After you have identified a specific research question, the next step in your research project is to identify relevant data sources. Information overload in today’s digitized world can lead to inordinate amounts of time spent researching and using data that is not specific to your research question. Identify what type of data you need first, whether it is statistics or survey data to get started.
Your school or public library is the first place to look for data sources. You can often do most of your searching online. Most libraries give patrons access to databases through subscription-based services. For example, the public library in Longmont, Colorado, offers access to the Gale Virtual Reference Library for people doing history research. You can find journal articles within subject-specific databases by doing a keyword or author name search. As you identify articles that are relevant, search the list of references at the end to quickly identify other useful data sources. You will likely need a library card or student username and password to access these resources. Also, ask a reference librarian to assist you in locating more difficult-to-find sources that may be stored on microfiche, at another library or in archives, for example.
In many cases, you can find journal articles or abstracts online for free. For instance, you might look on the chemistry department’s research or news page at a university you know is doing research in your area of inquiry. You can also pay to access online academic databases like JSTOR, but note that your library probably has access to the database you want for free. Some magazines and journals publish articles for free on their website, or they may charge a per-article fee. Some journals also have searchable archives on their websites.
Many government databases make their data and research available to the public. For example, if you are interested in labor data in the United States, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics website features many data sets and search tools. The Census Bureau is another good source of demographic data. You can also request declassified documents for a fee through the Freedom of Information Act.
Identifying Data Websites
As you look through websites to find data, check each website’s extension. Reliable data from federal government agencies often end in “.gov,” while educational institutions end in “.edu.” If you are looking at state data, “.state” followed by a period and your state’s abbreviation indicates an official state website. Organizations also publish research on surveys and data, and many of their extensions end in “.org.” Avoid websites that can be edited by anyone with or without proper credentials and expertise.
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