Skip to Main Content

Sustainability & Environment

Please visit the website for the University of South Dakota's Department of Sustainability & Environment for more information about this program.

Choosing a Topic

Research papers are more enjoyable when you select a topic that is authentic and relevant to you.  Explore a topic that excites you or piques your curiosity.  Learn more about an area of sustainability which you are interested in working after graduation.  Research papers don't have to be dull or boring, they can invigorate your education by personalizing learning.  

Places to look that may generate ideas:

  • Course Materials
    • Readings
    • Discussions
    • Films
    • Guest Speakers
  • News
    • Some potential news sites that cover sustainability and environmental topics: Mother JonesNPR, and BBC
  • Web Sources

Narrowing Your Topic

The scope for your project needs to be sufficiently specific.  This will entail narrowing your topic by focusing on:

  • a time period
  • a specific event
  • causes OR effects of actions
  • comparisons
  • particular groups

Another indicator of the specificity of your topic are the number of results you obtain when searching in databases.  If you have thousands of results, try narrowing your topic by adding words.  If you don't get any results, or retrieve very few, try broadening your search terms.  See the Searching Databases section for help on constructing a search strategy.

Evaluating Resources

Use the following tips and guides when evaluating resources:

  • Use a very critical eye when considering websites as sources.
  • It is important to understand the information found in databases (e.g., ScienceDirect) is not the same as the information found on websites.
  • Databases offered through the University Libraries are evaluated for authority and accuracy.  They should be used before seeking information from the Web.  While the Web can provide useful and reliable information, it must be used with discretion. 

How do I know if this journal is Peer-Reviewed?

To know if a journal is peer-reviewed and/or refereed use Ulrich's Periodical Directory.

Enter the title of the journal. Find the correct journal within the list of results. 

Click on the title. 

Look at  content type. It will read academic/scholarly or magazine, or consumer, or trade. If academic/scholarly, then look under additional title details to see if the journal is peer reviewed and/or refereed.  If it is peer-reviewed/refereed, then it will most likely be marked with an Oxford cap.

This video, created by North Carolina State University Libraries, will help you understand what it means for a journal to be peer- reviewed.


Use the following resources to help evaluate websites:


If you are permitted to use websites as resources in your research paper, be sure to evaluate the website for authority and accuracy.  There are many website evaluation tests available; one of the more popular tests is the CRAAP test.  The CRAAP Test allows users to successfully evaluate websites using the following criteria:

  • Currency
  • Relevance
  • Authority
  • Accuracy
  • Purpose

You can score each criteria from 1 to 10 (with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best). 

Then look at the total:

  • 45-50 Excellent
  • 40-44 Good
  • 35-39 Average
  • 30-34 Borderline
  • below 30 is unacceptable 

The CRAAP Test was created by Meriam Library at California State University, Chico and the scale was initiated by Nina Exner at Bluford Library at North Carolina A&T State University.

Source Evaluation Rubric

Recommended Databases

Once you select a topic for your paper, you will want to find sources that provide information on the subject. Finding information at the beginning of your research is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject area or not sure from what angle to approach your topic.  Some databases that focus on sustainability and environmental topics are:

At times, you may want to consider searching a multi-disciplinary database for resources.  The following are a few general databases available through University Libraries:

Searching Databases

When searching databases, take time to design your search strategy thoroughly. 

Focus on one concept at a time; list your main idea for concept #1 along with synonyms, abbreviations, and alternate spellings.  Everything in Concept 1 should use the OR boolean.  Do the same thing for your other concepts. 

Use the AND boolean to combine your concepts together. 

Using a Venn Diagram can be useful in your search strategy design:

Venn diagram

Additional searching tips:

* (asterisk) - Most databases recognize this as a truncation tool.  Use it to truncate your word and search a variation of the words.  For example: pollut* will search for polluted, pollutes, polluting, pollutants, pollution, etc.  

" " (quotations) - Most databases will search your words as a phrase when they are placed in quotation marks.  For example, a database will search for the words farming and pollutants together when they are placed in quotations, like this "farming pollutants".  If you search for farming pollutants without the quotation marks, the database will search for the words farming and pollutants, but they won't be next to each other.  In other words, the paper you find may be about farming in one paragraph and pollutants [of any type] in another paragraph.


Here's a video from B.D. Owens Library (Northwest Missouri State University) to help explain boolean operators, asterisks, and quotation marks:

Search Tips

Keep a research journal

Make notes of the places you search (e.g., name of database) along with the search terms you use.  This will help you recreate searches if you need to start and stop your research.  This will also help prevent repetitive searching.  Also, take notes on why you selected a specific source, this will help you if you need to write an annotated bibliography.


Find more sources than the minimum

Often when you read books and articles you will find that some do not fit your research paper topic.  Always save more than the required minimum of sources so you do not have to backtrack and begin your search again.


Database tools are your friend

Several tools within databases can help streamline the research process.  Identify and use the following options:

  • Limiters
  • Folders
  • E-mail Function
  • Cite
  • Export
  • Download


When using other peoples' work in your paper, you must use proper citation.  Use the Writing and Citing tab for tools to help you cite properly.  If you do not acknowledge the use of someone else's work, you are plagiarizing.  


As stated in the USD Student Handbook, Student Code of Conduct, South Dakota Board of Regents Policy 3:4.3.b:

Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the following:

i. Using, by paraphrase or direct quotation, the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment;

ii. Using materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials without prior authorization by the instructor; or

iii. Engaging in other behavior that a Reasonable Person would consider plagiarism.

For additional information on plagiarism, use Understanding Plagiarism, which is a Flash-based tutorial created by Bill Marino from Eastern Michigan University.  This tutorial guides one through the various types of plagiarism. You can examine Common Myths, Famous Cases of Plagiarism from Pop Culture, and review the details of how to avoid plagiarism in your work.  Numerous examples and tips are provided.

Footer for USD LibGuide v2.0