If you're searching for existing datasets, what's the best way to go about it? On this page we'll take a look at some data searching principles. We consider how to frame your search for data, and look at techniques for web searching and working with secondary sources. We also have some ideas about what to do if you can't find what you're after, and there's a reminder to think critically about the data and statistics you find.
You will probably be looking for data about certain people, activities or commodities.
If you're looking for data on people, you need to think about what 'social unit' you're interested in. You may be interested in individuals, couples, households or families. You may be after particular groups, like companies or political organisations. You may be interested in a nation. Particular demographic groupings may also be important to your search — for example, race, nationality or gender.
If may be that you're interested in 'things' rather than people: for example, commodities like cars. Or you may be interested in a particular activity, like voting.
Defining exactly what is in scope and what is out of scope before you start searching will save you time later.
Most current statistics may actually be a year or more old as there are time lags whilst the information is collected, processed, and released.
Some sources of data offer huge banks of data that are gathered over years and you can interrogate these to do over-time comparisons.
Some sources just offer quick snapshots of a particular point in time.
Geography is usually a factor. There is usually a place that is the focus of your enquiry.
In order to find the right source to search for your data you need to consider the following:
You may need to be a detective and do some internet searching to determine who you think the main people are with a vested interest in your topic area. Work out if they publish data on their own websites.
If you are interested in particular countries it is a good idea to work out the government structure in order to work out who will likely publish stats on particular themes.
Searching the web can be a minefield. Here are some tips for searching on the web for datasets and statistics:
You may find useful statistics reported in journal articles. Someone else may have already done research in the area you're interested in. Scholars usually publish their findings in journal articles, including some of the data. You will also find stats in newspapers and magazines. Do be critical of your sources and follow them up though to be sure they are reputable and authoritative sources though.
The Library subscribes to many databases for searching for journal articles and other secondary sources. See your own Library Subject Guide for which databases to try when searching for journal articles.
Flexibility and detective work are essential.
Statistics can seem persuasive, but beware. They can often be used to make a weak argument seem stronger. Think critically about statistics that are presented to you, and decide whether you think they are strong enough as evidence to prove an argument. Think about what that stat really tells you and what it leaves out.
For more on how to read statistics with a critical eye, see the book:
"Damned lies and statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists", by Joel Best.
In this slide deck about gathering data, we take a look at places online where we might find some.
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