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10 Top Tips for a Tip Top Undergraduate Dissertation: a Practical Guide


Construct a comprehensive search strategy

Construct a comprehensive search strategy

Before you start looking at the literature in detail, you’ll need to construct a comprehensive search strategy. Whether you’re undertaking empirical research or writing a literature review, using existing literature properly is fundamental to the success of your dissertation. Literature is the bedrock upon which you build the analysis to follow; you must therefore make sure that you’ve found the best sources of evidence and used these in the right way to support and justify your argument.

Plan before you start

BlueprintsIt’s really important that you plan your search strategy before you start. The word strategy is important; you’re not just blindly collecting together a random collection of sources. Think at the start of the process about what you’re looking for in the research, and also perhaps what you don’t want; are there areas which are simply beyond the scope of what you can write in your word count? Look back to any scoping searches that you might have carried out when you chose your topic, and use them to inform this more detailed searching.

A search strategy in action

Let’s consider an example research question: What are the most important impacts on privacy and free speech with the use of social media? Our first task is to understand which are the key concepts for which we’ll need to search. In this example, the most important elements are privacy, free speech and social media. These will form the core of our search strategy.

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For each of these concepts, we’ll need to come up with as many words as possible which describe that concept. Remember that authors won’t always use the same words you do to describe the same ideas, and that search engines won’t automatically connect synonyms (words with the same or very similar meaning). Let’s think about our example question. The table below includes a range of synonyms for each of the three main concepts.

Social media Priva* Free speech
Social network* Personal Freedom of expression
New media Free press

You can come up with search terms from your own knowledge, or use papers that you found in your scoping searches to see how they refer to the key concepts. You won’t always be able to find alternative terms, especially for very specific ideas, but you should always spend some time thinking about the possibilities.

The asterisk (*) at the end of some words in the table is a search technique called truncation. It will look for different endings to the word, such as plurals or different tenses. You don’t have to have full words; priva*, for example, will find private and privacy in a single search. Explore our tutorial for more advice on truncation.

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You should then think about how you’re going to fit search terms together to make a logical search. There are two words which we use to combine together search terms: AND and OR. AND links together different concepts (e.g. Social media AND Privacy); OR links together synonyms for the same concept (Social media OR Social network). You can use these simple words to create a more complex search, sometimes called a search string:

(“social media” OR “social network*” OR “new media” OR Facebook OR Twitter) AND (priva* OR personal)
AND (“free speech” OR “freedom of expression” OR “free press”)

Each set of brackets is one of the concepts from the table that we used above. Note that each set of brackets is linked with AND, and that each word within the brackets is linked with OR. The quotation marks allow you to search for a specific phrase; this means that the search will only find those words when they’re together in the order that you’ve specified. Read our tutorial to understand more about combining terms with AND/OR.

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You’ll now need to choose the search engines and databases where you’ll carry out your search. You’ll probably have used databases like YorSearch and Google Scholar, but for a dissertation you’re expected to go further and use other, more complex sources too. The good news is that these will find a lot of useful literature that Google can’t find, and they have lots of features to help you narrow down your results to exactly what you’re looking for. Find the best resources for your topic using the Library’s Subject Guides.

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Keep notes about everything!

Sticky notesThroughout the process of literature searching, it’s hugely useful to keep really good notes about where and how you’ve searched. This is especially true if you’re writing a literature review, as your methodology section will be all about how you searched for literature. It’s very difficult to remember weeks or months laters exactly what you did, so good notes will be a massive help when it comes to writing up.

Check back in with the literature

ClockRemember also to revisit the literature regularly. Whilst you’ll almost certainly carry out the bulk of your searching at the start, it’s a good idea to check the literature every once in a while to see if anything new has been published. You don’t want to miss out on that crucial source that might have made all the difference to your analysis.

For more detail on creating a comprehensive search strategy, explore our Skills Guide.