This week the Graduate School hosted a workshop on “organising and searching the literatures” for new doctoral students. In the past few years I have included this topic, albeit briefly, within the longer workshop “The beginner’s guide to the doctorate”. However, I was reminded not long ago that it can be hard for those of us who are experienced researchers to remember quite how daunting it can be to navigate the literatures. Pat Thomson’s blog has a number of entries that doctoral researcher should really read about literature reviews.
The initial stages of a research degree are all about becoming familiar with your field, to understand where your proposed research project will fit, to see where the gaps are, to ultimately be able satisfy the claim for originality that you’ll make.
So where to begin? A strategy for searching out references is quite a good place, it can be easy to fall into a trap of aimlessly searching the internet for anything that might be relevant to what you’re doing so our first topic was to take stock and think about how to search effectively for things. This might sound a little bit basic but it’s important to realise that there are different strategies depending on what you are searching. We have become used to using google to find answers to questions but we need to keep in mind how databases operate to search them effectively. Jane Belger, the research and knowledge librarian, gave the following advice to boost our “finding out skills”.
Some key resources that might be helpful in the search of the literatures
Working with literatures #phdknowhow from Professor Pat Thomson
Literature reviews – beware The List from Professor Pat Thomson
We then moved onto how to organise stuff, it is one thing being able to find reference material, to skim read and to feel you’ve achieved something but it is quite another to be able to organise your references in a meaningful way replete with notes about why that reference is relevant, what you thought about etc.
At UWE we have an institutional subscription to a reference management system called Refworks. This is an online reference management system that integrates well with with a number of databases that the UWE Library subscribe to, it has a neat plug in for Microsoft Word called write ‘n’ cite and has loads of different bibliographic referencing styles that can be used.
Here’s the support document form UWE about using Refworks.
On the other hand there are other solutions available to manage your references that are better in other ways, for example for storing and/or annotating PDF files. Here’s a useful comparison of the most popular tools. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what solutions are out there and I think it fair to say that there isn’t a perfect solution for everybody so…
My advice is to use a tool that suits you, to learn how to use it properly earlier rather than later, and then stick to it. Trust me when I say that it will save you time if you develop an efficient system before you get into the depths of writing.
I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.