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Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics & Science: Library Resources: Search and Evaluation Strategies

Resources for Massachusetts Academy Students

Search & Evaluation Strategies

Choosing Keywords

Often, the first keyword search you try will not yield relevant results. Do not be discouraged if this happens - it happens to all of us (even librarians)! The key is to be persistent and creative. If your first search doesn't work, try searching for synonyms or related terms. Here are some tips on choosing keywords: 

  • The process of selecting keywords 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.
  • Search in the library databases. Scan the titles and abstracts on the search results page to find the vocabulary being used by experts to describe your topic. 
  • 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. 
  • When in doubt, ask your instructor or your librarian for help.

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 Do NOT cite encyclopedias in your research paper.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, which will help you with your keyword searches in the library databases. 

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

Developing Keywords

Run Time: 2:44

Key Student Learning Competencies:

  • What are Keywords? (0:22)
  • Sample--Generating Keywords (0:38)
  • Effectively Using Keywords (0:53)
  • Using a Thesaurus (1:34)
  • Refining Search Results (1:48)
  • Evaluating a Library Record (2:10)

Source Types

Source types make up the scope of the literature you are searching. Common source types 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)
  • Conference Papers
  • Government Reports

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 

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.  

Peer-reviewed journals are highly respected, and researchers wish to have their works published in them. Many often 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)

The Important Questions of Evaluation: Digging Into Your Sources (3 Levels)

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?


Many of these questions will NOT (a) be easy to find answers to and (b) tell you that the source you are reading is 100% credible, but they are still important to ask. Digging into a source itself and finding out more about it is part of the research 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? Do you have any 'go-to' sources that you use to find information? Are you looking in too narrow or too broad an area for information?