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Professional Science Essentials: Researching a topic

This page is for students studying Professional Science Essentials, SCI1125.

Getting started with researching a topic

This guide will take you through the basic process of finding quality data and information for your assignment. 

To begin please have a go at the modules on Study Essentials. These will introduce you to: 

The following guide will take you through the research process and help point you to resources that may be of use to you in your assignment or project. 

If you need any assistance with these tools, please visit the further assistance page.

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To start researching your assignment topic you want to first know how to take apart your question into its key concepts. Before beginning your research go through the following steps to take apart your question:

  1. Read through your assignment question and identify the keywords and key concepts that the question is asking for. See the Starting Assignments guide for steps to do this.
  2. Take out your keywords and key concepts and expand on these terms using additional synonyms or related concepts. See the Keyword Searching guide for more information.
  3. Identify what sources you need to use to support your answer. Assess whether Academic Resources, Grey Literature or Websites are the best resource to provide evidence for your assignment or research topic.

To find information resources such as academic journal articles, books/eBooks, reports and other data for your assignments try using:

For grey literature or websites and online resources you will need to do an online search.

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. 

If you need to refine your search visit out Starting Your Assignment Or Research section for steps and resource guides to how to break apart your assignment question or research topic. 

See Study Essentials - Finding Information for an additional overview on searching for resources, and Study Essentials - What is information? for a quick overview on the different types and aspects of information out there. 



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 do, giving you advanced searching tools such as: "Boolean" operators (AND / OR / NOT), "Phrase searching" (using "quote marks"), Grouped searches (using (parentheses)), Wildcards, etc.

Different Search engines offer different options, and may use different symbols 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 


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.

Google and Google Scholar has a range of key-term search operators that they use to limit their results. You can use these to help find what you need. All the basic Boolean Operators and Search Strategy functions work in Google as well. Refer to the Search Strategy section above for the basics. 

Basic Search Operators

Spaces between words work like AND.  

Include a - (minus sign) in place of NOT

Result Type Limiters

Function Usage Examples
allintitle: Only searches the title for keywords

allintitle:Marine biochemistry

  • Will only return articles with Marine AND Biochemistry in its title
site: Searches for a particular website or type of URL

  • Only returns results from .gov websites

  • Only returns results from
filetype: Searches for results of a certain filetype


  • Only returns PDF files. 
  • Will also result in inaccessible files from publishers. 
Source: Searches the source information. You can use this to search for results from certain Journals or Publishers

source:"Taylor & Francis"

  • Returns results that are from the publisher Taylor & Francis

source:"Journal of Applied Ecology"

  • Returns results that are from the Journal of Applied Ecology

See Google - Refine web searches for more search functions.


Set your Preferences in Google Scholar to set up the  Findit@ECU link to full text available via ECU Library. This link will let you navigate to an accessible copy of articles found on Google Scholar. 

To learn more about Google Scholar and institution filters visit:

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

Ask yourself the following questions to see if it will suit your use:

  • 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 grey literature and more ambiguous sources use the AACODS test for additional aspects of critical evaluation of non-academic sources. 

Evaluating News Sources

Visit the News and Current Affairs library guide to get an overview on how to spot "fake news" and evaluate the news media that you have found. 

Writing down and conveying your ideas, deductions, or thoughts is a difficult but vital skill to have when it comes to creating an assignment or piece of research. Here are some resources that can help you understand the basics of writing in science and how to structure and present your assignment or research piece.


If you are unsure of how to structure your assignment visit our Academic Skills Essentials guide for outlines of how to structure your assessment or report:

Visit the Academic Skills Centre Blackboard for general writing skills and workshops on a range of communications and research workshops:

Scientific Writing

If you are struggling to convey technical ideas or arguments in your assignment have a read of these titles for some insight to writing like a scientist:

Referencing is providing credit to all the information that you have used to create your assignment, research report, presentation, or any other work. It is a structured way of showing the evidence that was used to form your conclusion in your work. 

Structure is important in referencing. Referencing is a technical skill that is governed by a referencing style. We use APA 7th referencing style at ECU. This controls how you show what you used from other sources (in-text citations), and how you tell other people where to get the information (end-text reference). 

To begin to understand referencing watch our 3 short videos introducing you to how to reference found on our referencing guide: 

Our referencing guide will give you a lot more detail on the style and elements of your reference:


Academic Journals are publications of current research articles specific to a topic or subject field. They are published periodically throughout the year, gathering current research in their respective fields. Academic Journals are sometimes peer-reviewed meaning research published in them have been reviewed by other experts in the subject. These make for a more reliable source of information. 

Databases are a searchable collection of academic journal articles. Some databases also contain newspaper articles, research papers, book chapters, TV clips and other types of information. Databases are used to find information that has been recently published and includes peer-reviewed articles of academic quality. If your assignment asks you to find scholarly articles, you can find some by searching a database.

Citation Indexes are databases which collect citation and abstract information on articles, journals, books and other works. These are useful to find well cited, high impact works. Citation indexes range from those that look at specific subjects, filtered peer-reviewed works, or all works out in the world in general. Use our citation indexes to find high impact articles, and check for their availability through ECU. 

How do you find them?

ECU subscribes to many databases, some of these are subject specific while others are multi-disciplinary.

In your subject guide there is a list of the most relevant databases for your subject field available under the Databases and Journals page. 

Check for Peer Reviewed works or see the citation rankings of various journals use:

Your Reading List is the material that your lecturer requires or recommends for you to read in your unit. 

Sign into BlackBoard and select a unit. In your unit on the menu is Library Links and/or Reading Lists - click on this to view the reading materials for the unit.

If the material is not available for download or linked, you can use the information on a reading list to find the text via ECU Library.

To find the exact reading material on the list take the title of the work that you are looking for and put "quotation marks" around the title in the search bar.

E.g. "Scientific Writing: Thinking in words"

Grey literature refers to research, reports and other works not controlled by commercial or academic publishing. It consists of information not formally released commercially usually targeted at their practicing audience. Grey literature however is a good source of current data, research or proceedings from organisations, being released rapidly usually by the producing organisation. Due to this grey literature is usually not subjected to peer-review.  
Grey literature includes:
  • Reports (by government or commercial entities) 
  • Thesis
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Technical Standards
  • Government Statistics
  • Datasets
  • Technical & Commercial documentation
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. or
See the Google Advanced Searching section for more search functions
For more information on grey literature see our Grey Literature guide or visit: 

Open access works are works that are released with non-commercialised access (no subscription or payment for access) and ability to be freely read, downloaded, printed and distribute (Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, 2019). Open access works can be usually found in open access repositories, or through databases or journals which allow for open access works.

To know if a work or a journal is open access look for this symbol: Open Access Logo

For more information on open access:

Australasian Open Access Strategy Group


Wikipedia is a useful tool for surface level information. However when it comes to the search for reliable and credible information it falls short. Here are the key things that you need to know if you're considering using Wikipedia and the information that is found on it. 

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an online free encyclopedia. The key aim of Wikipedia is to create a collaborative collection of knowledge in which anyone in the world can contribute to and expand (Wikipedia, 2020d). The information presented in the articles of Wikipedia are recommended to be written from a neutral point-of-view with no original research (Wikipedia, 2020b). Edits in Wikipedia are generally requested to have verifiable sources cited for each one of the points presented (Wikipedia, 2020b, 2020c). 

Why is it not a reliable source?

A reliable source is one where you can verify where and who the information is coming from. We use the CRAAP test to assess for reliable sources. Here is Wikipedia if we apply the CRAAP test:

  • Currency: When was the article published?

✅A lot of the articles are frequently updated and kept current.

  • Relevancy: Does it relate to your topic?

✅Each page can be narrowly focused on its main topic it allows for the relevancy of the article to be easily matched to your assignment topic. 

  • Authority: Is the author or publisher qualified to talk about the topic? 

❌Who the authors or editors of that particular entry is unknown. Authors and editors can remain anonymous when editing entries into Wikipedia (Wikipedia, 2020b). As a reader you cannot verify who the authorities are. 

❌The only influence that the publisher (Wikipedia) claims to have is a restriction on selected pages to the administrators only for the sake of preventing vandalism (Wikipedia, 2020e). They themselves are not an authority behind topics published on Wikipedia.

  • Accuracy: Does the information have supporting evidence? Where have they gotten their evidence from?

❌There is a lack of scholarly evidence provided for some Wikipedia entries. It is recommended to find information which the supporting evidence are also from a reliable sources.  

  • Purpose: Why is the information published?

❌In academic assignments and works it is recommended to cite primary sources of research, observations, or studies. Wikipedia articles are all written as sources of no original research (Wikipedia, 2020a). This means that all of the statements of ideas presented in these articles have been taken from somewhere else, making the entire article a secondary source.

Okay but can I use Wikipedia?

The use of encyclopedias to provide context, definitions, and related topics is not one that is academically discouraged. The purpose of encyclopedias and other reference works such as dictionaries, handbooks, or manuals are as useful tools to create understanding of a word, phrase, subject, or concept.

This is where Wikipedia comes in. 

Use Wikipedia for:

  • Related concepts - If you are doing an assignment to explore a topic (literature reviews, essays, reports) you need to be able to look at related topics. Use Wikipedia as an encyclopedia to explore the related topics around your assignment. 
  • Key words - When forming your search strategy to find academic works you need to know the language and key words that are commonly used. Use the language and related terms from encyclopedias to expand on your search string. 
  • Understanding - You can also use Wikipedia for getting a basic overview of your topic. Keep in mind that the article may not be written by an expert. Consider using your textbooks to verify any claims that are found on Wikipedia. 



Wikipedia. (2020a, July 29). Wikipedia:No original research.

Wikipedia. (2020b, August 3). Help:Editing

Wikipedia. (2020c, September 20). Wikipedia:Core content policies.

Wikipedia. (2020d, September 21). Wikipedia:About.

Wikipedia. (2020e, September 22). Wikipedia:Protection policy.