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Identifying Your Research Interest

The work you do when you conduct your research study will be built upon the work of other researchers who have laid the groundwork for your topic area. Therefore, immersing yourself in the literature is an excellent place to start. You will be reviewing scholarly journals, Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), and books in the library or online. Sometimes the title of a publication will pique your interest based on your topic. Yes, I know you most likely haven't honed in on a specific topic yet. On the other hand, if you have identified a topic, a search of the literature based on your topic might very well result in modifying what you originally intended to do. One of the fatal mistakes that doctoral students make is identifying a research interest that is trivial or has already been done before. Your study should contribute to the literature, rather than elicit the reaction, "So what?" Reviewing the research that has already been done and the methods that investigators used in conducting their studies provides a chronological framework that shows you how ideas were developed. It will also highlight the missing pieces--a gap in the literature or a place where you can extend it--that might very well lead to your specific topic.

Steps in Reviewing the Literature

The figure below illustrates the steps involved in reviewing the related literature:

Define your idea in as general terms as possible by using general sources.

Search through the secondary sources.

Search through the primary sources.

Organize your notes.

Write your proposal.

Figure 1. Steps in Reviewing the Literature (Source: Salkind, N.J. (2006). Exploring Research, 6e, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.)

Does it sound like a daunting task? In this first Research Seminar, we will strive to accomplish the first four steps in the process, and indeed, that will be a major accomplishment. However, thinking about this as a step-by-step process somehow might make it seem more within your grasp.


Note that the first three steps illustrated above refer to general sources, secondary sources, and primary sources. What are they and how are they different?

General Sources

General sources provide you, the researcher, with an introduction to general areas in which you might be interested and hints as to where you can find more valuable information about your topic. It's a great place to start your literature review, because you can browse this type of source. One might compare a general source to window shopping. You peruse Nordstrom's window, for example, not really knowing what you want to purchase, but looking at the items in the window leads you inside to a specific department within the store, and eventually you are drawn to specific items within that department. This is how you will proceed from general sources to secondary sources and then to primary sources as you read the literature.

Just a few of the many general sources found in the library and/or online are listed below:

The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. A comprehensive source (published monthly) that guides the researcher to general literature and is organized by topic.

Facts on File (FOF). This publication summarizes international news. Searching its databases can be very useful in exploring the literature in your field. You can search by a variety of topics. The online site is

The New York Times Index provides (by subject area) all the articles published since the mid-1800s. You can generally find the actual newspaper in the library, provided it is current, or on microfilm, thereby saving on the handling of the paper copy, which will deteriorate as many hands use it. You will not find the Index online, but you can search through the publication's archives at Be forewarned, however, that if the article you want is more than seven days old, you will likely be charged a fee. Googling the site for other news magazines, such as Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, will lead you to their sites, too, where you can search their respective archives for articles related to your topic.

Lexis/Nexis Academic is a highly regarded database that I hope the Pace library will show us when we visit on our next face-to-face class meeting. It generally is available online through university libraries. You will find it in the list of Pace University’s library databases. This database enables the researcher to search topics, sort the information in a variety of ways, and print or e-mail it to the individual or others (if there is no other way to keep a record).

The Statistical Abstract of the United States. This source is published annually for the U.S. Department of Commerce ( and provides demographic and other information that can be very useful to the researcher.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources provide a level of information that is once removed from the original research. For example, these might include reviews of research, syntheses of other work on the topic, anthologies of readings, encyclopedias, and textbooks.

Examples include:

Reviews and Syntheses of Literature. These voluminous books are often found in the reference section of your library, rather than in the stacks. Libraries keep them readily available, because so many people refer to them. These Annual Reviews cover approximately 30 disciplines. More information about these volumes and sample tables of contents can be found at

National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) Yearbooks include annual reviews of interest to those in the field of education. You can find this publication at:

Primary Sources

When you use primary sources, you could say that you are getting your information "right from the horse's mouth." While secondary sources might glean some excellent ideas and a wealth of information, you really need to go to the original source to get the specific information you need. The best way, in fact, to handle the related literature review is to use mostly primary sources with much fewer secondary courses to aid in making your key points. General sources should only be used when you are initially investigating your topic. Information is not first hand or in legal parlance, it is “hearsay."

Journals. You probably already read journals that relate to your field, but there are numerous reputable journals that cover almost any topic you can name. In fact, there are too many to mention here. Thousands of periodicals, including journals and trade publications, can be found in Ulrich's Periodicals Directory found at As you find journals that are relevant to the DPS in Computing for Education Professionals degree program, please share them with us via e-mail in the Interesting Websites Discussion Board forum. Research journals are reputable, because they are generally peer reviewed by experts in the field (usually, two or more). Further, anonymity of the author of the manuscript is preserved when the editor of the journal removes the title page of the submission, which includes author contact information. Using a blind review process (assuring that the author cannot be identified) makes the process fair and unbiased. The Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal found at is but one example of a peer-reviewed journal that undergoes this process.

Abstracts. Abstracts provide a brief summary of what the journal article contains, usually in two or three paragraphs. Additionally, when you are writing the review of related literature section of your proposal, you should consult Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), a comprehensive database of dissertations. When you find an abstract that is extremely similar to the problem you are researching, you can obtain the full dissertation through inter-library loan, or you can purchase a paperback version through UMI. Note: It is acceptable to use dissertation abstracts for the review of the literature in your proposal but not in your completed dissertation. Additionally, time will lapse between the time your proposal is accepted and when you complete the writing of your dissertation. That means that you will need to update the review of the literature to remain current!

How Extensive Does the Literature Search Need to Be?

Since some sources go back well into the 1800s, do you need to include everything ever written about your topic? This answer is, as you must have surmised, "No!" Generally, I recommend that you include the last five to seven years of literature on your topic, while focusing on the most recent research. This holds true, especially where technology is concerned, because you will find that some of the older literature is outdated. You'll benefit most by reading what researchers have studied recently. Remember, it is perfectly acceptable to replicate a study (not plagiarizing, of course!) by using a different setting or different population. Why reinvent the wheel?

Pace Library Databases

This online academic research service combines four major databases with practical research assistance on the Web. Research Navigator also helps you to understand the research process and, at the same time, provides extensive information on conducting library research.

The following databases will be useful to you as you search the literature for research on your potential topic:

Academic Search Premier[Ftxt] Note that “Ftxt” stands for “Full Text,” so many research article are available through this database.

Dissertation Abstracts Online This very useful database allows you to search for dissertations that have been completed at various universities. You can read the abstract to determine whether or not the full dissertation will be helpful to you in the research process.

Doctoral Dissertations – Pace University This database helps you to access the full text of dissertations that have been completed at Pace. Selected dissertations from other universities are also available through this database.

EBSCOhostMobile Here you can search a single database or several databases simultaneously. Of interest to you will be ERIC (The Education Resource Information Center), Academic Search Premier (described above), Education Abstracts, which provides numerous abstracts related to the field of education, PsycINFO, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) resource for scholarly books, peer-reviewed journals, and dissertations, and Professional Development Collection, touted as “the most comprehensive collection of full text education journals in the world” (

You will notice that some of these databases overlap, because their content is similar.

Endnote X3

This bibliographic software program helps the writer cite his/her sources accurately. The newest version of the software is Endnote X2. With this program, you will be able to write annotated bibliographies to share with others in the class. We’ll talk more about annotated bibliographies and evaluating the research you read later in the course.

WHAT'S NEXT? If you haven’t yet begun the assignments for this week, you should proceed to the assignments for Week Three. Good luck!

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Related Content

In addition to the example literature review above we also have a range of free study materials to help you with your own dissertation: