Researching is an important skill for all university courses, whether you study astrophysics or something a little more down to Earth. If you could know more in a shorter amount of time, surely that’s a win all round isn’t it? This short blog post will hopefully allow me to explain a few ways you can make your research more efficient.
Know what you’re looking for and where you might find it
How are you going to find what you want quickly if you’re not really sure what you’re looking for? It’s more efficient to sit down for ten minutes to just think about what you want to find and then spend ten minutes finding it, than it is to start searching aimlessly and find what you need after two hours or not at all.
When researching information, the very first words you type into a search engine or the navigation bar should be taking you somewhere. Make sure not to just search for ambiguous or broad words such as “biology” because this will return you nearly 300 million results from all areas, aimed at all ages and that’s not going to help you. To help reduce the numbers of unhelpful results, start on a well-known database or one which your professor may have recommended, because at least then you’ll be in the right area.
Using key words is vital in finding the information you’re searching for on search engines and especially on databases. Databases can be broken into subject areas and then specific topics using the searching options until you’ll be shown the entire collection of articles available within the area you chose. Head to our online resource to help you plan your search before you start, to speed up the whole process.
Narrow the search further
When you search ‘particle physics’ into Web of Science (a well-known database) you’ll find 5,000+ results, on Google Scholar over 3.4 million will appear; you can’t look over every single one. Refining the search is key. By defining the type of document you want, using more specific key words or by searching just one journal you can reduce the number of results into a more manageable load. Not only that, by refining your search you will remove results which wouldn’t have helped you anyway!
Knowing how to use your preferred databases or search engines can help a lot to speed up your research. Check out the online resources to help you learn how to use databases; just visit or search for MLE resources to find more like it. Google itself has many little tricks to help reduce the number of irrelevant results, where a simple punctuation mark (“” * etc.) could save you ten minutes of scrolling through useless pages or articles every time you search.
Select the best results for you
No matter how much you refine your search, you will most likely always find results which just won’t benefit you. Normally you can tell if an article will be helpful just by looking at the title, date, authors and abstract; for example, if your research is in high-tech computer software the likelihood of an article published in 1956 being useful is pretty low. Websites may be more difficult to initially say “yes” or “no” to based just on their home page, but often their affiliations or references may give a good idea of their legitimacy, their scope of bias and their reliability. We now run a new workshop at the Learning Commons about how to evaluate information available on websites and other online sources, so keep an eye out for “Using websites and recognising bias”.
Who, what, when, where, why, how?
All of these questions should be asked about a source you’ve found. Who produced this (are they reputable)? What is the point of the text (what is covered, is it helpful)? When was it produced (could lead to bias, is it still in date)? Where was it produced (again this could influence biases, the location of publishing, i.e. on a website or in a journal, could give an idea of the reliability; journal articles have been peer reviewed, but websites usually haven’t been)? Why did they produce this (are they trying to sell something or inform you)? How was the information produced (experiments or opinions)? All of these and many more questions are important to ask before using a source. These help you assess relevance, objectivity and reliability of the source before you choose to include it in your work.
Set a time limit
When you start your search also start an internal timer. It doesn’t need to be a physical timer and doesn’t even need to be that specific, but just accept that if you haven’t found what you’re looking for in x amount of time then you need to change your strategy. This could be as simple as changing the databases you look at, exploring other search engines, looking for books or chatting with a Library advisor. You can save time by reading the abstract and conclusion of an article first; if they don’t answer the questions you’re asking then maybe there’s no point downloading it.
For extra information and support from the Library, please visit: http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/using-the-library/students/training-and-skills-support/my-learning-essentials/
Here you can find all sorts of information provided as online resources on how to research efficiently, demonstrations on specific databases the University has access to and much more. There are also details of upcoming workshops and links for you to register in advance.
Also, keep an eye on our Twitter page for more tips and updates!
By Joe from the Student Team