Science Questions

Science Questions

This summer, we’ve been looking at how to do insightful, quality research at IU East.  And while there are great general sources and techniques available that benefit any researcher, each discipline has its own special sources and quirks.  This week, we’ll look at the natural sciences.  If you’ve been following these columns, you’ll notice that there is some overlap with mathematics, since math is in many ways the ‘language’ of science.  People who are good at science often first studied math.

school of athens by raphael

Science is an incredibly broad topic, and which scientific discipline you are interested will affect your searching.  For example, finding current material (books and articles published in the last few years) is vitally important in most topics of biology or the environmental sciences.  But if you’re looking at physics or astronomy, especially their foundational principles, older stuff will be equally useful, allowing you the use of an archival database like JSTOR.

Good general research databases include ProQuest Science, Science & Technology, Wiley Online Library, AAAS/Science, and MathSciNet (although this one only offers citations, so use it far enough in advance of your due date to make use of interlibrary loan).  If you need ebooks, try the science section of the Gale Virtual Reference Library, which specializes in encyclopedias.  And if you need a specific scientific discipline, such as biology, you might choose ProQuest Biology Journals or BioOne.  Other discipline-specific databases include Environmental Science Journals, Nature Journals Online, and Reaxys (for chemistry).  All of our science-related databases can be found here.

So, if we had a topic like “what biological needs were met in the evolution of the beak?” we might start with a search like this one:

(evolution OR morpholog*) AND (beak OR bill OR rostrum) AND (purpose OR function OR effect)

As you can see, we are searching for three main concepts, and have included various synonyms for each one.  Complex searches like this can save us time later by giving us much more relevant search results.

One additional requirement that you may be given in science research is to find and use primary sources.  ‘Primary sources’ means anything written directly by a participant.  Like we encountered when we looked at psychology, in the ‘hard’ sciences, this usually means original research studies in which the author of the article took part in the research process.  To identify these types of articles, quickly browse through the full text of the article and see if it describes a study being done.  If one is, the paper will tend to include sections with subtitles like ‘methods’, ‘analysis’, ‘results’, etc.  If the article only describes what others have done without doing its own research, it is a secondary source.  For example, this paper is a primary source and this paper is not.  This is not to say that secondary sources are any less scholarly or valuable than primary sources – if fact, they can take a longer perspective than an article testing a single hypothesis.  Both types have their place and times when they are most valuable.

Of course, the natural sciences have more specialized questions that are not mirrored by other disciplines.  Fortunately, we have plenty of sources for these, as well.


Teaching science to students can be a special challenge.  Gale Science in Context has a lot of traditional reference database content – journal articles, maps, audio, images, and Gale’s extensive science encyclopedia sets – but it also includes material focused on the teaching of science to a variety of ages.  It includes numerous topic overviews, experiments, biographies, curriculum standards (both American and international), news and new developments, and information on contentious topics like animal testing, vaccinations, stem cell research, or string theory with minimal bias.  These are not built to ‘teach the controversy’ like Opposing Viewpoints, however – articles are focused on laying out the scientific evidence rather than arguing for a policy perspective.


Scientists are usually dispassionate, but there are times when their work influences and intersects with activism and public policy, and environmentalism is one major area where this is the case.  While many science databases cover the environment and humanity’s relationship with it, GreenFILE is a database wholly dedicated to the topic.  It includes both academic research and government reports on topics ranging from agricultural sustainability and GMOs to pollution to recycling to renewable energy.  For policy-oriented science research, this is an excellent resource.


Sometimes, dense scientific works can be difficult to understand.  For people who learn more by seeing than reading, IU East has a number of video databases.  Most notable is JoVE – the Journal of Visualized Experiments – which functions like a normal journal, even being subject to peer review.  It covers biological, medical, chemical and physical research topics, but the ‘articles’ are narrated in video, describing their protocols and showing you how the research is conducted on the screen.  The articles are still very complex – this is much more advanced science then the kind described by educators like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson – but the added visual and auditory components can help enormously in understanding the content.

jove video database

A more traditional video database is VAST, which includes documentaries, lectures, and other types of instructional videos.  It is stronger on the biological sciences than it is physics, chemistry, or engineering.  And the Khan Academy is also available on the free web, with videos in all of the major science fields (you will need to create an account with them to watch their videos).

With great science resources like these available to you, you’ll be able to do excellent research.  But if you have any questions, please contact us at!

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