When preparing to write or speak about a topic, your first step is to gather information. You will need to do research to ensure that offer sufficient background information and support for your claims.
Doing research involves more than finding a few books or articles on a topic; a researcher’s job is to find useful, relevant, and reliable information, which can be challenging. This chapter will help by providing an introduction to research terminology and the research process.
Primary and Secondary Sources
You may hear sources described as either “primary” or “secondary,” and understanding this distinction can help you assess what types of information are useful for your various needs.
A primary source is one that is original and first-hand. This has different meanings depending on the disciplinary context, but generally refers to the raw data of someone’s original investigation, such as the measurements collected in a scientist’s study or the diaries of a famous politician, military commander, or author. You probably won’t access primary sources in introductory college courses, but you might if you progress through your discipline, especially if you choose to complete a graduate degree. Keep in mind that primary sources are in need of analysis or interpretation to be useful.
In your research, you more frequently use secondary sources, which are articles, books, and websites that involve analysis or interpretation of primary sources. While the measurements collected in a scientific study would be a primary source, a journal article explaining the significance of the research and the meaning that can be extracted from the data would be a secondary source. A magazine article about the private diary musings of a prime minister from decades past would be a secondary source, even though the diaries themselves would be primary sources.
One way to assess the quality of a secondary source is to look at its references or bibliography. A reliable source will cite other sources to support its claims and explain its method for collecting data. Likewise, a well-researched speech will provide support for its argument by using evidence obtained from reliable sources or through reliable methods.
Most researchers begin their work by evaluating the current information that exists on their topic. Their goal is to find out what is currently known about a topic and where research in that field may be headed. Students completing a research-based assignment will begin much the same way.
6.2 – Accessing Information Through a Library
The library plays an important role for researchers because materials in libraries have been selected for the information needs of their users. College and university libraries provide resources to support the academic programs of study at their institutions.
The Library Catalogue
The library catalogue is a good place to begin searching. Since it will allow you to search the library’s collection of books, periodicals, and media, you will have access to a lot of material that broadly covers your topic, and the information you find will help you as you work to narrow the scope of your research.
Many libraries have a unique or branded name for their catalogue and provide online search functions. One helpful feature of the catalogue’s search tool is the ability to sort and refine search results by date, format, author, and other filter options.
Additionally, library catalogues allow users to link to electronic books, videos, and other resources directly. These resources can be quite helpful, since users do not need to come to the library building, nor are these resources available only during library hours.
You’re already familiar with using search engines (namely Google), but these tools are limited. The content freely available online only represents a fraction of what actually exists.
Library databases are available 24/7 and provide users with access to the full text of eBooks and articles from periodicals: works published on a regular, ongoing basis, such as magazines, academic journals, and newspapers. The content in library databases is available because libraries have paid to subscribe to the publications they offer. For the library user, this information is free—but you will have to search the library’s databases to access it.
One downside of these databases is that they can be tricky to use and finding the sources you want may take patience and perseverance (and playing around a lot with your search terms).
You can control your search a great deal, even making it so specific that nothing will be found! For most research topics, however, a basic keyword search will take you far enough. It’s only when you aren’t finding what you need that you should consider adjusting your search strategy. Keep track of your search terms and settings so that you don’t accidentally repeat the same search multiple times.
Other Library Resources and Services
The most important resource in a college library is a college librarian. (They’re fantastic. In fact, they’re so great, this author married one.)
A library’s online search tools allow you to search their extensive holdings. Know that you can (and should) ask for help if you have problems or questions or even if you feel that you’re doing well and simply want somebody else to verify that you’re on the right track.
Remember that librarians are research experts and can help you to find information, select a topic, refine your search, cite your sources, and much more.
Talk to a librarian!
6.3 – Research on the Internet
Many of the techniques you use to improve your library searches can help you online, too. Keeping phrases together with quotation marks works on many sites and you can use the minus sign (-) to filter out search terms you’d prefer not be included. Date range filters and other limiters are available too, helping you narrow your search down even further.
Finding information online is relatively simple, so the challenge researchers face is determining what information is useful and whether it’s credible. A quick assessment is easy, and here are a few questions to guide you:
- Is the information current relative to your needs?
- Does the information address your topic?
- Who is the source of information and why was this information created?
The trustworthiness of information you find on the Internet can be hard to discern. While a source may list a current date, seem to offer relevant information, and claim to be an expert, you need to go beyond the information they give about themselves and verify that you can believe that they are honestly representing themselves and the information they offer.
Some advice on how to effectively evaluate online information is offered by Washington State University Professor Michael Caulfield, who suggests the following:
- Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research. Dubious claims can quickly be debunked with a Google search. Some websites that are dedicated to fact-checking include FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes. The first two are focused on political claims, while the third addresses stories from various sources.
- Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. You can achieve this by identifying where the information originated. If an article is describing a scientific study, tracking down the original study may reveal that its significant findings weren’t accurately represented. (And, when you find that original study, remember that is probably a superior source the second-hand version of the same.)
- Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication and author). The truth is in the network. While some sources may claim to be experts in their subject areas, other experts in the field consider that source questionable.
- Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions. If you feel that you are overwhelmed by the amount of information, or can’t tell if sources are actually still relevant to your topic, consider starting over, or talk to a librarian.
One common source that many students have questions about using is Wikipedia. Most of us use Wikipedia or similar sites to look up the answers to pressing questions such as “What grape varietals are included in Bordeaux wines?” or “When is the next solar eclipse?” However, your instructor will not likely be satisfied with your using evidence from Wikipedia (or other Wiki-type sites) for this course or any other.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that Wikipedia is, like a dictionary, a basic reference source. Like a printed encyclopedia, it is used for basic or general information about a topic, but this means that it is not suitable for serious college-level research. Additionally, because anyone on Wikipedia (or any Wiki site) can update information, there is no guarantee that what you read will be up-to-date or correct. While Wikipedia and its editors make every effort to maintain the accuracy of entries, with millions of pages on the site, that isn’t always possible. Sometimes Wikipedia pages display inaccurate information, including hoax articles or prank edits. These are typically corrected quickly by editors who notice a change has been made and fact-check to verify whether the information is true, but you can’t be sure.
That being said, Wikipedia is a good place to go to obtain basic information or general knowledge about your subject, but it’s not an original source of information. Use the references at the bottom of the page (if there are any) to look for information elsewhere. But saying to an audience, “my source for the information in this speech is Wikipedia” will probably do little to convince your audience that you are knowledgeable and have done adequate research for the speech.
Keeping in mind the considerations discussed in this section will help you select online sources for use in your work. They will also help you as you navigate the breadth of information in your daily life.
If you’re having trouble, talk to a librarian.
6.4 What to Do With All These Sources
Once you have found your sources, you will start by reading them. Taking notes as you work will help you identify notable themes and make connections between your sources. Be sure to keep good track of where you get information as you work so you can cite it!
You might wonder if you should cite every piece of information you find and use in your work. Some information is considered “common knowledge” and, if it is, it usually does not have to be cited.
When in doubt, talk to a librarian.
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.