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Research skills

Good research skills will help you find the information you need for your studies.  Searching effectively will save you time and ensure you find appropriate, good quality sources to help you do well in your assignments.

Site: Solent Online Learning
Course: Succeed@Solent
Book: Research skills
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Date: Thursday, 23 November 2017, 10:13 PM

Research

This book will help you develop your research skills to ensure you are able to locate useful information sources for your assignments.

  • The search strategies section looks at how to put together an effective and efficient search process
  • The identifying information section will help you work out which information sources are going to be most relevant to you - and where to get them
  • The evaluating information section discusses the importance of using quality sources and gives pointers as to how to identify these
  • The internet searches section looks at how to get the best out of searching the web.

Search strategies

Planning your search process will help ensure you find relevant information from appropriate sources.  The planning stage requires you to think about some key issues relating to your topic and then you are ready to search for the information itself.

When planning your search you should think about:

This book will take you through the process of planning your search.

Search strategies summary (PDF opens in new window)

To find out what you already know, why not take the quiz below?


Keywords

To identify search terms to use, analyse your title. What keywords in the title tell you the topic you need to look at?

"Discuss the impact of tuition fees on students and university applications".

  1. The keywords pinpoint the main topics you are being asked to look at. They are a good starting point for developing a search.
  2. You could go further and identify some alternative keywords to use in your searches – just in case your original ones don’t find everything you need.

These will allow for differences in word choice between authors, different spellings, the use of acronyms and abbreviations etc.

Alternative keywords

You should identify other keywords you could use to ensure you find all the information on your topic. This allows for differences of spelling, word choice and the use of acronyms or abbreviations.

  • Having alternative or broader keywords can help you find a wider range of information
  • Having a number of more specific, narrower keywords can help focus your search and ensure you don’t find too much information.

Example

Keyword: University

The range of terms you could identify include:

Alternatives: have a very similar meaning to your original keyword

       Uni, Universities, Higher Education

Broader terms: have a general link to your keyword

       Education, Learning

Narrower terms: have a more specific link to your keyword

       Degree, Undergraduate, Postgraduate


Why not try matching the broader/narrower or alternative terms in the keywords quiz (see below)?


Linking your search terms

To make your search effective, think about how you link your keywords together. This will ensure that you can connect together different concepts or keywords, rather than searching for a phrase.

Linking search terms

The main connectors (often called Boolean connectors) you can use are:

AND – finds both your keywords: Beer AND hangover

OR – finds either of your keywords: Beer OR lager

NOT – excludes a keyword: Beer NOT hangover (be careful – relevant results could still include your term!)

Grouping alternative terms

You can use brackets to group together terms that are linked within your search. So, use OR to connect two similar terms within brackets to find either term AND another term together:

Hangover and (beer or lager) will find results containing:

  • hangover and beer
  • hangover and lager

Using these will allow you to build up detailed searches.

Tip:

Some databases and search engines may include AND for you or use different connectors.

Use the Help links or Search tips provided by each resource for more information.

Phrase searching

You can search for a specific phrase by enclosing it in "quotation marks". This will ensure your search terms are found in the order specified e.g. "Southampton beer festival".

Have a go at the quiz to see if you can select the correct linking elements to make a search strategy (see below).


Truncation and wildcards

Here are a couple of hints that will help you improve your searches and save you time!

Truncation

You can truncate a word using a truncation symbol – often an asterisk * or exclamation mark !. This will find all different endings of a word and saves you having to type in plurals, words ending in ‘ing’ and so on.

Comput* will find compute, computer, computing, computed, computerised...

Manage! will find manage, manager, managed, manageable...

Be careful you don’t use truncation too early though:

Comp* will find computer, computing etc but will also find competition, comprehensive, complicated and many more!

Wildcards

You can also search for different letters within a word to take account of different spellings - the symbol is often ! or ?.

Wom?n will find woman and women;

Colo!r will find color and colour.

Tip:

Many electronic resources give you guidance on which wildcard symbol to use.

Have a look at the Help links or Search tips provided by each resource for more information.

Try the keywords quiz to test your knowledge (see below).


Improving a search

It is always worth trying several different searches to make sure you find a range of information. Even if your first attempt has found some relevant results, try some of your alternative terms to get a good overview of the literature.

Too few results

If your search has not found many results:

  • Try using fewer keywords or some of your general (broader) keywords. This should increase your results
  • Then try adding in keywords to narrow down your results to those that are relevant
  • Use truncation to find different word endings – sometimes just allowing for plurals can increase your results
  • Consider using full versions of words/phrases if you have used an acronym or abbreviation as your keyword.

Too many results 

If your search has found too many results or they aren’t relevant to your topic:

  • Try adding more keywords to your search to make it more focussed
  • If the resource you are searching allows, specify where your search terms are found e.g. in the title or the abstract. This should make the results more relevant.

For example, if you wanted to know how students support themselves through university, a search on finances may find a vast range of results but a search on student* and financ* and loan* may find fewer, more relevant results.

Identifying information

To find the information you need for an assignment, you need to work out which sources are most likely to provide it.  You will then have a better idea of where you will be able to obtain those sources from - whether it will be a printed or multimedia resource from a library, a subscribed online resource, a website or a text that you already own etc.

Introduction to identifying information:

This tutorial will help you work out which are the best sources to use and where to find them.

Identifying information summary (PDF opens in new window)

Which sources will provide the information you need?

Choosing an appropriate source to meet your needs can save you time and help you get hold of the information that is relevant to you.

Information is made available in a range of formats. Below are links below to some of the information sources you are most likely to use, outlining their advantages and disadvantages.  (The book 'Introduction to information sources' opens in a new window).

Atlases and maps
Books
Conference papers
Dictionaries and thesauri
eBooks (Electronic books)
eJournals (Electronic journal)
Encyclopedias
Films
Journals
Magazines
Newpapers
Reports
Statistics
Television programmes
Websites

Where can you get the information from?

There are many ways you can locate and access information sources. The internet has made a lot of information widely and readily available; however printed information is still very valuable.

It is important to remember that, at the moment, not everything is available online so you may want to think about how you will get hold of quality printed information too.

The following pages provide an overview of the options you have for finding information.

Watch this video to find out how information librarians can help you:

Libraries

Modern libraries (both public and university libraries) can offer a wealth of information in a variety of formats – and it's mostly free to use!

Library resources often include:

  • Books and ebooks
  • Journals and ejournals; magazines; newspapers - many may be available electronically
  • DVDs and videos
  • Audio materials
  • Internet access
  • Dissertations (university libraries)
  • Reports
  • Images - some may be available electronically

The advantages of using libraries to find information are:

  • Library staff can offer help and advice for locating information
  • You can quickly locate information sources by searching the Library Catalogue
  • Help you find reliable, good quality information
Watch this video for a student's perspective:

Internet

The Internet has made accessing information more flexible and often quicker – but remember that not everything is going to be online!

The Internet can provide you with access to resources such as:

  • News websites
  • Open access journal articles (research published freely online)
  • Company and organisation websites
  • Government websites
  • General interest websites
  • Online audio and video resources
  • Social networking sites
  • …the list is almost endless!

You can use a search engine to do a general search on the Internet, or try a subject-specific search engine or directory.

However, beware of the quality of the sources you are using. Anyone can put anything on the internet – just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean it is the best source of information. You may need to use a variety of sources to get the information you need.

Online databases

In this context, a database is a collection of the publication details for a wide range of information resources. It will help you identify what has been published on a topic.

Databases can fall into two categories:

1. Full text

  • Provide the full text for some search results e.g. the complete journal article
  • Search for a topic and then view the full text of any relevant results online.

2. Abstract and indexing

  • Provide the publication details for any results
  • Usually provide an abstract which gives a summary of the full text.

You must use these brief details to decide if the item would be relevant to you. If it is, you will need to see if you can get hold of the full text. You could do this by seeing if a library has it or perhaps by searching the Internet. If necessary, you may want to buy the source for yourself. Many databases offer a combination of both options. Some results will be in full text, others will just give you an abstract.

The advantages of using the databases to locate information are:

  • Search a number of sources in one go
  • May get the full text online
  • Save you time on your searches
  • Print, save, email or export the results
  • Allow you to save searches and have them re-run with new results emailed to you.

The Library at Southampton Solent University gives you access to over 200 of these databases for free!  See the eResources section on the Library Portal for links to the databases available to you (see below).

Library eResources (Opens in new window)

People

Other people can be a good source of information!  They may also be able to help you identify useful information sources.

Librarians

  • Help you think about your topic and the best way to search for information
  • Help you identify print and electronic sources – both in the Library and from outside sources.

Tutors

  • Your tutor may be able to recommend specific sources relevant to your topic
  • Tutors may know other experts or professionals who could help you.

Colleagues and friends

  • May be able to recommend sources of information.

Organisations

  • May be able to supply you with documents that aren't formally published.

Bibliographies and reference lists

A bibliography (or reference list) is a list of information sources that is included in books, journal articles etc. It identifies the sources the author used in their own research.

A bibliography can be a useful way of identifying other sources you can look at. If you find a book that is useful to you, the bibliography may help you identify further sources on the topic that should also be relevant.

The bibliography should give full publication details of each source which you can use to find it for yourself.

Book shops

These can be online book sellers or shops in the street.

You may find the details of a useful book that isn't held by a local library. If you think it would be very useful, you could consider buying your own copy.

You could also consider browsing book shops or online book sellers to look for relevant publications.

Publishers often have their own websites which may include the contents pages of books or give overviews and reviews. These may help you identify relevant books - you can then check if they are in your library or buy a copy for yourself.

Evaluating information

How do you know if the information you are reading is any good?  This is an important point to consider as you don't want to use inaccurate or inappropriate information in your assignments.

Introduction to evaluating information:

So, once you have gathered your information sources, you should evaluate them to determine their quality.  Evaluating the quality of a source also requires you to think about its relevance and reliability.

Relevance

  • Does the source give you the information you need? If you cannot find out at least some of what you need to know from a source, you can discount it.

Reliablility

  • Is it giving you accurate information? Are any arguments given convincing? Does it complement other sources on the topic?

It is important to evaluate the sources you have found to determine their quality, relevance and reliability. This tutorial will show you what to consider in the process.

Evaluating information summary (PDF opens in new window)

Why quality matters

So why should you ensure your sources are of good quality?

1. The quality of your research sources will influence the quality of your own work – and consequently your marks.

  • Make sure you don’t base your own work on misleading or inaccurate information
  • The quality of the sources in your reference list or bibliography will demonstrate the strength and depth of your research
  • Your tutors will expect you to use reputable sources, appropriate to your level of study.

2. Show that you are engaging with the key writers, thinkers and research in your subject

  • If you are studying the topic, you should demonstrate your awareness of current thinking and research
  • This will usually be found in the good quality books, textbooks and journals published in the subject area.

3. The Internet provides a quick and easy way of searching for information – however, it lacks any quality control process so anyone can publish anything on the web.

  • Think about whether you want reputable, good quality sources and consider where you are most likely to find these for your particular subject.

Evaluating the quality of the content

What can you look at to determine the quality of an information source?  The key things to consider include:

Author: assess authority

Is the author qualified to write about the subject?

Look at the author information, the title page or use reference sources to check the author's credentials:

  • What relevant educational qualifications do they have?
  • What else have they written on the subject?
  • Do they work for an educational establishment or organisation that is strongly linked to the subject?

Publication date: assess the currency of a source

Some subject areas, such as computing, change rapidly and information can quickly become out of date. For other subjects, such as art, older information may still be valid.

  • Check the date of publication – usually given on the title page or back of the title page for printed resources
  • For websites, see if a creation date or date of last update is available.

Publication details: assess authority and reliability

Checking to see who published a source can help you determine its quality and reliability:

  • Well-established publishers put sources through a review process before publication. This should help ensure the information is accurate and reliable
  • Some publishers focus on particular subject areas and so may have a good reputation within the field
  • Websites may be published or hosted by organisations or educational establishments; this may help you assess the quality of the website.

However, there is no quality review process for a lot of information published on the web (unlike with books and journals); you will have to do this yourself.

Content: assess accuracy, reliability and relevance

Even if the source is reliable and of good quality, it is not useful unless it provides the information you need. Evaluate the content before deciding to use a source.

  • Look at any summary given and scan any contents page and index to see if your key topics are covered
  • Does the source cover your subject in enough detail?
  • Does it cover your subject at a suitable level for you?
  • Can you detect any bias in the writing? Will this affect how useful the source is for your purpose? Can you identify other sources that will offer a balance to it?
  • Is the content credible? Does it include evidence such as facts or figures to justify what is being said?
  • Cross reference the source with others - do your sources complement each other?
  • Does it provide a reference list or bibliography? This indicates that the source has been well-researched and can suggest other relevant sources you could use.
Watch this video for tips on sourcing reliable research:


Test yourself on your understanding of quality with the quiz below!


Internet searches

The internet has opened up a whole new way of finding and accessing information.  However, there are a number of things you need to consider when searching on the internet.

This tutorial will cover some of the key considerations to help you get the best out of internet searches:

  • Is the internet good for research?
  • Finding information on the net
  • Advanced searching tips
  • Finding the good websites.

Introduction to internet searches:

Internet searches summary (PDF opens in new window)

Why not test how much you already know about searching the internet by taking the quiz (see below)?


Is the internet good for research?

What the Internet can provide is:

  • Easy, quick and flexible access to a vast amount of information
  • Multimedia, such as podcasts and videos
  • A huge range of available information
  • Electronic access to some books and journals.

However, there are pitfalls in relying too heavily on the Internet for your research. If you want to use the Internet effectively, try to:

  • Remember that not everything is published online
  • Question whether the information available is the best or most reliable source
  • Bear in mind the limitations of relying on the Internet for finding information
  • Use intelligent searching to make sure you make the most of the web.

Finding information on the Internet

As the amount of information available on the web is so vast, it is important to search for it effectively.  The most common way of searching for freely available information is to use a search engine.  However, a lot of information is not freely available and requires a one-off purchase or subscription.  A large number of useful subscription-resources are paid for by the Library - allowing Solent students free access to quality information.

Search engines

Various search engines are available and are generally straightforward to use.  You can enter your search terms in the query box, limit the search if required, and then view a list of relevance ranked results.

However, unless your query is very specific, you will often find you have a large number of results returned - too many to look through.  Some results may lack relevance to your needs if the terms were found but in an unrelated context.

Examples:

Google, Yahoo, Ask and many more!

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a search engine that allows you to search for more academic material such as journal articles and books.  You may not always get the full text but you can identify key resources to pursue.  You can get Scholar to indicate where the Library has access to the full text of items in your results list by going into Settings and, in the Library Links section, searching for and selecting Southampton Solent University.

You may end up with large numbers of results to work through but you can refine your search to try and obtain a useful results list.

Subscribed resources

This refers to resources for which there is an access cost - such as online databases which allow you to search for quality literature (and often provide the full text too).

A lot of the good quality information on the Internet is not freely available.

  • You may be asked to pay for access to it, or it may not be found by search engines as it is located in the 'deep' or 'invisible' web - online resources that web crawlers cannot access
  • Many academic libraries subscribe to a number of these resources to provide their students with free access to quality information.

Southampton Solent University subscribes to over 200 such resources - you can access these via the eResources link on the Library Portal (see below).

Library eResources (Opens in new window)

These resources are worth using as you will be able to search a vast range of quality information for free and may get the full text of a journal article or book online.

Examples:

ABI Inform, Academic OneFile, Art Full Text, Construction Information Service, Fame, IEEE Xplore, Westlaw, Sport Discus and many more!

 

Advanced searching tips

You can use search engines more effectively by applying some advanced search features. This may help you narrow down your results to those that are relevant to you. Many search engines allow you to select an ‘advanced search’ option to make use of a range of search limits.

Using connectors and truncation (* ! ?)

  • Incorporating phrase searching " ... ", connecting terms (AND, OR, NOT) and truncation (*, !, ?) within your searches can make them more effective
  • See the Search strategies tutorial for more information.

Limiting by creation date or date of update

  • Find up to date resources or information from a specific time period.

Search a specific part of a document

  • Searching for your terms in the title or url can return more specific results.

Search a specific part of the web

  • Limit your search to results from blogs, images or videos only, for example, to find a specific type of resource.

Synonym search

  • Find synonyms for your search terms by putting a ~ in front of the term (Google).

Search for your terms within a domain name

  • Enter site: and domain name after your search terms or use any options given in an advanced search screen.

Language or country search

  • Restrict results by language or country of origin if this will help narrow down your results list.

There are many other tips available. Most search engines provide specific guidance so have a look at the ones you use regularly.

Finding the good websites

Search engines often rank their results according to how closely they relate to your search terms. However, it is possible that sites can be manipulated to ensure they rank highly for certain searches to get them to the top of the list.

Therefore, you must evaluate the quality of a website for yourself. You must ensure it is reliable, accurate and authoritative – that it's a good quality source.

Quality: issues to consider

Content

  • Is your subject covered in an acceptable amount of detail?
  • Is it aimed at a suitable audience level for your needs - it’s not simplified or aimed at an expert?
  • Is it well-written and clear?

Authority

  • Who wrote the source?  Are they qualified to write about this subject?
  • Who published the source and are they a reputable publisher?

It can be difficult to determine the authority of a website – the author may not be given or there may be little information about their background and qualifications.

As anyone can publish on the web, you may not be able to rely on there being a formal publishing procedure which checks for quality and accuracy before publication. Therefore, be careful about accepting any source of information where you are unsure of its origin.

You could try looking at any ‘About us’ links for information about the producer of the website or check the url to see if it gives any clues. For example, 'edu' or 'ac.uk' suggest the source originates from a university.

Objectivity

  • Is the source biased in favour of a particular viewpoint?
  • Does it offer a balanced overview of a topic?

Check the information to ensure you are not getting a partial account of a topic. You may want to cross reference it with other sources to get a complete picture.

Accuracy

  • Is the information provided accurate?
  • Are supporting facts and figures given to substantiate any arguments or claims?

Cross referencing with other sources should help you evaluate accuracy.

Currency

  • Is the information up to date?
  • Is this an important consideration for your subject?

Check for a date of creation for the site and for any date that it was last revised – this should help to indicate the currency of the source.

Websites are not always permanent – you may find that a website you have used is removed. This means others may not be able to refer to your source and this may impact on its credibility.

Usability

  • Is the website easy to navigate and use?

A well designed and presented website makes it easier to find the information you need – but you still need to evaluate the quality of that information!

Research checklist

ChecklistTo carry out your research effectively you need to:

  • Plan your research strategy by thinking about which search terms would be best to use
  • Work out which sources of information are likely to be most relevant and where you would find them
  • Evaluate any sources you find to ensure they are of good quality
  • Ensure you can search online resources effectively to get the most out of off-campus research opportunities.

More help

For further help with research skills you can:

  • Ask your lecturer for guidance
  • Speak to the Information Librarian for your subject
  • Read one of the books suggested in the reading list found in Extra resources
  • Visit recommended websites in Extra resources for further guidance
  • If you are a disabled student you can contact Access Solent for guidance and support
  • View the glossary to help you understand the words use

If you have any feedback about this book, or additional material you'd like to see in the course, please email us at lt.help.ac.uk.

Extra resources

Reading List

The following titles are available from the library:

Recommended websites

Guidance on research skills

Research factsheets (Weblink opens in new window)

Library factsheets on research skills.

InfoSuss (Weblink opens in new window)

Information skills guide produced by the University of Sussex.

Search engines for finding scholarly resources

Google Scholar (Weblink opens in new window)

Search engine for academic content.

Guidance on searching the internet

Intute - virtual training suite (Weblink opens in new window)

Online tutorials to help you get the best out of Internet research for your subject.

Search Engine Watch (Weblink opens in new window)

Offers hints and guidance on how to search the web as well as figures on the search engine industry.

Downloadables

Documents used in this resource

Search strategies summary (PDF opens in new window)
Identifying information summary (PDF  opens in new window)
Evaluating information summary (PDF opens in new window)
Internet searches summaries (PDF opens in new window)