Searching and Reading

Today’s post is focused on searching for literature and reading the literature. Of course, this focus also relates to writing, since good writing skills are dependent on your abilities (1) to locate important, reliable, and relevant literature, and (2) to read extensively and critically.  Sound, convincing research is built upon social theorists’ and expert researchers’ contributions to theoretical knowledge in your given academic field; the metaphor of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is often used to describe the researcher’s position.

As you progress, you should aim to create a ‘core’ body of literature, and this should guide your literature search from the outset of your research project.  As you read, you will also find that the ‘core’ may shift, and you may pursue certain trajectories as your research interests and research questions become more finely tuned.  So, in this post, we are more explicitly concerned with building up your core body of literature.  In future posts, I will address how the literature review should be structured, but for present purposes, we will focus on searching for literature and reading the literature.   At the end of the post, I will set you a task to work on towards developing the literature review component of your dissertations.  This task will also help you in developing your research proposals further.

Searching for literature

Finding important, relevant and well-written research is a skill in and of itself, which takes time and practice to develop. There is a hierarchy to academic literature that should guide your search.  Rugg and Petre (2004: 59-60), for example, identify the ‘pecking order’ as follows:

  • Encyclopaedia entries (invited contributions written by experts in the field) and top academic journals (rigorously peer reviewed)
  • Middle-range journals (peer reviewed but [possibly?] by less esteemed experts)
  • Specialist newsletters and trade journals (These are perhaps less relevant for youth work research)

Whether a journal is considered ‘high’, ‘mid’, or ‘low’ quality is highly contested.  I won’t get into the politics of it in depth here, but recognition of the increasingly commercialised nature of academic publishing and some recent scandals have problematised the system.  Nevertheless, it is important that you search extensively through academic journals, since peer-reviewed articles are still considered the most reliable and rigorous sources.  You will find a useful guide on searching for journal articles on the UCC Library website, and there is a journal search guide that has been designed specifically for Applied Social Studies students that is worth spending time on.

Books are variable in quality, dependent on the publisher, the editors’ ‘expert status’ etc. Some may be quite prestigious, but others may be poorer quality.  Textbooks can be useful, but they are generally lower status for researchers at postgraduate level, since they are usually targeted at an undergraduate student audience and their content is more generalist.  Saying that, some high quality textbooks are hugely valuable, particularly when you are just dipping your toes into a new academic field.  In summary, do read books, but read them critically, evaluating their reliability at all times.  Take note of the different conventions for referencing a monograph or a chapter in an edited collection.

Social researchers, in particular, may also rely on ‘grey literature‘.  This includes reports, official publications, doctoral theses, conference proceedings, etc.  Again, quality is variable, but this kind of literature might be important in informing the social/youth policy dimensions of your arguments.

Websites and online sources should be treated with caution.  There may be little or no quality control.  The same goes for newspaper and magazine articles.  Use these only where absolutely necessary, and these should never be considered part of the ‘core’ body of literature.

Planning your literature search

There are a number of different approaches that you can take when searching for literature.  This guide, from De Montford University, usefully identifies some of the more typical approaches as follows:

  • Systematic (searching for all relevant information)
  • Retrospective (find the most recent material and work backwards)
  • Citation (check references from useful articles, books and reading lists)
  • Targeted (narrowly-focused on a tightly defined research topic)

As the De Montfort guide notes, you will likely use a mixture of these approaches.

Using keywords

Again, the De Montford guide helpfully explains how to search using keywords.  There is no point in reinventing the wheel: check out their advice on pages 4-5.

Building your reference list

It is vitally important that you take careful note from the outset of the various sources you access.  These will not all necessarily be included in the final bibliography, since you will include only the sources (direct quotations and paraphrased ideas) that are explicitly referenced in your dissertation. Keeping a careful list of all sources will help you to avoid plagiarism, which is a serious academic offense.  UCC Library now has access to Cite Them Right Online, which is an excellent resource for managing your references. Another useful free service, which is particularly helpful for managing pdf versions of articles, is Mendeley.

This also allows you to ‘cite while you write’ using a Word plugin.

The best way to figure out Mendeley is to play around with it yourselves.  If you’re struggling we can organise a tutorial session on this.

Reading the literature

The next task, which I outline below, is designed to encourage you to find relevant, credible literature, which will inform the refinement of your research proposals and the first cycle of the literature review process.  First, I will explore the literature review a little, and then I will explain your assignment.

What is the literature review for?

In research dissertations, the literature review normally appears towards the beginning of the work, and usually after the Introduction chapter.  As Rugg and Petre (2004: 56) explain, the literature review chapter ‘sets the scene’ for your research.  Firstly, it enables the reader to place your work within the field of knowledge, and points to references you have read which allows the ‘skeptical’ reader to check up on your understandings of the literature.  Secondly, it assures the reader that you have ‘done your homework thoroughly’ (ibid), which encourages one to read on. This means that a comprehensive and well-referenced bibliography is crucially important. 

The literature review process

Crafting the literature review is an iterative process.  That is, the process entails:

  1. developing a topic
  2. reviewing the literature relevant to your topic to see how it is treated by others
  3. refining your topic
  4. reviewing the literature again in light of that refinement.

You will typically go through a number of these cycles as your research question becomes more focused.  At the end of this process, you should be able to position your research relevant to related literature within the field, and you should be able to understand and articulate (1) what is the significance of your research, (2) what gaps in knowledge your research addresses, and (3) how it contributes to the field.  We will return to discussing the literature review in future posts, but for the moment this is enough to keep in mind as you begin your search for literature with a view to fine-tuning your research question.

Reading the literature: Assignment

Your next assignment is to:

  1. Locate three empirical studies that relate to your research question. These should be articles that you have not yet cited in your research proposal.
  2. Write a review of each article.
  3. Write a brief summary of how these articles, collectively, inform your thinking about your research question.
  4. Optional: Practice using Mendeley with these three articles only.  Learn how to import .pdfs into the system, how to correct bibliographic information, how to insert a citation as you write, and how to insert a bibliography.

As you are reading the articles, think about the following elements:

  • Rationale: How well is the research rationale defined?
  • Theory: Is the study grounded in previous research through a literature review?
  • Methodology: Are the methods of data collection and the analytical procedures well-defined?
  • Findings: Is evidence provided? How adequate is it? How is it organised?
  • Contribution: How well does the work advance our knowledge of the subject? How do the findings contribute to the discipline and how well is this contribution identified and explained?
  • Style: How well organised is it? Is there clarity of expression?
  • Hint: Your next task will be to revisit your research abstract and proposal.  The purpose of this exercise it to get you searching, reading, thinking, clarifying, and writing.

And remember:

Good luck!

References and Useful Sources

Petre, M., & Rugg, G. (2010) The unwritten rules of PhD research. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education

Applied Social Studies Library Guide:

How to undertake a literature search and review for dissertations and final year projects, De Montford University, Leicester:


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