Taking Critical Notes when Reading and Thinking about Sources for Your Thesis or Dissertation
When working on your thesis or dissertation, you will no doubt be consulting scholarly sources such as previous trials and experiments, primary documents and theoretical studies and surveys. Some of these will ultimately be cited, quoted and perhaps discussed in your writing, and most of them will inform your work in one way or another. One of the most productive ways in which such sources can influence a thesis or dissertation is by inspiring critical thinking in relation to their content. Critical thoughts of this kind can affect the way you use not just one but many sources, as well as the ways in which you design your methodology, present and analyse your findings and ultimately construct an academic or scientific argument. It is therefore important to exercise your critical skills and record your thoughts as you take notes on the sources you read.
Critical notes that record your assessment of a source in terms of its potential usefulness for your thesis or dissertation are always vital. It is worth considering and noting, for instance, whether a document is a primary or secondary source for particular information, remembering that it is always good practice to seek out the primary source for anything vital to your research and that some universities and departments will insist on the use of primary sources unless those sources simply cannot be obtained. You may also want to do an online or library catalogue search for the author of the source you are reading to see if he or she is a reputable and reliable researcher or an expert in the subject. Considering whether a study was peer reviewed or not (articles and books produced by most academic and scientific journals and publishers will have been) can also be helpful.
Your thoughts about the reliability, validity and applicability of the studies you read should certainly be recorded. Keep in mind that even a peer-reviewed study in a top-tier journal can present limitations or problems in methodology and argumentation that may render it less useful or applicable, and an informal online blog can provide information, methods and arguments as valid and reliable as an excellent article in a scholarly journal does. Online sources are unpredictable, however, so if you are consulting an online source, you should be extremely cautious by checking for information on who created and maintains the web site and watching for issues that suggest a lack of reliability, such as wild claims, abusive language (directed at other researchers, for instance) and errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. You should also consult any guidelines provided by your university or department, as there are sometimes restrictions regarding what kind of online sources can be used in a thesis or dissertation.
It is essential when recording your critical thoughts about the sources you read to keep your thoughts separate from any iterative notes that simply record the content of those sources. Remember that you will need to make sense of your notes when you return to them weeks, months or even years later, and you do not want to develop aspects of the argument you present in your thesis or dissertation on the basis of an idea being your own when it was actually the work of another author or attribute a concept to an external source when it was your own thought. In your notes you should therefore clearly mark each of your critical thoughts as your own by whatever method works effectively for you.
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