Types of research

Primary research involves collecting original data for subsequent analysis. This could involve building prototypes, conducting experiments, or designing and carrying out surveys, focus groups, or interviews, for example. 

Secondary research is researching the ideas and contributions – the primary research – of others, usually by reading books and journal articles (sometimes known as literature review). 

Quantitative research involves analysis using statistical techniques with numerical data, while qualitative research involves analysis of more word-based, subjective data. The types of research that you will do as a student will depend on your course and the stage you are at in your studies.

Starting your research

Before you begin any piece of research, make sure that you have a clear understanding of:

  • The due date for your research
  • The size of the research (for example, the word count, if any)
  • The research question that you are trying to answer or the hypothesis that you are testing
  • The scope of the research (for example, what time span, countries, or age groups should be included? How much detail is required?)
  • The methodology that you are expected to use (for example, are you conducting primary or secondary research? Will you conduct a literature review or a series of experiments?)
  • Key words and terms:Referring back to these will help you to stay focused. Use brainstorming or mind mapping techniques if you find them helpful.
  • Key theorists or publications:in most areas of research, there are a few ‘giants’ or milestone contributions. Make sure to consult and to reference these.

You can find out more about how to conduct an effective search in this online All Aboard tutorial on systematic searching. Check out the Research ethics section of the Academic Skills Hub as well to ensure that you are conducting and using your research honestly and fairly. 

Research Strategies

We live in an information-rich world, and you’re probably using information tools (like Google) to navigate day-to-day life, as well as for educational purposes. Having access to vast amounts of information at the touch of a button or click of a mouse can both help and hinder your academic research. The sheer volume of available information can be overwhelming at times.

Doing research at university will involve building on many skills that you already have. In particular, you will learn to approach information in a critical way, and to work with new types of information sources and new tools to discover, locate, absorb and use appropriate information.

Here are five key research strategies for ensuring that your research stays focused and relevant and is completed to a high standard. 

1.  Consult a wide variety of sources

 When you begin your research, cast a wide net in order to get a feel for the range and scope of your subject area. Google and Wikipedia can be useful starting points for getting a handle on your research topic, but you must exercise caution about the quality of the information that you gather from these sources.

Websites are not enough: most serious academic research requires consulting and referencing books and specialised academic journals. The majority of academic research is published in these forms. See the section on Reading and note-making  and our top-tips for academic reading for more on using these resources. Your gateway to research published in books (or e-books) and academic journal articles is the Library catalogue, searchable via the Library’s homepage. Check out any of the discipline- or subject-specific Library Guides for short videos on how to find books and journal articles. You can also try Google’s special tool for discovering scholarly information, called Google Scholar.

Depending on the discipline, you may also need to find information in government reports and other publications, the popular press (newspapers and magazines), or think-tanks, for example. Much of this information is also available via the library catalogue. Again, see your discipline or subject-specific Library Guide for more information on the types of sources that you might find yourself using in your area of study. Aim for a rich and varied bibliography or list of references at the end of your research.

2.  Be patient and stay focused

Research is a slow and laborious process. A ‘rookie’ mistake is to alight on the first seemingly relevant piece of information that you find and to stop your search at that point. Use it – but keep looking. The direction of your research may change a number of times before you feel confident that you are on the right track.

During this process, you may be led down all sorts of interesting pathways, not all of which will be relevant to the question that you are trying to answer. Try to stay focused on your research question. It can be tricky to know when a line of inquiry is helpful for your research, and when it is a dead end – this is where your patience may be required. Remember that all of your research, whether relevant or not, will pay off in the end: the very act of deciding what is relevant and what is not will deepen your understanding of the topic at hand.

3.  Use your critical thinking skills

This includes: being able to think in a very broad sense about the topic that you’re working on; identifying, analysing, and thinking creatively about key words, concepts and connections; and then assessing and adjusting your search results accordingly. When you find something that you think might be useful for your research, critically evaluate the information at hand. Consider the reliability of the information, and its relevance to your research question. Consider also whether you agree or disagree with any conclusions reached, and why. See the Critical thinking section of the Academic Skills Hub for more on this topic.

 4.  Be objective and keep an open mind

Academic research should strive to be as objective as possible. We all carry preconceptions, prejudices and value systems, whether we are aware of them or not, but we should try not to let these dominate the direction of our research. If you start your research with a clear idea of what you will conclude, it’s unlikely that you are conducting good research. Consider both (or more) sides of the issue, before you attempt to offer a conclusion, opinion or recommendation. Any opinion that you do set out must be based on the available evidence.

Be particularly careful not only to present research that fits your perception of a topic; you must remain open to other points of view. Be aware also of your ‘filter bubble’ – sophisticated search engines and algorithms can ‘screen out’ content that, based on your previous online activities, you are less likely to be interested in, agree with, or like. Filter bubbles are dangerous because they present a version of the world to us that is dependent on our personal preferences. 

5.  Keep track of your information sources

This is essential: keeping a record of your research will help you to save time when putting together your bibliography or references list, and to avoid issues of plagiarism. Be sure to take note of all necessary bibliographic information from any source from which you’ve taken notes and that you think you might use as a source in an assignment. See this guide to managing your references for more.

There are a number of reference management software programmes available, such as Endnote and Mendeley; you may find it useful to start using one of these to keep track of your information sources and to save time. See the Referencing/Citation tab in this Library guide on academic integrity for more information on referencing and citation management software.