I'll take "Things I Should Have Learned in College" for 500
September 19, 2012 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I write creative nonfiction and I'm getting to the point where I've almost exhausted myself on straight up memoir/personal essay. I have ideas in mind for essays that I want to write, but they require a good deal of research. Problem is, I never really learned how to research properly.

I was a terrible student in college and a drunk and didn't pay much attention to any of it. I have a very, very basic grasp of how to do any kind of productive research to find information to reference or reinforce what goes into my writing. I'm not good at finding books, articles, anything. I usually end up getting overwhelmed and giving up completely.

Now, though, thorough research is becoming a necessity and I can't just avoid it anymore and not deal with it. If I want to improve my writing and approach the subject matter I want to write about, I'm going to have to learn how to do it.

Currently, I just use Google Scholar/find a Wikipedia page and then go off of the citations to find more information, but I'm sure there's a better way to do things. For example, right now, I'm trying to find information on two (unrelated) things: Mollaret's Meningitis and the intelligence and behavior of the Corvidae family. But I'm a total idiot when it comes to digging deep for information.

So do y'all know of any good write-ups/books/guides on how to become a decent researcher? Or do y'all have any good tips or suggestions on how to do it? I'm looking for a pretty basic intro because I know NOTHING about the whole process (what search engines to use, how to keep things organized, how to distinguish a solid article from a crap one, etc.).
posted by Modica to Education (10 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Ask your local librarian.* They'll be able to introduce you to all the cool kids' researching tools, AND if they're a subject librarian maybe will even have a handout/list of favorite sites.

*MLS love, y'all!
posted by spunweb at 6:59 PM on September 19, 2012

I'm using this book in a research course I'm teaching for undergraduates. It's quite good -- maybe more academic than you want, but solid research guidance.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:08 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you go into a decent public library where people aren't terribly overworked and say "I'd like to learn how to find some articles on my area of interest, could you help me with that?" you would probably make someone very happy. It's also possible that they have tutorials online, handouts in the library, or classes at the library for this sort of thing.

In short, these sorts of databases allow you to look up things from magazines or journals and some of them are narrowly tailored to things like health information or biology. Starting from the citations on Google Scholar or Wikipedia is actually fine (don't cite Wikipedia but it's a great starting point) but if you're curious and don't mind a bit of trying things one way and then trying them another way you should be able to really improve on that.

So go to your public library's website (get a card if you don't have one, it's library card sign up month!) and see if they have a page like this or something else that says online resources or databases or whatever. You may need your library card and/or PIN but then it's like being on the inside of Google scholar, at least a little bit and depending on what level of stuff you need.

Here are a few tutorials where colleagues spell some of this stuff out: an academic one from Duke, a public/humanities oriented one from Kansas City, a portal from the University of Iowa, a specific libguide from Iowa State. The most bothersome part about a lot of these is that they will point to resources you do not have access to, but the trick will be finding out which things you DO have access to and going form there. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:27 PM on September 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think the first thing is to be really clear about what the question you want answered is, and what the perfect answer would look like. For example, Mollaret's Meningitis. Are you looking for a "So you've been diagnosed with Mollaret's Meningitis!" kind of book or a "So you have to write a school paper on Mollaret's Meningitis!" kind of book? Does your ideal answer include statistics, anecdotes, research studies? Are you looking for peer-reviewed scientific literature or books for a general audience? Knowing the answers to all of these will be really helpful when you ask a librarian for help.

The second thing is to be aware that you're very often not looking for a book ABOUT Mollaret's Meningitis. If it exists, great! But it may not exist. (Or it may be that the most topical resources are resources you don't have access to.) This is something that a lot of inexperienced researchers have trouble with -- they'll say they want a book on the battle of Cowpens. We probably don't have one, but we might have several books on the military history of the American Revolutionary War, each of which might have a couple pages on the battle of Cowpens.

For a lot of topics, the best place to start is the databases that a university subscribes to. If you have institutional access to any databases, start there. Otherwise, your local public library should have institutional access to some good databases. They're not quite as comprehensive as what university libraries have access to, but they can still have far more information than you're likely to find in the books at the public library or on the open web. Ask your local librarian what databases are the most useful for a particular subject!

Database searches are different from Google searches in that they require you to use a controlled vocabulary to do searches. You'll probably get some results just by searching for Mollaret's Meningitis, but after you've gotten some results, look at those results and see what subject headings are used for the articles. Then do a new search targeting that subject heading.

I think like 55% of my librarian education is really just a vague spidey-sense that leads me to be quite good at figuring out what a good answer will look like and what keywords it might have. So, it's not easy to explain, but it's definitely worth it to ask your local librarian to walk you through some searches.
posted by Jeanne at 7:29 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came in to recommend The Craft of Research. It's a really straightforward, simple, clear guide. It really helped me get a grip on the whole thing.

It would't be crazy to take a "research & writing methods" course at a nearby university. It really can be the most efficient way to learn. And I'd recommend it, because while a librarian can certainly get you help in answering a single question, during your life and career you will probably want to answer innumerable questions, and having your own basic skills will be so helpful.

Also, if you ever need to use special collections libraries, like for rare books or historic documents or corporate archives or whatever, it is good to know what that sort of thing is all about.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Once you find your sources using the great suggestions above, I recommend Robert Harris' CARS model (credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, support) for evaluating sources. It is clear and easy to follow. This is the method I encourage my students to use when they are doing their research papers.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:03 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the library should be able to help you. Depending on where you live, you might be able to go to the local University library where there are research librarians. At my school library, anyone who doesn't have an ID from the school can sign in at the front desk and use the library (well, unless its finals week).
posted by DoubleLune at 8:31 PM on September 19, 2012

If you want a high-school level introduction, I did a series with another HS English teacher on the research process for my 11th-12th grade students. It goes from formulating a research question to writing a full research paper. The early ones aren't great because we didn't know what we were doing, but the skills/process is solid. :-)
posted by guster4lovers at 8:51 PM on September 19, 2012

A specific piece of advice if you use Wikipedia; in one field I teach (mythology) a lot of the entries look well-sourced, but a remarkable number of the sources are pop culture and tossed off by people whose other works are completely unrelated to this subject (in one case the author wrote about aphrodisiacs and self-help) and which speak of no expertise - which explains some of the crazier stuff that is on there. So if you're using it as your starting point, Google the authors of the secondary sources that you will use as your branching out point and see what else they've published. And then Google the publishers and see what else they've produced. If you're getting dodgy results, then it's not a good starting point. Also read the Talk page (the one for Marie Antoinette is good for showing some of the issues with an apparently A grade entry and one that has been a featured article).

Can you get access to Oxford Reference Online? They have huge bibliographic essays for some subjects and those are written by scholars for people starting out.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:57 AM on September 20, 2012

You can also search JSTOR without a membership, I think, which can at least let you know where an author has published. But if you want to read the articles, you'll need at least a library with access.
posted by Miko at 1:52 PM on September 20, 2012

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