Guest Post: Up the Hill Backwards with literature searching and synonyms

Anthony McCoubrey profile picture.

Anthony McCoubrey is the Research Support Supervisor in the Library, providing support to doctoral researchers across all disciplines at Sussex.

When I sat down to write this blog my remit was to write about my job, what I do and how the Library’s Research Support team can support doctoral researchers. But like conducting research itself, my focus went off in a different direction and writing this brought back memories of a younger me when I was a doctoral researcher myself. At this point I think it is important to I point out that I did not receive my Doctorate. While it was a difficult decision, I felt like a bit of a Rebel Rebel giving up my scholarship and deciding what was best for me, rather than others.  

But writing this blog conjured up images of me spending hours (likely amounting to weeks) searching for books, journals, newspaper articles and oral history interviews. I will admit, despite gaining a BA and MA, I was unprepared to undertake such a huge project and it most certainly felt I was an Absolute Beginner.

As I struggled searching for online resources, I knew that things were not Hunky Dory and I felt Under Pressure. Looking back, this was not because I was incapable of conducting doctoral research but was more to do with the fact that I lacked the literature searching skills. It has now been a number of years since then and there have been Changes.

Fast forward to December 2021 and almost seven years after sitting in my shared office in a Victorian terrace house on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue searching for resources, I am now doing the same thing, in a different location. Only this time it is in front of forty doctoral researchers and I am the one teaching them how to find the resources they need. One could say that this is a full 360, but as the saying goes, if I knew then what I know now, then I probably wouldn’t have felt the Heat.

If you have managed to read the blog this far (thank you), you are probably having a Little Wonder, ‘Why I am teaching forty people about literature searching?’ and if you are a fan, ‘What has this blogpost got to do with David Bowie?’ Well, almost eight years since my PhD, today I am the Research Support Supervisor who now teaches library skills (including those needed for literature searching) to doctoral researchers.  

While David Bowie has no direct relationship with my shortlived PhD thesis, which was on Women’s Work and Leisure in Belfast between 1945-1969, for hours I sat trawling through online databases listening to Bowie and travelling from Station to Station making trips between my parents’ home in Belfast and my home in Brighton. The Thin White Duke’s music was the backdrop to this time and the two things interjected at a point where for my memories of doctoral research they cannot be separated.

A huge part of my job is to ensure that doctoral researchers get the support they need to succeed in their research. But while I can’t be a Jene Genie and award doctoral degrees, along with my colleagues in the Research Support team we can support you on your Fantastic Voyage.

Throughout the year the Research Support team deliver a number of workshops for doctoral researchers. Many of these workshops are delivered as part of the Doctoral School’s Researcher Development Programme. But we also organise training and events outside of this programme in partnership with colleagues in the research impact team, with publishers and with the Research Hive Scholars.

We also provide 1-2-1 training sessions that give researchers the opportunity to meet with me, or a member of the Research Support team, to get support with a range of research issues. These bookable sessions can focus on a number of things, including:

  • Using referencing software such as Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote
  • Literature searching using databases that the Library subscribes to
  • Finding online dissertations and theses
  • Using archival materials

You can book a 1-2-1 via our online booking form and you can choose to meet me either face-to-face or online via Zoom.

One of the most common requests for 1-2-1s is support in literature searching with online databases, where I teach people how to find the resources they need by using keyword searches. In thinking about this I thought, ‘What can David Bowie teach us about keyword searches?’ Well, one of the tricks of keyword searching is to use synonyms, which are words or phrases that mean exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase.   

So how can we use David Bowie as a way to think about synonyms in just three steps?

Step 1: Pick a thesis title: Social understandings of space travel and non-Earth habitation 1969-2021

Step 2: Pick key words: space travel, NASA, moon landing, aliens

Step 3: Pick David Bowie synonyms:  Life on Mars, Starman, Loving the Alien, Lady Stardust, Hallo Spaceboy

You are probably thinking, ‘Who would use those David Bowie synonyms in academic research?’ While the chances are, not many, using these different words and terms will ultimately return a wider range of results in the database you are using. If your research is about clothing, then why not use Fashion, audio imagery – try Sound and Vision, adolescence in 1960s USA – why not try Young Americans?

What would your favourite musician-inspired synonyms be?   

Find out more about the support available to doctoral researchers on the Library website.