I am currently working on a study of master’s theses published at my university from 2002-2006. I am doing a citation analysis of the references of these theses, tabulating how many of each type of source (scholarly journal, conference proceeding, technical report, etc.) are found in each reference list. I hope to compare the patterns I find to PhD theses published here, and perhaps eventually to the patterns found in faculty publications at my school.
Some initial thoughts on what I’m seeing so far: Civil engineering master’s students seem to use an awful lot of websites as sources. Many of these websites are grey literature type field reports and white papers. However, many are also company reports or individual webpages with little authority. One thesis cited several newspaper articles. I am also finding that a number of these sites are no longer available, even after only three years. Which begs the question as to how valid it is to cite sources that are so fluid, that vanish so quickly, such that other engineering researchers will not be able to follow-up on or use the same sources you did. Is this a valid way to conduct research? My personal feeling is no. But then again, I am not the person responsible for teaching these graduate students how to conduct literature reviews. (Or am I?) This is something I think I want to address at some point in the next few years. How are these students learning how to do literature searches? I swear many of the sources I’m finding seem to have been discovered using Google, which I know is common in undergraduate work. I’m just surprised to see it at the graduate level also.
In addition, one thesis I looked at actually did not cite even one scholarly journal! The sources were all websites, newspapers, grey literature and company sites.
My initial impression after looking at about thirty theses so far is that this pattern is much more common in the civil engineering theses than in the ones I’ve looked at in materials engineering, mechanical engineering or computer science. I’ll know more by early summer, when I hopefully will be finished with the initial data collection from the Master’s theses. Quite interesting.