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Postgraduate study skills: Finding appropriate academic material

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Before you start your search for material to read, you should identify the key themes you are looking for. Also think about what type of literature would be most useful to you. If you are new to the subject then a generic text book might be a good starting place. If this is a subject area you know something about then you may wish to draw on the academic or professional literature to refine your knowledge.

You can use the OU's online library to source material; it has links to journals, articles, e-books and more.

Listen to OU Information Literacy Manager Jo's advice on the services on offer at the OU library, and searching for the information you might need for an assignment.

Searching online

An online search can help you get a feel for how much information is available on a topic, and may also identify sources you would not otherwise find.

Don't simply search for broad topics such as 'organisational behaviour' or 'adult psychology'. By searching on a short string of connected words you can reduce the number of hits to a more manageable and relevant list. You may need to refine the string a few times once you see what is being returned.

  • Use a Google Scholar search. By searching on word strings, Google Scholar will report sources ranging from text books to journal articles. Be aware that if you try to access the articles through Google Scholar you may find that there is a charge. However, as a registered student you can use the OU online library, which gives free access most journals articles. If you note the full bibliographic references from Google Scholar you can go into the OU library and find the articles you need.
  • Use an OU library search. Follow the links or use the Help and Support page
  • Use a web search. A general search on the internet will return a wide range of sources, not all of which are credible. A good way of testing the credibility of a source is to check the name of the author, to see if he or she has produced other academic work. Alternatively, check whether the web address ends in .ac.uk, .edu, .edu.au, or .gov - these are usually academic or official sites.
  • Use Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a reliable source of academic information, primarily because there are no checks on the academic credibility of the material that is posted there. However, Wikipedia can be a useful source of further references.

Evaluating academic material

Once you've found some promising material, try to assess whether or not it is relevant so you don't waste time reading material of little value. Ask yourself the questions listed below.

Jo explains how evaluate and organise the information you find online.

Evaluation questions

Theme Questions

Relevance

Look at the introduction or overview to check what it's about

Does the information match my needs?

Provenance

Don't be tempted to use information that may not have academic credibility

Is it clear where the information has come from? Can I identify the authors or organisations responsible? How was it published? Has it been peer reviewed?

Objectivity

Look for an introduction or overview that describes affiliations or funding sources

Is the author's position or interest made clear? Does the author declare any connections that might compromise their independence? Is the language emotive? Are there hidden vested interests?

Timeliness

Don't risk using obsolete evidence or data

Is it clear when the information was produced? Does the date of the information meet my requirements?

Presentation

Look at language, layout and structure to check whether you can use it confidently

Is the information clearly communicated?

Method

Be aware of the differences in research methods

What research methods were used, and how are results reported? Do I need to check how significant the results actually are?

You should also appreciate the difference between primary and secondary sources in academic literature.

  • A primary source is the original publication of information, including any 'raw' data, usually with an appropriate statistical analysis.
  • A secondary source is a subsequent publication that draws on the original, quite possibly for different purposes. You may have read of instances where a publication applied an inappropriate analysis of someone else's material, thus producing misleading findings. A secondary source should acknowledge where its information comes from, so readers may refer to the primary source to see how the material was originally obtained and reported.
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