See All My Projects

Locate sources

Find references using a variety of channels


To understand a community's debate, you first have to find out who is speaking in that debate. In this technique you will search for sources to pursue.



In your search for sources, do the following:

  • Using the key words you generated, survey your resources
  • For each profitable lead you come across, create an entry in your reference manager (including the title, author, date, etc.) and the key word you used to find this lead.
  • Classify each of your citations by noting its purpose, perspective, and likelihood of further leads. Tag those references you want to pursue.

There are a number of resources you can use for searching.  Keep in mind that searching for sources is just like networking or finding out about good music--you start at from something interesting and start expanding out from there by hearing what other people are saying.  For searching for sources, here are some techniques:

  • Google scholar -- if you are starting cold and only have a few key words, this is a quick way to get started.
  • Bibliographies -- once you've found a relevant source, look through the bibliography and background section to find more related work in the past.  This will quickly get you to the "classic" articles that have framed the issue
  • Author -- once you find a well-respected source, see what they've written recently either by visiting the author's site or using google scholar and searching by author.  Usually if someone has worked deeply on an issue, they will keep working on it. 
  • Ask an expert -- ask a graduate student or professor what you should read about a particular topic. They can quickly point you to important articles in their community
  • Search by venue -- one of the first things you should do (which you should already have done!) is identify the community you are speaking to, which, practically, for researchers means a specific journal or conference.  Go to that website of the publisher of the journal/conference and search for papers from the most recent conference or journal.
  • Librarians -- go to the University library and ask the librarian for help--they are trained as expert searchers!
  • Browse the stacks -- if you've found a good book in the library, there are going to be related books right next to it.  Take a few minutes to scan the other titles
  • Social media -- if its a popular or important issue, chances are there is an online community or blogger talking about it. Sign up for mailing lists and websites that report on your issue and let them do some of the searching for you.


How do I know when I've found the best sources?

The true answer is that you never know because there are always more/better sources out there that you haven’t found.  So the search doesn’t end until you drop the topic.

You could say it’s “good enough” when you stop hearing reviewers say, “well clearly they aren't familiar with the field because you didn't cite XYZ.”  Often, XYZ is the reviewer’s work, but that’s fine, they still helped you find useful information.  "Good enough" often means knowing more sources about your topic than the other people in your discipline (at that point you are the expert).

But in the meantime, a good way to decide if you've found the right amount:

  • start with 10-20 sources (or however many is appropriate for the type of publication you are writing)
  • move onto the next steps of the process, but continue searching for sources
  • if you find a new source that is better than your current source, add it (and possibly dump the source it replaces)

So remember that search is as an iterative process.

When I was a grad student, I didn’t really understand why reSEARCH placed so much emphasis on looking at old information, but the reason is that the community is ideally building this shared body together, so you are ideally spending a good chunk of time knowing what other people are doing.  Of course, different researchers are better/worse at knowing the literature and it’s about as extreme as can be.

As a mentor of mine used to say: “100 hours in the field saves an hour in the library"

How far and wide we should go initially?

For research, you are usually aiming to go deep given that you want to be pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward.  Your search broadly only the sense that you are looking across journals/authors/communities to see if you are missing something within the scope of your topic. 

Searching within a venue (such as a journal or conference) works well as a starting point those constraints because the communities tend to be somewhat self contained. 



A bibliography in your reference manager that identifies the references you will pursue.


Kaufer, D. S., Geisler, C., & Neuwirth, C. M. (1989). Arguing from sources: Exploring issues through reading and writing. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.