Skip to Main Content

Mellon Mays Guide to Research - Archive

Some research basics to help you get started.

Research tips & tricks


Scientists and Engineers seek to grow scientific knowledge and solve problems (basic theory to ones with global impact) through experimentation in a "laboratory," (e.g. computers, physical spaces, and open spaces, terresterial and extraterrestrial). Research of the literature of each of the physical science disciplines at Brown - math, applied math, chemistry, computer science, engineering, environmental science, geological sciences, and physics - is essential for the physical scientist's research.  The literature, consisting of books, journals, and data sources, has become multidisciplinary crossing boundaries especially between physical and life sciences including medicine.  The finding tools are catalogs and databases delivering indexed bibliographic details (Abstract and Indexing - A&I) or full-text of the published content.  The retrieval tools here at Brown are the shelves and online article and ebook databases.  When a item is not in the Brown collection, the library services of EasyBorrow (books) and FindIt (articles) are provided to expedite access.

This guide offers a general overview of physical sciences library research, including how and where to start, finding relevant sources, and responsibly using the information you find. All electronic resources are available to you online when you're signed in to Brown's network.

Types of sources

Primary sources are original material, based on a scientist's research.  They are articles published in sources including journals (short letters to multipage papers), conference proceedings, patents, technical reports, and dissertations.  Most primary sources have been published after editorial and usually peer review.  More and more, authors are putting up their original work from a draft to the pubished article on freely accessible sites.  Data from research is being linked to articles by publishers or placed in freely accessible repositories.  This is a very recent development in the primary sources of physical scientists.

Secondary sources are works that analyze primary sources or other secondary sources. These include review articles, monographs, and collected papers edited into books on specific topics.

Tertiary sources index or, otherwise, collect primary and secondary sources. Examples are encyclopedias, handbooks, online indices, and textbooks. These sources tend to be most useful as jumping off points for your research, leading you to the more in-depth secondary and primary material that you will need to conduct thorough literature research.

Getting Started

Choosing a topic

The first thing you will need to do, of course, is come up with a research topic. You may already have a very specific topic in mind, or you may have a general idea of what interests you. In either case, it can be enough to begin your research. Very often you will find that your research will mold your topic and you may end up writing about something you had never even considered in the beginning!

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, think about what has interested you most in your class so far. What would you like to know more about? Maybe you have a few ideas and can’t narrow it down. That’s ok. You’ll be guided by your research: while you scan, browse, and read, you'll gain a better sense of the important issues surrounding your topic-- and you'll watch your research question come into focus.

Often, the best way to start searching is to use keywords, those words that describe the topic in your mind. You can start off in the main library search box, or Discovery Tool, with a Google-like search of words that seem to fit. It’s usually best to start off with a general search – don’t use too many words that will limit your options. You can narrow down your focus as you go along.

Beginning your search

Where to start? If you don't know much about your research topic, do a bit of background reading. A quick Google search may land you on Wikipedia, one of the places you might go to get a sense of the important ideas, people, organizations, places or events surrounding your topic. You might also consider Credo Reference, a collection of online reference sources, as well as subject-specific encyclopedias that can be found in the search box on the library's home page. Take note of the concepts and keywords you discover as you do your background reading, as they give focus to your research question. Consider keeping research notes or a journal; even a simple list of keywords and helpful resources will offer a springboard for your ideas and save you time.

Using the Library Search Box

Books (in print and electronic format) and especially peer-reviewed, scholarly articles are core resources in Physical Sciences research. You'll find access to books plus catalog records with the format and dates of coverage for journals and access to much of our online journal content. Using the discovery tool to do in-depth and extensive research in our periodical literature is not recommended; for more efficient searching, consider choosing specific databases that index information on your topic.

For more information about using the search box, including tips on how to narrow your search results and find specific kinds of sources, please see Using the Catalog in this LibGuide.

Research in the Library and Using the Research

1. Pick the topic.

Ideas from lectures and readings

Ideas from media - scholarly web or popular

2. Identify major concepts to be researched and determine alternative/variations in terms (synomyms)

3. Do preliminary research to find what is out there or what is not; identify more alternatives/variations in terminology

Traditional Josiah Catalog - online catalog for coverage of the major concepts in print and electronic books (keyword, authors, titles of books and chapters) and relevant journal titles (not articles)

Library Discovery Tool - left side: more complete search of all Brown University Library digital sources including Josiah (print and electronic), digital collections of images, and Brown Digital Repository (BDR); right side - primarily articles from scholarly literature sources to which the Library subscribes or which are publicly accessible on the searched topic.

ebrary - for ebook resources on major concepts; need ebrary reader downloaded to view and save.

Academic Search Premier - for the big picture

Lexis-Nexis Academic - for current and cutting edge documents in newspapers, newswires, and magazines

4. Focus topic and concepts for intensified research.

5. Finding articles in multidisciplinary sources and for tracking references and following who cited an article in the same database:

Academic Search Premier - mutlidisciplinary; use category/subject search to get relevant hits efficiently

Web of Science (WoS) - multidisciplinary; use Cited Reference Search in Science Citation Index Expanded database to find; focus on authors and who they cite and who cited them.

Google Scholar - great for retrieving an article through FindIt; use "Cited by" to find other articles that cite yours, and that might not be in Web of Science (WoS)

6.  Finding articles in discipline-specific databases sources and for tracking references of an article (examples, see subject guide for lists of recommended resources):

Compendex and IEEE Xplore Digital Library (engineering and computer science)

ACM Digital Libary (computer science and applied math)

MathSciNet (math, applied math, computer science)

SciFinder and Reaxys (chemistry)

ADS and ArXiv (physics)

GeoRef and GeoScienceWorld (geological sciences and environmental studies)

7.  Keep records of references checked - RefWorks, EndNote, or other

8. Write report with proper attribution for the works of others - check links on copyright and writing. Watch out for PLAGIARISM errors.

9. Learn from the experience to streamline research and write the next report for any discipline.

Copyright Lee A. Pedersen.  Written permission is needed to use any part of the text in this box.

Physical Science Librarians