Basic Internet/Database Research for Undergrads

Basic Internet Research: How to Find and Cite Appropriate Sources

I wrote this guide for students in my Spring 2014 section of Ling-L 306, an undergraduate introductory Phonetics class at Indiana University.  As such, some of the information is particularly focused on that specific class and on LINGUISTICS in general, and is particularly relevant to students at IU. That said, a great deal of the information is universally applicable and will be useful to non-linguists and to non-IU students.

A. First considerations when getting ready to do research.

  1. When you first start thinking about doing research–for a class presentation or paper, for a final project, or for anything else that may come across your desk–one of the earliest tasks you will have is to determine where you should look for appropriate resources. That, in a sense, is your first question: where should I begin searching?
  2. Something you should learn right away is that a google search is almost never going to be the right answer to this question. While a google search may guide you to some additional resources, you want to think about academic searching as a different enterprise than the kind of searching you do on google. If you need to find a store that sells the particular brand of dog food your folks asked you to buy for Max the new puppy? Sure, use google. If you need to find resources for an academic paper, however? You want to think about the library and about academic databases.

B. Some resources and databases that are particularly useful for students in linguistics:

  1. In a linguistics course, often you will be searching for resources related to languages. As such, you should check the library catalogue to see whether there is a basic descriptive grammar for your language in the library. If there is, and you need any kind of basic linguistic information about a specific language, this is probably the best and easiest solution. Go to the library, and get a physical book.

“But wait,” you say! “What is a descriptive grammar?” 

A good question. A descriptive grammar just may be your best friend when trying to do this or any other basic linguistic research. A descriptive grammar – also known as a linguist’s grammar – lays out the basic structure and rules of a language to greater or lesser degrees. As such, there should be a section on phonetics that tells you what the language’s consonant and vowel inventories are. This will most likely include a whole list of example words. If the grammar is published somewhat recently, example words and other language data in the grammar are likely to be in IPA. For this reason, when facing a linguistics assignment where you need to find basic information about a specific language the single easiest way to get the research  accomplished in a timely, painless manner is probably going to involve checking the library catalogue for a physical book .

2. In terms of databases, there are two that I would consider the first options, or best priorities, in your search for a reference. This is certainly true for the final project in Ling-L 306, and is almost certainly true for many other linguistics research projects as well.

    • LLBA – the Linguistics and Language Behaviors Abstracts database. (You can find this by clicking on the Resources Gateway tab on the libraries homepage, then clicking the “Resources A-Z” link and clicking on “L” to get to the list of databases that start with “L”.
    • Proquest Dissertations & Theses A&I (you can find this database by going to the “P” section of the A-Z resources list.)
    • Finally: try Google Scholar, too. Many times Google Scholar will yield surprisingly good results!

C. Basic Search Tips

  1. As a first step, you may want to peruse the following web resource from IU:
  2. When you search, one of the most important things you can do is use appropriate, accurate, precise search terms.
  3. If I am searching for data related to Portuguese vowels, then, one of the things I need to know right from the start is whether I am trying to find info on Brazilian Portuguese or European Portuguese.
  4. If I’m interested in Brazilian Portuguese, then the first search I’ll try is:
    • “brazilian portuguese” AND grammar

Hold up! Why do you have quotes and the word AND in your search terms?

Quotes: When you put things in quotes, like “brazilian portuguese”, it tells the search engine that you are interested in those two words as a complete string. You’re not interested in ‘brazilian’ alone, nor are you interested in ‘portuguese’ alone: no, you specifically want to find the complete phrase ‘brazilian portuguese’.

AND: in the search term above (brazilian portuguese” AND grammar), AND is acting as a Boolean Operator. You can use AND, OR, or NOT as Boolean Operators, and they help you to narrow or broaden your search. By using AND in the phrase above, we’re telling the database that we only want results that include all of the terms we’ve specified; records which include ‘brazilian portuguese’ but not ‘grammar’ will be excluded from the list of results. (The reverse is true, too.) 

See the following research guide from MIT for a great overview of clever search tips:

Keeping Brazilian Portuguese as our example, additional terms I would try if (“brazilian portuguese” AND grammar) did not turn up any good hits include:

  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND language
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND phonetics
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND phonology
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND acoustic
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND phonet*
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND phonolog*
  • “Brazilian Portuguese” AND phon*

The asterisk in the final three search term examples is called a wildcard. This is a form of truncation: using the wildcard tells the search engine that you want it to return any results that contain that root, regardless of how it ends. In the case of “phon*”, then, the search will return anything that starts with “phon”: phonetic, phonetics, phonology, phonological, phoneme, etc.

 NOW, You may wonder, why should you bother searching for “phonet*” and “phonolog*” if “phon*” will return the same hits? This is something I do not fully understand, and a trained research librarian would be better suited for explaining this to us. The short story, though, is that I do this because the order in which the results are returned to you may vary, and you may see something on one search that you missed on another.

Note that the symbol used for truncation may vary from one database to the next, but you can always learn which symbol to use by checking the specific database’s help screen.

D. How to weed through the search results.

  1. Great: you’ve found a database and done a search. Now how do you know which articles are likely to be of use?
  2. There’s no easy answer to this: what you want to do will vary depending on your assignment, your needs, your interests, and so forth. For the purposes of Ling-L 306, however, what you need to do is find a dissertation or an article that clearly lays out the consonants and vowels of the language you are working with.
  3. Ideally, this will be in the form of an IPA chart – something that looks familiar to you, something that looks like a lot of the other charts we have seen in phonetics.
  4. It may also come in the form of a list, however, so you may need to just pick some likely articles and start scanning through them.
  5. If someone has written a grammar of the language you’re working on as their dissertation, it will almost certainly include consonant and vowel inventories along with thorough lists of example words.
  6. The kinds of things you are looking for: a good listing of consonants and vowels in a way that you can interpret, accompanied by a good listing of sample words.

E. What are your options if you’re having trouble tracking down a copy of the article?

  1. Imagine that you have found an article which seems like it would be great. You’ve tried clicking the IU-link button, but IU doesn’t seem to have access to a copy of the article.
  2. Double-check to make sure that the database does not include a “full text PDF” link right inside the record you’re examining.
  3. If it truly doesn’t, then a next step can be to go to google scholar. To do this:
    • Copy the title of the article.
    • Direct your browser to
    • Paste the article title into the search box (use quotes if necessary, but you can try it without quotes first)
    • Keep your fingers crossed that it will pop up with a link to a pdf.

Figure 1: Sample hit for search term “hungarian vowels” on Google ScholarUntitled

 4.  You can also search the IU Catalogue to see whether the library has hard copies of a journal in the stacks. If so, you may be able to track down an actual physical copy of the article.

5.  You should also be prepared for the fact that there are times when the hunt for an article fails. Sad but true: sometimes there are articles that we just can’t get our hands on. If you come across this, just move on and keep hunting for another article.

F.  Proper Citations

  1. WHAT do you need to cite?
  2. Basically, any time you include information or make reference to information that is not purely, inarguably, unequivocally a part of the general knowledge of the general public, you need to include a citation.
  3. That means we can say that Barack Obama is the President of the United States: this fact is broadly known, and we do not need to include a citation. If I wanted to say something about his age or his birthdate, however, then I would need to include a citation. Why? Because I do not know President Obama’s birthdate off the top of my head: I would need to consult a source to learn this information, and that source would need to be cited.
  4. FOR YOU: this means that you should include a citation INSIDE the first sentence that includes a fact you did not know with certainty before doing research.
    • Example: If I am writing about Marathi, then an early sentence in my write-up might read: “Marathi is an Indic language which contains a number of breathy-voiced stops, nasals, laterals, and rhotics (Dhongde and Wali, 2009).”
  5. In addition to the inline citation, full bibliographic information should be included at the end of the paper, in a Works Cited/References section.
    • The full citation for Dhongde and Wali reads: Dhongde, Ramesh Vaman & Kashi Wali. (2009). Marathi. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

G.  HOW do you need to cite?

  1. As mentioned above, you need to include inline citations (Author, year) whenever appropriate, and then add a full bibliographic entry for whatever sources you cited in-line in a References section at the end of your paper.
  2. As far as STYLE goes, there are a number of different citation styles (APA, MLA, etc.) and you may be asked to use different styles in different classes. I incline towards APA, but I don’t have a strong preference about which style you use. For my purposes, as long as you pick a style and use it consistently I will be happy. (This is NOT TRUE for all professors; some will have very specific requests about the style you use.)
  3. Purdue has a very good resource page which will give you clear overviews of a few different citation styles. You can find this page here. This is an amazing resource and I highly recommend saving the link for your records. I think you will find it useful in future courses.

H.  What happens if you fail to cite?

  1. Failure to properly cite your sources is academic misconduct.
  2. If you don’t cite your sources, you are plagiarizing: you are presenting someone else’s material as your own. It’s cheating, and you can, should, and probably will be reported for it.
  3. The consequences for academic misconduct run from very minor to very severe: it can result in a mere admonishment, in receiving a failing grade for a course, in expulsion, and – in rare cases – people’s diplomas can be revoked if they are found guilty of plagiarism after graduating. In other words, it is a BIG DEAL and you should take it extremely seriously.

The IU School of Ed has a truly excellent web resource that will educate you about plagiarism. You can find it at I cannot recommend this tutorial highly enough: you may find it slightly repetitive, but you will benefit from it immensely. People commit academic misconduct unintentionally all the time, and this is something that can absolutely affect your future. I beg of you: do not be ignorant on this topic. 

I.  Final Thoughts

People aren’t automatically good at research: it is a skill, not a gift, and you will get better with practice.

Searching for academic resources works differently than doing a google search; they are tangentially related, but they are not the same thing. As such, it basically doesn’t matter that you know your way around Google. You should still approach this kind of searching as though it is a totally new skill. Don’t be frustrated when you run into walls: just go back to the basics, brainstorm some new search terms, and try again.

The worst thing you can do is to be intimidated by this sort of research: it’s something that will serve you well in your academic career, so the sooner you start playing around with it and developing proficiency in this new type of searching, the better it will be for your long-term academic well-being.

Do NOT leave yourself with too little time: learning to navigate academic databases is like learning to use a new kind of software, or a new piece of technology. Like those endeavors, you will be most successful and make the most progress if you give yourself time to play around, explore the various databases, try out various combinations of search terms, etc.

The more you do it, the easier it will become. I promise.

That said: I am truly an expert at this kind of research. I spent eight years earning two master’s degrees and a PhD, which translate into an unthinkable number of hours spent wading through databases and articles and grammars. And yet, as some of you have seen, I can still get frustrated at times! Sometimes the only resource that exists is a book that was published in 1923. Worse yet, sometimes the work just isn’t out there.

The thing that you should keep in mind, though, is that that is the exception. While it’s true that finding resources is sometimes difficult, more often than not it just takes a little bit of time, effort, and patience. This is probably the primary thing that distinguishes an expert from a novice: an expert knows that failing to turn up a good result on search number 1 is not a sign that you are doomed to failure. Instead, it’s an invitation to try again: to dig deeper, to search harder, and to get more creative with search terms.

So: dive into it. Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t let one fruitless search make you sad. Don’t be intimidated. Do play around with search terms. Do try different databases. Do peruse multiple articles. Do try to find a descriptive grammar.

And – as much as is possible – have fun with this. Very few people on the planet get to go tool around a library as part of their job. For at least these years while you are in school, you are one of us lucky few who can legitimately do so. You can put time into seeking knowledge. You can browse through the stacks and stumble upon grammars of languages you didn’t know existed. Try to enjoy this luxury!

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