Statistics, as we are using the term here, are pieces of data organized into a table or chart (or a set of the same) to allow conclusions to be drawn, provide backing for a statement or simply as a resource to allow further study. Statistics often appear in research articles to shed light on conclusions, in court cases to convince judge or jury, in publications from advocacy groups, and of course the big statistical generators are government agencies at all levels from counties to countries to international confederations such as the United Nations.
This unit will show you a general procedure for finding statistics and highlight some resources that will help you find more quality data.
Begin by being realistic about the time this may take. The time it takes will be related to your knowledge of the literature (shorter the more you already know) and how flexible you can be in your search (more specific data needs take more time than general ones).
Another factor is the time it takes to collect and compile data in a meaningful way can be considerable (months and years). Be prepared to not find current (this years' or last years') data.
Do Your Prep Work
If you know nothing about the topic you would like statistics on take some time to read encyclopedia entries, general news articles on the subject, or browse the research articles on the topic. This will help you get a feel for the vocabulary used and the people and organizations most concerned with the subject. Along the way you may find data reported in these articles and be able to go straight back to the source.
Next consider two things about the data you would like to find:
If you want to know how many drunk drivers in your state are teenagers you might investigate insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, city councils and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as having an interest in these statistics either as collectors of the data or as users who might want to prove a point or win a case. Other groups might be psychiatrists or sociologists studying addictions or the physical effect of alcohol on the body/brain. You get the picture. While these interest groups might not collect the data on the scale or time frame you are interested in they might report it in a research paper, article, or white (informational or survey of the literature) paper. Responsible sources will cite where they found the data and can lead you to a gold mine of information.
As you read collect search terms for later from the vocabulary of the articles and names of authorities or agencies that crop up more than once. Write them down, make notes or record them somehow in a systematic fashion. Don't be tempted to rely on your memory.
Where to Search
If you are looking for large scale data then begin with the government data collection agencies. Statistical data on a large scale takes a considerable amount of resources (money and time) to compile and to verify that the same things are being counted from all sources. That is why the United States Federal government is one of the premier suppliers of statistical data and should be your first stop. There are two primary resources to consult: Statistical Insight: a database purchased by the Library for your use and FedStats: a compilation of statistical resources from major U.S. government agencies.
If the subject you need data on is very specialized you might need to look for very specialized sources to cover your topic. For example to find the number of deaths due to drunk driving on Colorado Highway 53 between x and y in 1998 you may need to visit the Colorado State Highway Department's website. Librarians can help guide you to these resources, but once you get there you may need to do some intense searching on your own.
The next section of this unit, Statistical Resources, will give you some useful places to start to find statistical data of all sorts.
Hint: Many statistics are displayed in PDF files which are document types that are not always searchable by search engines. A general web search by Google will find data in DOCs and PDFs if the file was originally created to allow that kind of search. You might need to look for a search engine on the Web site to delve deeper into its content.
Hint: You might even have to visit a local office or archives and search paper files. Not every piece of data is electronically available. The next section on statistical resources will point you to some sources that will be useful.
Keep Track of What you Found
Once you have found your statistics record where you found them so you can cite your sources in your research paper. It was a long and complicated path you took to find the data, don't lose it. Refer to the unit on Managing Results.
You can find statistics on many topics within articles. Typically you will not find large batches of data within articles, but you can find some interesting statistics to cite.
If you're searching for statistics on research, visit a subject-area database. Enter the word "statistics" as a keyword, then enter more keywords to describe your topic. For instance you might visit ScienceDirect to search for: statistics and coronary heart disease and United States.
If you're searching for statistics on local topics, newspapers are often the best source. Try searching the database called America's News when you need statistics for a particular city or small region. For example, you might search for: statistics and public transportation and Denver.
Many U.S. government agencies and other organizations share significant amounts of data online. Data often appears online long before it reaches articles and books.
A few major online sources of data are: