Research for ordinary people

Scientific researchScientists in their labs or historians poring over manuscript collections and archives are researchers.

Many of them become well known in their profession, and maybe even with the general public.

People who search the web for sites that they then pass on to a writer are also researchers, very likely making $2 an hour somewhere in Asia.

They are at the low end of status and responsibility for Internet work. What does either kind of research have to do with most people?

Everyone does research. Not everyone does it professionally. For most people, that research is not likely to result in a book, journal article, or interview on a TV talk show. For most people, on the other hand, research is not merely someone else’s grunt work.

So what is research for ordinary people, and how do they go about it? The range of answers is every bit as wide as it is for people who get paid for doing research.

Research means gathering information about some subject of interest, analyzing it, and eventually doing something about it.

Consider the person compiling a family history, a genealogy. It’s a hobby for most people, but one that requires many of the same skills and resources as a professional historian. They comb census records. It’s about as tedious as it sounds, but that’s the easy part.

Once they find where an ancestor lived and when they lived there, many genealogists want to visit the place. Perhaps there are local records that will flesh out the ancestor’s life, making him or her more substantial than a name with dates on a chart. Perhaps they’ll find a gravestone, or perhaps a house or business is still standing.

On the other hand, consider someone who has lots of cabbage and is tired of coleslaw. Looking for cabbage recipes, either in a cookbook or online, is the lower end of research, but it results in a meal that uses the cabbage in a tasty new dish.

Somewhere between those two examples, a student writing a paper for class must also perform research. Nearly all of us have graduated from high school, where we wrote papers. Almost as many of us went to college where we wrote more papers, whether we graduated or not. Does that mean that everyone knows how to do research? No.

How to do research badly

I remember very well a young man, a high school graduate, wanting to buy his first car. He didn’t know where to start. The World Wide Web was just getting started, and Internet connections were not nearly as common as they have become. I suggested that he could find the information he needed by asking at the library. He sort of froze.

So we got in my car and went into the local public library. He followed me to the reference desk. I asked the reference librarian for resources about buying used cars. Having heard the same question very frequently, she reached over and grabbed four books from ready reference and handed them to me. I gave them to him and showed him the copier.

After a while, he had copies of pages that interested him and gave to books back to me. I returned them to the reference desk. As we left the library, he said, “Thanks, man. I never could have done that without you.” His mother, by the way, was a teacher who had at one time run the media center in her school.

So much for the notion that people learn how to do research (or for that matter, much of anything else in particular) in high school. College, alas, isn’t much more successful.

A reference librarian told this story on a librarians’ email list. A student sitting very close to the reference desk asked friends for help finding things as they walked by. After a while, he started phoning other friends elsewhere in the library to come and help him. Meanwhile, whenever the reference librarian or anyone else on the staff offered to help, he always turned them away.

In another library, a reference librarian noted that she had talked to both a first year masters student and a doctoral student in the writing phase of preparing a dissertation. Neither one of them knew that they could look up books in the online catalog or articles in any of the databases. They had been to the library for orientation, but not since.

It’s easy to do research badly.

  • Pay no attention to anyone who wants to demonstrate how to do it well.
  • Remain totally oblivious to anything that won’t be on a multiple-choice exam.
  • Consider anything not narrowly connected to the subject matter at hand to be irrelevant.
  • Don’t ask questions of the people most likely to know the answers.
  • Refuse help when someone offers.

How to do research well

Research using a laptop

Research using a laptop

Research begins with a question, a gap in knowledge.

  • How many generations back can I trace my ancestry?
  • How do I identify the best and most suitable car for my budget?
  • What can I do with this cabbage before it spoils and I have to throw it out?


Your first question will probably bring up a number of other questions.

  • What do I need to know to answer the question? And what do I not need to know? A flood of information exists. The researcher must therefore have a tightly focused question to avoid being buried in possibly interesting facts and ideas that do not lead to the answer.
  • Where is the best place to look for the information I need?
  • How will I recognize sources that have the right kind of information when I come across them?
  • How do I know if the information I find is reliable?
  • How do I know when I have found enough information, at least for now?
  • Can I find a simple answer to my question, or will I have to put together an answer from partial answers I find in multiple sources?

Most people nowadays probably begin their search for information with a browser. A young man buying a car today might not think to go to the library any more than my friend did many years ago. But today, a reference librarian would probably show him web sites instead of printed books. He would probably turn up the same sites himself if he put the right terms in the search box.

The right terms. That’s where searching the Internet gets tricky. A search engine is likely to turn up hundreds of thousands or even a million pages for a query. If the results on the first page don’t look like they have anything to do with the question, you haven’t found the right terms.

On the other hand, the results on the first page may not be the most useful results for your question. They got to the top of the results because someone at that website knew techniques of what’s called search engine optimization. Perhaps an article on the tenth page of results, written by someone who didn’t know how to get his page to rank higher, will be more useful for you.

If your question is at all technical, the best information might not be free on the Internet at all. It might be contained in a scholarly article accessible only through a database that requires an expensive subscription. Only libraries can afford to pay the subscription costs, and they can only afford it because they have many people who will use it.

On the other hand, some really good information might not even be online at all. It might be available only in print. Less and less recent information is unavailable online, but particularly in the arts and humanities, there are many subjects that you simply can’t study without touching paper.

So besides the questions posed above, there is one more every researcher needs to keep in mind: Can I find what I need by myself or do I need help?

From clarifying the research question itself to evaluating the quality of information, help is always available at the library. And I don’t mean sitting six feet from the reference desk and phoning a friend!

Photo credits:
Scientific research. Some rights reserved by IRRI Images.
Research using a laptop. Some rights reserved by Nicola since 1972.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *