Research (Paper and Digital): 3 Rules and 2 Laws for Success

The Craft of Research is ever bit as much an art as a science (and yes, I do recommend the book by that title linked here). Every person has to find the method that works best for them and their particular situation.  A lot of people think they know how to do academic research by the time they finish high school, but as an instructor of intro to college writing, I am firmly of the opinion that the majority of these people are wrong.Looking back at some of my papers even during my senior year of college, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really understand real academic research until graduate school.

With the rise of digital technologies there has been an incredible rise in the amount of things that can be easily accessed and the speed at which such info might be obtained. This is sadly accompanied by a rise in minimal to non-existent attention spans which causes serious problems for true academic research. Research takes time. It requires in-depth and detailed attention to potential sources and avenues of inquiry. I can’t think of many people who have the patience to comb through fifty pages of database hits to find the perfect source. I have done this. It is painful, but worth it for a stronger paper. The standard ‘first-three-items-that-show-up-on-Google’ does not work in the long term. Let it be known that I have no problem with Google or Wikkipedia. I use them myself. But these types of resources work best for finding basic information and locating resources; they are not great sources themselves.

This problem is not limited to the digital realm. The same applies to academic books that might be potential sources for a research project. Reading the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Glossary are a start, but the book should actually be read. If the topic of the research is narrowed down enough, certain chapters or sections might be skimmed but should not be skipped. Like digital sources, books are not simply sources for soundbites. Many student who are just now beginning college do not realize this but there are databases on paper; they are called ‘Indexes’ of journals and generally cover the year’s contents of a given journal or publication. They often contain possibilities that are not available online. Yes, people, there are materials out there that have not yet been digitized (and may never be).

In addition to misusing digital resources and not taking enough time to sort through the material, problem number two is failure to keep records of research. One of the worst possible feelings when half-way through a project is to remember a citation that would suddenly be perfect, but not remembering where the fact-quote-reference was from.  To that end, I introduce K’s Recommendation 1: Keep records of searches, and notes on what has been read. This will save time in the long run, no matter what the scope of the project. I promise.

Also keep in mind the following:

Machan’s Law: Thou shalt not begin a project with a specific outcome (ie-thesis) in mind. This is the mark of an amateur. Begin with a question and possible answer, but be willing to change thy mind if the research so dictates.

Curran’s Law: If, in the course of a project, you are not wasting time chasing red herrings, you aren’t doing research right. In order to be thorough, you will run into dead-ends. This is not only ok, it is a sign that you are narrowing your focus. This is a sign of progress. Whine and cry if you must (I know I do), but embrace it.

In light of these two laws, based on some of the best research advice I got as a student, I also present K’s Recommendation 2: Be ready to find out that someone else already had your initial idea (or something very close to it). When this happens, do not panic. This is almost a moment of pride. As the old cliche goes, “great minds think alike”. You just had an idea that you share with a published scholar.  Keep working, and you will find a new, original angle. For example, you might find a different reason or way to reach the same conclusion. You might find other evidence that proves the same point, etc.

And finally, K’s Recommendation 3: Listen to your professors, students who have been in your program longer, and to each other. Go ask for direction; discuss your project with others. If someone recommend a title, it is probably for good reason. You are not obligated to use said recommended title, but you should at least look at it. Even if you don’t end up citing it, you might use it to locate other sources or directions from which to approach your topic.