Research Survival Guide: Mastering Your Dissertation or Project


Published on

Working on a longer piece of research can be daunting, and you need to find and evaluate the literature around the subject. This session will provide you with tools to do a comprehensive literature search, to assess the material to identify the most useful and appropriate items, and some tools to help with compiling a bibliography.

Published in: Education
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide
  • You all use libraries and electronic resources to complete work for supervisions, so you may feel quite confident in your ability to find material – but how often are you simply finding material from a reading list provided to you? What we want to do today is give you extra tools to ensure that you find as much material as possible for your dissertation or project but also for your general weekly work. We’re also going to have a look at how to evaluate sources, particularly those online, and, very importantly, some tools to take the pain out of referencing.
  • Okay, so first of all lets think about where you are going to be looking for material.For physical material, like books, the University library catalogues are the best place to start. LibrarySearch collates information on material held in most of the libraries across Cambridge. You will have access to your College Library, departmental or faculty Library and the University Library. You may also be able to gain access to other departmental or faculty libraries if there is material they hold that you can’t otherwise read. The same may be true of College libraries as well. The best thing is always to contact a library and ask whether you can come to look at the material – the worst that can happen is they say no, but often they will say yes.
  • If there is material that is not available anywhere in Cambridge it’s also worth talking to faculty or departmental librarians, and your College librarians about whether it is something they would purchase or could order in using an inter-library loan. A lot will depend on how expensive an item is and whether it is in print. In College libraries we tend to want to buy books that will be of use to a number of students over the years, so more obscure texts are usually better placed in faculty libraries.
  • For electronic material there is nothing wrong with starting to search using Google or Google Scholar. Both will bring back an awful lot of references, but bear in mind that not all results may be freely available to you. If there is an article or database that you can’t seem to access do ask a librarian so we can check whether you can get free access. Whatever you do don’t get your credit card out before double-checking!
  • Particularly in some art subjects, also consider whether there are primary sources that you can access. For History of Art that might be a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, for Music or English lit there might be something in the University Library, or for History don’t forget that there are practically as many archives as libraries in Cambridge. There’s a link on your handout for Janus, the catalogue of Archives in Cambridge.TO ANNIE
  • Ok, so let’s start the literature search. When you are starting a dissertation or project, perhaps even before you settle on a title, you will need to do a thorough literature search. Firstly, is there enough material relating to your subject for you to be able to produce the piece of work required? If your search only turns up a couple of articles, perhaps that is a topic for PhD-level research instead! You need to ensure that the topic you choose is realistic. Your supervisor may steer you on this to some extent, but looking at what has already been written round the subject will also give you a good guide. There’s no need to make life difficult for yourself from the start.
  • A literature search is a detailed and organised, step by step search for all of the material available on a topic.The parameters that you set when you word your research question is what defines “all the material”. If you set yourself a really broad topic, there will obviously be a lot more literature out there to sift through.It’s very unlikely that you can read everything, so a bit later on you need to be discerning. But first of all you need to cast your net as wide as possible to find everything that might be useful. Then you can filter it down.
  • Knowing exactly what to search for can be tricky. Randomly putting search terms into the catalogue as you think of them is not the best strategy! In order to show you have a good grasp of your topic, you will need to conduct your research methodically.
  • Think about your research topic [click] what question are you asking?[click] Break the research question down into the key concepts that you will need to search for.[click] Think of different ways to express each concept. Identify synonyms and variant spellings to make sure your search is as thorough as possible. Consider whether American or European researchers use slightly different terms.
  • Here’s an exampleYour topic is the impact of advertising. [click] You’ve managed to narrow this down to the more precise question ‘Does television advertising have any influence on children’s eating habits?’ [click] This question can be broken down into a few concepts[click] And then for each of the concepts you would do as I’ve done here, and expand your list of search terms with synonyms, variant spellings etc.At the bottom right I’ve put a question mark after youth, adolescent and teen. In Heritage or LibrarySearch the ? is a wildcard character so if you search for Teen? you will get results containing any words starting “teen”, so teenage, teenager teenagers etc. If you were to put the ? At the start of the word you would get results ending in “teen” including thirteen, fourteen, fifteen etc.Here’s a brief worksheet for you to have a go at now. If you have a topic in mind you can use that, or otherwise, perhaps think about a recent piece of work you’ve done, or what the topic of your next supervision is as a basis. We’re going to give you 5 minutes to have a go at this. You can work with a partner if you wish. We’ve got some spare sheets and this will also go up as a resource on the library blog so you can download a fresh copy when you need it.[GIVE WORKSHEET – 5 minutes to fill in] At the start of your literature search, make a list like this, and use these terms to search the catalogue. Go through the list methodically, crossing off search terms when you have exhausted them. You will almost certainly come across new terms while you are reading, which you can add to the list. You may also want to note down any specific authors or journals that you are already aware of in your research area, authors’ names in particular can be very useful search terms.
  • If you are getting too many irrelevant search results you may need to refine your search – think about whether the terms you are using may be too general.
  • On the other hand if you’re not getting many results or aren’t getting any at all, try removing keywords or choosing a more general term. And don’t forget to check your spelling!And remember there are more resources out there for you than books – consider journal articles, newspaper reports, databases, Google scholar, the web. Depending on your topic you may need to look quite widely.TO LIZ
  • Once you’ve gathered results you need to consider what to do with them. In most instances there is no way you can read everything on the list, and some of it won’t turn out to be relevant. So, ask first, is it for an essay or for a dissertation? This will impact on how many sources you should look at. You then need to evaluate your sources.
  • For books and ebooks use Heritage or LibrarySearch to find copies. If you are unsure whether the book will be useful, take a look at the ebook where one is available. This will save having to get hold of a physical copy of the book from the Library.Ask questions such as:Why was the book written? – was it to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to teach or to provide an overview of an area?Who published the book? – was it a university press, commercial publisher, government, professional association, a campaign group?When was it published? Consider the date if this is relevant to your subject. For English literature, history, theology, age may be no barrier to good content, for science subjects and law etc, making sure you have the most up to date information on the subject is key to a good piece of work.Is the book well organised? Do the contents or index indicate you are likely to find material you need?Has the book got a bibliography? If so, does it cover primary sources? If you find a good book that has a bibliography don’t forget to use that as another source for finding useful material.For what sort of audience is the book aimed? i.e general reader, students, specialists, researchers?
  • You hopefully attended a session last week focussing on journal articles, so I’ll just show you how to find them rather than assess them, though much of what has just been said about books applies equally well. I recommend accessing articles via LibrarySearch+. Within the results you can limit them to ‘peer reviewed’ articles (blue highlighted area) to restrict your search to articles which have been evaluated by other academics. You can also use the options on the left to limit your search in a number of other ways, including date ranges. Bear in mind that the majority of articles in LibrarySearch+ are available to you, but for some you can only access an abstract. Again, if in doubt ask a librarian to avoid paying wherever possible.
  • Often a particular database will be recommended when you type your search into LibrarySearch+.You can then repeat your search within that database. You can also find relevant databases by subject through the eresources@cambridge link. You may also get some tips on the best ones to use from your Faculty librarian.All the databases subscribed to by the University can be considered of good quality, as can the information within them. But still be aware that particular articles or reports may contain intentional or unintentional bias.
  • In some subjects, particularly the social science subjects, you made need to find more current information than journal articles can provide. Newspapers are a good source of recent information, and you can find newspaper articles on LibrarySearch+ and also through the LexisNexis database.Bias in newspapers is definitely to be considered, particularly political bias. Most papers are fairly openly and obviously in support of one political party over another, so bear that in mind and look at multiple sources rather than relying on just one.
  • As we said earlier, Google and Google Scholar can be incredibly powerful tools for gathering together resources that might be useful for your literature search. But what you need to recognise and compensate for, is that Google, and even Google Scholar, have no academic filters. They will bring you results, but with no indication of how trustworthy or accurate the contents are.
  • There are some advanced tools you can use with Google to limit searches. A particularly good one for some of you will be to limit the results to sites with certain web address endings such as and .edu for University sites, or .gov, for official government sites. .org sites are more complicated – they tend to signify charities or other non-profit organisations, but this does not mean the content is without quite heavy bias at times. The advanced search option is not very obvious when you are on Google, so we’ve included a link on the handout.So what can you do when faced with websites that you need to assess?
  • Let’s say you need to find out information about Homeopathy. A quick google search will bring up lots of results, including quite a number of official sounding bodies. Let’s have a closer look at some of these sites to see how you can assess them.Start off with some of the same questions you asked of a book - Why was the site written? Who wrote the site?When was it last updated?Who is the target audience?
  • Let’s start with WikipediaWe’ve got a long article here, but in the opening paragraphs we can see homeopathy described as “nonsense, quackery or a sham”. That’s a fairly good indicator of the attitude of this article, but of course bear in mind that many people can edit this page, so the bias of it may change at intervals. Usually Wikipedia notes at the top of a page if the article seems to be particularly contentious, but don’t assume because the information is crowd sourced and indeed well-referenced at times, that it is entirely correct. It can change in an instant.
  • So how about the NHS, their page must be neutral surely? Well yes, pretty much, but of course the NHS bases its opinion on scientific evidence and medical opinion, hence their description of homeopathy as a ‘treatment’ in inverted commas…
  • So what about other official organisations?The Homeopathy Research Institute has an entire research database listing relevant articles.But consider, what journals have these articles been published in? And are they peer-reviewed or likely to have a bias. Also, does this research database contain references to any articles which give negative conclusions?
  • How about other groups with a viewpoint? The 10.23 group has a clear bias that you can’t miss…
  • Their information is one-sided and not referenced with any sources. However, it may be worth taking note of their mass overdose protest as a form of evidence against the effects of homeopathy.So what are we to conclude? Well, for homeopathy at least, most websites have an intentional or discrete bias, so looking at a number of sites is advisable. This will be true for any even slightly contentious topic – consider political research into the Arab Spring, the continuing, though discredited, furore around the MMR vaccine and autism, or even historical portrayals of prominent figures like Richard III.It’s important to ask why a webpage has been created? What is the motivation of the author? And it’s always worth clicking around a few pages of a site to understand their argument or confirm their neutrality. If there is an about us or FAQ page that may quickly provide you with that information. What else? The design quality of a website says nothing for the credibility of content, and neither does the web address. A healthy level of cynicism is the best way to approach websites, even something like the BBC.
  • One final thing to note with websites. Statistics in particular are something to be wary of online, unless coming from an official website (and even then keep a critical head on as to how they may have been manipulated to show the best result), or from a website clearly citing their sources or numbers. Wherever possible try to locate the raw data from which the statistics have been derived. Remember, 74% of statistics are made up on the spot* *that may have been made up.
  • Once you are starting to find sources to support your dissertation, you need to think about how you are going to credit these sources in your work.I’m going to explain why referencing is important, how to go about it, and show you some tools that will make it all a lot easier. If you came to the session two weeks ago this very first bit overlaps a bit, sorry.
  • These next couple of numbers surprised me. Pretty much half of the students in this survey had plagiarised.
  • And a significant number of the students didn’t know that failure to cite your sources was plagiarism. If you use someone else’s ideas or argument, whether it is directly quoted or paraphrased in your own words, whether the other person is an author or one of your friends that you have collaborated with, you must give a proper acknowledgement to that person.
  • Basically academic writing is a dialogue. Your arguments will have more weight if they are supported by other authors. You are building on other people’s work so you must give them credit, and give enough information that your reader could follow up the reference to find out more. In turn, you would expect to get recognition for the hard work you’ve done yourself. One day in the not too distant future your dissertation, thesis or articles you write may be being quoted by others, including students.
  • There are lots of different referencing styles you can use, which will differ in how the references are laid out on the page, the punctuation and so on. Whichever style you use the purpose is the same, to acknowledge wherever in your essay you are using someone else’s ideas. However most departments will have a preferred referencing style. Check with your departmental secretary or department library if you are not sure.
  • Referencing requires two things. Firstly, you need in-text references. These can either be in brackets in the text itself, or you can use footnotes or endnotes.Footnotes and endnotes are pretty much the same thing, footnotes come at the bottom of each page and endnotes all come together at the end of the document.
  • As well as in-text references whenever you cite a source, you will also need a list of all the sources you used when researching the essay. This is called a bibliography, and it will usually come right at the end of the essay with any appendices.
  • When should you start to think about referencing? Well…
  • A lot of people leave referencing and the bibliography until last, doing it right before they hand in their essay. But it is SO much easier if you keep track of references as you go along. When you’re making notes, every time you write down a quote or jot down a paraphrase of the author’s argument, also make a note of where it came from and the page number. Every time you read a new article or book on your topic, make a note of all the details you will need to cite this source in your essay.
  • These are the most common types of sources that you will be citing. This information is on the handout, so there’s no need to scribble it down.As you can see, you are giving your reader enough information to find the exact passage you are referring to if they want to read more. The exact format of your references will depend on what style you are using, so find out what your department’s preferred style is. You can then have a look at a style guide to see what the exact format should be for each different type of source.
  • You can keep track of your references manually – on index cards like this, or in a spreadsheet or text document. If you’re keeping your list in electronic form I’d recommend keeping it in cloud storage for example dropbox or Google Docs, so that you can view it and add to it whenever you like, from any computer. However, my advice is, and if there’s one thing I wish someone had told me when I was at university, it’s to use a reference management app that will do all of the hard work for you, and will even create your bibliographies automatically.
  • There are lots of tools available, all of which do a similar thing with various bells and whistles. At a basic level, a reference manager is a database of your references, which will allow you to easily export them into bibliographies. Zotero and Mendeley are two of the most popular free options, and they’re quite powerful little programmes.
  • BothZotero and Mendeley have all of these features in common. I’ll show you a clip of the Zotero ‘cite while you write’ plug-in in a minute, to give you an idea of how it works. Once you create an account with either one you can set up sharing groups, and your references will be synced so you can access them from anywhere.
  • The main difference between these two is the interface, you’ll probably prefer one over the other. However these other feature differences are worth noting.
  • This website has a large table showing how the different features of 5 different reference managers compare. That includes Zotero and Mendeley.
  • I’m going to show you a screencast so you can see how Zotero works. I’m using the Firefox extension of Zotero which does everything in the browser window, but as I said there are different versions which will look slightly different. Clicking on the Zotero icon in the bottom right corner opens up your reference database. As you can see, everything you’ve ever saved is stored in your library, and you can also sort references into collections, which allows you to group references for a particular essay together. Now when you are on a webpage which has information about a book, for example LibrarySearch or Amazon, a little book icon will appear in the address bar. Clicking on this will add the reference to Zotero. It’s now there in your unfiled items, and you can drag it into a collection.There are plug-ins for the common word-processing programs, which allows you to drop the references into your essay while you’re typing it. You get this extra little set of buttons at the end, and one of these is insert citation. You can choose the style, and they have quite a lot to choose from, and then you get a search box pop up. Typing keywords such as the author or words from the title will bring up all the matching references from your library, and then there it is, it’s done all of the hard work for you.Now say you had to include a bibliography at the end of your essay with all of the sources you used. As you’ve grouped your references into collections for each essay, you can just go back into Zotero, right click on the collection and generate a bibliography of everything in that collection. Again, you can choose the referencing style, and you get some options such as save it as a text file, print it, in this case I’ve just copied it to the clipboard because I’m going to paste it into my essay. And there you go, done!
  • We hope that you found this session useful, and that you’re now feeling more prepared to start work on your research project. Does anyone have any questions about anything we’ve talked about this evening?If you need more information you can always come and see us in the library, or email us. The UL runs research skills courses throughout the year, and this website Research Central has lots of useful presentations and resources. These links are on the handout you have.
  • Research Survival Guide: Mastering Your Dissertation or Project

    1. 1. Research Survival Guide: Mastering your Dissertation or Project Photo by Shreyans Bhansali
    2. 2. Liz Osman College Librarian Annie Gleeson Senior Library Assistant
    3. 3. In this session… • • • • Finding material Evaluating print and online sources Referencing Tools to make referencing easier
    4. 4. Photo by Libatcam Photo by Libatcam Photo by Faoch
    5. 5. Ask us to buy books!
    6. 6. Useful… …but watch out!
    7. 7. Photo by Libatcam Museums, archives & rare books
    8. 8. Photo by Nightowl The literature search
    9. 9. What is a literature search? A detailed and organised, step by step search for all the material available on a topic
    10. 10. How do I know what to search for? Photo by Thom
    11. 11. Research topic Research question Concept Concept Concept Synonyms Variant spellings
    12. 12. Impact of advertising Does television advertising have any influence on the eating habits of teenagers? Eating habits Television Advertising Teenagers Youth? Adolescent? Teen? Young people
    13. 13. Are you getting too many results?
    14. 14. …or too few? Photo by Thomas Guignard
    15. 15. Evaluating sources
    16. 16. Books Why was the book written? Who published the book? When was it published? Is the book well organised? Has the book got a bibliography? Who is the target audience?
    17. 17. Journal articles
    18. 18. Databases
    19. 19. Newspapers Be aware of bias
    20. 20. How trustworthy or accurate are the results?
    21. 21. Websites Why was the site written? Who wrote the content? When was it last updated? Who is the target audience?
    22. 22. Image by Andrew Tarvin
    23. 23. Why is referencing important?
    24. 24. of Cambridge students have plagiarised during their time at University Michael Stothard ‘1 in 2 admits to Plagiarism’, Varsity (October 2008)
    25. 25. did not know that failing to cite sources could be considered plagiarism Michael Stothard ‘1 in 2 admits to Plagiarism’, Varsity (October 2008)
    26. 26. Why is referencing important? GIVE credit – for the work that you are building on GET credit – for the work that you have done yourself
    27. 27. How do I do it?
    28. 28. Referencing means… You need to include a citation every time you use another author’s work in your essay. To do this, you will either put the reference in brackets (Smith 2014, p. 123) or you will use footnotes/endnotes.1 1 Smith, J. Reference Like a Boss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) p. 123 …in-text references
    29. 29. Referencing means… Copyright Licensing Agency. “Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA)  Licences for Education,” 2012. : Curley, Duncan. Intellectual Property Licences and Technology Transfer: A Practical Guide to the New European Licensing Regime. Intellectual Property Series. Oxford: Chandos, 2004. Pedley, Paul. Digital Copyright. 2nd ed. London: Facet Publishing, 2007. Secker, Jane. Copyright and E-Learning  A Guide for : Practitioners. London: Facet, 2010. …a bibliography
    30. 30. When should I start to think about referencing? Photo by Bethan
    31. 31. What information do I need? For books… author/editor, full title, page numbers, publisher, date and location of publication, edition For articles… author, article title, page numbers journal title, date, volume/issue/number of the journal For websites… author, date of publication, website title, full web address, date accessed
    32. 32. How do I keep track?
    33. 33. Both have… • Desktop application – Windows/Mac/Linux • ‘Cite while you write’ plug-ins for the most popular word-processing programmes • Ability to create groups to share references, PDFs, comments etc. with peers • Back-up and synchronisation across different devices
    34. 34. But… • Zotero is alternatively available in an online only version as a Firefox extension • Mendeley has an official iPad/iPhone app, with 3rd party apps available for Android. No official Zotero apps, but 3rd party available for both Android and iOS. • PDF annotation feature in Mendeley.
    35. 35. A detailed comparison of several reference managers: Photo by TheBusyBrain
    36. 36. in action
    37. 37. For more information… Pop in and see us in the Library, or email The UL runs further research skills courses: This session was adapted from some of Emma Coonan’s presentations at: