By Gordon Rugg
In a previous article, I looked at some issues that affect how and why finding the right academic references can be difficult. In today’s article, I’ll look at how to set about finding those references, beginning with the familiar problem of reading lists.
Some lecturers supply reading lists; others don’t.
Reading lists can be very comforting, because someone else has already done the thinking for you, and has told you what you need to know. There’s also the nice implicit message that you only need to know what’s on that list, so there’s a limit to the work ahead.
It’s a comforting feeling while it lasts, but there’s usually a small voice at the back of your mind asking what will happen when you leave university and enter a world where nobody is likely to give you a reassuring list of the things that you need to know.
Which brings us back to the lecturers who don’t supply reading lists, and who expect you to find information for yourself, with only a few words of guidance, such as “Weber’s work on bureaucracies is the place to start” or “Good question; that’s a classic sociotechnical problem”.
Where do you go from that sort of start? Your friendly librarians will usually be very happy to give you good advice about how to locate information online, and often, that advice will find you exactly what you want. However, there are some other quick and dirty methods that you might find useful. They’re what this article is about.
Getting an initial overview
One thing you need to do right at the start is to get an overview of the key concepts that the topic involves – for instance, the key points about Weber’s work. You’ll need to discover things such as who he was, what he did, why he mattered, and what significance his work has today.
Just searching on Google and trusting to luck isn’t a wise strategy. Here’s why.
If you search on Google for who really built the pyramids? about half the hits on the first page will tell you it was aliens. That answer wouldn’t get you far on an archaeology assessment.
So how can you find a trustworthy overview of the key concepts in reasonably accessible language?
The lectures themselves are often a good source of key concepts in reasonably accessible language. That’s one advantage of going to lectures; the lecturer will usually explain the key concepts described briefly on the slides. You’ll miss those explanations if you skip the lectures and read the lecture notes when they go online.
The lectures won’t cover everything – there are just too many relevant related topics – but they’re a good start.
Wikipedia is often a good place to start, but a bad place to stop. Some Wikipedia introductions are excellent and trustworthy. Others are excellent but not completely trustworthy, as a result of hit-and-run wikivandals; I once read a Wikipedia article about an ancient Roman senator which claimed that he was married to Marilyn Manson. Another problem is that some Wikipedia articles are far too advanced to be much use to a beginner. So, you need more strategies.
Your friends, 101 and .edu
Another useful starting place is introductory lectures. The traditional code for the introductory lecture on a topic at universities in the USA is 101, as in Business 101. The usual domain name for universities in the USA is .edu.
Here’s an example of that approach applied to statistics.
It’s picked up the introductory stats courses at Harvard and Yale, which are as respectable as most people could ask for.
So, if you search for your chosen topic plus 101, and then look at the .edu sites in particular, you’ve got a sporting chance of finding a clear introduction to the key points in reasonably accessible language. The part about .edu is important, because the 101 part has now become part of everyday language in the USA, and is often used humorously or as a term for any introductory article, whether in a university or not. Here’s an example that probably won’t feature in many university courses.
So, the 101 tip is well worth a try, but won’t always work.
Trying to read an introductory book on a topic isn’t always the best place to start; books are long, and will often drown you in detail, even if they’re relevant and trustworthy.
More often, a single chapter in a book is a better place to start. For instance, if you find a book about organisational theory that contains a chapter about Weber and bureaucracies, that’s probably going to be much more manageable in terms of length and amount of detail than an entire book about Weber and bureaucracies.
If you’re trying to find out the essentials about how to do something, such as using a particular method, then it’s worth trying a search for “tutorial article” in inverted commas, plus your chosen topic. Tutorial articles typically appear in academic journals, where they’ll go through a review process that means they’ll probably be of reasonable quality.
Here’s an example.
Another option is to search for introduction plus your chosen topic. This has the disadvantage that what it finds will vary considerably in trustworthiness and quality, but if you use reasonable judgment, you have a fair chance of finding something good.
As with the previous approaches, these won’t always work, but they’re well worth a try.
This article is about getting a quick overview of key concepts. The methods I’ve described are quick and dirty, and useful for a swift initial overview. For getting properly into a detailed understanding of a topic, however, you’ll need a bigger toolkit.
In the next article, I’ll look at how to get a quick overview of the key publications and key findings in an area, so that you can do your literature review more swiftly, efficiently and well. If you’re wondering where Google Scholar and bibliographic databases and so forth fit into the story, the answer is that they will appear in the next instalment of this series.