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HI 2335: Topics in the History of American Science and Technology: Search & Evaluation Strategies

Search & Evaluation Strategies

Use search filters

  • When searching in databases, use search filters on the search results page to narrow down your search. Some of the most common filters are:
    • Publication Date
    • Source Format/Resource Type (book, journal, video, etc.)
    • Subject 
    • Peer-reviewed/Academic Journal

Use search operators

Use these search operators to narrow or broaden your search:





pandemic AND masks

Narrows the search to entries containing both terms. 


pandemic OR epidemic OR plague

Broadens the search to entries containing any of the terms. 


pandemic NOT covid

Excludes entries containing the second term. 

“ ” 

“personal protective equipment” 

Retrieves results containing the exact phrase in quotes. 


Wildcard: Retrieves both globalization and globalisation. 


Truncation: Retrieves mask, masks, masking, etc.

Get the full text of a source

  • Some of the library's databases only provide abstracts for sources. Look for the FullTextFinder icon on the search results page. If you only have the summary/abstract of an article, click on the FullTextFinder to search all 200+ library databases for the full-text.
  • Use Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Submit an ILL request to get full-text journal articles, books and book chapters that are not available through the Gordon Library. ILL is a service that allows you to request these materials, and library staff will try to get these materials for you from another library. 

Finding one helpful source can lead you to more

  • Check bibliographies for additional relevant sources.
  • Some databases provide “cited by” links for articles - these links help you find sources that have cited an article and built on the authors' research.
  • Some databases provide “related articles” links to connect you to articles on similar topics. 

Image showing a flowchart of the research process.

Research is a Process

Choose a topic:

  • The research process begins with choosing a topic that you want to learn more about for your project. Begin with a topic that interests you and that is relevant to the assignment​.

Find background information:

  • After selecting a topic, you will do some background research to learn more about this topic. This background research can be done on Google and/or in academic databases.
  • For example, you might use an online encyclopedia to find ideas to narrow down a research topic. Online encyclopedias can also help you learn relevant vocabulary related to your topic, which will help with your keyword searches.
  • Online encyclopedias are a good place to start but not a good place to finish. Use encyclopedias as a starting point to find ideas and inspiration for what you want to learn more about, but remember that academic works do not usually cite encyclopedias. Use the background information that you find to develop a research question. 

Develop a research question:

Start asking questions about your topic. Ask open-ended “how” and “why” questions. Consider the “so what” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others?​

Evaluate your questions: ​

  • Is your research question clear?​

    • Can your audience easily understand the purpose of the question?​

  • Is your research question focused?​

  • Can you answer the question in the space and time provided?​

  • Is your research question complex?​

    • Does it have a simple yes/no answer, or does it require research and analysis?​

Note. Adapted from How to Write a Research Question by George Mason University Writing Center, 2018 ( and Narrowing a Topic and Developing a Research Question by Indiana University Libraries, n.d. (​

Choose keywords

  • Identify your topic’s key concepts. Do some background research in online encyclopedias. These are not sources that you will cite in your paper but they can provide useful information to help you identify concepts and keywords related to your research topic.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for your keywords: Search for synonyms for your keywords and concepts to increase the number of relevant search results.
  • In database search results, look at the article titles and abstracts in your search results to find additional keywords to search for.
  • Read! The more you read about your topic, the more you'll pick up on the jargon used in that field, which will help you to refine your searches and find relevant sources faster.

Search for sources using multiple databases: 

  • Different databases will yield different search results.
  • Each database has its own algorithm for determining relevance, and some databases have unique search features that can help you narrow down your search results.
  • Try at least 3 different databases when doing research. 

Evaluate your search results:

  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • What is the reputation of the organization behind the source?
  • When was the source published?
  • How did the authors gather their data and derive their conclusions?
  • Are citations provided?
  • What do other sources say about this topic?

Broaden or narrow your research question if necessary:

  • Sometimes a search topic will yield too few or too many search results, and you may realize that your topic is not suitable to time and paper length restrictions on your project. This is okay! 
  • Think about ways to tweak your topic to make it more manageable to complete your paper in the allotted time. 
  • You may need to make your topic a little broader or a little narrower, or you may need to choose an adjacent topic. 
  • Look at your search results to find ideas for tweaking your topic. What topics can you find enough literature to write a paper? What topics will fit into the length constraints of your paper? 
  • Ask your professor or your librarian for help tweaking your topic.

Save and cite your sources: 

  • Keep track of the sources you find! Use a document or a citation manager to save the information about your sources so that you can find them again. 
  • Cite your sources properly in order to give credit to the authors and to help your reader find the sources you used.
  • Use the MLA resources on this guide to learn how to properly cite your sources. 
  • Consider using a citation manager like Zotero to streamline the process of generating citations. 

Choosing Keywords

  • This process often requires some trial and error.
  • Begin with some basic keywords about your topic to get started.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for those keywords.
  • Use encyclopedias to find more complex vocabulary/technical terms.
  • READ – the more you read about your topic, the more you will learn about the vocabulary used in that field, which will help you to refine your keyword searches.
  • This is not a linear process. There will be a lot of back and forth between reading/note taking and trying different search terms. 

Find Background Sources

Look for background information in encyclopedias. Do NOT cite encyclopedias in your research paper. Instead, use encyclopedias to find research ideas or to narrow down a research topic. Background sources can also help you learn the vocabulary used to describe your topic. This new vocabulary will help you with your keyword searches. 

Here are some examples of encyclopedias you may wish to use for background information: 

Source Types

Source types make up the scope of the literature you are searching. Common source types for history research include:

  • Books that encompass a single work
  • Books that incorporate many works (such as a collection of essays by scholars)
  • Journal articles (often peer-reviewed)
  • Primary sources

Scholarly vs Popular Sources

Scholarly/Academic Sources Popular Sources
Examples: Peer-reviewed journal articles and books/book chapters Magazines and newspapers 
Author is usually:

Scholar in field, academic, or researcher  

Staff Writer, journalist, often a generalist

Credit/Sources: Always many references and/or footnotes          

Rarely cites sources, original sources may be obscure

Length: Articles and chapters are typically 10+ pages Usually brief 
Advertisements: Usually do not contain ads Usually have ads 

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources are materials that provide firsthand testimony to a subject under investigation. Primary sources include letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, and pamphlets. Primary sources also include writings and recordings by witnesses who experienced the events or conditions being documented. For example, oral histories, autobiographies, and memoirs are primary sources.

Secondary sources discuss an event, a person, or other historical topic from a more recent perspective. Authors of secondary sources analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information from primary sources. Secondary sources most often take the form of books, book chapters, and journal articles.

Peer-Reviewed Journals

A peer-reviewed journal is a respected academic publication. Before articles are published within these types of journals, they are sent by the editors of the journal to other scholars in the field ("peers"), often anonymously, to get feedback on the quality of the scholarship and research methods, as well as relevance or importance to the field. The article may be accepted, often with revisions suggested, or rejected for publication. Many peer-reviewed journals have low acceptance rates.

One way to find peer reviewed articles is to type your keywords into WPI Library Search, and then choose the filter on the left for Peer-reviewed Journals.

You can also search our Databases for peer-reviewed articles.

Peer-Review Video

Run Time: 2:52

Key Student Learning Competencies:

  • What is Peer-Review? (0:10)
  • The Impact of Peer-Review Processes (0:50)
  • The Peer-Review Process (1:39)
  • Locating Peer-Reviewed Articles via the Gordon Library (2:25)

Source Evaluation

The 5 Ws and H is one technique that can help you evaluate your sources to determine if the sources are appropriate to use in your research project.

The 5 Ws (and one H) The Surface-Level Questions The Deeper Questions



Who is the author, editor, or creator? Is the author qualified to write about this topic? 

Who is the publisher?

What makes them qualified? First-hand experience? An advanced degree?

Is the publisher known for academic or commercial publications? 



What type of document is it? For example, is it a newspaper article? A blog? A government website? A scholarly article? A book?  

What is it about?

There is no 'bad' type of document, but some have gone through a more rigorous review process than others. Is the type of document you found appropriate for the type of research you are doing?

Is the information in the document relevant to your research topic?



When was this source published? Is the information up-to-date? 

The 'up-to-date'-ness of a source matters more for some research questions than others. Is the publication date appropriate for your research?



Where did the authors get their information from? Did they cite their sources?

What types of sources did they cite?



What was the goal of the author or publisher? To communicate with other scholars? To educate? To entertain? To raise money? 

Who is the intended audience? Scholars? The general public?



How did the authors collect their data? Did they derive reasonable conclusions from the research?

How was the work reviewed before publication?

Did the author(s) only cite themselves/their associates? How well did they explain their process? Was their work reviewed by anyone else?

Was the work subject to peer-review or a similarly rigorous review process?


Evaluating sources is an ongoing activity you will do throughout your research, and it includes evaluation of your own search process. As you search, pay attention to the keywords and phrases you are using. Are you looking for information that will only confirm what you already suspect, or are you looking for possibly contradictory or opposing information as well? Are you searching in a variety of places for information? Try to use at least 3 different databases in your research to help you find a variety of sources and perspectives.

Source Evaluation Activity

Look at the following sources, and think about how you might use each source for a research paper on the history face masks and pandemics. As you look at each source, consider:

  • Who is the author? What are their credentials?
  • When was the source published? Is this a primary source or a secondary source?
  • For an article: Was it peer-reviewed? 
  • For a book or book chapter: Who is the publisher? Do they publish materials for a scholarly audience or a popular audience?
  • Are citations provided?
  • How would you use this source in your research? Would you cite this source in your paper? Or would you use this source for background information and ideas for what to research?

Depending on the source, some of these questions will be more relevant than others. Don't worry if you can't answer all of the questions during the time allotted for this activity.