Different strategies for different assignments
Researching an assignment
Exactly what strategy you need to use for gathering information depends on the nature of the task and the level at which you are working. As a first-year student at university, for an early task you may not be required to read the latest peer-reviewed research journals on a topic. But by your final year, that is exactly what you might need to do.
A sensible approach to researching an assignment is to move from the general to the specific; that is, to find and read relevant textbooks and review articles and then, if appropriate, read research articles on specific aspects of the topic (Figure 4.1). In a sense, you are mapping the territory, checking your general understanding of a topic, before you narrow down to what is most relevant to your assignment.
Figure 4.1 The overall strategy for a literature search often moves from the general to the specific, depending on the nature of the task
In your first and perhaps second year as an undergraduate you are likely to rely more on textbooks, journalistic articles, and review articles in academic journals. In the final year you are likely to be reading research papers on specific aspects of the topic in academic journals - what I call ’front line’ literature. In some degree programmes, you will start reading such leading-edge research papers in your first year.
Online academic journals
Many peer-reviewed academic journals provide articles in an electronic format, which are downloadable, often as a PDF (in Adobe Portable Document Format). These are equivalent to a paper copy of the journal article, and can be cited and referenced in the same manner as a paper document (see Chapter 11). Such documents are not the same as information freely available on the World Wide Web. They usually carry much higher academic authority.
Nevertheless, whether you are just starting out at university, or whether you are in your final year, there are three key questions you need to be able to answer:
✵What resources (books, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and so on) are available that are best suited to the task?
✵How do I find the sources I need?
✵How do I judge whether what I have found is suitable?
It is easy to waste hours searching through hundreds of sources that are not exactly relevant to your task or are of poor quality. You need to quickly work out strategies to avoid falling into these traps.
Making good use of your library
Learning to made good use of your university library, information centre or resource centre, and the staff within it, can make an enormous difference to your productivity and success on your course.
Key information skills you will need to develop in your time at university include:
- Using your library’s electronic catalogue.
- Understanding the classification and shelving system your library employs, such as Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system, so that you can locate items.
- Finding a book, academic journal or other library resource, whether on paper or in an electronic form.
- How to access a distant library, to borrow a book or journal or to obtain a printed or scanned copy of an article or book chapter.
- How to cite and reference correctly (see Chapter 9).
- How to identify appropriate tools to set up an efficient and effective search strategy to gather literature for an assignment (this chapter and Chapter 11).
- How to narrow your search, if you have too many responses to your enquiry, or broaden it if you have too few responses (this chapter and Chapter 11).
- How to evaluate what you have found (this chapter and Chapter 5).
- How to keep records of your search strategy and sources (this chapter, Chapter 5 and Chapter 11).
- How to avoid plagiarism and deal with copyright issues (Chapter 9).
Early in your first year at university, you could be asked to carry out an introductory task to enable your tutors to find out whether you are skilful at finding material and judging its suitability for the task. They might well, of course, be interested in knowing how well you can write an essay.
We won’t go into great detail about what criteria they might use in assessing your assignment (which, in any case, will vary according to the discipline). Let us assume you’ve been asked to write a 1,000- word essay in response to the question:
Mobile phones: are they bad for your health?
The scope of such an essay could vary depending on who set the task. One tutor might wish you to focus on the physics of radio waves and the likelihood of a mobile frying your brain. Another tutor might wish you to consider the effect of the mobile phone in the round, such as its impact on your posture, attention span, likelihood of being involved in a car accident (if you were driving and using a
mobile at the same time), risk of repetitive strain injury from too much texting, the psychological impact of spending hours each day viewing a smartphone screen, and so on. Nevertheless, whatever the scope of the assignment, you need to find information and you need to assess its value in relation to your task.
As it is an assignment early in your first year, let us assume you are asked to gather the material by searching online. In fact, for health and medical topics, there is a considerable volume of high-quality material published online by reputable organisations.
Depending on your discipline, some teaching staff may not wish you to use sources that are freely available on the World Wide Web because the quality of much of the material on the web might be poor. For example, a Wikipedia article - although it might give a useful initial overview of a topic - cannot be assumed to be accurate or reliable and normally should not be used as a source in academic writing. In many disciplines, the most authoritative articles are found in peer-reviewed journals and other publications for which your university library may pay a subscription. As such, many of these publications are not freely available on the web but you gain access to them through your university’s registration or by paying a fee for the article.
There are exceptions. In health and medicine, for example, there is increasing pressure from research funders for published research, even in the best peer-reviewed journals, to be freely available online. This is partly so that those in developing countries, whose institutions may not have the funds to subscribe to journals, are not disadvantaged by the lack of access to information that could be vital for improving healthcare.
A useful way to start any search of the literature is to define your brief, what is sometimes called a search profile. In this you set down the scope of your search. It narrows down what you are seeking to find. Figure 4.2 shows an example of a student’s literature search profile for the current task.
Figure 4.2 A search profile for an assignment
Google is the world’s most popular online search engine. Simply typing ’mobile phone’ into the Google search engine will inundate you with responses, many of which would be unsuitable. Many of the responses would probably be trying to sell you a mobile phone service or might be giving you reviews of the latest mobile phone models. You need to narrow your search.
Even when using a generic search engine such as Google, you can dramatically improve your search by including qualifiers: terms that narrow down your search. Using Google Advanced Search, I
entered the following terms:
The exact word or phrase: ’mobile phone’ (in quotes)
Any of these words (are acceptable): safe safety unsafe harm harmful harmless
When I carried out this search using www.google.co.uk/advanced search in the summer of 2017, the first page of results listed webpages that included those from the UK’s National Health Service, NetDoctor UK, the US National Cancer Institute and the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Once you have found such sources, you need to judge their usefulness.
To find more specialist sources, you could use a discipline-specific database such as PubMed. This is a free-to-use database on biomedical and life science topics. It is maintained by the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. In response to your search, it will list the most relevant sources, in most cases with their abstracts (summaries). In many cases, you will need to then go to another resource to access the full article. In some cases, your university will need to already subscribe to the relevant journal for you to obtain the article, or a specific fee may be payable.
Be aware of synonyms
Be aware that the items you are searching for may have synonyms (different words that mean the same thing). The terms ’cell phone’ or ’cellular phone’ are synonyms of ’mobile phone’. Some bibliographic databases, including PubMed, automatically incorporate synonyms of key words or phrases in a search. In other cases, you may need to manually enter the different possibilities.