Most universities will give you library access, which means you have a wealth of material available to you – your search should not be limited to books, but also may include journals/periodical collections, theses, videos, DVDs, e-books, e-journals, access to electronic resources and databases.
With so much material available to you, translating your essay question into a search strategy or statement is an important first step in tracking down the information you need. Your development of a search strategy must start with thinking about the kinds of words related to your topic that you might expect to find in books or in newspaper articles. A good search statement can be applied to whichever sources you might decide to use, such as specific computer databases or library catalogues.
The next step will be to decide, based on your formulated search statement, which will be the most relevant, appropriate resources in your subject area. For example, if your search statement was:
I want to find out about the consequences, harm, risk or side effects – of giving or denying the MMR vaccination, either as a triple vaccine or as three single injections, to children
You might be looking for:
- Ideas and opinions – expert opinion, opinions of pressure groups, public opinion, opinion of companies involved in trials, opinion of governments and other organisations, parents’ concerns
- Research results – medical experiments, scientific information
- History – where the debate began and why, specific cases which make the vaccine questionable
Once you have a clear idea of what you need to know about your topic to deal with the assignment posed, you will be able to look more closely at the individual resources available to you, such as database, to see what information they contain. You will need to weigh up the relevance of the information you find, and develop a critical awareness of the positions represented in what you read – in some cases, authors may be explicitly expressing a particular viewpoint but in others there may be hidden bias, which can be misleading.
Don’t forget that one of the best ways to source relevant material for your essay is to ‘snowball’ your reading: i.e. to use the footnotes and bibliographies of the books you already have to extend your reading list on a subject. Your reading lists will already include many of the most important writers; by checking their bibliographies and works cited in those articles, you will have access to the most up-to-date writing on the topic.
More notes on researching material
Your literature review
At some point in your research activities you will have to produce a comprehensive and critical summary of the current and past research in your subject area. This summary is often called a literature review but other names include: state-of-the-art-review, topic review and subject review.
In order to produce a good literature review you will need to be regularly identifying and reviewing relevant material (more on this later). Your literature review will only be as good as the material you find and it is essential to understand how information in your field is published and how to search for it. You may find that you have to carry out a literature search at several points in the research process.
At the beginning you may want to do a search to:
- improve your knowledge of the subject area
- get ideas about how to conduct research in your area
- identify gaps in the current body of knowledge
- identify trends and predict future developments
- identify keywords/terms and phrases
- identify key people and organisations.
In the middle of the research process you may wish to review the literature to:
- review your own progress or re-evaluate your position
- check for new research findings that may impact on your research
- check for relevant literature in related fields
- use keywords you hadn’t thought of before.
When writing up your research you may use the review to:
- check for new research findings that may impact on your research
- introduce your topic
- place your research in context
- support your findings or research methods
- demonstrate understanding of your subject area.
Precisely what constitutes a literature review will vary with subject as well as purpose. You will need to check with your supervisor or review board. There are many guides available that explain how to conduct literature searches and literature reviews.
The shape of the literature
To be an effective researcher requires a good knowledge of the information resources in your subject area. This ‘subject knowledge’ encompasses not only the ability to understand and critically evaluate relevant information, but also an awareness of and an ability to utilise the full range of information sources in your area. A blanket term used to describe all of the relevant, inter-related information sources in one subject area is ‘the shape of the literature’.
What is the shape of my literature?
The shape of the literature varies between subject areas. This is because information resources differ between subject areas, with some subjects having unique resources; for example maps in cartography. Also, due to their broad subject coverage, some information resources are common to many subject areas; for example ISI Web of Knowledge. The relative importance of these resources, however, may be different.
Another aspect of the shape of the literature that differs between subjects is the use of the terms primary and secondary literature. These terms are used differently in different disciplines. In some scientific disciplines, journal articles are referred to as primary sources of literature with books as a secondary source. In some social sciences this distinction is reversed, with monographs (predominantly books) referred to as the primary literature and journal articles as the secondary source.
‘Grey literature’ is a term common to all subjects and means material that is not formally ‘published’, such as an institutional report. Grey literature can be difficult to trace.
As there is no agreement across disciplines on how to define the terms primary, secondary and grey literature, we suggest you find out what these terms mean in your subject area.
Resources useful for your research
A good literature review contains references to material from a broad range of resources. This is important even if your literature review covers a very narrow subject area.
The resources table lists 15 resources. You may find it useful to check through the entries and see if there are any resources that you have not searched yet. The column on the far right suggests ways to trace each resource. You can print out the table and keep it as an aide-memoire.
Keeping up to date
As part of the continual process of research you are required to keep abreast of current developments in your subject area. One way to do this is to use an automated alerting service; for example ZETOC.
A good place to start is ZETOC, the Electronic Table of Contents service from the British Library. ZETOC provides access to over 20,000 current journals and more than 16,000 conference proceedings published each year. ZETOC is updated daily and its records go back to 1993.
Journals and databases
Individual journals and databases often offer their own alerting services. Check the ones that are relevant to your subject area.
For books, individual publishers, as well as websites like Amazon, offer email alerting services.
Newsgroups and mailing lists
Another way to keep abreast of developments is to join, or even start up your own, newsgroup or mailing list. These are also useful for forging links with the wider research community and for placing your research in context. The majority of academic-related mailing lists in the UK are maintained by JISCmail and for newsgroups, try Google Groups.
Professional bodies and learned societies
If you do not already belong to a relevant organisation, it may be worth investing in a subscription. Professional organisations can be useful for news, specialist resources, specialist libraries, personal contacts, talks, training, conference bulletins libraries and in-house publications.