Online research: a how-to guide for students interested in dolphin science

by • September 5, 2012 • Dolphin ScienceComments Off4815

The dolphin research organization I work for (the Dolphin Communication Project) receives numerous emails each week from students of all ages (from elementary school through college and beyond) asking for our help with research projects focusing on dolphin science, or looking for a quick answer to a nagging question they’ve always had about dolphin behavior. If the answer cannot be found on our Dolphin FAQ page or in one of our dolphin science podcasts, we end up pointing folks in the direction of helpful online resources, articles, and books. In most cases, these are things that can be found with a quick Google search. Of course it’s not always easy to know which online sources are reliable, and it’s certainly not the case that everyone is as skilled at finding reputable sources online as those researchers who make a living out of combing through publications on dolphin science. What follows is a quick how-to guide to finding good sources of dolphin science online, which should allow anyone with internet access to answer just about any question they have about dolphin behavior and dolphin science with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Quick Guide | Table of Contents

  1. Google it! But be wary, many websites that crop up in Google are not trustworthy. Google should be used with caution.
  2. Wikipedia. Use Wikipedia to find primary sources in the citation list, but be careful: the info on Wikipedia is not always reliable.
  3. Get Your Hands on Articles. Track down PDFs of peer-reviewed articles on whatever subject you are researching. Primary sources are the key to good research.
  4. Read, Read, Read. Read peer-reviewed articles – pay special attention to the Abstract and Conclusions. These provide the best summary of the article.
  5. Follow the Citation Trail. Make a note of relevant articles that are cited in the article you are reading, and then track down and read those articles.
  6. Google Scholar. This is by far the best way to search for peer-reviewed articles online.
  7. Don’t Forget Mendeley. Another handy way to find peer-reviewed articles.
  8. Google Books. A handy way to read popular science books online for free. Popular Science books often provide excellent overviews of your research topic.
  9. An actual book. Getting your hands on an actual real live book is something worth thinking about!
  10. Reputable Science Journalists/Writers. Some science journalists do a fantastic job of providing overviews of science topics. But it’s not always easy to know which publications and journalists/writers are worth your time.
  11. Reputable Websites. A list of some good websites providing good dolphin science info.

Google it!

The obvious place to start is by Googling your question or research topic. Let’s take an example from an email we received recently. The question is: “Does dolphin assisted therapy really help people suffering from diseases and disorders like autism, Down’s syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, etc.?” To answer this question, we need to find reputable sources of information on dolphin assisted therapy, preferably originating from scientific research into the topic. If you Google the phrase “dolphin assisted therapy,” a number of websites crop up in the top 10 search results, including companies/businesses offering therapy, an article from a famous “skeptic” website, and a handful of articles from popular science news outlets including New Scientist and Science Daily. News outlets are OK information sources, but it’s never a good idea to take your information from websites run by companies that stand to make a profit selling whatever it is you are researching – these will almost certainly be biased. A quick look at these results shows us that, while some of these sites might be good sources of info ( is good at taking an objective scientific stance), this kind of Google search is not necessarily going to lead us to the primary sources we are looking for. When it comes to scientific research, primary sources means articles appearing in peer-reviewed academic journals. These are articles written by scientists who have conducted research that has been critically evaluated by a jury of their peers and found to have resulted from good research methods and proper data analysis, and are usually  free from biases, opinion, and unsubstantiated claims. Primary sources are where we can find the closest thing to unadulterated facts that exists in the world of empirical inquiry. So in this case, Google is turning up too many results that might be biased, and not enough primary sources, so let’s leave Google out of the equation for just a bit.

Wikipedia is a very handy online encyclopedia that does a fairly good job of summarizing subjects related to dolphin science by trying to reference reliable sources. If we enter the search phrase “dolphin assisted therapy” into Wikipedia’s search function, we are redirected to Wikipedia’s page on Animal-assisted Therapy. Scrolling through this page, we find an entry on dolphin assisted therapy (abbreviated as DAT) that (at the moment) discusses research from both proponents and critics of the practice. The key here is to mostly ignore the summary you find on the Wikipedia page, and instead follow the citations that are listed. In this case, there are four citations for the section on DAT; one that leads to a website from a company offering DAT (which we can ignore insofar as it will likely contain biased information), one from a news article on the subject (which we can also ignore since we’re doing such a good job at tracking down primary sources all on our own), and two peer-reviewed articles. This is what we’ve been looking for! At the moment, the two articles referenced by Wikipedia are:

Nathanson, David E. (1998). “Long-Term Effectiveness of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy for Children with Severe Disabilities.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals 11 (1): 22–32. doi:10.2752/089279398787000896

Marino, Lori, & Lilienfeld, Scott O. (2007). “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals 20 (3): 239–249. doi:10.2752/089279307X224782

You can double check that these are primary source articles from a credible academic journal by Googling the name of the journal (in this case both articles are from the journal Anthrozoös). A quick search will tell you that “Anthrozoös is a quarterly, peer-reviewed publication whose focus is to report the results of studies, from a wide array of disciplines, on the interactions of people and animals.” Perfect! “peer-reviewed” is the phrase we are looking for.

Get your hands on articles

Once you find a peer-reviewed article that is focused on the subject you are researching it’s time to get yourself a copy of the article. If you are lucky enough to have access to academic journals via a university/college or local library, then securing a PDF is a fairly straightforward affair. For the rest of us, finding PDFs takes some fancy footwork. More often than not, you can get your hands on a PDF by Googling the exact title of the article. For example, if you type in “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions,” a PDF of the full article crops up as the very first Google result. Often times you will find a website maintained by a scientist or research laboratory working on the research topic that interest you. If you are lucky, they might have a list of all of their publications on their website together with links to PDFs for download (like can be found on this webpage from the Shark Bay Dolphin Project). Sometimes you cannot find the full article via a Google search, but are instead hit with a paywall asking you to either subscribe to the academic journal that the article appears in, or pay some exorbitant fee to download the article. Unless you are wealthy, this is a possible dead end. But, it need not be! If you find an abstract of the article online, together with the publication information, it will often contain the name and maybe even email address of the “corresponding author.” This is one of the authors of the article who has offered themselves up to the public as the person to contact with questions about the article. In 9 cases out of 10, if you send an email to this author saying that you are interested in their research and would like a PDF copy of the article in question, they will send it to you. To make doubly sure that this happens, be sure to write an email with proper punctuation, spelling, and capitalization, be polite, and use proper greetings like “Dear Dr. Smith,” etc. Although many researchers love to share their research with the public, you can easily alienate people by writing careless and curt or rude emails. To grease the wheels even more, you can explain to the researcher that you find their research “fascinating.” Even hard-nosed scientists respond to flattery.

Read, read, read!

Once you’ve tracked down a PDF, have a read through to see if it helps you answer your initial question. In some cases, research into dolphin science can be almost impossible to understand for someone who is not an expert in the exact field that is the focus of the article. In these cases, it might not be worth your time to try to read and digest the entire paper. Instead, it is helpful to read the Abstract. This is usually found just before the Introduction of the article, and summarizes the entire article in just one paragraph. In the case of the DAT article we found online (Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions), the Abstract notes the following:

“In this paper, we offer an update of the methodological status of DAT by reviewing five peer-reviewed DAT studies published in the last eight years. We conclude that nearly a decade following our initial review, there remains no compelling evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood.”

Interesting, so this article suggests that DAT might not be an effective form of therapy. But what about other peer-reviewed articles that suggest DAT is effective, like the one mentioned on Wikipedia (Long-Term Effectiveness of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy for Children with Severe Disabilities)? Now it’s time to go down the rabbit hole and see where these articles lead us.

Follow the Citation Trail

It’s rarely the case that all of the research into a particular topic being investigated by science has converged on a single conclusion. In the case of the DAT articles cited by Wikipedia, there seem to be competing viewpoints. To see what the larger body of research has to say about DAT, we can look through the first few paragraphs of the Introduction to the articles we have. Very often these paragraphs will include a review of the scientific literature that has been published on this topic in the past, with references to previous articles often in the form of a citation like this (taken form the Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions PDF that we have access to):

“Humphries (2003) reviewed peer-reviewed studies that ranged from 1989 to 1999…”

The “Humphries (2003)” citation  points us to an article in the literature cited section of the PDF: Humphries, T. L. 2003. Effectiveness of dolphin-assisted therapy as a behavioral intervention for young children with disabilities. Bridges: Practice-Based Research Synthesis 1: 1–9.

Now if we want to see what that article has to say about DAT, we can Google the title, read that abstract (or the entire paper), and follow the citations in that article as well. And so on. Following citation trails like this can keep you busy for hours, weeks, years, etc. But it is by far the best way to understand the subject that you are interested in learning more about. If you want to streamline this process and get to “the latest research” that is most likely to include the most up-to-date answer to your research question, it’s time to learn about using Google Scholar.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a very handy means of locating peer-reviewed articles using a search function just like regular Google, but only returning results from academic journals or other smarty-pants sources. If we enter the search phrase “dolphin assisted therapy” into Google Scholar, we find a long list of peer-reviewed articles on this topic, including many direct links to the PDFs. Handy! This is often far more effective than using Google or looking on Wikipedia. And perhaps one of the handiest features is the ability to sort articles by the date of publication. If you click on the phrase “since 2011″ or “since 2012″ in the left-hand column, Google Scholar will return results from articles appearing after/during those years. These article are the best place to start researching your topic since they will 1) have citations to all the previous research you might need, and 2) will often contain the most up-to-date summary of the topic. Using this method, we find an even more recent review of DAT research from 2012, and a couple other studies on DAT effectiveness. One of the articles that crops up is titled “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Claims versus Evidence,” which promises to be an even more up-to-date review of DAT than the articles we found on Wikipedia. Having a read through the Abstracts, Introductions, and Conclusions of these articles should give you the best possible overview of the current situation regarding DAT. And it’s here that you are likely to find the answer to the question “does dolphin assisted therapy really help people suffering from diseases and disorders like autism, Down’s syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, etc.?”

Don’t forget Mendeley

Mendeley is a reference manager for working scientist that holds a massive repository of articles together with their abstracts and publishing information. You can search the database for “dolphin assisted therapy” and it will return many of the same articles as Google Scholar. It also suggests links to related articles, and even links to PDFs.

Google Books – an even faster way to find answers

Not everyone has the time or inclination to start reading through peer-reviewed journal articles to understand more about their dolphin science research topic. It is often the case that scientists, science journalists, and other authors will do all the grunt work in researching the topic that interests you, culminating in the publication of a popular science book. When written by a dolphin expert or competent science writer, these books can be the ideal means of providing a summary of the topic in question. Of course it can be difficult to locate and read books relevant to your research topic without access to a public or college library. Luckily, Google offers a handy means of reading books online that does not cost you anything. If you head on over to Google Books, Google will comb through the pages of scanned-in books looking for whatever search phrase you enter. So if you enter “dolphin assisted therapy,” dozens and dozens of books will crop up that mention this topic. Some will have been written by dolphin scientists (you can always Google the author to verify this), and thus are a fairly reliable source of information. One of the books that crops up is titled “The Encyclopedia of Tourism and Recreation in Marine Environments,” – if you click on the link to this book on Google Books, you will find yourself reading actual scanned-in pages of the book that talk about DAT. Not every page, of course (Google omits pages so as to encourage people to buy the actual books – and to satisfy copyright requirements), but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the amount of reading you can do on Google Books. Popular science books will also have citations that you can follow to delve deeper into the topic you are researching.

Don’t underestimate the value of an actual book

For those of you who do not have internet access or who are interested in preparing your home library for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, there is always the option of purchasing or borrowing  an actual book that discusses the dolphin science topic you are interested in. The following is a list of reliable popular science books covering topics of dolphin science written by experts in the field.

Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication by Kathleen Dudzinski, Toni Frohoff

Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas by Denise Herzing

The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives  by Diana Reiss

Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals  by William F. Perrin, Bernd G. Würsig, J. G. M. Thewissen

Dolphin Societies: Discoveries and Puzzles
edited by Karen Pryor, Kenneth S. Norris

The Dusky Dolphin: Master Acrobat Off Different Shores  by Bernd G. Würsig, Melany Würsig

In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier
  by Thomas White

The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin
  by Kenneth S. Norris, Bernd Würsig, Randall S. Wells, Melany Würsig

Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whales
edited by Janet Mann, Richard C. Connor, Peter L. Tyack, Hal Whitehead

The Bottlenose Dolphin: Biology and Conservation
by John E. Reynolds, Samantha D. Eide, Randall S. Wells

Dolphin Confidential
  by Maddalena Bearzi

Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond
edited by Toni Frohoff, Brenda Peterson

Whales and Dolphins: Cognition, Culture, Conservation and Human Perceptions
edited by Philippa Brakes, Mark Peter Simmonds

To Touch a Wild Dolphin: A Journey of Discovery with the Sea’s Most Intelligent Creatures
by Rachel Smolker

Whales, Dolphins, and Other Marine Mammals of the World
by Hadoram Shirihai and Brett Jarrett

Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphin
s by Maddalena Bearzi, Craig B. Stanford

Reputable Science Journalists/Writers

There are plenty of folks working as professional science writers and science journalists who do an excellent job reviewing and explaining dolphin science topics for the general public. These folks often write for top-notch popular science publications like Scientific American, New Scientist, Discover Magazine, etc. Unfortunately, there are also media outlets that do a very poor job reporting on dolphin science topics, and it’s not always easy to spot the difference between a well-researched and a poorly-researched popular science article. If you do come across an item in the news discussing dolphin science, it’s probably best to use the information in the article as a jumping off point, and follow the citation trail (assuming there is one) in the article which should lead you down your own research path.

Reputable websites

In some cases there are research organizations that provide excellent web-based information on dolphin science that are worth checking out. The following are worth your time:

The Dolphin Communication Project, including our science podcast The Dolphin Pod.

The American Cetacean Society

The Society for Marine Mammalogy

The National Marine Mammal Foundation

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

The Dolphin Institute

Marine Mammal policy info in the US from the Office of Protected Resources

Still can’t find an answer?

If, after all this searching, you still can’t find an easy answer to your question, feel free to write in to the Dolphin Communication Project or another organization specializing in the topic that interests you. If it is obvious to the person you are writing to that you’ve done your homework (i.e., your online research), but are still stumped, you will often find someone happy to take the time out of their busy schedule to answer your question. However, by following the online research tips I provide above, I guarantee that you’ll be able to answer your dolphin science question almost 100% of the time. Happy hunting!

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