This section focuses on finding information for your technical-documentation projects online and in physical libraries. Your job is to get good, specific, up-to-date information for your formal report project. You may not be able to read it all—you're not writing a dissertation, nor is your knowledge about your topic expected to be anywhere close to that level. But at least you know what's out there.
Here's a great resource: Library Services at Austin Community College.
Also see this useful site Finding the Library You Need For Your Research. From html.com.
When you've found information sources you think you'll need in your writing project, read documentation on how to cite those sources when you borrow them in your documents.
Beware of the Internet—Get Thee to a Library
To begin, be aware that instructors of technical writing still require your information search to take you to one or more phsyical libraries. The best information for your topic may not be online, and you can't trust a lot of online information. In the following, you'll see some strategies for evaluating the information you find.
Find a Topic, Narrow It, Brainstorm It
Before you head for the library or its Internet equivalent, you need a topic, some idea of the specific aspect of the topic you want to focus on, and some ideas about what to say about that narrowed topic. Problems fnding a topic and thinking of what to say about it are often called the dreaded writer's block.
A virtual ocean of topics is here in topic ideas.
Narrowing a topic is that process in which you go from an impossibly huge topic such as nanotechnology to something more manageable such as applications of nanotechnology in brain surgery. You can find a nice system for this process in narrowing topics.
Brainstorming a topic is that process in which you think of everything you can that you might write about in relation to your topic. You can find a nice system for this process in brainstorming and invention.
Know Your Booleans
An important tool to have when you go searching for information—either in libraries or in the Internet—has to do with Booloean operators: AND, OR, NOT and a few esoteric other.
|Technique||What it does||Example|
|Truncation — adding a symbol to the root of the word to retrieve related terms and variant endings for the root term. Some databases have left- and right-hand truncation.||Expands your search||structur* finds structure, structuring, structures, etc. *elasticity will find elasticity, aeroelasticity, viscoelasticity|
|Boolean AND — retrieves only those records containing all your search terms||Narrows your search||finite AND element AND methods|
|Boolean OR — retrieves records containing any of your search terms; especially useful for synonyms, alternate spellings, or related concepts||Broadens your search||energy OR fuel pollut* OR contaminat* sulfur OR sulphur|
|Boolean NOT, AND NOT — attempts to exclude a term that is not useful or relevant||Narrows your search||"Advanced Materials" AND composite NOT wood|
|Proximity — retrieves terms within a specified distance of one another; variations of proximity searches are phrase searches, where the terms must be retrieved exactly as entered; NEAR, ADJACENT, WITH, and WITHIN searches||Narrows your search||"Styrenic Block Copolymers" (quotation marks ensure that the multiple-word term is searched as a phrase, but are not required for all databases)|
|Parentheses ( ) — groups terms with Boolean for more complex searches||Combines searches||"mechanical engineering" AND (handbook OR dictionary)|
Types of Resources for Information Research
Encyclopedias and Other Reference Works
If you are beginning at ground zero with your technical report topic, a good strategy would be to read some articles in general encyclopedias:
www.britannica.com/. An individual subscription costs under $100 US per year, but membership in your library is likely to give you free access.
www.accessscience.com/ for online access to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Again, paid subscription required, but membership in a library is likely to give you access.
Can you build a legitimate technical report based on encyclopedia articles that you summarize and paraphrase? Ask your instructor. Using just these resources, you may not be able to gather enough information to create a report of any reasonable length.
You can find reference books like encyclopedias by typing in a couple of words of the title in an online library catalog (for example, mechanical engineer* handbook, "encyclopedia engineering", or "encyclopediaandengineering"), truncating any words that could have variant endings, and eliminating any prepositions or articles (of, for, the, a, an).
Here are some examples of what you might find:
- Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of Information Technology
- McGraw-Hill Dictionary of the Life Sciences
- Robotics Sourcebook and Dictionary
- Energy: A Guide to Organizations and Information Resources in the United States
- McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology
Books can provide excellent background, a historical treatment of your subject and depth. Check a book's table of contents and index to see if it has what you are looking for. For some current research topics, however, books tend to be too general. To obtain more specific information on technological advancements, go to journal articles, technical reports, or other sources discused later in this chapter.
Try these resources; search drone aircraft on each to see which is best, most current:
Online Books Page. Provided by the University of Pennsylvania. Scroll to see the A-Z list of subject areas.
Library of Congress Online Catalog
www.worldcat.org. Provided by the OCLC WorldCat. Requires free registration; search on downloadable articles, for example, drones.
Here are some sites that consolidate access to thousands of libraries worldwide:
The WWW Library Directory: www.travelinlibrarian.info/libdir/other.html
Periodicals is a librarian's word for stuff that comes out periodically—like magazines, journals, newspapers. Magazines, which are by definition for general audiences, are not likely to have much that is useful to your report.
Directory of Open Access Journals: www.doaj.org/. DOAJ offers free access to over 3,500 full-text, quality-controlled scientific and scholarly journals, over 1,200 of which are searchable at the article level. For example, search on solar power.
Most of the following are services you pay for; some offer a free 30-day trial. Your local library may subscribe to some of these, giving you free access. Find articles here then go to your library and read them:
Applied Science and Technology: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/applied-science-technology-full-text. As an individual, you must pay for access; but membership in any major library is likely to give you access.
Academic Search Complete: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/academic-search-complete. The same access requirements as Applied Science and Technology but enables access in tthousands of research journals.
Science Direct: Science Direct Journals. Many of these provide open access to PDF versions of research articles.
IEEE Xplore http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/guesthome.jsp
NASA Technical Reports Server http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp
Associations and Interest Groups
Organizations like associations, special-interest groups, advocacy groups are a good potential for information on your topic—or a terrible ideological swamp. You never know: there may be an association out there just dying to send you information about home hydroponic gardening systems. Encyclopedia of Associations may be a good resource. Ask your librarian for help with this kind of resource.
One enormous source of technical information is the U.S. government. The only problem is getting to the indexes of it, and then getting the documents themselves. If you're willing to make a trip to a major library, you can get at most of both. Such libraries are like dumpsites for selected U.S. government documents—and that amounts to a lot! And of course many of these documents are on various kinds of microforms in order to conserve space. But if you wanted a pile of technical reports related to your topic, you could get them this way. Try these strategies for checking in government documents for your topic:
- Check in Government Documents to see an example, search on global warming.
- Check in a recent volume of National Archives for reports on your topic (be sure to read the companion abstracts).
- Check a recent volume of the Government Reports and Announcements index for reports and other information sources related to your topic.
- Check Index to U.S. Government Periodicals for articles appearing in U.S. government magazines and journals related to your topic.
- Data and Statistics about the U.S. This one comes out every year.
- U.S. Census Guide: How to Get the Most out of Census.gov. Provided by backgroundchecks.org.
These sources give you just a taste of what's available in government documents. Better indexed methods of finding this type of information are probably now available; check with a librarian for help.
Library and Subject Guides
The link below provides research assistance, subject guides, useful resources and web sites compiled by the friendly librarians at Austin Community College—for example, on occupational therapy, business and technical communications, and other department and field names:
Other Information Resources
There are certainly other kinds of information sources such as patents, standards, product literature, conference procedings. Again, ask your librarian for help with these kinds of resources.
Evaluate Your Research Findings
The following is a system of evaluating the reliability of Internet information developed by the Cornell University Library:
|Point of view||Does this article or book seem objective, or does the author have a bias or make assumptions? What was the author's method of obtaining data or conducting research? Does the website aim to sell you something or just provide information? What is the author's purpose for researching and writing this article or book?|
|Authority||Who wrote the material? Is the author a recognized authority on the subject? What qualifications does this author have to write on this topic? Is it clear who the intended audience is? What is the reputation of the publisher or producer of the book or journal? Is it an alternative press, a private or political organization, a commercial press, or university press? What institution or Internet provider supports this information? (Look for a link to the homepage.) What is the author's affiliation to this institution?|
|Reliability||What body created this information? Consider the domain letters at the end of a Web address (URL) to judge the site's quality or usefulness. What kind of support is included for the information? Are there facts, interviews, and statistics that can be verified? Is the evidence convincing to you? Is there any evidence provided to support the author's conclusions, such as charts, maps, bibliographies, and documents? Compare the information provided to other factual sources.|
|Timeliness||Has the site been recently updated? Look for this information at the bottom of a web page. How does the copyright of a book or publication date of an article impact the information contained in it? Do you need historical or recent information? Does the resource provide the currency you need?|
|Scope||Consider the breadth and depth of an article, book, website, or other material. Does it cover what you expected? Who is the intended audience? Is the content aimed at a general or a scholarly audience? Based on your information need, is the material too basic, too technical, or too clinical?|
I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your response.