Reference Question of the Week: Where can I find information on controversial topics?

An assignment we see regularly asks students to write a paper in opposition to, or in support of, a controversial topic. Sometimes the students are allowed to choose whether to write in support or in opposition, and sometimes that decision is made by the professor.

Students can be stressed when asked to write an argument that contradicts their personal beliefs. However, knowing your opponent’s argument is just as important as knowing your own. The first step in writing a successful argument is being able to describe your opponent’s argument in such a way that they say you have fairly represented their point. Once they agree that you understand their argument, then you can explain why it’s wrong by presenting your own facts, evidence, and cogent argument.

Many of the databases we have are not particularly suited for these sorts of assignments. If you’re looking for various points of view, and opinion pieces, you typically do not want to search in databases full of peer-reviewed research. You may use those databases to collect facts and evidence to support your argument, but often the research can be too specific.

The two databases I recommend first for locating information about controversial topics are Opposing Viewpoints in Context (listed as Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center on our Databases page) and CQ Researcher. (As always, be sure you’re logged into Esearch before searching these databases.)

Opposing Viewpoints in Context is a great starting point when researching controversial topics. When I use this resource I prefer to start with the Browse Issues button rather than using the search box. If I can find something in the Browse Issues list then it is formatted in an easy-to-use style. (If I can’t find something useful in Browse Issues page, then I use the search box.) Once you click on the Browse Issues link, then choose View All from the Choose a Category dropdown menu. Now, see if your topic is available on this page.

A caveat about using Opposing Viewpoints. What Opposing Viewpoints means by academic journals and what librarians mean by academic journals are two different things. They mean a journal with rigorous editorial standards, while we mean something that has been through the peer-review process (to learn more about the difference between different kinds of journals, magazines, and periodicals see The Difference Between a Journal and a Magazine). Ultimately, any decisions about whether a resource is appropriate is up to your professor, so always check with him or her if you have any questions.

The second place I visit when looking for information on contentious issues is CQ Researcher. CQ Researcher is like a thorough Wikipedia article, but one that is edited and reliable. Entries are usually long and include background information, pro and con arguments, a chronology, charts, graphs, and statistics, explanations of the debates, as well as recommended books and articles for further research. Recent entries include reports on genetically modified foods, treating ADHD, whale hunting, gambling in America, and alcohol abuse. There are hundreds of other topics in addition to the ones I mentioned.

And if you’re still frustrated you can stop by and visit with one of our reference librarians. We have librarians at the Reference Desk to answer your questions from 8am 9pm, Monday through Thursday; 8am to 5pm on Fridays; 10am to 6pm on Saturday, and 1pm to 9pm on Sunday.

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