Research in the digital age is a new beast. Students today have access to more and more information, but rather than making research skills less important, widespread access to the Internet makes it even more crucial to learn how to research well. This article provides six tips that I discovered as a competitive debater in high school and continued to refine in college and graduate school.
Tip 1: Start by finding authorities (sources) rather than starting with subject matter.
This advice may seem counterintuitive, but the Internet’s copiousness means that one of the first, most important challenges is to find sources you trust BEFORE you find out where they stand on a particular issue.
If you don’t already have those sources in mind, start with a search for “think tanks,” organizations that conduct research and advocate for political and social change. When I test it out, the results include a “List of think tanks in the United States” as well as “The 50 Most Influential Think Tanks in the United States.” Comparing the two lists, I choose four think tanks mentioned in both: the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, and the Urban Institute.
Most of this information is available from your home computer. If you are lucky enough to live near a college or university, you might also be able to use their library to access online subscription databases such as JSTOR, LexisNexis, or ProQuest.
Remember that research is a balancing act, so try to choose sources with different political and economic leanings. That brings me to Tip 2.
Tip 2: Find out about your core sources.
Most sources today have a website. It’s a great place to find out more about your source’s experience, political leanings, and areas of focus. You can find the home page with a simple search for the institution’s name.
The first thing I see on the Heritage Foundation website is an “About” page. Through it, I learn that the Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973; it’s conservative, and it focuses on economics, family issues, and national security. At the Brookings Institution, I have to dig a little more through the “About” page, but I eventually discover that it was founded in 1927; it appears to lean liberal, and it focuses on economics, energy, governance, and foreign policy. We’re off to a good start!
Aim to build a directory of four to six core sources that you’ll rely on as a starting point for your research, no matter the subject. Newspapers and research journals can supplement your list.
Tip 3: Use the five common topics to lay the groundwork of your research.
Once you have identified sources, you can search within their websites to find articles or policy papers about your topic. Before you look for passionate quotes about the evils or advantages of a particular policy, gather facts. The five common topics are your friend.
- Definition: What is it? How does it work? Who enforces it?
- Comparison: Do other states have this policy? Do other countries?
- Relationship: What is the impact of this policy? Who does it affect? Who enforces it?
- Circumstance: When was it created? Why was it created? Does that reason still apply?
- Testimony: What do experts say about the policy? Who tends to support it? Who tends to disparage it? Is there a pattern?
Don’t forget to list your sources with any quotations or statistics you glean. Include the title of the piece, the author, the date of publication, and the sponsoring organization, as well as the URL for easy retrieval.
Tip 4: When searching by subject, start general, not specific.
In some cases, you might not find answers to all of your questions from your core sources. Time to pull out your subject-specific search tools.
Again, I’ll begin with a counterintuitive suggestion. Instead of searching for “five reasons to abolish the death penalty,” start with a simple “death penalty” or “capital punishment.” (Use quotation marks to search for a phrase rather than individual terms.)
When you start with a sentence that presumes one side of the argument, you will only find those sources already predisposed toward that side. Recognize, too, that names influence search results. In a dramatic example, “The War of Northern Aggression” presumes a different bias than “The Necessary War,” even though both terms refer to the same historical event. Starting as neutrally as possible means you’ll have to do more sifting, but it improves the chance that you’ll find information about both sides of the issue.
Tip 5: Track down the credentials[i] of individual sources.
If you are searching by subject, after you find an article that meets your needs, look for the author. If one is listed, look for an “About the Author” page. If there is no author, go to the home page and look for a sponsoring organization. If you don’t see an “About Us” page, go to the root URL of the web page (deleting everything after .com or .net or .org). If you see a site owner, you can search for their credentials separately.
A note about Wikipedia: in Tip 1, the first list of think tanks that I mentioned came from the popular crowd-sourced encyclopedia. Although Wikipedia is not authoritative on its own, I often use the site as a jumping-off point to learn the vocabulary (the grammar) of my subject so that I can do more precise searches. I also use material from Wikipedia occasionally, as long as the source is footnoted—but follow the link in the footnote to access the original source whenever possible.
Tip 6: Use the five common topics to assess the quality of your research.
No matter where you find your research, be sure to assess it before moving on. Again, the five common topics are one of the most valuable tools at your disposal.
- Definition: Are key terms defined well?
- Comparison: Does the material present both sides? Have you looked at two or more sources to confirm the information?
- Relationship: Does the material include leaps of logic or other fallacies?
- Circumstance: Does the material include sufficient context?
- Testimony: Who are the authors or sponsors? Are they credible? What are their biases?
You might have noticed a pattern in these six tips: acquire general knowledge and grammar first, dig deeper to assess credibility, and use the five common topics. The same sequence applies whether you are browsing a library, consulting your peers, or researching online.
Research in the digital age may be a beast, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tamed. With these six tips and a little practice, you’ll find that research can be enjoyable as well as challenging. Most importantly, the skills you develop will serve you well no matter where life takes you next.
[i] The new Trivium Tables: Debate includes a handy flow-chart for this process.