Chapter 5: page 37

with invaluable contributions by Spotlight Librarians Faith Rusk and Lizzy Borges

Dive in—Databases, Search terms, and evaluating sources

Since much of the premise of this book is to draw from and build on your lived experience, let’s consider that the only reality you know is digital. Accordingly, we have adapted as a society (species?) to read, write, and research digitally, largely on our phones, in social media platforms, and through popular search engines.

We are (most likely) all familiar with google, and we’re also probably used to considering whether we believe a source or not, how legit it is, and whether it is, to use the parlance of our times, “fake news.”

Therefore, we can build on your prior knowledge and add to your schema of research databases, search terms, and evaluating the credibility of sources.

Image Source: Andrew Neel on, @andrewtneel

Search Terms

Before consulting various search engines or databases, you can prepare by brainstorming search terms you’ll try out to find sources of information and knowledge.

 Although Google allows users to search for their entire question (e.g., Which sustainable energy sources are best suited to California’s different climates?), other databases require users to use words or shorter phrases for their search terms (e.g., sustainable energy sources AND California). It’s good to get in the habit of using search terms, as it makes you think carefully about your topic and search terms can be used in any database. Your search terms should generally draw from your Inquiry Question, and include the key words and concepts that you have narrowed down with your instructor and peers on page 35. You’ll also want to brainstorm alternate terms for each concept in order to expand your search results. 

Identify the key concepts of your Inquiry Question and brainstorm alternate terms for each concept below.

Example Inquiry Question: To what degree is renewable energy a possible solution to global warming in California?

Concept 1: Global WarmingConcept 2: Renewable EnergyConcept 3: California
Alternate search terms:Climate changeGreenhouse gasesGreenhouse effectCarbon dioxideFossil fuelsAlternate search terms:Solar energyWind energyHydroelectricityHydropowerBiofuelAlternate search terms:San FranciscoLos AngelesSacramentoBay AreaWest Coast

Your Inquiry Question: 

Concept 1: 

Concept 2: 

Concept 3: 

Alternate search terms:

Alternate search terms:

Alternate search terms:

“Popular” Sources

Google is a fine place to start, if you’re looking for popular sources. “Popular sources … are written by and intended for a general audience,” according to Purdue OWL. They continue, “Popular sources are not peer-reviewed, and they do not usually include a reference list” (though they may still cite sources! More on this under Evaluating Credibility). Purdue OWL provides a variety of examples, ranging “from some books and magazines to websites and blogs.” In this chapter, we want you to be open to new sources of information and knowledge, such as YouTube and other social media, in addition to popular sources such as news outlets, websites, and blogs.

Insider’s Tips and Tricks for a focused search in Google

  1. Brainstorm your various search terms
  2. To search within a certain website or source, write site: before your search terms (e.g., within the SF Chronicle website); or use any other url. For example, you can use to search only government websites.
  3. Try using “AND,”  or “OR” between two or more search terms.
    • AND will limit your search.
    • OR will expand it.
    • You can also combine these with #2. For example, try site: racial profiling AND immigration AND trauma if you’re investigating the psychological effects on immigrants of being racially profiled.

4. Here are some additional advanced search techniques to try in Google:

Everyone’s Google is Different

Did you know that when you do a Google search you might get different results than the person sitting next to you? Google search results are heavily influenced by algorithms, keywords, advertisements, and even social biases.

This tutorial will guide you through the process of evaluating the Google search engine and help you develop strategies for using Google (and other search tools!) effectively.

Newspapers, Magazines, and Paywalls

Many newspapers and magazines  are putting their content behind paywalls. We don’t begrudge them that – it costs money to pay reporters and editors. But it can make it more difficult to access sources. If you don’t pay for a subscription to a particular publication, don’t despair! You might be able to access it through your university or public library. At SFSU, search for the title of the publication in OneSearch to see if you have access. Or if you’ve found a specific article you want to read, you can search for the title in OneSearch (more on OneSearch below).

Evaluating Credibility

In the case of all popular sources, as a critical, flexible reader you have to evaluate the credibility of the online, popular source you read—or in other words, you have to always consider whether or not you believe it, and why.

Watch these videos for another perspective and tips for evaluating credibility of textual sources
And websites:


1. Read like the Writer (remember, from Chapter 2). . . Who is this person and how did they get their information?

2. Evaluate: What type of website did the information or knowledge come from?  Is it a company selling a product or a service? An organization or non-profit with a stated goal? Is it a publication? Is it a personal blog? Is this a social media post? Which do you think is most credible? Least? Why? Who is the author?

3. Investigate: What evidence do they provide for their claims? Who are their sources?

4. Check up: What type of authority does the author have? How do they show this?

5. Dig Deeper: What do you think are the author’s biases? What are their “public motives”?

Supplemental Reading #14:

Why Historical Thinking is NOT about History by Sam Wineburg

Finding Scholarly Sources

By contrast, according to Purdue OWL, scholarly sources

“are written by highly-qualified researchers and have a thorough publication process, which usually involves peer-reviewing and an extensive list of references at the end of the text. Scholarly sources often have a specific audience in mind, most likely other experts in the particular field of study. Examples of scholarly sources include books and academic journals written by scholars and experts.”

Scholarly sources are generally found in different, more specialized databases. Google scholar is one example, as is the San Francisco State University Library’s OneSearch, along with a host of other databases that are available through the library. These online databases are often subject specific, so you can focus your searching within a particular subject area or discipline. Each database has different content – some only have scholarly articles, while others contain scholarly and popular sources. And because each one is different, sometimes you might try more than one.

Before you start searching for scholarly articles using the resources for SFSU (or your school) below, keep in mind that scholarly sources are generally credible. Scholarly sources have all gone through a process of “peer review,” where the information, knowledge, and arguments presented by the author have all been evaluated for credibility already by other experts in the field. If you’d like to learn more about peer review and what it looks like, here’s a brief overview. Therefore, while you can certainly ask the same questions when you “read like a writer” in order to grow as a writer by being mindful of professional writers’ moves, if you access the source through a scholarly database and know the article is “peer reviewed,” you can assume other experts have established the author’s credibility before the source was published.

For more information on popular and scholarly sources, see Purdue OWL’s many guides, or the following video from SFSU’s Library.

Video Source:

Tips and Tricks for a focused search in Databases

You can use some of the same tools you used in Google to focus your search in library databases as well. A few to consider:

  • Quotation Marks – searches for the exact phrase
    • For example, “higher education” specifies that you want that exact phrase and that you don’t want to see sources where education appears one place and higher appears someplace else.
  • Truncation/Wildcard Symbol – * searches for all of the variable endings of a root word
    • For example, searching for develop* will return results with develop, develops, development, developmental, and developmentally
  • AND/OR – Same as in Google, AND and OR can be used to narrow and expand your search respectively.
  • Parentheses – specify the order of your search. 
    • Particularly when we use OR, we can use parentheses to specify how that should go. If we are interested in early childhood obesity, when considering our search terms we decide that there are a few ways to talk about early childhood. The resources could also use the terms pediatric or infant, and we want to include them in our search. If we search for  “Early childhood” OR pediatric OR infant AND obesity we’ll get some unusual results: 

That’s not what we want! 

But if we add parentheses and search for (“Early childhood” OR pediatric OR infant) AND obesity:

That’s what we wanted our search to do!

Now, Let’s Search!!

First, you get to decide where you want to start your searching.

Do you want to search using OneSearch, or a subject specific database? 

Just remember, there is no one perfect source. The short video below is a fun exploration of how you can bring different sources and ideas together. 

See video credits at

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that your school’s library also has nondigital sources—you know, those book things that Dan and Jolie were more familiar with as students. You search for books in the exact same way you do digital sources, through your Library’s website. Depending on your research, these are often the best sources, and you can practice various reading and prereading strategies to ask prereading questions using KWL+, skim, scan, preview the table of contents, and find the most relevant parts of the book to read for your research purposes.

Being Metacognitive about your Research:

  1. What insights am I having as I search and explore? What is surprising or unexpected?
  2. What search features am I using and/or finding most helpful?
  3. What am I learning along the way about my topic that could inform or alter my search?
  4. Am I able to tell what’s credible and what’s not so credible?  If not, why not?
  5. What strategies am I using to keep track of the potentially useful sources I find?
  6. Who isn’t a part of the conversation so far? What voices aren’t represented by your search?
  7. In what specific ways am I thinking about using each source in my paper?  Give an example. 
  8. What is most difficult for me about searching?  Most confusing?  What can I change now, going forward, to adjust to these?

See a Scaffolded Classroom Discussion including these questions and more, HERE.

Bringing Back around to Critical Reading: Annotating Your Sources

Once you have found a source, evaluated whether it is trustworthy or not, and practiced some prereading strategies to “set the scene” for your reading process, you are ready to practice your critical and active reading strategies from Chapter 2.

This, of course, starts with continuing to develop annotation strategies that work for you, whether that is using to annotate websites and online documents, or printing and marking up pages of text—annotation helps you organize new knowledge and information that is added to your prior knowledge (or schema) as you read.

When you annotate certain ideas that are new, innovative, surprising, upsetting, or cause any other reaction in you as you consider your own public motives and those of your authors, you are bridging your new skills and habits that we introduce to you in this book.

Consider also using any of the other active reading strategies outlined in Chapter 2, such as Mind mapping, chunking, and close reading of difficult texts.

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