Seven pointers on how to pack your assignment with relevant and current information

Preparing an assignment can be a daunting task. There is usually a lot of work to be done, but probably the most time-consuming task is doing the research. But what exactly is research?

According to Merriam-Webster Online (, research is “the collecting of information about a particular subject”. If you are given an essay to write, chances are you won’t know everything about the topic.

You could just take your chances and write about what you know. However, most lecturers expect you to demonstrate a good command of the subject to get good marks. This means doing research to familiarise yourself with the topic before sitting down to write about it.

Doing research isn’t as easy as it sounds. It is not just a matter of going to the library, borrowing the first book you find and then copying sections of that book into your essay.

Research requires a bit of planning so that you can find all the right information, by which we mean the most relevant and current information.

So, how do you go about doing this? Here are the basics.

Decide what to look for
First things first - find out what you are looking for. This may sound a bit absurd, but before you can begin your research, you need to really understand what it is you are researching.

Let’s say you have to write an essay about online shopping in the UAE. The obvious thing to look for is any books or articles about “online shopping”.

However, online shopping is also related to electronic commerce or e-commerce, e-business, online shopping malls, the world wide web. If you focus your research on online shopping only, you may miss out on important information.

For example, you may find lots of information about how many people in the UAE shop online. But you may not find out anything about how companies view online shopping, because from their point of view, online shopping is e-commerce.

So always begin by defining the keywords that will guide your research. But stay focused (don’t define too many different keywords).

Decide where to look
Not all essays are created equal! Depending on your topic, you will have to find different sources. In some cases, you will rely mainly on books, in others you may have to look up current affairs in newspapers and magazines.

Following on from the previous example, think about where you would look for information about the topic. Naturally, you need to understand some basic concepts, which might be outlined in textbooks.

However, you will also need to refer to data from the press and magazines (e.g. articles and public polls about people’s attitudes), the internet (e.g. statistics about the number of users online in the UAE) and, of course, journal articles which contain the latest research (e.g. a scientific survey of UAE residents about their online shopping habits).

Make a list of all the different sources that are available and think about what you can find in them.

Find what you are looking for
The internet is pretty easy to access, but what about those other sources like books, journal articles and magazines? The obvious place for these is the library.

Most libraries today have electronic access to online databases which contain hundreds of journals and magazines. If your library doesn’t have what you are looking for they can probably source it for you, so don’t be afraid to ask.

If that fails, try internet search engines such as Google, which has launched a new search facility devoted to students and researchers

There are also sites which offer free eBooks, such as Project Gutenberg,

Are your sources trustworthy?
If you are using the internet for research, it is wise to be wary. There is a lot of information in cyberspace (for eg, on March 23, Google was searching 8,058,044,651 web pages). But not all of it is useful, relevant or accurate.

Only use information from credible sources. Read the web page carefully and ask: Does it have an author? Is this author an expert in the field? For what purpose was the web page created? Check the address (URL) of the web page for clues about its credibility.

Be selective about your sources
You have searched far and wide and now have plenty of information. Making sense of a lot of information is difficult, so try to select your sources carefully. Go for quality, rather than quantity.

Identify the key articles or books related to your topic and use those as an anchor. These are usually sources that are cited over and over again by people interested in the field.

These sources should form the backbone of your essay and demonstrate that you are familiar with the key literature in the field you are researching.

You can supplement these sources with others, especially if the key sources are outdated. You can do this by using more recent studies, surveys and anecdotal evidence.

Rather than 100 references mentioned fleetingly in your essay, focus on 20 to 30 recent, high quality sources.

Read to identify trends
As you read through the information you have found, you will no doubt start noticing certain patterns.

These will form the basis of your arguments and opinions, and demonstrate to your lecturer that you have not only read widely, but also understood and thought about what you have read.

Make sure you take lots of notes along the way. You should take different sets of notes related to different trends. For example, you may find newspaper articles suggesting that online shopping is on the increase in the UAE.

The same information may be reported in journal articles. This is one pattern in the information.
On the other hand, your textbook may tell you that those people who are not shopping online have concerns about security.

This is another pattern that may be reported in different sources. Keep track of your sources carefully, as you may find it difficult to trace these later on if you forget where you read something.

Watch out for plagiarism
Plagiarism means presenting someone else’s work or idea as your own. It is wrong and invites heavy academic penalties.

Often students plagiarise unintentionally - you jot down a few lines from the textbook or journal article as you are doing your research.

Those lines then find their way into your essay, but you forget to put them inside quotation marks and attribute them properly.

Even if it is unintentional, it is still wrong and punishable. So when you are taking notes and doing your research, make sure you write down all the relevant bibliographic details next to every quote, paraphrased text or idea. This will make it a lot easier to insert proper references in your essay and prepare a bibliography.

You can even use reference management software such as Endnote or Reference Manager to keep track of your sources.

In some cases, you can even download libraries of references on particular topics, giving you an instant list of articles and other materials about that topic which you can then look up.

For example, if you used Endnote, you could download the e-commerce Endnote library from IS World ( and use it to find sources for your online shopping essay.

Most of the points raised here are focused on secondary (or desk) research - that is, data collected by someone else.