Becoming more discerning - Researching an assignment

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Becoming more discerning
Researching an assignment

Earlier in this chapter, we considered a simple example - finding online sources to inform the writing of an assignment in response to the question ’Mobile phones: are they bad for your health?’ What if your tutor wished you to use only sources that appear in peer-reviewed publications?

You could narrow your search by using a disciplinary database such as PubMed. When I tried this search in the summer of 2017, this is what I found:

✵The search term ’mobile phones’ yielded 10,636 results. PubMed is ’intelligent’ insofar as it will automatically search for synonyms such as ’cell phones’.

✵The search string ’mobile phones AND (harm OR safe)’ gave 286 results.

Quickly reviewing what I had found so far, I decided that I wanted to include a further research term ’risk’ but concentrate on recent review articles only. So I adjusted the search terms:

✵Selecting ’mobile phones AND (risk OR safety OR harm)’, plus ’review articles only’, still yielded 243 results so I adjusted it further by adding ’within the last five years’, which gave me 160 results.

✵Removing the reference to child studies ’mobile phones AND (risk OR safety OR harm) NOT child’ plus ’review articles only’ and ’within the last five years’ still gave me 147 hits. I discovered that many of these articles concerned using mobile phones in positive ways, such as phoning for emergency help or smartphone apps that helped people manage their healthcare.

✵Excluding articles focusing on positive aspects of mobile phones reduced the number of relevant articles to just 30, of which just a handful I judged to be relevant, authoritative and timely for the task. This included a 2017 article ’Prevalence and risk factors associated with musculoskeletal complaints among users of mobile handheld devices: A systematic review’ and a provocative article ’Mobile phone radiation causes brain tumors and should be classified as a probable human carcinogen’.

Now is the time to read those sources you have selected, and the strategies for doing so are considered in the next chapter. For further advice on carrying out literature searches see Section 11.2 Using bibliographic databases in Chapter 11.

Free-to-use scholarly search engines and databases

These focus on scholarly sources, rather than listing a very wide range of public sources as Google does, and so are likely to source higher quality material, thus narrowing the breadth of your search. Google Scholar ( is a free-to-use search engine that indexes scholarly sources, including books, conference papers, journal articles and theses. Some of these sources are downloadable from links provided in the results list. PubMed ( is a free-to-use database listing sources on life sciences and biomedical topics.

Key points in the chapter

1Knowing what kinds of sources of information are suitable for your task, being able to narrow your search for information among those sources, and then judging the value of what you have found, are key research skills.

2In most cases, a useful search strategy is to move from the general to the specific.

3Using qualifiers is key to narrowing or expanding your search for information.

4Use RABT (Relevant? Authoritative? Balanced or biased? Timely?) to judge the value of the material you find.

Further reading

Cardiff University Information Services (2006). Evaluating Information Flowchart. Cardiff: University of Cardiff. Available from: [accessed 7 August 2017].

Deane, M. (2010). Academic Research, Writing and Referencing. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Dochartaigh, N. O. (2012). Internet Research Skills. 3rd edn. London: Sage.

Ridley, D. (2012). The Literature Review: A Step-By-Step Guide for Students. 2nd edn. London: Sage.

University of Southampton (2017). Introduction to Research Skills. Southampton: University of Southampton. Available from: [accessed 7 August 2017].

Answers for Chapter 4

Activity 4.1: Relevant?

(a)2. This article does not specifically cover the geographic region of the assignment. However, it may be of interest for comparing the North polar ice cap with the South polar equivalent.

(b)1. This article is at a simple level but may provide a good overview and act as a suitable starting point for further research.

(c)4. This article is relevant and recent and is probably aimed at the right level.

(d)3. This article is probably too specialised and technical.

Activity 4.2: Authoritative?

(a)I. Wikipedia articles are not authoritative sources. They are compiled for no fee by normally well- intentioned but not necessarily expert contributors. Contributors’ identities may not be given and so their credibility cannot be verified. The information in the article could be of high or low quality, but it is difficult to verify which. However, Wikipedia articles may cite authoritative sources, which can then be found and read.

(b)A. The article is published by a reputable scientific organisation.

(c)A. The article is published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

(d)I. The blog does not appear to be an authoritative source of information. The author does not give

their proper name nor, presumably, their relevant experience or links to any organisation against which their credibility might be judged.

Activity 4.3: Biased or balanced?

(a)P. Suntanning beds use ultraviolet light, also a component of sunlight (solar radiation), to tan skin. Manufacturers of suntanning beds are likely to promote a favourable view of the effect of sunlight on skin, although they should warn of the dangers of overexposure to sunlight and to ultraviolet light specifically.

(b)B. The BBC has a remit to represent a wide spectrum of views on a particular topic.

(c)N is the most likely, but possibly B. Such a website is likely to warn of the dangers of excessive exposure to sunlight, but could nevertheless seek to give a balanced view of sunlight’s benefits and dangers, promoting moderate exposure.

(d)B. Hopefully, a good health magazine would represent both the positive and negative effects of sunlight on human health. However, this would depend on the editorial stance of the magazine.

Activity 4.4: President Obama and the US economy. Relevant and timely?

(a)Possibly Y. Depending on which other sources were available, and what had been published since, this authoritative review could be used as a source for President Obama’s first term of office.

(b)Y. Depending on which other sources were available, and what had been published since, this authoritative review could well be a suitable source for making a comparison between the two administrations.

(c)Possibly Y. Depending on which other sources were available, the article could still be relevant. It would depend on what had been published since, and whether later sources were better choices for the task.