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Research Guide: Academic Discourse Skills (ALS10A)

Identifying a Research Question

A good research question should state the issue or problem that will be addressed in your research. Choose a topic that is interesting to you but also realistic in its scope, so that you can investigate it within the sources, timeframe and practical constraints available to you.

Some questions to think about as you devise a research question:

  • Think of the key concepts or ideas under the topic. Adjust how narrow or broad your scope should be, by asking:
    • Is the research question specific enough to answer the problem or issue thoroughly?
    • Is the research question complex enough to develop over the space of your paper?
  • Are you limiting by demographic characteristics (e.g gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, education, geographic location, language, etc)?
  • Are you limiting by time period?

You should also conduct preliminary research. The aim at this stage is to familiarise yourself with the topical issues and debates, before narrowing down to a niche of your interest.

Other considerations to keep in mind at the preliminary research stage:

  • Is this topic researchable based on the primary/secondary sources available to you?
  • Is this topic relevant to your field of study or broader society?

Once you have evaluated and refined your research question, you are ready to begin on your literature review.

Conducting a Literature Review

Construct a Search Statement

1. Identify Keywords

What the the key concepts or ideas in your research question? These will form the keywords of your search statement when you search in databases or search engines.

Example: How prevalent is plagiarism among university first-year students?

2. Broaden Your Search Statement

You may want to include the synonyms of these key concepts or ideas to ensure that your search also retrieves these results.

Example: Academic dishonesty, college, and freshmen

3. Utilise Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators are search commands used together with keywords to direct the search by narrowing or broadening it. These can be used in any search engine:

  • AND: Limits the search results, as it only returns records which contain all the specified keywords.
  • OR: Broadens the search results, as it returns records which contain at least 1 of the  keywords.
  • NOT: Excludes records that contain the specified keywords.

4. Utilise Functions

Functions are symbols which are used together with keywords to direct the search. These can be used in the following ways:

  • Brackets – ( ): Used to group similar keywords under a concept. Keywords within the brackets are searched first. [E.g (plagiarism OR academic dishonesty)]
  • Phrase Searching – " ": Used to group keywords so that they will be searched together as a phrase. Keywords within quotes will be searched sequentially. [e.g "academic dishonesty"]
  • Truncation – *: Used to retrieve variant spellings of the keyword. [e.g universit* will retrieve both singular and plural forms]

Your constructed search statement may look something like this example:

(plagiarism OR “academic dishonesty”) AND (university OR college) AND (“first-year students” OR freshmen)

5. Modify Your Search Statement

Once you have constructed a search statement, test it out in different search engines such as LibDiscover, Google Scholar and the research databases.

Evaluate the results list to see if the resources retrieved are:

  • Relevant: Does the literature relate to the topic area of your research question? To evaluate, you can browse the abstract, introduction, or table of contents of the journal article or book.
  • Current: Is the literature published within the last 5 years? Some disciplines require the latest literature (e.g conference papers as compared to books).
  • Authoritative: Is this work or author often cited by others in the literature? Is the article published in a peer-reviewed journal?

You can adopt the following strategies to further refine your search results:

  • Use Subject Terms: In the left-hand bar of LibDiscover, click on "Subject" to open a drop-down list of the subject terms that the articles are indexed under in your result list. This can help you find broader / narrower / relevant terms to modify your search statement.
  • Limit by year: In the left-hand bar of LibDiscover, under "Publication Date" you can enter the date range for articles that you want to retrieve.
  • Limit by Peer-reviewed: In the left-hand bar of LibDiscover, under "Limit To" you can select "peer-reviewed journals" to obtain higher quality research articles.

Useful Resources

Machi, L., & McEvoy, B. (2016). The literature review: Six steps to success (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Onwuegbuzie, A., & Frels, R. (2016). 7 steps to a comprehensive literature review: A multimodal & cultural approach. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Where to Begin Your Search

The NIE Library subscribes and purchases a large variety of electronic and print resources for staff and students. Here is a handy breakdown of what our different platforms contain and where you can find the resources you need.


What is it?


A one-stop discovery platform that searches across the  library catalogue, subscribed and selected open access resources and NIE Digital Repository. It retrieves both print and electronic books, journals and audio-visual materials.


Online multi-disciplinary or subject-specific platforms that provide references to articles from serials publications.

E-Journal Portal

A platform that facilitates retrieval of electronic journals from across subscribed and selected open access resources.

NIE Digital Repository

A repository of NIE publications and research output, including dissertations/theses, examination papers, technical reports, working papers, conference papers and journal articles.

Google Scholar

A web search engine that retrieves references to scholarly literature across an array of publishing formats and  disciplines.

If you are conducting research on Singapore and require primary sources / data, you may also find these websites useful.


What is it?

A data repository that serves as the Singapore government's one-stop portal to its publicly-available datasets from 70 public agencies. It aims to make government data relevant and understandable to the public, through the active use of charts and articles.

National Archives of Singapore

A database that collects, preserves and manages Singapore's public and private archival records. It contains government files, private memoirs, historical maps and photographs to oral history interviews and audio-visual materials.

Official Reports - Parliamentary Debates (HANSARD)

A database containing the Official Reports for a Parliamentary sitting, consisting of all speeches and debates made in the Chamber and written in as nearly as possible verbatim. The Reports found here date as far back as 1955.

NIE Press Releases

A web page containing a list of NIE Press Releases. Also available in print at the NIE Library.

MOE Website (News)

A web page containing a list of MOE press releases, speeches / interviews, forum letter replies and parliamentary replies. Also available in print at the NIE Library.


Academic Honesty and Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty or plagiarism is the unethical practice of using another person’s ideas or work without acknowledgement. Whether it was committed intentionally or accidentally, it is regarded as a serious academic offense. You may read more about NIE and NTU's commitment to upholding integrity in the NTU Student Academic Integrity Policy.

To avoid committing plagiarism, It is important to practice the following when writing the literature review section of your paper:

  • Paraphrase: Understand the context of the paper and restate it in your own words.
  • Quote: If you have to utilise the text as verbatim, ensure that the quoted passage is in quote marks (" ").
  • Cite: Any reference to another person's ideas or work, whether paraphrased or quoted, must be cited in-text and in your paper's reference list. Please check that you are using the appropriate citation style for your discipline.

APA Citation Style

For the purposes of your research assignment for ALS10A, you will be utilising the APA Citation Style (7th Edition). Developed by the American Psychological Association, the APA citation style is utilised by academics in social science fields. Its rules govern citation and referencing, manuscript structure and content, the mechanics of style, as well as the ethics of authorship.

You can read more about the conventions of the citation style in the resources below.