This is resource for conducting research in the Pharmacy discipline at the University of Canberra. Whilst the resource can be used by anyone, it has been established to support undergraduate (Bachelor of Pharmacy- Honours) students at UC Pharmacy. There is considerable more information that can be added, this will occur over time, but feel free to contribute.
What is research?
Original research is a two-word term. It usually does not occur in a dictionary. This is an inquiry into what is original research. "The term "original research" (OR) refers to materials—such as facts, allegations, and ideas—for which no reliable, published source exists. This includes any analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position not advanced by the sources. "By "exists", the community means that the reliable source must have been published and still exist—somewhere in the world, in any language, whether or not it is reachable online—even if no source is currently named in the article. Articles that currently name zero references of any type may be fully compliant with this policy—so long as there is a reasonable expectation that every bit of material is supported by a published, reliable source.
You will most likely start doing research because you have a particular interest in a particular field. You might want to find out more about, for example, the links between poverty and crime; how to provide for multiculturalism in the classroom; or what the extent and effects of pollution in your area are.
To find out more about this interest of yours, you must identify a "path" that you will take in order to undertake this research. You will most likely not know what this path is, but you might have some idea of where to start - eg. from your theoretical/disciplinary standpoint, or from something that you have read that has made you think, even if you disagree with it. You may find, in thinking about your area further, that there is something which is not working, or which is unknown, or perhaps which is hypothesised, but that needs to be tested. This is the context for your research - your research problem. The next thing that you need to do is to turn that problem into a question or a statement - which you will use to address this problem.
What is a good research question?
It is important to start your thinking about the dissertation with a question rather than simply a topic heading. The question sets out what you hope to learn about the topic. This question, together with your approach, will guide and structure the choice of data to be collected and analysed.
Some research questions focus your attention onto the relationship of particular theories and concepts: 'how does gender relate to career choices of members of different religions?' Some research questions aim to open an area to let possible new theories emerge: 'what is going on here?' is the most basic research question in exploratory research. For an undergraduate dissertation, your question needs to be more targeted than either of these.
Creating a research question is a task. Good research questions are formed and worked on, and are rarely simply found. You start with what interests you, and you refine it until it is workable.
There is no recipe for the perfect research question, but there are bad research questions. The following guidelines highlight some of the features of good questions.
- Manageable in terms of research and in terms of your own academic abilities.
- Substantial and with original dimensions.
- Consistent with the requirements of the assessment.
- Clear and simple.
The question will be of academic and intellectual interest to people in the field you have chosen to study. The question arises from issues raised in the literature or in practice.
You should be able to establish a clear purpose for your research in relation to the chosen field. For example, are you filling a gap in knowledge, analysing academic assumptions or professional practice, monitoring a development in practice, comparing different approaches or testing theories within a specific population?
You need to be realistic about the scope and scale of the project. The question you ask must be within your ability to tackle. For example, are you able to access people, statistics, or documents from which to collect the data you need to address the question fully? Are you able to relate the concepts of your research question to the observations, phenomena, indicators or variables you can access? Can this data be accessed within the limited time and resources you have available to you?
Sometimes a research question appears feasible, but when you start your fieldwork or library study, it proves otherwise. In this situation, it is important to write up the problems honestly and to reflect on what has been learnt. It may be possible, with your supervisor, to develop a contingency plan to anticipate possible problems of access.
Substantial and (within reason) original
The question should not simply copy questions asked in other final year modules, or modules previously undertaken. It shows your own imagination and your ability to construct and develop research issues. And it needs to give sufficient scope to develop into a dissertation.
Consistent with the requirements of the assessment
The question must allow you the scope to satisfy the learning outcomes of the course. For example, you can choose to conduct a theoretical study, one that does not contain analysis of empirical data. In this case, it will be necessary for you to think carefully before making such a choice. You would be required to give an account of your methodology, to explain why theoretical analysis was the most appropriate way of addressing the question and how you have gone about using theoretical models to produce new insights about the subject.
Clear and simple
The complexity of a question can frequently hide unclear thoughts and lead to a confused research process. A very elaborate research question, or a question which is not differentiated into different parts, may hide concepts that are contradictory or not relevant. This needs to be clear and thought-through, but it is one of the hardest parts of your work.
Equally, you may want to begin with your literature review and data collection and you may feel tempted to 'make do' with a broad and vague research question for the moment. However, a muddled question is likely to generate muddled data and equally muddled analysis.
If you create a clear and simple research question, you may find that it becomes more complex as you think about the situation you are studying and undertake the literature review. Having one key question with several sub-components will guide your research here.
This is essential. The question needs to intrigue you and maintain your interest throughout the project. There are two traps to avoid.
- Some questions are convenient - the best you can come up with when you are asked to state a question on a form, maybe – or perhaps the question fits in with your units so you decide it will suffice.
- Some questions are fads - they arise out of a particular set of personal circumstances, for example a job application. Once the circumstances change you can lose enthusiasm for the topic and it becomes very tedious.
Make sure that you have a real, grounded interest in your research question, and that you can explore this and back it up by academic and intellectual debate. It is your interest that will motivate you to keep working and to produce a good dissertation.
Moving into action
- By now you should be doing lots of reading in the area. Make sure you note, either on computer or on index cards, anything you read that is relevant to your study. Can you map out the contemporary debates and critiques in the area? Are there any recent legal or policy changes of significance? What are the main practice issues to consider?
- Where (i.e. in what settings) does the work you are interested in take place? What access do you have to it? Will there be ethical issues? How might you be able to negotiate access? What obstacles are there? While it is early days to be specific about you data collection, it is important to know that you are on a course which will yield data, rather than a series of negative responses.
- What sort of time scales are you going to need to do the sort of research you are planning? How much time have you got? Are your plans unrealistic?
- Having thought about these things, try narrowing down your ideas again to the sort of research you can do.
- Make a list of the skills and knowledge you bring to the research task. Do you like interviewing? Will you be able to have the interviews transcribed? Are you keen to do surveys? Remember that you will need to have a reasonable sample to undertaken meaningful quantitative analysis.
- Are there sources of secondary data that you could access?
- Are there possibilities for documentary analysis?
So far, we have considered a number of issues relevant to developing an appropriate research methodology for your dissertation. The chart below should help you to synthesise your thinking to date. Work through each of the boxes but be prepared to revisit this at different stages of the dissertation.
Look at the template below and consider each of the sections.
|Research Question||Data Sources and Methods||Justification||Practicalities (e.g. resources and skills)||Ethical Issues|
Good research questions are:
- Relevant: Arising from issues raised in literature and/or practice, the question will be of academic and intellectual interest.
- Manageable: You must be able to access your sources of data (be they documents or people), and to give a full and nuanced answer to your question.
- Substantial and original: The question should showcase your imaginative abilities, however far it may be couched in existing literature.
- Fit for assessment: Remember, you must satisfy the learning outcomes of your course. Your question must be open to assessment, as well as interesting.
- Clear and simple: A clear and simple research question will become more complex as your research progresses. Start with an uncluttered question then unpeel the layers in your reading and writing.
- Interesting: Make your question interesting, but try to avoid questions which are convenient or flashy. Remember, you will be thinking about this question for an entire year.
- What aspect do you find the most interesting about your chosen field or topic?
- Is there 'room' for investigation in this sub-topic area?
- Have you tried formulating questions in different ways?
- Are you happy with your questions? (You will be the one working on them!)
- Have you discussed your topic with your supervisor?
- BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 2
- CRESSWELL, J. W. (2003). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 6
- PUNCH, K. F. (1998). Introduction to Social Research – Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 4
Useful video resources
- Developing research questions
- Identifying Scholarly Resources
- Literature Review
- Research Papers Proposals and Studies
- The Research Process: Topic Selection
- Six Step Research Process
What is a dissertation?
A dissertation or final year project, as a form of assessment differs from other module assessments. The expectation is that you, the learner, take responsibility for your own learning and that you produce a literature review, you choose a method for undertaking a study, write up your findings and discuss the outcomes in a discussion section. So this part of site provides you with a better understanding of the following:
- What a dissertation is
- Why you are required to do a dissertation
- What your dissertation may look like
- How to set about your initial reading and writing
Why does my degree programme include a dissertation?
Traditionally, an undergraduate degree in the social sciences and humanities uses a dissertation for a final piece of study. The degree might also offer other alternatives such as the option of an extended essay, or an independent learning project, or a senior paper. This is because the process of producing this type of assessment enables you to:
- Identify your own area of interest.
- Explore an area in depth.
- Define your own question.
- Experience the process of producing knowledge.
- Manage a project from beginning to end.
- Consolidate your communication, information-seeking and intellectual skills.
In many ways this is about doing social science rather than writing about the social science that others have produced. Some of these skills are clearly academic and related to your discipline. Others are much broader and develop your effectiveness in collecting, manipulating and interrogating information, its application and the production of reports - all of which are useful skills in employment.
For many undergraduate degree students, a significant element of final year study is an independent learning project. According to Todd et al (2004) while these projects may vary greatly in scope and nature (e.g. a large-scale written assignment such as a dissertation or extended essay; the design and production of some type of artefact) most share a number of key characteristics.
- First, the learner determines the focus and direction of their work.
- Second, this work is carried out on an individual basis – although usually with some tutor support and direction provided.
- Third, there is typically a substantial research component to the project, requiring the collection of primary data and/or the analysis of existing/secondary data.
- Finally, learners will have a more prolonged engagement with the chosen subject than is the case with 'standard' coursework assignments such as essays or reports, with the work consequently expected to be more 'in-depth'.
Ultimately you will be drawing together issues of theory, method and methodology and bringing them to bear on your chosen topic. Those dissertations that can best accomplish this integration or even synthesis are often the most conceptually and methodologically accomplished pieces of work.
How is your dissertation module organised?
The way in which this type of assessment is organised will vary from institution to institution and course to course. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular arrangements for your degree. Look for a module handbook which sets out these requirements and how you are allocated a dissertation tutor or supervisor. Your supervisor and any handbooks that are produced are excellent sources of information and support and will help you understand how the dissertation process works. The following checklist will start you on the dissertation journey, start planning and also clarify what is expected of you
|How many credit points or module equivalents is the dissertation worth?|
|Does the dissertation have any special status in the calculation of your final degree classification?|
|When do you need to start planning the dissertation formally? (Some degree programmes start this process in the second year, others in the final year.)|
|What is the submission date for the final piece?|
|Are there any key interim dates when (for example) outlines, sections or requests for the ethical approval of proposed research have to be submitted?|
|How long is the dissertation (and does the word count include the bibliography and appendices)?|
|Are there any lectures, seminars or workshops associated with the module?|
|Will you have a dissertation supervisor?|
|How are supervisors allocated?|
|How often are you allowed to meet with your supervisor?|
|Is there a schedule of meetings that you have to attend or do you arrange them with your supervisor?|
The dissertation offers you the opportunity to further develop your subject expertise and your social research, intellectual and organisational skills:
- You become actively involved with research which could mean empirical research or a library-based project.
- It is an opportunity for originality and intellectual independence. Your first course essays were usually (though not always) written to titles prescribed by your tutor. As you progressed through your course, you may have been given the opportunity to make up your own titles. In this way, your independence, as a reader and critic, developed. The dissertation builds on this foundation; it grows out of your own particular interest, both in terms of the material you choose to write about and the topic that provides the focus of your study. So when you read books and papers on your chosen topic, you become aware that you are reading with a different sense of purpose - to understand and re-present the arguments - yes, but you then start to make sense of what particularly interested you in the books, journal articles or media sources and what particular critical questions you wanted to ask about them.
- A longer word count of the dissertation allows you to sustain your analysis and interpretation over a greater range of material and almost inevitably involves you in more careful and subtle argument.
- The preparation and writing of the dissertation makes you take responsibility, with the support of a tutor, for your own learning, for the whole process of personal, independent study, time management, and the clear and methodical presentation of the results of your research.
In summary, the dissertation requires you to:
- Undertake an extensive programme of reading and research.
- Demonstrate intellectual independence and originality by choosing your own subject of study and defining its nature and scope.
- Engage in sustained analysis, interpretation and comparison of a substantial body of data.
- Present the results of your research in a clearly written, academically cogently argued, logically structured and properly referenced form.
This process improves your subject expertise, is a good preparation for further study and research at postgraduate level, and requires you to work independently and methodically in a variety of intellectually demanding contexts.
For all these reasons, the dissertation can be seen as the culmination of your undergraduate studies. Here you not only demonstrate the intellectual, study, research and presentation skills that you have developed throughout your degree course, but also create something which is uniquely your own.
What does a dissertation look like?
All dissertations will vary in format, style and design. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular requirements of your institution and degree programme.
A typical format guide would require the dissertation to be word-processed with double or one-and-a-half spacing, and a wide left margin to enable binding. Most formats would include:
|Dissertation format guide|
|Table of Contents|
|List of Tables (if any)|
|List of Abbreviations (if any), alphabetically ordered.|
|Literature Review-Similar in form and length to a longish essay entitled 'how I have set up my research topic and how it fits in with existing work in the area'.|
|Methodology-Another essay-sized section entitled 'why I chose the methods I chose to answer my particular question, the strengths and weaknesses of that approach as a tool for generating knowledge, and how I actually did it'.|
|Findings – Describing and presenting your own data, evidence or case study could well take slightly less or more than the earlier sections. This will depend in part on the kind of findings you are presenting.|
|Discussion – This is the section that brings all of the strands of your argument together. One way to think of it is as a three-way conversation between the literature you discussed, the methodology you adopted and the findings you have presented.|
|Conclusion and recommendations – This chapter will draw together the conclusions as well as noting any recommendations for practice. You should not include new ideas at this stage – they should have been dealt with in the discussion section. You can include a reflection on doing the research study and also identify ways in which you, or others, might take the work forward as further research as well as training and dissemination. This chapter often runs out of steam – be warned!|
(a list of all the books, journal articles, web sites, newspapers and other sources that you have used in your dissertation)
(e.g. questionnaires, interview transcripts, pilot reports, detailed tables etc.)
By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.
Do all dissertations look the same?
At one level, yes. They will have to:
- Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
- Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
- Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
- Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
- Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Producing a 'working title'
Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.
Starting to write the dissertation
Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.
It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.
|Introduction||The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.|
|The Literature Review||Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.|
|Methodology||This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.|
|Findings||This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.|
|Evaluation||Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.|
|Discussion||This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.|
|Conclusions and recommendations||An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.|
Knowing what you can expect from your supervisor in terms of support is vital when you start the dissertation module and when you start working on your dissertation. It may not be particularly easy to forge a relationship with a member of staff in your department, for example if he/she has never taught you, or if he/she is very busy. Crucially, all departments are different; this applies to their expectations, their deadlines, and their staff. In this section, you will find the basics of what you should be able to expect from your supervisor.
The role of the supervisor
The introduction of any new approach to learning, such as the dissertation, can be an unsettling experience for students and you will inevitably be challenged by undertaking such a piece of independent study. In order to help students progress through this challenging task, most university departments allocate students with a personal supervisor and individual supervision sessions throughout the duration of the project.
Role of supervisor
- Help you to decide the topic of your dissertation and advise you about primary and secondary reading.
- Help with formulating ideas and hypotheses.
- Discuss the progress of your work with you during the course of the year.
- Offer guidance on the proposed structure.
- Require you to produce drafts of sections or chapters of the dissertation.
- Offer feedback on some of your drafts, which you can then revise.
- Advise you about the organisation of your dissertation into sections or chapters.
- Advise you about matters of presentation, such as the title page, contents page, pagination, footnoting and bibliography.
Findings from previous research
In previous studies many have described the dissertation as a ‘journey’, seeing their role as facilitating that ‘journey’ and making their students’ plans achievable, rather than directing the student to take a particular route. One lecturer said: I think my role is essentially to try and help make their project realisable, rather than impose something on them (Todd, Smith and Bannister, 2006, p166)
Remember this is your project. Your supervisor is there to guide, not to tell you exactly what to do!
Often you will be allocated a dissertation supervisor who has some expertise in the area you have chosen. However, this will not always be possible, either because you have selected an area where there is no expert within your department or because a particularly popular area may result in overloading a few specialists in your chosen area.
Note that your supervisor will normally have a timetabled allowance for dissertation supervision, so make sure you take advantage of it. Take the initiative in approaching your supervisor and do not wait to be asked! You should make a point of contacting your supervisor at least once a month - do not let things drift!
You can be given assistance in understanding specific aspects of methodological technique and general guidance on, for instance, construction of a questionnaire. Your supervisor can be expected to read first drafts of chapters in some detail but to comment on later and final versions only in a general sense.
Supervisor's expectations of students
Your dissertation supervisor is there to supervise your work in progress. The official allocation of time for this work will vary from institution to institution. Do check what the arrangements are for your own department. However, it is important to make a clear agreement with your supervisor about how the supervision will occur. Meetings in the absence of any written work being completed are not generally an effective use of time, as you are wasting your allocated hours. If you have a question to ask or a point to check, then an email will usually suffice. On the other hand, writing a good chunk of material and submitting it before your meeting means that the supervisor will have had the opportunity to read and comment upon it. It is often a useful idea to arrange to have some time as soon as possible after a supervision session so that you can follow up on the comments. Successful students have also found that it is helpful at the end of each supervision session to plan out clearly the next stage of work and the target dates.
If you work closely with your supervisor in this way you can have confidence that your final work will be of a satisfactory standard.
Effective supervision may also enable your supervisor to identify where expertise in the department may be available to support your work, beyond the supervisor themselves. This applies both to areas of specialist knowledge, as well as to research expertise.
Finally, it is important to remember that the dissertation needs to represent a body of individual study and research which is fit for its purpose but which, as a document, also demonstrates internal and intellectual congruence. Poorly conducted research is always unethical and the study must demonstrate that it conforms to the requirements of governance.
But remember - the supervisor's duty is to guide you so that you can produce your best effort, and not to assist with continual revision until the dissertation has acquired a certain grade that you may have as a target. Thus, the supervisor's approval of your progress cannot be taken to imply any particular grade or classification. You should not request this of your supervisor at any stage of the dissertation module.
Note: It should be stressed that the dissertation is yours and should represent your work; not that of you and your supervisor. You are expected to work independently and to present a dissertation at the end of the year, which says to staff, 'This is what I can do. Assess it.'
Once you are allocated to a supervisor, it is not normally possible to change this arrangement. On rare occasions, however, a student may find that she/he cannot work with the allocated supervisor. In the first instance, the student should try to discuss the difficulties with the supervisor and attempt to resolve these through some agreed action plan. If, after this, it becomes evident that the relationship has broken down irrevocably, you should contact directly the Dissertation Tutor or whoever is responsible for the module to discuss other possible arrangements. It is important to sort out such difficulties as soon as possible.
- Initially, ask your supervisor for advice on your choice of topic and your reading.
- Talk to your supervisor, preferably at regular meetings, the frequency of which should be agreed upon mutually.
- If this is allowed in your department, show draft chapters to your supervisor as soon as you have them: give your supervisor time to read, think and feed back.
- Your supervisor will offer constructive criticisms of your work: that is why he/she is there. It is not a criticism of you, or of your ability. Do not be shy or embarrassed by this.
- Your personal supervisor is a resource: use that resource to your advantage. Ask them questions, about methodology, theory, or anything else that may occur. You are not expected to be an instant expert - that's their job!
- Your supervisor will help you, but not do your work for you. Supervisors can only work with what you bring them.
- Are you clear about the role of your supervisor and how s/he can support you and your work?
- Are you making the most of the objectivity and honesty the supervisor can offer to help you improve your work?
- Do you prepare for meetings to make the most of the time you have available?
- Are you keeping in touch throughout the work process?
Types of information sources
Information can come from virtually anywhere — media, blogs, personal experiences, books, journal and magazine articles, expert opinions, encyclopedias, and web pages — and the type of information you need will change depending on the question you are trying to answer. Look at the following sources of information. Notice the similarities between them.
Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources
When searching for information on a topic, it is important to understand the value of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to original ideas, events, and empirical research as possible. Such sources may include creative works, first hand or contemporary accounts of events, and the publication of the results of empirical observations or research. We list sources for historical primary documents.
Secondary sources analyze, review, or summarize information in primary resources or other secondary resources. Even sources presenting facts or descriptions about events are secondary unless they are based on direct participation or observation. Moreover, secondary sources often rely on other secondary sources and standard disciplinary methods to reach results, and they provide the principle sources of analysis about primary sources.
Tertiary sources provide overviews of topics by synthesizing information gathered from other resources. Tertiary resources often provide data in a convenient form or provide information with context by which to interpret it.
The distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can be ambiguous. An individual document may be a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. Encyclopedias are typically considered tertiary sources, but a study of how encyclopedias have changed on the Internet would use them as primary sources. Time is a defining element.
While these definitions are clear, the lines begin to blur in the different discipline areas.
In the sciences, primary sources are documents that provide full description of the original research. For example, a primary source would be a journal article where scientists describe their research on the genetics of tobacco plants. A secondary source would be an article commenting or analyzing the scientists' research on tobacco.
- Conference proceedings
- Lab notebooks
- Technical reports
- Theses and dissertations
These are where the results of original research are usually first published in the sciences. This makes them the best source of information on cutting edge topics. However the new ideas presented may not be fully refined or validated yet.
These tend to summarize the existing state of knowledge in a field at the time of publication. Secondary sources are good to find comparisons of different ideas and theories and to see how they may have changed over time.
These types of sources present condensed material, generally with references back to the primary and/or secondary literature. They can be a good place to look up data or to get an overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material.
|Agriculture||Conference paper on tobacco genetics||Review article on the current state of tobacco research||Encyclopedia article on tobacco|
|Chemistry||Chemical patent||Book on chemical reactions||Table of related reactions|
|Physics||Einstein's diary||Biography on Einstein||Dictionary of relativity|
Formulating literature reviews
What is a literature review, then? A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.
A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.
But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper? The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper will contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.
Why do we write literature reviews? Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.
Who writes these things, anyway? Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE WRITING THE LITERATURE REVIEW?
Clarify If your assignment (or topic) is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:
- Roughly how many sources should you include?
- What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
- Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
- Should you evaluate your sources?
- Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?
Find models Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.
Narrow your topic There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.
And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 70’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.
Consider whether your sources are current
Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.
STRATEGIES FOR WRITING THE LITERATURE REVIEW
Find a focus A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.
Construct a working thesis statement Then use the focus you’ve found to construct a thesis statement. Yes! Literature reviews have thesis statements as well! However, your thesis statement will not necessarily argue for a position or an opinion; rather it will argue for a particular perspective on the material. Some sample thesis statements for literature reviews are as follows:
- The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine.
- More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.
See our handout for more information on how to construct thesis statements.
Consider organization You’ve got a focus, and you’ve narrowed it down to a thesis statement. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:
First, cover the basic categories
Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper.
Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?
Organizing the body
Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.
To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario and then three typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:
You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.
If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
By publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
By trend A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.
But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.
Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:
Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?
Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:
However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2.
Use evidence In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.
Be selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.
Use quotes sparingly Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.
Summarise and synthesise Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.
Keep your own voice While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.
Use caution when paraphrasing
When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s.
REVISE, REVISE, REVISE
Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline.
Anson, Chris M. and Robert A. Schwegler, The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers. Second edition. New York: Longman, 2000.
Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Lamb, Sandra E. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998.
Rosen, Leonard J. and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn and Bacon Handbook. Fourth edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Troyka, Lynn Quitman. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Data collection and analysis
To find out whether there is a difference in the data you have collected we tend to employ the area of science referred to as statistics. Statistics can actually do much more then just tell you whether or not a difference takes place, it can also assist in the planning of your study. And if you think statistics is boring, perhaps check out this enthusiastic video, The Joy of Statistics.
If you are quite new to statistics, then a great place to start is on Will Hopkins' website (an excellent resource created to assist researchers and students to better understand statistics), specifically, start with the basics here and click on the 'next' button to progress through it. Wikipedia also has a good introduction to statistics worth reading through.
Hopkin's tends to present alternatives to many traditional statistical methods. Hopkin's explain's the traditional statistical approach as well as his view on it's limitations. A recent article in the conversation also points out why hypothesis and significance tests ask the wrong questions. Worth thinking about as part of your research design.
If you are more comfortable with the basics then you will probably just want to get down to answering the questions you need to. The data analysis you undertake will depend on the type of research, the research design, and they type of data you are working with. Go back and revisit the research design section if you are not sure about the power of your study, subject numbers or randomisation. If you have all your data then you will need to:
1.Clean your data 2.Analyse for differences/probability/associations 3.Represent the data (visualisation).
If you are looking for the answers to specific questions, a number of resources are available online.
Cleaning your data
From Data Cleaning in Statistics wikibook: 'Cleaning' refers to the process of removing invalid data points from a dataset.Many statistical analyses try to find a pattern in a data series, based on a hypothesis or assumption about the nature of the data. 'Cleaning' is the process of removing those data points which are either (a) Obviously disconnected with the effect or assumption which we are trying to isolate, due to some other factor which applies only to those particular data points. (b) Obviously erroneous, i.e. some external error is reflected in that particular data point, either due to a mistake during data collection, reporting etc.In the process we ignore these particular data points, and conduct our analysis on the remaining data. For the rest, see the data cleaning wikibook entry.
You should always be able to justify any data cleaning you do, and often, you may be able to avoid it by using alternate analysis. As part of the reporting process remember that the methods section should offer sufficient information so that your study can be replicated, this includes any statistical analysis.
The types of things you will likely want to do with your data is provide:
- Descriptive summaries
- Investigate if differences exist, or better, describe (the likelihood of) differences/changes
- Investigate the strength of associations between measures you have taken
Methods used to summarize or describe a collection of data are referred to as descriptive statistics. In descriptive statistics we generally focus on the centrality of the data (average) and the variation in the data. When describing a group, we want to know what most of the data points focus around. We can calculate various types of averages, most commonly the mean, but also the mode or median as well as other types of averages. The average or mean tells us something about the data, but sometimes the variation in the data tells us much more about the behavious of our results. Variation is most commonly reported in terms of the standard deviation (SD) of the data, but may also be commonly reported as a standard error (SE) or even the range. There are other ways to describe the variation as well which we won't go into here. Hopkin's has a view on whether or not you should report Mean and SD or Mean and SE? too.
As with all data that you present, it is important to remember that you don't just report all the numbers you get, you have to consider how many significant figures to report. How many digits should you report?
When we want to draw a conclusion about differences/changes/relationships between data we have collected we employ inferential|statistics. They type of conlusion we want to make depends upon the research design. The type of conclusion we want to make depends upon the research design. Yes, that is written twice, for a reason.
We generally either want to detect a significant difference between groups/time points etc or describe the likelihood of differences or we want to find out the relationship between variables.
If we want to know how one variable varies in relation to another we generally use a corelation statistic. Note that this is not evidence of a causal relationship, that one variable causes the other to vary in a certain way. You need to show this through appropriate research design.
If we want to know if groups are different, or change, then the type of statistics we employ is very dependent on the research design. Hopkin's offers solutions, and helps you make the decision of what to use through his website. It's important to get this right, and to justify what you do. Importantly, there is not necessarily one correct statistical method to use on your data, you just need to be able to justify what you have done. Make sure you talk to colleagues, supervisors and other researchers about these decisions. Below are just some of the links to spreadsheets that Hopkin's has created to help you analyse your data.
- Spreadsheets for Analysis of Controlled Trials, with Adjustment for a Subject Characteristic
- A Spreadsheet for Analysis of Straightforward Controlled Trials
- Making Meaningful Inferences About Magnitudes
- Progressive Statistics
- Linear Models and Effect Magnitudes for Research, Clinical and Practical Applications
Most of the above deals with quantitative research, and much of it also applies to qualitative work as well once the data has been coded. There are a few things to bear in mind though because the data tends to be categorical (the response is in a group or not) instead of a continuous data set. James Neill offers an excellent overview of qualitative statistics with links to other worthwhile resources. Content analysis is a methodology in the social sciences for studying the content of communication. Earl Babbie defines it as "the study of recorded human communications, such as books, websites, paintings and laws."
If you are doing qualitative research, it is worth checking out the links from the Qualitative analysis wikiversity page for much more information on conducting and analysing the research (although most is designed for psychology students the tutorials and lectures are useful for many fields).
The most appropriate format to present your results will change depending on the circumstances and there may be many alternatives available. An obvious 3 ways in most research is listed below.
- In text
- In a table
- In a figure. This may be a type of graph or another type of illustration
I'm an advocate that you should tell the reader as much as you can about the data, present the numbers, effect sizes, means and standard deviations... whatever you have. Whilst you will interpret it in your discussion, you should have enough information so the reader can make up their own mind about the results. If you have something to hide... you should think about not publishing... or openly acknowledging limitations that exist.
In 2011 the Journal of Physiology printed a perspective entitled: Show the data, don't conceal them with some advice on presenting figures and tables etc. Altman and Bland (two quite famous statisticians) also offer advice on presenting numerical data. Things like presenting the actual p value. See the British Medical Journal article: Statistics Notes: Presentation of numerical data. The last real in text comment I'll make about the presentation of data, and a pet hate of mine, refers specifically to the issue of how many decimal places to use (as well as some other tips) in Troublesome decimals; a hidden problem in the sports medicine literature.
A single statistic only tells a small part of the story. Variances of differences between groups tell you a little more, but a well designed statistical graphic helps us explore, and perhaps understand, these relationships much more.
- Tips on using graphs from Statistics Canada
- Using Graphs and Tables on Presentation Slides by Dave Paradi
- Charts and Graphs: Choosing the right format by Mindtools
- Decision tree for decidiing on which graph to use by Labright, North Carolina State University
Many of the examples above do not contain the detail of what a scientific figure should contain, but are useful in terms of some of the types of graphs available and their use. In scientific presentation, the parts of the graph are important too. Parts of grpahs worth considering for scientific publication include:
- indicators of significant differences
- axis labels
- the scale and continuous (or not) nature of the axis
- error bars
MIT provide a very good summary of the importance of graphics as well as what to, and what not to include on your graphic(s).
Traditional graphical forms of representing data are presented here, and are generally most appropriate for traditional scietnific publications, but to really get the most out of your data, especially when it is online on on video, it's almost worth employing a graphic design consultant. The area of emerging oportunities for data visualisation are incredible and worth exploring.
Before data collection
- Decide how you think you will analyse your data.
- Try to predict any issues you might have with your data
After data collection
- Conduct any data cleaning and record what you did and why
- Carry out the analysis. Record everything you did
- Write out all the methods for your data analysis
- Present the data in a suitable format for your audience (it may be a specific scientific journal, or on a blog)
Before data collection
- Decide how you think you will analyse your data.
- Try to predict any issues you might have with your data
After data collection
- Conduct any data cleaning and record what you did and why
- Carry out the analysis. Record everything you did
- Write out all the methods for your data analysis
- Present the data in a suitable format for your audience (it may be a specific scientific journal, or on a blog)
Will Hopkin's A new view of statistics is a resource you will keep going back to time and time again.
McGraw-Hill Companies (2007). Educational Research and statistics: Valuable web sites available at http://fms.wsd.wednet.edu/TechLab/educationallinks.htm
Quick R - a website on R for experienced users of statistical packages such as SAS, SPSS, Stata, and Systat.
Research Methods in the Social and Natural Sciences offers a basic tutorial-style program that covers experimental, correlation, naturalistic observation, survey and case study methods. 'The Lab' also has revision tests.
School of Library Archival and Information Studies The University of British Columbia (2004). General survey research. Research Methods resources on the WWW is an extensive site covering a wide range of research methods.
Simple R - a website created by John Verzani and which are notes that were turned into the book Using R for Introductory Statistics, published Fall 2004 by Chapman Hall/CRC Press. Available at http://www.math.csi.cuny.edu/Statistics/R/simpleR/index.html
Data analysis generally relies on the tools used to undertake it. The range of tools is immense, from statisitical software packages to spreadsheets to pen and paper and specific graphics packages. A selection of common tools are listed below.
Information on SPSS can be found from its website http://www.spss.com/au/index.htm
R is an open source statistical package. It can be downloaded for free from http://www.r-project.org Advantages of R:
- Extremely powerful
- Lots of free documentation is available
A summary of Survey Analysis Software is available from http://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/statistics/survey-soft/ There is an R-Users group in the ACT. Their website http://www.meetup.com/Canberra-R-Users-Group/
Some tips on preparing graphics for publication from Will Hopkins.
Many of the data analysis tools also produce graphical representations of data. Some are more useful than others. Some more specific tools are listed below, some of which have statistical capabilities (often limited) themselves.
Graphpad Prism, commercial software.
Microsoft Excel and alternatives.
- BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 26 - Doing a research project
- BELL, J. (2005). Doing your research project: A guide for first time researchers in education, health and social sciences. 4th ed., Maidenhead, Open University Press, chapter 2
- Wikipedia: Content Analysis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_analysis Accessed 12/01/2011
Drs James Neill, Ben Rattray (Faculty of Health, University of Canberra)