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Evaluating Information in the Research Process: Step 3: Do Initial Search

Created by Health Science Librarians

Step 3: Do Initial Search

StepStep 3: Do Initial Search

Do an initial search to explore sources. Screen out those that are clearly of poor quality or not relevant to your needs. 

Ask an HSL Librarian!

Get in touch with a librarian early in your search process! This can save you hours and get you to sources of quality information that are new or unexpected. At UNC, there are two outlets: for health related questions, contact the Health Sciences Library at, and for all other subject areas, contact the University Libraries at  

You can also visit HSL's home page at This page is loaded with information for you, including "Quick Resources" links that take you to the most important online resources related to health affairs. More resources are available on the UNC Libraries page at

Think about the big picture

You will probably look at many more sources than you will end up using. As you refine your search, you will narrow your topic. But for now, read widely. This helps you gain a broad understanding of the subject. 

Remember that no piece of information stands alone. A piece of data in isolation is meaningless. So try to understand the “big picture” or context of the subject you are investigating. 

By initially looking at a fairly large number of information sources, you get a better sense of how each source fits into the big picture. You can also get a better sense of how valuable each source is to you. 

Use a Search Engine

Your librarian may advise you to search specific journals and databases, which will likely yield the best results when searching for something specific. But early on in the process, you may find it useful to use a more general search engine, which you can access from your web browser.

For example, Safari and Firefox have a search box included in the navigation bar. You can click on its dropdown menu to see a list of search options.

In Firefox, you can manage search options by clicking on "Manage Search Engines..." which displays the dialog box shown on the right, below. (In Safari, the default search engine is set in the Preferences.) 

The search engine locates sources that match keywords that you enter. Most search engines provide online help. 

Phil Bradley discusses types of search engines at

Explore Links

By exploring Internet links, you may find important information you would never have come across otherwise. When doing so, remember to use evaluation criteria to get a good idea of the quality of the information. As mentioned earlier in this tutorial, some information can be misleading, inaccurate, or unsubstantiated.

It is easy to get lost in a sea of information. So explore links, but try to keep track of where you are. See the Focus issue for ways to do this.

Skim Online Sources

Review Evaluation Criteria for evaluating online information, particularly the criteria for relevance and usability. 

Skim web sources to get an idea of their content and usability. If a source is irrelevant or difficult to use, it is probably not worth any more of your time. 

Spend just enough time to get the gist of what the site is about without getting bogged down in details. 

For more about skimming, see the Skim issue. 

Collect and organize bookmarks

Bookmarks allow you to collect website addresses so that you can easily return to a site.  As you skim sites, create bookmarks for those you may want to use in your research. 

Organize bookmarks into categories that are meaningful to you. Most web browsers allow you to organize your bookmarks into a hierarchical menu.

It is easy to add, delete, and rearrange bookmarks, so as your thinking progresses and you narrow your topic, modify your bookmark file whenever you need to. 

Another option is to save bookmarks using a social bookmarking site such as Delicious or Diigo, which allow you to add tags and organize your links in various ways. 

Use Citation Management software

In addition to organizing bookmarks, you should also use a citation manager to collect and organize citations (references) that you may need to footnote and include in a bibliography.  This will save you a lot of time later on when you go to write your paper or want to publish your work. A citation manager such as EndNote allows you to create a database of references that you can use throughout your career. When it comes time to publish an article or other publication, the citation manager will help you format the reference to meet the requirements of the publisher. This is a major time saver!

Zotero and EndNote are two of the leading citation managers, and HSL provides instruction in both. See HSL's Zotero and EndNote Basics guides to get started. For a comparison of these two programs, see

Subscribe to blogs and social media sites

In virtually any field of research, there are likely to be numerous blogs and other social media sites (such as Twitter) maintained by experts who post their observations on trends and issues.  Many organizations post news items and commentary on current events. Such sites are an excellent way to keep abreast of the latest news and trends in your field. 

You can subscribe to the RSS feed of a blog or social media site, which allows you to keep up with posts from many different sites by using a feed reader, such as Google Reader, Feedly, or Safari's feed reader. This allows you to keep track of the latest posts from many sites all from within the same window on your computer. 

For example, the Safari browser (Macintosh) has a built-in feed reader, which is described in further detail below.

For help setting up a feed reader, Ask a Librarian

Using Safari to read RSS feeds

Outcomes for Step 3: Do Initial Search

Outcomes for Step 3: Do Initial Search 

  • A sense of the “big picture” of the topic 
  • Growing familiarity with relevant databases and search engines 
  • An organized collection of links (bookmarks)
  • A growing database of citations
  • RSS feeds of relevant sources

NEXT:Step 4, Refine Topic, Refine Search