Getting relevant results: Improving your topic

Often when students are struggling with irrelevant research results it’s actually their topic that needs work. For most, their topics are either too broad or too narrow (see examples below).  There are a few things you can do, though, to help improve your topic.

Is your topic SMART?

  1. Specific – Is your topic too broad for the scope of your assignment (e.g. How can you be an ethical leader)? Too narrow (Steve Jobs and the ethical leadership of Apple)? Or just right (e.g. Is being ethical an essential quality of leadership)?
  2. Measurable – What will you be discussing or measuring throughout your paper? (In what ways is X affected by Y? How is X related to Y? What is the impact of X? How are X and Y related?)
  3. Attainable – Can you answer your research question within the limits of your paper? (e.g. You have 7-9 pages; at least 2 pages will be taken up by your introduction, background information, and conclusions. So you have 5-7 pages to actually answer your research question).
  4. Relevant – Is your topic related to the course? Does it meet the expectations of your professor? Are you interested in it?
  5. Timely – Can you answer the question, get all the research you need, and write the assignment before the due date? Also, is your topic too recent? Can there feasibly be academic research available on it?

Try turning your topic idea into a researchable question:

  1. Ask the 5W’s of your topic
    Who – what population are you talking about? (e.g. university students)
    What – what about that population? (that they’re stressed and don’t eat well as a result)
    Where – what geographical area are you focusing on? (e.g. Canada)
    When – what time period will you focus on? (e.g. last twenty years)
    Why – why does this topic matter? What does it have to do with your assignment/course?  (e.g. if you can’t answer all 5W’s you will need to do more background research first!
  2. Then ask yourself ‘How’?
    This is the “measurable” part of your SMART question (How are X and Y related; How does X influence Y)
    Asking the question HOW about your 5W’s can often help you develop a great research question!How does stress affect the eating habits of university students in Canada? (Note: I didn’t use “when” but that’s okay I think!)

And, just in case they’re helpful, here are some common types of research questions (Note: these ideas aren’t mine so please cite the original author, reference below)!

  • Definitions (While many people think X is a Y, can it better thought of as a Z?)
  • Evaluation (Can you argue that your person/activity/quality/thing is good, better or best (or bad, worse, or worst) compared to its peers?
  • Compare/contrast (Are there things/elements/people who are similar or dissimilar to the one you are thinking about?)
  • Explanation (Obvious causes of X; How Y would not have happened without X; Alternative causes to X than what is currently assumed)
  • Counter argument (Argue against what is currently assumed to be true)
  • Justification (Why does something matter?  Argue for something people haven’t previously considered that you think matters a great deal)

Source: Hacker, Diane. (2009). A Canadian writer’s reference, 4th ed. Boston: Bedford.

What’s the best way to organize my research?

When you’re writing an essay, keeping your research organized is a challenging task.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a “best” way: when this question was asked by a History student we didn’t have just one single answer.  The bottom line is you have to choose a system that works for your learning style and your writing habits.

That said, I put it to all of the library staff to tell me how they organize their research (we’re librarians! Of course we have systems!).  A few themes emerged that may help you out.

In the beginning…

  1. Do some preliminary reading.  Get a sense of your overall topic before really getting into the “heavy” research.
  2. Research with your final product in mind.  As you research, think about what “subheadings” or chunks you may want to write about (even though you don’t have all your information yet)?
    • If you need help with identifying your topic chunks, you could try Writing a Concept Map.
  3. Keep a journal/Write a research plan. Keep track of what databases you’ve tried, what keywords you’ve used, what didn’t go well, your thoughts and ideas…

Once you start finding good stuff…

  1. Organize by “subheading” or chunk.  There were lots of different ideas for how to do this:
    • Write a working outline: what will each subheading or part of your essay include? What will your arguments be? What sources support that point?
    • Ignore the interesting-but-not-useful stuff:  what are your essay’s subheadings?  What is your argument?  Read for that information, make notes on that information, and then throw everything else out.
    • Colour code (Who’s surprised that librarians do this?):  assign a different colour to each subheading.  Then use highlighters, post-its, tabs, or font colour to organize your notes and articles.
    • Create different folders on your computer  or different Word files for each subheading.  Or if you like to print everything else, have a different folder or binder tab on each subheading. The bottom line is: keep related things together!
    • James also organizes chronologically within each chunk.  As he says, “each article/book may have been influenced by those that preceded it; even in a very short time-frame” and you may find overarching themes or arguments that you may not have noticed otherwise.
  2. Write notes, in your own words, on why your sources are helpful. Again, there were different ideas for how to do this.  It’s important to also note that these techniques can be done by hand or on a computer!
    • Use cue cards: with the citation at the top (including page numbers!), write down the general ideas or concepts you want to use from that source.  You may have more than one cue card for each source, if you’re organizing your notes by subheading.
    • Create annotations: again with the citation at the top (and, of course, with the page numbers!), create a summary for each article/book you want to use.  Include the key parts/arguments/quotes that you liked from that source.
    • Write your notes in your own words: why is this source helpful for your essay?  How does it support your thesis?  Say it regular language in your research notes, rather than writing out word-for-word what the book says.
  3. Save your research. You won’t find it again.
    • Email your search results to yourself, print them, write them down by hand, use RefWorks/Zotero… anything but having to replicate your searches!
    • Create a working bibliography: add resources that you want to use to this bibliography as you research

When you’re ready to write…

  1. Write out of order.  You don’t need to write your introduction first and your conclusion last.  You can fix transition sentences and weird phrases later  (Editors note: I always write my introduction last!).
  2. Write down ideas as they come to you.
    • As you finish up your research, full-sentence paragraphs may come to you.  Write these down – even in your notes/working outline/cue cards, etc.
    • If you’re working on the same project for a few days/weeks, you may get ideas as you try to fall asleep.  Or in the shower.   Or when you’re talking to your mom.  Keep a notebook or your phone handy to write these down as they come to you (and then go back to sleep!).

There are software products that will help you with many of these steps (see our blog post on Zotero and RefWorks for examples) but many students still choose to do a lot of their organization by hand.  What system works for you? If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment below!

How should I find case law for my Criminal Psychology presentation (PSY 3313)?

This question was asked by Psychology 3313 students preparing a presentation on serial killers, but this post may be of use for any Brescia student trying to find case law or legal information. For more advanced legal research help, we recommend contacting Western’s Law Library.

Before starting on criminal psychology research, I recommend trying to find the following information. Try looking at Lexis Nexis through, or by looking at general books/websites on the topic.  Even Wikipedia may give you this information.  It’s much easier to do proper academic research when you have the case details!

  • Parties involved
    • Accused, victims, lawyers, judges
  • Legal system/location of trial
  • Date of investigation
  • Details of the case

Next, try using one of the resources listed below.

Westlaw Canada

Western has recently provided Brescia students with a standard subscription to Westlaw Canada. This is one of the premier case law resources and can often be a “one-stop-shop” for undergraduate assignments. Legal journals, case law, court documents and more can be found here.  The added bonus is that, despite the name, information can also be found from a variety of countries including the United States, Australia, the EU and HongKong.

Westlaw Canada can only be accessed from on Western’s campus. You cannot access it from wireless or from Off-Campus, so you must use a library computer (any library on campus, including the affiliates, provides you with access).

To find Westlaw: visit and click “W” Use your case number or other information to find details on your case.

Free Material through the web

Open source case and legal information is also available. This is usually organized by the court system: make sure to pay attention to where your criminal trial took place or your accused was arrested. If you have trouble finding the court website for specific states or provinces, feel free to ask librarians for help.

Canadian Cases

  1. Canadian Case Law – All
  2. Canadian Case Law – Supreme Court Level
  3. Provincial Level

American Cases

  1. American Case Law – Supreme Court Level –
  2. Search for State courts through Google!  Just make sure you’re looking at an official website

Attached below are the PowerPoint slides used for the library presentation.  These also include legal databases for journals, news sources and media archives (e.g. for ABC, CBC, CTV, or newspapers), and resources for finding legislation, whether Canadian or American.

Power Point Slides: PSY 3313 October 24 2013

How do I find newspaper articles online?

There are three fast ways to find newspaper articles online (note: off campus users must log in first!):

  1. Newspaper databases
    Select online databases just include news sources. The easiest ones to use are: Factiva (includes many Canadian, American and International titles) Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. You could also try Lexis Nexis, but make sure to use the search box labelled “Search the News.”
  2. Individual Newspapers
    You can access many individual newspaper titles online through the catalogue.  Examples include The Globe and Mail, National Post, The London Free Press, The New York Times, and many (many!) more.
  3. Summon
    Summon is the default search on the Beryl Ivey Library homepage and Western Libraries.  It’s set up to not search for newspaper articles by default, since most people are looking for academic articles.
    To look for newspapers, start with typing your keywords into Summon’s search box.
    From the results page, you’ll see a list of limits on the left hand side.  “Newspaper Article” will be crossed out. Click the “X”; when the page reloads, select Newspaper Article as the Content Type
    The results displayed on your screen should all be newspaper articles.  Clicking any of the titles should link you directly to the full text newspaper article.Summon_screenshot_cleverresearcher

What should my first step be? How do I start my research project?

This question was asked by one of the Foods and Nutrition 1030 students, within the context of the 2 hour library workshop they had to complete.  That said, other Brescia students may find my response helpful.

The Research Process: Heather’s List for Reducing Your Research Anxiety and Becoming a Clever Researcher
(aka the whole point of this blog)

  1. Read your assignment instructions.  At least twice.
  2. Read your assignment instructions again, this time making a list of what you’re being asked to do.  If you have questions about your assignment or what you’re supposed to do, ask your prof at this point.
  3. Choose your topic (if applicable). Make sure it’s appropriate for the length of  your assignment (I’ll write a blog post on this soon).
  4. Make a research plan by Presearching (many parts of this step have links to other posts I’ve written)
    1. Make a list of what questions you have: this list will grow beyond the ones from your assignment instructions the further you get in the research process.  At the beginning it might be “what is my topic all about,” while later it might be “has anyone else ever researched this awesome point I’m trying to make?”.
    2. Know where to find the answers to these questions: choosing the right kind of resource for a specific kind of information is very difficult. If you don’t know, don’t worry: this is when to ask a librarian.  My biggest advice is: journal articles are not the answer to everything.  Consider using  a wide variety of resources, including academic encyclopedias, books, government information, AND journal articles.
    3. Develop a list of keywords you can use to research with: these will help you with searching Summon, databases, the Catalogue, Google, etc.  This can take practice, but is one of the most important steps in this list.
    4. Organize your research somehow: write it down, print it off, colour code, anything – just don’t try to remember what you’ve done.  Research takes a long time and will be a multi-stage process, so it’s very difficult to remember what you’ve done.  There is computer software available to help you with this stage, too.
  5. Start researching.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time in this stage, as you will have to repeat Step 4 each time you have a new research question.
  6. Evaluate the research you’ve found: do your results answer your question? Are they credible and appropriate for a university-level assignment?  Can you stop researching and move on?
  7. Ask for help when you need it: above all, don’t waste hours of your life by struggling over any step in this list.  Remember that you can ask your professor, the library staff, or the Writing Instructor for tips and suggestions along the way.

Why can’t I get full-text journal articles from home? They worked when I was on campus!

Journals have an annual subscription that is often very expensive: to access full-text articles, one must be a paying subscriber.

When you’re on campus, our network is recognized as that paying subscriber for all of the websites and databases that give us full-text access to journals.  So, even if you typed in the name of a journal into Google, full-text articles may still come up.  (If you know things about IP addresses, this will make more sense to you, or so I’m told).

When you are off campus, however, these same websites or databases will ask you to pay to read full-text, because they do not recognize you as a paying user.

To get around this problem when you’re at home:

  • Always do your research through the library website.  This goes for Google Scholar, too, which can be found through the Databases webpage.
  • Before starting your research, enter your username and password into the “Off-Campus Log-in” box on the left-hand side of the library homepage.
  • Your browser will then refresh (you may see a “loading” page), and the words “proxy1” will be listed in page’s URL
  • You can then go about your researching business as normal, whether you’re using the Catalogue, Summon, a database, whatever.

If you’re asked to pay for an article later on your travels don’t do it! Check to see whether the “proxy” word is still in your URL – if it’s not, you may have to re-log into the library homepage and start your search again.

I tend to forget to tell students this when I’m teaching them how to do journal research (especially lately.  We all have a thing, don’t we?), so my apologies to pretty much every student I’ve taught this year.  Blame me for your at-home research frustrations! -HC

How do you find government legislation?

The University of Western Ontario is a depository library for the Federal Government: this means that pretty much every government document comes to us here in London, in one way or another.  So, a great way to search for government information is to use the Shared Library Catalogue or Summon.  Really!

The government has tried to put recent documents online, though, so many legislative documents can be found by searching Google.  I’ve listed some specific websites below to get you started.  If you don’t find what you need, though, come into the library – these websites won’t give you every piece of legislation since confederation.  Also: when searching these government websites, I recommend always using the advanced search screens, as they usually yield better results.

One more thing: I recommend the Canadian Legislation Table on Queen’s University Library’s webpage.  This was put together by the super-amazing Jeff Moon, my Government Information professor, from whom I learned everything I know about finding legislation.  The chart makes the complicated process of finding legislation much easier and is updated regularly.

Canadian – Federal

If you know what you’re looking for:

  • Department of Justice: For legislation and regulations  that have been passed into law (i.e. “Access to Information Act”)
    • Frequently Accessed Acts are displayed in the middle of the page
    • Otherwise, you’ll find what you need using the left hand menu
      • Browse by Consolidated Acts, Regulations, Statues, etc (if you know specifically what you’re looking for)
      • Use the Basic or Advanced search options for keyword searching
  • LEGISinfo: Senate and House Bills, Progress of Legislation, Coming-into-Force legislation
    • Current bills are located in the centre of the page
    • Browse functions are located on the right-hand side of the screen (i.e. browse by parliament number, house, sponsoring politician, political party)
    • Quick search and advanced search functions are located on the left-hand menu
  • Hansard: For accessing the debates in the House of Commons, starting from the 35th Parliament (1996)
    • Browse by Parliament using the bottom of the left-hand menu
    • Then use the index to browse by subject or name of politician.

Canadian – Ontario (Provincial)

  • eLaws: For browsing current and consolidated Ontario law
    • Click the “search or browse” button
    • Use the search box to search by keyword
    • Or, browse by title
  • Legislative Assembly of Ontario: for past and current Bills
    • Click the “Bills from Previous Parliaments” to browse for older bills, as far back as 1995
    • You can try using the website’s search box for keyword searching, but it’s not always that great
    • The Legislative Assembly also has an archive for Bills dating 1867 to 1995.
  • Hansard (debates) are also available through the Legislative Assembly, back to 1981
    • Browse by date available in middle of screen
    • An advanced search is available through an external site: a link is available from the centre of the main Hansard page

Leave a comment or write me an email if you would like more information added to this post!