How to start research at university

Which sources should I use?

when you've finished this page you will be able to...


Researching, or collecting information, is something you'll do a lot of at university; for a start, virtually everything you write will need to be researched first. If you're conducting some original research for a dissertation or project, you'll need to explore sources of information or other research that has been done in this area. Great research attracts great marks, so it's worth honing your research skills. At university, your work is judged heavily on the quality of the research you carry out, and although you'll not be expected to know the answers to all the questions you're asked, but you'll be expected to know how to find out.

Great research skills are not just useful at university either; 'knowledge discovery' skills are needed in a wide range of jobs.

So, what sources of information should you use? You may be used to using the internet to look for information, but at university you'll need to gather information from a far wider range of sources. You'll also need to take a keenly critical approach to all the sources of information you use - especially information you find on the internet.

There is an incredible range of sources of information you can use for research, including...

...and many, many more.

All these sources of information fall into two categories:

Primary information sources are created at the time of the event they relate to. They provide direct information that has not been reinterpreted, or altered. Primary sources are original material that has not been previously published.

Secondary information sources are removed from the event they relate to. They provide information that has been interpreted, analysed or altered in some way.

What is considered as a primary source differs across different disciplines; for example, humanities subjects such as history and English literature would consider diaries, speeches, photographs and plays to be useful primary sources; social scientists might use numerical data sets; natural scientists would consider original research findings to be primary sources.

Secondary sources are also subject specific: historians may consult biographies, social scientists may research from scholarly books, and natural scientists might read review articles.

Activity: primary or secondary sources? - 5 minutes

In this activity, you'll decide whether a source would be considered to be primary or secondary. Warning! Some types of source can be primary and secondary depending on when they were written.

1. For each of the sources described in the table below, decide whether it's primary or secondary. We've done the first one for you.

Source Primary Secondary
The diary of a holocaust survivor
A review article on stem-cell research    
A newspaper report dated April 15 1912 on the sinking of the Titanic    
A newspaper article dated April 15 1962 about the 50 year anniversary of the sinking    
Your course lecture notes    
Census data    
A biochemistry textbook    
A biography of Winston Churchill    
An article reporting experimental results    

How did you do?

Recommended Further Reading

Action point:

If you're provided with reading lists, they are a great place to begin your information search.

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