Finding resources on a Topic for an Essay, assignment or Presentation

Why research?

When you come to write an essay or prepare a presentation, you should already have some knowledge of the topic from your lectures and seminars, and the recommended reading from your reading lists. Many reading lists contain additional readings on topics covered in the module. These are a good place to start to find out more about your topic before you begin writing. However, in order to fully engage with your topic, you will need to do some independent research. Your tutors will be looking for evidence that you have gone beyond the defined reading they have suggested in order to expand your knowledge and to begin to engage in debate with other scholars in the field. This is a skill that will become more important the further you go on in your academic career.

Information needs

Depending on what you need information for, different types of resources will be more appropriate than others. This will also affect where and how you look for them. Google, and the web in general, may not always be the best starting place for research, particularly when you are doing academic work. This is because your information need is more complex, and the resources that will best address it may not be indexed by internet search engines.

When you are doing research for academic purposes, you want to tap into what has already been written and discussed by other scholars on your topic. Scholarly communication tends to take place in books and journals, so these are the sorts of resources that will be most helpful to you. Another reason for choosing to look for this type of resource is that it has been through a quality control process. Articles in most academic journals have been through what is called "peer review" which means that other academic experts on the subject have read them and agreed that they are good enough to be included in the journal.

Resource types and how to find them

Encyclopedias

Whether it's a printed copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica or Wikipedia, encyclopedias can be helpful if you are looking for basic, background information or checking facts relating to your topic. However, once you've established the basics, there are other resources which will be more helpful in analysing your topic, identifying themes and helping you to construct arguments. 

It's also important to bear in mind that Wikipedia in particular may not be an authoritative source. Because anybody can contribute information to a Wikipedia article, there's no guarantee that the information will be reliable, so you should be prepared to check it against another source before you include facts in your academic work. Dictionaries and encyclopedias can be found on all floors of the Library, marked with a red reference sticker. You can search for them using Encore, the Library search engine.

Books

Books are a great place to get an overview of what is known about a topic. You may get some suggestions of suitable books from your reading list or lecturer but you can also use Encore to search for books on particular subjects. To search for books more generally than the ones we have in the Library here, try COPAC, which includes the collections of many different research libraries in the UK, or a scholarly bookseller, such as Blackwell. These sources focus on academic books rather than Amazon which is aimed at a much more general audience. 

Journal articles

A journal is any publication that is published in parts. Peer reviewed, or academic, journals are good resources to use when researching a topic. However, journal articles are often about one specific aspect of a topic so if you are looking for an overview or some background information, you may be better off with a book or an encyclopedia.

You can use Google Scholar to look for articles. This version of Google focuses on searching scholarly information on the web, but you will not always find the most up-to-date or relevant articles in this way. The Library subscribes to a range of academic journals across different subject areas and you can find journals and journal articles on a topic by searching Encore, the Library search engine.  You can also use a relevant Library Eresource for finding journal articles. Many E-resources have a specific subject focus. To find which E-resources the Library has for your subject area, look at the Electronic Resource and Database Menu on the Library website.

Newspaper articles

What if the topic you are researching is very recent? Scholarly publishing, in terms of books and journal articles, takes time, and if your topic is very new, there may be nothing yet for you to find. News sources can be useful both for recent topics, and for getting an overview of a topic and how it was seen at the moment that it happened. It's important to bear in mind that individual newspapers may have a particular bias, and that they are not subject to the same external quality control as other resources. They are aimed at a general audience, so that may make them more accessible than some other resources. The Library provides access to E-resources for searching current newspapers, as well as having some daily newspapers available for you to read in the Library. Most newspapers also provide some content freely available online.

Websites

Websites are a mixed bag. When you search using Google, or another internet search engine, you will find all sorts of websites, some of which may well be helpful for your understanding of your topic. However, you cannot be sure from your first glance at your results list whether any of them will be suitable resources to use for your essay or presentation. You need to look at each one in turn to find out:

  • what the purpose of the site is
  • who the intended audience is
  • whether there is any kind of quality control

You can use websites to improve your basic understanding of your topic BUT, in general you will have to work harder to find and to evaluate resources that will genuinely enhance your understanding of the topic and your ability to discuss it in an essay or presentation. You may come across journal articles on open access websites, or pages that have been put together by scholars at another university that contain useful (academic) links for finding out more. Some have useful publications and/or data, especially from reputable & well-known organisations such as: think tanks, research institute, learned societies, professional organisations, government bodies, international agencies. Many of the more reliable websites are listed on the relevant subject pages of the Library website.

Search strategy

Before you start searching, you need to translate your topic into the words you'll use for searching, often called keywords. You may first need to check definitions of words in a dictionary or encyclopedia.

Thinking about keywords can help you to explore the underlying concepts in your topic. Having a variety of keywords will both help you to discover more resources AND more relevant resources.

There are various techniques which are common to many online search tools and which can help you to structure your search to make it more effective. The following sections will look at some of these in detail. However, every Eresource is different. It will save time if you get to know the E-resources that are most relevant for your subject area, so that you understand what the effect of using the different options will have on your results. To find E-resources for your subject area, look at the Electronic Resource and Database Menu on the Library website.

Search terms and symbols

Knowing some of the main search techniques can help you to translate your topic into keywords. It can be useful to write your essay question or the title of your topic out on a piece of paper and underline or highlight the words that you think are most important.

 Let's look at a sample topic: Marriage and women's identity in Latin America. You are looking for what other people have written on this topic. They may have used different words to describe it! For example, any discussion of women may also include the singular version, woman, as well as other related words or synonyms such as female, feminine, etc.

Many search tools, such as the Library E-resources, have features which mean that you can search for related terms without entering them all separately.

A wildcard symbol represents a single character in the middle of a word. It is often a question mark. Entering wom?n will find woman and women. It can also be useful for spelling variations between US and UK English, such as gray and grey (gr?y). Many of the books and articles you may be looking for have been written by people using US English, so it can be helpful to think about any possible spelling variations in advance.

A truncation symbol represents any number of characters at the end of a word. It is often an asterisk. Entering femini* will find feminine, feminism, feminist, etc. To include female, you would need to enter fem*. However, this can have unexpected results, as you would also find femur!

 Combining search terms

Once you've come up with a list of words to describe your topic, you may want to think about how you will combine these when you search. When using internet search engines, such as Google, you can simply enter your words in any order and it will find results that contain all or most of those words. Encore also works in this way.

However, many of the Library E-resources have other ways in which search terms can be combined which can be helpful in pinpointing your topic. These are often part of an Advanced search rather than a Basic one.

Here are some examples:

"Phrase searching" is a way to look for your search terms in the precise order that you want them to appear. Usually this means enclosing them in quotation marks and can help to focus in on a particular concept, e.g. "post-traumatic stress disorder". Incidentally, you can use "phrase searching" in Google.

Boolean searching is a way to combine search terms using a particular logic. The main Boolean connectors or operators are AND, OR and NOT. Using AND between search terms means that you want all of the words to appear in your results, e.g. women AND marriage AND Brazil. Using OR between search terms means that you want any of the words to appear in your results and is useful for combining related terms or synonyms, e.g. women OR female OR feminist. Using NOT means you want to exclude a particular word from your results. This is the one which needs most thought before you use it, but can be helpful in certain circumstances, e.g. education not primary, if you wanted to look for material on education, but were not interested in all of the material written about primary schools.

Some E-resources will automatically allow you to apply Boolean searching to your keywords by asking if you want to find results containing ALL of your search terms (equivalent to AND) or ANY of your search terms (equivalent to OR).

Refining your results

Once you have used your search strategy and come up with some results, you need to evaluate them to see whether they are relevant. Some search tools will put your results in a relevance ranked order, as internet search engines do. Some may give preference to resources published recently. It is usually possible to change the order if you want to, for example, to order the results by date.

Look at the number of results you have found. Too many, too few, or about right? When searching on the internet, you will generally find very high numbers of results. Because internet search engines have sophisticated relevance ranking we tend to get into the habit of only looking at the first few results. However, when using Library search tools, which have other mechanisms for finding relevant results, you may need to look further into the results set to find what is most useful. Therefore you may want to refine your results so that you have a small enough set to look at in detail. Sometimes you won't have found anything, or only a very small number of results, so you may want to search again to see what else you can find.

There are two possible ways to refine your results. One is to go back and modify your original search to make it more (or less) targeted depending on the number of results you've found. The other is to use the refining options which may be available, for example, the facets or limiting options in Encore.

Modifying your search

If you have got too many results to look through, you may want to go back and make your original search more targeted. There are several ways to do this.

  • Include more words in your search
  • Make the words you are using more specific, e.g. instead of searching for headaches (a general term), look for migraines (a particular kind of headache, assuming this is what your topic is about!)
  • Combine terms with AND, or specify that ALL words must appear in your results
  • Consider using a "phrase search" if you haven't already done so
  • Use the options in the search tool you're using, i.e. specify whether your keywords appear in the title of the resource rather than the main body of the text or limit by date or language

If you have got too few results to look through, go back and make your original search more general

  • Include fewer words in your search. A common error when you get 0 results is to add additional words into your original search. This will not help.
  • Make the words you are using less specific, e.g. instead of searching for migraines, look for headaches!
  • Combine related terms with OR, or specify that ANY of the words can appear in your results
  • Use a truncation symbol to expand the words you are using into different forms (e.g. femini*, for feminist, feminine, feminism)
  • Get rid of any "phrase searches" you have used
  • Use the options in the search tool you're using, i.e. specify that your keywords can appear in the full text of the resources, not just in the title or abstract

Ultimately you may need to rethink your topic as it may just be too broad or too narrow to find a useful set of resources for your research.

Subject searching and following the trail

Using subject headings can be another way to make a search more focused AND to increase the number of the results you are finding. Many search tools use subject headings to describe the content of the books, articles and other resources that you are looking for. This is to help with finding results on the same topic which have been written about using a variety of terms, and is another approach to using synonyms.

Encore uses subject headings to describe the content of the books in the Library. For example, most books on film contain the subject heading "Motion pictures". Although this is not the first term that springs to mind when thinking of books on film, the fact that all of the records share this common descriptor makes it easier to find them and to go from one relevant resource to another.

Once you have got some relevant results, you can look at them to identify the headings used within that eResource. Within some search tools, subject headings may be linked so that you can click on them to see other resources with the same heading.

This illustrates a key principle of doing research: finding one relevant resource will often lead you to other relevant resources, in a snowballing effect. Another way to do this is to look at the references at the end of an article or book chapter to see what the authors found useful when writing it. The chances are, it may also be relevant to you. Some E-resources offer you the option of seeing which articles have cited the resource you're looking at, so you can get a sense of how important/influential it has been in the discussion of your topic.

Finding the full text

Once you've identified some relevant resources, you may be able to read them straight away. Many Library E-resources contain the full text of journal articles or online books which you can read, print or save. However, just as you have to go and find print books on the shelf that you have identified using Encore, sometimes you may need to take another step to find the full text of journal articles.

If the full text is not immediately available, you may still be able to find it using Encore. The best way is to search for the title of the journal in which the article appears (NOT the title of the article). If you find the record for the journal, check to see which dates and volumes are covered by the Library.

f you can't find a record for the journal it may be that the Library doesn't have it. The Library offers an inter-library loans service whereby books and articles can be requested from other libraries. More details about this service, which is mainly used by final year undergraduates, postgraduates and staff, is available on the Library website.

And finally...

Once you've found some relevant resources, you'll need to read and analyse them to see how they will inform your understanding of the topic. Sometimes you might want to go back and search again if what you've read leads you in a different direction to the one you started off in. Keep going back to your essay question or topic description to ensure you're still focused on the task in hand.

If you need help with any aspect of your essay or presentation make sure you contact your subject librarian, who will be able to advise you
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