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GWS 244: Black Women in Europe: Problem Solving

Hitting a Roadblock

Research isn't a linear, predictable process. We often hit roadblocks. Our search terms don't yield the results we hoped for. We find a great article but it's in a language we don't read or speak. We can't seem to find enough sources to answer our research question.

The problem is not hitting obstacles, it's giving up when we do. Research requires us to be flexible and adaptable. Above all, it requires us to persevere through roadblocks. Research is iterative, meaning we often need to repeat steps.

  • We search a database, find some articles and then, as we're reading the articles, notice that the authors are using terms to describe the topic that we didn't use earlier. So we go back into that same database and search again, using our new terms.
  • Or we discover that several of our useful sources are written by the same expert. So we do a google search to see if we can find their website & see what else they've published. 

This page outlines some of the blocks you might hit, as well as ways to navigate those stumbling points. Rather than give up, I encourage you to take a step back, assess your search approach, and try something new. And please contact me (ahulsebe@gustavus.edu) with any issues - I can help you solve them!

Develop Search Terms

The best way to discover the right search terms to use is to figure out how experts in the field are discussing the topic. There are many ways to do this:

  • Skim your course readings to see if there are terms that keep popping up
  • Read a reference book for an overview of your topic, including search terms; find reference books in the library catalog or browse the shelves - main floor, Beck Hall side
  • Ask your professor (who is an expert in the field!) if there are specialized terms you should be using
  • Skim Wikipedia articles about your topic 
  • Brainstorm synonyms and other similar words that might describe your topic
  • Ask a librarian for help - we are skilled at helping you uncover potential search terms and approaches

Sometimes a particular word or phrase seems to unlock your search magically. As you explore your topic, keep an eye out for key words and phrases that the experts use. These words and phrases can be magical, as you've now got some of the words that experts use when they discuss your topic.

Once you identify some of these words and phrases, use them as search terms in various databases and the library catalog. Even if you've already searched these resources, try again with the specialized vocabulary and see if you find new resources. If you're having trouble, check with your instructor or a reference librarian.

Search Early and Often

Research is iterative, which means it is not a linear process. You will want to return to databases, google, and library catalogs again and again, especially as you refine your topics. You might discover new keywords that scholars use when describing the topic. You might find that one person has written several of your sources, meaning you've likely found someone who is an expert in the field.

In these cases, return to databases and other search engines that you've already searched. Search again with your refine tools and see if you uncover additional materials. So much depends on having the right search terms, which we don't always get until we've spent some time with the topic and related sources.

Materials in a Language You Don't Speak or Read

It's highly possible you will encounter research materials written in a language you don't read or speak. This can be frustrating, but here are a few tips to navigate those situations.

  • Run the title and the abstract of an article through Google Translate to see if the article would be of use. While you could translate the entire thing using Google Translate, be aware that the translation will never be perfect. Instead, find a friend who speaks or read the language to see if they will read it with you. (But be sure not to take advantage of their time!)
  • If you find articles or books that look useful, see if the author has written materials in a language you do read, like English. Do a Google search for the author to see if you can find their personal or professional website, which will hopefully contain a list of their publications.
  • Visit with a librarian to discuss alternative search strategies to help you find appropriate materials in a language you do read.

Search in the Right Places

It's easy - and normal - to default to resources that have worked in the past. If Google Scholar or Academic Search Premier helped us find materials for a project in a different course, we naturally would use it again. But be sure to expand your resources, too. There are a lot of specialized databases for various areas that you should use in addition to others that worked. 

  • Use the Research Guides to find recommended databases & other resources for various areas of study
  • Your topic may be interdisciplinary; the Research Guides will help you find resources if your topic overlaps with Religion or GWS or Philosophy or...
  • Ask a librarian for ideas of where and how to search
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