Introducing research in law and beyond
Introducing research in law and beyond

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Introducing research in law and beyond

3.8 Using a reference management tool

During your research, it is important that you keep track of the articles and papers that you read as part of your literature review. You should also keep a record of any legislation or case law you research. You may wish to use a reference management tool (also known as ‘bibliographic management software’) to manage your reference list. There are many such tools available, both basic and advanced. When undertaking a legal research project you will need to choose a reference management tool that works with OSCOLA (the Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities). More information on OSCOLA can be found at research-subject-groups/ publications/ oscola [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


This section has shown that one of the important features of the literature review is that it helps in contextualising your research. In the early stages of the research, it helps you learn about your chosen topic area, and it defines existing work in the topic and associated areas. In the later stages, it allows you to put your results into the broader context of your field of study.

To make best use of the time available to you, you will need to take a systematic approach to searching the literature; by following citation threads, forwards and backwards, it is possible to build up an overall picture of the current research quickly. When presenting your review, it is important for you to take a critical approach to your readings, and use an appropriate set of references to support the points you are making in your research.

Evaluation of the literature that you have found is very important for a successful research project. It is through critical analysis of the literature that you support your own research, and place it in overall context alongside the work of others. In doing this evaluation you must be aware of the issues of plagiarism. Remember that there is no perfect choice for your initial selection or articles, books or other resources. You are looking for a range of resources that give a good outline of the issues in the topic you have chosen to research; they should indicate some possible ways of approaching your research, and your research question.

To round-off this section on the literature review stage of the research project, the following audio involves a discussion between two of The Open University’s law academics on how to undertake a literature review, and its purpose. Drawing upon both personal experience and good academic practice, the discussion gives further context to some of the ideas and issues outlined in this section.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: w800_2013k_aug002.mp3
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Hello, I’m Roland Fletcher and I’m joined today by Robert Herian and together we’re going to actually discuss a literature review: how to undertake a review and its purpose. Rob, if you were advising your student in how to start a review, what tips, what points would you give to your student?
I would suggest to a student that they need to be looking at three main areas. The first is that they need to develop their ideas, their thinking around the literature that’s already out there and that includes keeping up to date with the literature that is presently available in journals, in text books and in a number of other sources. And in conducting those two elements, what they’re aiming for really is to identify any gaps that may exist in the literature as it stands. Obviously, then to begin to think about how those gaps can be filled with their own ideas, with their own progression of academic thinking.
I tend to give similar advice to my students as well Rob. The first thing I’d say to the student is that they need to be exposed to the wider reading. At this stage they probably have an idea of what they want to research, so they have a subject, a topic and now they have to be exposed to the wider reading materials. It depends on the type of topic and where they’re going to go with that subject, so again I would say to the student read wider, consider the types of sources you’re going to acquire and the quality of those sources is extremely important. On the point of quality, what would you say to your student?
So, to a student I would most certainly say that you’re going to be identifying two key source areas. The first is primary sources, so you’re going to be thinking about statutes, you’re going to be thinking about case law, government papers, white papers and policy reports and so on and so forth. Secondary to that is what other people have said about those sources and about other areas of knowledge that have been developed from them. So that would be academic reports in journals and in text books. Now obviously with those types of sources, the student is going to, kind of have the guarantee of peer review, is the main thing they’re going to be looking for to make sure that it is something that has been developed within the broader knowledge base of the subject and obviously with text books we have publishers who will conduct that sort of activity as well. But obviously when you start getting onto things such as the internet it becomes a slightly more problematic area. As we all know there is a vast amount of information on the internet, unfortunately it is not subject to peer review, it is not necessarily subject to quality checks and therefore you are going to run into problems if you are just citing stuff rather more arbitrarily from the internet. There are certain online databases that are available through the library. For slightly more ordinary approaches to internet search engines there are things such as Google Scholar which again will provide you with a little more assurance than some of the more straightforward publications online.
I also go one step further and say to the student that whilst they’re reading this material, to make some personal notes. It’s really important that the students are looking at different arguments, looking at different opinions and then a student should start to generate their own thoughts, their own opinion from those materials. And that’s part of the purpose of the literature review, is to gauge that wider opinion, that wider argument. We don’t want the students to polarise the debate we want them to actually look at the materials and start to think outside of what the author has written, because sometimes, as many authors have done, they might take a particular slant, a particular political view and what we want is a more objective, rounded approach. So, again, I would say to the students, I would echo what you said about the quality of the, of the literature, to make sure that it’s good material, it’s peer-reviewed journal articles, but also we want the voice of the student coming through. And this again, will then link with the actual research proposal because when they’re conducting and putting together a research proposal they’re going to have to draw upon their literature review in order to formulate their aim and their outcomes. What’s been your experience, Rob, when you’ve spoken to a student and discussed putting together the actual research proposal alongside the literature review.
Well, in approaching a research proposal a student has to have a well defined idea of what it is that they will be researching. And so by this point they should be getting to grips with the kind of wide array of literature that is out there and circulating around their topic. So, therefore, it is very much a case, as you say, of not polarising the debate, of looking across the spectrum of materials that are out there, to see what various critical voices are saying and to begin to develop their own critical approach to it. This is certainly key to research more generally but obviously something that you should be thinking about very early on as you move towards your research proposal and the development of your ideas more generally.
And I would also, then, link it with their methodology. I would say to the students that you’ve now undertaken the literature review, you’ve now formulated a few of your own ideas and you’re now thinking about the different methodology as well and linking that methodology, such as qualitative, quantitative research, depending on what the student wants to do with that material. Now, when you advise your students, Rob, do you discuss the different types of methodology and do you have a preference for a certain type of research skill?
Well methodology is an interesting one in as much as that it in some ways ties to the subject matter or the particular discipline that you’re working in, but at the same time there are a wide range of methodologies which can be introduced which aren’t perhaps so traditional to a particular discipline. So, as you say, quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the two main ones, however, close textual reading from a more literary theory background, for example, is just as applicable in law, if not more important in law when we’re looking at statutes and case law quite specifically. So, the development of the methodology is really something that is going to grow up out of the interests of the students themselves and where they really see their research going. I don’t think a student should necessarily feel tied to a particular methodology just because it is sort of the way things have always been done in legal research for example. There are a wide range of different ideas and critical approaches that can be undertaken and research is going, the quality of the research, is perhaps going to reflect how comfortable and how confident and motivated a student is going to be. And that will be reflected in their methodology.
So, to sum up, a literature review is being exposed to a wide selection of materials, be it electronic, hard copy, text book. And also as well, thinking about those critical skills, formulating your own opinion as a student. It’s really important the voice of the student comes through. Linking it with your research proposal, your aims and your outcomes and also, of course, most importantly, the methodology you utilise.
End transcript
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