What is a subject heading? Why should I care?

Librarians love organizing things.  A lot. One product of this love is subject headings.  In more technical terms, these are standardized words assigned to a concept.

Using subject headings is a more advanced way to research as they help to reduce the amount of “garbage,” or irrelevant results, that come up.  This is because subject headings are assigned to an article or a book by a person, rather than a computer.  Subject headings are also assigned based on the topic of the article, rather than just the words that appear in the text.

For example, let’s say I was doing a project on teaching methods.  There are many words I can type into the library catalogue or online databases that would bring up words on this topic: teaching, teaching methods, teachers, instruction, instruction methods, education , education methods, educate, educating, educators…

Who knows which word in the list above is the “best” word, that will bring up the most relevant articles to my topic? A function of subject headings is to take this guess work out of researching.  Rather than typing out ALL those variations on teaching methods, I can use a subject heading that would cover all of these concepts.

Some online databases, therefore, have a list of standardized words that you can use to search instead of using keywords. This list includes definitions, too, so you know which word is the best one. Using our example from above, even if an article never says the word “instruction” in the text but has been assigned the subject heading “instruction”, then it will appear when you conduct a search using this subject heading.

Subject headings must be looked up first, though, before you start researching.  (See “How do I look up subject headings” for more information on how to do this.)  This process takes some practice, but it’s worth the effort!

If you’d like to try using subject headings on your own, a good place to start is in Western’s Shared Library Catalogue.  Most university libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings, and Western is no different.  Each item (i.e. each book) is assigned subject headings by Western’s cataloguers, and you can find these if you scroll to the bottom of any record in the catalogue.  Know that this will only work in the catalogue and not in Summon, which works like Google rather than traditional databases.

For more information (for our science students) you can also see the Western Libraries video tutorial on using subject headings.

Enough is enough: when can I stop researching?

This is a very difficult question to answer and is totally dependent on the project that you’re working on.  Many times, I find that students end up with too much research, though, rather than too little – a huge problem for me when I was completing my undergrad, as well.  So knowing when to call it quits is a skill we all need to work on.

That said, there are some students who are not searching enough: consider the questions below as a guide for knowing what is an appropriate amount of searching (in my opinion).

I’ll answer this question with a few questions that you can ask yourself when you feel like you’re done enough research.  Not all of these points will apply to every type of research assignment, of course, but they’re a good way to tell yourself “enough is enough”:

  1. Are you coming across the same information in multiple, credible sources (i.e. three)?
  2. Have you already found relevant information in different types of sources (i.e. books, journal articles, government publications, newspaper articles – whatever is appropriate for your subject area)?
  3. If you added a new angle or subtopic now, would it just complicate your argument rather than strengthening it?
  4. Are you starting to collect information that isn’t exactly on your topic?
  5. Are you running out of time to actually write/prepare your assignment?
  6. Do you have enough information to cover the main points of your topic well (or support your thesis, if applicable)?

If you find yourself answering “yes” to most of these questions (where applicable), it’s probably time to move on.  I promise, you will never find all of the relevant information on your topic (unless you feel inspired to do your PhD on your current essay topic!).  It’s extremely tempting to want to keep looking, to make sure you’ve done the “best” job.  But giving into this temptation can result in having a huge pile of resources, little time to do anything with them, and a whole lot of stress.  Efficient researching often comes down to trusting ourselves, which obviously takes practice.  Hopefully the questions above will help a little in this process.

Make sure to look at the “Evaluation” section of this blog, as it further assists with the development of this skill.  You can also consult Brescia’s Writing Instructor, who will help you with starting the writing process.

How do you find full-text articles?

We’ve all had this happen to us: we’ll come across a really great article, but getting the full-text is next to impossible.  We can find the citation and the abstract, and we’ll even try the “Get it @ Western” button, but nothing seems to work.

While there are many explanations as to why this problem occurs, it usually comes down to money: while a journal may be indexed (or its contents are listed) in a variety of databases, Western may only pay for one database to provide full-text access.  OR we may have access through the journal’s website.  Rather than wasting time by guessing, there are a few simple steps you can follow to find full-text articles quickly.

  1. Head to the library catalogue: http://alpha.lib.uwo.ca.
  2. Change the search option to “Journal Title”
  3. Enter the exact name of the journal (including “of” or “the”).
  4. Check to see if you can get online access to the journal
  5. Check to see if you can get online access to the volume you need. This is done by looking at the date range to the right of the database name.
  6. Click the link to visit the website or database for full text access
  7. Browse to the volume/issue of your article
  8. Find the PDF/Full text version of your article

Things that can happen that will screw this process up:

  1. When you visit the database or journal, the list of past issues isn’t right there on the screen.  Look for a link that says “archive” or “past issues.”
  2. Western may not have online access to the journal (as determined by steps 4 or 5 above).  If this happens, scroll down in the catalogue to see if we carry the journal in print.  Record the name of the library that carries the journal, and the call number.  Then you get to go on a field trip to find your journal article!
  3. Western may not subscribe to the journal at all.  If this happens, see a library staff person about what to do next.  We have a service called Interlibrary loan that will allow you to borrow items (including journal articles) from other universities: the library staff will help you determine if this is an appropriate option for you.

Why is it so hard to find full-text articles?!

This is a question we receive regularly at the Beryl Ivey Library, and is a common problem.  Many students can find the titles of journal articles without difficulty, but get stuck when it comes to accessing the full text of an article.  This is usually the case when you’re using traditional databases rather than Summon.

Why does this happen, you ask?  Usually the answer comes down to money: journal subscriptions are extremely expensive.  Even though you may be able to see a journal in many different databases, libraries usually only pay for one provider to give full-text access.  This means that we might find the citation or the abstract of a journal article in three or four different databases, but will only get the full article from one of those databases.

This is also the reason that the “Get it @ Western” feature doesn’t always work the way we expect it to.  Again, Get it @ Western is a fee-based service that is only linked with certain databases.  While it is a convenient feature when it works, it will not always provide direct access to full-text articles.

Yet another reason why full-text articles are hard to find is because of our assumptions: it is easy to believe that all journal articles can be found online.  Summon and other full-text products can give us this assumption, since they are only displaying online articles.  This is not always the case, though.  The library may subscribe to a journal only in print, for example; back issues of journals before the internet was popular (i.e. during the mid 1990’s) may not be available electronically, either.

Finally, access problems may come down to timing.  Some publishers will release the print version of a journal ahead of the online – even up to a year in advance.   This means you would have to photocopy the article rather than printing it from online.  Other journals will post the abstract of an article way before the journal is ready (often because the findings of the study are considered ground breaking).  In this case, you would have to wait for the full-text journal article to be released.

To help reduce the frustration the above limitations cause, I recommend keeping an internet window open to the library catalogue whenever you’re researching (http://alpha.lib.uwo.ca).  This way, you can quickly check which database provides full text access to an article, without having to guess.  Sometimes Western may only carry a journal in print, too, which the library catalogue will tell you.

For step-by-step instructions on how to find journal articles quickly, see the blog post: How do you find full-text articles?

How do you know if a journal is peer reviewed?

Many professors will require that you only use “peer reviewed” journals in your projects (see What is Peer Review for a definition).  Not all academic journals are peer reviewed, though. So, how do you know if an article you’ve found is peer reviewed or not?

A great resource called Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory will help you answer that question.  I’ll give you step-by-step instructions for accessing this resource:

  1. Go to www.lib.uwo.ca and click the “Databases” link
  2. Choose “U” and then click on the “Ulrich’s” entry (Off campus users must log in)
  3. In the search box, enter the name of the journal you are searching for
  4. Next to the name of your journal, you will see little symbols
  5. Look for a referee jersey icon: if one exists, that journal is peer reviewed
  6. If you see no icons at all, you may need to turn this function on: click the “Change Columns” link and make sure the referee jersey is selected

For more information on peer reviews, see: What does “peer review” mean?

What does “peer review” mean?

Many professors will require that students only use “peer-reviewed” articles in their bibliographies.  This causes a problem when students are unsure what peer reviewing actually means.

In understandable terms, peer reviewing is about the process that a resource undergoes before it is published.

This is best explained in a scenario: let’s pretend I’m a researcher and I’ve written an article.  When I submit this article to a journal for publication, it is reviewed anonymously by different experts in my field: I don’t know who the reviewers are, and they don’t know my name  (This system is called “double blind,” meaning that bias can’t affect how my article is reviewed).  I then receive my article back from the reviewers, make any corrections or changes they suggest, and re-submit it to the journal for publication.

Peer reviewed journals, then, are often considered more credible than open-access or non-peer reviewed journals, since experts have reviewed the content/methodology/conclusions, et cetera, and still said it should be published.

Tip: To check whether a journal is peer reviewed or not, use Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, accessible from Western Libraries (or see: How do you know if a journal is peer reviewed? )