February 15, 2013

Research Is An Art-Part One

By Paul Pavao

Research is an art, not a science. There are various approaches, but there are steps that are common to all good research.


First, it is important to understand sources. Research is the process of finding the best—meaning the most reliable, accurate, or trustworthy—sources for the information you want to present.

There are three types of sources: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

A primary source, speaking generally, is an eyewitness or equivalent. In history, for example, a primary source about Benjamin Franklin would be his own works or writing from his time that quotes him or talks about him.  In medicine or science, a primary source would be a study or an article from a peer-reviewed journal.1

A secondary source is a scholarly work—a book or article—by someone who has studied the primary sources.

A tertiary source is a report on what the secondary sources have agreed upon. School textbooks are tertiary sources. A tertiary source is not concerned about researching primary material and questioning scholarly opinion. It simply reports what the secondary sources have agreed upon or where they stand in disagreement. Wording you'll find in a tertiary source include things like "scholars say," "most scientists agree," or "this matter is still controversial."

Know Your Purpose

Your book or article is also a source, and before you begin researching you should know what source level your work is.

Are you writing a tertiary source, merely reporting on the research of others? If so, you need only research secondary sources. You don't have to critique the experts, examining the primary sources to make sure scholars have done their job well. You can simply read what they have written, and report on what they have said. Condensing books and articles written by scholars into one easy to understand work is an important service.

However, if you are writing a secondary source, you will need to go further. You will need to check the primary sources that the experts have used, and you will have to check them thoroughly enough to engage with them.


Don't let anyone tell you that the experts can't be wrong. If you have lived in this world long at all, then you know that "experts" disagree among themselves all the time. Worse, some experts are not really experts at all. Mike Warnke, for example, is the author of the 1975 Christian blockbuster, The Satan Seller. As a result of the book, he has been called on by police departments and appeared on television as an expert on Satanism. In 1992, however, Cornerstone Magazine exposed him as a fraud.

An expert is simply someone who has done a better job of marketing himself than you have.

If you research well, you can not only position yourself as an expert, you can actually be one; and a reliable one at that.

On Monday I will address researching well. I will talk about how to find good sources and about overcoming bias.

1 Many scholarly journals use a process of peer review prior to publishing an article, whereby other scholars in the author's field or specialty critically assess a draft of the article. Peer-reviewed journals (also called refereed journals) are scholarly journals that only publish articles that have passed through this review process. The review process helps ensure that the published articles reflect solid scholarship in their fields. (California Polytechnic State University, "Finding Peer-reviewed or Refereed Journals";; accessed Oct. 10, 2012)
Paul Pavao is owner of the popular web site, Christian History for Everyman ( 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. 


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