As a student, you’re likely to hear the term “research” in the context of an assignment for a class. That is, you might be told that the assignment you need to complete will require “research.” This word might seem intimidating and mysterious. You might have seen announcements around campus for research presentations, conferences, symposiums or roundtables. This is where faculty (many of whom are also researchers) talk about their current research, which may include working with books and journal articles in the library, but also (depending on their field of expertise) might involve observing the life-cycle of fruit flies, interviewing hospital patients, running computer models to solve problems, or examining the night sky. In all of these cases, research can seem separate from your everyday life.
But that assumption falls apart when you recognize that research is the term we all use to describe a systematic process for learning more about a topic or, more colloquially, looking stuff up. Let’s start by talking about the research you might have performed to buy a phone. Did you simply walk up to a kiosk in a mall and buy the first phone you put your hands on? Probably not. Maybe you asked friends about their experiences with their phones, using their recommendations to eliminate some choices. Possibly, you went online to read reviews of the latest phone from a company several of your friends recommended. These reviews might help you narrow your list to a top three. Maybe you also did a bit of searching—and perhaps visited or called some shops—to see if your preferred phones were in stock or, better yet, on sale. And only then did you make a purchase. That’s all a form of research.
Sometimes, as when you are buying something relatively expensive (like a phone), research is a way of guiding a choice. Research can help you make choices about which political party to support or whether a proposed law aligns with your values. It might lead you to change your behaviour; for example, learning more about the health impacts of smoking could lead you to quit, while finding out that partner dancing improves long-term health outcomes could motivate you to learn how to tango. And sometimes you might want to research a topic simply because you find it fascinating. Perhaps you are interested in Ava DuVernay’s work: how many movies has she directed? And how did she get her start in film making (see Fig. 4.1)? And what does a film director do anyway?
Search engines, such as Google, can help you to answer a question when you are looking for everyday information. As an aside, Google lists ads first in a search and also collects your data—this is how they make their money. Be very careful about what you click on when you are using Google and many other search engines (except if you search using the Firefox address bar in the Firefox browser)—a link might be an ad selling you something rather than the source you wanted. By the way, you can use a pseudonym when you sign up for Google or most online services listed as “free.” You do not owe any company your personal information for using their services. Also note that most university and college libraries have excellent search engines; please do use them rather than Google. Now, back to our discussion about everyday research and post-secondary research.
In Fig. 4.1 you can see two of the top choices for reading about Ava DuVernay’s work. Neither are scholarly, but they are sites with fairly good reputations (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database, respectively). These sites are perfectly fine when you are simply curious and want to look something up. They are even fine when you are just starting to think about a research topic. But maybe they aren’t so fine when you need peer-reviewed or even more reputable, reliable sources to support claims you are making in a research paper.
There is a difference between the everyday research you perform and the research that goes on in a university or college setting. Whether in assignments for classes or when scholars on campus perform lab experiments, well-designed human studies, or exploration of archival materials, post-secondary research has to do with standards of and systems for getting to reliable answers. This more academic type of research assumes that some sources are more reliable than others. There are more and less ethical ways of gathering, analyzing, and representing information (see section 4.2 Knowledges and Traditions). And there are approaches to research that are more or less likely to lead to an accurate answer. Furthermore, each discipline has its own conventions, standards, methods, and language, which help situate that research within scholarly conversations.
To explain by way of example, when you are looking to buy a new pair of sunglasses, it’s okay to do research by seeing what brand most of your favourite singers wear when they are snapped by the paparazzi. Worst case scenario, you buy a too-expensive pair of sunglasses that don’t fit you well. But a medical researcher who is trying to figure out whether most sunglasses currently on the market offer sufficient UV protection to help prevent cataracts must look at different evidence and analyze it, because public health is at stake.
In other words, it’s a misconception that academic research is only for graduate students and faculty members. The research skills you develop while you are in university courses will be transferable to your profession or any other schooling you might want to continue with. Actually, there aren’t many professional positions that don’t ask for some kind of research skills and activity. And the habits of critical thinking about sources and information you develop through research projects will serve you well whenever you need to teach yourself something, figure out a problem, or determine a course of action. By and large most North American universities and colleges are committed to supporting undergraduate research. Many have clear statements about the benefits of undergraduate research, such as these from the University of Montana and the University of Victoria, respectively:
Research allows you to pursue your interests, to learn something new, to hone your problem-solving skills and to challenge yourself in new ways. Working on a faculty-initiated research project gives you the opportunity to work closely with a mentor–a faculty member or other experienced researcher.In addition to the opportunity to create knowledge, research will develop your analytical skills and boost your success in course work and career achievement. Participating in research may inspire you to pursue a particular academic discipline, further your education with graduate studies or focus you on a fascinating career path.
So now you know how important research really is to your everyday life, your academic life and then, very likely, down the line in your chosen profession. Much of the research you will perform is online, but that wasn’t always the case. During the pandemic we are all faced in academia with the need to perform even more research, teaching, and learning online. This way of working can seem rather discombobulating, but library research, on the other hand, has slowly moved online over the past twenty years. Perhaps we all know more about online learning than we think?
Research Then and Now
Not that long ago, there was no internet. There were only print-based indexes and journals, no research databases, no online journals, no ebooks, and no video chats with librarians. Students had to learn how to use these tools and resources to find an article using an index, how to find the article in order to read it, and how to read the article effectively. Students then learned how to analyze citations to find related information, look up definitions and facts in reference books, and order print materials from other libraries when they had no other options.
The card catalogue pictured in Fig. 4.2 was the key tool students and instructors alike used to look up the research materials they needed. Believe us, there were very long lines at photocopiers in libraries in those days.
Moving all of these resources online was a lengthy process and resulted in a major shift in how scholars and students currently do research. As resources gradually moved online, they were refined and updated over time. Universities adapted and embraced these new tools and methods. Even now, not everything is online. But card catalogues have gone by the wayside as online library search engines have taken over as the means by which you will find what you need at your university or college library.
In the pre-pandemic world, you could stroll into the library, chat with a librarian about your project, and get the help you need. All those services are currently fully available online (as they have been for the last decade or so). While you can’t access physical libraries with their variety of services and print sources fully during the pandemic, you certainly can chat with librarians online or by phone; find resources in a number of library databases; and download the materials you need with no paywalls (meaning you need to pay to access the materials).
However, the skills you need to do research remain the same as they were in that print-only era:
- curiosity, planning, and critical thinking;
- a willingness to engage in scholarly conversation;
- reading skills, note taking, and information literacy.
Your library support team is still here to help you at all stages of research and writing, and can advise on how to navigate research when you’re relying on online sources. Research tools and methodologies are always evolving and adapting as new technologies and needs arise. Scholars adapt and evolve with them and so will you!
- Shoshana Zuboff, “Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Surveillance Capitalism is an Assault on Human Autonomy’,” interview by Joanna Kavenna, The Guardian, October 4, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/04/shoshana-zuboff-surveillance-capitalism-assault-human-automomy-digital-privacy. ↵
- “Why Do Research?” Undergraduate Research Experiential Learning and Career Success, University of Montana, accessed September 28, 2020, http://www.umt.edu/ugresearch/research/why-research.php. ↵
- “Student Research Opportunities,” Research, University of Victoria, accessed October 9, 2020, https://www.uvic.ca/research/learnabout/home/studentopps/index.php. ↵