier it will be to find relevant information when you begin to write your paper.
Today’s college libraries make doing research much easier than it was even ten years ago—provided that you understand the various options available to you for locating sources. The growth of electronic databases, in particular, has revolutionized the way students now do research, making it fairly easy to compile detailed lists of books and articles published in your research area.
2.1 Legitimate Sources of Information
Among the places you will definitely need to look in order to find legitimate sources for your research paper are the following: 1. Your College Library’s Central Catalogue
One of the most obvious places to look when doing any research is your own college library. All college libraries now have a computerized system that makes finding sources on any topic a snap. You can search for books by subject, title, author or library call number.
If your topic is a workable one, by now you should have the titles and call numbers of at least a dozen works written down on paper. At this point you may want to make a preliminary investigation of the stacks to locate these sources. By carefully surveying the area on the shelves where these books are located, you will probably find other useful sources, since library books are grouped according to topic.
2. On-Line Databases
After you have searched the on-line catalogue for books, your next step should be to consult one of the many computerized databases that are available in the College library.
On-line databases are fairly easy to use once you get the hang of them, and they will typically list all the most recent books and articles published on your topic. Some databases will even give you full text versions of recent articles—a benefit that can save you a great deal of research time. Different libraries have different collections of databses, so you’ll need to explore to find one that is optimal for your own research needs.
The most important database for philosophical research is The Philosopher's Index, which contains the most current and extensive bibliographies of scholarly research in philosophy. Unfortunately, not every college library has this vital database, so you may need to go to a neighboring college's library if you want to use it.
Some other popular databases that you may also want to explore first are FirstSearch, ProQuest, JSTOR, and CQ Researcher. Each of these databases will provide you with more sources of information than you can possibly use, even in a very long and involved research paper. Use databases prudently, therefore, and only check out books or download articles specifically related to your topic.
3. Inter-Library Loan
After tracking down several books and articles on your topic, you may find that some works are unavailable at your own college library. This is where an Interlibrary Loan system comes in very handy. The Interlibrary Loan system enables you to have virtually any book and most articles sent to you from the libraries connected to the system. Once you are on the library page and determine that the book is not available at Molloy’s library, click on Request through Interlibrary Loan. Fill out the form as indicated. Within a short time, you should have the sources you requested.
4. Sources Cited in Books/Articles
Once you’ve gotten a few good books or articles on your topic from your own college library, local public libraries, or through interlibrary loan, you then have an easy way to find even more sources to use. In the back pages of the books or articles, there will usually be a fairly substantial list of sources consulted by the author. Skim through these bibliographies to see if any books or articles seem appropriate for your topic. After checking first to see whether these sources are available at your own libary, you can order them through the Interlibrary Loan system.
5. Don't Forget About Amazon.com
Amazon.com is a terrific source of books currently in print, so you can basically use Amazon as a free database for your research. If you find a title that is perfect for your paper, just order this book through your library's Interlibrary Loan system.
2.2 A Word About Internet Sources
One final place you can look for information on your topic is on the Internet. Although this can potentially be a legitimate source for research, it should be used cautiously. Articles published on the Internet, unlike regular books and articles, do not have to go through an editorial process, and therefore can be of dubious quality. Just remember that any person with or without a degree or specialized knowledge can get an article published on the Internet, so you should be extremely wary of information that you find on the web.
This having been said, it should also be pointed out that more and more respected academics and legitimate authorities are beginning to use the web to disseminate ideas and information. Your task when using the internet for research will ultimately be to sift through the chaff as quickly as possible to locate truly useful material.
Even if your instructor allows you to use Internet sources, you should limit yourself to one or two legitimate websites at most as sources for your paper. Most college instructors prefer books, anthologies, or journal articles to Internet sources, so use the latter sparingly. Feel free to include an appropriate web site as an extra source for your paper rather than as a substitute for more substantial sources. Or simply use websites as background reading to help you get a handle on your topic.
The most difficult challenge for any student is to determine whether a website is a legitimate source of information. Wikipedia, for example, while an interesting site for finding out general information about a topic, is not acceptable as a scholarly source for a research paper because articles included in the site do not have to undergo a review process.
Asking a few logical questions can help guide you in assessing the quality of a website:
What type of website is this? In general, websites ending with an .EDU or .GOV are legitimate sources of information since they come from sites sponsored by accredited educational institutions or government agencies. The best websites for your purposes will be those created by faculty at accredited universities, so, if you see the name of a recognizable university at the top of the website, you are probably on safe ground.
Who wrote the website? Try to determine whether the person who has created the website is an authority in the field in which he is writing. For example, if you are doing research on poverty in the developing world, a website created by an international economist or political scientist would be perfectly acceptable, since one would assume that the writer has some real knowledge about this field. Again, you are on safer ground if the author is associated with a reputable university. Be wary of sites that omit any reference to their authors.
For what purpose was the website written? Every website has been created with a specific purpose in mind. It is your job to determine as quickly as possible what this purpose is. If the creator of the website is trying to sell you something or if he is simply mouthing propaganda, then move on quickly to some other site.
Does the author document the sources of his information? A website that lacks any documentation of the sources of its information has probably been written by a hobbyist rather than a legitimate authority. If the author of the site does provide footnotes, internal references, or related links, it will be important to check the quality of these sources of information. Are they reputable, scholarly, and balanced?
A good researcher will make use of a large number of diverse sources when producing a paper. Remember the rule of thumb stated earlier: for every page that you have been asked to write, you should be able to find at least one legitimate source. If you are writing a 5-page paper, therefore, you should have at least 5-7 sources. The breakdown of these sources might be as follows:
1-2 books (including primary sources, if applicable)
1-2 journal articles
1-2 anthologies (collections of essays)
1 encyclopedia article
1-2 relevant Internet articles
Of course, you are free to use other source material as well if it is relevant to your research and acceptable to your course instructor.
2.4 Relevance of Sources
If this isn’t difficult enough for you, you should also keep in mind that if you are working on a topic of contemporary concern—one which requires that data or information used in your paper is current—you will also need to make sure that your sources are not out of date. This means that for some topics in areas like applied ethics or contemporary political philosophy, for example,, you probably should use works that are not more than five years old. For example if you were working on a paper on "The Human Genome Project" or "The American Response to the Threat of Terrorism," articles or books from the 1990s will probably be well out of date already.
On the other hand, if you are writing a paper in some topic in the history of philosophy or the philosophy of ideas, you don’t have to be too concerned about finding the most current sources available. In fact, some books on Aquinas’ moral philosophy or Descartes’ metaphysics that were written 100 years ago might very well be more relevant to your topic than current works.