Extracts from a Dissertation Question Time where students submitted questions about their dissertations to a panel of postgraduate students, academic staff and an academic skills advisor including the following
[Based on advice by Loughborough University]
It is important to acknowledge that each discipline will have a slightly different approach to literature reviews. Your department may have particular preferences so you should always make sure that you have consulted your supervisor before you start work.
A systematic literature review is usually based on a single research question for which an answer is sought or on a selected research topic. It is not in itself primary research, but rather it reports on other findings.
Literature reviews in the health fields tend to be more rigorous or explicit in their methods. The key features of a systematic review are that:
Systematic reviews aim to find as much research as possible relevant to the particular research questions, and to use explicit methods to identify what can reliably be said on the basis of these studies. Methods should not only be explicit but systematic with the aim of producing varied and reliable results. Such reviews then go on to synthesise research findings in a form which is easily accessible to those who have to make policy or practice decisions. In this way, systematic reviews reduce the bias which can occur in other approaches to reviewing research evidence.
When writing a literature review, it is crucial to distinguish between
Making this distinction is important because you will need to examine every work that forms part of your core theoretical framework, but you can often do a quicker read of those articles that are part of your background literature. It is important to understand the types of literature you find in order to make sense of it and be able to compare it with other literature you find.
Once you have thought about the topics you need to cover and have embarked on some preliminary literature searching, you should start to set down some draft subject headings to help you structure your literature review.
For each heading try to select a few key texts to read first - three is ideal to start with although you may find that you may eventually be writing about the same text under different headings, so bear that in mind when you are reading and making notes.
When you have finished reading your chosen texts, summarise and comment on what you have read, making sure that you demonstrate how it is relevant to your research. Then look to see what you need to discuss further, and do more reading to enable you to fill any gaps.
Once you have finished reading for your literature review you need to start organising the information you have found e.g. by using techniques such as mindmapping or by grouping what you have read into different topics.
There are a number of different approaches to structuring a literature review so you should consult your supervisor before beginning the work. The following is a standard model:
Anticipate readers’ questions, do not leave work open to questions such as:
Before you start planning your literature search you should draft a question or working statement to get you started. You may need to refine or re-phrase this at a later date if your focus shifts or narrows. It is important to define the scope of the review in order to help maintain focus and be selective in the materials you include.
Literature searching for postgraduate students
Before you can start developing a search strategy you need to identify the main concepts in your research question and select words or phrases that describe these. Selecting appropriate search terms is the key to successful literature searching. Without meaningful search terms you are unlikely to find useful articles
The following techniques are useful in improving your search strategy and can make a significant difference to your search results. Always check the database help pages before you start searching.
OR – broadens and is usually used to combine synonyms or “like” words to make results more comprehensive.
AND – narrows and is usually used to combine different concepts to make results more relevant.
NOT – narrows by reducing the number of results you retrieve by excluding a search term.
If you find too few results consider the following:
If you find too many results consider the following:
You can also find sources by searching in the following ways:
This differs from general literature searching for a topic as instead of searching for keywords you search for specific books or articles to find out which authors have been cited and also who has cited them in their work. Citation (or cited reference searching) is helpful as it allows you to follow the development of an idea or theory through the literature.
This is a standard technique used in identifying studies for a systematic review, but it can also be used for any comprehensive literature search. It is a useful technique because:
Does your search plan need tweaking or revising to improve your results? Are there any more appropriate databases or other sources you could be searching?
Always check with your supervisor if you are uncertain as is extremely difficult to retrace your search steps at a later date.
A useful way of recording your sources is to use a reference manager such as RefWorks. This helps you to keep a track of your references and helps you present them in the required UoS style. More about RefWorks and reference management
Saving your search
Many databases allow you create a personal login to enable you to save searches or to set up alerts when new relevant content is added to the database.
This section is based on guidance by Leeds University
Once you have conducted a database search you may find that some of the articles you wish to read are available as abstracts rather than full-text which can be frustrating.
Although most databases do offer a filter to full-text option, using this may result in you losing some potentially useful and up-to-date material where there is an embargo on recently published full-text content. In other words you may be unable to see recently published material from some key journals. However, as the full-text of these articles may be easily available from other databases, it is not good practice to use the full-text only filter as your search results will be incomplete. For the health disciplines this would be particularly inadvisable.
The following are useful strategies for finding full-text:
Still unable to find full-text?
If you are doing a piece of work over a length of time, alerting service and RSS feeds will save you time and help you stay up-to-date with newly published information in your subject area and save valuable research time.
Alerts and RSS feeds can send updated information to your e-mail address or to a 'Start' page using an RSS feed.
Journal alerting services, or current awareness services, such as Zetoc and Journal TOCs, alert you to new articles in your field by sending you a table of contents of new issues of journals of interest.
Start by considering how in-depth your search needs to be and which the best sources of information might be. These might include:
Click here for the main Information sources guide
Information may take also take the form of primary or secondary information which will be an important consideration.
Google is often the first port if call in academic literature searching because of its ease of use and convenience. However, although it is a huge search engine with extensive coverage, it has no quality filter and is not restricted to academic information.This lack of quality control requires the researcher to have the necessary skills to evaluate the information on the web.
You will save a lot of time bey searching for information using the following resources:
It is likely that you will need to look for both primary and secondary sources. Subject databases will provide you with both types of information.
Definition: primary sources come first-hand from the source or person.
Primary sources are usually first-hand information about something such as diaries, court records, interviews, research studies about experiments, and information that has been stated but not interpreted by others.
Types of primary research include:
Definition: A secondary source writes or talks about something that is a primary source.
Secondary sources analyze, interpret, and discuss information about the primary source. Most secondary sources analyze the material or restate the works of others. Many secondary sources are used to argue someone's thesis or main points about a topic.
Secondary Sources include:
Oxford University Research Archive - Search for and download recent Oxford DPhil theses
Referencing is a very important aspect of your research as you will need to consult and refer to sources written by other authors. It is essential that you provide detailed, accurate information about the sources you have used. This information must be provided for a number of reasons:
Referencing is a way of acknowledging that you have read, consulted and used the ideas, opinions, findings and written material belonging to other authors. It demonstrates that you have undertaken an appropriate literature search and that you have carried out appropriate reading. It enables anyone reading your work to look up your citations and read them for themselves.
As a general rule, a citation must enable another person using your work to easily identify and locate the sources that you have used in your research so that they can check the information you have consulted, and the evidence you have presented in your arguments.
The preferred referencing style for citations and bibliographies is in Psychology Routes courses is UoS APA.
UoS Footnotes (MHRA)The preferred referencing style for citations and bibliographies for History is University of Suffolk Harvard. This follows the principles laid out in:
RefWorks is the recommended reference management tool at University of Suffolk. With RefWorks you can easily:
A free online tool for saving and sharing references, and for discovering academic papers as you can see what resources have been used by other researchers - see who is reading the same papers as you. There is no plug in for Word, but you can export citations into other software.
The web based version of the Endnote programme allows you to save and share references. You will need to install the plug in for Word in order to add references to your papers.
This enables you to save and share references via the web. It is a free reference manager and social networking tool which enables you to save and share references and to read your papers anywhere via the web.
A plug in for the Firefox browser. It enables you to capture references from web pages. There is also a plug in for Word to enable you to insert references into your papers. Please note that you must use Firefox to use Zotero.
RefWorks workshop run for postgraduate students Oct 2016
Citation searching means that if you have found a relevant article, you can find a list of articles that have cited it. Citation (or cited reference searching) allows you to follow the development of an idea or theory through the literature. It enables you to:
The main database for citation searching is Web of Science via the Web of Knowledge. This includes:
Being able to proof read effectively is of course important at any level and can have a major bearing on the success or otherwise of your writing. At Postgraduate level however, it takes on even greater importance because of
a) The amount of writing involved - your dissertation may well be 2 or 3 times longer than anything you have written before. Not only is there more to check in terms of quantity, the demands are greater with regard to organising and structuring the material.
b) The advanced nature of postgraduate writing brings with it raised expectations in terms of the fluency, accuracy and intelligibility of your writing. Put simply, it needs to be readable, clear and error-free. With this in mind, you should -
1. Make a clear distinction between editing and proof reading.
2. You need to do separate readings for each of the above - one for content (editing) and one for language (Proof reading). This separation makes the overall task more manageable and focused - when you are concentrating on the development and organisation of ideas, you are not having to worry about spelling or punctuation, and vice versa.
3. Read aloud, slowly and one sentence at a time, preferably from a printed page rather than on- screen. If editing, ask yourself whether the sentence is clear and unambiguous, correctly referenced, and whether it contributes to the development of your argument both within the paragraph and overall. If proof reading, ask yourself whether the sentence is grammatically correct (and not overly long or complicated), uses appropriate style and vocabulary and is correctly spelt and punctuated.
4. Get a second opinion always (and a third or fourth) - you can guarantee that other people will read with a more detached and objective eye and see things you have missed, in terms of accuracy of expression. intelligibility, coherence and so on.
5. Use the spell checker of course, but do remember that Microsoft uses American spellings, which can annoy British readers! (eg behavior, center, realize) Also, be extra careful to choose the correct word from any drop-down lists - choosing the wrong word can unintentionally wreck the meaning of your sentence.)
6. Analyse your mistakes. Proof reading, like any kind of reading, is a great deal easier and more purposeful if you know what you are looking for. Keep a record of the mistakes that you typically make. You can then use this as a proof reading checklist, with headings for spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary (use/misuse of words). An Academic Skills Advisor can help you to do this, perhaps by looking at past assessed work and feedback received.
For more advice click here
1. Length- A dissertation can be defined as "a detailed, sustained and critical treatment of a chosen topic." At Masters level this may be anything from 10,00 to 30,000 words, depending on the subject area and whether taught or research Masters. MSc dissertations tend to have a somewhat lower word count because they usually include a practical element. PhD theses will typically be between 50,000 and 80,000 words, with arts, humanities and social science subjects at the upper end of the spectrum, and science subjects at the lower end. The substantially greater length requirement makes it all the more important that you have a carefully worked out plan and time frame for your dissertation or thesis.
2. Evidence of research "journey"- In most cases you will be writing your own question, which means you need to think very carefully about defining the scope and boundaries of your investigation. It needs to be something that can be adequately addressed within the word count.You will need to explain how your interest came about, how it has changed and developed and what exactly you have learned and concluded.
3. Depth and range of reading- You will need to demonstrate familiarity with and understanding of a wider range of research and sources. Your bibliography/reference list will need to be comprehensive, detailed and accurate and as such give a clear picture of your engagement or dialogue with the particular subject discipline.
4. Taking issue- Related to this, at postgraduate level, references are not simply cited, but used critically, interrogated, questioned as to underlying values and implicit assumptions. You need to show that you are aware of divergent meanings and interpretations as well as the overall complexity of the issues under examination.
5. Academic rigour- Your work needs to demonstrate scrupulous and objective testing of arguments and counter arguments, to establish the extent to which they stand up to scrutiny. Evidence needs to be well documented and unambiguous.
6. Coherent argument- There will be an expectation that your dissertation or thesis develops and pursues a coherent and consistent argument throughout. It should be stylistically fluent and the "angle" or approach that you are taking should be clearly signposted and evident.
7. Accurate and appropriate expression - At this level it is more important than ever that your writing is literate and grammatically correct, clearly and unambiguously expressed. You should show an assured use of appropriate academic vocabulary, both generally and in the use of the specialist terminology of your subject.
8. Originality - At PhD level the expectation is that your thesis will make "an original contribution to knowledge" within your subject area. Whilst this is not necessarily a requirement at Masters level, your dissertation should nonetheless show insight and initiative within its terms of enquiry, and be probing and exploratory in its approach to/dialogue with the subject discipline. It needs to have a distinctive voice and point of view. Above all, it needs to catch the interest of the reader (and the marker) and show that you yourself have a close interest in and engagement with the subject matter.
For more advice about critical writing click here
At postgraduate level, the sheer volume of written sources that you will need to read and process means that you will need to be as efficient and methodical as you can be in the preparatory stages. Having easily accessible, clearly organised and referenced notes will save you a great deal of time in the long run. In addition to the more generic postgraduate study skills/academic writing textbooks mentioned above (Academic writing - recommended reading) the following are a selection of web-based materials specifically related to critical reading and note-taking at this level.
Find more advice about reading and note-taking click here
A report, according to The New Oxford Dictionary of English, is "an account given of a particular matter... after thorough investigation or consideration by an appointed person." There is considerable variation in the use of the terms report, dissertation and thesis, even within academia. For example in the UK the convention is to talk of a Masters dissertation and a doctoral thesis, whereas in the USA it is the other way round. What is clear is that reports do have a quite different layout and structure to essays. (see Structure tabs) In the business world and in government, a report is understood to convey information and sometimes recommendations drawn up by a researcher who has investigated a topic in depth and detail. A report of this kind differs from an essay or dissertation in that it is designed to provide information that will be acted upon (hence the recommendations) rather than to be read by people interested in the ideas for their own sake.
An academic report will typically combine features of both practical reports and dissertations. It can be thought of as a kind of simulation - in other words, try to imagine that someone wants the report for a practical purpose, even though you are in fact writing the report as an academic exercise, for assessment. With academic reports the focus will generally be on ideas and theoretical perspectives rather than information and practical implementation, although there may certainly be an element of this with science and vocational disciplines. This will depend to a large extent on the subject and the assessment criteria. The crucial thing here is to pay very careful attention to what is required and to any instructions or guidelines you have been given.
Whatever the nature and exact format of the report, it will need to include information under each of these broad headings -
* Purpose - What were the aims/objectives of the work? What was it hoping to achieve?
* How was the research carried out? - A justification of the methods used/problem areas.
* Presenting the findings - What were the results of the investigation?
* Discussion and analysis - An evaluation of the results and their significance
* Conclusions - A drawing together of the overall value and import of the research
For more advice about report writing click here
Looking at the structure of research reports in a little more detail, it is apparent that there are essentially three distinct parts (as outlined for example by M.Denscombe (1998) in The Good Researcher Guide for Small scale Social Research Projects, upon which the following draws). These are : 1) Preliminaries 2) Main text and 3) End matter.
Title - Needs to be an accurate reflection of the contents of the report. Ideally brief, but can include sub-heading if necessary.
Abstract - A single page (250-300 words) summary of the contents of the report, specifically its broad aims and conclusions. Needs to be clearly and engagingly written, since this is read primarily by others in the field to see whether it might be of use to them.
List of contents - Lists sections (or chapters, in the case of a longer report) including page numbers.
List of figures and tables - Self explanatory, but make sure you acknowledge sources, label axes and graphical information as necessary.
Preface - Brief personal statement from the author explaining the genesis, scope and context of the study.
Acknowledgements - Brief expression of appreciation for support or cooperation received (if required).
Abbreviations - Give full version of any abbreviations or acronyms used in the text.
Outlines the purpose and scope of the study, its primary aims, objectives and hypotheses. Also any gaps in existing research that will be addressed.
Covers key concepts and definitions, as well as relevant background theories and knowledge as related to your study (ie specifically tailored to this, rather than "saturation" coverage of everything you have ever read on the subject)
Includes a justification of the overall research design and methods used eg whether documentary, case study, survey or a combination of these. This section should show how the methods were used to address each of the objectives, and why they are appropriate, in each case. Also what type of data was gathered - quantitative, qualitative or both. Be sure to mention any tools or instruments used eg questionnaire, interview etc as well as considerations like sample size and population. Conclude this section by explaining how data was analysed, whether statistically or otherwise, and acknowledging any limitations that you are aware of eg in terms of time constraints or accuracy.
Results or Findings
Gives a clear and organised account/breakdown of what you found out, against each objective or sub-topic. You will need to show the essential data and calculations, using tables and graphical presentation where appropriate.
Analysis and discussion
In this section you will need to interpret the results, highlighting the most significant ones, and making deductions. Your discussion will be framed within the context of relevant theories and existing knowledge as well as your original objectives in carrying out the study. You can also raise and discuss any associated ethical issues.
Conclusions and recommendations
Gives an overall assessment of the extent to which the original objectives of the research project have been met - try and draw it all together. Were you able to answer all of the questions raised initially, or just some of them? Include any surprises or deviations from what was expected. Don't draw any conclusions that are not rigorously supported by the evidence - they must be valid and legitimate .You can make recommendations (if required) for further research and mention any new questions raised by the research.
You don't necessarily have to have an appendix, but you may need one (or more). The rationale is that you should include in an appendix anything that would interrupt the flow of the argument in the main body. Material that is too detailed for the substantive report should be included here so that it is available for close scrutiny. If you have used questionnaires, the convention is to include a blank copy in the appendix. You may also want to include schedules, maps, diagrams, plans or visual material, plus any additional data or calculations not given in the body, but which may nevertheless be useful for a fuller understanding.
It is worth underlining here the difference between a reference list and a bibliography. According to Cite them Right (Pears and Shields, 2013) "The reference list is a detailed list of references cited in your assignment. It includes the full bibliographical information on sources, so that the reader can identify and locate the work/item. A bibliography also provides a detailed list of references but includes background readings or other material you may have consulted, but not cited, in your text. You should always check with your tutors whether they require you to include a reference list, a bibliography, or both." (p.11) This is equally true at postgraduate level. Not all theses or reports have bibliographies, but you should certainly check with your supervisor.
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