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Partner Students: Study Skills Tutorials

Tutorials

Three additional tutorials are available in text-only format. These are:

Original thinking allowed: Avoiding plagiarism

What's the big idea? Developing and organising your argument

Dissertation: The A-Z of literature reviews

These tutorials can be found on the text-based tutorials tab

 

Text based tutorials

These tabs show the text contained within the Interactive Tutorials.

Introduction

When you are writing an assignment at University, you need to find evidence to support your ideas and arguments and to provide examples.

There are many different places where you can find your supporting evidence. It is important that you use the right kind of evidence from the right kind of resources, that you use evidence appropriately, and that you have the right amount of it.

Different types of assignments and subject areas will require different types of evidence and resources, so if you’re not sure if a source would be appropriate, then speak to your tutors.

What’s out there?

  • Books – Single works written about a subject. Textbooks are specifically written for educational purposes, and can be a good starting point for learning about your subject. Edited books are a collection of chapters on the same subject, written by different authors. Books are useful for background information or an overview of a subject.
  • Journal articles – These appear in specialised subject journals, which are like academic magazines, a collection of articles by different authors. They are published at regular intervals throughout the year, meaning that the information is up-to-date. They are written by experts and professionals in that subject area, and are often peer-reviewed by other experts in that field before publication. Articles would be referred to when you need good quality evidence from experts to back up your arguments.
  • Websites – A series of interconnected pages on the internet maintained by individuals, organisations or companies. Care is needed when evaluating information found on websites, as they are not regulated by any authoritative body. You might need to refer to websites of the professional bodies and organisations in your subject area for up-to-date information prepared by experts. Websites often contain other sources of information as well.
  • Reports – Scientific reports present the findings of investigations, experiments or scientific research. You might refer to these as evidence of primary research or real-world examples.
  • Standards – An agreed way of doing something to meet compliance of a minimum acceptable benchmark. They can cover a huge range of activities, such as manufacturing, service delivery, labelling requirements, etc. Standards are used by government for technical advice when drawing up legislation or guidance.  You might need standards for technical specifications or procedures for design, construction, quality, performance or safety, and it may be mandatory to consult standards in some cases.
  • Legal documents – These can include legislation such as Acts of Parliament, case law and case reports. You might use legal documents to back up your arguments or to illustrate how decisions have been made. You may also need legal textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias to understand legal terminology.
  • Statistics – Available for almost all areas of life, including business, healthcare, transport, politics, etc. Referring to relevant statistics can often add weight to your argument.
  • Patents – A licence granted to an individual or organisation to affirm their sole rights to making, using or selling an invention. You might refer to patents for specialised technical information that may not be available elsewhere.
  • Archives – Historical documents or records which can reveal information about places, institutions, individuals or groups of people. You might use archives when researching the history of individuals or organisations.
  • Blogs – A type of website used to communicate ideas, opinions or information on a regular basis. They can be published by groups, individuals, companies and organisations. You might refer to blog postings to give wider context to an argument, or if you want up-to-date reactions and analysis to recent events.
  • Images – Can include photographs, drawing, tables, diagrams, maps and charts. You might use these to illustrate a point, show data, or as further evidence to back up an argument.
  • Newspapers – Usually published daily and contain articles and opinion pieces on local, national and international events. It is a good idea to find and use the original sources used in the newspaper. You might refer to newspapers for up-to-date analysis and opinion on recent events, or to find local information.

Classifying information

There are three key characteristics of information that you should be aware of when looking for sources to use in your academic work:

  • Timeliness – How long after the original event was the information published?
    • The timeliness of a source refers to how recent it is, as well as how much time has passed between the original event and the publication of the source.
    • You should also consider how relevant and applicable the source is to today, and check to see if it is a seminal work in your area.
    • How much this matters depends on your assignment brief and the relevance of sources. For example, information about the Poll Tax riots in 1990 will be of little use if you are discussing the use of social media in civil unrest.
    • Example of an information timeline following the death of a celebrity, with approximate time after the event that information might be published:
      • The event
      • Minutes/hours later – social media, television news and online news sites
      • Days later – newspaper articles
      • Weeks later – magazine articles
      • Months later – journal articles
      • A year later - books

  • Primary or secondary – Is the information from the original source, or has it been interpreted in some way?
    • The distinction between primary and secondary sources refers to how far removed the source is from the subject of study.
    • The proximity of the source can help to indicate how original the information is likely to be. This may influence what type of resources you look for.
    • A primary source is information that is collected first-hand. It is original data that has not been filtered, interpreted or evaluated. Examples include interviews, statistics, survey results, patents, financial records, case law and works of art.
    • A secondary source is an analysis, interpretation or commentary on existing information, including both primary and other secondary sources. A lot of work you produce as a student will be secondary. Examples include books and journals.
    • Here are examples of different source levels, using the collapse of the company Theranos in 2018:
      • Primary sources include legal documents from a government agency about the collapse, and the company’s own Twitter account.
      • Secondary sources include a book written about the collapse, a podcast about the company founder, and a newspaper article about the situation.
  • Popular v scholarly – Is the information from an academic source that has been through a quality assurance process, e.g. peer-review?
    • Identifying whether a source is popular or scholarly can give an indication of how authoritative it is.
    • Scholarly literature is usually written by subject experts and reviewed by other experts in the field before publication, which provides a degree of quality assurance.
    • Popular material is often based on opinion rather than evidence. It usually deals with broad issues and it is not always corroborated.
    • Scholarly material is evidence-based. It usually presents an in-depth analysis and is often peer-reviewed.
    • These distinctions will help you evaluate the information you find. Sometimes it will be appropriate to refer to popular material, but in general, most disciplines will expect you to cite scholarly literature.
    • This illustrates the concept of authority, placing sources on a spectrum from popular to scholarly:

Popular

Blog post from a member of the general public

Tweets from companies/organisations

Blog post from a member of the general public

Newspaper articles

Blog post from a trade magazine

Blog post from a subject expert

Government website

Conference proceedings

Academic book

Article in a peer-reviewed journal

Scholarly

Summary

In this resource, we have examined the three different characteristics of information, looking at why you need to use evidence in your assignments, and identifying some of the resources to find such evidence. This will help you make informed decisions about the type of sources to use in your work.

Introduction

Evaluating your sources is a very important part of your research, so you must ask questions of the sources to establish their reliability, objectivity and relevance. Through asking these questions, you can begin to assess the reliability, objectivity and relevance of the information you find.

  • Reliability – How trustworthy is the evidence? There needs to be a good reason to believe that the information presented is accurate and complete in order for a source to be considered reliable.
  • Objectivity – How neutral is the evidence? A source does not need to be objective to be used in your work. In some cases, you may be seeking sources from a particular perspective to illustrate a point or provide a counter-argument. It is important, however, that you recognise any bias when using a source.
  • Relevance – How applicable is the evidence? A source can be reliable, objective and of high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work, there’s no point in using it. Does it illustrate a point, or provide a counter-argument? It needs to be relevant in some way to the rest of your research to be worth using.

Six questions to ask yourself

These six elements make up a quick checklist of questions that you can ask yourself when you critically evaluate the sources you find.

  • What?
    • What type of source is it? This may indicate the quality of it.
    • What are the main arguments of the source?
      • Reliability: Has the information been verified in any way? For example, peer-reviewed journals and academic books are likely to be more reliable sources than information on a website.
      • Objectivity: Is the information similar to that found in other sources? If not, why do you think that is? A source that is dramatically different from other sources may indicate a bias.
      • Relevance: What is the content? Is it relevant to your research?

  • Why?
    • Why was it produced?
      • Reliability: Does the purpose of the source indicate its reliability? If it’s designed for persuasion or advertising, it may be incomplete and inaccurate.
      • Objectivity: Was the source created to persuade, sell, entertain, inform or for another purpose? Does the purpose influence the objectivity?
      • Relevance: Was it produced in response to a particular event, time or situation? Does this impact the relevance for your research?

  • When?
    • When was it published or last updated?
      • Reliability: If it’s a website, has it been updated recently? How can you tell? If not, this could impact on the reliability of the author, and relevance of the information.
      • Objectivity: Is there any bias about the information relating to when it was produced? If it was written in the aftermath of an event, this could affect the author’s perspective.
      • Relevance: Is it recent? If not, does that impact on the relevance for your work? This could vary between subject areas, as some areas of research are faster-moving than others.

  • How?
    • How was this information produced?
      • Reliability: Does the author include references to their sources? Is the methodology sound? If not, it may not be reliable.
      • Objectivity: The presence or absence of references may provide clues as to its objectivity. If the source is opinion-based and without reference to other sources, the neutrality may be in doubt.
      • Relevance: How was the data collected? Were the sample sizes significant enough for the results to be widely applicable?

  • Where?
    • Where was it published? This may relate to the country/region of origin, or the place that the source was made available.
      • Reliability: Was it published in an academic journal? If so, it’s likely to be more reliable than something published on the open web. If it is on a website, what is the URL? Certain domains can be an indication that they are a reliable source, e.g. ‘.org’, ‘.gov’, ‘.edu’, or ‘.ac.uk’.
      • Objectivity: If it’s a newspaper article, which paper was it in? Some newspapers have political allegiances, which could affect the objectivity of the information. This Wikipedia article gives an overview of the political orientation of British newspapers.
      • Relevance: Is it UK-based or international? Does the geographical context impact upon its relevance?

  • Who?
    • Who wrote or produced the source? This could prompt investigations into the author. Who is the target audience?
      • Reliability: Whose voice do they represent – observer, participant or researcher? Are they qualified to be writing about this subject?
      • Objectivity: What is the author’s agenda or bias? Does this impact on their work? Is the author independent, or are they writing on behalf of an organisation? Is the author affiliated to an organisation that could affect the objectivity?
      • Relevance: Does the audience that the information was produced for affect its relevance?

Using the questions

Remember that these questions are a guide. There are always exceptions, and you’ll need to use common sense when interpreting the answers.

You won’t always use all six questions to establish a source’s reliability, objectivity and relevance; often, just two or three will reveal something about the overall quality of the information.

Using these questions can help save time in filtering out unsuitable sources. You’ll usually be able to identify who, where and when from a book or article’s bibliographic details, or from a website’s URL and ‘about’ page.

Relevance

When choosing sources, you must think about how they match your needs – are they suitable for your purpose? Here are some examples:

  • Purpose: Reflecting public opinion
    • More useful: Blogs, newspapers, social media.
    • Less relevant: Textbooks, peer-reviewed journals.
    • Example: “According to Lynne Elliot, chief executive of the Vegan Society, the use of pork gelatine in vaccines and medicines could be putting people off getting the protection they need.” Quote from an article in The Mirror, a British newspaper.

  • Purpose: Current data, e.g. population statistics
    • More useful: Specialist statistical websites, government sources.
    • Less relevant: Newspapers, textbooks.
    • Example: Measles vaccination rate in the UK is 92% in 2015. Data from The World Bank, found on The World Bank website.

  • Purpose: Discussing theoretical ideas
    • More useful: Textbooks, peer-reviewed journals.
    • Less relevant: Websites, blogs, newspapers.
    • Example: The discovery of the role of the thymus in the immunological defence system has had wide repercussions in many fields, not least in the study of mechanisms of carcinogenesis. Information from article ‘Measles and Measles Vaccination’ in the British Medical Journal, a peer-reviewed journal.

  • Purpose:  Commenting on current debates
    • More useful: Peer-reviewed journals.
    • Less relevant: Websites, newspapers.
    • Example: Full implementation of the PAHO strategy is needed in the megacities and the surrounding regions to stop measles transmission. Information from article ‘Waving goodbye to measles’ in Nature, a peer-reviewed journal.

Summary

This post has examined a method of evaluating information sources, based around the six questions what, why, when, where, how, and who. Asking these questions will help establish the reliability, objectivity and relevance of the evidence.

Practice applying this method, and it will become second nature.

Introduction

In this post we will discuss tools you can use to look for information for your research. We’ll examine the benefits of each of these tools.

There are a number of search tools available to find information for your academic work. The tools we’ll be looking at are:

  1. Google
  2. Google Scholar
  3. Locate
  4. Subject Databases

Section 1: Examining Google

Google is the world’s most popular search engine, so much so that the word Google has made the leap from a company name to a verb.

Many people search Google on a daily basis for personal use, so it’s very likely you’ll already be familiar with using Google. This section looks at using it as part of your work at university.

Google

Verb

  1. To search the web, particularly using Google’s search engine.
  2. To search the name of someone or something on the internet.
What can you find using Google?

All sorts: Almost anything that is openly available on the web can be found searching Google. For your academic work, you can use it to find:

  • Government information
  • Company/organisation websites
  • Blogs and discussion forums on your subject areas
  • Dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • News articles and more

You can learn more about sources of information in Know your sources

Quality of results

Variable.

There is no review process for most information published on the web, so you need to be critical when using it.

Advanced tip:

To improve the quality of your results, you can use a domain search to limit your results to those from reputable websites.

For example, you might want to limit to ac.uk domains to search UK higher education websites, or gov.uk to search government websites.

You can specify a domain using the advanced search option. An even quicker option is to do this via your Google toolbar.

Type your search term followed by, for example, site: gov.uk to get results on mental health from UK government websites.

Quantity of results

High.

This is where information overload can become an issue.

Generating thousands of results can also lead to first-page-it-is, where you settle for the first results you find and rarely look beyond the first page. This means you may miss valuable information because it is not on the first or second page.

Advanced tip:

Use the refine options to reduce the number of results and improve the relevance of your searches.

After you’ve done a search, there are a number of quick refine options available via the search tools button. The advanced search tools offers further options, including narrowing your results by language, last update and file type.

What’s it good for?

  1. Finding quick answers to specific, factual questions.
  2. Getting an overview of a topic that is new to you.
  3. A starting point when you are struggling to find any information on a topic.
  4. Finding openly available materials such as government papers, statistics and recent newspaper articles.

Advanced tip:

Sites like Wikipedia are particularly good for this. You can follow up on the material listed in the references/notes, further reading and external links sections of articles to find further material.

Be wary of…

The filter bubble

              If you have a Google account, your search results will be tailored to reflect your interests. This is often useful when Googling for personal use, but it can be problematic when looking for information for your academic work.

Commercial results

A lot of the information you’ll find will be of a commercial nature, as Google’s main income comes from advertising.

Poor quality information

Anyone can publish online about any topic. There is no quality control of information; a lot of it is inaccurate, incomplete, biased, politically or commercially motivated and/or otherwise unreliable.

Section 2: Examining Google Scholar

Google Scholar provides a simple way to search scholarly literature. From one search box, you can search across many sources and disciplines.

Its similarity to Google makes it very easy to use google Scholar to find academic texts. However, Google Scholar doesn’t provide access to everything you might need, and if you use it exclusively you’re likely to miss out on a lot of other relevant resources.

Google Scholar definition: A freely available search engine that indexes material from a wide array of scholarly publications.

What can you find using Google Scholar?

You can access a wider variety of sources using Google Scholar, including:

Academic articles

Theses

Ebooks

Abstracts from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other websites.

You can learn more about sources of information in Know your sources

Quality of results

Good, especially if you link Google Scholar to Locate to access resources held by the Libraries of the Coventry University Group. The video at this link shows you how to link Google Scholar to Locate.

Quantity of results

Generally high, though not as many as a Google web search, as you are already limiting your results to scholarly material.

Advanced tip:

Use the refine options or the advanced search to reduce the number of results and improve the relevance of your searches. After you’ve done a search, there are a number of quick refine options available down the left side of the results page. The advanced search tool offers further options, including narrowing your results by date range or title of publication.

What’s it good for?

  1. A starting point for research.
  2. Building a search. When combined with Locate, in some cases it can provide a one-stop shop for relevant material.
  3. Quickly locating a specific article title.

Be wary of…

Reliability

              Google’s definition of scholarly material may differ from your tutors’; they do not release the parameters for what qualifies as scholarly material. You’ll need to analyse the source for yourself to decide if it is scholarly or popular.

Limited coverage

              It can take a while for articles to appear on Google Scholar, and a lot of academic journals don’t allow their material to be searched by it, so you may miss out on a lot of relevant articles if you don’t use other tools as well.

Limited scope

Google Scholar mainly covers journal articles, so it doesn’t retrieve other types of information such as news items or statistics.

Section 3: Examining Locate

Locate enables you to search the Library’s electronic and physical resources using a single search box.

You can access Locate at https://locate.coventry.ac.uk

Locate definition

Books, journals and more you can access using your university login.

What can you find?

Material held or subscribed to by the Library, including:

  • Journal articles
  • Books
  • Ebooks
  • Film and TV

You can learn more about sources of information in Know your sources

Quality of results

High.

Locate only returns results for items that the library has.

Quantity of results

Variable.

If you use the single search box first with no limits, you’ll often get a very large number of results. You can use the refinement options down the left of the screen to limit the results to a manageable number, or use the advanced search option to improve the relevance of your results further.

What’s it good for?

  1. A starting point for your research.
  2. Finding books and journals.
  3. Researching assignments when a full and systematic review of all literature on a topic isn’t required.

Be wary of…

The filter bubble

              If you’ve told Locate what your discipline is, your searches may exclude some results, similar to the way that Google personalises your searches. This can be useful, but be aware that it may bias your results in a certain direction.

Limiting yourself

              When faced with a large number of results, it can be tempting to refine them to items available online only. You can miss out on a lot of relevant resources by doing this.

Section 4: Examining subject databases

Databases provide access to scholarly material from academic publishers and specialist information providers. Much of this material will be peer-reviewed, which guarantees that the content will be of the highest quality. Your subject guide lists the key databases for your subject.

You will probably be less familiar with searching subject database than Google or Google Scholar. However they will give you access to the type of high-quality material that your tutors will be looking for you to use in your work.

Definition:

A database which provides bibliographic information about items such as books, articles and conference proceedings.

What can you find?

High-quality peer-reviewed scholarly material, including:

  • Journal articles
  • Book chapters
  • Reports
  • Reviews
  • Ebooks

There are also specialist databases which provide access to material such as detailed company information, reports and statistics; regional, nation and international newspapers; and legal case histories and legislation.

Quality of results

Very high.

Subject databases will return results only from peer-reviewed academic sources, so you can be sure that the information you find will be of high quality.

Quantity of results

Variable.

If you learn how to use databases effectively by planning an appropriate search, you will return a good number of relevant results.

Advanced tip: you can narrow and expand your searches by using various limits and connecting terms – like limiting by date range, and using the AND term.

What’s it good for?

Finding high-quality, peer-reviewed material.

Performing a comprehensive literature search for material on your topic.

Be wary of…

Being put off

              Searching databases may not look quite as straightforward as using other tools, but by using them you will search across few but quality, relevant resources, so it will ultimately save you time.

Being spoilt for choice

              There are a lot of databases available, and not all of them will be useful to you. Before you start, make sure you look at your subject guide to see which ones are most relevant to your own work.

 

Summary: Choosing the right tool

We’ve examined the four main tools in your search toolkit:

  1. Google
    1. Easy to use and great for finding quick answers, but the questionable quality of many of the results mean that it shouldn’t be used as the basis for your research.
  2. Google Scholar
    1. Just as easy to use as Google, and a great starting point for your research. Be careful not to rely exclusively on it though, as you might miss out on other high-quality, relevant resources.
  3. Locate
    1. Another great starting point, especially if you’re looking for books, ebooks and full text articles.
  4. Subject databases
    1. Use them to find high-quality academic texts; this is the sort of material your tutors will be looking for. Check your subject guide to find out which databases are most relevant to you.

Choosing the right tool for your needs will help you to avoid information overload, and find the most relevant resources quickly and easily.

Introduction

In this post, we’ll explore some of the issues involved around plagiarism and academic integrity, with the focus on these areas:

  • Adding to the conversation: including your own voice in your work.
  • Understanding plagiarism: what it is, how it is detected, and what the penalties are.
  • Student stories: the common issues students have.
  • Techniques: to avoid plagiarism and improve the quality of your work.

Section 1: Adding to the conversation

Your academic work should include your voice. You can and should include the ideas of others in your work; these can help you form your own ideas and conclusions about a topic.

Your work should acknowledge and add to the academic conversation that is already going on in your area of study. While you are contributing to the academic discussion, it is important to ensure that your voice is distinguished from the voice of others.

Failure to clearly differentiate your voice can result in plagiarism.

Section 2: Understanding plagiarism

In this section, we’ll look at what plagiarism is. We’ll also look at how it is detected and what the penalties are.

The Coventry University definition of plagiarism is:

“Taking the ideas or words of others and passing them off as your own. To make clear to readers the distinction between your words, images, etc. and the work of others, it is essential that you reference your work accurately. Plagiarism is a type of intellectual theft. It is also important to be aware that self-plagiarism (i.e. reusing your own work without referencing it) is also classed as plagiarism”.

This is what happens when you submit an assignment:

  • Work is checked in Turnitin.
    • All of your assessed assignments are submitted to a system called Turnitin to check for instances of plagiarism. Your assignments are checked for similarities against a database of other written works.
  • Matches are checked manually.
    • If your work matches closely against something in the Turnitin database, a member of academic staff will interpret the Turnitin data to see if you have plagiarised.
    • This is not only based on your similarity score. A high score does not necessarily mean you have plagiarised, and a low score does not necessarily mean that you haven’t.
  • An allegation is made.
    • If the staff member assessing your work believes you have plagiarised, they pass the allegation to an Academic Conduct Officer (ACO). If the ACO feels that there is a case to answer, they will meet with you to discuss the allegation.
    • Depending on the severity of the case, you may be asked to appear before a panel to discuss your work.
  • Potential consequences.
    • If you are found to have plagiarised, deliberately or not, there are a number of potential consequences:
      • Receive a reprimand or warning.
      • Receive a zero mark for the assignment, with no opportunity to re-submit.
      • Receive a zero mark for the whole module or year.
      • Suspension or exclusion from the University.

Section 3: Student stories

In this section, we’ll look at some students’ own experiences surrounding plagiarism.

  • In her study group session, Helen says that she doesn’t understand why she can’t just copy and paste information from books, articles and websites into her work. What advice might you give Helen?

Our answer:

    • Using the work of others without acknowledging the author(s) is plagiarism.
    • As well as being a form of plagiarism, copying large amounts of text is also poor academic practice, even when referenced. This would result in lower marks.
    • Ideas that are not your own can and should be included in your work, but they must be referenced, including when an idea is referred to, but not directly quoted from the original work.
    • A direct quotation from another source should always be written in quotation marks.

  • After submitting an assignment, Rashid received feedback saying that although it is clear that he has read the recommended texts, he has not clearly distinguished his own ideas from those that he has read. It also said that his paraphrasing is poor, and the ideas that he writes about are not connected with the texts in his reference list, making it difficult to follow-up references. What advice might you give Rashid?

Our answer:

    • In future assignments, Rashid should paraphrase his original sources as part of his research and note-making.
    • He should note the sources he used during his note-making, thus making it easier to reference later on.
    • It is important to reference all ideas and theories written about, making it clear who the author is, so that readers are able to follow up references to find the original sources.

  • Sam has a lot of assignments due in at the same time, so they work closely with a fellow student on one of them. Some parts of the work are copied from each other, so they submit similar pieces of work. What advice might you give Sam?

Our answer:

    • Sam’s assessment was detected by Turnitin as being similar to their fellow student’s. This is plagiarism, and they both received a zero mark for their work.
    • While it can be useful to work with others to discuss ideas, it is imperative that your individual work reflects your own efforts.
    • Working together and submitting similar pieces of work is known as collusion. This will be detected by plagiarism software such as Turnitin. Collusion can result in a zero mark, or more severe consequences.

  • Marissa is struggling to add her own contributions to her essays, as she doesn’t think her own ideas are good enough. She has therefore submitted an assignment which mainly consists of quotations from her set texts, which have been correctly referenced. What advice might you give Marissa?

Our answer:

    • Marissa was correct to reference the direct quotations, but her assignment doesn’t include any of her own input or ideas.
    • Submitting work that just consists of quotations suggests that she doesn’t understand any of the material.
    • Your academic work should show evidence of independent thought, by assessing and critically analysing the ideas and theories of others.
    • You should be adding your own ideas to the academic discussion, not just repeating what has already been said.

  • Felix is an MBA student, who completed his BA at a different university. Due to time pressures, he is considering submitting an assignment that combines two of his own pieces of work from his previous university. What advice might you give Felix?

Our answer:

    • Had Felix submitted this piece of work, Turnitin would have identified his work as plagiarism, and he would have received a zero mark.
    • Originality is vital in academic work, so any work submitted should be as a result of the given brief, not work previously submitted, regardless of institution.
    • You may incorporate your own previously related work, using the usual methods of quotation, paraphrase and citation, as you would with the work of others.

Section 4: Techniques to avoid plagiarism

There are a number of techniques you can use to avoid the risk of unintentionally plagiarising in your work.

  • Take effective notes
    • Adopting an effective note taking technique when carrying out your research and reading is the first step towards ensuring that you avoid plagiarism.
    • Ensure that you record details of all of the sources you use when taking notes. This makes it easier to reference your work accurately.
    • Summarising your sources while taking notes will help you synthesise other authors’ ideas, which will aid your understanding and be useful when you come to write up your assignment.
  • Summarise and paraphrase
    • A key skill in avoiding plagiarism is to summarise and paraphrase effectively.
    • By re-writing ideas and theories into your own words, you will illustrate that you have understood them. This is a good way of drawing together different voices into one coherent piece of work.
    • To paraphrase effectively, re-write a passage of text in your own words, extracting the key points and compressing the original text. Remember to reference all paraphrasing accurately.
    • Avoid including too many direct quotations; including them does not illustrate any understanding of the topic, and using a lot of them can make your writing disjointed.
  • Making your voice heard
    • Your tutors want to know what you think.
    • Present the facts and information from your sources accurately, but give your own judgement of the implications and meaning of that information.
    • It says: These are the facts. Quote your sources accurately and reference them correctly.
    • You say: This is your analysis of the sources, including comments on errors, omissions and areas of disagreement.
    • And so: These are the implications of your analysis. This may go back to your claim or thesis. It’s the ‘take away’ from your analysis.
  • Attribute your sources
    • Accurately reference all of the sources that you use that are not your own. This includes direct quotations, paraphrases and any other circumstance in which you refer to another author’s work.
    • Check which referencing style to use. Coventry University are switching from CU Harvard to APA, so check which one your school is using.
    • You don’t need to reference information that is common knowledge. Understanding what counts as common knowledge can be difficult, and will change depending on the subject. If you are not sure, then it is safest to include a reference.
    • Do not re-use work that you have previously submitted for another assignment.

Summary:

In this post we have explored the following areas:

  • Adding to the conversation: including your own voice in your work.
  • Understanding plagiarism: what it is, how it is detected, and what the penalties are.
  • Student stories: the common issues students have.
  • Techniques: to avoid plagiarism and improve the quality of your work.

You should now have a better idea of what plagiarism is, and be aware of the techniques you can use in your work to ensure that you make your own voice heard and maintain your academic integrity.

You may now also wish to read the ‘Citing it right: Introduction to referencing’ post, or look at our referencing guides.

Introduction

Your ability to be critical will be vital to your academic success.

Any assignment that asks you to analyse, discuss, evaluate, examine, reflect, compare or contrast will require you to think, read and write critically.

Being critical encompasses a range of skills that are both vital to academic study and transferable to many other areas of life, including identifying arguments, analytical reasoning and synthesising information.

In this resource, you’ll explore how to be critical, highlighting practical strategies you can use in your academic reading and writing that will enable you to demonstrate critical analysis in your assignments.

What is being critical?

To be critical means that you constantly question and evaluate what is put in front of you. Never accept anything on faith!

It means having confidence in your own analysis. Look for gaps in a scholar’s argument and pinpoint any assumptions they are making. Also, always check an argument against other sources of evidence and your own existing knowledge.

What are you reading for?

We all do a lot of reading in our day-to-day lives, but we don’t devote the same amount of time and attention to everything we read. The way you read a novel will be very different to the way you read a noticeboard; your approach varies according to your purpose.

The three main approaches to academic reading are information, understanding and analysis.

  • Reading for information
    • Overview: This is when to read to find specific pieces of data.
    • Examples: You apply this approach when giving directions, finding the library’s opening hours or looking up an author’s date of birth.
    • Technique: This involves scanning a text to look for keywords or phrases that answer your question, then moving on.

  • Reading for understanding
    • Overview: This is when you gather general information, aiming to gain an overview of the area.
    • Examples: You may use this approach when reading for pleasure, or doing background reading on a certain subject.
    • Technique: This involves reading a text once from start to finish, often passively.

  • Reading for analysis
    • Overview: This is when you engage your prior knowledge and actively apply it to what you are reading.
    • Examples: You would apply this approach when reading for an essay, dissertation, literature review or thesis.
    • Technique: This involves reading a text actively multiple times. This is critical reading.

You’re the judge

Critical reading is much like being a judge at a trial; you must cross examine the arguments of other scholars. These arguments are subjective, much like a witness testimony in court.

You must ask:

  • What claims is the text making?
  • What reasons are given for those claims?
  • Are these claims supported by evidence?
  • Are there any inconsistencies between this and other texts?

By questioning everything you read in this way, examining all pieces of evidence and how they relate to each other, you can make a critical decision about the validity and relevance of the arguments made.

Critical reading strategy

This step-by-step process can help you to be critical when reading. Following each step will ensure that you engage fully with the texts you are reading.

  • Predict: What are you expecting?
  • Identify: What are the main ideas?
  • Question: How do I know this?
  • Clarify: What is unclear?
  • Summarise: What is it saying?

This strategy will help you to focus your reading effectively, taking into account both the small details and the wider context.

We will now look at each step in more detail.

  • Predict
    • Making predictions before you start will help guide your reading in a purposeful way.
    • Predictions will help you to create links between what you are reading and what you already know; you will then start to make connections between concepts.
    • Formulating these ideas gives your brain something to focus on, helping you to avoid getting to the end of the text and not getting out of it what you need.
    • Before you start reading the text, ask yourself the following questions:

      • What do I want to get out of reading it?
      • What are my expectations?
      • What are my goals?
      • What are my limits?
      • What do I think the main arguments will be?

    • Write down your predictions, as you will need to refer back to them later in the process.
    • Key tip: When reading a book or chapter, you can skim the introduction and conclusion in order to answer the questions. When reading a journal article, you can usually answer the questions from reading the abstract, then the discussion/conclusion.

  • Identify
    • At this stage you should be focusing on understanding the text by identifying the main ideas.
    • The main ideas are the arguments that the author has arrived at via analysis of the facts and data; the facts and data themselves are not the main ideas.
    • Read the text in full, asking yourself the following questions:

      • What are the main ideas in the text?
      • What are the key pieces of information?
      • What links these pieces of information together?
      • How do these ideas link with other ideas I’ve read about?

    • As you read, you’ll start to recognise patterns within the text and make links with other texts that you have read. What themes are emerging from your reading?

  • Question
    • Having read and understood the text, this is where your analysis begins.
    • Look for weaknesses or limitations in the argument or evidence provided. Sometimes these limitations will be stated; more often they will be implicit and harder to find.
    • Ask yourself the following questions:

      • Is there any information missing?
      • Are the arguments valid?
      • Is the data reliable?
      • What are the implications?
      • What is the author’s position – is there a bias?
      • Are the arguments applicable beyond the context of this particular text?
      • How does it fit with other evidence and what I already know about the topic?

    • Key tip: Look for themes in the questions that you are asking of the text and the answers you are getting. Once you recognise these themes, you will be able to decide what your own opinions are concerning them. This will provide a foundation for what you will write later.

  • Clarify
    • This stage further develops your understanding of the text.
    • You need to ensure that you understand all of the terminology used in the text, otherwise you may misinterpret what is said.
    • Ask yourself the following questions:

      • Are any words, phrases or sentences unclear?
      • Do I understand all of the terminology?
      • Does the text refer to any other authors or theories that might be relevant to my reading?

    • Answering these questions will help you to decide what else you need to read.
    • You can look up word definitions in the online Oxford English Dictionary, available via Locate.

  • Summarise
    • Writing a summary is a good way to cement your understanding of a topic, ensuring that you have grasped the important concepts.
    • Summarise the key arguments of the text in a couple of sentences, using your own words.
    • Once you’ve done this, refer back to your previous prediction. Do they both match up? Did you get what you needed from the text?
    • This should help you decide what to do next. For example, if you were looking to find evidence to support one of your arguments and you haven’t yet found it, you will need to look elsewhere to get what you need.
    • Key tip: If you can’t summarise what you have read, you haven’t understood it properly. You may need to go back to the ‘identify’ stage to ensure that you have understood the main arguments and ideas.

Writing critically

The vast majority of your assignments will require you to write critically. In order to do this, you need to use the analysis you have done in your reading and apply the same approach to your writing.

Critical writing gives you the opportunity to:

  • Introduce your audience to your arguments and ideas.
  • Demonstrate your thought process.
  • Guide your reader through your analysis and evidence.
  • Contribute new ideas to the debate surrounding your topic.

Critical writing requires analysis and discussion, rather than merely description.

This section will examine the differences between descriptive and analytical writing, and outline a strategy that you can use to ensure that your writing remains critical throughout your assignment.

Description v analysis

  • Descriptive writing
    • Overview: This style of writing is primarily about reporting facts, events and data.
    • Characteristics: This style provides an account of a situation but does not draw any conclusions, highlight any implications, or otherwise provide anything to aid the reader in understanding the significance of the information given.
    • Example: “The school board met to discuss district policy, tenure and the start date for the academic year”.

  • Analytical writing
    • Overview: This style calls for interpretation of facts, events and data.
    • Characteristics: In order to be analytical, you need to compare, contrast and synthesise information, clarifying the importance of some data over others. You must provide arguments which are supported by the evidence in the facts and data.
    • Example: “Following a summer of debate, the school board met to discuss the impact that district policy and tenure will have on the start of the new school year. With tensions running high around the cost of new initiatives, the meeting often divided along party lines”.

‘It says’; ‘I say’; ‘and so’

This strategy helps you write critically by breaking your writing down into three main areas.

  • It says: These are the facts – the data and other information that you use to support your argument and opinions.
  • I say: This is your analysis of the data, which demonstrates your understanding of the topic, and guides your reader through the process by which you arrived at your conclusions.
  • And so: This section outlines the implications of your analysis and how these connect with the rest of your writing. Including this in your assignment will ensure that you produce a cohesive piece of writing, rather than a just a succession of unrelated paragraphs.

Bear all of this in mind when you are reviewing your work. Check that you have enough ‘I say’ and ‘and so’ within your assignment to ensure you avoid purely descriptive writing.

Introduction

Reports come in many forms and formats; the ability to write clear and well-structured reports is often a requirement at university and throughout your career.

This resource will give you a brief introduction to producing a written report for subjects where they are most commonly used, exploring typical conventions and considerations that you must bear in mind.

What is a report?

The most important thing to remember when producing a report is that a report is not an essay! Before you start working on an assignment, check that a report is what is required. Then identify the purpose of the report and the type of report required.

Reports v Essays

Similarities

  • Reports and essays both have core points that need to be explored or explained.
  • Both should include an introduction and a conclusion.
  • Both should have a considered, well-organised structure.
  • The language in both should be tailored to the target audience.

Differences

Reports Essays
Reports are broken up into sections, which then usually have sub-headings within them. Reports can also include diagrams, graphics and tables. Essays are traditionally long, flowing texts without any sub-headings.
Reports have stated aims that they will fulfil; they will say something new and worthwhile, and will demonstrate the significance of the findings. An essay can often allow the author more opportunity to develop and expand on ideas and concepts.
Reports are based on empirical data. Essays typically explore theoretical arguments and scenarios.
Reports can, in some instances, be presented orally; a written report would usually be submitted with a presentation.  

Typical conventions

Reports have several conventions which make them different from other pieces of academic work.

  • Reports have aims that are clearly highlighted.
  • A report will fulfil its aims.
  • A report will show, transparently, exactly how it has fulfilled its aims.
  • A report will detail the significance of its findings, analysing how they relate to the aims in a systematic way.

Report components

Here, we will explore the three components of a report: Structure, Purpose, and Referencing.

  • Structure

    Reports are well-structured, making use of section titles and sub-headings. This section will explore elements which are common to the structures of most report types, detailing what each section is. The main body tends to vary the most from report to report. You should check your assignment brief, and, if you are in any doubt, talk to your tutor.

    When you begin to plan the structure of your report, it is important to consider your headings carefully.

    Ensure you choose the headings which fit the form of your project the best.

    A report contains numbered headings and sections, which help the reader to find the information they require.

    These are the typical sections that a report may include:

     
    • Title page – This contains the title of the report and the author’s name, along with any other required details, such as ID number, course name, and date of submission. It should make clear what the report is about, and the title page is an opportunity to demonstrate professionalism.
    • Summary – Sometimes called ‘Executive Summary’ or ‘Abstract’. This section gives an overview of the whole report, and is not an introduction. It should be possible for a reader to understand the key information contained within the report from reading the summary. It is worth spending time getting the summary right, as it is the first impression the reader gets of your project, and gives an indication of quality of the whole project.
    • Contents – To assist the reader in finding information quickly, the table of contents should show the numbered section headings and sub-headings, and the page numbers where they can be found.
    • Introduction – This provides an outline of the reason for writing the report and an overview of the information required to understand it. This might be the particular problem that the report is addressing, or a background of the general topic. The introduction may also contain the aims and scope of the report.
    • Body – What goes in the body of the report depends upon its purpose, and the audience it is aimed at. It might contain background, context, literature review, research questions, hypotheses, software descriptions, history, process, specifications, methodology, results, findings, analysis, discussion, case studies, SWOT and PESTEL analyses, models, etc. What is included will also be determined by the assignment brief and the expectations of your tutor.
    • Conclusion – This presents the end of the piece of work and should summarise your whole report. Sometimes, this is called ‘Discussion’ and may include ‘Limitations’ or ‘Recommendations’, depending on the type of report, its purpose and audience. The concluding comments should directly relate to the aims set out in your introduction, and whether or not they have been met. It may also inform the reader of any future research which could be carried out in the subject area.
    • References – This section contains the full references for any sources that have been cited within the report, including tables and figures. This allows the reader to follow up and find the information from the sources you have used.
    • Appendices – This section contains any further information which was too detailed to appear in the main body of the report, but which you made reference to, such as raw data. However, appendices are generally for supporting information only. Any information that is essential to fulfilling the purpose of your report should be included in the main body. Appendices may not necessarily be closely read, so if you put important information in there, they may not attract any marks.
  • Purpose

    When writing any report you need to consider the reasons you are writing it and the audience it is aimed at. Report assignments are often use to assess a student’s ability to clearly communicate information in their subject in a format used in professional contexts.

    Reports use a number of different ways to present information. The best format to use will depend on the information that you are trying to communicate, and the audience that it is aimed at. Most of the report is likely to be text, including the discussion and analysis, but text might not be the best way to communicate parts of the information.

    The three most common types of reports are Business, Laboratory, and Technical. Other sub-types may include case studies, reflective reports or specific professional reports.

    • Business reports – These typically report on company activities. The purpose is to improve business operations, and the audience would be directors, accountants or marketing staff.

    • Laboratory reports – These typically report on the results of laboratory testing. The purpose is to report on the success or failure of tests, by analysing collected data. The audience would be other scientific experts is the field.

    • Technical reports – These typically report on processes, techniques and specifications. The purpose is to share knowledge on how to complete processes, using software, construction techniques, and design. The audience would include other users, peers and team members.

  • Presenting data

    Figures (tables, charts, graphs, images and diagrams) can all be used to present certain types of information more effectively. They should have a clear purpose and help you to communicate your ideas to the reader. Text should also be used to explain the importance of the information included in any figures. This might be an analysis of the data contained in a table, or the importance of differences shown on a graph.

    • Tables – Allows large amounts of information to be presented more clearly than using text. This might be your own research, or drawing together information from various sources for comparison. Carefully consider the information to include, to make the table most effective. If you are presenting your own research, you may only wish to include a selection, but you should include the full raw data in the appendices.
    • Charts and graphs – Charts are used to present a graphical representation of the data. Always consider which type of chart or graph is most suitable to present the data.
    • Images and diagrams – An image or diagram can often help explain more complex ideas. This could be a labelled photograph, or a diagram illustrating the various stages of a process.

    Graphs, charts, illustrations and other visual aids can make your information easier to understand and can aid the analysis of data. However, they should only be used if they enhance the analysis or understanding. If they serve no purpose, they should not be used. Also, they should not detract from the written text, or replicate it.

  • Referencing

    As with any other form of academic writing, it is important to acknowledge the sources referred to in your report. For more on referencing, see the ‘citing it right’ post and our referencing guide.

    In the ‘Purpose’ section, we looked at how figures should only be included where they help communicate ideas more clearly. This section will look at how these figures should be labelled and referenced, to help readers get the most out of them. All figures should be labelled, whether they are your own or from other sources. Figures taken from other sources must also be referenced.

    • Figure created by author – If you create a figure yourself, such as a graph showing your data, you do not need to reference it. However, you should still label it, typically below the figure, e.g. ‘Figure 1. Laboratory structure’.
    • Figure taken from another source – A figure from another source, such as a diagram from a textbook, needs to be referenced and labelled according to the referencing system you are using. If you create a figure using information from multiple sources, you need to reference all sources.

Summary

Reports are a record of your own research and work. All reports are different, but mostly follow the key conventions which have been highlighted in this resource. Treat a report like any other piece of academic work and maintain the same high standards of writing and referencing. Remember that some reports are more specialised and have their own subset of conventions, which you should be aware of.

If you are in any doubt, always refer to the assignment brief or check with your tutor.