Research broadens and deepens your understanding of a given topic. Research skills are essential to academic study. By honing your research skills you can examine a specific field more closely than you might have done previously. Researching a topic in greater detail helps to find valuable academic sources that you can use in assessment tasks that you are required to produce.
There are a number of ways to develop research skills. We can’t deal with them all here. From an information literacy perspective, it involves knowing how to use the resources of the Library. This includes knowledge of:
- How to use Quicksearch
- Databases: what they are and where to find them
- Knowing the differences between books and journals and how to find and use them in your assessment tasks
- Ways to narrow search results using Boolean operators
- Google Scholar (not Google)
Some of these are explained in the videos below. Note, however, that these are just brief guides. To learn more you should consult the services of a Librarian and attend the classes they offer during the semester.
From an academic literacy perspective, research skills mean knowing how to approach an assignment task with a view to integrating scholarly resources into your essays and reports and writing them in an academically acceptable way. We deal with writing academically here. In this page we look at resource integration and understanding what academic sources are.
The point of research is to back up your points with evidence. This can be empirical evidence (quantitative or qualitative data) or it could be evidence from established theories. It could also be by using valid arguments made by scholars in the field. Evidentially-supported claims are always better than unsupported assertions.
Research helps you to support any arguments you might be making; it lends authority and credibility to your writing. You do this by Citing (or Referencing) the points you make in your assignments. This is done using a discipline-mandated referencing style (e.g., APA, MLA, Harvard or Chicago). This allows others to see where you got your evidence from. The sources you use will depend on how information literate you are, which is another way of saying how good you are at finding relevant, recent, well-validated and widely-regarded sources of academic research. This brings us back to the importance of research skills!
Almost every assessment task at university will require you to conduct research. This includes assessment tasks such as:
- case studies
- literature reviews
- annotated bibliographies
The only writing you might need to do that does not involve research is reflective writing (which involves discussing personal experiences and feelings in response to an event or situation). Even so, most reflective writing will not simply be ‘reflective’; it will also involve some integration of theory or response to theoretical frameworks.
It’s essential to integrate research literature into every assignment to establish that your claims are well-validated and based on published sources.
When faced with an assessment task for which you have to do research you need to be strategic. Just going to the Library and browsing the catalogue is not going to be much help. There is so much research literature out there that you will get lost. Try the following routine for every assessment task.
1. Define your topic
Know what you’re searching for before you start. Take time to understand what you need to know, and what other knowledge could be helpful. First gain clarity on your topic by undertaking thorough topic analysis.
Write down the topic that you want to investigate in one precise sentence, for example: Deforestation in Indonesia and the comparative role of deliberately lit bushfires and logging operations. You need to be very specific or your search will be fruitless. If your topic is more general than this, try to narrow it down. The narrower and more focussed the topic, the easier it is to find information. Your final grades will be better with a narrowly-focused assignment too, as you can write in more depth. And of course, depth is always better than breadth in university study.
2. Finding what you need
The Library has useful guides on how to conduct a search, but before you do that you need to know what you need:
- Refer to your course description first. Lecturers usually include a list of references as a starting point.
- Identify the scope of what you need. Can you only use articles from the last five years? Can you only use primary sources? Do you need a broad overview or are you required to do research in a narrow area of scholarship?
- Identify the kind of source you need: Are you required to use only books and journal articles, or something else? e.g., if you are in Education perhaps you need to look at teaching resources; if you are in Commerce perhaps you need case studies. Possibly you need conference papers, theses or perhaps legal transcripts. NB: For most academic writing at least some peer-reviewed scholarly articles are required. But there’s plenty of other sources out there.
- Start with the Library’s subject guides. Librarians have done much of the work for you by compiling a list of books, journals and online sources for different subject areas.
- Once you have done all this you need to do some database and catalogue searching.
Identify how to do a search: Searching on a catalogue is different from searching an academic database. If you are looking for things online, what database is best for your area of study? Ask the information experts at a campus Library. Here’s some suggestions for doing a search in a database.
- Identify the key concepts from your topic by underlining them. In the example earlier, the key words were: “Deforestation”, “Indonesia”, “Bushfires”, “Logging”.
- Think of synonyms for your search terms. Write down all the different words that mean the same thing for each of the key concepts. They need not be exact synonyms. Synonymous terms for the above words include the following: “land clearing”, “forest fires”, “timber felling”, “South-East Asia”. Broad terms such as “South-East Asia” are important because while there might not be an article about Indonesia, there may be articles on other countries in the region, which mention Indonesia. The key to good searching is to be as narrow as possible while also allowing for broader terms if the narrow terms are too detailed. In this way, you can find useful articles even if they not directly related to your topic.
- Be aware of colloquialisms. While “bushfires” may be a common term for a forest fire in Australia, most databases and catalogue systems use keywords/subjects that are based on American English. This means that they will not have anything stored under the word “bushfire”, but they will have lots of resources stored under “forest fires”. Likewise, somebody studying underground trains in England will need to use the American term “subway trains”, instead of “underground trains” or “metro trains” in the database.
- Most catalogues allow you to look at a detailed record of any book you find, and this normally lists the keywords/subjects/descriptors/topic area a book has been catalogued under. Thus, the subjects under which the book: Indonesia’s Fires and Haze: The Cost of Catastrophe, included “Asia south-eastern”, “forest fires”, “environmental”, “deforestation” and “Indonesia”. Thus, in my next search, I would know to use the term “Asia south-eastern”, instead of “South-East Asia”, as I would know the catalogue only stored articles under the keywords “Asia south-eastern”.
- Truncation involves the shortening of terms with symbols for use ins databases. Special symbols (typically ? or $ or *) are used in databases to search for more words than you have typed in. This “wild card” (allowing for many different forms of the same term) occurs after the stem of a word. Using the wild card, all words beginning with that stem will be retrieved. It is particularly good if you want to look up the singular and plural form of a word, e.g., woman and women(s) would be found using “wom*”. However, you need to be careful using truncation symbols. “Mono*” will find too many words (monounsaturated, monotheistic, monolingual, etc.) that are probably irrelevant to your research. Similarly, if you want to obtain articles which have slight variations in terminology then a truncation may not work. For example, “parasite*” will help you get articles that use the plural form “parasites” , but it will not enable you to obtain articles which use the word “parasitical”. There may be an excellent article which uses the word “parasitical” in the title that you do not retrieve. Considerable care and practice is therefore needed
- To become good at doing all this, you need to practise working with catalogues and databases over many months. Moreover, you need to regularly visit the library to learn about the new tools and techniques available. Information literacy resources change and improve regularly. A weekly visit to the library and an occasional meeting with a subject librarian is very valuable for professional researchers and for serious students.
Recognise the types of material available will speed up your process of selection. Some types are:
- Books. Usually contain a lot of information, but are produced by only a few people (unless it’s an edited collection). Limiting yourself to only one or two books means limiting your research to the opinions of only a handful of people. Also, information in a book can be out of date by the time it is published and finally arrives on the library shelves. Always check the publication date.
- eBooks. These are digital versions of previously published books or recent digital publications. Evaluate them in the same way you would a hardcopy book. The Library catalogue clearly labels ebooks.
- Journals. Also known as periodicals. These publications are regularly produced and contain papers written by researchers and academics. Lecturers generally prefer that you use journal articles as they are usually peer-reviewed (evaluated for validity and relevance by other researchers in the field) and are more recent sources than books. Not all journals are good though and there are many poor quality journals. Check them using Ulrich’s, which is a global serials directory. The Library has institutional access to this.
- Websites. Always assess the credibility of a website before using it. Here’s how:
- Find the publication date on the site to decide how current the information is.
- Decide if the source is reliable: Check the web address extension. Is the author an educational institution (with .edu extension)? A government body (with .gov extension)? A not for profit organisation (with .org extension)? These kinds of websites are likely to be more objective than business or personal websites (with .com extension).
When you find an article, keep these things in mind to help you determine how helpful it might be:
- Relevance: Does it relate closely and directly to what you’re studying and the topic you are investigating?
- Objectivity: Does the research have any bias or agenda that might skew the information? Objective research will draw a conclusion based on the findings, not a company’s or an individual’s personal agenda.
- Reliability: Determine if the source of information can be trusted. Generally, journal articles are considered relatively ‘reliable’ sources, though you should still question their reliability as you read them.
- Accuracy: Assess whether the information is accurate. Look for peer-reviewed journal articles that have been through a rigorous process of assessment by experts. They are likely to be accurate.
- Currency: Make sure your source of information isn’t outdated. ‘Out-dated’ depends on what you are studying. If you are doing a science degree any publication older than five years is out-dated. If you are doing Philosophy, work from 2500 years ago is still acceptable material. If your research project requires you to study an historical event, or a specific theory that was created some time ago, using original documents is expected, though it can help to supplement them with a modern material as well.
- Useful and support your work?
- Is the information appropriate in depth and scope?
- Does the information add to your understanding of the topic?
- Do you require "Primary Sources" that contain new or original material e.g. diaries
- Do you require "Secondary Sources" that contain information that has been analysed or interpreted? e.g. books, journal articles
- Does the information relate to the time frame of your topic?
- What is the publication date of the resource? e.g. a book or webpage
- Does the information give credibility to your work?
- Who is the author?
- Are they known in their field?
- Are they associated with reputable organisations? e.g. a University or official body
- Is the author/publisher credible? Can you verify the information is correct?
- Supported by reliable facts or statistics?
- Beware of information from the Internet.
- Supported by other trustworthy sources?
Most information sources have a certain degree of bias. Ways of judging bias in information sources are:
- extreme viewpoints?
- emotive or derogatory language?
- focus on a particular geographic location?
- contradictory viewpoints to other available information sources.