The Process

From Lifehacker.org comes a list of great research behaviors you can use or teach your students.
  1. Schedule! I tell my students that the first step in writing a research paper is to admit you have a research paper. Write up a schedule with a series of milestones to accomplish by a specific date (e.g. find 10 sources by September 20, finish preliminary research by October 15), and keep to it.
  2. Start, don’t end, with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great place to start your research — spend some time searching for keywords related to your topic, browsing the links you find on each page, and following their suggested resources. Take notes, especially of any good sources they recommend. By the time you get ready to write, though, you should have much better sources at your command than Wikipedia, so avoid citing it in your paper.
  3. Mine bibliographies. Once you’ve found a good, solid academic book or essay on your topic, skim through the bibliography and note down anything whose title sounds relevant to your research.
  4. Have a research question in mind. Keep focused by working towards an answer to your research question.
  5. Deal with one piece at a time. Don’t try to tackle your subject all at once. Get enough of a sense of the topic that you can create an outline of the things you need to understand, and then deal with each piece on its own. You’ll find the connections between the pieces when you write your first draft.
  6. Use a system. Make sure that every quote, fact, and thought is tied in some way to its source so that you can easily insert references while you’re writing.
  7. Know your resources. Spend some time getting to know what resources, both online and offline, your library to offer.
  8. Ask for help. Most librarians will be happy to help you find relevant material for your project, and some will even locate specific pieces of hard-to-find information for you. Don’t forget to ask your fellow student for help, too — some of the might have come across work directly relevant to your topic.
  9. Carry an idea book. As you start really getting into your project, your mind will start churning through what you’re reading, even when you’re not consciously working on it. Keep a small notebook and a pen with you everywhere jot down notes whenever an idea crosses your mind, and transfer these notes into your research log (or software, or whatever) as soon as you can.
  10. Bring it up to date. Pay attention to the publication date of your material — while it’s ok to use older material, ideally you’d like the bulk of your references to come from the last 10 years or so. Google the major researchers whose work you’ve found and see if you can find their homepages.

Upgrading Your Filter

In the previous pages we looked at how we can make information come to us and how to find information that is not easily accessible but very valuable on the web. We have looked at two steps of a larger process.
  1. Identifying a topic to research.
  2. Setting up your research so that information finds you.
Now that you have the information you have identified as under your area of interest, what do you do with it?
  • we need to make decisions about its validity
  • we need to look at its credibility as a resource
  • we need to be able to find out how it fits into our research design

We preach to our students to only access credible sources, but how many of us have stood in front of them saying that, but thinking internally "how exactly do they do that?"

How to Evaluate a Source:

In a recent article on the Brittanica blog, Greg McNamee addresses this point. When we arrive at a resource, what makes it worthwhile and credible? Below is his list of investigations to perform:
  1. Trust not the first answer the search engine turns up.
  2. Interrogate your sources as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday would interrogate a hippie.
  3. Facts are stupid things, as Ronald Reagan said, until we give them meaning.
  4. When evaluating the statements of others who mean for you to take them as facts, look for the passive voice. Anyone who thinks he or she can lie to you will.
  5. Rigorously practice the principle of symmetrical skepticism. Assume goodwill, but also assume that everything people tell you is wrong until you have looked it up for yourself, no matter how much you may agree with your source of information politically, religiously, culturally, or otherwise.
  6. If you’re excited by a piece of news or a press release or somesuch novelty, wait a few days before you commit yourself to it. Mistakes are made. Corrections are issued.
  7. Have a little fun while you’re doing all this poking around and investigating and challenging. I love being surprised by strange oddments such as this: Hitler’s army in Russia had more horses than Napoleon’s did 130 years earlier.
  8. Be not dogmatic. As the Firesign Theatre rightfully instructed, Everything you know is wrong. Facts are stupid things, but they can entrap the most careful of us. And we are never so certain of ourselves as when we’re incorrect.
  9. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we all tape this little note to our telephones: “Are you sure?” The message is meant to serve as a reminder to help stem wrongheaded talk, idle gossip, and pointless argument.
For some further advice on evaluating resources, let's take a look at Empire State College's Writing Complex.






Advice for Students: 10 Steps Toward Better Research. 8/2/2007 Lifehack.org. 8/9/2007 <http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/advice-for-students-10-steps-toward-better-research.html>.
McNamee, Greg. "10 Ways to Test Facts." 06 26 2007: Brittanica Blog. 06 26 2007: August 9, 2007 <http://blogs.britannica.com/blog/main/2007/06/10-ways-of-testing-the-facts/>.