Muckraking: How to Find What You Need

  • What are the first places to start looking for information?
  • How can you ensure that you find relevant information?
  • What are the best ways to find information in journals?

An academic detective leaves no stone unturned in searching for clues by using a variety of sources. Finding information is the muckraking phase of essay writing. You often have to wade through a lot of muck before you find understandable and relevant information. Along the way, you may encounter a number of myths.

Debunking myths

There are a number of student myths about researching an essay which go around each year. They have little substance, but reflect the confusion of some students about how to find information.

Myth 1: The one answer to my prayers

Don’t waste time looking for the elusive pot of information gold at the end of the rainbow; there is no single book or journal article which will magically provide all the material and answers for your essay topic. You are meant to use a variety of sources of information to ensure you have covered the field of literature on a topic. Even supposedly neutral introductory textbooks should be treated with caution. There will be parts which are more detailed, clearer or better written than others. For this reason alone, you should consult a number of sources.

Myth 2: There is no information on my topic

Another falsehood often quoted by students is that they just can’t find any information on their topic. The truth is that they either haven’t looked hard enough, or they haven’t looked in the right place. This guide will help to show how to find what you need.

Myth 3: There is too much information

Another excuse used is that there are too many publications on a topic, making it impossible to select or summarize the appropriate information within the given word limit. This is really no excuse. Part of the skill and the difficulty of essay writing lies in selecting the important information, summarizing it concisely, and coherently relating it to the essay topic in the given word limit. This is where you earn your marks.

Myth 4: There must be an easy way

A final myth is that there is an easy way to do research. Forget it. While computers and information technology have certainly speeded things up, finding information is still about muckraking. The ‘good stuff’ might be more accessible, but it can still be difficult to find. This guide gives you some pointers about time-saving ways of finding what you need.

Where to start looking for information

The key places to start looking for information are:

  • lecture notes
  • introductory textbooks
  • discipline dictionaries
  • subject reading lists
  • bibliographies: using the springboard technique
  • review chapters and articles
  • abstract and index journal databases
  • newspapers and current affairs magazines
  • statistical information
  • the internet

Using your lecture notes

Lecture notes are a good starting point as they identify key authors, theories and concepts. These can be used to help narrow your search for information. Lecture notes should be used as a guide only. Don’t rewrite your lecture notes straight into your essay. As explained in earlier, it is generally unacceptable to use your lecture notes as the source of material in your essays because it is difficult to verify.

Introductory textbooks

If your subject has a textbook or prescribed readings, check to see if material relevant to your essay topic is covered there. It is surprising how many students ignore the relevant parts of their textbook or prescribed readings when looking for information. Other introductory textbooks are also useful as they are generally easy to read and provide summaries of key topic areas. Find introductory books on your subject and scan the content and index pages for relevant material, using the keywords you uncovered by brainstorming and mind mapping. Introductory books are likely to give you an idea of the range of research and explanations on your particular topic. Don’t just stop at one introductory book; look at a few, as their coverage will vary. Even if you end up not using them in your essay, introductory books can help to clarify what you should be looking for. Many introductory books also include suggested lists of further reading which are also worth considering.

Discipline dictionaries

Most disciplines have specialised dictionaries, such as those for economics, politics, communication studies, biology, nursing, law, sociology and anthropology. Such dictionaries provide brief summaries of concepts, theories and theorists. They often give references to other related entries in the dictionary and for further reading. If you intend to major in a particular discipline, it is advisable to purchase a copy of the relevant dictionary. However, most libraries will have copies.

Subject reading lists

Some lecturers will provide a reading list to guide your research, and they may even place some of the material in your library on reserve or short loan. If your lecturer or tutor has gone to the trouble of doing so, it is probably wise to look at what’s on offer. While there may be many books on a reading list, remember that you are not expected to read whole books; often only a chapter, or even a few pages, may be relevant to your essay. Use the content and index pages to help find what you need. A word of caution: reading lists are not exhaustive and you may find better and more up-to-date information which is not on the reading list. By all means consult the lists, but don’t rely solely on them.

Bibliographies: The springboard technique

A good way to find more information on a topic is to use the books used by other authors. Once you find a couple of books or articles, have a look at their bibliography or reference lists. In this way you can see which books or articles the authors have consulted and you can look up these references yourself.

Of course, not all the references used by the authors you read will be relevant. If you come across a section in a book or an article which is relevant to your essay, note which authors are referenced and find them in the bibliography. Check the title and the publication details (such as when and where they were published) to help determine their relevance, and then look up the original source yourself. In this way you can use the references of other authors as a springboard to finding more information.

Review chapters and articles

Review chapters and articles are published regularly and can be used to springboard to other relevant sources of information. Systematic reviews of specific topics can be found in Annual Review journals (discussed below) and edited books.

Keyword searches

Once you have consulted introductory textbooks, a discipline dictionary, subject reading lists (where available) and tried the springboard technique, you should have a good idea of the key writers, ideas and theories your essay has to cover. These act as signposts or keywords when you search for more information. Think of the keywords around a particular topic or concept and plug them into your library computer, CD-ROM or internet database.

How to find the material you need

The key places to start looking for information are:

Get to know your library well. Take a library tour or ask a librarian to show you what the library has to offer. Libraries also tend to have printed information in the form of booklets or ‘flyers’ that describe the range of material and services they offer. Major libraries organise their material by using either the Dewey Decimal Classification system or the Library of Congress system.

The Dewey Decimal Classification system

The Dewey system catalogues material according to decimal ‘call numbers’ that are assigned to specific topic areas.

The 10 basic categories shown in are further divided into sub-categories that provide more specific classifications. For example, books on philosophy have ‘call numbers’ between 100 and 199. Within this range, books on Metaphysics are catalogued at 110, Psychology at 150 and Ethics at 170. The call numbers can be further specified by using decimal points and letters (usually derived from the author’s surname). For example, ‘808.042 Germ’ is the call number for the first edition of this book. Since browsing the shelves in the library is still a good way to find books, it is wise to learn which call numbers your discipline is catalogued under.

The Library of Congress system

The Library of Congress (LC) catalogue system was developed by the national library of the United States, which primarily services the needs of the US Congress, hence the name. Each alphabetical category has sub-categories, using a second letter and a numeral, and, if needed, a combination of letters and numerals that occur after a decimal point. For example, the LC call number for the first edition of this book is ‘PE1478.G47’.

Finding journal articles: Information technology at your fingertips

The key places to start looking for information are:

Academic journals are important sources of information because they provide up-to-date research and detailed evidence on specific topics. Articles in such journals are also independently peer-reviewed to ensure the quality and accuracy of the information presented. Many libraries keep the latest issue of a journal in a display section until the next issue arrives, and allow the display issue only to be read (but not borrowed) until it is superseded by the next issue. Usually only staff are allowed to borrow journals. The current journal display area will provide you with a quick idea of the type of journals available in your area. You could also ask your lecturer or tutor to recommend some journals.

Abstract and index journal databases

To find a journal article, you need to search indexes which contain all the bibliographic details (author, title, date …) and in some cases the abstracts (or summaries) of journal articles published in a particular discipline. The indexes list journal articles by topic, author and keywords. They are updated regularly. Indexes exist in the following formats: hard copy, microfiche, CD-ROM and online databases accessed via the web. The number of journals a particular index covers vary from a couple of hundred to thousands. While libraries will have the hard copy or microfiche version (particularly for earlier years), most journal information is now accessed via CD-ROM and the web. This makes the whole process of finding journal articles quick and easy. For example, you can search journal databases by typing in either an author, title or keyword, as you would with your online library catalogue. Libraries often publish their own handouts on how to use journal databases. Thankfully, most of them are fairly similar and intuitive—that is, they use menus which are easy to follow.

Annual Review journals and annual journal indexes

For comprehensive overviews of particular topics, consider using Annual Review journals, which are available for most disciplines, such as the Annual Review of Psychology,Annual Review of Nursing Research and the Annual Review of Sociology. Articles within these journals can also be helpful sources of further references by which you can springboard to finding more information.

Some journals also publish an annual index that lists the complete contents of the journal for the whole year. An annual index is of great help for the current year of a journal becauseitislikelythatitistooearly foritscontentstobe included in an electronic abstract and index database.

Using newspapers and current affairs magazines

Newspapers and magazines can be an important source of current information. However, they should be treated with caution. There are often many errors in such publications. There is also bias and often little analysis of the issues, so don’t base an important fact or argument solely on information derived from a newspaper or current affairs magazine. By all means use such sources where necessary, but ensure that you have more credible, academic sources of information based on academic journals and books. Finding articles in newspapers and magazines can be a labour-intensive process of flipping through recent hard-copy editions or viewing reams of microfiche.

Vital statistics

Many countries have government agencies that compile statistics. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) compiles a whole range of statistics on Australia. It regularly publishes Census data and information compiled from specific surveys. Governments also publish many useful documents through their various departments. You can contact the department you are interested in (such as the Department of Industrial Relations) and ask for a publication brochure. Sometimes independent bodies are established by the government to compile information and undertake research on specific topics. In Australia, an example is the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) which produces many helpful publications. International comparisons of data are usually found in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations and World Bank publications. Many of these publications are available in libraries or via the web.