Checklist: 10 good tips

1. Warming up
Look at the material about writing papers/theses. For example, take a look at the library’s pages about study tips.
If you do not already know your library well, it is a good idea to check what they can specifically offer in your subject area.

2. Terminology
It is important for your terminology to be correct.

Perhaps you have already found the definitions of the most important terms in your course books.

If not then you can find them in the academic encyclopaedias and other works of reference, which the library will make available to you. It can frequently be useful to compare different term definitions. This can help you to define your research question more precisely.

3. Make several searches
You cannot expect to find all of your information in a single search.

It can be useful if you regularly alternate between searching, reading, writing. You will become smarter along the way and will in all likelihood have to make repeated searches.

Perhaps you will discover new search terms during the process and be able to search in a more targeted fashion.

4. Take plenty of time to begin with
During the start-up phase it can be especially useful if you spend a lot of time searching for material that has already been written about your subject. Do broad searches and be open to other angles/perspectives about the subject than your own. But do note:

If a lot of material has been written on your subject, you may want to find a whole new angle on it – or find a new subject.

If only very little has been written about your subject then it can be difficult gathering enough material, and again you may have to consider finding a new subject.

5. Expand/narrow searches
If you get far too many hits on your searches you can:

  • Combine several terms (with the “and” operator)
  • Use more precise search terms
  • Use the search tools options to limit searches according to time, language, peer-reviewed articles (academic articles that have been reviewed and approved by academic professionals), subject, etc.

If you get too few hits:

  • Do a wild card search, usually by entering a “*” or “?” character at the beginning or the end of a term, e.g. “?policy” or “*policy”
  • Use more general terms
  • Search for several synonyms at the same time (with the “or” operator)

REMEMBER to use the help functions of a search tool to get more information/tips about how to use the search tool.
NB: Avoid wasting valuable time getting frustrated over ‘weak’ search engines! Certain search engines/databases are not exactly intuitively designed. Ask the librarian for help!

6. Familiarise yourself with search results
Skim through the search results you get: Read abstracts, notes and the subject terms that the majority of hits have. How relevant are they to your research question?

Perhaps you can find new ideas to search for or find search terms that are more precise.

7. Gathering material
Unfortunately, not all material has (so far) been digitalised.

So you may have to wait for certain material.

Or there may be some special titles that have to be obtained from abroad.

Consider how you are going to use your time while you are waiting.

  • Can you start on another part of your paper?
  • Is the wait worth it? Or would it be easier if you just went out and purchased the material? Or can you use some other material about the subject?

8. Assess the material you have gathered together
Familiarise yourself with the material in general as it comes in.

Take a look at the contents pages, the back covers, the prefaces and conclusions.

Assess the relevance of the material, its reliability and its topicality in relation to your research question.

And finally: is the material comprehensive or do you need to try and find other/more material?

9. Double check?
If you worry that you have not got all of the crucial information, you can make an appointment with one of the library's subject specialists:

At some point you have to call a halt. Information searching can quickly take up a lot of time (and perhaps even become a delaying tactic) and cause you to lose focus.

You can always find more material, and it is a certainty that three days before you hand in your thesis someone will publish an exciting new article about your subject. But you cannot fit everything in.

And that is just the way things are. Just remember to document your perspective on the subject and what limitations in scope you set!

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