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Research Support Guide for Law Postgraduate Students and Academic Staff

Research support assistance and useful library resources for Postgraduate students and Academic Staff
  • Once you have selected a topic, you must decide what exactly interests you most about your topic. 
  • For example, you may have chosen globalization as a topic, but when you run a search for globalization in the Library databases, you get over 12,000 results! In a situation like this you will need to narrow your search. What about globalization interests you?
  • Try adding some keywords to globalization to come up with a smaller, more manageable, set of search results.
  • You may also find that your research topic is much too narrow, or focused. Trying to look for articles about the effects of globalization on outsourced employees living in Bellville, Cape Town, will more than likely return zero results. In this situation you need to broaden your topic by taking away some keywords or being less specific about your research topic.

globalization = too broad
globalization on outsourced employees living in Bellville, Cape Town = too narrow
globalization on outsourced employees = manageable topic


  • Use your research topic or question to identify the main ideas, which will become your keywords.
  • For example, "Is there a relationship between globalization and the human rights of outsourced employees? “

keywords = globalizationhuman rightsoutsourced employees

  • As you continue searching, refine your search by adding or combining different keywords that further explore your topic. You may find you need to modify your question. Carefully read and evaluate scholarly research articles to determine their suitability and validity.

Before you start searching a database for articles, make sure that you understand the topic and what you are being asked to do.

Background reading – is important for:

Gaining an overview of the research topic and an understanding of relevant concepts.

Identifying potential search terms.

Your background reading may also point to further initial sources of relevant information.


Check an encyclopaedia or dictionary for a precise definition of terms.

An example of a leading dictionary which have an online version is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It has a definition of globalization.

What are you being asked to do?

Be clear about the actions required to respond to the topic.

Discuss – consider the aspects of the topic and provide a point of view, based on authoritative evidence. Depending on the topic, you may be asked to “analyse”, “compare and contrast”, “evaluate” etc.

If you are unsure of exactly what is required, consult your lecturer or tutor.


Understanding your assignment question is an important first step in getting started with planning keywords to use for your search.  It may sound simple, but it is crucial that you understand your assignment questions- misinterpreting what the question is asking you to do will waste time as you may use different search terms based on the question. 

Consider the following:

  • Read your assignment and ask yourself what you are specifically being asked to do
  • Start thinking about your question as soon as you receive it.  The more time you allow yourself to examine what you are being asked to do and plan your search strategy, the more likely you are to recognise any challenges you may encounter or skills you need to build for a successful search
  • Read your assignment criteria


Working out your main themes helps you to define your topic and work out exactly what your tutor is asking you to do, rather than just generally discussing the subject.

Once you've finished doing your background reading, perhaps from recommended books on your reading list, or your lecture notes, consider what you know.

One way of doing this would be to use a Mind Map. Mapping your ideas sharpens the focus of your assignment and helps you to choose search terms and keywords when you begin searching for information.  It can also reveal gaps in your knowledge and areas where you need to do more background reading.

Try not to spend too much time organising the material.  It is more important to record all your ideas.


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