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How to Research a Topic Effectively
Knowing what's what is key in many areas of life. The Internet has introduced us to an unprecedented amount of access to knowledge, but along with that has come a significant amount of incorrect information. Knowing where to look, who to trust, and what to discard are critical evaluations that need to be considered when researching a topic for any purpose. I am speaking from a fair amount of academic research experience which has earned several high marks on research dependent papers and projects, so I hope to impart some of the things I've learned onto your future research endeavors.
The first thing you need to do before researching a topic is to have a topic. It is a bit more than it seems, however. You need to have, either in your mind or written down, a clear idea of what it is you need or want to know. For more formal projects I highly recommend creating an outline of what it is you're writing. Create a main point you wish to make, and several sub-points which will act as supporting information to your main point. This will give you a clear, concise map of what specifically you need to research, and ultimately make your life easier. Obviously, we don't always have in mind exactly what we should know about a topic, but there are ways to find out where we should be going with our research. Also bear in mind that nothing is set in stone. Revise your outline as needed to keep your research precisely on point with your goals.
Wikipedia as a Research Tool
Wikipedia is an amazing result of the Internet. It is a brilliant amalgamation of knowledge from all reaches of the whole of human experience. But in order to achieve this, Wikipedia is necessarily open to contribution from anyone; and I mean anyone with an internet connection. While the Wiki admins and other users are very vigilant about blatant misinformation, it is still the bane of formal research projects to use Wikipedia directly as a source, since it can seriously undermine your credibility in the academic world. For general purposes, it is quite a nice resource, but should still not be trusted blindly.
There is hope for academic projects, however. Wikipedia is a great starting point for formal research (and I emphasize starting point). An article on Wikipedia is chock-full of useful information to get you started on the path to good research, as it will provide a general overview on the topic and several subcategories which you can use to refine and focus your research. And the kicker is this: a well-written Wiki article will include a reference list at the bottom of the page. This reference list can be your gateway straight to good sources which you can employ directly in your research and writing. Just to reiterate: if you are conducting research for an academic or other formal project, never cite Wikipedia as a source directly. This will undermine your credibility and affect your grade.
Consider the Source
The absolutely critical thing to do when researching a topic is to make sure that the information you're getting is reliable. If you convey information which turns out to be false, it will damage your credibility and increase the chances of other works of yours being discredited. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to check your sources thoroughly.
There are, however, some fairly simple guidelines to keep in mind which will help you avoid bad sources. For internet sources:
- Avoid .com sites whenever possible. Commercial sites can be acquired by anyone, and are more prone to bias since their primary goals are commerce-oriented. There are exceptions, of course. If your research is news-related, the trusted news companies will likely have .com sites and may indeed be the best sources for the job. Just keep in mind the company's positions and watch out for biased articles (great research is based around facts, not opinions).
- Watch out for .org sites. They used to be reserved for particular kinds of organizations, but are now available to everyone. Treat them the same as you would a .com site.
- In my experience, .edu sites are the best internet sources. They are reserved only for higher education institutions and much of the information they publish is peer-reviewed, which adds tremendously to its credibility
- If your research is reliant on statistics, it may also be beneficial to look at .gov sites, which are generally reliable and keep many thousands of statistics (among other) reports
Of course, the Internet is not the only way to get information:
- Books are still a fantastic way of finding reliable information, since they are generally published by experts on the topic or are made specifically for reference (still keep in mind that you must make sure the author is indeed competent on the subject matter). A trip to the library is still worthwhile even with the internet's existence
- Journals are also an excellent tool for research, particularly academic journals. These are full of articles and papers written by active researchers and experts who work firsthand with the subject matter they write about, and these are also peer-reviewed. These can be somewhat difficult to obtain for free, but many colleges and universities (and even some public libraries) are subscribed to several varieties of academic journals and make these available to their students free of charge
- Don't be afraid to reach out to experts. Interviews, conducted via phone, email, or in person, can be one of the best ways to get quality information directly from someone who knows what they're talking about. And nothing makes an expert happier than being able to share their findings. Just be sure you have a targeted set of questions for them, so as to not waste their time
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of source types, but it will serve to get you started with a solid list of references.
Take Effective Notes
Now that we've evaluated our sources and began combing through them for the information we need, we have to take all the information down. This is where research notes come in. Keeping good research notes will lay the foundation for a good final project. We return now to the aforementioned outline. Keep your reading and note taking limited to only the information that pertains to the topics you wish to cover. The best research papers are not built on copious amounts of research notes, but rather on precisely-targeted and focused notes. Remember this: If you highlight every word on a page, you might as well not highlight at all. Do not forget that you should also keep your notes in a logical order which you can easily follow when you call them back to write your project.
Properly Citing Sources
Now that you've done the research, it's time to write (or whatever else you intend to do with your newfound knowledge)! Write your paper following your outline and using the notes you've gathered to create a strong point and drive it home. I will not go into detail about writing here, but there is one research-related thing you must bear in mind while writing: the information you are using is likely not yours. It is an intellectual crime, and, depending on the circumstances, can be illegal to claim another's work as your own. By not giving credit for a piece of information, you are implying that it is original and that you discovered it. Therefore, you must give credit to those from whom you have borrowed. This is done in the most formal sense by compiling a list of references which is included at the end of your project and including in-text citations for any material which you've quoted directly or have paraphrased. Proper mechanics of this system are explained in great detail here, at Purdue University's Online Writing Lab site. If you'd like to see a personal example of a reference list and in-text citations in APA style, you can check out an early research paper of mine for an English course here (it is also an interesting compilation of information about quantum mechanics, for those interested in reading the whole thing).
To recap, conducting good research is as easy as:
- Go into your research with a good idea of the things you want to know
- Check out Wikipedia for a rough idea of the topic and some focusing ideas. Refer to the reference list on the Wiki page for some more in-depth information
- Scour the internet, library, and local area for good, quality sources that you can use to back up your claims.
- Give credit to those from whom you have borrowed.
And you're done! Whether you're writing a long paper, or just buffing up your knowledge, this set of guidelines should see you through the research process successfully. Go forth and research!
Personally tested and approved. Great, short book for those who wish to refine their research writing skills.