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Existing knowledge is captured in academic publications, and you need to establish your own competence by demonstrating mastery of this prior work.

A great many kinds of activities go into creating a thesis. A critical one is the search for relevant literature. What constitutes ‘relevant’ varies between disciplines, but in general the bulk of the citations will be to academic literature, that is, to documents that are accepted by the community as reliable sources of knowledge. These are typically refereed, widely accessible, identifiable, and durable. A blog article found on the web fails most of these criteria, as does an email, even if from an eminent authority.

The type of research you do (case study or study, for example) affects which literature you will search for and eventually read. Anouck was unsure, when she started her study, how much scholarship was available concerning ways in which multicultur- alism has influenced Melbourne. When students tell me that they are having difficulty finding previous work in an area, I say that it may not be possible to conduct a ‘study’ , and we should now switch to a ‘case study’ and thus broaden their search terms. Anouck had to do this for her work and was able to find much more research about bilingual advertising in the geographical context of other places, such as Europe.

There are many sources of information besides the academic literature, including newspaper articles, corridor conversations, resources such as Wikipedia, and the web in general. In most cases it is appropriate to confirm such knowledge in an academic source, and it is the academic source that should be cited. To take a wider perspective, we read for many reasons, such as to establish that our work is novel and to identify new lines of questioning, and to set our work in an academic context. Such reading informs us, but is not necessarily a part of the final thesis. Reading can sometimes be footnoted rather than listed as a formal reference.

Never forget that reading is an ongoing commitment; you should be looking for and incorporating literature throughout your study, even when you are setting out results, discussing your findings, and writing conclusions. Some of this will be deep reading of key papers; some will be light reading across an area to get a sense of the current thinking. Some will be a return to search tools to see what new work is being published. Commit to a weekly routine of searching and reading, and stick to it. Be sure to accurately catalogue your references so that they are readily accessible. Many students use bibliography database software; if you are seeking a suitable tool, ask your supervisor or consult a librarian at your university.

In a common approach to thesis writing, students are asked to produce a ‘literature review’ chapter, thorough and polished, before they are permitted to proceed with their own work. The idea is that, informed by a literature review, students will be able to see where previous researchers have drawn unwarranted conclusions or disagreed with each other and would then be able to design incisive investigations to resolve these problems.

You certainly should read the literature before you leap into your research program, and should also attempt to write down your understanding of it. But until you have done some work of your own, or collected and analyzed some data, it is not possible to be ‘critical’ in the sense implied by ‘a critical review of the literature’ . It follows that you will not yet be able to design those incisive investigations that have so far eluded the other researchers in your area. You may be able to design a research program, but almost certainly, at this stage, it will be tentative.

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