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Research Essentials

Level up your researching, reading and writing skills with these essential tips
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Short on time?

Try these 3 quick tips to improve your research


1. Wondering where to start? 

Get tailored advice from our Library Guides

2. Searching in Google?

Switch to Google Scholar or Discovery for academic results

3. Reference correctly to get those easy marks

Take note of key details you would need to find that resource again, and use Re:Cite


Identifying your assessment task

Before you start researching, take some time to understand the assessment task. Make sure you know what the expectations are around the work you are producing. This will save you time, help you better target your research, and make sure you produce relevant work. 

Ask yourself the following key questions as you begin your research:


Are you expected to describe, compare, evaluate, or discuss? Should you focus on the texts or information you've been given in class, or will you are you expected to find other sources? What are the word limit, due-date and format restrictions?

Most assessment tasks will have a marking rubric or guide which will tell you how much of the assignment's total grade is allocated for each aspect of the task. Use the rubric as a guide as to how much time to dedicate to each portion of the assignment.

For example, your assignment rubric might say '30% of marks for evidence to support claims' and '10% for accurate and consistent referencing'. Although accurate referencing is always important, for this assignment you should spend more time on finding evidence to support your claims than on referencing.

The subject guide will tell you which referencing style you need to use.

If you are researching your own topic, your weekly readings (both prescribed and recommended) are a great place to start your research.

Reading your assessment task


Watch this short video (1:25) on how to analyse your assessment task:


Analysing the assignment question or topic

These are commonly used words that signal the expectations of the marker. 

  • Direction words: Words, usually verbs, that tell you what you have to do. For example, 'discuss' or 'compare'.
  • Content words: Words that deal with topics or subtopics and identify the material you should focus on.
  • Limiting words: Words that limit the scope of the topic to a particular area. For example, all, some, the majority of; references to time, place(s) and/or specific group(s).


Download a handy 2-page PDF that explains over 20 direction words


​Test yourself

Check your understanding with the quick activity below. Which words would you use to guide your search for assignment resources?

Further resources for specific tasks

Is your task different to what we've talked about above (e.g., are you writing a report)? 
See Further Resources about how to approach specific tasks


Understanding your marking rubric

A marking rubric outlines the criteria which you will be assessed by, and is usually presented as a table. It shows you what your lecturer or tutor are looking for when they mark your work.

Looking at the marking rubric before you start researching can help you get a better idea of the types and range of resources or references you need to include.

You may be required to meet criteria based on:

Quantity: are you expected to use a minimum number of references? 

Quality: are you expected to use scholarly resources or​ peer-reviewed journal articles? 

Sources: are you expected to use: 

  • primary and/or secondary sources, if applicable?
  • specific books/journals? 
  • specific databases?
  • your unit's required and/or recommended readings? or are you prohibited from citing these resources?
  • sources that you find on your own (e.g. independent research)?
Where to start your research

Using your reading list or textbook to jumpstart your research: 

Your recommended reading list or textbook can be a useful place to start your research, as all the sources referred to have been chosen because they are high quality. While you may be asked to find your own resources, your recommended reading list or textbook  can still be a useful starting point in your research because they offer:

  • Background, introduction and context: Familiarise yourself with the key figures, concepts and/or events covered in your subject area
  • Keywords: Identify specialised language or subject specific words to use in your search
  • Direction to other related and reliable resources:  Review the reference list and/or bibliography to find out about further sources that could be relevant to your assignment

Resources listed in your class reading list may be available in a digital format via Readings Online in the subject LMS, or in hard copy for limited loan periods in the High Use Collection of your library.

Check the library catalogue to find if you have access to sources referred to in your textbook.


Finding resources for your assignments

Once you know what you are looking for, you need to pick the best search strategy for that type of resource. Search strategies depend on:

  • the type of resource you are looking for

  • the area of knowledge (e.g. looking for scientific findings is a different process to looking through old newspapers) 

The process of finding sources can often expose you to new terms and concepts that you can use in your searches.  Don't worry if you don't get exactly the results you want in your first search - repeating searches with different terms is a normal part of academic research. 

This section will cover: 

   Tips on how to improve your search experience

   Finding books

   Finding journal articles

   Finding dictionaries and encyclopedias, also known as reference material

Books, journal articles and reference material are common resources used in research, and may be found in hardcopy or available digitally online.

Your search options


Learn about the different search tools that you can use to get started in the video below (1:52):


Searching effectively

Thoroughly understanding your assessment task will help you search for resources more effectively.

The two videos below step you through the process of breaking down your research topic into keywords and show you the different ways you can track down related information sources by using advanced search features:




Templates for your search plan


Ready to plot your ideas in a search plan? Download the template Word documents below to get started:


Finding books and eBooks

Use your keywords to search the Library catalogue for books and ebooks.


Ebooks are available 24/7. Use the Connect to ebook link to access the ebook.

  • Log in with your student username and password to access


Watch this short video (3:21) for a demonstration on how to use the Library Catalogue:


Finding journal articles

Journal articles are an excellent source of current and  in-depth information on academic topics. 

  • Journals are usually published periodically in volumes and issues (monthly, quarterly or annually). A large number of journals are also published online and you can find them using the Library's databases, Discovery, and Google Scholar (more on these resources later).

  • Journals usually have a theme or specialty and articles in them are on topics surrounding that theme. For example, the Journal of Australian Political Science contains articles that relate to Australian politics.

Knowing how to find relevant journal articles is a critical research skill and one that you will be relying on more and more as you progress through your degree.  Use the tools and tips below to find journal articles and other periodicals.


Use Discovery to locate journal articles

  • The search box on the library homepage connects to the University of Melbourne's main search tool, Discovery.

  • Enter your search terms. A results list will display and a number of options to limit your search.

  • Limit to "peer reviewed journals" to restrict the search results to journal articles..

  • Try using the advanced search options to refine your search further.

  • Click on FindIt@Unimelb to be directed to our holdings

  • If you have the exact article title, putting it in double quotations in the search field which will find the exact article.

Get set up and connected with these three great search tools

Search smarter

Are you expected to describe, compare, evaluate, or discuss? Should you focus on the texts or information you've been given in class, or will you are you expected to find other sources? What are the word limit, due-date and format restrictions?

  • Use AND, OR, NOT to link your keywords. Watch this video for a quick overview of how to use

  • Double quotations around phrases will search for the correct combination of words e.g. "climate change"

  • Truncation (*) will search variations for a word (e.g. lead* searches for leaders, leading, leadership

  • Wildcard (?) will searches variations of a character (e.g. organi?ational searches for organisational and organizational)

  • Look at related material and database suggestions: Check the bibliography for related materials. Some databases also have a cited by function where you can see similar relevant articles

Use a Library Guide

The best way to locate databases for your area of study is to look at our Library Guides by subject area


 Finding dictionaries and encyclopedias                   

Dictionaries and encyclopedias are also known as reference material or reference sources. Many are now available online with regular updates. They offer:

  • Concise overviews of a broad range of topics
  • Definitions of terms and concepts
  • Scholarly references and bibliographies


Find high-quality reference materials for your discipline area with our Library Guides.


Are you looking for different resources that aren't mentioned here?

Browse our General Guides for tips on finding specialised resources like newspapers, theses, images and more...


Choosing the right resources

Choosing the right resources will help highlight your research skills and save you time. With so many resources available online, how do you know what is the 'right' resource? 

This section will give you tips to help evaluate the quality of the resources you have found: 

   Identifying scholarly sources

   PROMPT: 5 checks for quality

   What are scholarly / peer reviewed sources? 

Scholarly information is:

  • evidence-based

  • well-researched

  • has undergone rigorous review by experts in that respective field.


Here are examples of types of scholarly information you might encounter in your research:


These may include books, peer-reviewed journals, maps, monographs, images, audio-visual resources and other materials in different formats.

The term ‘scholarly information’ also refers to other primary sources typically collected by a library, museum or archive such as artefacts, personal letters and business records.

These could include course notes, presentation slides, compilations of selected readings for a particular subject, lecture recordings, as well as materials accessed through the Learning Management System (LMS).

These may include data collected from scientific instrumentation and laboratory work, information collected from surveys and interviews, records of meetings and conversations between collaboration partners, models, plans or images created in the course of design, architectural or ethnographic research.

This may also refer to papers, chapters, monographs, articles, letters, presentations, posters, demonstrations and speeches, visualisations of large datasets, models, web sites and multimedia objects. Information produced for the purposes of community engagement can be considered a subset of this category.


What are peer-reviewed or refereed articles?
  • 'Refereed' or 'peer-reviewed' journal articles must be evaluated by other experts in the same research field before they are accepted for publication. These articles are considered to be of high academic quality. 


How can you find peer-reviewed articles?
  • Discovery has an option to just search for peer-reviewed journal articles in the left menu

Checkboxes in Discovery's left-hand menu showing the peer reviewed journals option highlighted

  • You can also use a database that only searches peer reviewed sources, like Scopus or Web of Science.
   How to evaluate your resources

Keep in mind: Not all sources are created equal
Choosing the right resources to use can make a significant difference to the quality of your assignment. 

While you are searching for resources, put them to the test by using the PROMPT (Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, Timeliness) set of criteria below to ensure you are using quality resources that will help answer your assignment question. 

Good resources are presented in such a way that extracting the information from it is as simple and straightforward as possible. Ask yourself: Is the information presented clearly? Can I find what I need easily? Does the resource use formal or informal language?

Scan a particular resource quickly and consider whether the information provided contains specific details pertinent to your research. Determine whether the resource contains useful information about the time period, geographic area, or group of people you are researching.

It is important to scrutinise whether the source is authentic and credible. Consider the perspective from which the author of the resource is writing about the issue, and ask whether:

  • the author is stating a fact or expressing an opinion

  • the author has vested interests in expressing a particular point of view. For example, are they selling a product or being sponsored?

  • the language used is emotive.

It is important to consider what kind of method the author has used in arriving at their conclusion. In scientific research, for example, it may be important to consider aspects of the experimental design, such as sample sizes and control groups that were used.

  • How was the data collected and analysed?

  • Were these methods appropriate for the type of research involved?

Good resources come from authoritative sources. It is therefore important to determine who authored the resource before deciding to use them in your research.

  • Is the source attributed properly? Can you clearly identify the author?

  • Is the author an expert in their field or subject area?

  • If the resource was created by an organisation, what kind are they (e.g. commercial, educational, government etc.)? Are they well established?

  • Has the source undergone an editorial or peer review process?

Before using a particular resource, it is important to be aware of whether it still reflects current thinking in your field of study. Doing so will allow you to incorporate pertinent information in your assignment.

  • When was it published?

  • Is the information corroborated by other sources?

Writing your essay/report

Use your research

All the hard work put into researching only matters if the material you find is used effectively. Show your reader you have put in the work, distinguish your ideas versus those from other authors and integrate what you've found into the task with the tips below.

  Writing academic essays

Writing (or presenting) at university comes with unique expectations and norms. This is good training as communication is always contextual - a message to your friends, an article on your blog, or a report to your boss should look and feel different. Once you've done your reading, how do you integrate your research with your writing? Here are 4 quick things to get you started:


1. Use academic style

Small but important details like language, tone and neutrality can radically affect the style of your writing. This video provides practical tips and examples, and a list of things to avoid.



2. Use academic structure

Structuring complex ideas so they can be easily understood is a skill in itself. This video will answer some simple questions (like how long should a paragraph be) to some complex iterative ones (how to improve cohesion in writing?)



3. Paraphrase ideas in your writing

Now that you've done all the research, how do you represent it in your writing? Too often research is dropped into writing making it disjointed, hard to read and, worst of all, difficult to evaluate. This video explains why and how you should paraphrase:


4. Acknowledge your sources

Your lecturer, faculty or school may require you to cite and reference your sources by following a specific citation styleCheck in your subject guide or LMS for details on a preferred citation style.

The video below will give you a quick introduction to the basics of referencing and citing and where you can go to get help:







Once you know which citation style you need to follow, use Re:Citethe University’s online hub for referencing style guides and resources to find out how to cite and reference your sources. It is important that you consistently follow the style guide instructions and cite, acknowledge and attribute the ideas from other sources, you use in your assessments. Re:Cite provides clear instructions and examples of how to cite and reference different sources. 

Click and expand the headings below for a quick introduction to citing and referencing:

  • Citing is the formal way of acknowledging information sources within the body of your essay, report or paper and points your reader to the specific part of the original source.
  • Referencing is a list of information sources that you have cited and is included at the end of your essay, report or paper as a reference list or bibliography (more on these terms below).

A reference or citation list only includes sources to which you refer, quote or actively use in your assignment or body of work. Bibliographies list all information sources you reviewed during your research. Check your style guide to confirm which is required.

  • It's how we can track the sharing of ideas: Accurately citing your sources allows others to follow and verify your research. In turn, you can use references in your reading to find other relevant resources for your research. This is known as 'citation mining'.

  • It's the right thing to do: When you use other people's ideas in your writing and research, it is ethical to acknowledge those sources and recognise their ownership and hard work. Not properly or fully acknowledging others' work can be plagiarism and may be subject to severe consequences. See the University of Melbourne Academic Honesty and plagiarism website for examples of what constitutes plagiarism, and tips on how to avoid plagiarising.

  • It's also the law: Uphold copyright law, avoid accidental plagiarism (yes, this can happen!) and avoid infringing the moral rights of other scholars.

  • Know your referencing style. There are many referencing styles. Check your assignment instructions or subject guide to determine which referencing style you will use.
  • Use Re:Cite (Unimelb Library's Referencing Guide. Re:Cite is the University of Melbourne's interactive library website that summarises rules for the main referencing styles used at the University. It also provides examples on how to create a reference list, create in-text citations and more.

Using reference management software is an easier way to manage your information sources. You can use these to:

  • Quickly download references from databases
  • Store and organise your references
  • Insert citations and generate bibliographies
  • Easily change the citation styles as required
  • Share your references with others for collaboration
Ready to try using reference management software? Visit our guide on reference management, or just jump straight in and try Zotero.


Further help

Academic Skills 

Contact Academic Skills for help with academic writing, critical reading and assessment planning.

The Library 

Contact the Library to help with finding, evaluating and referencing assignment resources.