Part 2 of 3 in the Research Process series
by Ryan D. Smith, CAPS Assistant Coordinator of Writing & Language
When Everest was first discovered to be the world’s tallest peak in 1852, it would be 101 years before anyone could successfully reach the summit (Krakauer, Into Thin Air). Today, it is a relatively manageable climb for those who can afford the travel expenses and climbing permits. A significant factor in this change is the quality of climbing gear. While climbers in the past used equipment made from wood and cotton, contemporary climbers use aluminum and a variety of fabrics engineered to be lightweight and to offer more protection from the cold.
The thing is, if you want to climb mountains, you must use the proper gear. And the same applies to research. Research relies heavily on information, and the quality of your information determines your ability to adequately answer your research question. Lower the standards for the source of information, and you may have difficulty writing a quality paper.
So to make sure your information is coming from quality sources, there are three things to remember. Your sources should be reliable, they should be relevant, and they should be logically sound. And of course, your treatment of these sources should be objective, to ensure that you are creating a quality source yourself.
Your sources should be reliable
You have probably been told not to believe everything you read on the internet. When it comes to research, however, many of the resources that are out there exist on the internet, and many of the sources that can be found in print are less reliable. We need this maxim to be a little more detailed. A good rule of thumb for scientific research, then, is that reliable sources are current, primary, and peer-reviewed.
Scientific knowledge is constantly being updated. Researchers conduct empirical studies testing old and new theories, and others develop theories based on new empirical findings. So to base one’s research on older findings is to ignore all of the research that has been done since then. Older studies should not necessarily be ignored, as they can often be foundational for later studies, but they must always be checked with the most recent research. If you don’t cite the most recent literature, you run the risk of basing your research on a disproven theory.
As scientific knowledge is developed from empirical research, articles reporting empirical research should be your primary sources of information. As this helpful guide points out, all sources can be categorized into three different levels. Primary sources are those which give a first-hand account of the research, secondary sources offer an interpretation of primary sources, and tertiary sources compile information from primary and secondary sources and offer a succinct presentation of the information. Tertiary sources are useful for building up a basic knowledge of a topic, but rarely offer new information that cannot be found in a primary or secondary source. Some secondary sources, such as monographs, can be reliable, because they provide a theoretical framework for analysis. Others, however, such as review articles are better used for finding other primary sources to cite directly. In scientific research, it is always preferable to cite primary sources, as they are the least removed from the empirical evidence.
Reliable sources must also have scientific integrity. The scientific community has developed a process to protect its literature from being polluted by bad science. This process is called peer review. Before researchers can publish their work, other researchers in the field must critique their methods, statistics, and assumptions in their writing. The authors must then address these concerns before the editor decides whether the work is worth publishing in their journal. For scientific sources to be considered reliable, they must be peer-reviewed—other sources, such as popular science articles and blogs, do not have to go through this process. Even if an article is published by a respected magazine, the columnist may not always be a specialist in the field. Although they serve the important role of making scientific research more accessible to the public, much of the information becomes watered down, or can even lose accuracy in the process.
Your sources should be relevant
Even though a source may be reliable, or even full of valuable information, you should not use it in your research if it does not help to answer your research question. Once you have found reliable sources, you will need to filter them for relevance. This will take some deliberation. It may be tempting to read each source you’ve pulled, searching for any information that can help you, but if they are not relevant, this could be a huge waste of time. There are a few strategies for filtering your sources. Before you start reading your articles, it can be helpful to look at the journals they are published in. If the journal itself does not seem relevant to your research, then it is likely that the article may not be relevant either. Next you can read the abstract for each article. An abstract is a brief, yet detailed, summary of the research, including the researcher’s hypothesis, methodology, results, and conclusions. If the findings mentioned in the abstract do not lead to answering your research question, then the source will most likely be irrelevant.
Your sources should be logically sound
The most important part in your treatment of your sources is critical analysis. By identifying the assumptions in your sources, you will be able to parse the facts from the biases of other researchers. The easiest place to look for assumptions is in the methodology. The methods the researcher used to answer their question says a lot about what they believe about their subject. Sometimes that belief is well founded, and sometimes it is not. Ask yourself whether the methods make sense, or whether they are appropriate for the author’s research question. See if there is any commentary in the literature about the methods used. [If you search for the article in Google Scholar, you will also be able to find any other works that have cited the article. If someone else has an issue with the methods, you might be able to find commentary here.] Assumptions can also be found in the conclusions or interpretations of the results. Ask yourself whether the findings necessarily lead to the conclusions the author provided, or if there are other possible interpretations.
A quality research paper requires quality work and quality sources. By keeping high standards for the sources you use, and by analyzing them critically, your writing can endure the rigorous test of academic research.