How To Research A Topic

A laptop computer next to archival materials

When I was an undergraduate more than 50 years ago I thought writing a 3 to 5-page paper was a monumental task. What could one possibly say for that many pages? As a senior, I wrote about a 7-page paper for an independent study class. The task seemed overwhelming.

In graduate school, I discovered that a 20-page paper (about the size of a journal article) was the typical lenght for a seminar essay. The first few were all I could manage. It was when researching a paper for a seminar in my first year of grad school—on the topic of why North and South America had such different economies—that I first began to understand the idea of research.

I’d go to the college library, find every book they had on the topic, read the relevant parts, and try to glean the basic ideas. Was it geography, climate, raw materials or people that made the difference in the economic development of different places? Was it the different social, political, and economic ideas of the countries that conquered the New World that mattered? Was it something else or partly all of the above? I quickly realized that there were many theories but that I had to do the research and come to a considered conclusion. That was research.

Next up was the master’s thesis and now the page range was 75 to 100 pages. It took many rewrites but somehow I managed. Then of course came the dissertation. I still remember going into Professor Blackwell‘s office after he accepted the unenviable job of directing it. We had previously discussed the topic and he took out a pen and wrote what he thought would be the six chapters. He then told me that 300 pages was a typical length.

I needed a drink. How can one write 300 pages? Sensing my anxiety he said something like “John, you’ve written 20-page papers before now you’re just going to write 15 of them.” This brought an immediate sense of relief. I would be building something piece by piece. In my case I’d research what motivated Piaget’s thinking, why he studied children to understand epistemology, what the nature of genetic epistemology was, how this related to the history of science, what his final position was, etc. Assimilate information, explain it to others, and then come to my own conclusions. Research.

Or, as Wikipedia puts it.

Research is “creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge”. It involves the collection, organization, and analysis of evidence to increase understanding of a topic, characterized by a particular attentiveness to controlling sources of bias and error.

In those days, research meant starting at St. Louis University’s library, and if they didn’t have what I needed I went down the street to Washington University’s library. If I were still often out of luck on such an esoteric topic usually interlibrary loan could get what I needed from the University of Chicago. Occasionally, I had to get something from the East Coast.

Today most students probably don’t know what interlibrary loan is. The problem for people today isn’t finding information but differentiating between good and bad information, between good and bad sources. For example, when considering a medical question there are legitimate sources like Harvard Health, The Mayo Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic, WebMD, the CDC, and the NIH. There also are multiple sources of disinformation and misinformation as anyone can put up anything on a website even if they have no idea what they’re talking about.

When you only had a university library the information was limited, but the books you found there had been affirmed by the gatekeepers—the university presses and their editors and reviewers. Back then you lacked information but what you had access to was almost always from knowledgable sources. (How much time I spent in libraries.) Today we have easy access to both good and bad information and need to discriminate between them.

Looking back I’m thankful that others helped me learn how to do research. And I’m glad that critical thinking skills help one to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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One thought on “How To Research A Topic

  1. The more you learn, and know, the better you write. iI you do not become complacent. Big IF, there.
    Best, always, Professor…

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