ave you ever lost an entire evening researching a topic on the Internet? If so, you aren’t alone. I once began researching dogs to adopt at 7 p.m.; and by 10 p.m., I was printing out directions on how to crochet a dog sweater. I don’t crochet and didn’t (yet) have a dog.
Since then, I’ve improved my research skills to make the most of my time. Knowing where to find information and conduct research efficiently and effectively can increase your publishing credits and your bottom line.
The following tips are designed to focus your search for information and to gain access to sources you didn’t know you had.
PRIMARY VS. SECONDARY RESEARCH
Primary research is used to collect raw data. Scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and business owners collect their data from experiments, interviews, surveys, and focus groups. They analyze their findings and look for trends and other discoveries, and they may publish their findings in books and periodicals.
Most writers use secondary research because they are looking for information that’s already been collected, analyzed, and published. They may find this information in scientific journals or read about market trends in Advertising Age. Secondary research is usually about finding information and putting it together in such a way to highlight and reinforce a thesis statement or the general purpose of an article or book.
Both types of research are legitimate. No one expects a writer to know everything. So by including outside sources and your research findings, you make your writing more thorough and meaningful. You are telling your readers what you believe to be true and citing experts who agree with you to help substantiate your claim.
However, when you use someone else’s research to back up your ideas, you must give credit to the author(s). Include a bibliography page with your article. Some editors may have a standard format for citing outside sources, so check submission guidelines.
“Unlike traditional media, there are no gatekeepers whose job it is to check facts on the Internet.”
A THREE-STEP APPROACH
Instead of wasting hours staring at endless web pages that may or may not have what I need, I now take a three-step approach to research:
STEP ONE: ONLINE RESEARCH
The Internet is a blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because there is a huge amount of information available to anyone with Internet access. It’s a curse because there is a huge amount of information available to anyone with Internet access. Finding information about your topic can be incredibly easy, but determining whether or not that information is credible can be difficult.
Credibility is believability. Some websites have credibility, and some do not. Anyone can build a website or post a blog or send an e-mail. Some websites allow changes to be made by viewers. Unlike traditional media, there are no gatekeepers whose job it is to check facts on the Internet. No Internet police issue a ticket for putting out false information. That’s why it is important to use websites that have inherent credibility.
Websites associated with brick and mortar buildings or institutions work hard to maintain their quality reputations in cyberspace. Most Print media, universities, businesses and government agencies include factual information on their websites.
Web addresses, or Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), ending in .edu, .org, and .gov are owned by educational institutions; non-profit organizations; and local, state, and national governments, respectively. These website address endings help you know what kind of site you are using for research. That doesn’t mean you have to exclude the .coms from your research. It just means that you may have to do more digging to find out if the information is accurate and credible.
If there is any doubt, leave it out. If you can’t verify a piece of information, don’t tarnish your own reputation by including something you can’t prove. Save yourself time and heartache by keeping track of and verifying information as you research and write.
“A tilde (~) attached to the beginning of a word will search for its synonyms.”
Most of us have used Google to research a topic, but we don’t have to limit ourselves to one search engine. Use more than one search engine if you are not happy with your results. By trying two or three different search engines, you increase the likelihood of finding more diverse information. Try using Yahoo or AltaVista for different results.
Overall, when you use a search engine for research, work from the general to the specific. A general phrase may bring up millions of pages. If there are too many hits, try tightening your phrases to narrow your search. Play around with the wording and word order to enhance the possibility of finding what you want.
To improve the effectiveness of your search, click on any “Search Help” or “Advanced Search” buttons or tabs found on the home page; or you can type in “Search Help,” “Web Search Help,” or “Research Help” in the information box. This will usually bring up pages with tips to help you narrow your search, using the proper terms and techniques specific to that search engine.
For instance, Google provides several pages of notes to improve the effectiveness of your searches. I clicked on the “Search Help” tab on its homepage. I’ve listed five common search tips here:
1) “The” and “a” are not necessary.
2) Word and phrase searches are not case sensitive.
3) Placing double quotes around a phrase (“”) or a plus sign (+) at the beginning of a phrase ensures those words will appear in that order in your results.
4) A minus sign in front of a word (dolphins -football) will exclude that word in a search that might have several options.
5) A tilde (~) attached to the beginning of a word will search for its synonyms.
Abby G. DeShane, manager of Instructional and Career Resources at St. Louis Community College, Wildwood Campus, said that there is no consistency in search strategies, and each database and search engine is different. “I don’t have them all memorized; when I’m in a new database, I usually click the ‘Search Help’ or ‘Search Tips’ link,” she said.
“Dozens of academic, scientific, and government databases contain information you may not have known existed.”
STEP TWO: LIBRARY RESEARCH
Reference librarians are employed by libraries to help their patrons. Do not underestimate their ability to find obscure information for you. They are knowledgeable about databases you have never heard of and couldn’t afford if you had. Dozens of academic, scientific, and government databases contain information you may not have known existed.
Sports, medicine, psychology, arts, and literature all have databases that contain only information about that topic. Libraries subscribe to them to make them available to the public without people having to pay for individual subscription costs.
“Reference librarians help you navigate in a sea of information,” DeShane said. “We help people find what they are looking for. This is why I am here.”
Although they may not find it for you, they will teach you how and tell you where to search.
“Each database is different,” she said. “If the term is in the title, then usually it’s right on.”
She said most public libraries have an open-door policy. You can visit them and read books and periodicals on-site as well as use their computer databases. You may not be able to check out books unless you are a resident or student.
“We have a man who isn’t a student come in here regularly to the computer lab to use Lexus Nexus [a database that’s available by paid subscription],” she said. “It’s a great resource.”
You may also want to try visiting medical, university, and large city libraries. Call first to see what services they offer to someone not affiliated with the library itself. The local historical society may have a library full of valuable research, diaries, and records. Membership may be required, but annual fees could be nominal and tax deductible. Association headquarters, large companies, and government offices may have a collection of books and periodicals available for your perusal. If the local college in your town is supported by taxes, then you are more likely to be able to take advantage of its resources.
“Tell the interviewee an approximate time length for the interview or number of questions you want to ask.”
STEP THREE: INTERVIEWING EXPERTS
When you get an assignment, don’t overlook associations, businesses, and clubs to provide experts on any given subject. The local chamber of commerce, universities, and government offices may also be able to help. Pick up the telephone and call. People like to talk about themselves and their work or hobbies. Most will be flattered that you asked.
Online social networks, blogs, or mailing lists can also lead you to new sources of information. You may be able to contact the source to request an interview or use a quote from Facebook or a personal blog (with permission of the author, of course).
“Word-of-mouth” constitutes some of the best advertising strategy around, so use it when searching for credible sources. Usually, you can get several names just by telling a few people that you need to interview someone who has knowledge, for example, of the latest trends in knitted dog fashions. You’d be surprised by how many people know someone, who knows someone, who is related to the receptionist at a dog boutique.
NO COLD CALLING
You should have your questions ready even if you are calling to set up an interview for a later date. The person may have some free time when you first call, so be prepared to ask your questions that day. If you are able to speak to the person on the telephone, introduce yourself and tell him or her the topic of the article. (You may want to use your thesis statement here.) Tell the interviewee an approximate time length for the interview or number of questions you want to ask.
“Can you spare twenty or thirty minutes to talk to me about…?” or “I have three or four questions I’d like to ask.” Hopefully, the interview will stretch out longer than you anticipated, so you can get more information. Never purposefully lie about the length of time the interview will take or the number of questions you want to ask, so be prepared to stop when you said you would.
Research can be intimidating. Don’t be afraid to use all three methods to find which one works best for you and your article or book. Effective research is the first step to providing greater depth and understanding of your subject.
Mary Horner teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges. She is the former managing editor of the Journal of the American Optometric Association and Solutions Magazine. Her articles have appeared in Décor, Accessory Merchandising, and Art Business News. She received the “Most Informative Article” award from the National Safety Council, the writing and editing certification from the American Medical Writers Association, and the writing certificate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.