Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Craft of Research

I've just finished reading about half of The Craft of Research (unfortunately the library won't let me renew it anymore), an extremely valuable book for those just embarking on postgraduate work, especially those who have had no formal training in academic research. The book gives useful advice on everything from selecting a thesis topic to the nuts and bolts of the actual research process. and makes a good compliment to Patrick Dunleavy's book Authoring a PhD Thesis. Here's are some random tips from the book put into my own words:

  • During the long process of research, one will inevitably go down many blind alleys and learn more than is actually required for the actual thesis. Rather than becoming frustrated, one should keep in mind that this extra work will pay off, helping one deal with new problems more effectively and to learn to streamline in the future.
  • A thesis topic must be specific enough to let you master a reasonable amount of information within that topic, not so general that the questions are open-ended. At the same time, it must not be so narrow that it is impossible to find sources for it.
  • A researcher must decide whether a question and its answer is significant to the entire community of researchers rather than merely significant to oneself. What sets a person apart as a researcher of the highest order is the ability to develop a question into a problem whose solution will be significant to the research community. One way to do this is to show one's reader that by not understanding one thing, we and our readers cannot understand some larger and more important matter that we have an interest in understanding better.
  • Question your topic in a way that analyzes it into its component parts and evaluates the working relationships between those parts.
  • The overarching questions guiding the thesis should be those of how and why rather than factual questions beginning with who, what, when or where. Try grouping your guiding questions in different ways and seeing what that gives you.
  • Ask your supervisor about the most contested issue in her field.
  • Sometimes merely clarifying an existing problem will be a major contribution to the research community.
  • Don't be afraid to ask librarians to help you when you are struck. But be specific in the advice that you ask them.
  • Don't give up too easily if you can't find information at the library about your topic. It may be classified under a different name.
  • Days of work can be saved by having a careful research plan. No research will ever be exhaustive and one can get overwhelmed without a specific plan and a schedule for short-term goals.
  • Every major field has at least one guide to the resources that experienced researchers commonly use. If you aspire to become a professional in a field, you must spend time with such guides.
  • You should be able to find at least one annual bibliography covering either your whole field or a specific aspect of it. If you are lucky, you should be able to find an annotated bibliography that focusses on an area close to your problem and summarizes the relevant research.
  • Large libraries often have CD's containing bibliographies, thousands of articles and monographs. Ask the librarian to show you whatever electronic databases are available.
  • In addition to primary and secondary sources, tertiary sources can be useful. These are books and articles based on secondary sources, on the research of others. Tertiary sources synthesize and explain research in a field for a popular audience or simply restate what others have said. Tertiary sources can be helpful in the early stages of your research, but they make a weak support for your argument because they often oversimplify and overgeneralize and are seldom up to date, and are usually distrusted by experts.
  • E-groups can often be a great short-cut to finding the information that you need.
  • If you find a book that seems crucial to your research, by sure it is the most recent edition. You can check whether there is a later edition by consulting the Library of Congress Catalogue.
  • Narrow your sources to the few most valuable to your inquiry. In the early stages, this means a lot of skimming of books and articles to identify which ones you want to know better. Of course, you will make mistakes as you practice this speedy, and in some sense careless, reading. And you will ahve to re-read carefully. But only by skimming a lot can you settle o na few sources that desreve your most careful attention.
  • Once you locate a source that seems crucial, read all of it. In contrast to speedy reading, you must now read slowly to get a sense of the whole argument in its complete context. A common cause of misunderstanding is piecemeal reading - what is called 'raiding.' If you expect to use an argument or an idea, especially if you intend to quote it, read everything around it and anything else that you need to understand what you expect to use.
  • If you use primary data or a quotation that you find in a secondary source, attribute that material to the primary source but acknowledge as well the secondary source in which you found it.
  • When taking notes, always document your sources carefully so you can find them again. In your notes if you are quoting something, be sure to include quotation marks so that you don't later think it is your own writing and get in trouble for plagiarism. Ideally you should photocopy pages that you want to quote.
  • When dealing with sources that agree on a major claim, decide whether they also agree on how they interpret and support that claim.
  • Do not attach yourself to what any one researcher says about your subject. It is not 'research' if you simply summarize and uncritically accept another's work.
  • Double check your notes against your sources. After your first draft, double check your quotes.
  • Be sure to be aware of what your implicit warrants are even if you don't include them in your argument.
  • The more complex and interesting your argument, the more qualifications you are likely to need, because complex and interesting claims are never cut-and-dried, 100% true under all circumstances.
  • You can use questionable evidence if you acknowledge its quality. In fact, when you point to evidence that seems to support your claim and then reject it as unreliable, you show yourself to be cautious and self-critical.
  • Beginning researchers typically present insufficient evidence. THey think they have proved a general claim when they find support in one quotation or bit of data.
  • Once you collect your evidence, ask your teacher or someone experienced in the field about the kind of additional evidence they would expect to support a claim such as yours. 
  • If you are an intermediate researcher, do not trust any source as authoritative until you know the research in the area. Nothing reveals incompetence more quickly than quoting someone whom everyone in the field scorns - or worse, has never even heard of.
  • Every research must support contestable claims with evidence, but he must then explain that evidence, treating each major bit of evidence as a claim in a subordinate argument that needs its own evidence.
  • A good practice is to pin up on the wall index cards to represent the claim, sub-claims, evidence and sub-evidence.
  • In all fields, the most common way of implying significance is to contradict settled ideas or by claiming that common ways of looking at a problem are incomplete or incorrect.
  • If you are a thoughtful researcher, you will interrogate your argument to be certain that its warrants link your evidence and claim reliably, an exercise that can make you rethink assumptions left unexamined for a long time, especially the fundamental assumptions of your field.
  • Include objections and alternatives to your claims that, during the course of your research, you considered but rejected.
  • If you were paid to refute your own case, what could you say? Say it and then rebut it.
  • Plagiarism includes using words so close to those in your source that if your work were placed next to the source it would be obvious that you could not have written what you did without the source at your elbow.
  • Plagiarism also happens when you use someone else's ideas but do not credit the person. Don't wait until the end to acknowledge it in a footnote.
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