Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

3 libraries are now open! Plus: UC Library Search is here!

Cal NERDS Library Session: Starting Library Research

Welcome to the Library Session for UC Berkeley Cal NERDS!

public health library ceiling


Presented by Michael Sholinbeck (   LinkedIn Page

The Scientific Literature: Books, Handbooks and Protocols, Articles

The numerous science libraries on campus, we have many information sources in different formats to help you in your research. Let’s review these.

When a topic is new to you and you need an overview of the topic, encyclopediae and textbooks are great at giving an overview or introduction.

For more detailed exploration of a topic, books provide the focus you want.

For lab research, handbooks and lab protocols provide information on the materials and procedures for experimental work.

All of these materials can be found at Berkeley by searching our library catalog, OskiCat. You’ll find which library owns the item and whether it is available for borrowing, or available online.

The next format type is journals. They report on the findings of current research studies, offering the most up-to-date and detailed information on a topic.
A single journal issue will have many articles, and each article is devoted to a research study. There is a standard pattern in how journal articles are written, and knowing this pattern will help you find the information you need:

  • An article’s introduction explains the context of the work and the importance of the research
  • The materials and/or methods section describes the experimental procedures
  • The results report on the data and the outcomes of the work
  • The discussion section interprets the results, whereby the authors explain the meaning and the implications of the research
  • Lastly, there are references to the scholarly works (other articles, etc.) used by the authors

Finally, databases are what you use to find journal articles. Databases let you search across many (often millions) of journal articles to find the papers relevant to your research topic.

Critical Evaluation

What is evidence?

  • All research is (potentially) "evidence" and there are no "perfect" studies.
  • Is there an agenda (bias)?
    » It's doubtful that any study is totally without some kind of bias, either in the question asked, the study design, or in the author's pre-existing beliefs, not to mention the source of the research funds.
    » How bias in methodology was controlled and the significance of bias in any particular study is what's relevant.

Peer review
Peer review refers to a process whereby a scholarly work (ie, an article) is reviewed and critiqued by experts to ensure it meets some standards of acceptance before it is published. Does this process make for better science?
» Read Editorial peer review for improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Apr 18;(2):MR000016)

Who pays for science?
Most scientific research is funded by government grants, companies doing research and development, and non-profit foundations. Because science is attempting to get at some "truth," the source of research funding shouldn't have a significant effect on the outcome of scientific research, right?
» Read Industry sponsorship and research outcome (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Dec 12;12:MR000033).

Oops! I made a mistake (or ... was it cheating..?)
Occasionally, scientists make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes affect the conclusions of a published article. Articles may be retracted if the mistake is significant. This is a formal process where the author or journal publishes a statement outlining the error. Sometimes, however, retraction is the result of fraud, plagiarism, or other bad acts.
» Read Retraction Watch;
» Read The continued use of retracted, invalid scientific literature (JAMA 263 (10):1420-3, 1990)

Reliability and validity
Reliable data collection: relatively free from "measurement error."
  » Is the device used to measure elapsed time in an experiment accurate?
Validity refers to how well a measure assesses what it claims to measure
  » How accurately can this animal study of drug metabolism be extrapolated to humans?

Other things to consider
- Do the conclusions of the article follow the evidence that's presented?
- Are opinions or notions posited as facts? (Search "As is well known..." in Google Scholar.)
- Publication bias: Studies where nothing happened are less likely to get published.
- CV boosting: Does this study really add to the body of knowledge?
- Significance of a single study: Science is incremental. Beware of any studies billed as "breakthroughs."

About Your Topic

What to consider when thinking about your research topic
Much current STEM research is interdisciplinary.
Terms you use when searching databases like Web of Science, etc., may need to include concepts from different fields of science.

Is your topic researchable?
  » Effects of vehicular emissions from 1995 Toyotas on elderly women in Berkeley
  » Seasonal variation in PM2.5 levels in the San Francisco Bay Area
  » Air pollution in the United States

Let's talk about indexing!
  » Do you want articles on HIV (a virus) or articles on HIV diseases?
  » Do you want articles on nanofibers or articles on nanofibres?
  » Is lead a noun or a verb?

  » Indexing means a controlled vocabulary (a finite list of terms) is used to assign subject terms to articles.
  » Controlled vocabulary schemes are often hierarchical; any given term will have broader and (possibly) narrower terms.
    eg, Environmental Pollution > Air Pollution > Indoor Air Pollution
  » Subject terms ideally have have a single, unambiguous definition.
    eg, Air Pollution =
    "The presence of contaminants or pollutant substances in the air that interfere with human health or welfare, or produce other harmful environmental effects.
    The substances may include gases particulate matter, or volatile organic chemicals."
  » Subject terms may also be referred to as thesaurus terms, descriptors, etc.