Graduate Research

Lesson 1: Engaging with Existing Research

1.1 Scholarly Conversations

Just as each discipline has its own methods for conducting research, disciplines also vary in the way they communicate the results of that research. Some fields, especially in the humanities, tend to share research through the publication of books in addition to journals. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—otherwise known as STEM fields—tend to share their scholarship through academic journals, where articles can be published on a faster timeline, and scientists can communicate their results before being ‘scooped’ by other researchers. Professional fields, such as teaching, engineering, and law, sometimes also share scholarship and best practices via trade journals, which can be more readily consumed by busy practitioners. Many fields also share research through conference proceedings, standards and technical reports, and blogs, especially research that is in the early stages or in-progress. If you’re engaged in interdisciplinary research, you may need to explore many different communication methods in order to glean what is most relevant to your research. And of course, all of these methods may in turn be promoted, shared, and discussed using social media and other online mediums. This constellation of communication channels provides the means for what is known as a scholarly conversation.

What is a scholarly conversation?

When an academic journal article or book is published, typically, the author makes reference to relevant studies and literature in order to place the research within the larger context of the field. In this way, the author is ‘talking’ to other scholars who came before them. Authors may quote, summarize, critique, or respond to other research and published ideas, and others may in turn cite them. Thus, the authors are said to be in conversation with each other, as they are engaged in a communication exchange within and across disciplines. These conversations can happen in as many different mediums as exist for publication, including social media and blogs.

How to follow a scholarly conversation

As you establish your own academic voice, it’s important to identify where these conversations are happening—which journals, conferences, and websites are communicating and facilitating the exchange of ideas in your field. You should also be attuned to not only the loudest voices but also which voices are included and excluded from the conversation. Historical and contemporary exclusion from academia for people of color and women has an ongoing effect on whose perspectives are included and most valued in these exchanges and is something to be mindful of as you delve into the literature of your discipline. Talk with your mentors and peers to find out what they’re reading, in which mediums they publish, and how they stay current on research within your field. Once you’ve identified a source important to your own research, it can also be useful to examine both the sources it cites (in a bibliography or works cited list), and also additional publications which have cited the source since it was published, essentially tracing the conversation up and down the communication chain. There are a variety of free and subscription tools that can assist you in illuminating these scholarly exchanges, including Google Scholar and Web of Science.

For more information on information sources, self-enroll in our online tutorial and check out Module 1: Information Ecosystem: Sift & Winnow: Libraries@UW

Check your understanding

A scholarly conversation has a finite begining and end. True or False?

False. Scholarly conversations do not have a clear begining or end since researchers and academics continually seek out new avenues of research and discovery by building upon the work that preceded them, as well as finding new interdisciplinary connections.

Which of the following are potential tools to explore a scholarly conversation?

  1. Databases
  2. Keywords
  3. Dissertations
  4. Social Media

All of the above are ways to explore a scholarly conversation. Databases contain sources that are a part of the conversation, keywords from one source can lead you to discover more, and the literature review or bibliography of a dissertation is also very helpful. The discussion of research is prolific and is not limited to just scholarly databases and articles. Scholars often discuss research on social media since it has a broad reach.

1.2 Research Cycle

Although the process of scholarship varies within each individual field, most disciplines follow the same general research cycle. Often, this begins with an idea generating phase and may be followed by seeking funding, depending on the type and scope of research. Then, researchers often write a proposal before conducting the research itself. Finally, researchers share their results through publications and measure the impact by tracking citations. This process is often cyclical, and in some fields, certain phases may be iterative as proposals and funding shift over time. Explore the different stages of the Research Life Cycle and the tools and services that the library provides to support you during each stage.

Research Life Cycle

Open Research Life Cycle in a new window


Literature and systematic review process

As part of the idea generation and proposal writing phases, many scholars will conduct a review of published research in order to situate their own area of study within the context of existing knowledge and also to avoid duplication of research. The libraries provide many tools to assist with discovering published research, including subject-specific and multidisciplinary databases and the catalog. These tools can help you to gain a sense of not only what has been published so far but also what gaps might exist in the scholarly conversation.


Databases contain journals. Journals are composed of articles. This image is a hierarchy with databases at the top, followed by journals, then articles.
Database -> Journal -> Article Hierarchy

Databases are often focused on a particular area (e.g. gender studies) or type of material (e.g. newspapers) and contain everything from scholarly journals to primary source materials to videos and images. Therefore, when you’re looking for articles on a particular topic, it’s often best to start with a database specific to that field.

Once you start searching, you’ll also develop a more acute awareness as to the specific language and terminology that experts in the field are using. Pay attention to keywords, and be sure to explore the database’s subject or thesaurus tool if available. Select an image below to magnify the image.



Database Thesaurus

Database Subjects




Article Keywords

Dissertations

Another good place to start when entering a scholarly conversation is with dissertations on similar or related fields. To reach the level of a dissertation, typically the author is well-versed in the literature of their field and exploring their references can be a useful jumping-off point for your own research. At this stage of exploration, try not to become overwhelmed with the pressure of coming up with a novel research topic. The more you’re able to explore existing conversations—including those in other disciplines—the easier it will be to identify an area that is not only interesting to you, but also an area of needed exploration.


Quiz

Test your knowledge of scholarly communication and strategies to engage with existing research by answering the three questions below. Complete the Lesson 1 Quiz before moving on to Lesson 2: Disciplinary Databases & Tools.

Question 1

You discover a source integral to your research question. What parts of the article would allow you to discover earlier sources in the scholarly conversation? Select all that apply.

Literature Review

Results

Bibliography

Conclusion

The correct answer is Literature Review and Bibliography.

Authors build upon prior studies and literature when conducting research. They cite the prior literature in bibliography and will often discuss the sources in a literature review section. The results and conclusion sections will be focused on the author’s own research rather than prior sources in a scholarly conversation.

Question 2

Which of the following are potential tools to explore a scholarly conversation? Select all that apply.

Databases

Keywords

Dissertations

Social Media

The correct answer is Databases, Keywords, Dissertations, and Social Media.

All of the above are ways to explore a scholarly conversation. Databases contain sources that are a part of the conversation, keywords from one source can lead you to discover more, and the literature review or bibliography of a dissertation is also very helpful. The discussion of research is prolific and is not limited to just scholarly databases and articles. Scholars often discuss research on social media since it has a broad reach.

Question 3

Using the Libraries’ website that organizes databases by subject/type (https://databases.library.wisc.edu/), identify databases you think would be helpful for exploring published literature in Social Work. Select all that apply.

PsycINFO

Social Work Abstracts

BioCyc

SocINDEX with Full Text (EBSCO)

Family & Society Studies Worldwide

AGRICOLA

The correct answer is PsycINFO, Social Work Abstracts, SocINDEX with Full Text (EBSCO), and Family & Society Studies Worldwide.

Social Work Abstracts, SocINDEX, and Family & Society Studies Worldwide are databases dedicated to the field of Social Work and it is important to explore the subject databases. However, searching in databases in related fields or disciplines that impact your research topic, such as PsycINFO, a Psychology database, could also lead to finding useful sources.