Search Strategy for Your Assignment

It always astounds me how many masters and doctoral students have no particular search strategy in place before they start their research projects. Unsurprisingly, their search for sources is neither systematic nor exhaustive. Of course, it affects their projects in many different ways. None of them is good.

Although writing an academic assignment doesn’t require a very sophisticated search strategy, a few simple suggestions can simplify research process and increase your assignment marks. These suggestion might also be useful for those who are about to write longer academic projects e.g. dissertations.

  • Think firsts about your (research) question or task.
  • Break the question in more manageable sub-questions.
  • Schedule a consultation with a librarian. Ask him/her about reliable sources of information in your discipline (e.g. academic databases you should consult).
  • Speak with your tutor so you can better understand his/her expectations. How many sources you should include in your assignment? What are the names of databases you should consult (e.g. EBSCO, JSTOR, Ovid, Pro­Quest, Elsevier).
  • Consult search engines e.g. Google and Bing to get an initial idea on keywords, definitions and issues. Use Boolean search. Consult Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles provide useful bibliographies and important definitions. Don’t use Wikipedia as a support for your arguments.
  • Develop a list of relevant keywords, synonyms and phrases. Consult a native speaker to help you come up with a good list of terms. Finding all relevant terms might be challenging and takes time. For example, it might you might not realise that ‘treatment fidelity’ can be used interchangeably with ‘treatment integrity’. Since the first term in Google Scholar yields 582,000 records and the latter 2,800 000, it is obvious that the use of right keywords matters.
  • Remember that certain terms might be common in USA but not in the UK. For instance the term: ELLs (English Language Learners) is ubiquitous in USA, but not in the UK, where the term: EALs (English as an Additional Language) is used instead.
  • Whenever you read an abstract in a journal article collect relevant keywords.
  • Remember that American spelling might differ from British spelling.
  • Start searching with a list of sources provided by your tutor. It is usually a great starting point for your research.
  • Visit ​your library
  • Google Scholar is an excellent place to find academic articles. Yet, remember that not everything can be found there. Also Google Scholar often provides wrong attributions for papers and books (e.g. wrong dates, authors). Always double-check them!
  • Try to find in Google Scholar a relevant and recent literature review pertinent to your topic. Such a review will provide you with curated lists of important sources. You can also look for systematic reviews or metanalyses on the topic of interest. There you can identify key academic journals, influential authors and important papers.
  • Use snowball method. Find a good article, look at the list of references to identify other interesting papers.
  • Refine your search. For instance, you can usually narrow your search criteria to year, sex, language etc.
  • Search for so-called ‘Grey Literature’. As I said, not everything can be found on Google Scholar and in academic databases. Some reports, surveys, conference papers, white papers, dissertations, conference proceedings might be well-hidden.
  • Don’t avoid supplementary sources of information such as podcasts, webinars, blogs and clips.
  • Evaluate your sources. Remember, quality of sources matters more than quantity. If your articles was found in an academic journal or in academic database (e.g. Proquest, Eric), the chances are it was peer-reviewed. However, you should always check, how influential the article actually is. Was it written by an expert?  Check in Google Scholar how many times the article was cited. If the article is from, let’s say 2009 and was cited 10 times, it means that other researchers did not find it very interesting.  If it was cited 600 times, it might be an important, seminal article you should include in your assignment. At the same time remember, that article could be cited 600 times for all wrong reasons. For instance, the researcher might have used flawed methodology. Read the article and check whether the claim is supported by evidence. Is the evidence a primary or secondary source?
  • Don’t assess your sources visually. Some PDF reports can be well-written and beautifully-formatted, however they can be biased, or writing by a non-expert. Look at suffixes. Domains .edu and .org tend to be less biased than .com.
  • Balance breadth an depth of your search.
  • Assess whether sources you found will help you answer the question.
  • Outline your project when searching and skimming for sources. Locate definitions, controversies, debates, counterarguments.
  • Look both for qualitative and quantitative sources.
  • Some students tend to write their assignments on the basis of two, three titles suggested by a course tutor. They forget that assignments supported by a number of well-selected sources tend to marked higher. Also using multiple sources makes writing simpler. The more you read, the more you know about the subject, the easier is to discuss critically the sources.

You don’t have much experience in writing academic projects you might think about searching for sources as the first step in your project. Once it is completed. You will move to reading what you found, evaluating, writing and finally citing your sources. Sorry to say that, but academic writing does not work this way. It is highly non-linear process in which you collect, read, annotate, mote-take, evaluate, cite and write at the same time. To complicate things you often revisit material you have already read to verify information, clarify facts and to get better understanding. Imagine you write a 3000-word assignment. You are likely to work with 20-30 sources (e.g. journal articles, books, reports). You will collect more than 200 notes which have to be linked with bibliographical information and original context. You will have to differentiate between direct, indirect quotations, primary and secondary sources, your own comments and thoughts. In a sentence organising information is not a trivial task. Remember, the problems is not that you will have too few sources, the problem will be information overload. With looming deadlines you need to have a system in place which will integrate seamlessly your research strategy into your writing process.