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Libraries and Learning Innovation
Getting started with your
Laurence Morris, Academic Librarian
What we will cover
This text tutorial will help you start your dissertation, project or other piece of
independent research. It offers some introductory advice to supplement the
support of your course team, your Library subject page and the Skills for
Learning team, covering:
• Choosing a topic
• Literature reviewing
• Search strategies and tools:
– Keywords, Boolean searching, exact phrase searching, wildcards, etc.
• Refining your search strategy
• Referencing support
• Further support options
Choosing a topic
Selecting the topic and question for your project can take time – if uncertain, this
can be a useful excuse to step back and consider what you find interesting about
your subject area.
When reflecting upon what you wish to study, you may wish to consider these
• Is there anything you have always been interested in?
• If not, look through lecture notes and old essays for ideas
• Or look through recent issues of relevant journals
• Or look at media items related to your subject
• Or consider a hunch that you have … could you investigate if it is true?
• Are there any controversies or new fields within your subject which you would
like to study?
• Do your fellow students and professional associates have any
Choosing a topic 2
Other potential sources of inspiration:
• You might have become particularly interested in a module you have a
studied, or a topic you encountered at a particular lecture or seminar.
• You might be interested in future developments in a specific area, and want
to explore how current trends might influence a field
• You might want to look at past developments and see how these can still
play a part in modern approaches and attitudes.
It is helpful to choose something which you are genuinely interested in. You will
be working on your project for some time, and it will help you to retain interest
and gain higher marks if you enjoy investigating the topic which you
choose to research.
Choosing a topic 3
• You can always start with a broad idea, provided that you then narrow your
focus during your initial reading and research. Just keep in mind the general
question, “What in particular about this topic do I wish to study?”
• Your initial reading and research can also provide inspiration in how to
analyse concepts and information, and how to structure your work.
• Your choice of research project demonstrates what you are interested in,
and can be a useful tool when seeking employment. It is therefore also
worthwhile considering which topics will help you stand out in the job market
and potentially boost your employability.
• Once you have chosen a topic, you will need to review the existing literature
on the subject, to see how your research fits into the broader context of your
• The literature review section of your initial proposal or finished work should
demonstrate that you are familiar with the existing literature related to your
topic. It is a review of what is currently known on your subject, and will
inform the main body of your research.
• It should therefore methodically explore a broad range of sources, such as
books, journal articles, academic databases, reports, statistical surveys,
previous dissertations/theses, professional websites, etc.
• The next slide contains links to resources which might help with your
Literature review: Resources
• Books and ebooks to help you write your dissertation, covering literature
reviewing and other helpful topics, such as critical reading, can be searched
for using the Library catalogue. To get you started, some useful general
titles are listed here.
• There is guidance on literature reviewing on your library subject page.
• Online resources and face-to-face workshops are available from the Skills
for Learning team:
- On Dissertations in general
- On Literature Reviews
• And, of course, don’t forget to ask your Academic Tutor for
advice. As a subject expert, they might be able to recommend
useful reading on your topic.
Your search strategy
• To conduct your literature review effectively, you will need to devise a search
strategy. This will be your plan for searching for literature systematically.
• This means devising a methodical plan to investigate as many potentially
relevant sources of information as possible and ensure that you do not miss
any potentially relevant information.
• It will also enable you to demonstrate the depth of your research to whoever
reads your work.
• Before beginning your detailed literature review, it is therefore worth taking the
time to carefully consider your topic, and clearly define what you wish to cover
exactly. Where might you find information on it? Books? Journal articles?
Academic databases? Professional reports? Websites?
• When you know this, you can begin to devise a list of relevant
keywords and terms to search for in the places listed.
Selecting keywords for searching
• Begin by considering how to describe your topic. Which words are most
commonly used to describe your research subject? Which words are most
commonly associated with it?
• To help you compile a list of these words look at articles, websites and other
media related to your topic – note the language which is used.
• Consider any specific phrases you might need to look for and also keep a
record of these.
• You can also deconstruct your topic itself for keywords, as is shown on the
Clearly defined question: “Are participants in pop
music videos objectified?“
You can break the question down into its main concepts. For example:
Concept 1: “Participants”
Concept 2: “Pop music videos”
Concept 3: “Objectification”
You can then come up with more keywords to search for – across a wide range
of sources, to reveal different results to you – by thinking of
synonyms for these concepts.
Synonyms and variations
• A synonym is a word with a similar meaning to another. You should also search
for synonyms for your keywords to ensure that you do not miss any relevant
information because it is described in slightly different language to your
– For example, if searching for information on the UK, you should also search for
Britain, United Kingdom and GB.
– Or if searching for information on climate change, you should also search for global
• When generating your list of words to search for, also pay attention to spelling
variations – for example, between British and American forms of English. For
– UK English – Globalisation
– US English - Globalization
If you misspell a word in an academic database you might miss a lot
of useful information.
• Having decided upon a topic, you should gradually define it more precisely
– and then produce a list of keywords and terms to use when searching for
information on your subject.
• You should also develop a diverse list of places in which to look for that
information – books, ebooks, journals, academic databases, professional
reports, relevant websites, etc. Your tutor and your Library subject page can
help you compile this list.
• You should then begin a systematic search for relevant information, to
ensure that you do not miss anything potentially useful.
• The following slides provide tips on effective searching.
• Boolean searching is a means of linking concepts in order to narrow or
expand a search.
• It is supported by most academic databases and can also be used on most
mainstream search engines.
• It is based around the words AND, OR and NOT.
• AND links two or more words or phrases and narrows a search. It finds
results containing at least one occurrence of each word or phrase.
• OR links two or more words or phrases and expands a search. It finds
results containing at least one of the words or phrases.
• NOT narrows a search by removing results which contain a
particular word or phrase.
Boolean searching 2
• Boolean searching is available in most academic databases as an
Advanced Search option. However, some search systems – such as Google
Scholar – require (or also allow) you to type in Boolean commands in
yourself. For example, you could enter searches like this:
- building OR house OR architecture
- substance abuse NOT alcohol
• It is possible to build long Boolean searches, combining and reusing AND,
OR and NOT. However, you should be careful not to build a long search
which is so specific that you actually miss potentially relevant results.
• Boolean searching is just a tool to help you be systematic, it should not be
the only way you search.
Exact phrase searches
• You can also search for an exact phrase by putting quotation marks around
the relevant words as you search for them.
• This ensures that the words are searched for as a phrase, rather than as
separate words occurring anywhere in the text.
• This can be useful for filtering out irrelevant results. For example, a search
for “planning law” would omit an article from its results with the sentence
“we are planning to change the law”, which a less precise search would
• Once again, this works in most databases and search engines. As with
Boolean searching, it is a useful tool to be aware of when refining your
Wildcards and truncation
• Wildcards and truncation are where symbols are substituted for a letter or
letters when searching.
• Sometimes, you can use an asterisk * to replace a character anywhere in a
word, except the first character. This can be useful to cover variations in
spelling – for example, searching for ‘organi*ation’ would find ‘organisation’
• Sometimes you can use an exclamation mark ! to truncate (shorten) a word
and search for all of the words which would be made by adding more letters to
it – for example a search for ‘plan!’ will find ‘plan’, ‘planning’, ‘planner’,
• Most search systems allow you to filter results by date, so you should also
consider the time span you wish to consider in your research.
• You might want to briefly mention how your topic has developed over time at
the start of your dissertation, or you might want to look in depth at how
something has evolved over time and where this indicates that the field might
head in future.
• However, remember only to use historical material if it directly provides a
relevant perspective upon your research. Typically a dissertation is written to
an audience of peers, people with a similar level of knowledge to your own.
This means you do not have to start from the basic premise of your topic but
can presume some prior knowledge from your reader.
• Equally, you can sometimes filter results by geographical area, so it is worth
considering what impact this might have upon the nature and content of your
• Are you interested in just a specific country, or the wider world? Even if you are
just interested in one country, would some information on other countries be
useful as a point of comparison?
• Also think about how feasible information from specific regions will be to collect.
For example, will there be enough information on your topic from a specific place
or country, or will you have to gather information on a wider area and then
explain why it is also applicable to your particular area?
• Or do you need to narrow your search to ensure you have a clear focus on a
specific location which is particularly relevant to your topic?
Varying your search strategy
• As you have seen, there are various tools to help you search systematically.
It is a good idea to try different tools and searches in different places to
ensure that you do not miss anything useful.
• In addition to keyword searching the text of an article, you can often search
by author, title, keyword, ISBN or subject.
• Using subject headings (often available through Advanced or Detailed
Search tabs) can help you to be even more specific.
• Exactly how you employ the various tools and options is up to you. Your
search strategy should simply ensure that you work systematically,
minimising the chances of missing anything potentially relevant.
Match the tools to the task
• Having developed your search strategy, a good place to start your detailed
searching is by checking the Library catalogue to see which relevant books and
ebooks are available.
• Although a wide-ranging literature review will cover a variety of sources, books
are often a good place to begin, as they usually offer a broad overview of a topic.
• Then, you can search for journal articles for more specific or more up to date
• Academic databases allow you to search thousands of journals at once for
• Websites of relevant professional bodies and organisations can
often provide a useful practical perspective.
• Discover is the Library’s main search tool. It searches across 132,000 academic
journals, as well as books, news and audio-visual resources.
• You can create your own account on Discover, and save searches, results, articles
and any other resources you find there to return to at a later date.
• You can also set up alerts so that when any new material is added to the database
which matches your search strategy you will be notified by email.
• Video tutorials and written guidance on how to use Discover are available here.
Why not have a go in Discover…
In Discover conduct a search for: dissertation research skills. How many results
do you obtain?
Now conduct a search for “dissertation research skills”. How many results does
Change your search to: dissertation AND “research skills”. How does this change
• Remember that you can filter your results using the options on the left-hand
side of the Discover results screen.
• Finding potentially relevant material is only the first stage of your literature
search. Next, you have to evaluate it – is it reliable? Is it actually of any use
• Some tips to help you with this – looking at key factors like currency,
relevance, accuracy, authority and purpose – are available here.
• To be able to critically appraise articles, and effectively judge their relevance
and worth – both generally and in relation to each other – is a key graduate
attribute. Developing it through your research will further support your
Next: Extend your search
• A key part of successful systematic searching is also for your strategy to
• This means that rather than just working through your initial plan, you
should also follow the trails from relevant information – where have the
authors got their information from? Do any of the items in their list of
references look useful?
• Such trails will lead you to information that your initial search may have
• Following such trails, like adapting your search strategy with
as you go, should be a key part of your searching
Record keeping and referencing
• Recording your search process and making notes as you go along will help you
to be systematic, save time, avoid repeating searches and also prevent you from
• Effective note-taking – including the sources of information and quotations – will
help you to provide citations and references for your work.
• Quote, Unquote is the university style guide for referencing, including examples
of how to cite and reference specific item types. A concise version is also
• Further support with referencing is also available from the Skills for Learning
team and from your Academic Librarian.
Reference management software
• There are a range of tools available to help you keep track of the resources
which you have consulted in your research, saving details of all the books,
journal articles, websites, etc., which you have consulted.
• These tools include phone apps, desktop software, online tools and browser
add-ons. Most also enable you to format entries into the specific style you
need for a consistent bibliography or list of references.
• Popular options include RefMe, CiteULike, Mendeley, ProQuest Flow, Zotero
• Ultimately, however you record and produce your references, you will still need
to ensure that they are consistent, comply with the Leeds Beckett house style
as set out in Quote, Unquote, and provide enough information for a reader to
see where you have obtained your information from.
• Explore your subject page more. Have you consulted the section on
evaluating information yet?
• If you have a subject-specific inquiry, contact Laurence Morris, your
Academic Librarian: email@example.com
• For general inquiries, 24 hour Library support is available here.
• The Skills for Learning team also have a range of useful resources.
• Best of luck with your research – and please do let us know if you have