5: Research acquisition

While we previously provided some quick tips on getting research materials for your dissertation, thesis, or research report, we are now going to delve deeper into what is involved in making sure you use the best resources at your fingertips. We are going to start with the 'old school,' or traditional location for your resources long before the Internet came along, namely the library.

You will need to get to know your University library from the standpoint of a researcher now versus a place to study (or take a nap!). It's not just a place with shelves of books, journals, and guide books. As one of your main sources for your research material, your University library also serves to help you access the rich resources it manages on-line through comprehensive databases. Beyond that, the people who work within the University library have years of experience in a wide range of topics - some of them even serve as specialists - and an understanding of how to locate and pull the necessary research as quickly as possible. This is especially helpful if you are delving into certain parts of the library that you have never been before and are not sure what to look for or where.

This chapter focuses on the following key topics:

  • How to use your University library effectively for your research;
  • What to know if you are a new researcher;
  • Basic research materials;
  • How to access the University library's set of online resources or e-resources; and
  • How to organise the resources you get from the University library.

Let's get started!

Chapter 5 contents:

5: Acquiring research

5.1: Starting as a new researcher

Maybe this is your first time as a researcher on a project like a dissertation or research report. While you may have some working knowledge of your University library thanks to other academic writing assignments, you may have never used the library to the depth that you will need to do so now.

A good place to start is to interact with one of the librarians. After all, they can help you in numerous ways:

  • Guide you on your particular area of discipline;
  • Train you on how to use referencing packages or the databases available;
  • Show you how to use their electronic catalogue;
  • Review how hard-copy resources are organised in the library, including the Dewey decimal system (uses numeric coding) or the Library of Congress system (uses an alphanumeric system);
  • Provide tips on how to access a periodical or academic journal; and
  • Explain the rules for borrowing materials from the library, including due dates and fines for being late.

It is important to use the librarians for initial assistance, but you do really need to try to make your own concerted effort to find resources and use the library. It is not the librarian's job to do the work for you, so balance how much you ask of them with your own ability to learn how to use the library.

The University library may also have leaflets on hand that explain many of the above areas that you will need to know as a new researcher. Also, their online portal may have a tutorial that guides you through how to use the library and find what you are looking for to complete your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

Next up is to help you better understand what types of basic research material can be found at your University library.

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5.2: Knowing the basic types of research material

You already know that this academic writing project is going to involve some of the most in-depth research you have ever done. You must do a thorough job, so in order to do that you must first know all the places where you might look for your subject area. To help you expand your research area, we have put together a list of basic types of research material that includes both primary and secondary sources. Here is a check list to use as you head to the library and beyond:

  • Books on a single subject (often goes by the library technical term of 'monograph')
  • Reference books, which contains facts, definitions, and multiple subjects (often referred to as everything from encyclopaedia and dictionary to annual and year book)
  • Research papers, which are found in journals or may be found as documents from conferences
  • Reviews, which are more up-to-date than books tend to be on certain subjects
  • Textbooks, which you may already have but there may be more out there in a library on topics that relate to your subject matter and provide good theoretical background for your research
  • Websites, which are now more accepted than they had been in the past, especially when they are published by official bodies or organisations that have conducted in-depth research or studies as well as can offer statistical evidence

Typically, you will be expected to use more than one type of source during the course of your research process. As we explain later on, this is because you will need to show that you have considered many perspectives in order to minimise bias as well as have critically assessed many sides of a particular issue.

Now that you know about the basic reference types, it is time to move onto what is becoming a larger part of the University library - online sources and e-resources. Check our next section to find out how you can access these references and improve your online research skills.

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5.3: Working with the library's online sources and e-resources

To work with your University's e-resources, you will most likely have to visit their website. And, although some of the information will be what is called open source or open access, meaning it can be accessed by anyone, the majority of their e-resources are password protected. That means you will need to log onto a University computer to type in a username and password to access any of this research. Typically, this is an ATHENS system, and you can get a password from your University library and have access for as long as you are a student there.

Once you are in to their online site, you will be able to access a wide range of e-resources, including the following:

  • E-books
  • E-journals
  • E-newspapers
  • Online dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • Databases with statistical data

One of the advantages of having access to this type of information is that you are not dependent on library hours to find it and use it. Instead, the online storage of such research material gives you 24/7 access so you can do the research on your schedule. Another advantage is that some of these online resources, such as ebrary, also provide other services, including note-making and searching. Just remember that there are copy restrictions to keep in mind while you do this because copying and printing are typically not allowed. That means you will have to write the information down or type them onto a laptop instead.

There are some different techniques that should be used when doing your online research for your dissertation, thesis, or research report. The first thing to know is that Wikipedia does not constitute online research and should typically be avoided. Instead, you need to go deeper and be more targeted with your online research techniques. Here are three ways to approach your online research:

  • Databases are a good place to start and based on entering keywords related to your subject matter in order to get a listing of potential references. The database will often send back a list that contains possible sources. Be sure to read the summaries or abstracts that accompany them to make sure it is relevant to your research. Also, check the date as you want primarily the most current research available.
  • From there, you can take an article that you have found and look at the reference list at the end to find additional citations that could potentially apply to your research. By looking at the titles and then their summaries, you can determine if these are also relevant. Often, you may not find these additional sources otherwise due to the keywords you originally selected.
  • Lastly, there are citation indices, such as the British Humanities Index, which provides you with details of publications that have cited a particular reference you are interested in or that you have on your list already so you can expand the number of sources that you are able to locate.

While your University library may not subscribe to all the journals in the database, you can get access to other online databases that do or look into what is called an inter-library loan where another library will send their copy to your library for your use. Options include getting access to further information through your University library's connection to the British Library, the country's main library. Or, your University may be linked to one that has the distinguished title of European Documentation Centre, which means they have vital European Union documents that could be beneficial for your research. Just be aware that costs may be involved with these other two options, but it may be well worth it if it means accessing some valuable research for your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

Other places to look include databases that contain statistical information that could prove to be valuable for your subject. You can access such information from the National Statistics website (www.statistics.gov.uk). Another source that may be of value to certain topics is the papers and publications from the House of Parliament (www.parliament.uk).

Lastly, when working with these online resources, remember that the Web is dynamic and constantly changing. That's why it is important to note down all the details on that online source, including the date you accessed it last as this information will need to be included on your bibliography that will be turned in with your dissertation, thesis, or research report. This list point plays directly into the next section of our chapter, which is keeping your resources organised along with your notes.

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5.4: Organising your resources

When you are conducting your research at the library or online for your dissertation, thesis, or research report you will start collecting quite a pile of research and source material. What you can do to help yourself is to organise it as you go so that you do not get overwhelmed by hard copies, photo copies, and notes. There are some great strategies for organising your hard copies and notes while creating a database that contains a reference list so you can track your citations as you go.

First, let's tackle all those hard copies you have piling up around you. Here's what you can do:

  • Make a record copy for each hard copy document with a number so you can sort them in sequence. The note card should essentially have all the reference information on it in citation form so you can reproduce it later for the final thesis, report, or dissertation.
  • Put that same number on the hard copy so you can put the two together when you need to access that particular article.
  • This is very labour intensive, but it does keep you organised and makes creating the final reference list fairly easy.
  • Another disadvantage is the need to do a lot of cross-checking and proofreading to make sure all the information is correctly cited.

Second, if you want to keep it all on the computer, here's a strategy that works well:

  • The same approach can be reproduced on the computer by using a simple table with the same numbering system and accompanying citation information.
  • It would also have the same sequencing system that would be applied to the table and the hard copy of the article or source material copies.
  • You can choose to do it in Word or in an Excel spreadsheet.
  • This is a bit less labour intensive because what you type on the table or spreadsheet can be copied to the final document rather than typed up from handwritten lists.
  • It still has the disadvantage of needing to do a lot of cross-checking and proofreading to make sure all the information is correctly cited.

Third, you can consider using bibliographic software, such as ProCite, EndNote, and Reference Manager. Here's what is involved with this option:

  • It can organise your citations and effectively prepare your reference list.
  • While you do have to enter the initial data, it does the rest and makes it easy to change things as you go.
  • It can be searched and is also customisable to what you need to do. It will even help you reduce any grammar or spelling mistakes.
  • You will need to take the time to learn how to use the software not to mention spend money to get it.

Finally, the next section will set you up with the most practical tips about library research that you can take away from this chapter and implement on your research for your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

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5.5: Practical tips for the library portion of the research

To help you focus on the most important aspects of conducting the library portion of the research for your thesis, dissertation, or research report, here are some practical tips to put into action:

  • Take a training session at the University library to get to know the library and how you can use it effectively to get your research done.
  • Take advantage of any partnership the University library has with other libraries or depositories to get access to books and resources from national libraries or other databases that the library does not provide to you.
  • Join the local authority library and leverage their resources and materials as a supplement to what you may get at the University library and the University's e-resources.
  • Focus your database and catalogue searches to stick to certain keywords. Also be sure to spell surnames many ways in case you cannot find certain researchers right away. Get help if you believe that your keyword searches are not delivering the information you need.
  • Get assistance from others like specialists at the library or others that are experienced with research. This is not about them doing the work for you but it is about ensuring that someone can point you in the right direction or provides guidance on where else to look.
  • Maintain a simple cross-referencing system but also one that can save you time down the line when you need to put all these citations in the final thesis, dissertation, or research report. Whether you prefer a manual system or one on the computer, make sure you are consistent into a functional database that keeps you on track. Just remember that automating it on Word or Excel will take out some of the labour intensity.

In applying these tips for doing your research at the library, our next and final section for the chapter ties it altogether and gets you thinking about the next steps in the process, which involves reading all this resource information and research.

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Chapter 5: In Summary

What's next is you need to start implementing all these research tips and tricks at your University library. Just keep the following in mind as you get started:

  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time becoming completely acquainted with the library as well as its electronic resources and online databases. Focus on subject-specific resources that will yield you the most information. Also, search out any subject expert librarian that knows your area well.
  • Take the time to browse the shelves of the library, including catalogues, as well as pick out different books and sources to peruse. This will help you get acquainted with what is available and get your mind focused on your subject and the academic writing project at hand. This is exactly why when we talked about time management, we recommended leaving a lot of time for this activity.
  • Consider travelling to alternative facilities that offer further resources in your subject area. While you do not want to go too far of a distance, other libraries in the area may provide further resources and information that can enrich your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

After all this is done, you must know what is coming next, right? That's right, you will be doing a lot of academic reading now that you have piles of books, journals, hard-copies and notes from your University library, alternative libraries, and online library databases and repositories. Our next chapter will provide you with all the tips you need to know about how to become proficient at reading and understanding what you are reading so you can apply it to your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

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