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Carrying out preliminary research

Preliminary research

Some Exam Boards (for example AQA, Edexcel) now require students to carry out a preliminary research before they plan their investigation. In this section we look at the scientific reasoning behind this:

The nature of the subject

Since the discoveries by famous scientists like Isaac Newton, Einstein to Darwin, there has been a huge bank of scientific knowledge that has been amassed. These are not just a bunch of facts to be rediscovered nor is it facts to be memorised for an Exam. Such a quest does not move science forward, it is fruitless.

Instead, scientific knowledge must be treated like heritage from the scientific culture that must be used as a springboard to new discoveries.

As a science student, you have joined this culture and you are on the road to use fully this bank of knowledge. Indeed, in Latin they said nanos gigantium humeris insidentes meaning ‘You can see further than other men, by standing on the shoulders of giants’

ii. So why should you do research before planning your own investigation?

From the discussion above, it is clear that the first reason is to take advantage of existing knowledge. You do not have to repeat what others have done but use their knowledge and discoveries to your advantage. Secondly, you as a science student, like all scientists, are likely to make some mistakes. This is perfectly acceptable. But some mistakes have already been made before. By doing your research, you are likely to find out about these and avoid repeating them in your investigation and save yourself time.

In summary, the preliminary research helps you to

  • Identify key concepts relating to your question- so you can use the appropriate language
  • Refine your question so that it is within limits and not too broad
  • Get an idea about your method by seeing how similar experiments have been done before
How to do the research

The research is not a 'wild-goose chase'. These are some things that scientists keep in mind when doing a preliminary research:

a) Asking others with more knowledge- indeed, collaboration is an important part of science- It took the ideas of  more than 5 scientists for Watson and Crick to explain the structure of DNA. (A word of caution, please acknowledge this source of help should you use it and do not simply ask the expert for direct answers to your question

b) Use textbooks, magazines and the internet to get general information about your topic- these are called Secondary sources.


  • Do not copy from your references-put it in your own words, without losing the key words
  • Credibility of your sources- ask yourself the question: Are my sources credible
  • Remember to acknowledge or reference your sources
Credibility of sources
Authority- Is the author a well known expert in the field?
Published sources- Most published material is peer reviewed by peers in the field, so you can trust it


-One way to get into trouble with your teacher or Learning resources manager is to do research using Wikis

It is not that they just hate wikis, but they want you to learn reliable ways of working as a student (of science and any other subject). Like gossip, it is not easy to check the credibility and inaccuracies of wikis.

Why is that so- were you going to ask?

-This is because you do not know if the writer is an expert in the subject. You may even be better than them

-No-one has reviewed that material to meet the strict standards expected in the field

-Biases cannot easily be checked- You have no clue why the author is writing the article, they may be trying to promote a certain view.

Acknowledging your sources

The integrity of scientific knowledge and scientists comes from honesty and transparency in what they do and how they work. One way that this is acheived is through acknowledging the help that you get from others and their work (books, experiments etc). To present other people's ideas as yours is to deceive and it is dishonest. You need to say where the original ideas come from.

How to reference:

1. For books and textbooks- write the: Book title, Author e.g.

  • Higher Science 1 for GCSE,  Mark Levesley
  • Coordinated Science Biology, Beckett and Gallagher

2. For websites write the complete URL e.g.


Justifying your sources

You may be required to explain why you used the sources that you chose. There are two approaches to this:

1. Justifying using credibility

  • It is a published (in a book, journal or reputable website) source and most likey to be trustworthy.
  • It is a popular website used by students in many schools hence less likely to misinform.
  • The author is a well known authority in the subject.

2. Justifying on practical grounds

This is the most likely reason you will need to use as it applies to the practical considerations of your experiment/investigation.

a) The source gives you a clear and full method to follow.

b) The source gives you a simple diagram for the equipment to use and this equipment may be readily accessible in your school.

c) The source gives you all the relevant contextual applications -it tells you how your investigation can be applied to everyday or industrial uses.

d) The source gives you most of the key terms/words and relevant detail.