Research Notes

Academic Online Research Tips

Research is changing. Typical theological research required one to navigate the stacks, the rows of library stacks with number systems that only a catalog could make sense of. Although there is a beauty and nostalgia to this, the world is quickly amassing research at every moment. That is what makes internet search very valuable. It brings virtually all available information to your screen in a matter of clicks.

However, it is never a clean process; While it may be simple to search on Google for Black Theology, performing quality, reliable academic research online is a little more complex. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you do your research, and you should be able to find everything you’re looking for.

1. Be skeptical, demand verification

The Internet is full of “information,” but much of that information is not useful. This means that when it comes to online research you need to be skeptical of what you are finding, where you are finding it, and who it is coming from. Reputable websites will clearly state whether or not the content is sponsored, and if so, by whom. This is helpful but you can’t expect every website to be so honest. Try to stick to sources with reputations for quality, and remember that if something seems fishy, it probably is. Research the author, if possible. If you can’t verify the truth of something to your satisfaction, throw the source out.

2. Use academic databases

In order to control your online research make use of the Seminary’s online academic databases. The seminary offers lots of helpful services and tools, and one of them are access to valuable databases (over 150!) such as Proquest and JSTOR. All of them are fine-tuned to help you access sources such as peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, published study results, transcripts from academic conferences, and primary sources from archives. If you want to engage in quality research, the bulk of your time should be spent here.

3. Consult bibliographies to begin research

Although databases are a valuable research tool, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or stuck. A better process would be to review the bibliographies of resources you currently have. Let your sources guide your research and use the bibliographies to see what research these sources used to support their findings. Your research should reveal a few key names and sources. Use your online resources to find these primary texts so you can see the original findings and research with your own eyes.

4. Learn to use the Digital Theological Library

Databases are great. However, another super useful resource for online research is the Digital Theological Library that uses WorldCat. The “world catalog” can, at its most basic functionality, give you bibliographical information for over two billion items.

The benefit of using the Digital Theological Library is that it is geared for religious and theological research, which can also connect you to library catalogs all over the world, allowing you to know where a specific item (such as a book, journal, article, video, or audio recording) is held.

5. Learn to use Wikipedia correctly

If you are trying to get your footing in a subject, you can use Wikipedia to begin your research. Their bibliography is a valuable tool for mining potentially useful and verifiable resources. However, citing the sources you find from the bibliography, not the Wikipedia page itself.

6. Blend primary and secondary sources

There are two types of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are “the thing itself” (books, movies, historical documents, whatever you are primarily focused on), while secondary sources are about the thing (such as articles by academics about said movies, books, or historical documents). You need a harmony of both. Keep this in mind, as online academic databases tend to provide useful secondary sources, but may have few primary sources.

7. Be open to unexpected results and interdisciplinary research

When performing research, you need to be open to encountering the unexpected. You are not going into this with research answersbut with a research question. You might have some suspicions, but you don’t know what is going to come of it. That’s the exciting part! Embrace the uncertainty.

Your role as a researcher is to gather information from a range of sources, which sometimes may conflict or come from vastly different disciplines. Some sources may not, at first glance, have anything to do with one another. You need to analyze these sources, draw connections between them, and bring new ideas on your subject matter to the surface.

8. Experiment with keywords and filters

Using academic databases or common search engines makes online academic research very powerful. Yet it is not as straightforward as just typing a phrase and hitting “search.” You must do the work of refining your search, and part of that comes from experimenting with keywords and filters. By refining keywords, and employing filters to limit your results in interesting ways, you can really dig into a subject and find specific, useful sources that pertain to or inform your research question. Look at our video training on the Digital Theological Library for more help in this area.

9. Organize your findings

The initial stages of research should cast a huge net, gathering anything that looks like it might be useful, then sorted it out later. The last step can be intimidating, however. The key to not getting overwhelmed is to be organized. Create your own bibliography; organize it by topic, type of source, usefulness, or any other criteria that may help you. Creating complete citations for every source upfront will save you time at the end of the paper-writing process. Create an annotated bibliography, which briefly describes the source, key aspects of the source, and how it can be of use to your project. Doing so will give you a much greater sense of which sources should be relied on the most, and which can be cut from the list early on. For more info on how to construct an annotated bibliography, consult our handout “What is an Annotated Bibliography?”

10. Ask for Help

In research, part of succeeding is knowing your limits, and respecting that others can have a mastery of a subject far beyond your level of skill. Ask for help from research librarians who can help with research and be a guiding light in your perilous quest for knowledge. Research librarians meet with students and act sort of like tutors for the research process. They know the different ways of the library system and can help you find what you need, even if you have no idea what that is. Research librarians can perform all of these services virtually, through email, chat, or video calls. Don’t go it alone.

These tips should help you get your footing in the research process.