This blog post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with staff from different services at the University of Manchester, introducing you to who they are, what they do, and how they can help you get the most out of your time at university! In this interview, the Library Student Team talks to Padma Inala from the Library Teaching and Learning Team about searching, literature reviews and referencing.
Ioana: So, why are things like searching, literature reviews and referencing so important?
Padma: Well, when you’re moving on from sixth form to university, there are certain differences in terms of academic skills and expectations. As a first-year student, you need to be aware that you probably haven’t had any training in these skills before and so this is something you may need to learn. We have a whole programme of training and skills support delivered through My Learning Essentials (MLE), which includes workshops and online resources to help with all these things. These skills will be indispensable to them through their studies and beyond their degree; so as a Teaching and Learning Librarian, these topics are quite close to my heart.
Anna: But why do we need to learn about searching? Isn’t Google enough?
Padma: No, Google’s not enough! The problem is that Google only searches the ‘surface web’ – it won’t search the subscribed content that the University pays for because it’s on password-protected sites. Another problem is that, as we all know, anyone can put anything up on the Internet regardless of whether the information is accurate or not. So if you find a source on Google, you have to be able to employ high-level critical thinking and critical analysis skills from the offset, which is something a lot of first year students don’t fully understand yet.
Anna: So, what search tools would you suggest for someone who is a beginner?
Padma: Well, we have the MLE resources to help you get started, but if you’re a complete novice I’d recommend Library Search. It has an easy interface, a bit Google-esque, with a single search box. In the first instance you can put in a topic search and what you will get is a lot of results. Then refine, refine, refine! On the sidebar, there are limiters you can use to make the search work for you. There’s also a time frame you can adjust if you’re looking for information published during a specific period, ranging from 500 BC all the way up to today. This lets you reduce the number of results and get to the information that’s most relevant for you.
Anna: If a student is searching for journal articles, for example, is it better to go straight to a particular database like JSTOR, rather than using Library Search?
Padma: I think it depends. On Library Search, sometimes the exclusions are too strict and you could miss things. So if you have a particular discipline that you know has specific databases, you can go search directly there. Have a look at your subject guides, which usually list several useful databases relevant for your area. You’ll get fewer results, but they’ll be more specific and focused. But again, you have to be aware that the results you get on one particular database aren’t everything – many subjects are cross-disciplinary, so using different ones will give you broader results.
Ioana: Moving on to literature reviews, then, what is a literature review? What’s it for?
Padma: A literature review can be two things. It can be part of a larger piece of work, or it can be something smaller, more like an individual piece of work. You’re looking at what has been written about your subject already, to give the reader a better idea of the themes you’re going to develop in your writing. So its main purpose is to identify gaps in existing research; then you can address them, or expand on that area.
Ioana: How important is for first year students to learn how to write a literature review?
Padma: As a first year, there’s no need to stress about it; it’s not something you need to learn immediately. You’ll encounter literature reviews during your own research and understanding what they are and what kind of information they include is something that can be built upon gradually. It’ll definitely pay off in the later stages of your studies!
Anna: And how important is referencing at university? Do all students need it?
Padma: Very important! It’s an academic convention; all students need to learn how to reference, regardless of their subject area. Referencing is not just about avoiding plagiarism, as many students think, it’s also about making sure you understand what you are writing about. It also shows your tutor that you’ve read around your subject, digested the information and incorporated other people’s ideas to create a stronger argument and participate in the wider debate.
Anna: So, would you say that learning how to use referencing software is worth the hassle?
Padma: It’s only a hassle for a short time – go for it, because it will save you a lot of time in the long run! When it comes to writing a bigger piece of work like a dissertation, with a lot of references and sources, learning to use referencing software makes your life much easier.
Anna: What are the most common referencing mistakes that students make?
Padma: Students often just change a couple of words around, rather than paraphrasing properly. Putting the reference at the end isn’t enough; you need to understand what the text is saying and put it into your own words. The biggest problem is probably unnecessary quoting. Quotations are there to support the idea, not to demonstrate it, so you should use them sparingly, and only when you can’t paraphrase. However, skills for paraphrasing and summarising do take time to learn, so this is one of the biggest challenges. A good way to practice is by explaining the topic to someone who doesn’t know about it, in your own words, and then use that to paraphrase.
Anna: If we really need help with referencing and can’t do it manually, what’s the quickest way to do it, especially if we’re in a hurry?
Padma: If it needs to be done really quickly, there’s help on referencing styles and reference management software on the Library website, or you could have a look at our MLE resource Citing it right. There are also tools such as RefMe, but be wary of using them as they may not do it accurately.
Hopefully this interview helped you see searching, referencing and literature reviews in a new light! If you’ve still got questions, why not check out the MLE online resources, come to a workshop, or get some one-to-one help at a drop-in?