Online resources have given us access to more knowledge than ever before. We’re buried in data, and defining what is and what is not genuine information becomes more of a challenge all the time. In this fifth edition of Research Strategies, author William Badke helps you make sense of all of the available information, shows you how to navigate and discern it, and details how to use it to your advantage to become a better researcher. Badke focuses on informational research and provides a host of tips and advice not only for conducting research, but also for everything from finding a topic to writing an outline to documenting resources and polishing the final draft. Study guides, practice exercises, and assignments at the end of each chapter help reinforce each lesson. An experienced research instructor who has led thousands of students to become better researchers, Badke uses humor to help you gain a better understanding of today’s complex, technological world. Research Strategies provides the skills and strategies to efficiently and effectively complete a research project from topic to finished product. It shows how research can be exciting and even fun.
You may be saying to yourself, “I’ve never been good at this research thing. In fact, I don’t think I have a good research project in me.” My response is, “Of course you don’t. A good research project is out there, not inside you. What you have to do is get out there, find the data, work with it, and use it to make a difference.” At this point, be aware that we are talking about a certain kind of research here, not the social scientific or scientific research that involves experiments, but informational research such as you will find in the humanities or in literature reviews in the social sciences and sciences. This kind of research is all about verbal data and information, its discovery and use. Now, before you run off to a dark alley frequented by black market sellers of data, let me offer you a safer alternative. What follows is a list of basic things that you need to have working for you in order to turn your anxiety into a brilliant project, leading to an excellent product. 1. You need an intense desire to do a brilliant project, not just an average one. By definition, most people can do an average project. 2. You need to take your time and plan your research as a strategy rather than as a mad dash through libraries and databases. Google can provide you with a lot of resources, but Google results have a nasty tendency to be academically uneven. Even libraries know when you have reached the panic stage. The books close ranks and refuse to be found. Titles in the catalog trade places so that you can’t locate them. The smell of musty books renders you numb and silly. Databases can do even worse things to you (don’t ask). Don’t panic. Take it easy. Work out a plan and show that data who’s in charge here. 3. You need to become a friend to structure. If you’re the kind of person who might follow your schedule if you could remember where you put it, or someone who views a library fine as a reasonable price to pay for never having to think about a due date, research is going to be a battle for you. Structure and organization, from the beginning of the process all the way to its triumphant end, is crucial, no matter how much pain it will cost you to adapt. 4. You need to develop lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is akin to what happens in a football game: The quarterback has no openings at all. If he runs with the ball, he’ll be flattened. So, instead of moving forward, he throws the ball sideways to another player who can move it forward. These are the steps: Recognize that your advance along one line is blocked. Abandon your approach and look for another. Run with your new approach and make it work (or try yet another). It’s like the old story of the truck that got stuck in a highway underpass. No towing vehicle of any kind could get it out, and so the workers were left with the option of dismantling an expensive truck or tearing down an even more expensive underpass until… …until the light bulb went on and some bright lateral thinker suggested letting the air out of the truck’s tires to lower it. Lateral thinking works beyond the obvious, in the realm of the creative. Nurture this gift of lateral thinking within you. It will help greatly in that moment when all your cherished strategies have failed you and you still don’t have the information you need. Here’s an example: Suppose you are doing research on the legal trial of Galileo and discover that every book with the texts of the verdicts against him is already signed out (something that actually happened to one of our students). Rather than thinking that the library has let you down, and you are doomed to wander the streets as a pathetic warning to others, think beyond the library (a lateral) and check to see if someone has posted the verdict transcripts on the Internet (they have: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/galileo/galileo.html). That sort of thinking can save you from the disaster which often lurks, ready to bite the unsuspecting. (The student got a B+ on his project). 2.1 Wrestling with a topic “I have to write a research paper on Climate Change. Right now I don’t know much about it, so I better get into Wikipedia, then find two or three books. I’m hoping it’s not a lot of work to pull everything together, but do I have enough for ten pages? Seems to me that it shouldn’t take that many words to explain that the climate is messed up because of greedy human beings.” My response? Oh, if I could only take the speaker of these words aside and explain a few things myself… Do you know how many glaring problems I found in that one brief comment? The most serious one is that our Climate Change, research-paper-writin’ student is not going to end up with a research paper, because reading up on a topic and explaining it is not research. “What?” you say. “Not research? The student has a topic – Climate Change – finds some stuff on it, and writes it up. If that’s not a research paper, what is? Don’t tell me it’s not research.” All right, I won’t. If I were a member of the tough-love school of thought, I would say something like this to you: “Go ahead and write your paper explaining everything you can find out about Climate Change (something your prof has read a thousand times in a thousand papers just like yours). Turn it in and wait for your professor to read the thing and give you the usual dreary mark. Obviously, you don’t like your prof anyway, and that’s why you keep doing this too him/ her. Professors are no strangers to the kinds of boredom you inflict on them. In fact they’re quite used to the tedious task of marking your essays. You bore the professor, and the professor pays you back by giving you a C. Any illusion that you actually did research will be dead by the time you get the essay back.” Not ever wanting to be as harsh as that, at least without providing some help, let me ask instead: “What is good and useful research if it’s not what you’ve been doing?” To answer, let’s begin by looking at what it is not. 2.2 Elements of inadequate research Inadequate research assumes that the task is merely to gather data and synthesize it (the data-as-goal philosophy). Thus the typical student “research” project involves amassing data, reading and absorbing it, then regurgitating it back onto a fresh piece of paper (sorry for the disgusting image). The purpose of the project is simply to study up on something and then explain it, using other people’s writings as a guide. Inadequate research deals in generalities and surveys. It loves a superficial look at a big topic, and it abhors depth and analysis. Inadequate research asks no analytical questions and makes no pretense of advancing knowledge. It’s happy just to report on what has already been done, to summarize the past. Inadequate research is so boring that you should be surprised that it ever gets completed, let alone foisted on your longsuffering professor. 2.3 The key to great research What’s the point of doing research, then? A flip response might be that a professor or employer told you to do a research project, and you’re just following orders. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. You should recognize first that there is a big difference between seeing data as a goal and data as a tool. What do I mean? Consider these two models: Data as goal: Find out everything you can about a topic. Explain what you’ve learned. Data as tool: Gather basic information about your topic. Identify a problem or issue related to that topic. Use the data you collect as a tool (a means) to try to solve that problem or issue.
William Badke is associate librarian for Associated Canadian Theological Schools and Information Literacy at Trinity Western University, British Columbia Canada. Since the mid-1980s, he has been teaching students the joy of research done well. His book, Research Strategies, now in its fifth edition, is a leading resource for courses in informational research.