Studying Effectively

Types of information resources

Information flow

Following a discovery or event, information flows through different publications over time. This differs between subjects but in general:

  • Primary literature is where new research or theories are first revealed, and includes journals and conferences
  • Secondary literature provides a more digested overview of a subject e.g. books
  • Tertiary literature records facts and brief descriptions of key information, as in reference material.

Some of the main sources of information you will use are:

Reference material

Reference material can consist of a range of different types of material providing you with background information.   This material can either be general or related to specific subject areas.

General Reference Resources 


It is good to have a dictionary nearby when you are reading a document, particularly if it is in a subject or topic that is new to you.

More about dictionaries:
  • Use them to find definitions of terms, subjects or topics
  • Use them to determine the subject context of a new topic to help with further searching
  • Subject-specific dictionaries provide definitions of specialist terms
  • Foreign language dictionaries translate foreign terms into English or vice versa



Encyclopaedias typically provide more detail than dictionaries.

More about encylopaedias:

Use encyclopaedias to find:

  • A concise overview of the key aspects of a subject or concept
  • A review of the history of a topic
  • References to further information
  • Biographical details of key figures

Some online encyclopaedias you can explore are:

Wikipedia is a well-known online encyclopaedia but has variable quality and should not be relied upon for your university research. If you do use it at all be sure to follow up references to other sources to check the factual content and to reference these rather than Wikipedia itself.



Other reference material

Depending on subject area, there are many other types of reference material.

For example:
  • Collections of statistics in which you can find numerical data for your subject
  • Scientific data compilations containing e.g. tables of physical and chemical properties
  • Pharmacopoeias which give factual information on pharmaceuticals e.g. dosages
  • Bibliographies which are collections of references on a subject or person



Books may be textbooks at school or university level or more-detailed monographs.

More about textbooks and monographs:

Textbooks provide:

  • An in-depth overview of a subject
  • A good grounding in a new discipline
  • A comparison of differing ideas, theories and opinions
  • Facts and figures

Monographs go into more detail including in-depth information, discussion and detailed explanation of research - this is particularly the case in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. In the sciences monographs may provide a collection of data, experimental methods etc.

Books can become out of date due to the length of time taken to publish them. This is more important in some subjects than others.

See guidelines for referencing books




Many books are now available in electronic format as e-books.

More about ebooks:
  • Some are exact copies of the print version
  • Some provide additional features, e.g. video, self-learning tests, quizzes etc
  • Some can be downloaded onto hand-held devices for more comfortable reading while others require an Internet connection
  • They can be viewed by several readers at once while a printed book is only available to one person at a time
Due to copyright, you may print only a part of an ebook not the whole book.


See guidelines for referencing ebooks




Journals (periodicals or serials) are published at regular intervals throughout the year.

More about journals:

  • Each year is generally represented by a volume number
  • Each volume contains individual issues which reflect how often the journal is published, eg, weekly, monthly, quarterly
  • Each issue of a journal includes a number of short articles

Journals may be available in print and/or electronic format. Often only the more recent volumes are available online.

The University subscribes to thousands of journals, but these can only be a proportion of the total number of journals published worldwide.

Individual journals vary but typically their contents include:

  • Reports of original research
  • Reviews of current subjects of interest
  • News and comment on topical issues or professional concerns
  • Lists of forthcoming events or conferences
  • Job adverts


Journal articles

Journal articles could either be reviews or research papers.

More about journal articles:

Review articles provide an overview of a subject.

They are:

  • Long, essay-style articles giving a state-of-the-art picture of a topic
  • Good sources of references to other relevant literature

Reviews may be published in special annual review serials or alongside other content in journals.

Research papers, the more usual type of journal article, directly report primary research.

They are:

  • More up-to-date than books as publication is faster
  • Usually ‘peer reviewed’, i.e. they have been rigorously assessed and evaluated by experts in the field to ensure the research and conclusions are valid
  • Detailed, covering a specific aspect of a subject in much more detail than books
  • Usually short, factual and contain precise research methods and results

However, research papers are not useful for:

  • A general overview of a subject
  • An introduction to a new topic

See guidelines for referencing journal articles




There is a great wealth of information available on the Internet. But don’t rely on Wikipedia and YouTube for your university studies and do ensure that the websites you use are reliable.

Advantages and disadvantages of websites include:


  • Easy access
  • Mostly up-to-date (but check)
  • Include various types of media e.g. illustrations, videos, sound
  • Access to worldwide information
  • Available 24/7


  • Variable quality and lack of control - anyone can publish a website
  • Can quickly become out-of-date
  • Content can be biased
  • Websites can disappear
  • Information overload

See Evaluating information for further guidance.

See guidelines for Referencing websites.




For current issues and topical comment, newspapers can be good sources of information for primary research.

More about newspapers:

Important features of newspapers include:

  • Currency/immediacy
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Awareness raising
  • Opinions and comment on topical issues
  • Reviews of books and contemporary culture
  • Obituaries of famous people

Disadvantages of newspapers include:

  • Lack of peer review or accuracy checks
  • Sensationalism/writing to sell copy
  • Bias, perhaps written with particular political viewpoint
  • Not usually written at an academic level


Conference proceedings

Conference proceedings consist of a collection of papers reporting on presentations or posters delivered at conferences, seminars or workshops. They are sources of primary research as this may be the first place the information has been made public.

More about conference proceedings:
  • Current issues in a particular field or area are often debated at conferences and the discussions included in the proceedings
  • Papers can be presented at a conference long before, if ever, they are published in a journal

As a result, conference proceedings are an ideal way of finding the most up-to-date and current research and ideas.

The title of the conference proceeding will show where the conference was held and when. The organising body or conference editors will also be provided.

See guidelines for referencing conference proceedings




Reports are produced by agencies and departments on specific topics or issues. These agencies can include Government departments, research establishments, charitable foundations and more.

More about reports:

Reports are useful for providing:

  • Up to date information - they are usually published to a specific deadline or as a reaction to an event
  • Current views and opinions
  • Recommendations about future practice
  • Technical information, statistics or data that you would not find in books or journal articles

Disadvantages of reports include:

  • They can quickly become out of date as they reflect the current situation at a given time
  • Not all reports are published so they can be difficult to locate


The following websites are examples of reports published in response to events:

(Both accessed 28/5/2013)




Standards are consensus agreements drawn up by representative collections of people who have a particular interest in the subject. These might be manufacturers, users, research organisations, or government departments.

More about standards:

Standards may offer:

  • Guidance on recommended procedures
  • Prescriptive design details
  • Testing methods

Standards enable the efficient design, manufacture and supply of safe products and services to the consumer by:

  • Promoting best practice
  • Encouraging international co-operation
  • Ensuring compatibility of parts thus enabling global trade
  • Providing reliable data to inform the design process
  • Setting quality and safety requirements
  • Enabling conformance comparisons (fit-for-purpose)
  • Helping with technology transfer to developing countries

In Britain, standards are produced by the  British Standards Institution (BSI). There are over 16,000 adopted British Standards and each year new or revised standards are issued to ensure they are kept up to date.

Over 150 national bodies combine to form the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which agrees international standards.

Other bodies include:

See guidelines for referencing a British Standard



Manuscripts and Special Collections

Manuscripts and archives are unique items which were created or collected by a person or organisation in the course of their ordinary business, and retained by them as evidence of their activities, or because of the information they contain. They may be written by hand, but can also be printed or digital.

Archives held at Manuscripts and Special Collections date back to the 12th century.

The rare books collections at the University (currently only available at the UK campus) include books published from the 16th century, and also research collections on particular themes.

Because these resources are often unique, and can be fragile, they are stored in controlled conditions, and can only be consulted in the reading room (currently only available at the UK campus).

Manuscripts and special collections are useful because:
  • Manuscripts are primary source materials and they give an authentic glimpse into the past
  • They require you to piece together evidence, and make your own interpretation of how or why things happened as they did
  • They form a body of material that can be used for original research, for assignments, dissertations and postgraduate study
  • Early books can also be used as primary sources, as they give contemporary insights into the culture, people and events of the day



Patents are legal documents which give the owner exclusive rights to profit from an invention, protecting it from exploitation by others unless they have the prior agreement of the patent owner.

Patents also establish the ownership of advances in the subject.

More about patents:

Patents are important because:

  • They are the first reports of commercially-sensitive research
  • They document research not reported in journals
  • They contain detailed descriptions and, if relevant, designs or other illustrations
  • They can show trends in development and applications of new technology

The patenting process

In order to obtain a patent the invention must fulfil the following:

  • New - the claimed invention must be filed for patenting before publication elsewhere or, in some countries, within a limited time period of publication
  • Useful - i.e. capable of industrial application
  • Contain an “inventive step” which is not obvious to others

Some types of invention are excluded from patenting:

  • Illegal or immoral
  • A literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work
  • Scientific or mathematical theories
  • A way of performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business
  • Some computer programs
  • Animal breeds or plant varieties
  • Medical treatments or diagnostic methods

The process of patenting an invention can take several years to complete.

Patents are granted by national or international patenting authorities such as the UK Patent Office or the World International Property Office (WIPO) and cover specific countries or geographical areas for limited periods of time, usually 20 years. During this time the patent-holder can profit directly or by selling or licensing the invention to other companies.

Visit the UK Intellectual Property Office for further information.

Guidelines for referencing patents




Theses submitted for doctoral degrees are major sources of primary research output. Some of the most current and original research every year is produced by postgraduate researchers at UK and international universities.

Use theses to find:
  • Research undertaken at universities around the world
  • Details of research completed by others in your school or department

Guidelines for referencing theses



Social media

If used responsibly, social media can support your university studies and your future employability.

Use social media to:
  • Connect with Nottingham and keep up to date with the latest news from the University
  • Keep up to date with current research in your subject area
  • Find out about employers in a sector that interests you
  • Set up a professional profile
 Find out more in our interactive guide Social media and your digital footprint.
Student consulting reference books


Further reading

Advice on information flow

Reading and interpreting sources and data

People who can help

Talk to someone in your school or a specialist support service


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