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ALM Research Guide: Social Sciences Edition



Working toward an ALM degree and writing your thesis can be a remarkable intellectual and undefinedpersonal experience. 

At the end of the journey, you'll be a changed person.  For one thing, you'll have, quite literally, mastered a subject. You'll have figured out a way to advance a proposition clearly and convincingly. And you'll have expressed that hard-won knowledge, publicly and officially, in a written document: the thesis or capstone article.

Along the way, you'll have developed habits of critical thinking that will affect your engagement with the world and the actors in it long after the thesis is done.

Your road to the ALM will not always be straightforward,  however. Some stretches will be smooth and others will seem uncomfortably bumpy. You might head down some blind alleys, especially at the beginning. You'll arrive at crossroads that might require you to change your research direction; you might even have to pave your own path, pioneer style, in still-uncharted intellectual territory. 

This guide is meant to help you navigate the terrain, first by identifying general strategies for getting yourself organized and advice on common researcher pitfalls you can avoid.

Additionally, you'll find here a refresher on HOLLIS searching (for those who've been away from Harvard, or their thesis project, for a while); a description of several of the cross-disciplinary databases librarians most commonly recommend; and some methods texts that ALM instructors regard highly.


Contact us anytime with questions big or small, and enjoy your CTP adventure!


Mary Frances Angelini, Research Librarian for the  Harvard Extension School

Jonathan Paulo, Online Learning and Research Librarian for DCE 

Sue Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Writing Programs, Harvard College Library


Ways To Set Yourself Up For Success

1. Download Zotero.


This free, open source citation management tool makes the process of collecting and organizing citations, incorporating them into your paper, and creating a bibliography or works cited page stress-free and nearly effortless. 

It's worth the small investment of time to learn Zotero as you start the proposal process. A good guide, produced by Harvard librarians, is here:

2.  Have a file backup plan  ... just in case.

Everybody who writes a thesis or dissertation can tell you about one minor (or major) disaster that befell them: data corruption, viruses, chapters that "disappear" into the ether forever. Having multiple copies, accessible in multiple ways, is essential. An external hard drive, a USB key you keep somewhere, even printed copies of your work, stored safely somewhere, will help you sleep soundly as deadlines approach.

Free cloud storage solutions to consider include Google DriveDropBox, or (if you're a Microsoft user) OneDrive.  

Zotero gives you free, unlimited storage for the journal articles and research materials you access in PDF form and the notes you make about them. For this service, just register with your Harvard email address.

3. Change your Google Scholar settings to get around article paywalls. 

The content is excellent; the search interface is intuitive; but your ability to read what you find is often frustrated by the request to pay for the information or to supply "login" credentials you may not have. One simple change unlock that content.  Here's what to do: 

  • Look to the left of the GS screen and click on the menu bars()
  • Click on . Select "Library Links." 
  • Then type Harvard University into the search box and save your choice.  
  • Once your Google Scholar settings are active, you'll start to see  to the right of your search results.  

​​Other good ways to identify full-text content options: 

4.  Make use of our document delivery services: Scan and Deliver and Interlibrary Loan.


When an article you need is available in a print journal at Harvard but not online, you can ask us to make a PDF for you through a service called Scan and Deliver. We'll send you an email when it's ready for downloading, typically between 1 and 4 days after you place the request. Scan and Deliver is a free service to Harvard affiliates.

If Harvard doesn't own the journal, or doesn't provide you online access, an interlibrary loan is your easiest solution.  Place your order by logging into ILL account from the HOLLIS main search page (look to the lower left). Interlibrary Loan is a free service for Harvard affiliates.

Scan and Deliver is also an option if you want a single chapter of a Harvard-owned book digitized for your use.  

If you're close to campus, and need a book Harvard doesn't own (or that's already checked out), Borrow Direct is your best first line of defense. If Borrow Direct doesn't have it, use Interlibrary Loan.

Distance student needing print books can't request them through Borrow Direct. However, see our discussion of WorldCat, next slide. 

5. Find copies of books in WorldCat, if you're far from the Harvard campus.


WorldCat is a catalog combining the contents from 10.000 libraries across North America (and some worldwide).  Search your book titles in WorldCat to identify college or university libraries geographically closer to you that own a copy. Often you can arrange to use the material onsite, even if you aren't given borrowing privileges. 

If WorldCat lists a public library in your area, your research needs might also be met there.  

Often, they'll have significant scholarly collections, significant collections of government documents, and special collections. They'll also have on-site expertise to support these services and collections, and you consult librarians there. 

The Boston Public Library at Copley Square and the New York Public Library exemplify this type: they serve serious researchers, casual users, and the local community at once, but in different ways.

6. Know when, where, and how to get academic support ... and from whom.






HOLLIS for ALM Students


HOLLIS  is actually 2 large databases we've put together to let you let you search "panoramically" across our information landscape.

It combines the extensive contents of our library catalog, a database that identifies every item owned by every Harvard Library with another, massive collection of journal, newspaper, and magazine articles.

When you search "everything" you're searching both of these databases together, at once. For better or for worse, "everything" is our system default. 


If you find yourself overwhelmed by either the numbers or types of results your "Everything" search returns, try one of these options: 


Limit your Everything search results set just to the items listed in the LIBRARY CATALOG.

Your numbers will immediately get smaller. Keep in mind, though, that the results will be heavily weighted toward book-length studies.


Limit your Everything search results set to items that are identified as PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES.

You'll eliminate newspaper and magazine materials as well as books, of course, but you'll also raise the visibility of scholarly journal articles in what displays. 


Think about limiting your results to publications from the last 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.

​​By doing so you'll get a snapshot of the most recent research trends and scholarly approaches in a field (or around a particular issue).


Keep in mind: not all the items you discover via an "everything" search are Harvard-owned.

Most of the time, however, can get these for you via services like Borrow Direct and Interlibrary Loan (ILL), described in previous section of this guide.





1. Use QUOTATION MARKS for phrases

​         "united states"   |  "war on terror"

2. Connect search terms and phrases explicitly with AND/OR and do so with capital letters:  

         "free exercise" AND  religion AND challenge

3. Enclose synonyms or interchangeable concepts in PARENTHESES

        (twitter OR "social media" OR cellphones) AND "arab spring"

4. Truncate words with an ASTERISK to pick up alternatives: 

                psycholog* will retrieve  psychology, psychological 

5. FILTER your results via right side limit categories. They'll help you sharpen up and whittle down your search results by date, language, resource type, to peer-reviewed articles, and more.

6.Take advantage of special system features: always SIGN IN.

7. Using the    icon, SAVE A GOOD SEARCH so you can remember what word combinations worked best -- and use them in other databases you might search. 



Your "default" approach to searching Harvard's catalog, HOLLIS, is probably similar to your Google approach: enter some words, see what comes up, then try again or improve from there. 

But BROWSING in the catalog is an under-appreciated research strategy, especially when you're trying to discover your interest.

It helps you see, for example, how writing ABOUT an author, an idea, an event, etc. has been broken down and categorized. So instead of getting the typical list of titles, you see results in terms of sub-topics. Inspiration may lie there!


Open HOLLIS. Click on the  link above the search box. Then select SUBJECT. 


hollis browse screen open; subject search selected; word used for search: non state actors

 What does a Browse search give you? Click on the  image above to find out! 


When you're far from Cambridge, identifying books in print and on shelves in Harvard's library buildings can seem like a futile exercise. You can, however, often get your hands on items your find in HOLLIS even if you live many miles away from the Yard.


1.  WorldCatthis is a database of library catalogs and useful for identifying college, university, and other  library collections that are in your vicinity.  Search for the title and then enter your ZIPCODE to identify your options.

With WorldCat, you're going beyond the BorrowDirect consortium and beyond our reciprocal lending agreements.  However, as long as any of the area libraries allow you in (often a phone call or a scan of the website will clarify policy), you'll be in luck!

2. Check the catalog of the large PUBLIC LIBRARY in your area.  Depending on the region, the size of the library, its mission, and its funding, a local public library may have a significant research component to its collection (The Boston Public Library at Copley Square is a prime example). 

3. Ask your local library about an INTERLIBRARY LOAN.  Libraries routinely borrow from each other on behalf of their patrons; if you have a library card, you should be able to request it (or have a librarian do so).  ILL can take a bit of time, however. You might wait a week or a bit more before the item arrives. Some places charge a small fee for the service. 

4.  Borrow Direct Plus: currently enrolled Extension School students who live near a member library  of this consortium can obtain a card that allows access to the collections and privileges similar to those at Harvard libraries.  

5. If you live close by the college or university from which you graduated, ask about ALUMNI PRIVILEGES there

**NOTE** Books and COVID 19



Despite the fact that our physical items are unavailable and buildings are shuttered, HOLLIS can and should continue to be a key research resource, wherever students are.  That's in part because of the sheer size and enormous variety of what it contains, but also because the online content students can surface there is substantial. 

1. Search HOLLIS as you typically would (we give some advice on constructing effective search strings here). Results can then be limited, via the right-side filters, to materials ONLINE.

The limiter for online materials (like other filters) can be locked for the duration of your HOLLIS search session. ​When you apply the filter, it will, by default, look like this:    When locked, the icon color changes to blue: 

Locking filters is a useful option when you want to modify a search, do a completely new search, jump to a subject heading string,etc. You can mix and match locked and unlocked filters, too, as in this example: filters for language, onlline access, date, and resource type displayed, with 3 of the 4 locked


2.  Many publishers are opening up temporary, emergency access to a wide array of e-books, textbooks, and digital materials that fuel scholarship. Listed below are several that may have particular utility for students and faculty working on social science and interdisciplinary research projects.

HathiTrust Emergency Library: If we have it, and HathiTrust has a digitized copy, you'll be able to check it out, reserves-style. Presently, loan are given for 1 hour, renewable if there's no waiting list. The key here is be sure you click on the button, top right  and choose Harvard University.

Internet Archive Open Library: 1 million-plus books made available digitally to promote teaching, research and learning. Create a free account; if an item is available, you can 'check it out" for 14 days. 


Cross-disciplinary Databases for Journal Literature


Academic Search Premier 

This database can be a good next step once you've explored content available in HOLLIS,  particularly if you feel overwhelmed -- or sometimes, underwhelmed -- by the journal and article search results you've uncovered there. 

While much of what ASP searches is from scholarly sources, generous amounts also come from newspaper and general interest magazines. Like HOLLIS, ASP casts a wide net, so you might  see your topic treated from a number of disciplinary angles or through a variety of theoretical lenses. 


Given what ASP includes in its database, result sets can sometimes have more breadth than scholarly depth.

For a thesis project, you'll almost certainly need to supplement your searching of it with databases that more comprehensive cover the scholarly conversations in your particular social science discipline. 



One of the first, and still the best known of our full-text scholarly databases. JSTOR provides access to the contents of 2600 core academic journals, in 60 knowledge domains in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.  

Much of the journal content in JSTOR has a "moving wall," a set period of time in which the most current volumes, issues, and articles of a particular journal are not available online for reading and downloading. (Depending on the journal title, the moving wall may be anywhere between 1 and 5 years).  In a few instances, the moving wall has been eliminated altogether.

SMART SEARCHING TIP: Articles  not (yet) available on JSTOR may be available to you another way. Try searching for the article title in HOLLIS

  • If another Harvard Library database has the full-text article, HOLLIS will identify that access point. 
  • If we only have it print, you can request a Scan and Deliver
  • On the rare occasions when we don't have the journal at Harvard, we'll get you a PDF copy of the article if you submit an Interlibrary Loan.


Web of Science

Don't be put off by the name of this resource: the social sciences (and humanities) are also well-represented in this important, multidisciplinary database of over 20,000 journals. 

Unlike most databases, WoS results display, by default, in reverse chronological order.  Sometimes that's what you do want to see: the most recently published work at the top of your list.  

But if you need to see your results another way, WoS offers other ways to resort, including

  • by relevance (determined algorithmically by the database)
  • by times cited (determined by the community of scholars who've read, used, and acknowledged a source in their subsequent work. Research that is more influential, consequential, or even controversial will typically have higher citation counts.)




Social Sciences Premium Collection

With an aim to facilitate cross-disciplinary research, SSPC combines, in one place, the contents of several of the most important databases for of the social sciences, among them Sociological Abstracts, Worldwide Political Science Abstracts, and the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences

Journals, including non-English language ones, working papers and reports, dissertations, magazine and trade publications are among the types of documents you might turn up by searching SSPC.


Given its purpose, the SSPC, much like HOLLIS, can return result sets that seem enormous. But you have options to control what you see:

  • After running a search, you can always limit your results via left-side filters: publication date, source type, language, etc.  You can even drill deeper into the results in a particular database that SSPC includes.
  • Before running a search, you can make some decisions about what you want to see up front.  These categories appear right below the search boxes:

screenshot of pre-search limit options by source, document type, and language





Google Scholar 


Most of the research databases you use search for information differently than Google Scholar.  Most base their results lists on "metadata" -- the descriptive information about items that identifies features  in certain fields (title, author,  table of contents, subject terms, etc.). 

While Google Scholar's algorithms account for some of this same information, it adds full-text into the mix when it retrieves, sorts, and ranks search results.

What does this mean for you? Sometimes, better relevance, especially on the first page or so.  And sometimes, given that it searches full-text, Google Scholar might reveal more quickly than our databases where a hard-to-find nugget of scholarly information is hidden away in a published article.

So have it your repertoire: just be sure you maximize its utility to you by adjusting your Google Scholar settings, as  described in section 2 (number 3)above

Google Scholar can also be a good place to do a "cited reference" search in order to trace scholarly reaction to/engagement a particular article forward in time.