Research for (non) Dummies – Part 1

Research for (Non) DummiesLet’s face it, with the vast amount of information available today at the click of a button, the Internet is both a boon and a burden.But, it doesn’t have to be.

In fact, with a couple basic tips, you can find potential solutions to any question you have, whether it’s about today’s weather forecast or the speed of light in a vacuum (299,792,458 m/s by the way).

This first post offers the first two steps in a typical research process in today’s hyper-information environment. The next post will offer how to go from step 2 (below) to accessing multiple sources of information.

What is Research?

First things first, before I give you a set of essential searching tips, we should get something clear about the term “research.”  Often, college students and novice researchers conjure images of lab coats, empirical data, and college or government funding when the word “research” comes up in conversation or class. Actually, all of those things might be part of the process for advanced researchers, but they are not the “research” itself. The heart of research is simply asking a question and seeking an answer. No matter the complexity of the topic, task, or assignment, you have to start somewhere and that beginning point, for most of us lowly mortals, tends to be the Internet. So let’s start there.

Why Google Isn’t So Bad

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Yes, search engines like Google provide far too many potential “answer” sources than the average person can examine.  However, Google also does a ton of the work for you. With their proprietary search algorithm (Hummingbird as of the writing of this posting), what appears on the first couple of search pages—excluding the “advertising or paid” results typically at the top of the page—has already filtered the results to prioritize them based on relevance.

In other words, what’s first tends to be the most relevant. Also, the new Hummingbird algorithm allows for “conversational searching,” which is fancy for being able to type into the search bar exactly how you would ask a question in normal speech such as, “Where is the closest Chinese Restaurant to my current location?”

Why Google Scholar is Better

Many people start with Google’s search bar at Google.com and think nothing of it. Those who know (which now includes you)…go a step further. Type “scholar” into the Google search bar and the first result is Google Scholar (alternatively, you can type “scholar.google.com” into the search bar of your web browser yourself).  Scholar is astounding for multiple reasons.

The first is that it does even more of the work for you that researchers have typically had to learn how to do on their own. It limits all results to resources that have “street cred” (slang for credibility in academic and professional circles).  Therefore, you don’t have to do as much checking to see if the results are credible, accurate, timely, or scholarly. 

Second, most results are primary resources for answering your research question(s) and typically come from sources such as books, academic and professional journals, and related academic institutions.  What’s not to love about that?

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I offer these two seemingly “obvious” steps first because most of your searching will start here, whether a seasoned researcher or not. In the next post, look for how you can take what Google Scholar offers you and actually do something useful with it to “answer” your research question. For now, happy researching; go forth and see what you can find.

Dr. Toby Coley

Dr. Coley is Assistant Professor in the Department of English. He specializes in Composition and Rhetoric and has conducted empirical (qualitative) research on the role of digital media in the writing classroom as well as archival, historical, and textual research in the areas of religion, composition, and composition history.

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About Dr. Toby Coley

Dr. Coley is Assistant Professor in the Department of English. He specializes in Composition and Rhetoric and has conducted empirical (qualitative) research on the role of digital media in the writing classroom as well as archival, historical, and textual research in the areas of religion, composition, and composition history.