By Paul Pavao
Friday, I talked about research. Today, let's talk about researching well.
The steps to doing a good job of research are simple enough to understand. Actually producing good research can be very difficult, however, due to the effort and time involved.
1. Become generally familiar with the topic: Finding the sources you need—primary sources if you are writing as an expert; secondary sources if you are reporting on scholarly opinion—is as simple as getting familiar with your subject. Go to the library and leaf through some books on your topic. Use the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature to find magazines or journals on the subject. Search for articles on the internet. Join an online forum that covers your topic and discuss with and ask questions of those interested in your topic.
2. Find out who the experts are: If you are reading about your topic and discussing it with those who are already interested, it will not take you long to find out who the recognized experts are. It is their books and articles that you want. If you are writing a tertiary source, they are the secondary sources you want to report on. If you are writing a secondary source, their writings will provide you with references to and citations from the primary sources. They will also provide you with the most important opinions that you will need to consider before you publish your own conclusions.
3. Sorting through the sources: If there is anywhere that the "art" of research shines through, it is in putting stock in the best sources. Who is most reliable? Who is most likely to be biased or narrow? Who is least likely? Even primary sources are not all equal. Just as eyewitnesses are examined, then cross-examined, in a courtroom, your sources must be carefully looked over for reliability. Yes, you can find a thousand web sites promoting the latest "natural" remedy. You can also find two or three sites that reject every natural remedy as a hoax. But who cites sources? Which sites not only cite the studies, but also tell you how to find the original study results?
I write on both historical and scientific issues. I do not have a degree in history or in any scientific field. Nonetheless, history professors regularly commend my work, and professional scientists volunteer their help, pointing me to any information I might be missing. Why? Because I tell my audience exactly where I got my information and how they can find it as well.
Don't let anyone tell you that you can't be objective and unbiased.
Of course it is true that no one is completely unbiased. Nonetheless, there is a huge difference between objective research and biased research.
A friend of mine, a title lawyer, once illustrated this by comparing his profession to that of a trial lawyer. A title lawyer's job is to research the history of deeded property for a buyer in order to ensure that the seller of the property has legitimate "title" to the property. The only way that a title lawyer can properly serve her client is by finding out the truth.
A trial lawyer, on the other hand, is not interested in the truth, but in defending his client. He researches only the evidence that favors his client's innocence. He will do anything legally possible to prevent any contradictory facts from coming to light.
A skilled researcher will have a title lawyer's attitude. He will want the truth, not a particular result.
Paul Pavao is owner of the popular web site, Christian History for Everyman (Christian-history.org) and the author of In the Beginning Was the Logos, an in-depth review of the Council of Nicea. He is married, a father of six, and, more recently, a survivor of a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. He is an active member of CCWriters group.