How to Write a Thesis and Thesis Statement (Tutorial 2019)
This tutorial explains how to write thesis and Thesis Statement with examples. And also explains all new research questions and methods that used in thesis and research paper. And describes What method of field research you want to choose depends on the goals of your research and the scope of the research question you ask
Once we have decided to whom to write (to humanity, not to the advisor), we must decide how to write, and this is quite a difficult question. If there were exhaustive rules, we would all be great writers.
I could at least recommend that you rewrite your thesis many times, or that you take on other writing projects before embarking on your thesis because writing is also a question of training. In any case, I will provide some general suggestions for writing the best thesis:
You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.
Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.
Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft. You may notice that you get carried away with your inspiration, and you lose track of the center of your topic.
In this case, you can remove the parenthetical sentences and the digressions, or you can put each in a note or an appendix. Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.
To whom do you speak when you write your thesis? To your advisor? To all the students or scholars who will have the chance to consult the work in the future? To the general public of nonspecialists?
Having carefully selected a research topic, reviewed relevant literature, and decided on the objective of your research, now is time to design your research.
First, refine and finalize your research questions and select your research methods. Here are questions students frequently ask when developing their research questions and selecting their methods:
This chapter addresses these frequently asked questions. To help you work out your research design, we will first focus on things you should consider in order to choose the right research design for your study.
What Are Your Research Questions?
Now that you have specific research questions you are ready to study, it is time to think about how to answer them. Conducting research is like building a house. A blueprint is essential and will facilitate its construction. Similarly, a well-designed research project is a good beginning and will enable you to get the research done.
When you design a house, you need to decide on what kind of house you want to build. Similarly, when you design your research project, start with your research questions. In finalizing your research questions, we want you to consider a few more important things to determine whether they are ready.
Research Questions Are Related to Your Literature Reviews
Research questions are directly connected to the conclusions of your literature reviews. They present a summary and critique of existing studies on the topic and identify any unresolved debates or understudied areas (“gaps and voids”) in current scholarly dialogues.
Ideally, your plan is to address these areas with your own research so that your own study can add something new to the existing knowledge. In other words, literature reviews provide a rationale or justification for your research questions.
The connection between your literature reviews and your research questions should be apparent and clear to yourself and your readers.
Research Questions Are Theoretical Questions, Which Require Data Analysis to Answer
Sometimes students conflate research questions with the actual questions they will ask respondents. For example, “what is respondents’ self-identified class?” is not a research question. This is a question to be directed to the respondents during your research.
Similarly, “Why did the respondent vote for the Labor party in this year’s election?” and “What jobs do you wish to pursue after graduation?” are questions which you will use in the surveys or interviews.
Simply put, survey or interview questions are the questions intended to obtain specific information about inpidual respondents’ opinions, attitudes, and behaviors.
Your research questions, on the other hand, are questions about more general patterns commonly found in the population, or about broader concepts and the relationships between concepts and issues.
You will need to analyze the data on the two concepts, class and voting choice, or university affiliation and job aspirations, to see whether they are connected. These are examples of what counts as research questions.
An easy way to tell if your question is a suitable research question is to ask whether you need to analyze the data to answer it. If the answer to your question can be obtained directly from inpidual respondents, it does not qualify as a research question.
Research Questions Should Be Clear and Specific
Asked exactly what “problems” he had in mind and how he was going to do his research, the student responded that he was thinking about cannabis and alcohol use among students playing sports in university teams and their effects on academic performance. He was thinking about conducting surveys among athletes in nearby universities to collect data.
The professor asked the student to conceptualize his ideas and narrow them down to a clear topic that would more precisely reflect his ideas and then develop specific research questions based on his topic for his research.
In finalizing your research questions or specific hypotheses for testing, you need to identify the precise definitions for the concepts so that they represent your research ideas.
When you write hypotheses for a quantitative study, you may have to specify your concepts even further into observable variables. The student above came up with “class attendance” and “grade point average” as variables representing the concept “academic performance.” This is a process called “operationalization” in research terms.
For now, remember that variables refer to concepts that can take different values across cases. For example, gender, whether someone is a university student or not, work hours per week, favorite sports, the average grade earned last year, and so on, are all variables because each inpidual/case in your study will have different answers/values for these questions.
Research Questions Ask Complex Questions
When you develop your topic into research questions, avoid asking “yes/no” questions, such as “Do students use drugs?” or “Does family income affect school performance?”
Instead, ask research questions starting with why, what, and how. Questions starting with why, what, and how to provide answers more sophisticated than a simple yes or no. The following research questions can be good examples:
How do family relationships affect student school performance?
How do overseas work assignments affect white-collar workers’ future career paths?
In what ways can women in corporate boards affect company policies and practices on gender equality?
Why are university students politically active in some countries and not in others?
What factors affect marital satisfaction?
What factors influence the experiences of depression among the elderly population?
Why do some democratic revolutions fail?
How does social class affect health outcomes for patients with cardiovascular diseases?
Why is education migration more pronounced in Asia than in other regions?
What factors affect teachers’ attitudes on ethno-religious minority pupils?
How do the new social media affect patterns of adolescent friendship formation?
What Are the Goals of Your Research?
It helps to have clear objectives for your research. Research objectives are usually implied in research questions. Do your research questions ask about the distribution of attitudes or behaviors? Or do they inquire about the relationships between variables?
There are several kinds of research, but the following four are most common. What method of field research you want to choose depends on the goals of your research and the scope of the research question you ask.
The first type of study is an exploratory study. If the questions you asked are about a newly emerging issue in the field or something that is inadequately studied, your goals are finding some basic information for further study.
For example, if you want to find out how emails shape the way office gossip develops and affect people in the workplace, you may design an exploratory study using a small sized sample.
In this case, your main purpose is to provide some basic insights about this question, identify some empirical patterns of behaviors, and investigate some potential connections to other issues in the workplace such as clique formation, fair treatment and equity, work satisfaction, and productivity.
Identifying good research questions for future study is an important benefit of exploratory studies.
For instance, social media are a relatively new phenomenon. As an exploratory study, you may conduct in-depth interviews with young people about how they use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media and how their usage affects their interactions with others.
Or you may observe, with the participants’ consent, a handful of personal profiles, images, and exchanges of comments on a particular social media site to explore the significance of social media on people’s lives.
Or you may want to conduct surveys, especially with open-ended questions, asking a small sample of students about their use and the perspectives on social media to understand this form of social interaction. All of these designs can achieve the goal of an exploratory study.
Keep in mind, however, that exploratory research often has few guideposts. That means you have to figure out how to give meaning to your findings. You may break new ground in your exploration, but you may also get stranded somewhere without finding any substantive answers to your initial inquiry.
Therefore, think carefully before you decide on exploratory research. By definition, it has limited generalizability and your findings need to be examined further.
The second type of study is a descriptive study. If your goal is to provide information on the distribution of characteristics, behavioral patterns, attitudes, or opinions, your study will be considered a descriptive study.
This is a “fact-finding” type study. You probably have seen some large scale descriptive studies done by governments and mass media organizations. For example, population surveys, statistical reports on economy and labor trends, and health risk surveys among youths are routinely conducted and published by governments and their agencies in many countries.
In a descriptive study, you may ask specific factual questions, such as what percentage of the study population support or oppose a particular side of a controversy and what is the distribution of public opinion on a specific social issue or government policy, or you simply collect data on health, or demographic and social characteristics of a group.
Descriptive research usually does not tell you the causes or effects of something but describes what it is. Questionnaire surveys may be most appropriate for descriptive research.
The third type of research is an explanatory study, which is more common in social science research. Explanatory research addresses the “why” question; if the goal of your study is to find out what is causing a particular issue or phenomenon; then it will be an explanatory study.
For example, if you want to examine why girls do better in language and literature courses than boys, you will conduct an explanatory study and investigate the possible causes of the gender gap in language learning.
Or, if you want to explain why some people are happier than others, then you will test what factors are related to the subjective feeling of happiness. You may even be able to assess what factors have a stronger impact than others.
In social sciences, testing on such relationships is often done using statistical analysis techniques. For explanatory studies, quantitative questionnaire surveys using a large representative sample or experimental research designs are commonly used.
The fourth is an evaluative study, research frequently conducted for policy and program evaluations. If you are interested in finding out whether a social policy or an intervention program works, or how it works, conduct an evaluative study.
In evaluative studies, you compare the data before and after the implementation of a policy or an intervention program so as to assess what effects the intervention had on the outcome. You will evaluate if the program has effectively reached its goals.
You may also evaluate if the program has been implemented appropriately and what steps are necessary to implement the program better. If a new social program has been suggested in your region, you may conduct needs assessment research and decide if the new program is actually needed. You may also perform an assessment to find out if an existing program should be continued.
One of the biggest challenges in starting a research project is feeling overwhelmed by the task of narrowing into your research topic and eventual question. My advice here is to turn to the literature and turn to it quite early. Yes, talk to your supervisor, but also become independently knowledgeable, and maybe even an expert, in your topic.
Do the background reading, do the contextual reading, do the academic reading. Understand the pressing issues, understand the political agendas, understand the gaps in knowledge. If you have your head around all this, imagine how much less daunting it will be to engage in a fruitful conversation about the direction of your research!
Now there’s no shortage of literature available to the budding researcher. An array of library databases allows you to explore almost any topic. And, of course, an amazing amount of research literature is now accessible on the Internet using commonly available search engines.
In fact, with search engine Google now offering Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com), you can search for abstracts, peer-reviewed articles, books, theses and technical reports across a variety of disciplines.
Even if you haven’t done this type of literature search before, your day-to-day Internet searching already has you fairly skilled up in this area. And as you become familiar with your university’s databases and begin to think more and more strategically about how you can expand and limit your searches, appropriate literature will only be a few clicks away.
Managing the Workload
One word that I stress in all student research projects, regardless of level or discipline, is ‘doability’. Is it doable? Well, assessing doability involves more than just looking at the quality of the research design.
It also involves looking at the full gamut of pressures and responsibilities that you as an inpidual need to manage. Realistically assessing and managing your workload is essential. If you don’t, time will simply slip away.
There are no set rules for time management. You might be a night owl, an early bird, someone who can multi-task, someone who can only tackle one task at a time, someone who feels anxious without a defined schedule or someone who is more spontaneous. Recognizing your own approach, working with its strengths, and addressing its shortcomings will be important to timely completion.
If you can work your own style into a plan, it can help you manage what is likely to end up a very complex and, at times, seemingly unending task. is often fluid and flexible exercise likely to incorporate the unexpected, and your chart will invariably need to shift in order to reflect the dynamic nature of your project.
However, having a document that can be negotiated and modified is more likely to keep you true to deadlines than not having one at all.
For some, the discipline it takes to stick to a Gantt chart comes naturally. These amazing inpiduals are able to get up at a specified time, work diligently to a plan, and take only minimal food and toilet breaks. And they manage to do this five days a week.
For us ordinary humans, however, the procrastination skills we have developed over many years of formal schooling are much too sophisticated to see us succumb to that level of discipline.
Instead, we wait for inspiration. Which is fine if inspiration strikes with enough frequency and regularity – but what if it doesn’t? Well then, you may have to ‘trick’ yourself into some sort of pseudo-inspirational state. Some things you might want to try are:
Working on/reading over your research journal – An invaluable tool for any researcher is a good journal that can capture creative inspiration and help you manage the process.
Your journal might include observations, notes on method and theory, lists of relevant contacts, notes/reminders to yourself and any other ideas, doodles, concept maps, etc. that come to mind. Adding to your journal, or simply reading it over, may get the creative juices flowing.
Forcing yourself to get on the computer – Engaging in some menial task can be a catalyst for doing richer work. Try starting with relatively mindless editorial work, data cleaning or referencing, and then try to move to whatever you are procrastinating over.
If you don’t approach the computer at all, then nothing gets done. But if you sit down to a task, not only is the task accomplished, but the real work might get going as well.
Writing a letter to a real or fictional friend – If you are feeling stuck, try writing an informal letter that tells ‘whoever’ what you are trying to do. Freeing yourself from academic writing can often help liberate ideas.
Go for a walk – Sometimes a good head-clearing walk can be a trigger for a flood of fresh ideas. Having a small audio recorder handy (which is kept by the bed can also capture early morning inspiration) can capture those thoughts you are bound to forget.
Staying on Course
I don’t think I’ve been involved in the supervision of one student who has not agonized over the research journey. For most, their research project is likely to be the biggest academic project ever undertaken.
Knowing a field, being responsible for the production of ‘new knowledge’, designing methods, collecting and analyzing data, and writing it all up can be an intimidating challenge – particularly for those whose roles and responsibilities in the real world extend beyond those of student.
But rest assured, feelings of frustration, confusion and even incompetence are both commonplace and surmountable. Being able to find a balance and deal with a crisis is part and parcel of researching.
Finding a Balance
Student, employee, parent, child, partner – no student is a student alone. We all have a variety of roles to play. Yet sometimes those around us, ourselves included, forget that we need to manage and balance all of these simultaneously, even if they are sometimes incompatible.
Balance is essential. No one can reach or work to their potential if they are neglecting important areas of their life.
So how do you find balance when you know you need to focus on your studies, yet you are feeling pressure at work, and you realize that you must reprioritize family?
whether at work, home or university, being honest and open about your needs is a good start. That, combined with the ability to say ‘no’, can go a long way in staying on top of it:
At work – Try taking the time to discuss the demands of study with your managers. Hopefully, they will be supportive. If not, at least you know where you stand.
If your research is work-related, it may be possible to negotiate time and resources for your project, particularly if you explain the significance and potential benefits of your research to the workplace.
At home – Having the support of family is essential, not only for the practical support that can come from assistance with domestic duties, child care, etc. but also for the emotional support that can be quite crucial during the process.
Unfortunately, some partners can be threatened by, or envious of, your achievements. Working through this dilemma, or again at least knowing where you stand, can put you in a stronger position of power.
At university – I think the best advice is to be professional, but put your concerns on the table for legitimization. Being open and honest with your supervisor is crucial to your ability to set realistic and, most importantly, achievable goals.
Dealing with Challenges
You know what? It would actually be unrealistic to undertake a major research project without expecting it to intersect with some sort of challenge – our lives are full of them.
It is easy to find it becoming too much, to start doubting yourself, or doubting what you’re doing. For example, you may experience periods of waning motivation.
It can be difficult to stay motivated for an extended period of time. What starts as an exciting and interesting project can sometimes end up being one you just want to finish.
Developing a supportive research culture can go a long way in keeping up motivation. Whether it be an attentive/sympathetic ear at home, interested work colleagues, a peer support network or a relevant Internet chat group, engaging with others can help keep your interest up. It might also be worth reminding yourself to ‘enjoy the process’ and that ‘the finish line will appear’.
Another common challenge is a lack of confidence. There are a lot of people who start their ‘research’ careers at the end of very successful ‘learning’ careers. These are people who are used to competence and success.
Well, research students generally set their own agenda, work independently and attempt to work to their potential; and herein lies the problem. Working to your potential pushes at your own personal limits, often in ways prior learning has not.
Feeling like an impostor, thinking that it is beyond your capabilities and believing that your work is not good enough are, believe it or not, fears widely shared.
Getting a more objective sense of how you are going can help put things in perspective. If you talk to your supervisor and your peers, you will often find that others have more faith in you than you have in yourself.
I often tell students who are facing a crisis of confidence that they are in the midst of a learning process; skills and confidence will grow with time.
At times you might also feel lost. And this can happen even within the parameters of a shorter project. Research often starts with broad-ranging exploration that can take you down many tangents. The upside is that this exploration will undeniably increase your learning and often lead to new insights.
The downside, however, is that you risk feeling lost. It is pretty easy to be blown off course and feel like you have no idea where you are going.
Finding direction can come from reflecting on what it is that you really want to know, having open and candid discussions with your supervisor, and in the end remembering that the answers may not simply appear. You may need to make some hard decisions about the direction you will take.
Becoming disorganized can also get the better of you; and it’s too easy to say, ‘You need to be organized’. You probably knew that before you got that out-of-control feeling.
The need for self-discipline may be obvious, but the ability to exercise it is much harder. If physical disorganization is your downfall, take a week or two off from ‘doing’ research and just clean up your workspace and organize yourself.
If, however, disorganization is more in your mind and you feel as though you cannot think straight, you can (1) try the above – an organized desk and office can pave the way for an organized mind – or (2) get away from it all. Sometimes a good weekend away is all you need to refresh the mental batteries.
Finally, your research project may intersect with some level of personal crisis. It was John Lennon who said ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’.
It would be nice if the world stopped while you got on with your research, but that simply doesn’t happen. Whether it’s finances, partners, parents, children, work, in fact, any variety of drama, the research process necessarily coincides with life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Reach out to your support network and speak openly with your supervisor. My experience is that people are generally supportive. Perhaps most important of all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Get support and then make a guilt-free decision to press on, take it slower or have a hiatus until the crisis subsides.
What Method Should You Use in Your Research?
After determining the goals and objectives of your research, it is time to consider what research design is most appropriate to answer your research questions.
There are several commonly used methods, including experimental research, questionnaire surveys, ethnographic research, in-depth interviews, content analysis, secondary analysis of existing data, historical research, and comparative study. These research methods are usually categorized as quantitative and qualitative research methods.
What Is the Difference between Quantitative and Qualitative Research?
The broad categorization between quantitative and qualitative research is something you should think about first before you consider specific methods to collect your data.
Quantitative research has been developed from the philosophy of logical positivism, and it is based on the systematic use of quantified empirical information to study human behavior.
Quantitative research methods include questionnaire surveys, content analysis, experimental tests, and other methods that you can use to quantify information for numerical analyses. Quantitative researchers employ statistics to analyze and summarize the data collected.
Qualitative research is a research strategy to collect data about a person, a group, or a community from the participants’ own perspectives. Locke et al. describe it as “a means for describing and attempting to understand the observed regularities in what people do, or in what they report as their experience”.
Qualitative research is premised upon the idea that interpretation is a key to the understanding the social world, and that social reality is a constructed reality and experienced differently by inpiduals, ideas largely attributed to such theorists as Max Weber and George Herbert Mead.
Qualitative research methods include in-depth interviews, observations, ethnography, and focus group discussions. In qualitative research, data include transcribed interviews, texts, images, and field notes.
Qualitative researchers systematically interpret, analyze and summarize non-numerical data to report the patterns and relations between different themes in the data, and describe the population, or the setting in question in great detail.
For example, consider how a student’s research interest in studying romance will be addressed differently, depending on the research strategy used. The data collected using different research methods will yield quite different data to analyze.
Quantitative data such as the answers collected in survey questionnaire will allow the student researcher to collect quantifiable numeric data; there is a number code for each answer choice in the survey.
The student will be able to report what percentage of the respondents have experienced love, what was the strongest feeling people felt, and if romance is likely to change people. The student researcher can also compare the answers by gender, age group, and levels of education.
The interview data in this example have other details not captured by the survey data; as you can see, the transcript includes descriptions of emotions in the respondent’s own words, ambivalence and self-reflection, and complicated explanations for his romantic interests. Notice here that there is also information volunteered by the respondent (e.g., “Jackie” was non-white) without being asked.
These details are difficult to be captured if you use quantitative data collection methods such as a survey questionnaire illustrated here. On the other hand, the narrative data are too detailed to allow clear-cut comparisons between men and women, or between different age groups, as you would be able to do with quantitative data.
Qualitative data from an in-depth interview
Interviewer: Have you ever been in love? Yes? Tell me about your first love?
What was it like? What was s/he like? How did you act?
Quantitative designs are also appropriate when you plan to test hypotheses or relationships between clearly defined variables. Quantitative methods can involve a large number of respondents.
Because of their efficiency, quantitative methods such as surveys can take advantage of probability sampling techniques, findings likely to be generalizable to a larger study population.
The quantitative research follows standardized data collection and analysis procedures. Research needs to be well planned, and uniform standards must be maintained in the research process.
If your research questions focus on processes, complexity of meaning, and contexts, use qualitative research strategies. Qualitative methods are also suitable when you have somewhat broad and loosely defined research questions.
Qualitative research will allow you to gain an in-depth understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of participants from their own perspective.
Since the resulting data do not lend themselves to easy quantification as illustrated above, qualitative researchers usually report on themes and trends using words instead of statistics. Because of its nature, qualitative research methods are more appropriate for exploratory research.
However, do not feel you must choose one and completely abandon the other for a given project. You should think of them as rather complementing each other. Use both strategies in one research project, if your research questions call for both types of information.
This strategy is called “mixed-methods,” and you can combine the benefits of quantitative and qualitative data by using mixed methods.
Some students have the perception that quantitative data analysis is complicated and qualitative research is relatively simple. This perception is inaccurate. Either method has its challenges and benefits.
The techniques for quantitative data collection and analysis are well developed and their use is well established, but some statistical models may require a higher level of mathematical understanding.
In contrast to quantitative research, the techniques for collecting and analyzing qualitative data are much more perse and flexible. Qualitative research requires the researchers to think creatively and yet systematically.
Published qualitative research papers may suggest some models for student researchers like you. Sometimes, qualitative data analysis can be time-consuming. Transcription of voice data, multi-stage coding, and theorizing with the seemingly scattered information require long and hard work.
You should inform yourself about the different benefits of quantitative and qualitative methods, and choose your research strategy that fits best for your research questions, the objectives of your study, and your skills.
Which Method Should You Use to Collect Your Data?
There are several quantitative and qualitative data collection methods that may suit your research projects, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, experimental research is well suited to research projects involving relatively limited and well-defined concepts and propositions.
Experimentation that is often used in psychology research is appropriate for hypothesis-testing and explanatory studies as well as small group interactions.
An advantage of experimental research is that the researcher can manipulate the independent variable to see the change in or impact on the dependent variable.
For example, if you want to find whether placing flowers in areas where the elderly frequent in a nursing home affects their mood, you can test your proposition using an experiment.
In a typical experiment design, you will assign the residents randomly into two groups, measure the baseline scores relating to their mood, expose one group to flowers and let the other group conduct their routine life without flowers.
After a certain period of time, you can measure again the mood scores and see if there was a difference between the two groups. Another way of conducting this experiment would be to measure the residents’ mood before and after you place flowers and see whether there was an improvement after the exposure to flowers.
Questionnaire surveys are widely used in social sciences today and are appropriate for descriptive, explanatory, and exploratory studies of a large number of people about their values, attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.
For example, if you want to find out how many university students are reading journal articles on computer screens instead of in prints, how many people support a social welfare program reform, or what percentage of the population think globalization is good for their national economy, you can use a questionnaire to survey and collect information on a large number of people within a relatively short period of time.
You may also use a questionnaire survey to collect data on some variables and then use statistical analyses to find out if and how they are related to each other. Nowadays, you can easily conduct surveys via emails, or using online survey sites and collect data through the internet.
Questionnaire surveys, however, may not be suitable for an in-depth understanding of the issues being studied.
Content analysis is appropriate for virtually any form of communication, including published books, magazines, newspapers, songs, paintings, speeches, letters, laws, and constitutions. Data collected from these media are likely to be texts and images, which are qualitative data.
Content analysis is a type of study in which such qualitative data are analyzed by way of coding; a process of summarizing text and image data using short-hand labels (“codes”). Coding schemes are constructed either based on theories or based on some regular patterns and themes you find in the media data collected.
You may analyze data already collected by someone else to answer your research questions. This is called “secondary data analysis” which is another option you may consider. Nowadays, government organizations, research institutes, professors, and sometimes students collect all kinds of data.
Some data sources are well-known, such as census data and other omnibus surveys on attitudes and behaviors. In the United States, there is the General Social Survey (GSS), Monitoring the Future Trend (MFT) data on juvenile behaviors, and the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) on crime. Center for Disease Control (CDC) also has multiple series data on health-related issues.
In Europe, in addition to the European Social Survey, there are multiple datasets collected by the European Statistical System, such as the European Community Household Panel, the European Health Interview Survey, and EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions. General Social Survey in Australia provides data on the country.
These are high-quality data sources for quantitative analyses since they are collected from larger representative samples using well-tested measures. If you have access to such data, they will prove useful in your research. But you need to check the requirement of your assignment before choosing to do the secondary analysis.
Some assignments may require you to collect original data so that you would have the training for constructing instruments and collecting data in the field.
Your professors might have also collected data and be willing to let you use them. If an existing dataset has the information you need, it is always a good idea to do your research with the dataset. The disadvantage of using existing data, however, is that their variables may not be the exact measures for the concepts you are studying.
Therefore, there is a possibility that they may not be able to fully answer your research questions. In some circumstances, you may have to make your research fit into the existing data.
In contrast to questionnaire survey research, qualitative field research is effective in obtaining an in-depth understanding of a particular experience, an on-going event or social process in its natural setting.
If you are interested in finding out what it is like to live on the street as homeless, you may design your field research combing some observations and in-depth interviews with homeless people.
If you wish to study how political rallies, such as the recent “Occupy …” movements in several countries unfold and continue, you may observe the unfolding demonstration in person.
In-depth interviews are one of the most common qualitative data collection strategies. If your research questions require in-depth information on some experiences, attitudes, or life histories, or you need to gather as many basic details as possible about a topic or a question, this is a suitable research strategy.
In-depth interviews allow you to gather detailed stories from the interviewees’ own perspectives. Moreover, you can spontaneously probe any unexpected “twists and turns” in the answers and stories given by the interviewee.
Interviews can be unstructured, semi-structured, or structured. The differentiation is based on how flexible your prepared questions are. An example of an unstructured interview will be a general life history interview, asking “can you tell me the story of your life?” On the other side of the spectrum, a structured interview will have a list of prepared questions which you will ask all interviewees.
Interviews used to be done in face-to-face settings. But, these days, interviews can be done via online media such as emails, synchronized chatting, and video-calls. These technologies enable you to recruit participants beyond the geographical confines of your research.
Participant observation and ethnography are types of research in which the researcher becomes a temporary member of the community/site and conducts observations of everyday practices as they occur naturally in a community/site.
In-depth interviews with the community members are usually combined with observations. What separates participant observation from other types of qualitative data collection is that social processes, interactions, and cultural practices are observed within the actual context in which they occur.
Naturally, the method allows the researcher to see better the interconnectedness of events, behaviors, and social relations. Participation in the same routine activities as the group members helps you to build social relationships with the members and learn the cultural values and norms of the group with ease.
While an observer may not be fully immersed in members’ perspectives, being a participant member allows you to understand and anticipate members’ actions in ways outsiders cannot.
Focus group studies use small group discussions as a way to collect qualitative data. A focus group is a relatively small group of people (usually less than 12) gathered by the researcher for a discussion on the topic of interest.
Focus groups are usually made of people sharing some commonalities, for example, people with similar life experiences, consumers of a particular product, children in a particular age group, and so on.
The researcher leads the discussions with a set of prepared questions while moderating the exchanges of opinions and ideas. Often, another researcher observes and takes copious notes on the focus group discussions. This is a widely used method in marketing research for product evaluation or assessment of consumer reactions to advertising.
If you want to find out how things change over the years, engage in historical research. For example, if you want to find out how a social welfare program developed in society, look up documents and descriptions from historical sources and trace the program’s development over the years.
Find out how the program developed and changed over the years, and what factors have influenced its evolution. Your comprehensive understanding of the program may give you insights into the improvement of the program.
In today’s globalizing world, cross-cultural or cross-national comparative research may help you understand the similarities and differences between different nations, societies, and cultures.
For example, climate change is a global issue and yet there are different opinions on the urgency of climate change and the extent of reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
Recently, more cross-cultural comparative research has been done between China and the United States, between China and India, and between other countries. Such research may serve as good examples for your cross-cultural study.
If you have a different cultural or ethnic background, you may be privileged to conduct cross-cultural or cross-national comparative studies. If you have lived in several different countries, your past and current experiences or observations may give you insights into comparative research.
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Summary of Data Collection Strategies
Which data collection strategy is suitable for your project? Here are summaries of different data collection strategies. Sample research questions and citation for recently published research are provided for each type of research. The publications are listed in the reference list at the end of the chapter.
1. Surveys: If your research questions inquire relationships between relatively well-defined variables, or you have some theoretically predicted relationships you wish to test, consider a quantitative study using surveys as data collection methods.
Surveys will also allow you to assess the prevalence of opinions, attitudes, and behaviors among the population. Example: What are the impacts of parents’ migration and types of guardianship arrangement on children’s test scores?
2. Experiments: Similar to survey research, experiment designs are suitable for testing theoretically predicted association between clearly defined variables. The main difference between survey research and experimental research is that the latter allows you to manipulate the independent variable to examine whether a cause-effect relationship between the two variables exists.
If testing causal relationships are your main goal, experiment designs will be suitable for your project. Example: Are family sizes likely to decline when family planning services and credit on contraceptive use are provided by community-based programs?
3. Secondary data analysis: The goals of secondary data analysis are the same as surveys. Choose this strategy if you find a dataset collected from a large sample, which includes the exact variables implied in your research questions and hypotheses.
Examples: Has the two-child family ideal been persistent and universal in European countries during the last three decades? Are people without siblings more likely to choose to live nearby their elderly parents than those with siblings?
4. Historical study: If your research questions concern a particular historical period in the past, or how things have changed over time, the historical study will be the research design of your choice. For such research, you will collect data from archival documents and secondary data sources.
Example: What environmental factors affected family formation and family size in the Great Plains of the United States during the period of its initial Euro-American settlement?
5. Comparative study: If your main goal is to compare two or more groups, regions, or countries, your research will be a comparative study. A comparative study is not a data collection strategy. Comparative study means that your focus in your analysis is comparisons between groups or countries.
A comparative study can use original surveys to collect data, or use secondary data from existing data sources. Example: How do family clinicians in four different countries perceive the impacts of information and communication technology on family life?
6. In-depth interview study: A popular qualitative research design geared toward collecting detailed data. If your research questions require in-depth information on personal experiences, attitudes, opinions, or expert knowledge related to a topic, interviews may be suitable data gathering strategy.
It requires longer research time per case than survey research and therefore is done using a relatively small sized sample. Example: How do first-generation immigrant children cope with school transitions in the host country?
7. Participant observations and ethnography: This data collection strategy is suitable if you are interested in studying a group, a community, or a group in rich depth, or studying the complex contexts in which an event or an issue occurs.
Observations and ethnography require relatively long time during the field research and are suitable for more serious research projects such as theses and dissertations.
8. Focus group: Data collection using focus groups will allow you to quickly assess opinions, reactions, and thought processes related to your topic. Focus groups enable you to collect information on inpidual perspectives as well as common ideas shared among the group.
Example: What are urban residents’ attitudes, perceptions, and justifications regarding reproductive behaviors observed in their locality?
How Do You Use Theory in Your Research?
Your research may take either a deductive or an inductive approach. That means using theory to guide your research, or developing a theory based on the data collected in your research. Without utilizing a theory or theories to guide your research, your research can become a blind-folded chase.
Similarly, without an effort to develop a theory in your empirical research, your research may not fully come to fruition. Think of theories relevant to your topic when you plan your research, and how your research design may relate to them.
Note that being able to say in a proposal that the research either will test some aspect of an important theory or has its origins in such a theory is usually an excellent way to help justify proposed research. This is true because the results are less likely to be viewed as isolated data.
Instead, they are likely to contribute to understanding behavior in a large context. Thus, you will want to consider whether your research questions, purposes, or hypotheses can be related to one or more theories.
You may conduct deductive research and test a theory in your research. That means you will develop research questions or hypotheses based on a theory, operationalize the relevant concepts, and collect empirical data to answer your research questions or test your hypotheses.
For example, Travis Hirschi has developed a version of social control theory. Accordingly, juvenile social bonds, including attachment to society, commitment to the conventional lines of action, involvement in conventional activities, and belief in traditional values are negatively associated with deviant behavior.
If you want to test whether Hirschi’s social control theory is valid, construct some measures for the concepts of attachment, commitment, involvement, belief, and deviant behaviors.
Then collect data on these concepts, analyze the data, and perform statistical analyses to see if social bonds are indeed negatively associated with juvenile deviant behavior. In such research, you apply theory to specific cases or population to see if the theory is applicable and valid.
You may also conduct inductive research and develop a theory based on your data.
For example, if you are curious why women university students tend to have higher grade point averages than men students, conduct open-ended interviews on students’ time management, study habits, course selections, extra-curricular activities, and general social life to figure out what factors may contribute to the gender gap in academic performances.
If your data analyses indicate that, on average, women spend more time studying than men because they spend less time socializing with friends, then, you may attempt to make a theoretical conclusion that women and men may hold different perspectives on their years in universities and they end up developing different skill sets from university education.
You may even interpret that this is because higher grades are more critical for women than men for their chances in the job market if you have supportive data from your interviews. Of course, this would be an exploratory theory which would have to be tested further in later studies.
Some students think that theory is too complicated for them. In fact, a theory is simply a statement of the relationships between two or more variables. Therefore, you can develop your theory in your empirical research.
When you engage in either deductive or inductive research, the theory should be part of your research. You may either use it to guide your research or use it to summarize your research.
You may also use existing theory to support your findings and make your argument more convincing. Generally speaking, there will be different theories related to your research topic. What you need to do is to deliberately consider them when you design your research and use them in your research when they are appropriate.
Are Ethical Matters Important in Your Research?
Last, but not least, you should carefully consider how to design ethical research. Social science usually involves people as the subjects of its research. In your research, you are likely to collect information about people and from people.
You may have to ask sensitive questions which could upset the participants or collect information about private matters. What if a participant has an emotional breakdown because your interview makes him recall some painful memories from the past?
What if your research design requires that you not disclose your real research purpose? What if you collect information that can be used in legal matters against research participants? As you can imagine, there are many issues that can create ethical dilemmas for you as a researcher.
Research participants, when they agree to participate in your research, agree to share information about themselves (sometimes very private information) with you or agree to participate in activities you control and can manipulate. By agreeing to participate in your research, participants may become vulnerable.
You should be most careful not to cause the participants any harm or disadvantages because of their willingness to help your study. If you have taken a course in research methods, you probably are familiar with the background history of research ethics.
Also, the emerging interactions among participants became so volatile that they had to end the study early. These research projects have obviously indicated that ethical matters are extremely important.
Its provocative research design makes us ask a question: can participants’ exposure to potential risks be justified when a study has the promise of producing insightful knowledge that will advance the field of the study and benefit society?
This is not a simple question to answer. Answering the question will require careful consideration of the different issues involved in each case. When you begin to design your field research, there are a few ethical issues that you should pay attention to and handle carefully.
What Ethical Issues Should You Pay Attention To?
Ethics are about the principles of doing right and wrong. In research, they guide you in determining how you should relate to participants and the information you collect when you are in a position of power as a researcher.
In different countries, professional associations in academic disciplines, university review boards, and ethics committees in research organizations are likely to have published codes of ethics. While there are slight variations in the guidelines of different organizations, there are common standards to which you need to pay attention.
Participation in research as subjects should be voluntary and based on decisions by the participants. You cannot, for example, ask a friend who is a leader in an organization to use his authority to force subordinates to participate in your study, either directly or indirectly.
If you are in a position of authority, you cannot influence your associates to participate in your study. A professor or a tutor cannot use his or her authority to pressure students to participate in the study.
Before agreeing to be involved in a study, participants should be informed of the nature of the project and the activities in which they are asked to be involved. Participants should be capable of fully understanding the information about the research and consenting to it based on their own free will.
Informed consent is typically ensured by obtaining a signature from the participants on informed consent forms. People who are unable to make decisions on their own behalfs, such as children or the mentally ill, cannot consent, and you will need to obtain consent from their guardians.
Anonymity and Confidentiality
The identities of participants should be protected since research may include private and sensitive information. Anonymity means participants’ identities are completely unknown to the researcher (you) as well as to the public. If you conduct surveys without any participant identification, participants will remain anonymous.
In a study requiring in-person interviews, the identity of the participants is likely to be known to the researcher, but you as the researcher can keep information confidential by not revealing it to anyone else. Maintaining confidentiality is an important ethical obligation.
Your research plans should include measures to protect confidentiality such as the use of pseudonyms, separation of biographical information from the contents of interviews, locking interview records, and plans for destroying records at the conclusion of the study.
In addition, a statement should be included in your informed consent form about how you will ensure confidentiality.
Assessment of Risks to Participants
What are the likely “risks” of participating in your study? Does your research involve sensitive questions which may stir negative emotional reactions from participants (e.g., shameful experiences, volatile political opinions, personal biases, etc.)?
Does your research invoke some traumatic past experiences (e.g., victimization of violence, surviving torture, etc.)? Is there a potential for physical harm to your participant because of the information he/she provides to you (e.g., being subject to retaliation, etc.)?
When designing your research plans, you should carefully assess potential risks for your participants, whether they are psychological, physical, or legal risks. Obviously, you cannot predict every possible risk before the actual research begins. But do your best and consider different scenarios.
Benefits Outweighing Risks
When you judge there are risks for participants, you should consider the magnitude and the likely duration of the risks and how likely the risk factor will appear during the study. The risks may be minimal, but at other times, there could be significant risks to participants.
Also, there are risks that are reasonably preventable, but others may be too unpredictable to proceed with them. You should carefully weigh these risks against the potential benefit of your research to the participants and its contribution to the field of knowledge.
If there are predictable risks for the participant, you need to find out how to include protective measures into your study. You should discuss any risks involved in your study fully in your application for ethical clearance and explain how the benefits from the study may outweigh the risks.
Sometimes, you may have to temporarily deceive participants to make an experiment work, which was the case with the Milgram research. While lying to participants does not sound ethical, you may be able to conduct research involving deception.
If it does not cause grave harm to the participants and if you can “undo” the deception through debriefing sessions. During debriefing explain how the experiment worked and address any participant’s concerns and questions.
If the deception caused emotional strain between participants, they should be given opportunities to reconcile and resolve any negative emotions. We would advise you be extremely careful about such research projects and get approval from your professor or supervisor and your university.
Protection of Vulnerable Populations
Some groups are particularly more vulnerable to coercion or to the pressure imposed by research situations. These groups are identified as “vulnerable populations” in the ethics guidelines of your institutions. Examples of the vulnerable population include, but are not limited to, children, prisoners, mentally impaired persons, and socioeconomic minorities.
If your research subjects are vulnerable populations, specific measures and procedures to protect their rights and privacy should be built into your research design.
Consult your project supervisor, mentor, or office of research ethics for further guidance. Before your research design is finalized, you should assess the above issues to come up with an ethical research plan.
Once you complete your research design including sampling strategies, data collection methods, and instruments for data collection, your research protocol must be reviewed by people trained in these matters to ensure the research plans protect the participants of the research.
This is a process called ethics review. We will revisit the research ethics review and clearance at the end of the next chapter, at which point, your research project will have clearly defined field research protocol.
Quotations When and How to Quote: 10 Rules
Generally speaking, you will quote many texts by other authors in your thesis: the textual object of your work, or the primary source or sources; and the critical literature on your topic, or the secondary sources. Therefore, practically speaking, there are two kinds of quotes:
(a) quotes from a text that you will interpret;
(b) quotes from a text that you will use to support your interpretation.
It is difficult to say abstractly whether you should quote abundantly or sparingly.
It depends on the type of thesis you are writing. A critical analysis of a writer obviously requires that large passages of his works be quoted and analyzed. In other cases, a quote can be a manifestation of laziness.
For example, if the candidate is unwilling or unable to summarize a collection of data and prefers to let someone else do it for him. Hence, we provide the following ten rules:
Rule 1: Quote the object of your interpretive analysis with reasonable abundance.
Rule 2: Quote the critical literature only when its authority corroborates or confirms your statements.
These two rules imply some obvious corollaries. First, if the passage you wish to analyze exceeds half a page, it means something is wrong. Either your analysis is too general and you will not be able to comment on the text point by point, or you are discussing an entire text rather than a passage, and presenting a global criticism rather than an analysis.
In these cases, if the text is important but too long, present it in full in an appendix, and quote only short passages over the course of your chapters. Second, when quoting or citing critical literature, be sure that it says something new, or that it confirms authoritatively what you have said.
But it is not necessary to refer to an authority to prove something so obvious. Second, it is possible that the data on the TV audience is accurate, but Savoy does not constitute an authority.
The author of the thesis should have cited the data of the Italian Central Institute of Statistics, a sociological research project signed by renowned scholars who are beyond suspicion, or the results of his own inquiry backed up by an appendix of tables that present his data, rather than citing just any old Savoy.
Rule 3: If you don’t want readers to presume that you share the opinion of the quoted author, you must include your own critical remarks before or after the passage.
Rule 4: Make sure that the author and the source (print or manuscript) of your quote are clearly identifiable. You can do this by including one of the following:
(a) a superscript number and a corresponding note, especially when you mention the author for the first time;
(b) the author’s name and the work’s publication date, in parentheses after the quote;
(c) the page number in parentheses, but only when the entire chapter (or the entire thesis) centers on the same work by the same author.
The table illustrates how you could structure a page of a thesis with the title “Epiphany in James Joyce’s Portrait.” In this case, once you have clarified to which edition you refer, cite your primary source with the page number in parentheses in the text, and cite the critical literature in the note.
Rule 5: Quote your primary source from the critical edition, or the most canonical edition. In a thesis on Balzac, avoid quoting the pages from the paperback Livre de Poche edition, and at least quote from the Pléiade edition of Balzac’s complete works.
In general, for ancient and classical authors it is sufficient to cite sections, chapters, and lines according to current usage. Regarding contemporary authors, if various editions are available, it is better to cite either from the first or from the most recent if it is revised and corrected.
The first edition is preferable if the following editions are simply reprints, and the last edition is preferable if it contains revisions, additions, or updates. In any case, your reference should specify both the first edition and the most recent edition and should clarify from which one you are quoting.
Rule 6: When your primary source is foreign, quote it in the original language. This rule is mandatory for literary works. In these cases, adding a translation in parentheses or in a note may be useful, but follow your advisor’s suggestions on this.
Even if you are not analyzing the literary style of an author, if the exact expression of his thought, in all of its linguistic shades, has a certain weight (for example a philosopher’s commentary), then you should work with the text in the original language if possible.
However, I recommend that you add the translation in parentheses or in a note because the translation itself also constitutes an interpretive exercise on your part. If you are taking from a foreign author only a piece of information, statistical or historical data, or a general criticism, you can simply use a good translation, or even translate the passage yourself.
In this case, you do not want to submit the reader to continuous jumps from one language to the other, and it is sufficient to precisely cite the original title and to clarify which translation you are using.
Finally, you may find yourself discussing the texts of a foreign author who happens to be a poet or a writer of fiction, but you only wish to examine his philosophical ideas and not his literary style.
Here, if there are numerous long quotes, you may also decide to refer to a good translation to render the argument more fluid, and simply insert some short passages in the original language when you want to emphasize the revealing use of a particular word.
Rule 7: The reference to the author and the work must be clear. The following (incorrect) example should illustrate our point:
Rule 8: When a quote does not exceed two or three lines, you can insert it into the body of the text enclosed in quotation marks. I will do this now as I quote from Campbell and Ballou, who states, “Direct quotations not over three typewritten lines in length are enclosed in quotation marks and are run into the text.”
When the quote is longer, it is better to set it off as a block quotation. In this case, the quotation marks are not necessary, because it is clear that all set-off passages are quotes, and we must commit to a different system for our observations. (Any secondary developments should appear in a note.)
This method is quite convenient because it immediately reveals the quoted texts; it allows the reader to skip them if he is skimming, to linger if he is more interested in the quoted texts than in our commentary, and finally, to find them immediately when need be.
Rule 9: Quotes must be accurate. First, transcribe the words exactly as they appear. (To this end, it is always a good idea to check the quotes against the original in your final draft, because errors or omissions may have occurred when you copied them by hand or typed them.)
Second, do not omit text from a quote without indicating your omission with an ellipsis, three consecutive periods with or without brackets, in place of the omitted part.
Third, do not make interpolations without clearly signaling them; each of our comments, clarifications, and specifications must appear enclosed in brackets. Finally, we must also indicate emphases that are ours rather than the author’s by adding, after the quote and enclosed in brackets, a formula such as “emphasis mine.”
Minor rules: If you want to be precise about the text you have omitted, consider punctuation marks as you insert the ellipsis (the three ellipsis periods with or without the square brackets):
Quotes, Paraphrases, and Plagiarism
When you created your readings index cards, you summarized the various points of the author in question. That is to say that you paraphrased the author, rewording the author’s thought.
In other instances, you quoted entire passages enclosed in quotation marks. When you then begin writing your thesis, you no longer have the text in front of you, and perhaps you will copy entire passages from your index cards into your thesis.
In this case, you must be sure that the passages that you copy are really paraphrases and not quotes without quotation marks. Otherwise, you will have committed plagiarism.
This form of plagiarism is very common. The student has a clean conscience because, in a footnote, he says he is referring to that given author. But the reader becomes suspicious of your thesis when he notices by chance that the page is not paraphrasing the original text, but in fact copying it without using quotation marks.
And here we are not only talking about the advisor but anyone else who will see your thesis in the future, either to publish it or to evaluate your competencies.
How can you make sure that you are paraphrasing and not plagiarizing? First of all, a paraphrase is generally much shorter than the original. But there are cases in which the author of a sentence or fairly short paragraph says very juicy things. In this case, your paraphrase should be very long, probably longer than the original passage.
Here you do not have to worry neurotically about each of your words being different from the author’s, and in fact, sometimes it is inevitable or even useful that some of the author’s terms remain unchanged.
The most reassuring test of your paraphrases will come when you are able to paraphrase the text without looking at it. This will mean not only that you have avoided plagiarism, but also that you have understood the text you are paraphrasing.
To better illustrate this point, I will reproduce a passage from Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium in the first paragraph below. Then I will provide an example of a reasonable paraphrase in the second paragraph and an example of a faulty paraphrase that constitutes plagiarism in the third paragraph.
In the fourth paragraph, I will give an example of a paraphrase almost identical to the third, but in which I have avoided plagiarism through an honest use of quotation marks.
Now, if you make the effort to compose a paraphrase as detailed as the fourth one, you may as well quote the entire passage. But to do so, your readings index card should have reproduced the passage verbatim or paraphrased it beyond suspicion.
Since, when you write your thesis, you will not be able to remember what you did during the research phase, it is necessary that you proceed correctly from the very beginning. If there are no quotation marks on the index card, you must be able to trust that the card contains an honest paraphrase that avoids plagiarism.
Footnotes and The Purpose of Footnotes
According to a fairly common opinion, a thesis or a book with copious notes exhibits erudite snobbism and often represents an attempt to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes.
Certainly, we should not rule out the fact that many authors abound in notes to confer a tone of importance on their work; and that others stuff their notes with nonessential information, perhaps plundering with impunity the critical literature they have examined.
Nevertheless, when used appropriately, notes are useful. It is hard to define in general what is appropriate because this depends on the type of thesis. But we will try to illustrate the cases that require notes, and how the notes should be formatted.
1. Use a note to indicate the source of a quote. Too many bibliographical references in the text can interrupt your argument and make your text difficult to read.
Naturally, there are ways to integrate essential references into the text, thus doing away with the need for notes, such as the author-date system. But in general, notes provide an excellent way to avoid burdening the text with references.
If your university doesn’t mandate otherwise, use a footnote for bibliographical references rather than an endnote (that is, a note at the end of the book or the chapter), because a footnote allows the reader to immediately spot the reference.
2. Use notes to add additional supporting bibliographical references on a topic you discuss in the text. For example, “on this topic see also so-and-so.” Also, in this case, footnotes are more convenient than endnotes.
3. Use notes for external and internal cross-references. Once you have treated a topic, you can include the abbreviation “cf.” (for the Latin confer, meaning “to bring together”) in the note to refer the reader to another book, or another chapter or section of your text.
If your internal cross-references are essential, you can integrate them into the text. The book you are reading provides many examples of internal cross-references to other sections of the text.
4. Use notes to introduce a supporting quote that would have interrupted the text. If you make a statement in the text and then continue directly to the next statement for fluidity, a superscript note reference after the first statement can refer the reader to a note in which a well-known authority backs up your assertion.
5. Use notes to expand on statements you have made in the text. Use notes to free your text from observations that, however important, are peripheral to your argument or do nothing more than a repeat from a different point of view what you have essentially already said.
6. Use notes to correct statements in the text. You may be sure of your statements, but you should also be conscious that someone may disagree, or you may believe that, from a certain point of view, it would be possible to object to your statement. Inserting a partially restrictive note will then prove not only your academic honesty but also your critical spirit.
7. Use notes to provide a translation of a quote, or to provide the quote in the original language. If the quote appears in its original language in the main body of the text, you can provide the translation in a note.
If however, you decide for reasons of fluidity to provide the quote in translation in the main text, you can repeat the quote in its original language in a note.
8. Use notes to pay your debts. Citing a book from which you copied a sentence is paying a debt. Citing an author whose ideas or information you used is paying a debt. Sometimes, though, you must also pay debts that are more difficult to document.
It is a good rule of academic honesty to mention in a note that, for example, a series of original ideas in your text could not have been born without inspiration from a particular work, or from a private conversation with a scholar.
And once again, remember that if you are examining a homogeneous source, such as the work of only one author, the pages of a diary, or a collection of manuscripts, letters, or documents, you can avoid the notes simply by establishing abbreviations for your sources at the beginning of your work.
Then, for every citation, insert the relevant abbreviation and the page or document number in parentheses. In a thesis on medieval authors who are published in Jacques-Paul Migne’s Patrologia Latina, you can avoid hundreds of notes by putting in the text parenthetical references such as this: (PL 30.231). Proceed similarly for references to charts, tables, or illustrations in the text or in the appendix.
Let’s assume the assessors are happy with both your questions and your methods. The final issue is whether they think you are the right person for the job. Do they trust that you can pull this off? Do they believe you have the necessary background knowledge, at least some familiarity with the literature and writing skills commensurate to the task?
Now that’s a lot of questions, and it would be great if your assessors could get to know you and get a real feel for what you are capable of. But that’s not likely to happen. In fact, there is a good chance your proposal will be reviewed by people you have never met. So what do they use to assess your potential? Simply your proposal.
Assessors will judge your ability to engage with the literature through your proposal’s short literature review. They will assess your ability to carry out methods, based on the knowledge you show and how well you argue your methodological case.
And they will assess your potential to write by the quality of writing in your proposal. It, therefore, pays to give close attention to detail and make your proposal one of the tightest pieces of writing you have ever attempted.
Writing a Winning Proposal
In my experience, when a person or a committee has the power to make major decisions about someone else’s work/future, they like to wield that power, and they often wield it in very defined ways. When it comes to assessing research proposals, this translates into committees wanting what they want, the way they want it, when they want it.
If you are the person writing the proposal, this means you need to be just as pedantic and make sure you follow all guidelines, write purposively and be prepared to work through several drafts.
So how many words can you get away with when the application says the title needs to be no more than 20 words or that the abstract must be less than 150 words?
Well, it is certainly not uncommon for applicants to try to stretch these limits – but I would advise against it. Some assessors can judge harshly when they think applicants cannot follow simple directions.
Are they being too harsh? Maybe. But you need to realize that assessors often see the application as a test of whether you will be able to meet requirements when you actually start working on your project.
It may seem a bit parochial, but if you cannot follow guidelines in a short application, your assessors might just ask what that says about your potential to complete.
The best advice here is to follow guidelines as close to the letter as possible. This means:
constructing your proposal according to, or as close as possible to, the
keeping to all word limits;
being absolutely meticulous about spelling and grammar; strictly adhering to deadlines.
The Importance of Literature
I not only use all the brains that I have but all that I can borrow.
There really is no way around it – reading is an essential part of the research process. Why? Because you cannot really engage in research from a platform of ignorance.
When you are learning and your goal is to take on board knowledge that is already out there, it does not really matter if you know a little or a lot. The goal is self-education, which needs to and should, start from wherever you are an attempt to take you to the next level.
Conducting research is a bit different. When you are conducting research, you are attempting to produce knowledge, the knowledge that you hope others will learn from, act on and use towards situation improvement.
And this demands responsibility. You need to know what you are talking about. The production of new knowledge is fundamentally dependent on past knowledge. Knowledge builds, and it is impossible for researchers to add to a body of literature if they are not conversant with it.
Yes, a lot of knowledge can come from experience – and I strongly advocate drawing on this. But even rich experience is likely to be seen as anecdotal if it is not set within a broader context. Reading is what gives you that broader context. It inspires, informs, educates and enlightens.
It generates ideas, helps form significant questions and is instrumental in the process of research design. It is also central to writing up; a clear rationale supported by literature is essential, while a well-constructed literature review is an important criterion in establishing researcher credibility.
Working with literature, however, is often seen as an onerous task. The multiple purposes, the volume and variety, the difficulty in finding it and managing it, dealing with its inconsistencies, the need to formally review it, and, perhaps underpinning all of this, your own lack of knowledge, experience, and proficiency can make working with literature somewhat daunting.
The Role of Literature
Research requires engagement with literature at each and every stage of the process. A very early use for literature is in the exploration of a topic. Not many students, or even experienced researchers for that matter, know all they need to know about a particular topic, and reading can certainly help you get up to speed.
This might involve delving into texts and media reports, as well as journal-based research studies that make up an area’s scientific literature.
Literature is also essential in the development of your research question. A good place to look for guidance on the development of your research question is in literature. Popular media covering current debates, controversies, and disputes around a particular issue can help generate questions of societal significance.
Engagement with scientific literature can also be instrumental in the development of questions. Finding ‘gaps’, exploring questions that have not been adequately addressed and attempting to ask questions within a new context are all dependent on ‘reading’.
Hand in hand with the development of your question is the development of your rationale. A well-articulated rationale is part and parcel of any research proposal and needs to suggest why time and money should be invested in addressing your particular research question.
In order to do this, you need to draw on literature that can argue the societal and scientific significance of your study. This does not have to be academic literature and is often based on reported statistics, media coverage or company reports.
Literature is also used to inform your study with theory, and this is based on the academic material. Theoretical reading can be difficult for students who perceive a large gap between research and theory – something not uncommon. For years, social ‘scientists’ engaged in research without strong links to theory, while social ‘theorists’ theorized without doing much research.
Now for some, theoretical reading is a passion and a joy – and therefore not problematic. But for others, it can be a laborious task. If you fall into the second category, it is important to discuss the issue of theory with your supervisor and clearly negotiate the extent to which it is expected to inform your work.
The designing method is also something well informed through reading. Reading can support the design of methods in a number of ways. It can: support learning related to relevant methodologies and methods; allow you to critically evaluate, and possibly adopt, methods considered ‘standard’ for exploring your particular research question;
Help you in assessing the need for alternative methodological approaches; and support you in the design of a study that might overcome methodological shortcomings prevalent in the literature.
To appropriately design a study, collect the data and conduct analysis, you will need to engage with broad-ranging methods texts such as this one; books focusing on particular research approach you plan to adopt (e.g. ethnography, action research or statistics);
Research articles on methods themselves; and journal articles that report on studies that use methods similar to those you plan to use. The recommended readings and bibliography of this book can be a great starting point for finding a range of relevant literature.
This next task, writing a literature review, is an obvious use of literature and what our mind jumps to when we think of the overlap between research and literature. A formal ‘literature review’ is a critical review of a body of knowledge, including findings, and theoretical and methodological contributions.
It is a very specific piece of argumentative writing that acts to create a ‘space’ for your research study. It reviews past research and relies on articles published in well-established research journals and is usually a distinct and required section of any research write-up, including grant applications, research reports and journal articles.
Virtually all student theses require a literature review that should be relevant, critical and comprehensive; in fact, the review should represent a level of engagement with the literature that indicates a readiness to contribute to the literature itself. The ins and outs of writing a good literature review are covered later in this chapter.
Finally, we can use literature as a source of research data. We generally think of data as something we purposefully generate (e.g. transcripts from interviews or the results of surveys).
All types of literature can be used as primary sources of data. From a meta-analysis of past studies to the content analysis of the media to an in-depth analysis of historical documents, literature can be used to do more than provide context, inform your study and argue the case. It can, in fact, be central to your analysis.
Sourcing Relevant Literature
Unfortunately, recognizing the importance of literature and understanding its varied uses will not put it in your hands. You still need to find and access it.
To do this efficiently, you need to be familiar with various categories of literature; be ready to call on experts and ask for help; understand the power of databases; and hone your search skills so that you are in a position to best utilize the library and the Internet.
Types of Literature
The array of literature you might find yourself delving into may be a fair bit broader than you first imagine. Because reading for research is something that informs all aspects of the research journey, almost any type of reading is fair game. For example, you are likely to call on:
Discipline-based reference materials – It is easy for those who know the jargon of a particular discipline to forget that many of its terms are not a part of everyday language. If you are relatively new to a particular discipline, subject-specific reference books can help you navigate your way through the area’s central terms, constructs and theories.
Books – These might include introductory and advanced texts, anthologies, research reports, popular non-fiction and even fictional works that can provide background and context, or inform theory and method.
When it comes to the formal literature review, however, the lengthy production time of books means that the most contemporary research is more likely to be found in journals than in books.
Journal articles – These take you beyond background readings to readings providing rigorous research accounts.
They are central to literature reviews because they are often targeted at ‘academic’ audiences; are generally peer-reviewed, which means they have met at least some benchmark for credibility;
And have specific areas of content and regularity of production, which means articles are likely to be both relevant and current.
The array, specialization, and accessibility of journal titles are ever increasing and the advent of online journals and computer-based inter-library loan schemes have made them highly accessible.
Grey literature – This refers to both published and unpublished materials that do not have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), including conference papers, unpublished research theses, newspaper articles, and pamphlets/brochures. Most researchers utilize some type of grey literature in the course of their study.
Recent theses and conference papers can be a valuable source of contemporary original work, while newspaper articles, pamphlets, and brochures can be used for background and context – or in the process of document analysis.
Official publications, statistics, and archives – These materials can be a valuable source of background and contextual information, and often help shape a study’s rationale. They can also be a terrific source of primary data in document analysis or a good source of secondary data in statistical analysis.
Writing aids – These include bibliographic reference works, dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses, almanacs, yearbooks, books of quotes, etc. Such resources can offer significant support during the writing-up process, and can be used to improve the linguistic style of your work; to add points of interest to the text; to check facts, and to reference those facts.
Calling on ‘Experts’
When it comes to searching for and finding appropriate literature, don’t go it alone! There are some highly knowledgeable experts out there who can give you the advice you need to make a start.
One resource you do not want to overlook is your university librarian. My first-year university students often grumble about the need for library orientations. But information technology is changing so fast that students and professional researchers alike need to update their skills on a regular basis.
See your librarian! Not only are librarians experts on the latest computer/Internet searching facilities, but also they can often provide you with the training necessary to have you searching for books/articles in libraries all over the world.
Many university librarians are designated to a particular academic area (social science, nursing, education, environment, etc.). These ‘specialists’ can introduce you to relevant databases, journals (both paper and electronic), bibliographies, abstracts, reviews, etc., specific to your area.
‘Academics’ can also be quite helpful in your search for relevant literature. Talk to supervisors, professors, and lecturers. They often know the literature and are able to point you in the right direction, or can at least direct you to someone better acquainted with your topic who can give you the advice you need to make a start.
Also, see if you can browse through their bookshelves. While anyone academic’s library is unlikely to cover all perspectives or be completely up to date, academics often hold key readings that can kick-start your search. Another possibility is to join an academic community such as Academia.edu - Share research or ResearchGate.
These are the LinkedIn’s of academic – communities of scholars online, most of whom regularly update their pages with current research. This is a great place to get the latest research. You can search by topic or author, and ask to be notified of current publications as they happen. Enrolment is free.
Finally, think about calling on experts in the field. Those working in your area have often had to source relevant literature. I have had any number of students tell me that they are having difficulty finding literature and can only find one or two recent studies that relate to their research question.
I ask them, ‘Well, who did these people cite? Who is in their reference list?’ One relevant journal article should lead to several relevant readings.
As well as relevant journal articles, have a look at masters and Ph.D. theses. These works require comprehensive literature reviews and thorough bibliographies that can give you a huge head start when it comes to sourcing your readings.
And don’t forget that you can also turn to practitioners – those who actually work in the area often know the literature. Finally, try attending relevant conferences. It is quite likely that this will lead to a wealth of leads in your literature search.
Most library search engines now allow you to search, not only what their library holds – including the journals they subscribe to – but also the articles within these journals. CrossSearch.
For example, lets you search all types of material, including print and electronic books, articles, journals, multimedia, theses, newspapers, e-repositories, etc. It ranks them by relevance and allows you to limit your search by criteria such as year, format and language.
Google Scholar is another option worth exploring. Like CrossSearch, it allows you to search a range of scholarly materials. I like the advanced search option because it allows you to limit by things like a year of publication and name of the journal.
But here’s a tip: if you are looking for journal articles, but you don’t know the names of relevant journals, simply type ‘journal’ in the ‘Publication’ box.
This will limit your search to journals with the word journal in the title (which is a good percentage) and will cut out a lot of extraneous hits. Google Scholar is openly available on the Internet.
But I’d recommend logging onto your university website and accessing it through there. Doing this will allow you to access, without a fee, the full text of any articles that are in journals to which your university subscribes.
The other option is to delve into discipline-related databases. While more inclusive search engines are ever improving, the vast array of databases out there warrants you having a deeper discipline-based look – you often find access to articles that simply do not show up with a generalized search engine.
Academic databases may be pided by discipline, journal collection or both. A good place to start is the Web of Science or Web of Knowledge databases. For business or the social sciences, the SSCI database provides references and keyword searchable abstracts, with additional links to full text.
Of particular use is the ‘Cited Ref Search’ to search for articles that cite an article you have found valuable. There are a few publishers who now offer full-text versions of articles in their journals through their own websites (i.e. without a library subscription). Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Journals Online) and SAGE (Highwire) are two prominent examples.
Honing Your Search Skills
Because the Internet has freed us from the confines of local library holdings, literature simply abounds! But there is a downside. This incredible availability means there is a need to develop skills to navigate through it.
If you’re a regular Internet user, you have an advantage because the skills you need to negotiate the web are the same as those you need to find literature.
Basically, you need to be able to run a search engine by using appropriate keywords. It is, therefore, essential to be able to identify your topic, subtopics, variables, theories, theorists, methods, key concepts, etc. in the form of keywords. You can then search for works by both single and combined keyword searches.
I have a question!
My supervisor says I need to keep on top of literature throughout my project. Are there any tips for finding something new, even when I’ve been through it all before?
One important tip in the seemingly never-ending search for literature is to be true to where you are in the review process. In other words, the stage of your review process and the goals you have in looking at the literature.
For example, at the start you are really engaged in explorative searching – just having a look at what might be out there; later you will move to more methodical searching – a more deliberate and refined search with well-considered key terms;
From there you may move to more explicit searching – looking for particular articles that others have referenced, and finally, you will move to monitor – keeping abreast of any new research in your area.
There is one more thing to watch out for in your search for literature – and that is copyright. When something is copyright protected, it means that the creator of an original work has exclusive rights to it (usually for a limited period of time). You cannot copy copyrighted material unless it falls under the rules of fair dealing (as it is referred to in Commonwealth countries) or fair use (in the US).
When it comes to study and non-commercial research in Australia, for example, under fair dealing, you can copy:
5% or one chapter of a book;
one article from a journal or newspaper issue; one paper from a set of conference proceedings; one case from a volume of law reports;
short literary pieces as long as they are less than 10 pages long;
one (hard) copy of web material (unless otherwise indicated on the site).
In producing a thesis with the photocopied material, you are allowed to make as many copies as needed for assessment as long as there is proper acknowledgment. Fair dealing and fair use have different exclusions and rules in different countries. It is well worth checking copyright laws for your country either with your institution or by googling them.
Managing the Literature
Students are often shocked at just how much literature might be relevant to a research project. In your searching, you are bound to gather a mound of readings, and finding a way to manage it will be essential.
If you don’t, it may just end up gathering dust in a corner. Making it manageable involves being able to quickly and efficiently assess relevance; systematically keep track of sources, and make relevant notes.
You probably won’t be able to read every word of every piece of relevant literature you have located, so being able to quickly and efficiently wade through your literature in order to assess the relevance and ‘get the gist’ will save you a lot of time and frustration. If you are reading a journal article, look at the abstract or executive summary.
This should give you a good sense of relevance. In a book, peruse the table of contents, the back cover blurb, and the introduction. Also have a look at chapter conclusions, as well as the overall conclusion. Within a few minutes, you should be able to assess if a work is likely to be of value to your own research process.
One simple suggestion is to rank the relevance of readings using sticky notes.
For example, if you are looking at literature related to three distinct concepts, you could use sticky notes of three different colors (real or virtual), one for each concept, and then rank the overall work, or chapters within a work, with a 1 (minimally relevant), 2 (somewhat relevant) or 3 (highly relevant).
It is amazing how much time this can save when you begin a more rigorous review of materials.
Just because a piece of literature is relevant, it doesn’t mean it represents quality. Believe me, there is a lot of rubbish out there on the web. It can be biased, full of personal agendas and sometimes simply inaccurate.
Yes, you will do better if you turn to peer-reviewed journal articles. And this is generally what is expected in a literature review. But even with journal articles, there is a need to assess quality.
As you read through the article ask yourself:
Have researcher subjectivities been acknowledged and managed?
Have they used logical methods that lead to valid and/or authentic truth?
Are their methods approached with consistency?
Are arguments relevant and appropriate?
Can the research be audited/verified?
Now I realize that if you are new to research, you may find it a challenge to assess the work of ‘real’ researchers. But developing this skill is essential. As a researcher, you are contributing to a body of knowledge and you need to be able to assess the state of play within that body.
Doing this necessarily involves critiquing what is out there. As your research skills develop, so too will your ability to assess the work of others.
Nothing is worse than looking for a lost reference that you really need. It could be a quote with a missing page number, or a fact with no citation, or a perfect point that needs to go right there – if only you could remember where you read it.
If you can incorporate each of your resources into a management system you will be saving yourself a lot of future heartaches.
Keep and file copies of relevant books, articles, etc., and avoid lending out your ‘only copies’. It’s amazing how many books and articles never get returned, even when the borrower swears he or she will get it back to you by the end of the week.
You also need to keep good citations. Now as common as it may be to see bad referencing, I refuse to believe that proper referencing is an intellectually difficult task.
A pain in the neck and lower – yes, but it really is not that hard to do right. You just need to be organized and diligent. Find out right from the start what your recommended referencing style is, get a style guide, and just get on with it. Rigorous referencing and appropriate filing can save you much grief in the future.
You may also want to consider using bibliographic file management software such as ProCite, Mendeley, EndNote or Reference Manager. These programs can automatically format references in any number of styles (e.g. Harvard, APA, Vancouver), once basic bibliographic details are entered.
Just one final point: be sure to back up anything and everything related to your project, including references. If there is one thing you can rely on, it’s that computers cannot be relied on.
Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. John Locke
It is definitely worth developing a systematic approach to note taking that allows for a methodical and organized review of materials from the first read.
Many students will read materials without such a systematic approach, and later find they need to go back and reread the material – often when they are short of time and hard pressed to meet deadlines.
A good strategy here is to keep an annotated bibliography or a systematic review of all your significant literature that can remind you of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of sources cited.
This does not mean you need to take huge amounts of formal notes. Annotations are generally for your eyes only and are jotted down in order to minimize the time it takes to incorporate these works into your own.
So while ‘annotating’ every single relevant reference may seem like a highly onerous task, you will be grateful for the annotations when you undertake a formal literature review, or when you need to call on the references while writing up.
Annotated bibliography A list of citations with a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph indicating the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the cited sources.
Annotations vary in both content and length depending on the relevance of the reviewed work, but there are key elements I would notate, starting with the author and intended audience.
The ability to retrieve vast amounts of literature has increased the need to assess that literature. The Internet is full of propaganda, uninformed opinion, and less-than-credible research.
Ask yourself: Who is doing the writing? What are their qualifications? Are they professionals, politicians, researchers or unknown? And who is the work written for?
Is it for an academic audience, general public, constituents, clients? If the answers to these questions leave you feeling less than comfortable with the source, it is probably best to move on to more credible literature.
A quick summary can also be useful. I am often asked how long a summary should be. The answer is ‘it depends’. The aim is to jot down key points that will help you research and write.
You may be able to summarize a less-relevant work in a sentence or two, while others will be much more instrumental to your own thinking and researching and require more in-depth coverage. Write what you think you will want to know later on and try not to fall into the trap of trusting your memory.
What you think you will remember today is likely to be forgotten, if not tomorrow, then certainly in a few months. Keep in mind that you can write annotations in any manner/style you want;
you don’t have to be formal. Doodles, mind maps, quotes, page numbers, etc. are all fair game – as is simply photocopying and highlighted bits of the abstract with notes in the margins.
Now students generally don’t have a problem summarizing information. Where they often struggle, however, is in their ability to be critical. Now I know the word ‘critical’ has a tendency to imply negativity – picking holes – but in academic reviewing the word ‘critical’ means informed and considered an evaluation.
As a potential researcher, you need to be able to ask and answer the question ‘What did I really think of that and why?’ Is it new? Is it old? Is it cutting edge? Is it just a rehash?
Are there fundamental flaws in the methodology? Are author biases coming through? Are the results credible? Also, consider comparing and contrasting this work with others you have read. How does it ‘sit’ with the general literature?
Finally, definitely worth notating is relevance. This is where you try to make the connection between what others have done and what you propose to do. Ask yourself how this work sits in relation to the study you plan to conduct. Is there anything in the work that turns a light bulb on in your head? How does the theory or ideology compare?
What about the methods? Is there some flaw in the thinking/methods that makes you want to explore this area/topic/question from a different angle?
Is there a quote, passage or section that really gets to the heart of what you are trying to do or say? Look to be inspired. Look to be surprised. Look to be appalled. Use this section to get the creative juices flowing.
Writing the Formal ‘Literature Review’
As discussed at the beginning of the chapter, a literature review is a very specific piece of argumentative writing, based largely on a critical review of relevant journal articles, that acts to create a ‘space’ for your research.
It is generally required in research projects, proposals, reports, journal articles, and student theses. So it needs to be tackled – even if it is seen as a somewhat overwhelming task.
It is quite common to feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing a literature review. Indeed, the need to write a literature review can strike fear into the heart of even the most confident student.
Not only do you need to engage with a body of literature, you also need to be able to compare, contrast, synthesize and make arguments with that literature in ways that indicate a readiness to contribute to the literature itself. And that is a big task, especially if it is your first rigorous attempt.
A critical and purposive review of a body of knowledge including findings and theoretical and methodological contributions. Just knowing how to start can be difficult – and not all supervisors know how to get you on your way.
Most will know a good literature review when they read one, but more than a few will have difficulty articulating exactly how to go about constructing one.
Understanding the literature review’s purpose, coming to grips with the potential ways you can handle coverage and approaching the task methodically can go a long way in making the task manageable.
You’d think that the purpose of a formal literature review should be simply to review the literature. But expectations of what a literature review is meant to achieve go far beyond a simple articulation of what previous researchers have done and found. The formal literature review is a purposeful argument that needs to:
1. Inform readers of developments in the field – Not only should a research study inform readers of your particular research question, but it should also inform them of the general topic.
The inclusion of a strong literature review should provide readers with contextual learning through an up-to-date account and discussion of relevant theories, methods and research studies that make up a particular topic’s body of literature.
2. Establish researcher credibility – Because researchers are responsible for the production of new knowledge, it is essential they show they are abreast of the field; are aware of relevant new developments; and are conversant with academic and scientific discourse and debate within their research area.
The literature review allows researchers to establish credibility through rigorous and critical evaluation of relevant research works; a demonstrated understanding of key issues; and the ability to outline the relationship of their own work to the rest of the field.
3. Argue the need for, and relevance of, their study – The literature review needs to make an argument for a researcher’s own research agenda. It needs to set the current study within the context of past research. The literature review has the potential to identify ‘gaps’ that show the appropriate and significant nature of a study’s research questions.
It can also justify methodological approaches by: critically evaluating methods that are generally accepted for and typical of this type of research; highlighting the limitations that might be common to past studies; and uncovering the possibly unwarranted assumptions that can underpin method.
Please note: a literature review is not a document analysis. It is, for the most part, an overview of research studies that have been conducted by past researchers. Document analysis is a form of indirect data analysis, organizational protocols, in order to gather data and look for evidence, it should not be included in the literature review.
If the exploration of documents is warranted as a credible approach to answering your research question, then my advice is to include it in the method and report on it in your findings section.
Once you understand its purpose, the question you are likely to ask is ‘What exactly needs to go into my literature review?’ Well, the coverage in your literature review should be broad enough to:
Inform your readers of the nature of the discourse and debate currently to your topic; establish your own credibility as a researcher abreast of the field; and demonstrate the need for, and relevance of, your own research.
But the depth of the general body of literature, the arguments you are trying to make, and the level of the project/thesis will also determine what is both suitable and required.
A one-semester undergraduate project may only demand engagement with 20 or so of the most relevant and recent articles, while a Ph.D. thesis may require in excess of 250 articles and oblige you to dig into both theory and seminal works.
Options for coverage include exhaustive coverage that cites all relevant literature; exhaustive coverage with an only selective citation; representative coverage that discusses works that typify particular areas within the literature; coverage of seminal/pivotal works; a combination of the above.
Everything is online. And that means a finished literature review can be as close as a few ‘cut and paste’ operations away. Don’t do it! First, it is wrong: you are essentially stealing the work of others. Second, it can get you kicked out of your degree programme. Third, it simply does not lead to a good literature review.
Yes, you can cut and paste and string together bits of abstracts. But there will be no arguments running through it. There will be no driving message. You need to write this as a custom piece: a piece that clearly argues the need for, and relevance of, your study.
So what exactly constitutes plagiarism? Plagiarism is when the words, ideas or data of another person are not referenced and are therefore passed off as your own. This means you cannot:
cut and paste ideas, phrases, paragraphs, diagrams or images without referencing the source;
pay someone else to write for you;
download a paper from an online source and submit it as your own;
copy from another student’s work without acknowledgment;
mention a source in your bibliography but not reference it in the text;
change the words of someone else’s original idea without referencing it;
quote from a speech or lecture without acknowledging the speaker.
Now I realize that asking you to do original work by referring to experts may seem like a contradiction. But the key is acknowledgment – in other words, appropriate referencing. You need to be diligent and even pedantic.
Find out what referencing style is recommended in your faculty and follow guidelines that can be readily found online or from your institution.
The Writing Process
There are students who are able to pull together an impressive literature review without too much guidance. They have a sense of the task and tackle it admirably. But I have to say this is the exception.
Most students struggle and are looking for a clear way forward. So while the following is not the only process you can follow, it is one that will get you from A to B and help you go well beyond a ‘he said, she said’ report. Remember: the goal here is to inform, establish and argue. To do this, I suggest the following steps:
1. Make doing the literature review an ongoing process – Your literature review will inform your question, theory, and methods, and your question, theory, and methods will help set the parameters of your literature review.
This is a cyclical process. A literature review is often a moving target that should evolve in both thinking and writing as your study develops.
2. Read quite a few good, relevant reviews – You need to have a sense of what a good literature review is before you are in a position to construct your own.
3. Identify the variables in your study – For instance: (a) body piercing; (b) teenagers; (c) rites of passage.
4. Develop a list of synonyms or alternatives – For instance: (a) piercing, earrings, nose rings, body art, etc.; (b) teenagers, girls, boys, adolescents, young adults; (c) rites of passage, initiation, induction, observance.
5. Place the terms in a Venn diagram
6. Use a search engine – Look for appropriate databases and/or ask your librarian for guidance. Search using a combination of variables and their synonyms/alternatives.
7. Compile citations with abstracts – Many of these will be available electronically.
8. Read abstracts and cull all irrelevant articles – Get rid of anything obviously off-topic, and rank remaining readings by relevance.
9. Assess whether you need to dig deeper or focus your review – To focus in, you can add relevant variables and/or look at studies conducted in the past, say, five or seven years. You can also think about limiting your review to selective or representative coverage.
Expanding may mean limiting/modifying variables and/or increasing time span. Remember that studies do not have to directly explore your particular research questions to be relevant, informative and useful.
10. Systematically log your relevant readings – Choices here are to manually construct a comprehensive bibliography or use bibliographic software such as ProCite, EndNote or Reference Manager.
11. Read and annotate each relevant article – As suggested earlier in the chapter, comment on author/audience, key points, critical comment, and relevance.
12. Sort and organize your annotations – Look for themes, issues of concern, common shortcomings, etc. You may find that patterns begin to emerge, which can go a long way towards the development of your own arguments.
13. Develop a potential outline for your literature review – Consider what arguments will best convince readers that you are fully engaged with the relevant body of literature.
Your structure can always be modified as your thinking evolves, but your main argument should relate to the need for your research study to be undertaken in the way you are proposing.
14. Write purposefully – You cannot write a formal ‘literature review’ without an agenda. Your audience should be able to readily identify the ‘point’ of each section of your review. If your audience does not know why you are telling them what you are telling them, you need to reconsider your approach.
15. Use the literature to back up your arguments – Rather than review, report or borrow the arguments of others, use the literature to help generate, and then support, your own arguments. That means each paragraph should make a point that is backed up by the literature. For instance:
Within the context of climate change, the relationship between knowledge and behavioral change is contentious.
16. Adopt an appropriate style and tone – The trick here is to avoid being too deferential, but also avoid being overcritical. Keep in mind that your goal is to engage, debate, argue, evolve your own ideas and contribute.
If you think of yourself as a mere student, you might find it hard to be critical. On the other hand, if you attempt to establish credibility by showing you are able to pick holes in the work of others, you run the risk of being judgemental, hypercritical and unable to draw relevance and significance from the works reviewed.
17. Get plenty of feedback – Writing a literature review is not an easy task, and supervisors’ expectations can vary widely. Don’t wait until the last minute to begin the writing process or to get feedback. Be sure to pass a draft to your supervisor, or anyone else willing to read it, early on.
18. Be prepared to redraft – Whether you are a student or professional researcher, you are not likely to get away without a redraft or two (or three or four).
Writing styles in the literature review
Descriptive writing: As the title implies this is all about describing – offering facts/ information, saying what is – a large part of the literature review.
Analytical writing: Analytical writing takes descriptive writing a step further by organizing information into logical groupings. It also compares, contrasts and explores relationships. This is what begins to give your literature review some structure.
Critical writing: A natural next step when comparing works is to make judgments. You are now assessing works and ascribing value. You are engaged with the work and sharing what you think about it.
Persuasive or argumentative writing: Once you have your head around your critiques of the literature, you will need to organize these critiques so you are in a position to make arguments. In the case of the literature review, you are arguing the place for your own research.
The Notes and Bibliography System
Let us now consider the note as a means for citation. If in your text you speak of an author or quote some of his passages, the corresponding note should provide the necessary documentation. This system is convenient because, if you use footnotes, the reader knows immediately what author and work you are citing.
Yet this process imposes duplication because you must repeat in the final bibliography the same reference you included in the note. (In rare cases in which the note references a work that is unrelated to the specific bibliography of the thesis, there is no need to repeat the reference in the final bibliography.
For example, if in a thesis in astronomy I were to cite Dante’s line, “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,” the note alone would suffice.)1 The presence of the references in the note certainly does not invalidate the need for a final bibliography.
In fact, the final bibliography provides the material you have consulted at a glance, and it also serves as a comprehensive source for the literature on your particular topic. It would be impolite to force the reader to search the notes page by page to find all the works you have cited.
Moreover, the final bibliography provides more complete information than do the notes. For example, inciting a foreign author, the note provides only the title in the original language, while the bibliographical entry will also include a reference to the translation.
Furthermore, while usage suggests citing an author by the first name and last name in a note, the bibliography presents authors in alphabetical order by last name.
Additionally, if the first edition of an article appeared in an obscure journal, and the article was then reprinted in a widely available miscellaneous volume, the note may reference only the miscellaneous volume with the page number of the quote, while the bibliography will also require a reference to the first edition.
A note may also abbreviate certain data or eliminate subtitles, while the bibliography should provide all this information.
The table provides an example of a thesis page with various footnotes, and the table shows the references as they will appear in the final bibliography. Notice the differences between the two.
You will see that the notes are more casual than the bibliography, that they do not cite the first edition, and that they aim only to give enough information to enable a reader to locate the text they mention, reserving the complete documentation for the bibliography.
Also, the notes do not mention whether the volume in question has been translated. After all, there is the final bibliography in which the reader can find this information.
The Author-Date System
In many disciplines (and with increasing frequency) authors use a system that allows them to eliminate all reference notes, preserving only content notes and cross-references. This system presupposes that the final bibliography is organized by authors’ names, and includes the date of publication of the first edition of the book or article.
Here is an example of a bibliographical entry in a thesis that uses the author-date system: Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
This system allows you to prune the text of the majority of the notes. In addition, it means that, at the writing stage, you only need to document a book once.
For this reason, this system is especially appropriate when the student must constantly cite many books, or cite the same book often, allowing him to avoid annoying little notes full of “Ibid.” This system is indispensable even for a student writing a condensed review of the critical literature on a particular topic.
However, the author-date system works only under certain conditions:
1. The bibliography must be homogeneous and specialized, and readers of your work should already be familiar with your bibliography. If the condensed literature review in the example above referred.
If instead you are writing, for example, a thesis on Italian culture in the first half of the twentieth century, in which you will cite novelists, poets, politicians, philosophers, and economists, the author-date system no longer works well because few readers can recognize a book by its date of publication alone (although they can refer to the bibliography for this information).
Even if the reader is a specialist in one field, he will probably not recognize works outside that field.
2. The bibliography in question must be modern, or at least of the last two centuries.
3. The bibliography must be scholarly/academic.
Example of the Author-Date System
Example of a Corresponding Reference List
Chomsky, Noam. 1965a. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
You will also notice that the author-date system shows at a glance when a particular text was published for the first time, even if we usually encounter this text in the form of more recent editions.
For this reason, this system is useful in homogeneous treatments of a topic in specific disciplines, since in these fields it is often important to know who proposed a certain theory for the first time, or who completed certain empirical research for the first time.
There is a final reason to use the author-date system when possible. Suppose you have finished writing your thesis, and you have typewritten the final draft with many footnotes.
Even if you started numbering your notes over again at the beginning of each chapter, a particular chapter may require as many as 100 notes. Suddenly you notice that you have neglected to cite an important author whom you cannot afford to ignore, and whom you must cite at the beginning of this chapter.
You must now insert the new note and change 100 numbers. With the author-date system, you do not have this problem; simply insert the name and the date of publication in parentheses, and then add the item to the general bibliography (in pen, or by retyping only a single page).
Even if you have not finished typewriting your thesis, inserting a note that you have forgotten still requires renumbering and often presents other annoying formatting issues, whereas with the author-date system you will have few troubles in this area.
If you use the author-date system in a thesis with a homogeneous bibliography, you can be even more succinct by using multiple abbreviations for journals, manuals, and conference proceedings.
Below are two examples from two bibliographies, one in the natural sciences, the other in medicine. (Do not ask me what these bibliographical entries mean. Presumably, readers in these fields will understand them.)
Instructions, Traps, and Conventions
The tricks of academic work are innumerable, and innumerable are the traps into which you can fall. Within the limits of this short treatment, we can only provide, in no particular order, a series of instructions to help you avoid such traps.
Although these instructions may not help you navigate the Bermuda Triangle that you must cross in writing your thesis, they will at least alert you to the existence of such perils, and that you must ultimately face them on your own.
Do not credit or cite notions of common knowledge. Do not attribute to an author an idea that he cites as belonging to someone else. Not only because you will appear to have used an indirect source unmindfully, but also because that author might have cited the idea without accepting it.
In a little semiotics manual of mine, I cited, among the various possible classifications of signs, one that pides them into expressive and communicative versions.
Do not add or delete notes only to force the numbering to add up. When you have already typewritten your thesis (or even if you have simply written it legibly for the typist), it may happen that you must eliminate a note that turned out to be incorrect, or that you must add a new one at any cost.
As a result, the numbering of the following notes does not add up, and good for you if you have numbered notes by chapter and not from the very beginning of your thesis. (It is one thing to correct notes from 1 to 10, another to correct them from 1 to 150.)
To avoid changing all the note reference numbers, you will be tempted to insert a filler note or eliminate another note. This temptation is human. But in these cases, it is better to insert an additional superscript sign, such as a plus (+) sign, to refer the reader to the inserted note. However, this is surely a makeshift solution that may displease some advisors, so rearrange the numbering if you can.
There is a method for citing from indirect sources while still observing the rules of academic honesty. It is always better not to cite secondhand information, but sometimes this is impossible to avoid.
Always give precise information on critical editions, revisions, and the like. Specify if an edition is a critical edition and indicate its editor. Specify if a second or more recent edition is revised, enlarged, or corrected.
If someone other than your advisor provided verbal suggestions, lent you rare books or gave you similar kinds of help, it is good practice to acknowledge them in a section at the beginning or end of your thesis.
It also shows that you were diligent enough to consult knowledgeable people. However, it is bad taste to thank your advisor. If he helped you, he has simply done his job.
Additionally, you may happen to thank and to declare your debt to a scholar that your advisor hates, abhors, and despises. This is a serious academic incident, and it is your fault. You should have trusted your advisor, and if he told you that someone is an imbecile, you should not have consulted that person.
Or, if your advisor is open-minded and he accepts that his student has used resources with which he disagrees, this incident will simply become a matter of civil discussion at your thesis defense.
If instead, your advisor is an old capricious baron, spiteful and dogmatic, you have probably made the wrong choice for an advisor. However, if, despite these flaws, you truly wanted this advisor because you believed that he would treat you like a protégé.
Then you must be coherently dishonest and ignore this other person in your acknowledgments because you have chosen to become the same kind of person that your mentor is.