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Physical Sciences: Researching a Topic

Steps to Researching Your Topic

Here are the basic steps behind finding information. The process is focused on assignments such as literature reviews, research reports, and essays, however these steps can help you for any information seeking task.

  1. Explore your topic - Find related concepts, and keywords for your assignment question. 
  2. Identify required resources - Find out what types of resources you will need. 
  3. Prepare your search - How to set up your search strategy.
  4. Evolve your search - Evolve your search strategy as you find more information. 
  5. Evaluating information - Learn how to tell if a source is credible
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1. Explore Your Topic

The first thing you will need to do when starting your assignment or research project is to explore your topic and identify what you need to look for. 

Depending on your assignment or research type you may be asked to find different sources of evidence from existing literature or supporting publications.

Based around the assignment you are working on what information do you need?  

These are things such as:

  • Definitions of a concept, phenomenon, object, method etc.
  • Evaluation of published research around the topic (e.g. literature reviews)
  • Supporting methods and standards around a process that you are going to undertake or that you are analysing.

Some assignments or reports may require you to look for either a single type or multiple types of evidence. 

e.g. A lab report may require you to:

  • define concepts that are key to the experiment or analysis process. 
  • provide theory or literature behind the experiment.
  • outline standards affecting the methodology.

Look at the assignment brief and rubrics to guide you.

See Starting Assignments and Understanding Marking Rubrics for information on understanding what you need for your assignment. 

 

Once you've identified that you need to find information to support your assignment or topic we need to take apart your question and extract your content words and limiting words

What are the words that define your question (i.e. content)?

What are the limitations that the questions is asking you to use (e.g. look only for Australian information)?

Expand on your content words by creating a logic grid. You can use this method to keep track of your terminology and help you set up your search strategy.

See Keyword Searching in Study Essentials to learn more about content words and the Logic Grid. 

See Starting Assignments in Academic Skills Essentials to learn how to identify these words in your topic question.

Use the Search Strategy Planner to help identify your content or topic terms

Begin by exploring the keywords and concepts that you have identified and use these to find new keywords and related concepts. 

Not everyone will speak the same way so you will need to expand on the keywords that you have. 

You can explore by: 

  • Looking up the concept online
  • Using textbooks on the topic for theories and broad topics around the concepts
  • Going back to your unit lectures and reading material
  • Using encyclopaedias, handbooks, or manuals that are core to your subject. 
  • Using online dictionaries or encyclopedias such as Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a good source for understanding a concept and related key terms however be aware that it cannot be used as a source of information. See our Wikipedia entry for why. 

As you explore add new concepts and related terms to your logic grid.

Once you have the basic understanding behind your research topic you now want to have a look around for (or scope) what research is available for you to use as evidence to support your own work. 

Using the concepts that you have found try doing a basic search on one or two concepts to see what information exists. Look for:

What research is happening?

Have a look to see what active research is happening around one of your concepts.

What subject fields are they coming from?

e.g. "plastic pollution" is being researched in:

 environmental science, pharmacology, social sciences, agriculture, and chemical engineering   

What types of information is out there for you to use?

e.g. "plastic pollution" has data from:

  • Academic research papers
  • Reports from industry (government and private sector)
  • Data and observation records
  • Online news reports
  • (and much more)

Scoping can be done through doing a basic search through searching the Library collection or Google Scholar

2. Identify Required Resources

Depending on what type of research you are doing you will need to identify what resources are key pieces of evidence for your work. 

For an overview of types of resources see Types of Information on Study Essentials

To learn to use the search tools mentioned in this section please see Using Information Sources.

Academic sources are considered to be the top tier of evidence for research. This is information that has been produced by experts in the field. Commonly commercially published through an academic publishing body, these sources undergo a scholarly review process by other experts or "peers" in the subject known as peer-review

"Academic sources" or "scholarly sources" commonly means:

  • Academic journals and journal articles
  • Academically published books

When should I use academic sources?

Use academic sources when you need evidence of recent research that has been done and reviewed in your subject. They are great sources of credible information for research. 

Academic books are good for theories and structured overviews of a subject or topic. Use these to give some background information to your work. 

Academic journal articles and research papers are good for exploring current research and the specific developments of a narrow topic. 

 

Finding academic sources

Access to academic sources are usually controlled by the publisher, either via a single academic journal or an academic publisher who publish a range of journals and books. As a lot of academic resources will require payment to access you can use services that purchase access such as libraries or workplace subscriptions using your student membership. 

To access these resources you can use: 

  • ECU Worldsearch: to search the library catalogue for materials you can access. Worldsearch will also show you what is available at any academic library worldwide. 
  • Scholarly Databases: for subject specific results. Scholarly databases collect journals and academic works based around a specific selection criteria. 
  • Google Scholar: or similar online scholarly search engines to see a wider range of material published online. These however will not guarantee you access to the resource.

See Academic Sources on Using Information Source for more guidance.

See our Search Engines and Library Databases guide to learn more about how search engines and databases work and to find out which search engine or database is right for you.

See Study Essentials: Types of Information for further information about resource types. 

For specific databases that might be useful for your subject see the Academic Resources page. 

Grey literature refers to research, reports and other works not controlled by commercial or academic publishing. 
Grey literature includes:
  • Reports (by government or commercial entities) 
  • Theses
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Technical Standards
  • Government Statistics
  • Datasets
  • Technical documentation and manuals

As these works are published by the company or organisation that produced it the review process for these works are usually done by the organisation itself at varying degrees (from none to extensive review and editing). 

Why use grey literature?

If you are working on something that needs to look at a particular company or group and their business grey literature might be the best source to find this information. 

Information on their day to day functions such as meteorological measurements, wildlife tracking, financial records, or incident tracking are not academically published but rather published in reports that can be found through the websites of whoever is tracking and reporting on it. 

Finding grey literature

To find grey literature you can have a look at the associated organisation or industry websites or repositories. 
 
You can also search Google for reports or web-documents by filtering for PDF documents on organisation websites. To do this add the following search restrictions to your search string:
For file type restrictions: Filetype:__ (e.g. Filetype:PDF )
For site restrictions: site: site:___ (e.g. site:.gov.au or site:.org)
See the Google Advanced Searching section for more search functions
You can search for science and technology literature in search engines such as:
For more information on grey literature see our Grey Literature guide or visit: 
 
See the Industry Resources page for a selection of professional organisations in your subject field and a selection of subject relevant grey literature. 

For some information they will only be published directly to an online webpage. 

Online sources can include:

  • Online news media and current affairs
  • Organisation information and descriptions.
  • Media releases and press conferences
  • Blog posts and company statements 
  • Social media and public forums

Why use websites and online sources

Information about a company may only be produced on their about webpage, recent incidents may not have had enough time to receive a formal report, and public opinion may not be officially published but rather be presented online through blog posts or forum discussions. Use websites to find this information where needed.

Be careful when using online sources

When using online sources these are not (most of the time) reviewed by other experts. As these can be produced and published by a single person or organisation they will require additional checking for quality. See our Evaluating Information section to find out how to judge the reliability of online sources. 

A lot of factual information on websites will also be secondary or tertiary sources. Ideally when doing research you want to use primary or academically published research when providing evidence to your statements. 

Types of websites

When using websites you can at times identify the purpose of the site by its domain. Some domains are restricted to a certain type of service. 

.com - are for commercial websites (anyone can register for this domain)

.edu - are for educational institutions (e.g. ecu.edu.au)

.gov - are for government organisations (e.g. wa.gov.au)

For country based websites these may use their respective country code as the next level domain in the web address. If you want to find something from Australia look for .au in the domain name for Australian based websites.

When looking for government or education information you can do a site search for these domains to restrict your results to just educational (.edu) or Australian (.au) websites. 

Be aware that not all government or educational institutions may have registered for a .gov or .edu domain so remember to search broadly as well. 

See the Google Scholar section for how to restrict these using Google. 

See Industry Resources for a selection of websites and organisations that are related to your subject area. 

Based on the information you have gotten through exploring and scoping out the topic concepts you can now decide what types of resources you will need to look for. 

Here are some topics for a quick example:

Looking at an essay on an aspect of Physics or Chemistry the information may come from:

  • Experimental data
  • Observational data
  • Theoretical research

Information sources can be:

  • Academic research articles and textbooks (Academic Sources)
  • Datasets and measurements (Academic Sources/Grey Literature)
  • Outputs from laboratories or research facilities (Grey Literature/Academic Sources)

For a topic on a recent malware attack on a company the information would be:

  • Details about the malware
  • Incident reports 
  • Consequences of the attack

Information sources can be:

  • Cyber security analysis on the malware (Grey Literature)
  • Research articles (Academic or Industry) on the breach methodology (Academic Sources/Grey Literature)
  • News articles reporting on the events unfolding (Websites and Online Sources: News sites)
  • Company statements and reports on the fallout (Websites and Online Sources: Media statements or blog posts)

 

3. Prepare Your Search

Once you've identified what concepts you are looking for and where you're going to get your evidence from you will need to structure it in a way to match the medium that you are going to be searching in. 

Academic sources and grey literature may require you to structure your search so that it can be done on a database. 

You can prepare your search based around the concept terms that you have found through exploring your topic. 

As powerful as search engines are, there are ways to improve your use of them. 

Most Search engines (including Google and Bing) allow you to use similar search syntax as Library Databases use. This gives you advanced search tools such as: Boolean operators (AND / OR / NOT), Phrase search (using "quote marks"), Grouped searches (using (parentheses)), Wildcards (*), etc.

Search engines and databases may also come with an advanced search function. This will allow you to control your input and specify where to search for the information in the source. 

Different Search engines offer different options, and may use different symbols or functions for the same functions.

 

Boolean operators

Use these to link search terms together. These will make your search result return results with a combination of key words. 

Boolean Search Operators: AND / OR / NOT

 

Quotation marks

These are to link two or more words in your search:

Cyber Bullying = Will search for Cyber AND Bullying

"Cyber Bullying" = Will search for the phrase Cyber Bullying 

 

Truncation and wild cards

This symbol tells the search engine or database to look for anything as long as it starts with or ends with these letters. Usually indicated with an * (asterisk). This may be different depending on your search engine or database

Environment* = Environmental, Environment, Environments, Environmentalist etc..

See the Search Engines and Library Databases: Advanced Search for more details.

If you are not getting a lot of results for your topic or if you are getting too many try broadening or narrowing your search.

Searching broadly

Broad searching is useful if you want to look at your whole concept and identify related ideas. It is useful to search broadly if:

  • you are not sure of the concept
  • you want more connecting ideas or related concepts
  • you are not getting a lot of results

Searching narrowly

Narrow searching is when you need to the opposite and look at a specific range of subjects. It is useful if:

  • you are getting too many results
  • the results are too generalised.

You can use your search strategy to narrow or broaden your search. Here are how to use the basic elements to broaden or narrow your results:

Technique Broad Narrow
Keywords General Terms Specific Terms
Boolean OR And/Not
Quotations   Binding Words                              
Truncation Related/Root Words                                    

 

4. Evolve Your Search

As you find more information and read further into your research topic you will find that your concepts will be added to or an information thread may change based on the research that has been found. 

Your search string is never perfect the first time that you've created it. Keep updating the search based around what new information you have found. 

If you aren't getting relevant results

Revisit your exploration of your topic. Try using new keywords and concepts. Based around the results in your current search that you think are relevant have a look at what keywords stand out to you as being "relevant". 

If your results aren't going into enough depth

Try a different source. Try seeing if the topic has publications in industry reports (Grey Literature) if you can't find any information in Academic articles. 

You also may be searching too broadly. Try using more specific keywords.  

5. Evaluating Information

When finding information for your assignment you want to make sure you have credible, reliable, and relevant resources. 

Depending on the depth, topic, subject, and audience of the research you will need to assess each source for both its reliability and its usefulness to you in your research. 

To do this here we'll introduce you to two tests of critical evaluation: 

The CRAAP test for academic and general information sources.

The AACODS test for grey literature and ambiguous works.  

By no means are these a pass/fail test for information. As the usability of a source is subjective to your project or assignment what you would consider "good to use" may be different between doing a scientific report (factually checked academic works) versus doing a report on an incident or event (news reports, company statements, and public reactions). 

The CRAAP test can be used to assess most academic and general information sources that you would encounter. Here are a couple of questions on each of the aspects that the test looks into that you should ask yourself when assessing a source of information for use in your assignment or research project.

  • Currency: 
    • When was the information published?
    • Do you need a recent article to discuss your topic?
  • Relevance: 
    • Does this information relate to your topic?
    • Does it help answer your question?
  • Authority:
    • Is the author and publisher qualified to talk about the topic? 
    • Is the source (website/publisher) someone who publishes on the topic (e.g. Textbook publisher or Journal on the topic)? 
  • Accuracy: 
    • Does the information that is presented have supporting evidence?
    • Where have they gotten their evidence from? Is that source reliable too?
  • Purpose:
    • Why is the information published?
    • Are there any motivations to publish this information other than to inform?
    • Is the information presented objectively?

Be aware of filter bubbles and fake news. Use this page to learn more about how to identify online bias and bubbles: 

For more questions in the CRAAP test as well as an example assessment see the following document

The AACODS test is designed to assess Grey Literature which can undergo a different publication and review process to academically published literature. 

The focus of the AACODS test therefore includes assessment of the organisations and structure of the information as it can come in various forms from Executive Reports to Datasets. 

Authority

  • Is the Individual Author professionally qualified on the topic?
  • Is the Organisation reputable?
  • Does it come with evidence (reference list)?

Accuracy

  • Has the source stated their aims and methodology for the information (where applicable)? Have they followed through on these?
  • Does it provide a full representation of the field?
  • Has it been reviewed (peer-reviewed or industry reviewed)?

Coverage

  • If it has excluded information or is biased do they provide a reason?
  • Do they adhere to established limitations or methodology?

Objectivity

  • Is it written objectively or does the author have a standpoint in the discussion?
  • Has the author established their assumptions, opinions, and biases if it is a biased discussion?

Date

  • Has the source provided a date of publication?
  • If not is there a valid reason?

Significance

  • Does the information contribute to the subject field of research?
  • Is the information significant to your research?

(Adapted from Tyndall, 2010)

Keeping Track of Your Research

Keep track of what you find as you look for information. Articles that you find that are not useful right now may be useful in the future. As you read more into your research topic you may find that something you have found in the past might now contribute to your discussion. 

Know how to properly track your readings. You can write them down, bookmark them, note them down as you are taking notes, or save them to a reference manager such as EndNote. 

For guides on how to read and take notes effectively see: Academic Skills Essentials - Reading and Notetaking.

For guides on how to save a record of your reading as well as organise your research using EndNote see: EndNote

Further Reading

Here are some resources and reading that you can do to help with your searching and research process. If you would like more information than what is provided here you can take advantage of these resources.

Research Planners and Tip Sheets

Other Guides

Research Skills