How to Be a Google Scholar
by Jen Burd
February 27, 2014
When Facebook friends get into inconsequential scuffles in the comments, there are a few basic directions the exchange may take. Name-calling, the least productive and most frequently utilized defense, is the reason I've kept my Facebook account active for so long after kicking my self-destructive online scrabble habit. It's not so much fun if you're one of the parties who has taken offense and physically cannot detach yourself from the keyboard. But watching other people's futile verbal spars escalate in real-time from the comfort of your own home is one of the unique joys of the digital age.
Sometimes there is an exchange of vague, source-less information gleaned in some college course in the distant past (the 'that way my minor in college!' defense).Then there's anecdote-trading: relating personal stories or the experiences of family and friends.
Anecdotes are not always completely useless, and they seem appropriate for social networking sites, not exactly the most authoritative sources for any kind of information. But when the topic at hand is more specialized, especially if the poster is making scientific claims, citing anecdotal evidence is tantamount to saying, 'I am uninformed and proud of it.' These arguments sometimes end in one or both parties attempting to call it a draw based on the lack of available information. The 'too bad there just hasn't been enough research' cop out. And most of the time, everyone is better off for ending a stagnant, unproductive, and no longer amusing tirade in a stalemate.
Unfortunately, when Facebook users say 'there just hasn't been enough research' about any given topic, they're usually wrong. Maybe the research hasn't led to a clear consensus. Maybe the methods and results have been questioned. But there are very few topics that have really been untouched by researchers.
Arguments about marijuana, which tend to show up on my news feed a lot, follow this pattern closely. Everyone has opinions and anecdotes, and most are completely irrelevant. People on the 'pro' side of the argument are impressively quick to say that there hasn't been enough research.
The idea that there hasn't been enough research on the effects of marijuana is one of the most laughable and pervasive myths on the subject. There has been tons of research. People on both sides love squawking about marijuana, whether it's a miracle cure for every malady known to man or it causes incurable brain-rot, resulting in overuse of words like 'bro' and chronic bad taste in t-shirts. Scientists are not immune to the urge to defend or vilify the darling of the recreational drug world. Anyone who claims that there hasn't been enough research hasn't used Google Scholar lately.
A simple Google Scholar search (scholar.google.com) for the word "marijuana" reveals 100 pages of links, including scholarly, peer-reviewed articles from multiple disciplines.
See the freestanding links to the right of the articles, circled in red? Those link directly to the article, while clicking on the title will take you to an abstract or a journal's website.
The links on top, level with the title of the article, lead to the article's full text, available for free.
The links underneath appear if you have linked Google Scholar with a library account, like a university database. To do this, go to settings—> library links, and search for your library.
The internet is full of useful information, but many users still rely on forums, Wikihow articles, and self-published blogs (tell your friends to read Skeptoid!). Arguing that the ubiquity of the internet is making people less intelligent is ignoring the astounding amount of free, accessible, high-quality material available to more people than ever before.
Some other useful resources:
Project Gutenberg: <http://www.gutenberg.org/>
The oldest and largest collection of free e-books, Project Gutenberg, is an excellent source for books, especially those within the public domain. Many of these are old, classic publications with expired copyrights, but that doesn't stop Amazon from selling them for ten dollars a pop in the Kindle store.
Directory of Open Access Journals: <http://www.doaj.org/>
Open access articles are free and available to everyone, but the author retains copyright. They are published and peer-reviewed. Open access journals began in the 1990's and have grown significantly in the past decade.
This is not a joke. While Wikipedia has its flaws, it's a wonderful source for basic introductory information on just about any topic, and perhaps one of the most admirable innovations of Web 2.0. If you're just looking for a place to start, Wikipedia is the place. Following the links at the bottom of the page, under "References," will help you delve further.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: <http://plato.stanford.edu/>
The SEP is good for an introduction to topics within the field of philosophy, and a great place to get started if you're writing a paper for a humanities course. The SEP includes outlines of topics, references, and links.
Oxford English Dictionary: <http://www.oed.com/>
The Oxford English Dictionary is an etymological dictionary, so entries include historical uses of words and phrases. Consulting the OED is necessary when grappling with archaic primary sources. Though full access requires a costly subscription, the OED displays some definitions for free. Most major universities provide access through their libraries' websites.
The Library of Congress: <http://www.loc.gov/>
America's oldest federal cultural institution. You can search for books, audio, newspapers, films, and more.
National Archives: <http://www.archives.gov/research/search/>
Records, records, and more records.
Top Documentary Films: <http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/>
A collection of free, streaming documentaries.
Your local library and historical society:
Don't forget about paper books! Libraries have advantages. Librarians are trained in diverse research methods. They have paper copies of books and periodicals, and comprehensive microfilm collections. Public libraries also subscribe to online databases, and if they don't have the book you're looking for, a librarian can help you order it from another location. If you're interested in local history, your library is the best place to start. Most towns in the United States also have historical societies with extensive primary documents detailing topics as mundane as 19th century furniture purchases.
Don't be selfish! Share your favorite sites in the comments.
by Jen Burd
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit