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Postgraduate study skills: Comparing academic sources

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Some of the sources you might use are listed below, along with a summary of their strengths and limitations.

Text books

Strengths: Text books can present a focused view of a key issue. In producing a text with a specific theme, the author has drawn on a range of sources and synthesised these into a set of coherent arguments. Text books often highlight the key features of lengthier pieces of work, and also provide you with the full bibliographic references of the primary material.

Multi-themed text books, for example overviews of areas such as organisational behaviour or accountancy, are useful in presenting a broad view of a field of study, the relationships between theoretical perspectives, the views of different authors, and the models and tools that they produce. They give you the 'edited highlights' tour of the field and help you to feel comfortable and confident in your learning.

This is also the case with books that focus on a particular outcome: for example research methods books. Here the authors guide you through the process, drawing on the key issues, key authors and key perspectives to help you.

Limitations: Text books that focus on a particular issue may present a very particular view. Each academic author has their own perspectives, views and positions, and these are reflected in their texts. Some authors do acknowledge alternative perspectives, while using well-reasoned debate informed by the wider literature to support their own views.

Text books which cover a great range may suffer from the decisions made in selecting what to include, and so present a partial rather than a complete picture.

A general problem with text books is in the age of the information they contain. Book publishing can take anything up to two years, so even in a new book the information may be out of date.

Academic journals

Strengths: Academic journals are a favoured source of academic information. They usually offer a more current view than do text books, and have credibility due to the process of peer review, under which journal articles ('papers') submitted by researchers are evaluated by experts in the field before being published.

They also approach the subject matter in a particular way. Journal articles are seen as being either theoretical or empirical.

  • Theoretical articles use reasoned debate to present new or alternative ways of thinking about a subject, or offer a critique of existing ways of thinking.
  • Empirical papers use new research to illuminate a subject in different ways, to offer new insights or a critique of the existing ways of thinking.

Both these approaches are based on the principle of drawing on well-constructed argument and critique informed by the literature, which is at the heart of study at postgraduate level.

Limitations: Whilst academic journals can present new and varied perspectives, some do this in rather inaccessible language. Your tutor can direct you to relevant and comprehensible journals.

Although academic journals are generally more current than text books published at the same time, it is worth remembering that some journals have a two-year waiting list for papers to be published.

Professional journals

Strengths: Professional journals are produced by the bodies that oversee practice in a range of professions, for example institutions such as CIPFA, CIPD, RIBA and the BMA. These journals uphold the standards of the profession, and checks are made on the credibility and the authenticity of the information being presented.

Because they are produced for a practitioner audience they are written in a language which is usually quite accessible, certainly to anyone familiar with the terminology. Professional journals also have shorter lead times, and so more contemporary perspectives can be found.

Limitations: The language used in professional journals can be a problem if you are totally new to a particular field of study. Professional journals may follow a particular way of thinking. People schooled in a profession tend to see things in a similar way. By implication, articles published in professional journals tend to match what is acceptable to the profession. Journals may choose not to publish articles which they feel challenge the accepted norms and values.

Government literature

Strengths: Literature produced by a government is often a good source of information. Data is gathered by reliable means and data analysis is subject to rigorous checks. Research is often well funded and can therefore offer the results of projects done at scale.

Although much of the research undertaken relates to the public sector, the data produced and the research findings are often applicable to wider contexts. Government-produced literature can also offer longitudinal studies (studies repeated over a period of time) which other researchers, because of funding implications, find quite difficult to do.

Government departments undertake reviews of recent research on topics of current interest, which may give a useful overview of major findings and also indicate which journals and research groups are active in a particular field.

Limitations: The limitations of government-produced literature relate in a broad sense to any secondary information that you might draw on in your studies. The data has been gathered for a particular purpose and has been analysed to meet the specific needs of that project. Then a decision has been made about which parts of the research findings should be published. Often what we see is the 'edited highlights' which, when one thinks of the political nature of government, may favour one particular view over another.

Organisational literature

Strengths: Organisational literature is produced within an organisation to help its managers make decisions or communicate with the stakeholders. Organisational literature can also give you information over time. For example, by studying the published financial reports over a number of years, you can follow the comparative success and failures of a company.

Limitations: As with government literature, the information may be structured to represent a very particular view, especially where the information is made available for view by competitors, accrediting bodies or the public. Organisations want to present a certain view of themselves, and this may mean revealing some pieces of information but not others.

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