Whether you're working on a class project or writing a full-blown dissertation literature review, the Internet offers incredibly effective resources for psychology students. University librarians and professors provided us with a few suggestions for tapping them:
Find the site that suits your needs.
"Any student who sets out to do any kind of psychology research without doing a careful search of PsycINFO is cheating himself," says Vivian Sukenik, MA, Columbia University's psychology librarian. And she isn't plugging APA's database to butter us up. "It has a backfile of well over 100 years and covers about 2,300 journal titles," making it the most comprehensive database available for psychology searches.
For searches that involve broader topics than those covered by a psychology-specific search engine, many librarians recommend Google Scholar. Scott Hines, the reference librarian at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, can think of several occasions in which students were prompted to go in a new and fruitful direction by running a search on the very broad Google database that led them to articles and books in fields such as political science and ethnomusicology.
Meanwhile, students need to be prepared to use subject-specific search engines outside of psychology that they may not have used in the past. Sukenik suggests Education Full Text and ERIC for students working in education-related areas of psychology or Sociological Abstracts for research from the field of sociology.
Learn some database tricks.
If your department or library offers basic training in research, take it, says Scott Hines. He shows his students a Google Scholar feature that can highlight results available through their school. It's easy to activate, but hard to find if you don't know where to look. Simply click on "Scholar Preferences" next to the front page search box, then search for your school within the "Library Links" section of the preferences page.
"Even plain old Google has advanced search features a lot of people don't know about," says Hines. Basic search engines can even link to completely new work that has yet to be entered into the academic databases, so use some of those advanced features to sort results by date and find the most cutting edge information.
Clarify your thoughts.
A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but if you call it a tulip, you won't find it when you go looking in PsycINFO. In fact, the biggest mistake students make when researching online is that they don't know the simple terms that will lead them to what they need, says Dorothy Persson, the University of Iowa psychology librarian. If you know the journal articles you need are out there but Google Scholar or PsycINFO aren't getting you there, you may simply be looking for the wrong thing.
Sukenik strongly agrees. "Sometimes [students] have a very inchoate idea of what they want to research [and] they cannot specifically define it in clear terms. Database searching does not respond well to vagaries." Sukenik suggests asking a librarian or your adviser to guide you on effective searching.
Trust your home turf.
Sometimes students go to the far reaches of the Web-or even the world-without fully exploring the options available through their own college or university. Hines says, "The first place students should go is always to their university library's sources." Filter your search to only include books and articles accessible through your university's system before you set to work hunting down harder-to-access information.
Most universities subscribe to PsycINFO, so students can access the service from on-campus libraries and computer resource centers. Typically, university libraries offer links to the databases they offer from the library's Web site. The University of Iowa's library page serves as a good example. Students can usually access the databases from any computer on the campus network or by logging in with a user name and password from a computer using another Internet connection.
Don't fear the wilds of the Web.
You shouldn't use random Web pages as scholarly sources, but professors often post bibliographies or links to resources on their personal sites, says Jonathan Baron, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Check out the pages of faculty members you work with to see if they have suggestions for useful Web sites to consult.
Librarians also use this method. For example, the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology has an extensive collection of links on the library's Web Resources page. Students looking for medical information there are directed to Medline Plus, the Merck Manual, and PDR's Getting Well.
Pioneer Internet research's frontier
Students and faculty are working together to identify useful online resources through tools such as social bookmarking and Digg. And social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace allow like-minded researchers to find one another through special interest groups.
But while these new frontiers are fun to explore, don't forget that you can simply e-mail the authors of interesting research papers if you need additional information about their findings, says Hines. However, don't bother busy scientists with questions that you can answer on your own--or with the help of a librarian--and be sure to use good e-mail etiquette. If it's appropriate, you can share your own data with far-flung colleagues, says Hines. "You may even become collaborators in the future," Hines notes.