Whether you're working on a class project or writing a full-blown 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, 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, she says.
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 Google 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. 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 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 sometimes link to new work that has yet to be entered into the academic databases, so 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 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. Sukenik 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. You can also check out the "Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms" (APA, 2007) that describes PsycINFO's controlled vocabulary and is also available through all versions of the database.
Trust your home turf
Sometimes students go to the far reaches of the Web 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.
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 University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Jonathan Baron, PhD. 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 drug information pages.
Explore the Internet's research 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.
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. But make sure you're not bothering busy scientists with questions that you can answer on your own. If it's appropriate, you can even share your own data with far-flung colleagues, says Hines. "You may even become collaborators in the future," Hines notes.
Andrew Daniller is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
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