The more I know about a topic, the more I know what to look for-- and what to ignore.
Searching is a process I have to do over and over, using what I find-- or don't find-- to guide the direction of my search. I want to keep track of my searching and what I have tried so that I don't keep going over the same ground over and over again as I have in the past.
One way for me to find ideas for psychology topics is to see what has already been written. It helps to understand how new knowledge enters the world.
I've learned that psychological research is first reported by researchers in academic journals and books. Sometimes, research with a general interest will get reported in magazines and newspapers and this can be a big help to understanding. But most research grows and grows out of the news and out of public awareness. As interest in a topic grows, there begins to be a group of scholars who begin to connect with each other in a pattern you can see. The pattern emerges in who they cite or refer to in their work.
This citation pattern is called an invisible college and if I am going to write about a topic, I should get some awareness of who these scholars and their works are. Some scholars rise to prominence and have research that most other scholars refer to as the most accepted research. These are the big names I should know.
So, I need to look in two different directions-- at the foundation works, the most accepted research, and the very new research to see who is being cited most now.
The example search I am going to do here is for schizophrenia and marijuana.
I have two things right off that I want to make sure I have a handle on-- schizophrenia and marijuana by themselves.
Step One - Getting Started:
For the terms, I want to get a good working definition and see what is the most accepted research on it. Authors of research articles will assume I know what the terms mean are and will provide little or no background information. Subject encyclopedias and textbooks are great for supplying this background information. Through the library home page links to Subject Guides, specifically Online Reference Resources, I can use a program called Reference Universe to find articles in reference books.
I also know that MIT Cognet has neuroscience textbooks, AccessMedicine has medicine based textbooks, and AccessScience (Encyclopedia of Science & Technology Online) has more general entries with research updates.
It turns out that AccessMedicine has one of the better entries on schizophrenia in terms of updates on treatment and causes. There isn't anything there about marijuana.
There are two research updates in AccessScience, but nothing yet that helps me see the connection.
I try a search on Marijuana in AccessMedicine and it gives me some interesting background from various medical perspectives.
But, all of these articles have the qualities I want to see in an informational source: a) tey are signed article in an edited source; b) it's fairly recent; c) I know I can get back to it or refer someone to it.
I can use the information in this article with some confidence to evaluate other sources, for instance, a Google search on schizophrenia and marijuana. I see a number of news items and some opinion. I like Google for quick answers to get me in the ballpark on a topic, but I'm probably not going to use the results of a search for much more than a springboard for more reliable sources in more organized databases.
I'm using the Google search to get more ideas for information sources and a better understanding. For instance, I find an article from PsychCentral reporting on research in a 2008 report that mentions researcher David A. Lewis, M.D. whose work looks at "Heavy marijuana use, particularly in adolescence, appears to be associated with an increased risk for the later development of schizophrenia, and the course of illness is worse for people with schizophrenia who use marijuana." I'll keep the name and the report in mind when I go to look for academic articles.
The results I'm seeing through Google points to a controversy that is probably working its way out in scholarly journals-- which aren't here for the most part because I need paid access to see them, such as what I can get through library databases.
Step Two - Diving In:
Now I want to get into research articles on this topic. I know from past experience that I can just dive in and play around with the results until I see some sort of pattern, the same way I would with a video game. Sometimes this gets to be overwhelming and I need something like cheat codes to make sense of it.
I know from reading lots of research articles that almost all scholarly papers begin with a review of the literature in order to establish how the research written about in the article contributes to new knowledge by reviewing what has been done before. This is one reason you should look for the latest research on a topic that is close to the one you have in mind-- to find out who reaserchers are basing their research on.
I also know that there are certain types of scholarly publication that pull together lots of research on a topic: literature reviews, which note but usually do not evaluate research; and, meta-analysis or best practices literature, which brings together lots of research to try to establish patterns in research or rate of success. Regardless of the conclusions, these can be valuable sources for seeing the big picture withi regard to research and gathering citations without starting from scratch.
I'm going to start with literature reviews to see if there is something recent out there:
Annual Reviews Online publishes long, detailed literature review on different topics once a year. I search the keywords "schizophrenia and marijuana for all of the titles in Annual Reviews. The first sort by "relevance" doesn't look very promising in terms of recent findings, so I change the sort to "date" and I find a 2009 articles on Endocannabinoid Signaling and Long-Term Synaptic Plasticity, that at least reminds me I should probably upgrade my search term for marijuana to cannabis even though I don't understand much of what is being discussed without the minimal effort I am using right now to absorb content.
This gives me some ideas to explore, but not quite what I'm after.
I'm now going to use PsycINFO [via Ovid] and search for schizophrenia and cannabis and literature review. I use Ovid rather than Ebscohost because it is easier to switch over to Medline. But, as far as the content of PsychINFO goes, it is just a preference of one interface over the other. The content is the same.
The results are a bit overwhelming-- some 400+ records. I'm going to have to look for a clearer focus I have to start reading the research, but I have a better idea what I'm looking for and confidence that material is out there.
Step Three - Reading with a Purpose:
I'm going to read the literature looking primarily at two things. First the introductory literature review the authors use to establish why they believe their research adds new knowledge based on what has been published so far. Secondly, I'm going to look carefully the list of cited references. I'm looking for patterns of who or what keeps getting cited.
Step Four - Find the Invisible College:
I now have the names of some key papers and authors. I want to use these to find more research by searching who has cited these in their papers. The research database Web of Science can be very useful for this-- if the topic is covered in journals that are cited the most in the field. This sometimes works well in PsycINFO as well, but it doesn't have some of the tools Web of Science has. I think I will start with the name from the Google search above. Lewis, David A.
To start with Web of Science, I want to do a topic search on cannabis and schizophrenia to see how well it is covered. I get 80 records, which is much better size wise. In these records, I want to use search features such as Related Records and Citation Analysis to find more articles. The "times cited" count of an article tells me how important it is to other researchers when the article has been published and available for some time (rather than just published.) Related Records brings together articles that cite the same sources, which means the more same sources there are, the more likely the articles are on the same topic.
The other database I want to check is ScienceDirect because I know this has a large group of neuroscience-related journals in full-text. This turns out to be almost too much in terms of results, over 400 records for the two terms.
Other Starting Points
Sometimes, diving into the research is overwhelming in terms of the language used to present research. It helps to have good science reporting to explain the signifigance of research in easier language.
Academic Search Premier is a database that searches for articles from academic journals, magazines, and newspapers across all academic disciplines. For articles about psychology topics, it finds articles in these publications that are generally pretty interesting: Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, and Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The New York Times Health Research is a good place to look for ideas and names of researchers, particularly under the Mind and the Behavior sections.
Shankar Vedantam's column Department of Human Behavior in the Washington Post is also a good source of interesting research.
Once you have a grasp of your topic, be open to looking for it mentioned anywhere.