Research is an essential part of your essay preparation and involves finding, reading and organising relevant information.
You may spend 30-60% of the total time on research, depending on what material you already have and how much you need.
Start the research part of your essay preparation as soon as possible. If you have to use an inter-library loan service it can take from a few days to two or three weeks to receive books or photocopies once you’ve requested them. I’ve known students who’ve got caught out by not making their requests early enough: their information arriving after the essay deadline had passed!
There may be a few recommended texts for the essay. If so consider how many students will be doing their essay research at the same time. You can bet those texts will be out on loan as the essay deadline approaches, probably with the loan time reduced as the library is suddenly deluged with requests for the same books. So start your research early, and if necessary photocopy the most important parts to look at later.
Different types of essay require you to use different kinds of information sources. Make sure you know what kinds you’re expected to use. Broadly speaking there are two possibilities.
Some essays require you to look at text-books and non-original research and reports. These are called secondary sources since the authors are explaining or reporting on research or incidences that they haven’t done or witnessed for themselves, i.e. secondary sources are not first-hand accounts. Most essays for school, college and first year undergraduate studies will require study from textbooks and other specialist books. Other forms of non-original research and reports include articles from certain types of magazine, such as popular science, history or economics magazines, and other media, including the internet.
Other essays require you to document and/or comment on original research and reports, which will probably be published in specialist journals. Reports of original research and first-hand accounts are called primary sources. Essays for second and third year undergraduate students, and for postgraduate students, will often involve assimilating and synthesizing information from primary information sources. Essays for vocational courses might require students to look up primary information sources, in trade journals, for example. Interviews can also be classed as primary sources.
If you have to use primary information sources there’s one kind of secondary resource – the review – that can be particularly useful for your essay preparation. Reviews assimilate, evaluate and comment on original research in a specific (usually quite narrow) field. They’re often limited to reviewing research done within a particular time-span, typically concentrating on the most recent. Reviews can be very useful in helping you to identify the scope of a subject, including what’s especially important, and what developments have occurred. They’re also an excellent source of references for important papers in the field. For those using primary information sources reviews are a recommended starting place, particularly if you’re researching a topic of which you’ve limited knowledge and experience.
Once you know what kind of reading material you’re expected to use you need to find, use and reference an appropriate amount of it. This amount will depend on the scope and level of your essay. It’ll also depend on how much has been published in that particular subject area, and perhaps how much has been published recently (or maybe historically). This might be something you can only establish after a careful and thorough literature search.
(i) How to find relevant information sources
Before visiting the library try and decide which references you’re looking for. Browsing is OK if you’ve plenty of time, or if you just want a few text-books on a particular subject. Otherwise you need to make a list of references to take with you.
Unless you know who the relevant writers/researchers are use a subject index or keyword search to find references. Many on-line databases will let you see summaries of particular articles, allowing you to decide in advance whether they’ll be worth reading (and possibly ordering).
Once you’ve found a few references look to see if the authors have given any useful references that you might use. If you can find a relevant review then it’s bound to cite references of interest to you. In addition check to see if the same authors have written anything else on the same topic. In this way you can often create a “snowball effect”, quickly finding many relevant references.
An hour or so working on a database can often be a very good way of deciding exactly which references you want. If you use a library database there’ll probably be a library classification number given for each reference. This will help you to locate the shelves that the books or journals you need are on, and will probably indicate where on the shelves to look for them. If some of them are not in the library the database will probably tell you this too, and may allow you to request an inter-library loan on-line (but check first how much this will cost and how long the material will take to arrive).
When you’re trying to decide if you want to use a particular reference consider the following:
When was it published and is it up-to-date enough?
Who’s the author? Are they well qualified to write what they have written? This is especially important if you use material taken from the internet where virtually anyone can publish anything on anything!
Is it written at a level you can understand and one that is appropriate for the course (and year of course) that you’re studying for? Look to see if it is an introductory or advanced text (it may well say on the jacket or at the beginning of a book). If there’s a glossary you might look to see how technical the vocabulary looks. You should also read the summary (sometimes called an abstract), and perhaps the introduction.
Pick only books and articles that are highly relevant to your essay topic, even if the others do look interesting! Check to see what examples have been used. If you are choosing between text-books see which have the greatest coverage of relevant material, and which you find clearest.
Are there leads to other possible sources of information (reference list, bibliography or suggestions for further reading)?
(ii) How to use information sources (reading and organising references)
By this stage you’ll have a stack of relevant reading material – and it probably looks rather awesome! So what on earth do you do next?
You have to read them, but that doesn’t mean sitting down in the morning and reading until you finish the last sentence of the last reference! Unless you’ve got quite a small amount of reading material you probably couldn’t manage this anyway. If you have lots of reading material then you probably wouldn’t remember where you read what. Instead proceed in the following way:
1. Use your essay plan to identify which references relate to which parts of your essay. Put them in piles accordingly. Have another pile for general references if necessary.
2. Start work on one section (pile) and ignore your other references for now.
3. Pick out the most general references – probably text-books and/or reviews – and deal with these first.
4. “Skip-read”, picking out the most relevant parts to read in detail. Make notes from these parts. If you’ve a photocopy you might emphasize useful parts with a highlighting pen (never mark borrowed books).
5. You don’t necessarily want to read all of one paper or book chapter followed by all of the next. If two references use the same example or deal with the same information then read these together. They will never be exactly the same and you’ll be able to build up a more complete picture by using both references, even if you later only include some of the information in your essay.
6. Start to write about the particular section of your essay you’ve chosen to work on (it doesn’t have to be the first part of your essay). Make a record of the references you are using: do not leave this until the end or you’ll find it tedious and difficult, and it’ll take much longer than if you do it now. It’s most efficient to combine steps 5 and 6, until you’ve written something about the particular part of your essay, and have recorded the appropriate references.
7. Move on to another part of your essay, and the next pile of reading material.
Now you’ve done your essay research and started some of the writing. It’s time to consider the
part in more detail!