Research Skills

Resources for research are explained in the sections on Using the Library, Using the Internet and Reading. This section will help you to make the best use of those resources. If you have studied Writing an Essay, you will know that you cannot present a good essay without proper planning and preparation. If not, please go there after reading this page.

1. How Many Sources Do I Need?

An essay which is all based on information from one source, or from one or two sources, is a poorly-researched essay. In general, you should try to look at as many sources as possible. Most of the topics which are suitable for essays are topics about which there is a variety of opinions. Use a range of sources to find out what different opinions exist.

Even texts about 'factual' topics, such as history, will interpret the facts in a different way. For example, one writer might feel that, on the whole, Oliver Cromwell was a good ruler, holding the country together at a time of great difficulty, while another might emphasise his strictness and the brutality of his army. Make sure you research all sides of the topic, and do not present a one-sided view.

Texts about topics which are a matter of opinion need to be treated even more carefully. For example, a book about British food might focus purely on recipes from 'Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book', which is a famous collection of traditional English dishes from the last century, while another might focus mainly on convenience foods, a third might be mostly about British health foods, and yet another about dishes from Wales. Each one would give a completely different picture of food culture in Britain.

Even if you have personal experience of the topic (for example, if you have been to Britain and tasted British food) your opinion is likely to be one-sided. I took some English people to a restaurant in Ikebukuro recently, and they were horrified to be faced with a fish - its body cut away - still alive and wriggling vigorously on the plate! This was their first experience of Japanese food, so you can imagine what they will tell people when they get back to England!

2. What Kinds of Sources Should I Use?

Where possible, your sources should be up to date and authoritative. 'Authoritative' means that you have taken your information from a source which can be recognised as being reliable. Encyclopedias, such as Britannica or Wikipedia, and student 'crib' sites, such as Sparknotes and CliffsNotes, are fine for helping you to understand the topic, but they are not suitable as references in your paper or report. As far as possible, use Google Scholar to find suitable research sources online. It is also good to get as close as possible to the original source. For example, if you are quoting Shakespeare, quote directly from his works, not from a critical text, and certainly not from a Japanese translation.

If some of your sources are not recent, make sure that you realise this and use them appropriately. A book about British education that was published twenty years ago will be describing a very different education system from one which is published today. As long as you know that things have changed since this book was published, there is no problem. The problems start when you present outdated information in your essay and imply that it is still true now.

Depending on the topic, internet news sites, television programmes, newspapers, etc., are also acceptable sources, but be especially careful in these cases to keep a record of where the information came from so that you can give a reference for it in your essay or report.

3. How Can I Make Best Use Of My Sources?

It is one thing to go to the library and find twelve or fifteen books on the topic you want to research. It is another to try and read all of those books! You don't have time. Most books on academic topics have an index, and they nearly all have a contents page; go those places first, and see which parts of the book are likely to be of interest to you.

For further help, see the web pages on Using the Library, Using the Internet and Reading. For help with the organisation and presentation of your research, see the  Writing an Essay web pages, especially the section on Notes, References and Bibliography.

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