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How to do research

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By Steve Nakoneshny (2010)

All research begins with an idea. Whether the idea arose as a result from previous research, from a suggestion/direction provided by someone else or a eureka-like intuitive leap is ultimately irrelevant: the idea is the starting point for any endeavor. Since ideas that begin their life sufficiently robust to commence research are rare enough to be nonexistent, the next logical step is to further refine the idea. In some cases, the initial idea may be too narrow and will require fleshing out. In others, it will be necessary to pare away some of the extraneous details to reveal the kernel hidden within.

The first step towards undertaking your research or refining your question/idea begins with a search of the available literature. Whether your ultimate goal is publishing in an academic journal, writing a paper for school or even simply increasing your personal knowledge, you really should take the time to seek out the extant body of literature on your pet subject to find out what's already been done. After all, if somebody else had the same idea as you and has already gone to the trouble of writing up their findings, there may be very little need for you to do the same. When such a scenario arises, your task is far from finished. You can read that work and see whether your idea was explored to your satisfaction.If it was and you disagree with the conclusions drawn or consider the work done to be sloppy, you can refocus your idea as a response to that other work. Perhaps the results of that research suitably explored your idea but raise further questions that you feel need to be addressed. This new direction becomes the focus for your investigations. Once again, you would see what the extant literature has to say (if anything) on your refined topic, ad nauseum until you have a very focused and attainable thesis. Yes, this process can very quite laborious and is frequently tedious but I feel that due diligence at an early stage results in less strife later on and also reduces the likelihood of you looking like an idiot for not knowing the topic material sufficiently well.

The next step is to consolidate your sources of information that you will use as evidence/support in your research.Some of these will have been identified in the earlier process of refining your topic, but chances are you will be looking further afield for more data. To be effective, it will help if you create a search strategy to both keep you on track as well as provide an audit trail of where you've gone. This way, not only can you be sure not to duplicate your previous steps, but you can methodically show to others how you arrived at your end point (if need be). Keyword searches are the most obvious starting point. However, where you employ your searches will often be determined by the topic, target audience and quality of information you seek. University libraries have access to a great many print and electronic journals, not to mention a plethora of books geared for an academic audience. Public civic libraries also have excellent access to books and some journals and magazines that aren't geared for an academic audience.Simple web searches can yield many results, the calibre of which is sometimes dubious. When using sources that cite their references, sometime sit can help to follow those up directly. Not only will you get a better feel for what the original actually said, it too can point you down other search avenues.

Working in an academic setting, I admit bias in my preferences for sources but that largely applies to work-related activities. If all you are hoping to generate is a working knowledge of a topic to discuss with your peers, there's nothing wrong with using Wikipedia, a magazine/newspaper article and a blog post or three. If you're hoping for a more exhaustive delve into a topic, you'll probably be best served by even a brief look at the academic literature.

In contrast to how I've worked in the past, this year I have been introduced to using an evidence table as a tool to assist in the consolidation of all the material I've read for a given project. Rather than having to rely on memory to recall the pertinent details of a given source, the evidence table allows me to record publication details, keywords, main findings and my own comments in a spreadsheet which I can retrieve at my own convenience.

So far, we started by identifying a topic of interest.and then refined the topic through a series of progressions. Based on our topic, target audience and desired depth of discussion, we then identified areas where we should commence our literature search. Then, with the appropriate sources identified and obtained, we set to the task of reading our source material and consolidating our notes into an evidence table.

So what should be the next obvious step? Writing? No.

I strongly recommend a period of reflection to think about what you've read thus far and to attempt to assimilate and internalise the knowledge thus gained. Even then, you should take some time to consider the structure of the paper you intend to write. What do you intend to say? What tone should you use? Given all that you've read and the tentative conclusions you have reached thus far, what points do you need to make and in what order do you need to make them? Once the general structure of your paper has taken shape in your mind, only then should you move on to putting your thoughts to paper.

How you choose to write is best determined through trial and error. Maybe you prefer writing free-form (much like how I've written this) only to have to go back later to edit and insert headings etc. Maybe you prefer starting out with a more rigid framework to assist you in hitting all the points you wish to make. Both are perfectly valid techniques and both can be used to good effect in the appropriate setting. All you can do is play around and find out what works best for you. Any need you may have for further revisions of your paper will be determined by the purpose of your writing.

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