The more you know about a topic, the more you know what to look for-- and what to ignore.
Searching is a process you have to do over and over, using what you find-- or don't find-- to guide the direction of your search. Keep track of your searching and what you have tried.
One way to find ideas for psychology topics is to see what has already been written. It helps to understand how new knowledge enters the world.
Psychological research is first reported by researchers in academic journals and books. 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 is called an invisible college and if you are going to write about a topic, you 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 you should know.
So, we 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 Cognitive behavioral therapy for anorexia nervosa.
I have two things right off that I want to make sure I have a handle on-- the therapy and the condition.
For the therapy, I want to get a good working definition and see what is the most accepted research on it. Subject encyclopedias are great for this.
I am going to start with Anorexia Nervosa. The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine is good for this.
I'm going to start with the therapy and get a definition of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) looks like this.
The article has the qualities I want to see in an informational source: a) it's a 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 cognitive behavioral therapy. I'm using the Google search to get more ideas for information sources and a better understanding. For instance, the Wikipedia article has details and links I will follow up on. I won't use it in my final presentation, but it looks like a great springboard.
But, most of the results I'm seeing through Google look more like thinly disguised advertisements rather research. I need to push on and get back to published research.
Now I want to find material that puts these two concepts together. Research articles tend to focus on very narrow aspects of a topic rather than an overview. If I'm lucky, I might find a book that gives more context to the topic.
I was in the catalog getting to the e-books, so this gives me the idea..
In Library Search, I do a keyword search on Cognitive behavio* AND anorexia.
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:
This gives me some ideas to explore, but not quite what I'm after.
I'm now going to use PsycINFO [via EBSCOhost] and search for cognitive AND anorexia AND literature review. The results are disappointing. I'm going to try just CBT and anorexia This is looking better. I have to start reading the research, but I have a better idea what I'm looking for.
I'm seeing now the other type of literature that brings lots of research together: ones that use the term Evidence-based or meta-analysis. I could try narrowing the search using these as well, for instance, cognitive AND anorexia AND evidence-based. But, for now, the number of results for recent articles looks maneagable. So, I'll dive in.
I'm going to read the literature looking primarily at two things, the introductory literature review and the list of cited references. I'm looking for patterns of who or what keeps getting cited.
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 useful for this-- if the topic is covered in journals that are cited the most in the field. Sometimes this doesn't work.
To start with Web of Science, I want to do a topic search on CBT and anorexia to see how well it is covered. Then 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.)
Other Starting Points
Academic Search Complete 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 (and it's web site), and Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The New York Times Well / Mind is a good place to look for ideas and names of researchers, particularly under the Mind and the Behavior sections.
Shankar Vedantam's Hidden Brain podcast is also a good source of interesting research.
Once you have a grasp of your topic, be open to looking for it mentioned anywhere. For instance, looking at news on the CNN.com site, I came across a nice description of schema therapy, a variation on CBT, on the Oprah site linked from CNN with the title Love traps to avoid. It gave me some names of researchers from the experts the journalist consulted for the article.