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Biology Research Guide

How to do research in biology (and other sciences)

Planning your Search

Sometimes we search Google using complete sentences, questions, or other phrases to find information or get an answer very quickly. 

To be able to do a search on a topic within the library's databases you need to think of specific words to search. If you try to put in a complete sentence or question in a database search you might get a few results or absolutely nothing. And then you will start to think that you have to change your topic because you can't find anything written about it.

Before diving into searching, you need to think strategically which includes deciding which keywords you will use in your searches. Putting in the work up front like this will save you time in the long run.

Defining your search terms or keywords can be the most difficult part of any research project. Here are some tips for strategic searching:

Use Wikipedia or a Google search

We all use Wikipedia and Google to find quick information about something, whether it's a restaurant's menu or the definition of word. You can use the same tools to help you find background information about your research topic, and help you start compiling keywords to use in your database searches. As you read through an article, write down names, dates, phrases, and any other ideas that describe your topic, and that you find interesting.

Note: You should not use a Wikipedia article as a reference on your biology paper because it is an encyclopedia and does not contain original research. However, do check out the references cited within the Wikipedia articles you do look at; they can lead to some great finds of original research.

For more information about how to use Wikipedia in your academic research, view the video below.

Break out your thesaurus

There is more than one way to express an idea or topic. Once you have a short list of possible keywords from your initial Wikipedia brainstorming, think of other ways to express the same ideas (synonyms).

You can also think broader or more specific. Can you drill down to more specific words to express an idea? How about zooming out to a more broad lens? Both those tactics can help you develop more keywords and troubleshoot when conducting searches in academic databases.

Draw the connections

Concept Mapping can help with connecting the dots of any topic. Concept maps can help you organize your thoughts and better connect related ideas. This will help you develop ideas about specific aspects of your topic, and brainstorm keywords to use in your searches.

Here are a couple of concept map templates to help you get started:

For more help in planning your search strategy, see Plan Your Search from the University of Queensland.

Where to Search

Now that you have a set of keywords to search, you'll need to find a place to use them! Here is a brief list of the main science-related databases to which you have access at SHU.

PubMed and MEDLINE

Another widely used database is PubMed. PubMed is an open-access database compiled by the National Center for Biotechnology Information within the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Because it is open-access, you do not need to be affiliated with SHU to access the search or some of the full-text articles. You can access this database even after you graduate from SHU. 

MEDLINE is a database that includes PubMed, but is not open-access. You need to be a student, faculty, or a staff member of SHU to access MEDLINE. The benefit of using MEDLINE is the connections you have to all of our other databases. If an item is not available in MEDLINE, SHU library has Full-Text Finder which will search for the full-text in all of our databases. The look and feel of the database might also be familiar to you because it is an EBSCO database and those all look the same when searching.

Both PubMed and MEDLINE are good for biomedical-related searches involving cell-biology, molecular biology, developmental biology, genetics, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, etc. They also contain some ecology and evolution articles pertaining to the afore-mentioned topics. 

Other Recommended Databases

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is different from a regular Google search. Google Scholar searches contain mostly peer-reviewed journal articles, although not all the results are always peer-reviewed. In many cases, Google Scholar is a lot more limited in terms of the results you get versus searching one of the library's databases, like ScienceDirect or MEDLINE. As a result, it should not be used as an exclusive source of information; it should be used in concert with other databases.

The search box below is for Google Scholar. Try out your search terms and see the types of results you get. 

Google Scholar Search

Scientific Reviews

Reviews contain tens, sometimes hundreds of references. These are excellent sources because they are usually written by experts in the field who typically refer to each source article by briefly commenting on its relevance to the topic of the review article.