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Research skills: Five ways to assess and use reliable sources

With our wondrous phones in our hands, we can all find any information we want. Here’s how to apply research skills to that information.

When I was a university student, research meant going to the library and looking for books on the topic I was writing about.

When I was a reporter, research meant going to the library and looking through files in which actual clippings had been glued to pages.

And when I was a sub-editor on a newspaper, research often meant looking things up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia.

This is not a nostalgic trip back to the “good old days”. Being able to look things up in the handheld computer that is my phone is a wonder and miracle that I am always grateful for.

(Still, though, I do love a library, and esteem librarians highly!)

What we have forgotten about research

I think having access to all the world’s resources while sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea or glass of wine has blurred the meaning of the word “research”.

The Oxford dictionary (I have access to the paywalled online version) has this to say about research:

The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

It can also mean:

Discover or verify information for use in (a book, programme, etc.).

None of those definitions apply to using your phone to research venues for breakfast next Saturday, or to research new crochet patterns. Nor do they cover asking your friends on WhatsApp for the name of a good plumber.

We now often use the term as a blanket word for getting information – and because we use it to cover that wide a range of activities, we forget that there are established techniques and protocols that govern systematic investigations of the kind the dictionary describes.

But precisely because we now have access to such a vast store of information, it’s useful to take a look at some the principles that underlie “proper” research. These ways of establishing reliability and validity are just as applicable to finding a plumber as they are to researching the ecology of a wetland, or doing a survey of the academic literature on engagement in the workplace.

First, I did some bad research

To get started on thinking about this topic, I did some bad research. I turned to two generative AI tools, and asked both ChatGPT and Claude AI the same question: 

You are a researcher for a publication. Write a 300 word article on this topic: Research skills: How to assess and use reliable sources

I got two reasonable responses, and both said that one of the first things to do is to use reputable sources. But here’s the thing: since both GenAI answers are a synthesis of information from elsewhere, I don’t in fact know what the sources are. 

Claude offers this about sources:

First and foremost, it’s essential to understand the different types of sources available. Primary sources, such as original research papers, historical documents, or firsthand accounts, provide direct evidence and should be prioritized whenever possible. Secondary sources, like books, articles, or websites, offer analysis and interpretation of primary sources.

I think we need to create a third category of source: those that survey a vast array of text and provide a summary.

Nevertheless, the answers do list several research techniques that I know to be valid and used in real life, partly because of that long-ago university degree, partly because of years of experience as a journalist and partly because I have edited a number of academic papers in my time. 

So I’ve used the two answers I got, synthesised and summarised and cross-checked, and related them to my own experience, to give you this list of five ways to do good research, whether you are digging into your genealogy, trying to find the lyrics to an obscure song, or wondering whether that strange headline you saw on social media could possibly be true.

RESEARCH TECHNIQUE ONE: Understand what kind of source you are looking at

As admonished by Claude, are you reading a first-hand account of an event, or an analysis? 

If it’s a first-hand account, it has the virtue of immediacy, but it will still be subject to human frailty. If it’s an analysis, it has the virtue of distance, but it might be biased.

RESEARCH TECHNIQUE TWO: Ask who said so, and why?

Are you looking at an academic paper – if so, what publication was it published in? Peer-reviewed academic journals and publications from reputable institutions or organisations are generally trustworthy (or at the very least will list all their own sources). 

Is it a government publication? It might be inclined to make the government look good.

Is it a news publication? Is it one you’ve heard of, does the article carry a date and a byline and does it contain information you have some knowledge of?

In general, look for the author’s credentials, the publication date, and whether the information is supported by evidence.

RESEARCH TECHNIQUE THREE: Cross-check

Verify the information you find by checking it against other reliable sources. Consistency across multiple sources increases the likelihood that the information is accurate.

RESEARCH TECHNIQUE FOUR: Do some critical thinking

Once you’ve identified potentially reliable sources, critically evaluate their content. Look for well-reasoned arguments supported by evidence, citations, and references to credible sources. Be wary of sweeping generalisations, unsupported claims, or language that seems overly biased or emotionally charged.

RESEARCH TECHNIQUE FIVE: Keep a list of your sources

Keep a record as you go along, with the publication’s name, the article’s title, the author’s name and the web address. That way you’ll be able to establish your own credibility, and give credit to your sources if you need to. 

READ

How Covid made libraries nicer

Step-by-step: How to tell if a news article is reliable

A Beginner’s Guide for Journalists: Taking Notes | Safe Hands

Main picture: Dimitar Belchev, Unsplash

How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here

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