Writing and Research
Home Page >> Information
Sheet >> How to Do Research
Research has changed in recent years. Not that long ago, research for a college or professional level paper meant days (yes, plural) spent in a research library pouring over card catalogs, reference shelves, and periodical indexes in order to find the proper sources for your argument.
Computers and the Internet have changed this reality, but not as much as you might think. As you will see below, you will still need to physically visit a proper research library if you want to do a complete job of research. The main difference today is that while research used to be a matter of how much dedication and time the researcher was willing to put towards FINDING the sources, today the emphasis is on evaluating the sources instead. Since databases and the Internet make finding sources relatively easy, the difference between adequate and superior research usually comes down to choosing the BEST sources out of all the possibilities found by the computer.
1) Determine your topic
This seems incredibly obvious, but it isn't. Far too often, researchers set up unnecessary stumbling blocks for themselves by insisting on starting their research with a thesis. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. If you already have a thesis, then you've most likely already decided what is and is not true about your subject. At that point, you aren't as open to the possibilities inherent in research. You MUST remain open to the idea that the evidence and data that you find can shift and adjust your final position/thesis.
Start with an idea -- a basic topic. You've read something about high levels of depression in nursing home residents. So you decide to research the subject. CONGRATULATIONS!!! You've approached the topic from the right perspective. You have an idea -- a topic -- depression in the elderly, but you haven't set a thesis -- a conclusion -- yet.
As you are beginning your research, keep your topic relatively broad. Notice that the above example isn't focused on a particular cause or treatment for geriatric depresssion. That sort of focus may come later once you've started researching more fully, but it shouldn't be the emphasis of your research yet. At the same time, don't go for too broad of a topic. For example, CANCER is too broad, and your research will come up with too much information. However, PROSTATE CANCER or CHELATION THERAPY would be good starting points. Again, notice how there's no specific thesis about these topics, just the topic itself.
go to top
2) Decide on your search words and phrases
Once you've decided on a topic, you need to brainstorm on what terms and phrases you will need to use to find your sources. Databases and search engines will need different types of language to get the best results.
Databases are usually organized by keywords, while search engines will search the entire page for any mention of the term that you are searching for. Thus, when searching in a database, you need to think of all of the specific terms that might be used for your topic. If you are searching on the DEATH PENALTY, for example, you would need to search that term, but you'd also want to search for CAPITAL PUNISHMENT and EXECUTION as well.
In a Search Engine, you want to use phrases and multiple words to narrow down the results, or else you are going to get matches from every website that EVER mentioned the Death Penalty in any context. For Example, you might search for "DEATH PENALTY CRUEL UNUSUAL" if you are looking for articles on how the death penalty is seen in terms of Cruel and Unusual Punishment, or "DEATH PENALTY MUMIA" to find information on the specific case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. You will want to keep it simple for a database, and more specific for a search engine.
Both of these strategies require some forethought and brainstorming on YOUR part before you even begin the research. They also imply that as you get to know more about the subject, you will want to re-do some of your research to see if you can refine your searches with better terms.
go to top
3) Use the Computer
Most researchers today run immediately to a computer to begin their research. That's a smart move, as computer databases and the Internet have quickly become the primary mode of finding and retrieving information. However, be aware that computers can not do everything and in no way can replace actually going to the library to do at least some of your research.
The INTERNET -- specifically the WORLD WIDE WEB -- is the first place that people tend to go when searching for information. However, unless you search the right way in the right places, this can actually create more problems than solutions. The Internet is a very open source of information. Anybody can post anything. This is good in that it allows alternative views and information to be distributed more readily. However, it's also bad in that an incoherent page written by a kook without a clue is just as easily found as a page written by the world's foremost expert on your subject. If you are going to use the Internet for academic and professional research, you have to be very careful how you approach it.
- Search Engines
- Search Engines and Directories are the main way that people find things on the web. However, not all search engines are the same. The most popular ones are designed for casual web-surfers looking for basic information, or more likely, where to purchase something. Academic research requires a different sort of approach, and thus the researcher should use a different set of tools.
- The best search engines for academic research are Google (www.google.com), NorthernLight (nlresearch.northernlight.com), and Teoma (www.teoma.com). These are search engines that have been designed to be used for professional research, and thus are more careful about what is listed, especially at the top of the results.
- One difficulty with using a search engine is that it only finds the information that is freely available on the web, usually the information that is . Much of the information that you will want to use for your research project will have been published as books or articles in periodicals. Some of this information is available on the web, but not all.
- Periodicals are important because this is where the newest information is usually published. This is also where a lot of alternative information that can't support a whole book, but can support a 10 page article will be published. Once again, the researcher has to distinguish between general interest periodical designed for the average reader and appropriate sources for an academic paper. The researcher also has be able to distinguish between a resource that lists the articles that have been published (which you then have to find at a regular library) and the type of database that offers the full-text of the article as well. Some of the more common full-text sources for periodicals are MagPortal (www.magportal.com), FindArticles (www.findarticles.com), and the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org). Because these databases rely on what can be linked to free of charge, their listings are usually skimpy, but they are a good place to start looking for periodicals.
- Books are one of the best sources that you can use, but you aren't going to find many of them for free on the web. Check the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org) for what's available, but you will mostly find out-of-date, self-published, or government sponsored texts. All of these have some use, but to find books published by recognized experts, you will most likely have to use a library. Once again, be careful. Most public libraries are NOT able to support the level of research needed for academic research. It's not their function -- they are there to support the general public. You will need to find the closest college library to do the proper level of research. Search for the college's library using one of the good search engines like Google, and you should be able to easily access their card catalog. Most college and university libraries have their card catalogs online so that you can see what is available without actually having to travel to the library. Of course, you can also search for books in online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well. Once you have found a source for a book, you can request it from your local library using Inter-Library Loan.
go to top
4) Go to the Library Building
There is information available and resources that you really can only access at the building. There is no real substitute for actually being at the library when doing your research. It is possible to do some research at home, or from a distance, but the total and quality of information will not be as good as if you also make sure to physically go to the library building. Remember that there is a difference between a public library and an academic library. You should do your best to plan to visit the nearest college or university library several times during your research.
- Periodicals --
- The library will actually have many of the periodicals that you have found through your online resources. The published articles will often have illustrations and graphs that are not present in the online, full-text versions. It's always a good idea to check your downloaded version against the original. In addition, most libraries will have access to more complete, more sophisticated periodical databases that are ONLY available at the library.
- Books --
- The books that you found listed in the card catalog will be IN the library, available for you to read, copy and/or check out. In addition, the librarians will usually be able to help point you towards other books that might not show up as a match in the card catalog, but that migh help you nonetheless. Even if the library doesn't have the book (or periodical), they can help you submit the Inter-Library Loan request to obtain it from a library that does own it.
- Special Collections --
- Most libraries will have special collections that they do not allow to circulate outside the library, or through Inter-Library Loan. These are usually pretty specialized, but it that specialization concerns your topic, you are in great luck.
- Vertical Files --
- Most libraries have vertical files, file cabinets containing clipped articles, pamphlets, brochures, government publications, and other ephemera about topics that patrons regularly research. These contents are almost never in the card catalog, so the only way that you can access the information is to actually be in the library. While most of this information will probably duplicate information that you have elsewhere, most vertical files contain wonderful little tidbits of information that other researchers won't have easy access to.
- Librarians --
- The librarian is the most valuable resource available in most libraries. They know the collection, and they are specialists in finding information. Asking them questions about your topic will almost always point you in the right direction, if not saving much time and energy. Librarians are able to tell you what search engines are most likely to help you, what topics are too new for books to be available, what instructors prefer what types of sources, etc. Anybody doing research needs to know their librarian (again, there can be a difference between how much help an academic librarian can give you and how much a librarian at the public library can do).
go to top
5) Real Life Sources
Once you have begun your research, you may discover that there are "holes" or places where helpful data just doesn't exist. At this point, you may need to create some information yourself.
- Personal Experience --
- If you are researching autism, it might be helpful to volunteer at a community center to work with autistic children. This will give you an opportunity to compare what your sources are saying with what you yourself observe. If nothing else, this can give you a more complete view of the subject. Obviously, this is not recommended for all topics, but when it is possible, personal experience can be helpful.
- Interviews --
- more common is to generate an interview to supplement what you have in your more traditional sources. The researcher wants to be VERY careful that the interview NEEDS to be done, however. An interview with a doctor about CHELATION THERAPY that doesn't say anything that isn't easily available in a half-dozen other sources is questionable. The interview should fill in some blanks or generate some information that isn't available elsewhere. The researcher may want to interview a local health department about how local enforcement or inspection has changed, so as to compare it to what's being discussed on the state or national level, for example.
- Survey --
- Similarly to the Interview, a survey should really only be generated if there is significant data that just isn't available from a more traditional source. Maybe you want to show how your particular hospital does or does not compare to the national statistics on nursing burnout. Doing a survey of the local nursing staff to measure their burnout potential could be helpful. However, surveys are very difficult to do well. You have to be very careful how you phrase the questions, and even the order in which you ask them. Even if you do generate your own survey data, don't depend on it too strongly for your final conclusion.
go to top
6) Other Media
We live in a media saturated world. Research tends to bias the printed word, but don't feel that YOU have to limit yourself to just what is written. Feel free to branch out and utilize TV programs, films, videos, songs, photographs, etc. As long as they are relevant to your topic and have influenced your view, they are a legitimate, usable source. If you are researching the influence of rap music or videogames on children, you will need to analyze and use rap CD's and videogames. Don't ignore documentaries on TV or videocassete.
In general, in order to use and cite a media source, you will need to know when and where it was originally broadcast if it is a TV program. If it is a song or video, you will need to know the distribution company, the date of release, and the catalog number.
go to top