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In the previous section we discussed what research was and the difference between primary and secondary research. In this section, we are going to explore how to develop a research strategy. Think of a research strategy as your personal map. The end destination is the actual speech, and along the way, there are various steps you need to complete to reach your destination: the speech. From the day you receive your speech assignment, the more clearly you map out the steps you need to take leading up to the date when you will give the speech, the easier your speech development process will be. In the rest of this section, we are going to discuss time management, determining your research needs, finding your sources, and evaluating your sources.
First and foremost, when starting a new project, no matter how big or small, it is important to seriously consider how much time that project is going to take. To help us discuss the issue of time with regard to preparing your speech, we’re going to examine what the Project Management Institute refers to as the project life cycleThe phases that connect the beginning of a project to its end., or “the phases that connect the beginning of a project to its end.”Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge: PMBOK® guide (3rd ed.). Newton Square, PA: Author, p. 19. Often in a public speaking class, the time you have is fairly concrete. You may have two or three weeks between speeches in a semester course or one to two weeks in a quarter course. In either case, from the moment your instructor gives you the assigned speech, the proverbial clock is ticking. With each passing day, you are losing precious time in your speech preparation process. Now, we realize that as a college student you probably have many things vying for your time in life: school, family, jobs, friends, or dating partners. For this reason, you need to really think through how much time it’s going to take you to complete your preparation in terms of both research and speech preparation.
The first step that takes a good chunk of your time is researching your speech. Whether you are conducting primary research or relying on secondary research sources, you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time researching.
As Howard and Taggart point out in their book Research Matters, research is not just a one-and-done task.Howard, R. M., & Taggart, A. R. (2010). Research matters. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 102–103. As you develop your speech, you may realize that you want to address a question or issue that didn’t occur to you during your first round of research, or that you’re missing a key piece of information to support one of your points. For these reasons, it’s always wise to allow extra time for targeted research later in your schedule.
You also need to take into account the possibility of meeting with a research librarian. Although research librarians have many useful tips and tricks, they have schedules just like anyone else. If you know you are going to need to speak with a librarian, try to set up an appointment ahead of time for the date when you think you’ll have your questions organized, and be ready to meet.
A good rule of thumb is to devote no more than one-third of your speech preparation time to research (e.g., if you have three weeks before your speech date, your research should be done by the end of the first week). If you are not careful, you could easily end up spending all your time on research and waiting until the last minute to actually prepare your speech, which is highly inadvisable.
The second task in speech preparation is to sit down and actually develop your speech. During this time period, you will use the information you collected during your research to fully flesh out your ideas into a complete speech. You may be making arguments using the research or creating visual aids. Whatever you need to complete during this time period, you need to give yourself ample time to actually prepare your speech. One common rule of thumb is one day of speech preparation per one minute of actual speaking time.
By allowing yourself enough time to prepare your speech, you’re also buffering yourself against a variety of things that can go wrong both in life and with your speech. Let’s face it, life happens. Often events completely outside our control happen, and these events could negatively impact our ability to prepare a good speech. When you give yourself a little time buffer, you’re already insulated from the possible negative effects on your speech if something goes wrong.
The last part of speech preparation is practice. Although some try to say that practice makes perfect, we realize that perfection is never realistic because no one is perfect. We prefer this mantra: “Practice makes permanent.”
And by “practice,” we mean actual rehearsals in which you deliver your speech out loud. Speakers who only script out their speeches or only think through them often forget their thoughts when they stand in front of an audience. Research has shown that when individuals practice, their speech performance in front of an audience is more closely aligned with their practice than people who just think about their speeches. In essence, you need to allow yourself to become comfortable not only with the text of the speech but also with the nonverbal delivery of the speech, so giving yourself plenty of speech preparation time also gives you more practice time. We will discuss speech development and practice further in other chapters.
When starting your research, you want to start by asking yourself what you think you need. Obviously, you’ll need to have a good idea about what your topic is before just randomly looking at information in a library or online. Your instructor may provide some very specific guidance for the type of information he or she wants to see in your speech, so that’s a good place to start determining your basic needs.
Once you have a general idea of your basic needs, you can start to ask yourself a series of simple questions:
What type of secondary research do I need?
The clearer you are about the type of research you need at the onset of the research process, the easier it will be to locate specific information.
Once you have a general idea about the basic needs you have for your research, it’s time to start tracking down your secondary sources. Thankfully, we live in a world that is swimming with information. Back in the decades when the authors of this textbook first started researching, we all had to go to a library and search through a physical card catalog to find books. If you wanted to research a topic in magazine or journal articles, you had to look up key terms in a giant book, printed annually, known as an index of periodicals. Researchers could literally spend hours in the library and find just one or two sources that were applicable to their topic.
Today, on the other hand, information is quite literally at our fingertips. Not only is information generally more accessible, it is also considerably easier to access. In fact, we have the opposite problem from a couple of decades ago—we have too much information at our fingertips. In addition, we now have to be more skeptical about where that information is coming from. In this section we’re going to discuss how to find information in both nonacademic and academic sources.
Nonacademic information sources are sometimes also called popular press information sources; their primary purpose is to be read by the general public. Most nonacademic information sources are written at a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level, so they are very accessible. Although the information often contained in these sources is often quite limited, the advantage of using nonacademic sources is that they appeal to a broad, general audience.
The first source we have for finding secondary information is books. Now, the authors of your text are admitted bibliophiles—we love books. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t really matter, we just love books. And, thankfully, we live in a world where books abound and reading has never been easier. Unless your topic is very cutting-edge, chances are someone has written a book about your topic at some point in history.
Historically, the original purpose of libraries was to house manuscripts that were copied by hand and stored in library collections. After Gutenberg created the printing press, we had the ability to mass produce writing, and the handwritten manuscript gave way to the printed manuscript. In today’s modern era, we are seeing another change where printed manuscript is now giving way, to some extent, to the electronic manuscript. Amazon.com’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s iPad, and Sony’s e-Ink-based readers are examples of the new hardware enabling people to take entire libraries of information with them wherever they go. We now can carry the amount of information that used to be housed in the greatest historic libraries in the palms of our hands. When you sit back and really think about it, that’s pretty darn cool!
In today’s world, there are three basic types of libraries you should be aware of: physical library, physical/electronic library, and e-online library. The physical library is a library that exists only in the physical world. Many small community or county library collections are available only if you physically go into the library and check out a book. We highly recommend doing this at some point. Libraries today generally model the US Library of Congress’s card catalog system. As such, most library layouts are similar. This familiar layout makes it much easier to find information if you are using multiple libraries. Furthermore, because the Library of Congress catalogs information by type, if you find one book that is useful for you, it’s very likely that surrounding books on the same shelf will also be useful. When people don’t take the time to physically browse in a library, they often miss out on some great information.
The second type of library is the library that has both physical and electronic components. Most college and university libraries have both the physical stacks (where the books are located) and electronic databases containing e-books. The two largest e-book databases are ebrary (http://www.ebrary.com) and NetLibrary (http://www.netlibrary.com). Although these library collections are generally cost-prohibitive for an individual, more and more academic institutions are subscribing to them. Some libraries are also making portions of their collections available online for free: Harvard University’s Digital Collections (http://digitalcollections.harvard.edu), New York Public Library’s E-book Collection (http://ebooks.nypl.org), The British Library’s Online Gallery (http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/ttpbooks.html#), and the US Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov).
One of the greatest advantages to using libraries for finding books is that you can search not only their books, but often a wide network of other academic institutions’ books as well. Furthermore, in today’s world, we have one of the greatest online card catalogs ever created—and it wasn’t created for libraries at all! Retail bookseller sites like Amazon.com can be a great source for finding books that may be applicable to your topic, and the best part is, you don’t actually need to purchase the book if you use your library, because your library may actually own a copy of a book you find on a bookseller site. You can pick a topic and then search for that topic on a bookseller site. If you find a book that you think may be appropriate, plug that book’s title into your school’s electronic library catalog. If your library owns the book, you can go to the library and pick it up today.
If your library doesn’t own it, do you still have an option other than buying the book? Yes: interlibrary loans. An interlibrary loanThe process where librarians are able to search other libraries in an attempt to see if they possess the book a researcher is trying to find and then have the external library loan the book to the researcher’s library. is a process where librarians are able to search other libraries to locate the book a researcher is trying to find. If another library has that book, then the library asks to borrow it for a short period of time. Depending on how easy a book is to find, your library could receive it in a couple of days or a couple of weeks. Keep in mind that interlibrary loans take time, so do not expect to get a book at the last minute. The more lead time you provide a librarian to find a book you are looking for, the greater the likelihood that the book will be sent through the mail to your library on time.
The final type of library is a relatively new one, the library that exists only online. With the influx of computer technology, we have started to create vast stores of digitized content from around the world. These online libraries contain full-text documents free of charge to everyone. Some online libraries we recommend are Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org), Google Books (http://books.google.com), Read Print (http://www.readprint.com), Open Library (http://openlibrary.org), and Get Free e-Books (http://www.getfreeebooks.com). This is a short list of just a handful of the libraries that are now offering free e-content.
The second category of information you may seek out includes general-interest periodicalsMagazines and newsletters that are published on a fairly systematic basis that appeal to a broad range of readers (e.g., The New Yorker, People, Reader’s Digest, Parade, and The Saturday Evening Post).. These are magazines and newsletters published on a fairly systematic basis. Some popular magazines in this category include The New Yorker, People, Reader’s Digest, Parade, Smithsonian, and The Saturday Evening Post. These magazines are considered “general interest” because most people in the United States could pick up a copy of these magazines and find them interesting and topical.
Special-interest periodicalsMagazines and newsletters that are published on a fairly systematic basis that appeal to a narrow range of readers (e.g., Sports Illustrated, Bloomberg’s Business Week, Gentleman’s Quarterly, Vogue, Popular Science, and Home and Garden). are magazines and newsletters that are published for a narrower audience. In a 2005 article, Business Wire noted that in the United States there are over ten thousand different magazines published annually, but only two thousand of those magazines have significant circulation. Total number of magazines published in the US is greater than 10,000 but only about 2,000 have significant circulation. (2005, September 21). Business Wire. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com. Some more widely known special-interest periodicals are Sports Illustrated, Bloomberg’s Business Week, Gentleman’s Quarterly, Vogue, Popular Science, and House and Garden. But for every major magazine, there are a great many other lesser-known magazines like American Coin Op Magazine, Varmint Hunter, Shark Diver Magazine, Pet Product News International, Water Garden News, to name just a few.
Another major source of nonacademic information is newspapers and blogs. Thankfully, we live in a society that has a free press. We’ve opted to include both newspapers and blogs in this category. A few blogs (e.g., The Huffington Post, Talkingpoints Memo, News Max, The Daily Beast, Salon) function similarly to traditional newspapers. Furthermore, in the past few years we’ve lost many traditional newspapers around the United States; cities that used to have four or five daily papers may now only have one or two.
According to newspapers.com, the top ten newspapers in the United States are USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post, Long Island Newsday, and the Houston Chronicle. Most colleges and universities subscribe to a number of these newspapers in paper form or have access to them electronically. Furthermore, LexisNexis, a database many colleges and universities subscribe to, has access to full text newspaper articles from these newspapers and many more around the world.
In addition to traditional newspapers, blogs are becoming a mainstay of information in today’s society. In fact, since the dawn of the twenty-first century many major news stories have been broken by professional bloggers rather than traditional newspaper reporters.Ochman, B. L. (2007, June 29). The top 10 news stories broken by bloggers. TechNewsWorld. [Web log post]. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from http://www.mpdailyfix.com/technewsworld-the-top-10-news-stories-broken-by-bloggers. Although anyone can create a blog, there are many reputable blog sites that are run by professional journalists. As such, blogs can be a great source of information. However, as with all information on the Internet, you often have to wade through a lot of junk to find useful, accurate information.
We do not personally endorse any blogs, but according to Technorati.com, the top ten most commonly read blogs in the world are as follows:
Another type of source that you may encounter is the encyclopedia. EncyclopediasInformation sources that provide short, very general information about a topic. are information sources that provide short, very general information about a topic. Encyclopedias are available in both print and electronic formats, and their content can range from eclectic and general (e.g., Encyclopædia Britannica) to the very specific (e.g., Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture, or Encyclopedia of Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena). It is important to keep in mind that encyclopedias are designed to give only brief, fairly superficial summaries of a topic area. Thus they may be useful for finding out what something is if it is referenced in another source, but they are generally not a useful source for your actual speech. In fact, many instructors do not allow students to use encyclopedias as sources for their speeches for this very reason.
One of the most popular online encyclopedic sources is Wikipedia. Like other encyclopedias, it can be useful for finding out basic information (e.g., what baseball teams did Catfish Hunter play for?) but will not give you the depth of information you need for a speech. Also keep in mind that Wikipedia, unlike the general and specialized encyclopedias available through your library, can be edited by anyone and therefore often contains content errors and biased information. If you are a fan of The Colbert Report, you probably know that host Stephen Colbert has, on several occasions, asked viewers to change Wikipedia content to reflect his views of the world. This is just one example of why one should always be careful of information on the web, but this advice is even more important when considering group-edited sites such as Wikipedia.
Websites are the last major source of nonacademic information. In the twenty-first century we live in a world where there is a considerable amount of information readily available at our fingertips. Unfortunately, you can spend hours and hours searching for information and never quite find what you’re looking for if you don’t devise an Internet search strategy. First, you need to select a good search engine to help you find appropriate information. Table 7.1 "Search Engines" contains a list of common search engines and the types of information they are useful for finding.
Table 7.1 Search Engines
|http://www.google.com||General search engines|
|http://www.usa.gov||Searches US government websites|
|http://www.hon.ch/MedHunt||Searches only trustworthy medical websites|
|http://medlineplus.gov||Largest search engine for medical related research|
|http://www.bizrate.com||Comparison shopping search engine|
|http://www.ameristat.org||Provides statistics about the US population|
|http://artcyclopedia.com||Searches for art-related information|
|http://www.flipdog.com||Searches for job postings across job search websites|
After nonacademic sources, the second major source for finding information comes from academics. The main difference between academic or scholarly information and the information you get from the popular press is oversight. In the nonacademic world, the primary gatekeeper of information is the editor, who may or may not be a content expert. In academia, we have established a way to perform a series of checks to ensure that the information is accurate and follows agreed-upon academic standards. For example, this book, or portions of this book, were read by dozens of academics who provided feedback. Having this extra step in the writing process is time consuming, but it provides an extra level of confidence in the relevance and accuracy of the information. In this section, we will discuss scholarly books and articles, computerized databases, and finding scholarly information on the web.
College and university libraries are filled with books written by academics. According to the Text and Academic Authors Association (http://www.taaonline.net), there are two types of scholarly books: textbooks and academic books. TextbooksBooks that are written about a segment of content within a field of academics study and are written for specific academic levels (i.e., K–12, undergraduate, graduate, etc.). are books that are written about a segment of content within a field of academic study and are written for undergraduate or graduate student audiences. These books tend to be very specifically focused. Take this book, for instance. We are not trying to introduce you to the entire world of human communication, just one small aspect of it: public speaking. Textbooks tend to be written at a fairly easy reading level and are designed to transfer information in a manner that mirrors classroom teaching to some extent. Also, textbooks are secondary sources of information. They are designed to survey the research available in a particular field rather than to present new research.
Academic booksBooks that are primarily written for other academics for informational and research purposes. are books that are primarily written for other academics for informational and research purposes. Generally speaking, when instructors ask for you to find scholarly books, they are referring to academic books. Thankfully, there are hundreds of thousands of academic books published on almost every topic you can imagine. In the field of communication, there are a handful of major publishers who publish academic books: SAGE (http://www.sagepub.com), Routledge (http://www.routledge.com), Jossey-Bass (http://www.josseybass.com), Pfeiffer (http://www.pfeiffer.com), the American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/pubs/books), and the National Communication Association (http://www.ncastore.com), among others. In addition to the major publishers who publish academic books, there are also many university presses who publish academic books: SUNY Press (http://www.sunypress.edu), Oxford University Press (http://www.oup.com/us), University of South Carolina Press (http://www.sc.edu/uscpress), Baylor University Press (http://www.baylorpress.com), University of Illinois Press (http://www.press.uillinois.edu), and the University of Alabama Press (http://www.uapress.ua.edu) are just a few of them.
Because most academic writing comes in the form of scholarly articles or journal articles, that is the best place for finding academic research on a given topic. Every academic subfield has its own journals, so you should never have a problem finding the best and most recent research on a topic. However, scholarly articles are written for a scholarly audience, so reading scholarly articles takes more time than if you were to read a magazine article in the popular press. It’s also helpful to realize that there may be parts of the article you simply do not have the background knowledge to understand, and there is nothing wrong with that. Many research studies are conducted by quantitative researchers who rely on statistics to examine phenomena. Unless you have training in understanding the statistics, it is difficult to interpret the statistical information that appears in these articles. Instead, focus on the beginning part of the article where the author(s) will discuss previous research (secondary research), and then focus at the end of the article, where the author(s) explain what was found in their research (primary research).
Finding academic research is easier today than it ever has been in the past because of large computer databases containing research. Here’s how these databases work. A database company signs contracts with publishers to gain the right to store the publishers’ content electronically. The database companies then create thematic databases containing publications related to general areas of knowledge (business, communication, psychology, medicine, etc.). The database companies then sell subscriptions to these databases to libraries.
The largest of these database companies is a group called EBSCO Publishing, which runs both EBSCO Host (an e-journal provider) and NetLibrary (a large e-book library) (http://www.ebscohost.com). Some of the more popular databases that EBSCO provides to colleges and universities are: Academic Search Complete, Business Source Complete, Communication and Mass Media Complete, Education Research Complete, Humanities International Complete, Philosopher’s Index, Political Science Complete, PsycArticles, and Vocational and Career Collection. Academic Search Complete is the broadest of all the databases and casts a fairly wide net across numerous fields. Information that you find using databases can contain both nonacademic and academic information, so EBSCO Host has built in a number of filtering options to help you limit the types of information available.
We strongly recommend checking out your library’s website to see what databases they have available and if they have any online tutorials for finding sources using the databases to which your library subscribes.
In addition to the subscription databases that exist on the web, there are also a number of great sources for scholarly information on the web. As mentioned earlier, however, finding scholarly information on the web poses a problem because anyone can post information on the web. Fortunately, there are a number of great websites that attempt to help filter this information for us.
Table 7.2 Scholarly Information on the Web
|Website||Type of Information|
|http://www.doaj.org||The Directory of Open Access Journals is an online database of all freely available academic journals online.|
|http://scholar.google.com||Google Scholar attempts to filter out nonacademic information. Unfortunately, it tends to return a large number of for-pay site results.|
|http://www.cios.org||Communication Institute for Online Scholarship is a clearinghouse for online communication scholarship. This site contains full-text journals and books.|
|http://xxx.lanl.gov||This is an open access site devoted to making physical science research accessible.|
|http://www.biomedcentral.com||BioMed Central provides open-access medical research.|
|http://www.osti.gov/eprints||The E-print Network provides access to a range of scholarly research that interests people working for the Department of Energy.|
|http://www.freemedicaljournals.com||This site provides the public with free access to medical journals.|
|http://highwire.stanford.edu||This is the link to Stanford University’s free, full-text science archives.|
|http://www.plosbiology.org||This is the Public Library of Science’s journal for biology.|
|http://www.scirus.com||Scrius is a search engine designed to allow researchers to search for journal content, scientists’ homepages, courseware, and preprint material.|
|http://www.ipl.org||The Internet Public Library provides subject guides, reference works, and a number of databases.|
|http://vlib.org||The WWW Virtual Library provides annotated lists of websites compiled by scholars in specific areas.|
Now that we’ve given you plenty of different places to start looking for research, we need to help you sort through the research. In this section, we’re going to provide a series of tips that should make this process easier and help you find appropriate information quickly. And here is our first tip: We cannot recommend Mary George’s book The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know more highly. Honestly, we wish this book had been around when we were just learning how to research.
Nothing is more disheartening than when you find yourself at 1:00 a.m. asking, “Haven’t I already read this?” We’ve all learned the tough lessons of research, and this is one that keeps coming back to bite us in the backside if we’re not careful. According to a very useful book called The Elements of Library Research by M. W. George, a research logA step-by-step account of the process of identifying, obtaining, and evaluating sources for a specific project. is a “step-by-step account of the process of identifying, obtaining, and evaluating sources for a specific project, similar to a lab note-book in an experimental setting.”George, M. W. (2008). The elements of library research: What every student needs to know. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 183. In essence, George believes that keeping a log of what you’ve done is very helpful because it can help you keep track of what you’ve read thus far. You can use a good old-fashioned notebook, or if you carry around your laptop or netbook with you, you can always keep it digitally. While there are expensive programs like Microsoft Office OneNote that can be used for note keeping, there are also a number of free tools that could be adapted as well. The websites in Table 7.3 "Note-Taking Help" will help you find templates and tools for electronic note taking.
Table 7.3 Note-Taking Help
|Website||Type of Information|
|http://www.uleth.ca/lib/guides/research-log.doc||Word Document template created by the University of Lethbridge|
|http://www.comcol.umass.edu/dbc/rtfs/research_log_template.rtf||RTF file template created by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst|
|http://www.tarleton.edu/departments/library/library_module/unit3/researchlog.doc||Word Document template created by Tarleton State University|
|http://www.uvm.edu/~lkutner/researchlogexampletemplate.doc||Word Document template created by the University of Vermont|
|http://knowledgecenter.unr.edu/instruction/help/liblog.rtf||Word Document template created by the University of Nevada|
|http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/onenote||Microsoft Office OneNote comes with MS Office Professional or is free to try for thirty days. It is also available for forty-five dollars for students through an academic discount program. There is a free app version available for the iPhone or iPad.|
|http://www.evernote.com||Evernote has both a free version and a subscription version and is similar to MS OneNote. You can also get this one for your smart phone, iPad, or home computer (PC or MAC) and easily sync files between all of your electronic devices.|
|http://notebook.zoho.com/nb/login.do?serviceurl=%2Fnb%2Findex.do||This is an online, web-based note-taking system that has no cost.|
|http://journler.com||This is good note-taking software, but it currently costs $34.95 for a single-user subscription.|
|http://www.thebrain.com||If you’re more of a visual organizer, The Brain offers a free program for visually organizing information. You can also purchase more expensive packages as necessary.|
It’s not unusual for students to try to jump right into the meat of a topic, only to find out that there is a lot of technical language they just don’t understand. For this reason, you may want to start your research with sources written for the general public. Generally, these lower-level sources are great for background information on a topic and are helpful when trying to learn the basic vocabulary of a subject area.
Once you’ve started getting a general grasp of the broad content area you want to investigate, it’s time to sit down and see what your school’s library has to offer. If you do not have much experience in using your library’s website, see if the website contains an online tutorial. Most schools offer online tutorials to show students the resources that students can access. If your school doesn’t have an online tutorial, you may want to call your library and schedule an appointment with a research librarian to learn how to use the school’s computers. Also, if you tell your librarian that you want to learn how to use the library, he or she may be able to direct you to online resources that you may have missed.
Try to search as many different databases as possible. Look for relevant books, e-books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, journal articles, and media files. Modern college and university libraries have a ton of sources, and one search may not find everything you are looking for on the first pass. Furthermore, don’t forget to think about synonyms for topics. The more synonyms you can generate for your topic, the better you’ll be at finding information.
If you sit down and try to completely read every article or book you find, it will take you a very long time to get through all the information. Start by reading the introductory paragraphs. Generally, the first few paragraphs will give you a good idea about the overall topic. If you’re reading a research article, start by reading the abstract. If the first few paragraphs or abstract don’t sound like they’re applicable, there’s a good chance the source won’t be useful for you. Second, look for highlighted, italicized, or bulleted information. Generally, authors use highlighting, italics, and bullets to separate information to make it jump out for readers. Third, look for tables, charts, graphs, and figures. All these forms are separated from the text to make the information more easily understandable for a reader, so seeing if the content is relevant is a way to see if it helps you. Fourth, look at headings and subheadings. Headings and subheadings show you how an author has grouped information into meaningful segments. If you read the headings and subheadings and nothing jumps out as relevant, that’s another indication that there may not be anything useful in that source. Lastly, take good notes while you’re skimming. One way to take good notes is to attach a sticky note to each source. If you find relevant information, write that information on the sticky note along with the page number. If you don’t find useful information in a source, just write “nothing” on the sticky note and move on to the next source. This way when you need to sort through your information, you’ll be able to quickly see what information was useful and locate the information. Other people prefer to create a series of note cards to help them organize their information. Whatever works best for you is what you should use.
After you’ve finished reading useful sources, see who those sources cited on their bibliographies or reference pages. We call this method backtrackingThe process where a researcher uses a printed bibliography or reference page to find other useful research materials and then finds those cited materials and reads them for herself or himself.. Often the sources cited by others can lead us to even better sources than the ones we found initially.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As we said earlier in this chapter, reference librarians are your friends. They won’t do your work for you, but they are more than willing to help if you ask.
The final step in research occurs once you’ve found resources relevant to your topic: evaluating the quality of those resources. Below is a list of six questions to ask yourself about the sources you’ve collected; these are drawn from the book The Elements of Library Research by M. W. George.George, M. W. (2008). The elements of library research: What every student needs to know. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
The first question you need to ask yourself is the date of the source’s publication. Although there may be classic studies that you want to cite in your speech, generally, the more recent the information, the better your presentation will be. As an example, if you want to talk about the current state of women’s education in the United States, relying on information from the 1950s that debated whether “coeds” should attend class along with male students is clearly not appropriate. Instead you’d want to use information published within the past five to ten years.
The next question you want to ask yourself is about the author. Who is the author? What are her or his credentials? Does he or she work for a corporation, college, or university? Is a political or commercial agenda apparent in the writing? The more information we can learn about an author, the better our understanding and treatment of that author’s work will be. Furthermore, if we know that an author is clearly biased in a specific manner, ethically we must tell our audience members. If we pretend an author is unbiased when we know better, we are essentially lying to our audience.
In addition to knowing who the author is, we also want to know who the publisher is. While there are many mainstream publishers and academic press publishers, there are also many fringe publishers. For example, maybe you’re reading a research report published by the Cato Institute. While the Cato Institute may sound like a regular publisher, it is actually a libertarian think tank (http://www.cato.org). As such, you can be sure that the information in its publications will have a specific political bias. While the person writing the research report may be an upstanding author with numerous credits, the Cato Institute only publishes reports that adhere to its political philosophy. Generally, a cursory examination of a publisher’s website is a good indication of the specific political bias. Most websites will have an “About” section or an “FAQ” section that will explain who the publisher is.
The next question you want to ask yourself is whether the information comes from an academic or a nonacademic source. Because of the enhanced scrutiny academic sources go through, we argue that you can generally rely more on the information contained in academic sources than nonacademic sources. One very notorious example of the difference between academic versus nonacademic information can be seen in the problem of popular-culture author John Gray, author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. Gray, who received a PhD via a correspondence program from Columbia Pacific University in 1982, has written numerous books on the topic of men and women. Unfortunately, the academic research on the subject of sex and gender differences is often very much at odds with Gray’s writing. For a great critique of Gray’s writings, check out Julia Wood’s article in the Southern Communication Journal.Wood, J. T. (2002). A critical response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus portrayals of men and women. Southern Communication Journal, 67, 201–210. Ultimately, we strongly believe that using academic publications is always in your best interest because they generally contain the most reliable information.
Another great indicator of a well-thought-out and researched source is the quality of its bibliography or reference page. If you look at a source’s bibliography or reference page and it has only a couple of citations, then you can assume that either the information was not properly cited or it was largely made up by someone. Even popular-press books can contain great bibliographies and reference pages, so checking them out is a great way to see if an author has done her or his homework prior to writing a text. As noted above, it is also an excellent way to find additional resources on a topic.
The last question to ask about a source is, “Are other people actively citing the work?” One way to find out whether a given source is widely accepted is to see if numerous people are citing it. If you find an article that has been cited by many other authors, then clearly the work has been viewed as credible and useful. If you’re doing research and you keep running across the same source over and over again, that is an indication that it’s an important study that you should probably take a look at. Many colleges and universities also subscribe to Science Citation Index (SCI), Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), or the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI), which are run through Institute for Scientific Information’s Web of Knowledge database service (http://isiwebofknowledge.com). All these databases help you find out where information has been cited by other researchers.