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Medical Imaging Effective Library Research: 2. What information do I need?

Online tutorial introducing you to the skills and techniques needed for effective library research

Start by considering the information source categories and types of materials available to you.



Once you have a research question, consider what sort of information/materials you need access to. You are likely to use a combination of different types of resources in order to fully explore your topic. 


It is worth thinking about this before you jump in and start searching; if you can pinpoint the sort of information you require, you can target your searching in the appropriate place.


Information Sources: categories

Information Sources are typically categorised into three broad categories based on their proximity to original source material:

  • primary:  original materials on which other research is based.
  • secondary: interpretation, commentary or analysis of other sources. 
  • tertiary: organisation, categorisation, index or collection of sources.

1. Primary Sources

These are first hand accounts or records of activity as they happened or were created, without any subsequent interpretation or commentary.

Examples include:  

  • Original artwork and literary works
  • Theses and research findings
  • Speeches, correspondence and diaries
  • Interviews and first hand news accounts

A wealth of primary sources are available to you at the University, many in digital format. Explore the Primary Sources LibGuide to find relevant online collections as well as guidance on using primary sources.

2. Secondary Sources

These provide interpretation, commentary or analysis of other sources. They are typically written after the event or activity being discussed,and are not based on direct observation of involvement.

Examples include: 

  • Textbooks, books and journal articles that do not present new research
  • Dissertations
  • Commentaries and criticisms
  • Newspaper articles that are opinions/reviews/analysis rather than first hand reporting on events

Use the Library research tools to help you to find relevant secondary sources. 

3. Tertiary Sources

Organisation, categorisation, index or collection of primary and secondary sources. These sources typically list or collate other sources, rather than adding additional commentary or observations.

Examples include: 

  • Dictionaries & encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies, fact books and digests
  • Directories and guidebooks
  • Indexing and abstracting sources

Many of these resources are now available in digital format - find out more on the Online Reference Resources LibGuide.

Research Resources and Materials

Research material can be drawn from a wide range of different research resources. As well as using traditional sources such as books and journal articles, you may want to use news items, government reports, statistical or audiovisual material.

Some materials such as scholarly books and journals go through a rigorous 'peer review' process where they are analysed by experts in the field for reliability and quality. However, it can be more difficult to establish the provenance of other sources of information - for example anyone can create and disseminate information via the web. 

In an information rich society, it's crucial to remember that not all information resources are equal! As a researcher, you must evaluate the information you find and decide whether the content is scholarly, accurate and authoritative research material.

Books, such as textbooks, are good for providing an overview of a topic. They undergo an editorial process and are usually written by experts in the subject or professional authors. They contain reference lists or bibliographies so that you can broaden your research by following up leads to related publications.

Many books at the University are available in digital format as e-books. 

Books take time to produce, so may not always contain the most up to date information. In some subject areas, such as Law and Medicine, it is important to check you are using the most up to date edition of a book.

Journals can provide you with up to date discussion of research topics as they are published more quickly and regularly than books e.g. weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually, depending on the publication.

Journal articles are written by researchers and experts in their field. Scholarly or academic journals go through a "peer review" process, where a panel of experts assesses the article before it is approved for publication, giving you reassurance that the information is reliable. Like books, the more scholarly articles also contain reference lists or bibliographies so that you can broaden your research by following up leads to related publications.

The majority of the journals available via the library are in digital format.  This means they are available to you any time, any place and ensures you can access the latest journal issues as soon as they are published.



TV, film, sound and image sources can all be important research resources.   See the Images LibGuide, or the Films, DVDs and Videos LibGuide for guidance on selecting and using audiovisual material in your teaching, studies and research.

Use the Database A-Z List to discover the Film and Sound and Image databases that are available to you. A few highlights include:

You may also want to explore the TED resources. TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less).  Explore the topics or search for relevant videos. 

Decorative - skyline of business buildingsCase studies are often used in business courses to illustrate management problems. A case study tells what happened to and in a business (or industry) over time. They allow you to learn about real world organisational problems and how they can be addressed. They challenge and develop your problem solving abilities. They are usually written by academic institutions or professional bodies and intended to be used as teaching material. Some are based on real companies; some are entirely fictitious and designed to illustrate a particular situation.

Case Studies can be found across a range of resources including in books, journals, professional magazines, databases, company websites and online.

Excellent guides to analysing and writing case studies are available free online from Cengage Learning and the Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland.

For guidance on finding all the business case studies available to you via the university, take a look at the Finding Case Studies guidance.

The Census (UK) is undertaken by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Census data is available to academic institutions via the UK Data Service. Data available includes population, flow and boundary data, and major collections of government statistics and social data. Data can be filtered by theme, geography and key data.

The Census Data LibGuide provides guidance on finding and using Census Data and the UK Data Service.

The papers that researchers deliver at conference and symposia around the world are often published after the event, in print and/or digital format. They may be published as a book, in a special issue of a journal or on an organisations' website.  Some may not be published at all.

Published conference papers are often the first time that research findings are publicly presented and debated so they can be sources of cutting edge research.

Many are subject to peer review, just like scholarly journals, which acts as a quality assurance check.

Subject databases may index major conference proceedings as an aid to their discovery. The following tools will also enable you to find conference papers and proceedings in your area.


Web of Science: Conference Proceedings Index 

Web of Science indexes the most significant conferences and seminars since 1990 in  the Science and Social Sciences & Humanities.  Select the proceedings indexes from More Settings on the Web of Science search screen.

Web of Science conference index image

Google Scholar

Use the Google Scholar search tool to find conference papers and information that hsa been indexed on the web. Search for your research area, add conference and a year if you wish to pinpoint a particular period.

Ethnographies are first hand descriptive works of a particular group/culture,  based on the immersive observations of the researcher.

You can find out more about Ethnographies, including advice on the best way to search online to trace ethnographic materials on the Ethnographies guide.


A wide range of legal information resources are available to you at the University including:

  • legal textbooks
  • journals
  • law reports
  • statutes
  • treaties       

The majority of the information is available in online format which is ideal for researching the law when you need to ensure you are looking at the latest information and want to explore connections between legal cases, statutes and commentary.

Find out more on the Law LibGuide.  

Case law is a key primary legal source.

When you are using the online databases for case law searching, be aware that many offer contextual information to help broaden your research and connect you with related materials. This can be particularly useful for exploring issues in depth and is also a very efficient way to discover related research materials.

 Find out more on the Case Law LibGuide

Legislation is one of the primary sources of written law.

You can use the online legal databases and to locate specific pieces of legislation such as Acts and Statutory Instruments. or you can browse/search to find legislative content on a topic.

As with case law, make use of the database 'added value features' to broaden your research and explore connections between legislative provisions and related case law and commentary.

Find out more on the Legislation LibGuide. 

A wealth of mapping data is available to you at the University.  Use the Maps section of the A-Z Database List to access the various databases.

The Maps LibGuide provides guidance on finding and using online mapping services.

A key provider of maps and geospatial dat for UK academia is the DigiMap service and it has extensive online support and training materials available to help you make the most of the services.

News sources can be invaluable research resources. There are various types of news sources you can choose from, including:

  • newspapers
  • newsreels
  • newswires
  • news magazines
  • news monitoring services etc. 

They provide contemporaneous accounts of events as they emerge and unfold, affording a snapshot of developments at a point in time.

By using news archive services, you can also engage in historical research by tracing commentary on issues over time, to identify and track changing political, economic and social trends. For example, when did global warning first emerge as a 'hot topic' in the press? Who are the major pressure groups and organisations debating this agenda? How has terminology in this area developed and changed over time?, etc.

The availability of news resources online allows for very effective and comprehensive searching, in a way that was impossible with print or microfilm / microfiche editions of the newspapers when research could be a very long, laborious and somewhat haphazard process. 

There is a huge amount of news research material available to you at the University. Explore the Using news resources for research Libguide to find out more and access the news resources.

Official publications can be broadly defined as the documents and materials produced by the government and governmental departments during the course of government business.

Content ranges from statements of law and policy to government reports and statistics.  These publications can be a valuable primary research source and are especially useful to those researching in law, politics and history.  However, they are of relevance across all subjects as they address all aspects of governmental work such as science, education, law, agriculture, transport, health etc.

To find out more about finding and using official publications, take a look at the Official Publications LibGuide


A patent is a legal contract and intellectual property (IP) right which protects a new invention, by giving the owner the right for a limited period of time to prevent others from exploiting the invention without permission. It means that the invention cannot be commercially made, used, distributed or sold without the patent owner's consent.

It gives a detailed and technical description of the invention, and as such contains much information that may never be published in any other format. A patent is generally applied for at the earliest possible stage of an invention; it thus often provides the newest information available in a field, before journal articles are published or new products reach the market. 

Find out more about searching for patent information in our Patents LibGuide

Reference resources such as almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias and thesauri enable you to:

  • examine facts and statistics about the world
  • decipher abbreviations and definitions
  • gain an overview of a topic                                     

They can be really useful resources as you begin your background research into a topic, before you move on to more in depth research via your Subject databases.

In many cases, these resources are now available in digital format, allowing you to easily and quickly access the information you need.

Find out more on the Online Reference Resources LibGuide.

Finding and using research datasetsThe Finding and using research datasets guide has been designed as a starting point for students and researchers looking to explore datasets in their subject discipline. 

If you are looking for general datasets, try the 'Interdisciplinary research' section, otherwise select the subject that is most relevant for the topic you are researching. 

Social Media blogs, twitter feeds etc. can be useful research resources. For example, they can highlight key topics and debates that are live at particular points in time.  Also many experts and organisations use these communication methods to highlight larger research projects and work.

As is the case with website information, it is vital that you evaluate these resources as the quality and reliability of information will be highly variable.

Furthermore, the information may be available fleetingly as blogs and twitter feeds come and go, so make sure you capture any material you want to use in your research in case it is deleted during the course of your research activities.

A standard is a published specification that establishes a common language and an agreed, repeatable way of doing something. It contains a technical specification or other precise criteria and is designed to be used consistently, as a rule, a guideline, or a definition.

Standards are applied to many materials, products, methods and services. They are designed for voluntary use and do not impose any regulations. However, laws and regulations may refer to certain standards, making compliance with them compulsory.

Find out more in the Standards LibGuide

The University has a subscription to British Standards Online (BSOL) It is a bibliographic, citation and full-text database of more than 90,000 standards in the subject areas of Health and Life Sciences and Science, Engineering and Technology, including business, commerce and finance, construction, electrical and electronic engineering, healthcare and medical devices, manufacturing, and mining and minerals.  

Statistics is the science of collecting, analysing and presenting numerical data and can be a vital source of information for your studies.

Statistical data can be found on a huge variety of subjects including:

  • the economy
  • employment
  • the environment
  • government
  • health
  • international trade
  • manufacturing
  • population

A wide range of data and statistical sources are available via the university. Many organisations and governments also make statistical data freely available via their websites.

Use the Finding Statistics: Quick Guide for more information.

For guidance on databases relevant to the science of statistics and statistical computation take a look at the Mathematics and Computer Science LibGuides.

A thesis or dissertation is a document submitted in support of candidature for a higher degree or professional qualification, presenting the author’s research and findings. Theses are extremely valuable sources of information, as they consist of substantial primary research in specialised topics and provide very detailed data and analysis.

They will also have extensive bibliographies, detailing the published literature on the given research topic.

Use the Finding Theses Quick Guide to learn more about tracking down theses in your field of study both at the University of Exeter and elsewhere. 

You can access dissertation and theses databases via the Database A-Z. The recommended databases for global dissertation searching is:

A treaty is an agreement made by negotiation under international law.  Treaties are entered into by countries or other legal authorities. Once they are formally agreed and signed by the participating bodies, they are usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of each country / signatory.

A range of different terms are used to refer to treaties, such as: treaty / treaty agreement  / international agreement / protocol / covenant / convention / pact.

Find out more about finding and accessing treaty documents from the Treaties LibGuide

Search engines such as Google have made it very easy to search and find information via the internet and it is highly likely that you will use the web to find information for your research.

However, the sheer volume of material available means that sometime it can be difficult to find the information you want. Most search engines offer advanced search options that allow you to refine your search i.e. Google Advanced Search.  If you want to find academic materials, search using Google Scholar.

When using material from the internet, you need to exercise caution as anyone can publish information on the web so the quality and reliability of the information is highly variable.  Always evaluate the sources to ensure the material is trustworthy, accurate and authoritative.

Google Web Search

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