Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting the most out of bibliographic databases

Oh, the soaring boringness of that title. But some careful attention to this part of the process will pay off later in a big way. You've found your way to Web of Science. What now?

Web of Science is part of Web of Knowledge, which also contains lots of other bibliographic databases (they're listed here, in the Web of Science factsheet, which gives the official info on how the system works). A bibliographic database is essentially a massively searchable list of scholarly articles, books, chapters, etc. So what I have to say about Web of Science (the database I am most familiar with) should be mostly applicable to whatever database is relevant to your own discipline.

Here's the basic Web of Science search screen (if you can't get this far, you need to go back to last week's post):

You'll see from the above image that you have got three basic search boxes. Each one can be assigned differently (you can change that 'Topic' to 'Author', for example, using the drop-down menu). Say you're writing an essay on the evolution on the human female body shape, as some of my students are doing this term. Just type some or all of those words into the 'Topic' search box, and hit 'Search'. You're away.

When I did that just now, I got 104 relevant results. How am I to know which of these articles is important? Well, I can use the other search boxes to limit my search in various ways. Use the 'Year Published' criterion to pick a particular date or date range. Back in the 'Topic' box, try putting female body shape in double quotes, so that only items containing that exact phrase are returned. 

You've ended up with a list of articles on your topic. The next step is to sort that results list. Look for the 'Sort by' drop-down menu at the top right. This will allow you to sort by date, by relevance, and various other criteria. Possibly the most useful of all is the option to sort by 'Times Cited'. You'll remember that a citation is where one article references another article. This is handy because it allows us to sort our results list according to the number of such references our articles have had. If number of citations is an indicator of how important an article is (debatable, but probably largely true), you have got an instant way of arranging your results list by order of importance, with the most highly cited (most influential) articles at the top.

Now start exploring those items in your results list. Each article in the list will include a live link which takes you to the record for that article. That record will look something like this:

There are several important live links embedded in this screen. Right under the title you'll see the names of the authors. These are clickable, and lead to a separate results list for each author—a list of all the other things they've published. As scientists tend to stick to the same areas, it's highly likely that your author will have written other relevant things on the topic. Click on him/her, and then sort the results by 'Times Cited'. Then you'll find out what your author is really famous for.

Just below the author names, you've got links for Times Cited and References. These lead to lists of which papers have cited this particular article (Times Cited) and which papers this article itself cites (References). Explore both of these to follow the trail in different directions. You'll also see some details on citing articles in the blue box to the right of the screen.

Now it's time to actually read something. You've decided that you like the look of this article, and you want to track it down (preferably through e-journals, so that you don't have to traipse to the library). The Connexions button, right under the title, will tell you immediately what access you have to that article, and will hopefully take you right to it. If Connexions doesn't work, go back into the library catalogue and search E-journals. Failing that, the library may have a paper copy of the journal, so you'll need to get your shoes on.

Web of Science can of course do much more than this. Do you remember the name of an author mentioned in the lecture, but no other details? Search on the name using the 'Author' search box, and add in a keyword in the 'Topic' box. Make use of the fact that Web of Science is updated every week to find the very latest articles in your topic area. Use the 'Add to Marked List' tool to keep track of the articles that look interesting (retrieve your list at any time by clicking on 'Marked List' at the top). Keep an eye out for recent review articles (comprehensive reviews of a topic published in journals such as Psychological Bulletin, Annual Review of Psychology or Developmental Review). These will give you an expert review of the topic which should be a valuable way of directing your reading.

Using these tools wisely will mean that you should be able to include lots of relevant references that go beyond the info in your lecture notes. And that, as we saw last week, is a Good Thing.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Researching your topic

Sign at the GoogleplexImage via Wikipedia
'Where's my reading list?' I hear you ask. 'How am I supposed to write this dumb essay if I don't know what books to read?'

Well, that's kind of the point. Remember that learning outcome from last week? Students passing this module should be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence. You're being assessed on your ability to track down, all by yourself, the stuff you need to write this essay. It's a major part of the task. So here are a few tips.

1. Use technology
In my day (yawn), we used to have to traipse to the university library and root through dusty old journals to find the articles we wanted. Then they would have to be photocopied (which we always imagined was a pretty good substitute for actually reading them). Now, of course, we have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. You can use the internet to access your own library's catalogue (including online resources), but you can also access the catalogues of libraries all over the world—some of which may not actually be all that far away. You can look at some of the excellent science blogs that are out there. And you can access numerous books that have been put online through Google Books and other projects.

2. Wean yourself off Wikipedia
I use Wikipedia all the time. It's a great place to start finding out about a topic, and much of it is good, reliable, well-researched material. But make sure it is only a starting point, and be very selective. To meet Wikipedia's editorial standards, articles are supposed to have proper references and further links at the bottom. If you don't see these, or if you see warnings about the article's reliability, take what you read there with a pinch of salt and move on.

3. Get smart with Google
Many of these warnings apply to Google and other search engines. Proceed with caution, and be wise to what Google can do. You probably already know that Google has some specific tools such as Google Scholar, which can be great for finding academic references and which also gives information on how often an article has been cited on the internet. It doesn't stop there, though. Google's Options feature allow you to choose to search only blogs, for example, or to order results by the date in which they appeared, or to restrict the time range of a search.

4. Make friends with a database
Wikipedia and Google are only the appetizers for your research feast, and many of your lecturers would prefer that you got straight on to the main course. This will involve a pig-out on the main bibliographic databases for your discipline, such as Web of Science. Your library's online catalogue should give you an easy link to these (in Durham, choose Databases from the main library homepage; Web of Science can be found as part of Web of Knowledge). The possibilities of these databases are endless, and, if used properly, they can be incomparable research tools. So much so that I'm inspired to do an entire post on this topic next week.

5. Go beyond the lecture material
You probably won't have a specific reading list for your essay, but you will have some relevant references on the topic from your lectures. These are likely to be important, high-quality articles carefully selected for their academic qualities. But they should not satisfy you. If you only write about the research your lecturer has told you about, you will have failed to demonstrate a key academic skill: the capacity for self-directed research. Use the lecture materials as a jumping-off point for looking at what else the authors of those articles have written, for example, or checking what other studies have cited the articles mentioned.

6. Use primary material
You will get credit for showing that you have found your own research material, but you will further impress your markers if can show that you have been to primary sources. By primary sources, I mean journal articles, edited research volumes, and monographs (the term given to academic books usually with one or two authors). In other disciplines, materials such as historical documents, letters and original texts will count as primary sources. Textbooks count as secondary material. You might initially learn about a study through a textbook, but as long as you go on to read the actual article, you can count it as a primary source. The more evidence you can give that you have worked from primary rather than secondary sources, the more impressive your essay will look.

7. Keep it fresh
Your lecturer is probably a lonely individual who last saw real life some time in the 1980s. Use your essay as an opportunity to tell him or her about what is new. I know that I myself feel a tingle of excitement when I read an undergraduate essay that includes references to articles published that year, or to things that are still in press (accepted for publication but not yet actually published). The bibliographic databases mentioned above will help you to keep up with the very latest research, as will blogs and news channels such the BBC. (With blogs and news sites, make sure you read the actual articles, or else be clear that you are using material garnered from a secondary source.) Don't overdo it, though, in your quest for modernity. 'Classic' articles are classic for a reason: because they have stood the test of time and made a real contribution to the discipline. A good balance between the venerable and the edgy is the thing to aim for.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Those pesky learning outcomes

Last time we asked why the essay has become a perennial favourite as a way of assessing students' knowledge. Now that you know what the enemy is, the next thing to ask is what criteria you are being assessed on. This is where you go back to your module handbook and remind yourself of the learning outcomes for your course. Learning outcomes don't make for exciting reading (believe me, they're even more boring to write) but they are essential in showing what is expected from students taking a course. Lecturers keep them in mind when they are deciding what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what has been learned. If you want to impress your marker, show that you have taken this information on board.

For example, I'm teaching a course this year called The Science of Consciousness. Here are the learning outcomes for this module (stay awake at the back):
Subject-specific knowledge: Students passing this module should be able to explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically, and describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients.
Subject-specific skills: Students passing this module should be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence; adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them; and interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work.
Now, these few lines of pedagogical mumbo-jumbo have just told you exactly what you have to do pass—nay, get an excellent mark on—this module. When we are marking the summative assignments (essays) for this course, my colleagues and I will be looking for evidence of the knowledge and skills described here. Your job in the essay, then, is to show this evidence.

This is not just about knowing how to please the people who are assessing you (although we like to be pleased, of course). An essay that demonstrates these kinds of knowledge and skills will be a good essay. It will be a scientific essay (explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically) rather than an aimless ramble about things that have interested you. It will be based on scientific theory and findings (describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients) rather than just being about casual observations. It will show signs of diligent research (be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence) as well as the ability to say whether the evidence described is any good or not (interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work). And it will recognise that science is unfinished business—that there are different points of view which deserve fair hearings, and which will be supported by some existing, and some yet-to-be-discovered, facts (adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them).

Every course has its learning outcomes; they will not all be the same as these. (In other disciplines, they may look very different). But they are always there, and they are calling to you: Pay attention to me, and I will show you what you have to do. 
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

What is an essay and why has it come here to bother me?

You've been asked to write a 1500-word essay. You've panicked, moaned to your friends about the unfairness of it all, cried on the phone to your mum, and now it's time to do some work. What is expected of you?

An essay is an argument in words. The 'words' bit of this definition is easy to understand, but the 'argument' part is more slippery. When you are asked to write an essay at university level, you are not being asked simply to regurgitate some facts. You are being asked to organise those facts in making an argument. That means putting forward a point of view which is based on evidence. In the social sciences, that usually means some kind of empirical findings: the kinds of knowledge that come from people doing experiments, conducting surveys or carrying out observations. Your own point of view might well be an important part of your essay (as we'll see in a later post), but at some point in the process it has to be backed up by facts.

I'll be talking more about how to use evidence in making an argument in later posts. We'll also be talking about researching a topic, structuring an essay, working within word limits, considering points of view, and turning a stylish phrase. I'll end this post by asking you to ponder why this thing has been sent to bother you. Why do academics want to spend their time ploughing through reams of paragraphs when they could be finding out what you know through multiple-choice exams? The answer is that essays are not only a great way of finding out what you know, but also of testing how you can use that information in communicating your knowledge and creating new knowledge. A fact in isolation might raise a nod of appreciation; a fact in the service of an argument is a beautiful thing.

Durham students can find more useful information (including feedback sheets, sample essays, notes on referencing style) on duo at Psychology Undergraduate Information > Course Information > General Programme Information > Guidance on essay writing and referencing. 

There is also plenty of useful online information about essay-writing: see the links on the right. You may also want to try and track down the following books:

Smythe, R.T. (1996). Writing in psychology: A student guide. New York: Wiley.
Rosnow, R.L., &  Rosnow, M. (2001). Writing papers in psychology. London: Wadsworth.

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