The searchable nature of electronic documents can make it fairly easy for students to “flip through” a publication and see whether or not their chosen research topic is mentioned somewhere within the text. However, they may quickly discover that, although a word appears fifty times, it may not be used in a context that’s at all meaningful to them. Therefore, they can’t stop at finding the relevant keyword, but they must take some time to thoughtfully review the material and give consideration to its appropriateness for their work.

This “Techno Tip” from Susan K. Miller-Cochran and Rochelle R. Rodrigo’s Wadsworth Guide to Research, Second Edition guides students through the process of skimming an electronic document (such as an e-book or PDF) to assess whether it may have some relevance to their research projects. You may also consider demonstrating this process during your class or an information literacy session:

Have you ever been confident that a book has the information that you need but you can’t find the information in it? Perhaps the title seemed promising but the chapter titles and index didn’t help you navigate the book. Or perhaps you had read something interesting when you first skimmed the item, but then couldn’t find that information on a second reading.

With electronic documents—whether a word-processed text, a web page, or a PDF file, you can easily and quickly search the document, word by word. To try this feature, select an electronic resource that you aren’t positive you will want to use in your research. Then locate your extended list of search terms… [and] electronically search your document for each of your terms. For every “hit,” be sure to read the surrounding sentences, and consider skimming the entire paragraph. After you have searched for your terms, you’ll know better whether the document is worth reading more carefully.

You can also use the search function to help you identify the claim and reasons of a text. First reread the introduction to the text, identifying any words that you think are key to the argument’s reasoning. Then search for those words or phrases to see if they lead you to the reasons developed in the argument. This process doesn’t always work perfectly, but it can be a good way to trace an argument’s overall structure. (119)

Searching an electronic document can also be a life-saver if you’ve quoted a particular section of text for your work, yet neglected to jot down its page number when you initially wrote down or copied the statement into your notes.

Reference: Miller-Cochran, Susan and Rodrigo, Rochelle. 2014. The Wadsworth Guide to Research, 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.


Do you have any additional “tech tips” that can help students master their use of electronic resources? Share them below.