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Graduate Research: Research Basics

This guide provides resources for graduate students in the midst of thesis or dissertation work here at Florida Tech. Here you will find strategies, best practices, and resources to help with all phases of your research.

The Literature Review

What's your research question?

Your research question drives your entire project, and a thorough literature review can help you to identify persistent problems and current research directions to potentially pursue. Reading the papers published in your area of interest will unveil the principal researchers in your field, which provides a trail to other research by these authors, and might suggest research methods for your own work.

A thorough literature review also demonstrates academic integrity, adding value to your work and to the field as a community. Knowing what others have written before you provides context for your research, and ensures that your results contribute to the body of knowledge.

Be sure to read the future work section of papers for research ideas and, even after you have chosen your research area, keep up with related research.

To perform a literature review...

Your process will evolve according to your own preferences, and you will find yourself repeating and revisiting steps as you get deeper into your research, but typically a literature involves the following steps:

  • Select a research topic - A general starting point is crucial, but you will refine your resarch question as you discover potential problems to be solved or questions to answer. Summon and Google Scholar are excellent tools for basic searching, and your early results can provide keywords, subject terms, and other language that you can add to modifed searches.
  • Search the literature - Choose pertinent databases from the library's A to Z Databases, and retrieve the articles and information that represent seminal research in your discipline, current research being done, and related research in your field or other fields. Pay attention to article bibliographies, which often provide many more relevant articles. Be sure to document your searches and save your citations to RefWorks or another citation management tool like Mendeley.
  • Share with your advisor - When you have collected all relevant articles, share your bibliography with your advisor, who can determine areas needing further support, or branches of relevant research that you had not thought about.
  • Read and analyze - This step encompasses a few parts: initial overview of abstracts and summaries to determine subject areas or subtopics of the research; critical readings to determine relevance to your research question; and analysis of the research that includes writing a very brief note summarizing the key points and contributions of each paper. Notes can be added to RefWorks or Mendeley and shared with your advisor.
  • Write the review - The review is written as a critical evaluation which thoroughly communicates not just an overview of the subject matter, but more importantly the connections among the literature and your understanding of its relevance. 
  • Include a bibliography - The literature review should include citations for each of the works discussed. RefWorks or Mendeley is your friend here, as your lengthy list of citations can be formatted automatically in the style of your choice.

For further reading

Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2009). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Pautasso, M. Ten simple rules for writing a literature review. Ed. Philip E. Bourne. PLoS Computational Biology 9.7 (2013): e1003149.

Managing Data & Documents

Keeping Track

Keeping track of and organizing information collected during research can be a little overwhelming. Organization is crucial in the context of doing research, so that you can save research articles, data, and resources -- and find them again when you need them for your papers. RefWorks or another citation management tool like Mendeley can help you to track and organize citations, and offer built-in note-taking and sharing capabilities.

Basic Organization Tips

Here are some tips to help you organize files and documents so that they are easy to find, whether you store them on your computer hard drive, a removable storage device (USB stick, jump drive), or in an online storage location:

  • Choose a file naming convention that is relevant and easy to remember. One suggestion is to name PDFs of research articles with the primary author's last name and year of publication, for example: wyld2010.pdf. This naming convention also makes formatting in-text citations easy.
  • Name related files with the same prefix if possible, so that files on the same topic are located together when sorted alphabetically. For example: ThesisAnnotations.docx, ThesisBibliography.docx, ThesisFurtherReading.docx.
  • Put related documents in folders and subfolders so they are easily found in some sort of identifiable structure.

Cloud Storage

Save and access information from anywhere on the Internet with cloud computing, or Internet-based storage. Some services that provide storage space that you can access from any Internet-connected browser are EvernoteDropboxAmazon Cloud Drive, and OneDrive. Cloud storage offers several benefits:

  • Storing documents on Internet-based servers provides a backup of your work, so if your hard drive fails, for example, you still have an accessible version of your papers "in the cloud." 
  • Cloud-based documents are accessible from any computer with Internet access, so you can work on your documents at home, school, work, your Aunt Helen's house...and you never have to question whether you are accessing the latest or most correct version. 
  • Cloud storage services typically offer easy ways to share work with others, allowing students to share drafts of their work with professors or mentors, or enabling multiple group members to collaborate on a single document in real time.

Of course, the down side of relying on cloud storage for your important documents is that if the cloud server experiences a problem, there is a chance that you may lose work that cannot be recovered. Privacy and security are also concerns, as putting information "out there" on the Web makes it a bit more susceptible to unauthorized use.

Storing Data 

Storing research data in an open-access repositories provides backup and makes your data sharable and citable! (Remember that data is not copyrightable.) Some resources for finding suitable data repositories to both find and store your data are listed below:

Here's a short video from Google Apps about organizing shared files in Google Drive.

Determining Authority and Context

Though the scholarly resources that you will use to locate literature for your research have largely been reviewed by information professionals to determine authority and validity, often, you will need to evaluate resources yourself. It is important that you ask questions about the source of the information that you will use to determine its authority and relevance.

Chainsawsuit On Research

Evaluating information goes beyond searching Google to confirm that others believe controversial or questionable information, and should involve establishing the authority of the authors or organizations behind the information - why do we accept that this information is valid or true?

Determining Authority

Establishing the authority of the principal information that you will use to support your research is a matter of asking a few questions.

  • What are the credentialsdegrees, and qualifications of the people who wrote the information that you will use to support your research? Search university department websites or faculty profile pages, such as Florida Tech's Faculty Profiles site for credential information.
  • Are the authors subject matter experts in the particular field that they are researching? Have they published similar research in reputable journals? Search the authors' names in a database and evaluating their published research.
  • Is the organization, publisher, or sponsor of the research a reliable source? Why? Is the research sponsored by a reputable organization? How do you know?
  • Is the research solid? Are the methods transparent and scientifically accurate? Is the data interpreted correctly?
  • Ultimately, why do you trust the authors' information about this topic?

Remember that you will often have to do some critical thinking and make your own decisions about authors' reputations, but having some information to back up your opinion is important.

Understanding Context

What is the purpose of the resource? For which audience is the material intended? Read abstracts, introductions, or summaries. Does the author state why the material was written or who will benefit from it? Judging from the content itself, is previous knowledge of the topic or its terminology necessary, or is the material written as a basic introduction to the topic?

Is the information biased? Is it slanted toward a particular, one-sided view? Does the research seem to further a particular agenda beyond strictly providing information? Is the research commercially funded?  If so, and the author represents a commercial or corporate interest, is the material slanted toward getting the reader to change viewpoint or make a purchase?

Is the information comprehensive, or do you also need to consult other resources to gain a balanced view of your topic? If the topic is a controversial issue, are all sides represented?

Establishing Timeliness

Is the information historical or current? Does the timeliness of the resource matter for your intended purpose? If your research involves a rapidly-evolving field, such as nanotechnology, virtual technologies, or genetic modification, you will need to be conscious of publication dates to make sure that you are finding the most current research on your topic. Do older publications provide background information, or are they simply outdated?

Peer-Reviewed Information

Identifying Peer-reviewed Literature

Scholarly research (by professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and researchers around the world) forms the foundation and the building blocks for academic, social, economic, and scientific knowledge. Results of these research endeavors are published, recorded, and preserved in primary and secondary sources such as scholarly journals; conference papers and proceedings; academic, commercial, and government reports; and patents. 

What makes an article peer-reviewed?

The peer-review process begins when authors submit the results of their research to a journal of their choosing. The editorial board then sends the article for blind review (i.e., authors do not know who is reviewing, and reviewers do not know authors' names) by several experts in the very specific field of research represented. Articles may be accepted for publication, returned to the authors for changes before acceptance, or rejected. The process varies a bit among publications and across disciplines, but the expert review ensures that article content is accurate, the science behind it is valid, and that the information provided adds to the body of knowledge -- in essence, it builds on existing research to provide new value.

What does a peer-reviewed article look like? 

NCSU Libraries has put together an interactive anatomy that describes the main sections and characteristics of peer-reviewed articles. Click the image, and then click the parts of the article to read each description.

scholarlyArticle.JPG

Ulrichsweb is a database that can tell you whether or not a journal is peer-reviewed, or refereed. Be careful though, because even when you know a journal is peer-reviewed, not all of the articles within it are. Some may be book reviews, obituaries, editorials, or news items. Recognizing what a peer-reviewed article looks like is helpful in finding the absolute best scholarly information for your own research.

In many Databases available through FIT, there is a search limiting option where you can select scholarly/peer-reviewed journals or articles only.