Department of Political Science, Queens College

How to Research a Political Science Paper
Peter Liberman, Queens College Dept. of Political Science, September 2001

4. How can students find relevant and quality sources?
This is not to say that published materials are always correct or of high quality. A major challenge of writing a research paper is finding the right sources. There are basically two criteria to keep in mind as you troll for sources: relevance to your question and quality. One good article or book that helps you answer your question is worth more than than dozens that are either poorly done or are peripheral to the question. So you have to be choosy.

Once you have focused on a particular question, the next task is locating relevant sources of information. If your research requires scholarly books or articles or news accounts, particularly if recent, you will probably want to try first on-line catalogues and bibliographic tools. These enable you to search titles, abstracts, and sometimes even full content (for full text journal subscriptions) by keyword. Subject searches tend to cast a wider net, but standard subject categorization (established by the U.S. Library Congress) often includes sub-categories that can narrow down the field.

Keyword searches are usually the best way to identify works relevant to your specific question. The trick is to design a keyword search so that its broad enough to return all the sources that might be relevant, but not so broad so that it returns too many irrelevant ones, forcing you to waste a lot of time separating wheat from chaff. It is often worthwhile to learn and use advanced search options, which enable you to limit by publication date, use boolean ('AND', 'OR', 'NOT'), positional ('X must be within 2 words of Y'), and wildcard operators. Unfortunately, there is no single master database containing all useful sources, so you may have to learn your way around a few collections and their search engines.

One helpful technique for finding relevant works is to find a high-caliber research work that addresses the question you're interested in, and cites in the footnotes what the author believes to be the best work on the subject. Sometimes you might find whole review essays (stock-taking research) surveying the literature on your question. Some books and articles have annotated bibliographies with recommendations "for further reading." For this purpose, recent works are usually better than older ones; even if they are of inferior quality or say nothing new, they might cite more recently published research.

While the above method works backward, by looking for citations to prior research, a neat bibliography called the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) allows you to work forward. The SSCI allows you to find all the journal articles in a given time frame (year, five years, or many years at once if you're using on-line or CD-ROM versions) that cited a specific earlier work. You just look up the earlier work, and it lists all the articles published that mention that work in a footnote. This is especially useful if you know of a seminal article or book directly on the topic you're interested in, and that all good subsequent articles on the same topic would cite. (Unfortunately, QC's subscription to the SSCI lapsed in 1989, and cannot help you find anything published after that date.)

Reference librarians are highly trained in these kinds of bibliographic resources and tools, and they are happy to help students navigate them. There is even a reference librarian specializing in the social sciences. All students unfamiliar with these resources and tools should avail themselves of this free tutoring these librarians can provide!

Distinguishing high-caliber research and sources of information is difficult. You have to know something of the lay of the land of a field. As a general rule, articles from refereed journals and books from university presses are preferable to other sources, because they have been reviewed by other scholars prior to publication. Refereed journals and university presses vary in selectivity, with some having higher standards than others.

Often you can tell something about the quality of a source by taking a look at its sources. Are there many citations or are there few? More is almost always better; it demonstrates that the author actually found sources for claims made, and is happy to have you check for yourself in case you suspect he or she made it all up. Do the author's sources look credible, or are they a collection of unreliable web pages, editorials, and biased advocacy-group reports?