When preparing to write or speak about a topic, your first step is to gather information. You will need to do research to ensure that you provide your audience with sufficient background information and support your claims. Doing research involves more than finding a few books or articles on a topic; a researcher’s job is to find useful, relevant, and reliable information, which can be challenging. This chapter will help by providing an introduction to research terminology and the research process.
You may hear sources described as either “primary” or “secondary,” and understanding this distinction can help you assess what types of information are useful for your various needs.
A primary source is one that is original and first-hand. This has different meanings depending on the disciplinary context, but generally refers to the product of someone’s original work, such as the results of a scientist’s study, or an author’s novel. You may access published primary sources in introductory college courses like this one, and you will definitely do so as you progress in your discipline. Keep in mind that primary sources are generally factual rather than analysis or interpretation, although not in all cases.
In your research, you more frequently use secondary sources, which are articles, books, and websites that involve analysis or interpretation of primary sources. While a scientific study would be a primary source, a magazine article about the findings of that study would be considered a secondary source.
Whether you use a primary or a secondary source depends on our purpose, topic, audience, and context. If you engage in undergraduate research in your junior or senior year and present at a conference, you will be expected to have some primary research. However, for most of your college work, you will be looking for reliable secondary sources. One way to assess the quality of a secondary source is to look at its references or bibliography. A reliable source will cite other sources to support its claims. Likewise, a well-researched speech will provide support for its argument by using evidence obtained from reliable sources.
Most researchers begin their work by evaluating the current information that exists on their topic. They may look at a combination of primary and secondary sources during this process. Their goal is to find out what is currently known about a topic and where the research may be headed. Students completing a research-based assignment will begin much the same way.
The library plays an important role for researchers, because materials in libraries have been selected for the information needs of their users. College and university libraries provide resources to support the academic programs of study at their institutions.
The Library Catalog
The library catalog is a good place to begin searching. Since it will allow you to search the library’s collection of books, periodicals, and media, you will have access to a lot of material that broadly covers your topic, and the information you find will help you as you work to narrow the scope of your research.
Many libraries have a unique or branded name for their catalog and provide online search functionality. One helpful feature of the catalog’s search tool is the ability to sort and refine search results by date, format, author, and other filter options.
Additionally, library catalogs allow users to link to electronic books, videos, and other resources directly. These resources can be quite helpful, since users do not need to come to the library building, nor are these resources available only during library hours.
You’re already familiar with using search engines (like Google), but did you know that these tools only give you access to information that companies and people have shared for free? The content freely available online only represents a fraction of that which actually exists.
A lot of the information that isn’t free is protected by paywalls. You may have tried to read an article online, but weren’t able to see the full text because you were asked to pay. This can be frustrating when the content is useful for research! Fortunately, you have access to online databases through your library.
Library databases are available 24/7, and provide users with access to the full text of eBooks and articles from periodicals, works that are published on a regular, ongoing basis, such as magazines, academic journals, and newspapers. The content in library databases is available because libraries have paid to subscribe to the publications they offer. For the library user, this information is free—but you will have to search the library’s databases to access it.
Note that if you are trying to use library databases remotely (not via a wired connection to the library’s actual network), such as from home or on a business’s free Wi-Fi network, you will probably be asked to log in to verify that you are an authorized user of the library’s materials. Because the library has paid to access these subscription resources, they protect access by asking users to verify their status. Your library can help if you aren’t sure how to log in or experience difficulty when trying to do so.
While databases index newspapers and popular magazines, college-level researchers especially benefit from their inclusion of articles published in academic journals. Almost all content in academic journals is peer-reviewed. The authors of journal articles are experts in their subject areas, and after having conducted research on their topic, write up the results in an article that they submit for publication to a scholarly journal (a periodical whose target audience is other experts in that disciplinary field).
Before the editor approves the publication of an article in their journal, they send it to other scholars who are experts in the subject area. The other scholars, peers of the original author, then read the articles and evaluate them according to the standards of that discipline. Only after an article has passed the peer review process can it be published in the academic journal.
Something you may have wondered is whether the terms “scholarly,” “peer-reviewed,” and “academic” have different meanings when used to describe articles or the journals in which they are published. The answer is no. These terms are used interchangeably.
Historically, academic journals were primarily available in print, but today most readers access them online. When looking at a search results page, it can be challenging to figure out which articles are from popular magazines and which are from scholarly journals. Fortunately, most databases have a filter that lets you limit your results by publication type. As you continue to use the search function in databases, you will notice that it’s possible to put additional controls on the displayed results, allowing you to sort and refine.
Filtering your results is just one way to ensure that you find the information you need. Another option is to modify your search technique. The easiest way to do this is to put search phrases in quotation marks. If you’re looking for information about attention deficit disorder, using “attention deficit disorder” ensures that the three words stay together in the order in which you have typed them. This can be very helpful to optimize the relevance of your search results. Without the quotation marks, the database will look for the words attention, deficit, and disorder. You can also combine search terms using Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT), try changing the search parameters, using truncation (to find similar words with the same root; typing medica* will give you results including medical, medically, medication, medications, etc.), or searching with subject headings. An example of a search using some advanced techniques is shown in the chart below.
This chart clarifies how different disciplines may categorize primary vs. secondary sources.
You can control your search a great deal, even making it so specific that nothing will be found! For most research topics, however, a basic keyword search will take you far enough. It’s only when you aren’t finding what you need that you should consider adjusting your search strategy.
A library’s online search tools allow you to search their extensive holdings. Know that you can (and should) ask for help if you have problems or questions. Remember that librarians are research experts and can help you to find information, select a topic, refine your search, cite your sources, and much more!
Many libraries offer resource sharing services, which allow you to borrow items your library does not have available. It's called "inter-library loan".The delivery can take a few days, so be sure to order items at least a week before you need them!
Many of the techniques you use to improve your library searches can help you online too. Keeping phrases together with quotation marks works on many sites, and you can use the minus sign (-) to filter out search terms you’d prefer not be included. Date range filters and other limiters are available too, helping you narrow your search down even further.
Finding information online is relatively simple, so the challenge researchers face is determining what information is useful and whether it’s credible. A quick assessment is easy, and here are a few questions to guide you:
The trustworthiness of information you find on the Internet can be harder yet to discern. While a source may have a current date listed, seem to offer relevant information, and claim to be an expert, it’s important to go beyond the information they give about themselves and verify that you can believe that they are honestly representing themselves and the information they offer.
Some advice on how to effectively evaluate online information is offered by Washington State University Professor Michael Caulfield, who suggests doing the following:
There are many “tests” or “sets of criteria” that you can find in textbooks and on websites for deciding if a website is reliable. Words and concepts such as currency, authority, accessing only certain domain names (.org or .edu as opposed to .com), and inclusion of a bibliography or references section are common. Another is writing style: does the writing style show bias (such as use of name-calling or loaded language) or poor grammar and editing? These are all good signs that your site may have an agenda beyond fair presentation of facts. Keep in mind, however, your site may seem to pass muster on first sight but not really provide what you need.
One common source that many students have questions about using is Wikipedia. Most of us use Wikipedia or similar sites to look up the answers to pressing questions such as “Was Val Kilmer in the film Willow?” or “When is the next solar eclipse?” However, it is unlikely that your instructor will be satisfied with your using evidence from Wikipedia (or other Wiki-type sites).
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Wikipedia is, like a dictionary, a basic reference source. Like a printed encyclopedia, it is used for basic or general information about a topic, but this means that it is not suitable for serious college-level research. Additionally, because anyone on Wikipedia (or any Wiki site) can update information, there is no guarantee that what you read will be up-to-date or correct. While Wikipedia and its editors make every effort to maintain the accuracy of entries, with millions of pages on the site, that isn’t always possible. Sometimes Wikipedia pages display inaccurate information, including hoax articles or prank edits. These are typically corrected quickly by editors who notice a change has been made and fact-check to verify whether the information is true.
When it comes down to it, Wikipedia is a good place to go to obtain basic information or general knowledge about your subject. You can use the references at the bottom of the page (if there are any) to look for information elsewhere. But saying to an audience, “my source for the information in this speech is Wikipedia” will probably do little to convince your audience that you are knowledgeable and have done adequate research for the speech.
Keeping in mind the considerations discussed in this section will help you select online sources for use in your work. They will also help you as you navigate the breadth of information on and offline in your daily life.
Up to this point, we have discussed finding sources (both primary and secondary) that have been published. It is also possible for you to use some truly firsthand information in your speeches by conducting your own primary research.
One type of primary research you can use is surveys. Your instructor may ask you to construct a short survey to learn something about your audience before, for example, a persuasive speech. A survey can be helpful if the questions are well-written and if the survey is not too long.
For the most part, a survey should use objective questions. That means questions with a few predetermined answers for the survey-takers to choose from, such as multiple-choice, true-false, I agree/Neutral/I disagree, or yes-no. If the researcher wants to construct a multiple choice question, he or she must try to provide all the reasonable options.
For example, if a student wanted to give a speech about why consumers should not buy gas with ethanol, and used this question:
What grade of gas do you buy for your car? Regular Medium High Octane/ Premium
The survey writer left out the option of diesel, and failed to account for students who don’t own or drive a car, who are unsure what grade of gasoline they buy, or who buy more than one grade of gasoline.
Another misstep to avoid is asking open-ended questions. If you wanted to know what grocery store in the area your audience patronized, this question would not be ideal:
At which grocery store does your family shop? _______________________
This alternate version would be more useful and easy to interpret:
At which of these grocery stores does your family shop?
Allowing the people taking your survey to select more than one of the responses is best, since few people shop at just one store. Or you could phrase the question, “At which of these grocery stores does your family spend most of its money?” In that case, there would only be one answer, and it would tell you more specific information.
The criteria for what constitutes a “short” survey are fluid, but five questions would probably be enough to let you know what you need. A survey taker might become tired of answering a long list of questions. Other things to keep in mind when writing questions are to avoid using too vague or too personal questions, because respondents may not know how or may not want to answer. Furthermore, to get honest responses, it helps to write questions in an unbiased way. “Do you favor raising the minimum wage in our state to $15.00 per hour?” is more balanced than “Do you believe that business owners in our state should be required to treat their employees better by having to raise their minimum wage to a more reasonable and fair $15.00 per hour?” You also would not want to insult your survey takers with questions such as “Do you agree that all math majors are antisocial?”
Finally, you will administer the survey. There are many free online tools for surveys; two popular options are Survey Monkey and Google Forms. These are easy to use and helpful for short surveys (you might need to pay a fee for longer surveys, or to send surveys to a large group of people). You can also conduct surveys in person, but that takes longer and would not be anonymous, meaning people may be less likely to answer honestly. Finally, your instructor may ask you to make paper copies and pass them around class.
You can use a variety of means to conduct surveys. Using surveys is valuable because knowing your audience’s level of knowledge and their attitudes about your topic ahead of time can be helpful in creating an audience-centered speech.
You may also benefit from conducting an interview with a person who is knowledgeable about your topic, such as a professional with educational and career credentials in their field. Using a first-hand interview will add a great deal of credibility to your speech, if done correctly. For example, if you are going to give a speech about the effects of the No Child Left Behind policy or the Common Core standards, it makes sense to talk to an elementary school principal for her knowledge and expertise on the issue.
Here are some valuable tips:
1. Do the interview after you have read some published sources on the topic, not before. You should have a good understanding of the basic issues involved.
2. Choose the right person: someone who has first-hand knowledge of the topic, is available and is willing to be interviewed.
3. Make an appointment with the interviewee, and arrive on time.
4. Assume that the person you are interviewing is busy and cannot give you lots of time. This assumption may be wrong, but it’s better to go in with the expectation of limited time than to expect the person to speak with you for an hour.
5. Prepare your questions in advance and have your questions in a logical order. Do not say, “I have to give a speech on ____. What can you tell me about it?”
6. Ask the person for information you cannot get from other sources. The interviewee may not know national statistics off the top of her head. She will know about her daily experience with the topic.
7. Be sure not to ask inappropriate, proprietary, or embarrassing questions. Your interviewee should know that it’s okay for them to refuse to answer if they are not comfortable.
8. Finally, write the person a thank you note or email afterward. He or she has done you a big favor, and expressing your gratitude is a courteous gesture. It is also valuable to networking. Someday, your interviewee may be in the position to offer you a job.
Once you have found your sources, you will start by reading them. Taking notes as you work will help you identify notable themes and make connections between your sources. Be sure to keep good track of where you get information as you work so you can cite it! You can work on your References page as you go. This makes it easier to keep track of your sources.
Citation is an integral part of academic work. Since research builds on the work of others, acknowledging those who contributed is essential to academic integrity. The format of your citations will depend on the disciplinary context, because there are many styles. Students should check which citation style their instructor requires, and find out if there are requirements for the type and/or number of sources as well.
You might wonder if you should cite every piece of information you find and use in your work. Some information is considered “common knowledge,” and if it is, it usually does not have to be cited. Usually we think of this as the general kind of historical or scientific information found in encyclopedias, such as that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But common knowledge goes a little further. Generally, if over half of the sources you’re using have the same piece of information, you can consider that common knowledge. What you should cite is unique knowledge, information you find in one source.
A better approach, however, is to find out the original source of the “common knowledge.” For example, if you were researching “sexual harassment” and found the common legal definition in all your sources, you should find out the original source of that legal definition rather than considering it “common knowledge.” Citing its original source is important both for ethical reasons and credibility reasons.
On citation: The field of communication uses APA (American Psychological Association) format, also used in most social sciences. Your instructor may allow you to use MLA (Modern Language Association) instead, which is used in English classes. The Tulsa Community College Writing Center is a great resource. When using automatically generated citations, be sure to proof-read. As helpful as computers are, they are not infallible!
This chapter has covered a lot of information that will be useful to you in your public speaking class as well as other classes. Having a strong research foundation will give your speech interest and credibility. This chapter has shown you how to access information and also how to find reliable information and evaluate it.
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