We rarely call what we do every day “research,” but when we go online to search for news and information, we are engaging in everyday research. Everyday research has become a basic skill as the internet has expanded in scale and speed. In many cases, when we search for information, we want to understand a “problem” we’ve encountered—to search for medical advice about a sore throat we have, or to learn more about a product we want to buy. We’ll read articles, reviews, and watch videos; we’ll compare brands and prices. Indeed, whether we’re trying to diagnose why we’re feeling sick or trying to understand why our phone’s battery won’t hold a charge, the first place we usually turn to is the internet to help solve the problem. Of course, this kind of everyday research is just one kind of information seeking, but it’s a good place to begin when starting a larger research endeavor to write about a problem that matters to academic, professional, and public audiences. In this course you’ll build on these everyday research skills to develop more formal academic research strategies for collecting your own data and finding, evaluating, and selecting sources.
To be sure, problems come in all shapes and sizes, from minor to major, including what we called “wicked problems” in the book’s introduction. Wicked problems are problems that may have “innumerable causes, [are] tough to describe, and [don’t] have a right answer…” (Camillus 100), and they often emerge from rapid social and technological changes. Such problems, due to their far-reaching effects and the tensions they can cause among people and groups, require a more intentional and formal approach to their study. And as your own inquiry into a problem takes a more formal shape, the standards and ethical expectations grow for how the research is conducted, how data is collected, and the credibility of the sources you draw on.
Identifying and Exploring a Wicked Problem
When first inquiring about a problem you’re interested in, a general internet search is a good start. Visiting Wikipedia, reading popular articles, and watching media related to the problem will help build your understanding of the discourse that surrounds the problem—how others are talking about it, different sides of the issue, and its history and context. Since these early stages are exploratory, you’ll want to keep an open mind and slow down as you research. As you dig deeper into a problem, the more complicated and nuanced it will become.
Google, Bing, and other commercial search engines are useful tools for everyday research and you’ll use these throughout the research process. Keep in mind though, they have their limitations and generally they are not enough for researching a wicked problem. In fact, when we use Google or any other commercial search engine, we really only have access to about 4% of the information that circulates on the internet (Devine and Egger-Siger; “Ultimate Guide”).
As you can see from Image 1, when studying a difficult problem, curious researchers have to go beyond the surface web and commercial search engines to build a deeper understanding of the problem they’re researching. Understanding a problem at a deeper level means accessing sources that are often password protected or require subscriptions to enter—academic databases, government archives, scientific reports, legal documents, and other sources that commercial search engines may not have access to. While commercial search engines are always improving and finding more resources on the deep web (Google Scholar, for example), they usually just point to where a resource is located rather than providing access to the resource. From a researchers perspective, the main thing to keep in mind about the deep web is that commercial search engines are limited in their scope. Not only are they unable to find and index the majority of the information that exists on the global internet, the way they filter and personalize searching based on our previous searches, and the way they rank search results, all narrow what we see and limit our access to a wider variety of information. Researching a wicked problem will require a dive into the deep web and the use of more sophisticated research strategies that include using more precise search terms and using specialized databases for scholarly research, government archives, and industry/trade publications.
These kinds of sources, whether on the surface or deep web, are secondary data or secondary research. Secondary data are texts and research that has been created by others who are also interested in some facet of the problem you are looking into. Articles, essays, research reports, documentaries—any source you use that has been composed by someone else is a secondary source of data.
Where to Find Credible Secondary Sources on the Deep Web
- Google Scholar
- Government databases
- Non-profit research organizations (e.g. Pew Research Center or the American Cancer Society)
- Library catalogues and research databases
Depending on the context of the problem they are writing about, many researchers will conduct their own research, what is known as primary data or primary research. Primary research comes in the forms of conducting interviews, taking observation notes, running surveys, focus groups, and experiments where data is collected and analyzed. Researchers often mix both primary and secondary research, depending on the kind of the problem they are investigating. If you are researching a more local context like a group or organization trying to solve a particular problem, you might conduct your own interviews and surveys of the participants to understand the perspective of the group better. Your instructor can help you figure out what kind of primary research may be suitable for the problem you are looking at, as well as some of the ethical concerns you’ll need to keep in mind when doing primary research.
Common Ways to Conduct Primary Research
- Archives and historical documentation
- Focus groups
- Observation notes
Ethics of Primary and Secondary Researching
Equally important when discerning the quality of your sources and managing your research is to consider ethical questions that may arise in doing both primary and secondary research. In primary research and data collection, researchers must be completely transparent about their intentions to those who might participate in a study, and should obtain written consent from all participants when necessary. Universities that support research have an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that reviews all research projects to ensure they are safe and will not unintentionally hurt people, animals, or the environment. Your instructor can help you think through these ethical questions if you decide to undertake primary research that includes human participants.
In secondary research, ethical questions are ones a researcher must ask themselves, both in how they choose their sources and in the way they quote and reference the sources they draw on. This raises the important question of plagiarism and working with sources in ways that inform your research without overly relying on any one source or using the source’s words as if they were your own. Remember, when you’re researching and writing about a problem, your final goal is to add something new to the larger conversation already going on. Your contribution doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but it should offer productive discussion and emerge from your critical and ethical synthesis of the sources you have selected.
Assessing Information and Evaluating Sources
In your secondary research, it’s important to bring a critical lens to your sources. Being critical, in this sense, doesn’t mean “negative”—it means studied discernment of the sources. Studied discernment means that you know a source well enough to understand whether or not it’s credible and how it fits into the larger discourse about the problem. To gain this depth of understanding requires active reading practices and intentional assessment (including fact-checking) of the source.
In today’s world of information abundance, such discernment is needed more than ever. With the rise of twitter bots, filter bubbles, personalized search, and the polarizing effects of social media, the spread of disinformation and misinformation has become its own wicked problem. Both disinformation and misinformation are having profound effects on our political, social, and economic lives, and they only increase the need for researchers to be critically minded and sharper discerners of the quality and veracity of the information they encounter. Thus, the very first thing you’ll want to know before you begin your research is whether or not the problem you are concerned about is really a problem at all and not another misleading headline, conspiracy theory, or junk science.
The following table is a brief list of questions you can refer to as you assess your secondary sources for their credibility, their stance and bias, and how they fit into the larger discourse of the problem you are exploring:
|When you come across a source that may be relevant to the problem you are studying, assess how credible and trustworthy it is. The following steps are a useful guide to figure out the type and quality of a source, and to judge whether you should use it in your research. These aren’t necessarily linear steps, and the questions are ones you should ask as you read and re-read your sources.
Step 1: Scan the source for your initial impressions.
If a source makes claims that seem questionable or extreme, or makes claims that aren’t supported by independent research, that is a red flag. If this is the case, it doesn’t mean you need to dismiss the source altogether, but you won’t want to use it to support your own claims and research. If your initial impression of the source feels trustworthy, then move to the questions in Step 2.
Step 2: Ask basic questions about the source.
Step 3: Read laterally.
Understanding these questions may take some time, and as you work through them, you’ll want to start reading more laterally (Caulfield). Reading laterally is the process of reading across a wide range of sources to look for patterns of argument and evidence present across that group of resources. Once you have a good sense of the basic markers of a credible source, you’re ready to read more laterally and begin locating the source in the larger discourse and textual circulation that surrounds it.
Managing and Organizing Research Through Writing Tools
In addition to sharpening your critical abilities to discern credible information, another important skill you’ll be building on in this and other writing courses is your ability to manage and organize your sources and research data. One of the great challenges of information abundance is managing the amount of available information. From bookmarking relevant websites, to keeping a running bibliography, to writing a literature review, and organizing your research notes, there are a range of digital tools that you can use to help manage a research project like the one you’re exploring in this course. We can’t cover all the tools available here, but we’ll introduce a few that you may find useful in your own research endeavor.
It probably goes without saying that the activity of writing itself is central to the process of managing and organizing your research and sources. We tend to think of writing as simply the stuff we do when we draft a text. But experienced researchers use writing throughout the entire research process, from beginning to end, moving back and forth through the stages of the writing process—brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and repeating this process until the research is finished (or a deadline arrives). A common genre that you may want to try out as you research your problem is the research memo. Research memos are notes researchers make as they go through the process of researching, taking notes on both primary and secondary research. Writing like this throughout your research process will help you explore your thinking and articulate your ideas more clearly. Research memos can be done in a conventional notebook, or they can be done using a Google Doc or blog tool that could be shared with classmates and collaborators.
Other key skills and genres for doing research that you may already be familiar with are bibliographies and literature reviews. Bibliographies are lists of sources you are using in your research, usually in a particular style such as MLA or APA. Annotated bibliographies include short descriptions of a source and its relevance to your research. A literature review is a thorough summary of all the sources and research you’ve read about the problem you are exploring. Literature reviews are useful in helping readers see how your research fits in with the larger context and conversation going on around it.
Here are a few guidelines to help your research stay on track and organized as you dig deeper into a wicked problem:
- Timeline: Keep the calendar and due dates in mind and develop a research schedule that will allow you to easily meet those deadlines.
- Managing your sources: There are several online tools you can use to manage your bibliography (Easy Bib, RefWorks). Other tools like Evernote and MS OneNote can help you organize your research in folders, take notes on sources, draft sections, and collaborate with others. Bookmarking tools like Diigo and Pocket can be useful also in managing sources you find online, annotating, grouping them through tagging.
- Planning and “slow” research: Because the problem you are studying will take time to understand, be patient with the process. You’ll want to stay flexible and open to the research process, continually reflecting on your own biases and stance as you learn the nuances of the problem you are studying. Over time, as you expand your understanding of the problem and the discourse that surrounds it, you’ll be able to write about it with more authority and insight. That kind of engaged writing can only come through intentional and prolonged thinking, researching, and writing about the problem.
Camillus, John C. “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review, vol. 86, iss. 5, pp. 98-106. Ebscohost, https://rwulib.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=31730150&site=ehost-live. Accessed on 3 May 2020.
Caulfield, Mike. Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. 8 Jan 2017. https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com. Accessed on 17 April 2020.
Devine, Jane, and Francine Egger-Sider. Going beyond Google Again: Strategies for Using and Teaching the Invisible Web. Neal-Schuman, 2014.
“The Ultimate Guide to the Invisible Web.” Open Education Database.org, Accredited Online, Specialty, and Campus-Based Colleges, 3 Aug. 2018, oedb.org/ilibrarian/invisible-web/. Accessed 22 June 2020.