Understand what you want to search for
The first step to researching your topic is to know what to search for, and to use the tools the University or College provides to research effectively. To search around your chosen assignment topic, you will need to have a clear understanding of what the assignment is asking you to do, to know how to define your topic in a way that can help you with your assignment.
In order to have a clear understanding of what the assignment expected of you, you need to know the following:
What instructions or parameters has the lecturer given you for this assignment. This might include a certain word count, different methods of writing an assignment (like the ILAC (Issue Legislation Application Conclusion) system) and what system of referencing you might be expected to use. Your lecturer might give you an outline of the assignment, what topics can you cover, the word count, some guidelines on what you need to show the lecturer in order to achieve a particular grade, and referencing and footnotes.
What sources of information your lecturer expects you to use in your assignment (journal articles, books), or whether you are restricted to using particular kinds of sources (i.e. Primary or Secondary Sources).
Understand what terms used in the assignment title – Are you being asked to define, compare, contrast or analyse a particular topic, or are you asked to solve a particular issue using the resources available to you? Does the assignment ask you to show in-depth knowledge and expertise around a specific place, period or topic, or does it ask to give your own thoughts on how you would solve a particular issue raised by the question?
What is the assignment asking you to do?
There are many different approaches to completing an assignment, and these can be broadly grouped into two categories – critical and descriptive.
How can you describe a particular topic
Before starting to write an assignment, it is always crucial to brainstorm and find out what are the best keywords to use when conducting your research into the topic and for formulating your argument. This includes:
Identifying Information Sources
Knowing what to search for is just the first step into writing a successful essay. You also need to know that the sources that you get from what you search for can be used in the assignment. Once you have defined your topic and what the assignment expects of you, you can
Conducting a search
Once you have defined your chosen topic, you can start your search.
The best way to begin your search is to go to your University or College Library website. Knowing how to use the Library to get the sources you need is a critical part of being successful in your academic studies.
Wikipedia can be a really useful place to start researching your chosen topic if you want to do some background research before diving deeper into the topic. Whilst you can get a lot of information from Wikipedia, it is not considered to be an academic resource as these articles can be written by anyone around the world. It is not a good idea to cite the Wikipedia article itself, although the links, references and footnotes contained within the article are great places to do further research, and you can cite those resources if you find something that you wish to use in the assignment.
Google Scholar is a search engine used by Google to find academic books, journals and resources. Google Scholar can tell you how many times a particular academic source has been cited (referenced in the document), and it can also make suggestions on similar sources that might also be of interest to you in your essay.
Google Scholar is used in a similar manner to a University or College Library Database, but is quite different to a search on Google because your search will return academic sources like books and journal articles. The results will often return titles, authors, publication date, and links to free full texts if a source makes it available to the wider public.
You can also use the ‘Advanced Search’ if you wish to refine your search.
You can also use Google Scholar to search for if the resources you’re looking for are available through your University or College library. To do so, go to ‘Menu – Settings – Library Links’ and search for your university. Tick the University or College you want to produce results for and click ‘Save’. From now on when you are searching in Google Scholar you will see ‘View it @youruniversity-library’ beside documents that are available to you in your University or College library, and you can click on these links to get access to the resources you want. You may be asked to login to the library system to gain access to the journals or resources.
Identifying Information Sources
The next step is to identify what are good sources of information for your assignment. Good sources of information will help you to formulate your idea on your chosen argument and can help you to reach a clear understanding of the topic but also tie the parts together to produce a clear, concise and convincing argument.
There are many things available to you as a student that can be considered as an academic resource. These can include books, websites, journals, magazine articles, and conference papers among many other things, and can be divided into three categories:
Primary sources – These are sources of information, often created first-hand and containing accounts or evidence created close to the event that have not been interpreted or evaluated. These are often original works that might provide an eyewitness account of a historical or cultural event, a court judgment, or a recent scientific discovery that have not gone through the process of peer review. Examples include Interviews, speeches, eyewitness accounts, scientific journal articles, newspaper articles (written at the time), statistics, survey results, art works, court judgements, photographs.
Secondary sources – This is a source that often seeks to analyse, interpret, comment or contextualise a primary source within certain parameters. This usually provides a second-hand, more objective and academically rigorous account of these events or discoveries, often written some time after the event, that references the primary sources it uses, and also contains the author’s own analysis explaining or critiquing why it happened, summarises primary sources, or review this information within a particular context. With assignments, secondary sources like books, journal articles, textbooks, editoried will be the bulk of the sources you use in your academic studies.
Tertiary sources – This is a further step away from the original primary source aims to index, compile or summarise the information, and can act as a way to gain background information you can use for your assignment. This can include encyclopaedias, bibliographies, abstracts, literature review, catalogues and databases.
What are the types of sources I can use when researching a topic?
At University, your Library or Department will provide you with access to a wide array of academic sources, which serve very different purposes in the way that you might consume information. A source that is created shortly after an event, like a news account, may offer a different perspective to a book that might be written years later, that aims to contextualise or analyse the event within a time period or certain theme. A rigorous academically-researched might interpret events very differently to an eyewitness account, a blog or social media post that might be more biased in the moment.
The majority of papers or articles that may be published in an academic journal are great sources to use as they usually offer a focused account on a subject that has the legitimacy of being reviewed by their peers in their field of study. Because of their often specific focus, these sources address specific aspects of a subject, rather than providing an overview.
Books and e-books are often good sources to turn to if you’re looking for an overview or analysis of a particular topic, or searching for information on a topic you’re unfamiliar with. However, books are not ideal if you’re looking for up-to-date information or if you need to find information quickly, as the research and publishing process can mean that the information can go out-of-date within years of being published, and that searching for the right information you need can be time-consuming and laborious.
Broadcast (mainstream) media
Broadcast media are sources like radio broadcasts, recordings, press releases, advertisements, TV programmes, documentaries, videos, podcasts and press articles that provide you with a perspective on why events happened at that moment, or shortly after the event happened. Whilst this can be particularly useful if it comes from a trusted source, you do need to evaluate the information as anyone can create content, some pieces of information may not go through the same fact-checking process, which can make it more difficult to trust its authenticity, particularly in an era where “fake news” and conspiracy theories are so commonplace.
Conference papers, reports and dissertation papers
Conference papers, reports and dissertation papers can be useful sources as they can provide instant access to information that might be later published in academic journals. The drawback of using these sources is that as they have not gone through the peer review process, the information may contain inconsistencies errors that have not been spotted and that the author may not rectify until after the paper has been published.
Newspapers can be accessed in print or online, and contain information and analysis on current events and may contain articles on topics deemed to be of interest to the public. These are a good way of finding out what the public mood was on events that happened at the time or their immediate aftermath. However, because they might often be written in the moment or the article might fit into the paper’s wider editorial stance, the perspective that some sources might offer may offer a biased account of these events.
Trade journals and popular magazines
Trade journals can be a useful resource as they can offer a perspective on what is happening within a particular sector. Popular magazines like Time, Newsweek, New Scientist, The Economist or National Geographic can also offer a perspective to an international audience on the prevailing discourse on topics like nature, science, or economics or current affairs. Whilst they are good sources to use if you are looking to see certain events were perceived at the time of writing, because they are written to journalistic and not academic standards, they don’t carry the same persuasive weight as a peer-reviewed journal and thus cannot form the main basis of your argument.
Websites can be created by anyone, at any time on any subject. Websites provide good ways of providing up-to-date information, and provide excellent ways for getting an overview of a subject. However, as websites can vary significantly in terms of the quality of the information used, not all the information on a topic will be accurate or well informed, so it is wise to read the article to check the veracity of the information before using the resource.
A database is a specific collection of electronic resources that pertains to a specific topic. Databases can contain a collection that might include journal articles, conference papers, and books with the intention of collating a comprehensive range of resources into a single location, like a website or search engine.
Data can come from a wide variety of sources, ranging from datasets conducted by other people in your field of study to your own research. There are many datasets available to researchers, though the use of raw data in academic research often depends on how you intend to interpret its findings. If you intend to use someone else’s interpretation of the data as opposed to your own, you must check the veracity of the source. Many datasets contain a Digital Object Identifier, which is a unique reference for the dataset that you will need to reference. The Digital Object Identifier also includes metadata that can help you to conduct a search into the data’s findings.
Advanced search techniques
Knowing where to search can be a critical component towards academic success for many students, but as we can be presented with an overwhelming volume of information at our fingertips, we might need to use more refined search methods to get the results we need.
Building a search syntax
We can use a number of techniques to refine our search to get more relevant information, which can be used by themselves or combined with other techniques. These include Phrase searching, Proximity operators, Wildcards and Boolean operators.
A drawback of how advanced many search engines are is that if you type in a general search term, you might get such an overwhelming volume of results that you might not know where to begin. Many search engines will return search results in the order of all the words in the order presented; all the terms, presented in a different order presented; only one (or some) of the terms presented; different combinations of one (or some) of the terms presented. This can make searching for the right resource more difficult that it initially seemed.
Several search engines can help you to come up with more accurate search results when you put the exact words in the order it appears, and you can do this by putting your search term in inverted commas.
Sometimes conducting a phrase search might not get you the results that you want. Proximity operators are used by search engines to help the search establish context under which the words which arise as a result of their proximity. The two proximity operators are the letters W and N.
W, which stands for with, is used by the search engine to dictate the order of the words. By placing a number directly after the W, You can stipulate the number of words that can appear between the two words of your search, by putting a number directly after the W.
If you don’t need your search term to appear in a specific order, you can use the N operator in the same way. N, which means near, will show results where a term might appear before or after the next word but within the proximity limit.
Whilst not every search engine can use wildcards and truncation as a way to refine your search, those that do often use a number of common symbols including the question mark (?), hashtag (#), and asterisk (*).
Wildcards is the term given to symbols which are used to replace letters in searches. For instance, a search engine would use a question mark to tell the engine to return all found combinations for that marked character. It can be useful for if you’re using terms that might have a number of spelling differences, like between British and American spelling, and for including some singular and plural variants within these search terms.
The hashtag has a similar function to the question mark, but does not give a specific value to the number of letters being replaced, even if none are replaced. You should note that by using a wildcard, the search engine will not return plural variants of the words you search, and you will need to use truncation if you want to include plural variations in the search result.
Truncation is a way for a search engine to also include prefixes, extensions, or plurals connected to the search in your results. Truncation is commonly signified by an asterisk, and the asterisk is placed where you might expect the search engine to return alternative letter combinations. For example, *biotic will return results including prebiotic, probiotic, and antibiotic.
Using wildcards in a search term might return some of these words in its search:
Wom?n = women, woman
Theat?? = theatre, theater
Col#r = colour, color
*biotic = antibiotic, prebiotic, probiotic
Boolean operators are used by the search engine to define a relationship between your search terms. The Boolean operators are AND, OR, and NOT. The Boolean operators AND and OR can seem counterintuitive because it might go against how we commonly use these words, but learning how they work can really help with your research.
The AND operator is used to narrow your search to only show results that include all of your search terms. However, if you use very broad or common search terms in your search, you will end up getting a number of results that do not meaningfully connect the terms in a meaningful way.
The OR operator is used to broaden your search by adding all the results for each of the terms. The OR operator can be a useful tool if you wish to do a search that contains a number of include similar terms in your search, such as university as well as college. You would also use the OR operator where a number of common terms are used to describe the same thing, such as aubergine and eggplant. Whilst many search engines are advanced enough to include both English and American spellings of certain words in the search result where they differ, you can use the OR operator to make sure that they’re both included in the same result.
The Boolean operator NOT can be used if you wish to exclude certain terms from your search.
Another reason NOT can be used is in circumstances where two terms are used to describe the same overarching concept, but where your field of study specifically favours one term over another.
Combining Boolean operators
A simple search using a Boolean operator may still return results that are broader than you would like. To reduce the odds of this from happening, you can use different combinations of two or more Boolean operators to conduct a more precise search, using brackets to determine each part of the search.
Further refining search results
Even if you use a combination of phrase searching, proximity operators, wildcards and truncation and Boolean operators, you might still end up getting more or fewer search results than what you might expect. You might also want to conduct a more precise search than what you’re getting, and there are a number or ways where you can do so.
If you are getting few search results
If you are getting few search results from the words you used, this might happen because you defined your search too narrowly, as more specific terms will end up generating fewer search results. It might also happen if you are placing a great deal of your search in inverted commas, and if you wish to broaden out your search term, you might need to put fewer words in quotes.
Many academic journals often use language in a particular way and have their own terms to describe particular things. This might mean that using different terminology, like using common search terms, will likely return a different result to what you expect. To stop this from happening, try to stick to using your discipline’s terminology when conducting searches, and many disciplines may have a resource that lets you know about what these terms mean. If not, you can refer to your reading list or lecture notes.
If you’re looking for more results, your University or College Library’s search engine might have a function that allows you to link to other similar resources that reference the resources you found. You can also use the search engine to dig deeper into the bibliography of those resources to find out which papers that they reference.
What do you need to do if you get too many results?
Sometimes, if your search contains too many results from your search, you might be tempted to just use the first papers you encounter, but just finding these papers might cause a great deal of frustration if you have to look for more resources later on, which can have an impact on your assignment’s quality.
You can use the delimiters the search engine provides to limit the number of search results you receive, including ‘Full Text Online’, if you want to access the resource through the Library’s database remotely, or restricting your search results to a particular journal collection. Targeting specific collections can help you increase your chances of finding the right material for your. You can also use a date limiter that limits your search results to a range of dates if you wish to include or exclude older journals or research materials that might be rendered obsolete by newer advances in your field of study.
If you wish to avoid searching an entire document for terms, as that occurs in many search engines, you can use Advanced Search to restrict your search to certain parameters, like if you’re looking for a particular text or author.
You can also search from a wide range of databases in your Library if you wish to conduct a more specific search across each discipline.
How do I borrow a Book at a Library?
The first thing you need to do is to look at your University’s Library Catalogue, which can be found through the Library website or at a kiosk that you can find throughout the building. Usually, a Library’s catalogue is structured sequentially to make it easier to find what you’re looking for, with sections for each academic discipline like History, Law, Science or Business, or Cultural Studies. In order to check and find out if a book is available, you need to first type in either the title of the book or a keyword that matches the subject you’re looking for. If we search for “Irish History Early 20th Century” into the database will return search results for both books that have those words in the title, as well as books with these keywords that would address these topics. You can also adjust this search so that it can only return. The more accurate and concise the search term is, the more likely the database will return the search you want, so the best way to find the book you want is to put the main title of the book you want into the database.
Every book in the library may have its own unique shelfmark or a call number where you use to locate the book at the Library, depending on the type of referencing system your University or College’s Library might use. This call number might usually contain a subject that denotes what the book is about or a specific topic, along with a code that might identify the author, like their surname. Make a note of the shelfmark or call number, or whatever system the Library uses to identify each book as this will come useful when you go looking for the book on the shelves.
You might notice that some of the signs at the Library have a code with a subject next to it that lets you know the section in the library the book may be located. You can use the code to guide you to the section of the Library where the book may be located and which floor the book might be in.
When you reach the section of the Library you are looking for, you can use the signs at the end of each shelf to help you to locate where the book is on the shelf. Each section of the Library is ordered from left to right and from top to bottom. Within each section, each book has a label denoting its call number or shelfmark, which can be broken into parts according to its subject number, specific subject number and the author’s surname. First, use the subject number to find the section where the book is contained, and then use the code to look for the shelf that all the books that are on the same subject are held. Once you find the section where all the books on the same subject are contained, go through the section from left to right, as within this subject, the books may be arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname. Move along the shelves until you find the first letter of the author’s surname. Once you do so, keep moving from left to right then the 2nd and 3rd letters or numbers, which is the exact location of the book. There might be a number of copies contained in the Library, and the Library’s database will let you know how many copies are available.
If you wish to borrow the book, you can use the Self-Service Checkout kiosks located at the lobby, or go to the desk to borrow the book.
Evaluating your Search Results
A key skill that you might need in your studies is to find ways to refine your results so that you can find out which sources are the most relevant to the topic, and which ones are the best to use.
Distinguish between what is fact and what is opinion
When you collect a number of sources that you wish to use in your assignment, the next task is to find out which sources will be the most valuable to you at this time. One way to do this is to make a distinction between what is fact and what is opinion, which can both help you to further refine your results and to build on your critical thinking skills.
To make the most out of this skill, you will need to not just know the difference between fact and opinion, but also determine how much of this information you need in your assignment, namely how much you need to say what events happened (facts), and how much you need to say how or why these events happened (opinion).
A fact is a statement that can be verified by research or evidence supporting its claim. In academic writing, authors might use certain terms to point out what is fact and what is opinion. Statements of fact might use terms like confirm, demonstrate or prove to show that this statement is verified.
In academia, an opinion is often deemed as an informed judgement that an author makes which explains why a certain fact or event happened. Whilst opinions are often based on facts, they are not in themselves facts as even strong opinions leave themselves open to be contested by a different version of events. Opinions, particularly from academics and experts in their field, are important as they help us to understand why this fact happened, how they might fit into a particular narrative or context of wider events and what we need to do with these facts. Authors might use terms like claim, argue, and assert to note that the claim is a statement of opinion.
Beliefs and convictions are claims that might be based on prevailing social beliefs, but might not be used as academic arguments as they are not backed up by strong scientific or factual evidence. Only when such evidence exists is when you can use such beliefs to inform or reinforce your argument. Some beliefs are well established to the point that they become paradigms which were established before we had the time or resources to verify these facts.
Evaluating your findings
In order to ensure that the results are reliable, objective and relevant to your topic, you need to find ways of evaluating your results. One such system you can use to think about the quality of your sources is a PROMPT system.
Publication – Is the source you use deemed to be a reliable, credible and trusted source or publication by its audience? Resources you access through your college or University database are more likely to be trusted as academic sources as the database filters out sources that might not be relevant to your academic needs.
Relevance – Is the information you found relevant to your needs? Not every source you find will be a good match for your needs for a variety of reasons, like the information being too general, or only covers one aspect of the wider remit of your chosen topic, and you will need to make a judgement as to how much the information fits with your needs, and how much of this information you will use in your final assignment.
Objective – How objective is the source you use? Do you feel that subject matter in the paper might be contentious or controversial? Do you believe that the paper is pushing an idea, belief or agenda without offering all the facts available or discussing different points of view? Does the paper try to forcefully persuade a reader by using emotive language or does it try to take a more neutral or objective perspective? Do we know who funded the research behind the source and what their motivations might be? These are all things you might consider before making a judgment as to how objective your source might be.
Method – The different research methods used by a study can affect the findings’ objectivity and veracity. To verify this, you might need to consider such aspects as the way data was collected, where the data came from and whether it was the appropriate method to collect this data? Is the data a representative sample size and are the results convincing and unambiguous? that reflects the wider findings of your research. Other ways might include whether you choose to directly quote from a source or judgment or do you reference from an analysis of that source, and what kind of referencing system you use.
Personalities – If you are checking the veracity of a resource, you might also need to consider how this work fits into their wider profile and their body of work. You might also need to consider who the author of the paper is, how often they have been published, their particular field of expertise, where they work, what sort of capacity do they work, do they have a public profile or do they hold any other posts that might add credibility to their findings or present a possible conflict of interest?
Timeliness – The time a paper was written can also have an impact on how research was perceived, its relevance to your studies and how you can use this research in your assignment. Many disciplines place a higher currency on more recent research, as this can be more relevant to your thesis, so you might have to consider what the prevailing research techniques, attitudes and expertise were at the time the research was published, and how it might change in the years that followed. This might be particularly the case if you are using older research, but be careful not to use research that might be outdated as it might have an impact on the quality of your current research.
Saving your research
Trying to manage the volume of research you use can become overwhelming, particularly if you need to use extensive references for your assignment. One way of managing your resources is to create a folder that contains your resources, and to open a word document that logs each source you use for your Bibliography in your assignment, so you can refer to it when referencing your assignment, or highlight sections that might be particularly relevant to the overall findings or thesis you wish to present.
There are reference management tools available, like EndNote or Zotero, that can help you to manage your references and sources more effectively. This software can capture bibliographic information on your sources in the referencing style you need to use in your assignment, and allow you to build a database of materials you can use for referencing. A plug-in attached to your chosen word processor like Google Docs or Microsoft Word can make footnotes based on your bibliography in accordance with the referencing system you are using, or even suggest similar papers based on your saved history that you can use to deepen your knowledge on that subject