Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Writing a research proposal: the literature survey

Whether you call it a literature survey or a literature review ...

If you're writing a proposal for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree research project, these comments might help. 

(However, this is NOT about writing dozens of pages, describing scientific methods or submitting costings for a funding bid!)

So ... you've got an idea for a research project, and you've got to submit something in writing. 

  • Have you established how much you are expected to write? 
  • Do you have any indication how many citations you should come up with? 
  • Have you been given any guidance about the currency of your citations?
The Whittaker Library supports staff and students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in their general studies and subject-specific research.  Our focus is the performing arts: music, drama, production, film, and dance.  If you were putting together a literature review for a scientific research project, you'd probably be much more concerned about currency.  (No point in outlining what you think is a cutting-edge piece of research, if the edge was metaphorically cut months or even years ago!)  That's not quite so crucial in our field.

The purpose of your literature review is to show that you know what's out there already.  The format of what you find (book, journal article, website etc) is not so important as the content.  Nonetheless, you'll make yourself look more convincing as a researcher if you show that you know about the most useful electronic resources.

The Whittaker Library offers a lot of subject-specific and more generic electronic resources.  What you need to do is three-fold:-

  1. See what's in the Library catalogue - are there any key resources that you might use as a starting point?  (Or, indeed, that you think are so far off the mark that you wish to argue with?!)
  2. Anyone can do a Copac library search, which will check all the UK national and university libraries at once. Zetoc is a good general resource, too.
  3. See what a search of electronic resources comes up with.  Our library website has a page for ALL electronic resources (e-journals included); and another page for databases alone. 
If your research is going to be inter-disciplinary (eg combining music and drama), then the general searches are very important: you never know where your most likely sources will come from.  But don't forget to look at subject-specific bibliographic resources, too.  There are electronic abstracts and indexes especially for music, and especially for drama and dance.

How much time to spend?  Some people spend weeks, dipping in and out of resources before deciding what to include.  If you've got a limited amount of time, say a couple of hours, why not allocate half an hour to each of these three activities, then spend the last half-hour synthesising your findings and writing about what you've found?

Writing about what you've found is one thing; it's a good idea to put these resources in a neat, succinct bibliography, too.  That shows you understand the discipline of precise, accurate citation.  E.g.,

Atkinson, Charles M., The Critical Nexus: Tone-System, Mode, and Notation in Early Mediaeval Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Steyn, Carol, 'The Music Manuscripts of the Grey Collection in Cape Town and their European Connections', Fontes Vol.59 no.1 (2012), 45-56

Note that the first is a book; the second a journal article.  Bibliographies are in alphabetical order of author, but you describe books and journals slightly differently.

As soon as you start your research, you need to think much more deeply about bibliographies and ways of keeping track of your references.  But that's further down the line.

Good luck!

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