Research conjures up images of a scientist in his lab or a scholar toiling away in the library working on his or her next tome.
That’s research, to be sure, but it can also be a college student writing a term paper.
For that matter, it can be finding out information about cars before heading to the dealership or checking out the classified ads.
What is research? It’s the systematic process of investigation of some subject of interest by gathering and analyzing information about it. Usually research results in some kind of action. Writing a report is one possible outcome. Deciding which cars to look at is another.
The first necessity for any kind of research is a question to investigate.
- What is the best car I can buy with the money I have?
- What do we need to tell our stockholders about how our business did over the past year?
- How did an obscure man like Barack Obama (or Franklin Pierce, or Grover Cleveland, or Abraham Lincoln) become President?
- What can I fix for supper with canned tuna that I’m not already sick of?
The researcher therefore must first refine the question, at least in part to determine what he or she does not need to know. A student on a tight budget does not need to waste time investigating expensive cars with fancy options.
Certain information must go into an annual report, but plenty of other information is totally irrelevant. So many things matter in the analysis of an election that the researcher must have a clear focus to avoid hunting for useless information.
Probably some time before the focus of more complicated questions becomes apparent, the researcher needs to begin to find information. Most people begin by searching on the Internet.
Always keep two questions in mind: Have I found reliable information? Have I found enough information for now?
I say “for now,” because for more complicated questions, you will need to seek more information to other aspects of the question. The first batch of information you find might well lead not to answering your question or part of it, but to clarifying your need for different kinds of information.
There are at least two different categories of information you will not be able to find free on the Internet. Much information, from magazine articles to specialized encyclopedias and scholarly journal articles, appears online only through proprietary databases. Still more appears only in print and has never been made available online.
For many purposes, a general interest database like EBSCO Premier or ProQuest may have exactly the right kind of information. Hundreds of other databases serve the needs of people looking for specialized information in biology or entrepreneurship or women’s and gender studies.
It’s even possible to read old newspapers online as more and more of them become digitized. But you can’t find any of these databases with a search engine, and they are too expensive for individuals to subscribe to them. You must visit a library that subscribes.
Libraries will also have some of the many books and periodicals that have never been digitized. Find them using the catalog. If your local library does not own something you want, you can get it through interlibrary loan.
And don’t forget to ask a librarian for help to clarify your question, or even to formulate a good strategy for using the search engine.