How to Find Out Anything
1 How to Think Like a Researcher
How much money does my boss make? Where is my great-grandmother buried? Who did my college girlfriend marry? How many other card stores are there in the town where I want to open mine? How can I change careers at the age of fifty? What companies would want to buy what my company produces and whom should we contact?
Welcome to the information age. Questions like these were once no more than things to ponder as you fell asleep, but now the answers are at the tips of your fingers—if you know where, and how, to look.
Research is the process of finding out for yourself what somebody else already knows. Every time you consult a book on how to cook a flounder filet or Google for information about your daughter’s college or ask the advice of your doctor about that strange pain in your arm, you make the assumption that an answer to your question is out there. You assume that someone has written a cookbook or built a website or studied physiology thoroughly enough to correctly diagnose what ails you. Your instincts are right, because we live in the Information Age.
In our literate society, people record what they know. They research and publish books. They create websites. They tweet on Twitter. They write articles, make videos, and appear on TV. They store knowledge in their own heads. Information surrounds us as surely as water surrounds a fish, simply because someone decided to record what he or she knows. As evidenced by everything from ancient cuneiform writing pressed into clay tablets to the latest breaking news story online, humans need to put what they know into a form more permanent than speech. Whether the record is private, like a diary, or public, like a newspaper, ideas, thoughts, and data are stored in written form.
Paradoxically, for all the uncountable words and pictures we can conjure up with the click of a mouse, the Information Age poses it own unique problem: With so much information available, finding the useful fact or reliable study or collection of data to answer a question turns out to be more challenging than it seems, even with a powerful tool like Google to help us look.
This book will address the single most common misconception of the Information Age: that Google is the be-all and end-all of research. Speaking as a law librarian with more than twenty-five years in the research trenches, I can tell you that it isn’t. Google has an important role to play in many research tasks, but it’s only one tool of many that professional researchers rely on to get accurate and timely answers to thorny questions. It’s ideal for many ordinary, humdrum tasks, like locating the address of a restaurant or finding out last night’s baseball scores. The picture is much different, though, when we start to distinguish quick searches from serious research. Getting past a dependence on Google and other search engines is the focus of this book. As all good librarians know, there’s a lot more useful information in the world than what search engines can deliver. And even on those occasions when Google is, in fact, the right tool to use, too many people overlook the powerful features of the “Advanced Search” option and instead muddle through with sloppy, bloated search results. There are better ways to find what you want.
Serious research is information gathering that is complex, demanding, and undertaken for a more critical purpose than finding out how tall your favorite celebrity is. For instance, you may be conducting research to flesh out a business proposal for a new company you want to set up in the solar power industry and need to find competitive intelligence. Or you might be a graduate student writing a paper on an emerging scientific subject like nanotechnology. Maybe you’re putting together a family genealogy project and digging through historic records. In these instances, your research will require you to talk to experts, find books, or perform more in-depth research. The world of knowledge is a big one, and as I’ll soon make clear, Google cannot see it all.
Complex research requires skill, imagination, and creativity. It’s no longer the exclusive province of librarians and journalists. Any researcher—from students to scientists, journalists, and job seekers—whose curiosity ranges beyond simple searches will see just how much richer and more informative the online and print universe can be. This is something every student and professional needs to understand.
Most important, though, is learning how to think through a research problem. All questions, from the idly curious (Did that guy in eighth grade who played guitar ever make it as a musician?) to the academic (I need to create a comprehensive bibliography on all articles and books written about Renaissance painter Andrea del Verrocchio for a biography), can be approached the same way. Knowing how to work through a research problem will allow you to reliably find whatever it is that you need to know, be it frivolous or profound.
As you’ll see, finding information is not a haphazard task; rather, it’s an explicit process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like any technique, it can be learned. Research techniques are dependable ways to bridge the gulf between knowing and not knowing. Whether you’re nosing around your local town library to find a biography of your favorite writer or downloading giant data sets from a U.S. government agency or from a university in a remote country, the principles of research are the same. By mastering the research process and undertaking it in the spirit of adventure and discovery, you’ll soon realize that it is indeed possible to find out anything.
The Process of Research
The first thing a researcher needs to learn is the art of crafting a question. This is where all good librarians begin their searches, and you should too. So let’s plunge right in and start where most research ordinarily begins—the question itself.
Ask a Question That Can Be Answered
Philosopher Bertrand Russell said it best: “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.” Asking a question that can be answered is the greatest challenge that most researchers face too. If there’s a single place where many otherwise bright and industrious people make a wrong turn when looking up information, it’s at the very beginning of the research process. If you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it?
But it’s not enough merely to ask a question. You need to ask the right kind of question. Questions come in two varieties: open-ended and factual. The difference between the two is remarkable.
Open-ended questions ask for opinions and offer no definitive answer. Such questions, although frequently very interesting, do not readily allow for a solution. How would you come up with a definitive answer to such open-ended questions as, Is legalizing marijuana a good idea? Is Rome a better city for a vacation than Buenos Aires? Should the federal government spend more on the army than on education? As you can see, these questions open the door to discussion, but as far as getting to a concrete answer, they are impossible to work with.
Factual questions, by contrast, are answerable. For example, What is the population of Chicago? What drugs most prolong the life of a victim of cystic fibrosis? How many first dates does the average woman have in a lifetime?
Certainly many worthwhile research projects can arise from an intriguing but impossible-to-answer question. The conclusions that open-ended questions call for are great, but those conclusions can be drawn only after a steady accumulation of facts. More to our purpose, we need to ask answerable questions for the eminently practical reason that if a question has no end, neither does the research. Pursuing an open-ended question can be a fool’s errand. So, to become a skilled researcher, step number one is learning how to craft the answerable question.
To become a skilled researcher, step number one is learning how to craft the answerable question.
Say you’re a reporter for a business magazine and your editor wants to run an article on computer executive compensation. The editor asks you to find out if computer executives are overpaid. This is a great idea for a magazine article. It would probably make for a nifty feature in any number of business and tech magazines.
Your initial reaction might be to start Googling the question right away, and you type in “Are computer executives overpaid?” You would soon come up against some cold, hard truths. An open-ended question like that, which has no right or wrong answer, is not something that Google can wrestle with effectively. As we’ll see, it’s a simple finding aid, not the Oracle at Delphi. The question flunks the initial smell test for the simple reason that there is no factual answer to the question. What you or the editor might call overpaid would sound like peanuts to Bill Gates.
Not only does this question suffer from the crippling flaw of calling for an opinion, but it isn’t well-defined. Exactly which executives are we talking about? CEOs? Financial officers? Head programmers? And which computer companies are we talking about? Would this be companies that design software, like Microsoft, or companies that retail computers, like Dell? In short, this question might be a plum assignment for a skilled reporter, but as far as an answerable question goes, it’s worthless.
But don’t throw your hands up in frustration and disgust just yet. Instead, let’s recast that open-ended question into a series of factual questions that you can answer.
· How much did CEO Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems earn in 2007?
· What was the average salary paid to the chief executive officers at the ten largest computer companies in the past five years?
· Who is an expert on computer industry compensation whom I can interview and quote?
· What books can I consult that discuss compensation trends in the software industry?
By coming up with a series of factual questions to ask, the initial abstract question starts to take shape as a concrete project. These factual questions will yield to diligent research because answers to each of them can be found. You now have a game plan. As I’ll show in later chapters, you can answer these factual questions by searching public records databases, scrutinizing library catalogs, talking to associations, and conducting in-depth Google searches. For now, it is enough to know that successful research begins by asking not only the right questions but the right types of questions.
So how do you turn those hazy, unanswerable, open-ended questions into something you can work with? To determine exactly what someone is looking for, professional librarians conduct a reference interview. A reference interview is the formal process by which an answerable question is extracted from a general description of what a person is looking for. For a conscientious librarian, it’s critical—failure to interview the patron properly can result in a waste of time and money. I know from personal experience. One afternoon, a lawyer called to ask me to send him a company’s annual report, which I dutifully did. A few minutes later, he asked me to send him the company’s proxy statement. Then, not long after, he asked for the company’s quarterly report. Finally, he called me, the exasperation and frustration evident in his voice.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Find out who this company’s general counsel is.” Ah, so that’s what he really wanted! The lawyer was asking for what he thought he needed—the annual report, the proxy, and the quarterly report—rather than for what he actually needed, which was a discrete piece of information contained in precisely none of the documents he asked me to send to him. (I found the answer in a book titled The Directory of Corporate Counsel.) Because I failed to have a reference interview in the beginning, I wasted both of our time. A ten-second interview would have prevented it.
Because you probably don’t keep your own personal librarian on retainer, you need to learn to conduct a reference interview with yourself. The goal is to distill your initial curiosity into an action plan. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to quickly cut through the fog of open-ended questions to create a list of queries with definitive answers. As long as the questions you ask yourself begin with the words what, when, where, or who—the classic four Ws of journalism school, with the occasional addition of how—then you are well on the way to constructing questions that, when answered, might also illuminate the larger, open-ended question. Understanding precisely what you need to know is the difference between successful research and a never-ending slog through the back alleys of the Internet or the dusty shelves of libraries.
Understand the Scope of Your Research
After you’ve created your information shopping list, you need to decide how much of it you need. A research question can be as simple and quick to answer as, What is the formal name of China? (It’s the People’s Republic of China, according to the CIA World Factbook.) Or maybe you need complex, book-length research that requires locating specialized repositories of information, contact with experts, and reviews of obscure documents and publications, which may take months to compile. (You’re writing a book on the invention of CT scanning for diagnostic imaging for use in the medical field.) Or maybe, as in many research projects, you’ll need to dig through disparate information sources before you have enough facts gathered to create a coherent picture:
1. Who owned the building with the fire violations that burned down? (Search the city real estate records to find that Company X owned that building.)
2. Who owns Company X? (Look through state corporation records to discover that Jane Smith and Jack Johnson own Company X.)
3. How can I contact Jane Smith and Jack Johnson? (Start with the online telephone directory AnyWho and work from there.)
Repeat the process until you’ve found everything you want.
Assume you’re about to do a sales pitch at a company to sell your new human resources (HR) software. You want to know something about the HR director before you meet her. Do you need to know every detail about her? Or is it sufficient to know only that she has worked at Amalgamated OmniCorp for ten years and that she holds an MBA from Wharton? If that’s the case, then your research may be over once you’ve looked up her bio from standard business biography sources. But what if you want to hire her to be the head of your HR software sales department so that she can sell your wares to other HR directors? In that case, you’ll want to know more about her—her former positions, perhaps her graduate school thesis, and presentations she has delivered at the annual conference for HR directors. Your research will broaden considerably, requiring many more queries in databases and generally taking longer than a simple bio request.
But what if, instead of wanting to hire her, you want to sue her because she bad-mouthed you and your company on a blog? In that case, you need to really turn over every rock in the public record, see quotes in the news, and make sure that any information that pertains to the lawsuit has been located. This biographical egg hunt now becomes a more extensive exercise in digging up details. Formulating factual questions is one step; knowing just how much information you need is another critical aspect of successful research.
Knowing just how much information you need is another critical aspect of successful research.
Getting a handle on the scope of research delivers many benefits. It provides a way of limiting the time you spend looking for answers. It restricts research to a reasonable set of resources, and it can often reduce the costs associated with research when expensive commercial database searching is required. Shaping your work in this way—by including both answerable questions and an estimate of what types of information will be required for a complete and accurate answer—gives your project a structure and direction. Because you usually are tracking down information to use for another purpose, such as for inclusion in a report, an article, or a speech, you eventually need to finish the data gathering and put the information you have found to good use. Research needs to end. By knowing how much information you need, you’ll also know when you’re done. With practice, you’ll hone your sense of how long and how deeply you need to sniff around for relevant information.
Consider the Best Places to Look
The fundamental question of where to look for the answers to your questions is not a new problem. In the 1700s, famed English essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson put it this way:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it.
Dr. Johnson’s prescription still holds true. You can search for information yourself and read up on a subject, or you can look for a person or an organization who can deliver the information to you and interpret it. For instance, you could start searching for information on Crohn’s disease to educate yourself on the disorder, or you could instead talk to your neighborhood gastroenterologist and ask him to explain the details of the disorder to you. Without making too much of this, think of research either as a way to dig up an answer by reading up on the subject yourself or as a process of finding the right person or organization to teach you what you need to know. So where is the best place to start to look? It all depends on the question.
Librarians approach a problem methodically by thinking of the broad subject category the topic fits into and then trying to figure out what type of resource would be required to arrive at a solution. This process of categorization is second nature to librarians. They routinely create taxonomies and get into the habit of listing topics hierarchically. Over the years, one’s mind starts to function like the index of a book: It reflexively starts broadly, then drills down into the specifics. Let me illustrate.
Imagine you’re the curator of an art gallery. You want to put together an exhibition and publication to show how photography has changed since the advent of the digital camera. But, alas, you need to do all the research for the show yourself. How would you figure out how to mount the show and how to gather information for the book that will accompany the exhibit?
Like many people, you might be tempted to Google the question How has photography changed since the advent of digital technology? (Try it!)
Here’s what I found: Opinions from people who took time to respond to Yahoo! Answers, an article from the Telegraph, and a Wikipedia article edited by dozens of different contributors. Scattered among the Google search results are interesting articles from a site called Original Photography, an undated history from LoveToKnow “Photography,” and instructions on how to crop pictures in Photoshop. The results are a mishmash, some new, some old, some insightful, some…not so much.
What you won’t see are the things that would actually help you put together the show.
You should start, instead, by asking a series of factual questions: When was the digital camera invented? Which professional photographers used to photograph with film cameras and now shoot in digital? What companies produce digital cameras? What difference does it make if you produce a photo using software rather than a traditional chemical darkroom? What do experts in the field think about the shift from film to pixels?
The list of questions for your exhibit may be lengthy. But each question would imply a place to look for an answer. It would suggest a category. To an experienced librarian, thinking about how photography has changed is, more broadly, a question about art history. The nuts and bolts of digital camera manufacturing is company and product research, a subset of business research. And the differences between working in a chemical darkroom and Photoshop? That’s a question that would require analysis by an expert.
Next, you start to narrow down the questions. Is this something that a reference book could answer right away? Or is this a question for which the answer is not so black and white and would require you to consult a treatise to answer? Maybe this question could be answered with a news search. Or perhaps this is such a sophisticated question that you would need to ask a trained expert for an opinion (and hope to get one for free!). Would a government website have this information? Or could a simple Google search turn up what you need? With experience, most good librarians know immediately where to look because the nature of the question suggests how to approach it. You can pick up the same skills with a bit of practice.
For your photography exhibit, start with the easy stuff: When was the digital camera invented? A Google search is good for this. In fact, About.com has a perfectly serviceable article by inventor and film maker Mary Bellis titled “History of the Digital Camera” that bubbles right to the top of the results list and will get you going.
The trickier questions are going to need more imagination to answer. This exhibition is, more broadly, an exercise in art history. So it would be worthwhile to find an art historian who specializes in digital photography. A library catalog search from any large library (like the Library of Congress) would be a great way to locate recent titles that talk about the changing face of modern photography.
Who produces digital cameras? Now we’re shifting from art history to business research. We could look for the names of companies that produce digital cameras, but consider just how messy a process that would be. Observe the rule that professionals follow: Never compile information yourself if someone else has already done it. Putting together a list of manufacturers is exactly the type of information that a manufacturers association would collect and make public. Find the association for digital camera makers and ask them. In this case, PMA (formerly the Photo Marketing Association) might be a good source to ask.
Never compile information yourself if someone else has already done it.
What difference does digital make over the darkroom? You’re going to need to interview some photographers for that one or find the work of someone who has already spoken to digital photographers.
Before you know it, you have in hand an entire dossier on your subject, drawn from a variety of sources. Unlike researchers of the past, we have a breathtaking selection of places in which to look for answers. Dr. Johnson had to rely on his own edification or his local library. Not us. The most extraordinary feature of the Information Age is the sheer volume of material available. Not only are we working on the shoulders of all the millions of books that have ever been written (and which are quickly entering the electronic universe themselves), but we have a vast amount of organized information to sift through. We can select from books or online magazines, blogs and emails, websites and printed encyclopedias. We can also make phone calls; send emails; and talk to friends, colleagues, and experts. How do we make sense of this immeasurably large infosphere so that we can pluck just what we need from it and not find ourselves wandering around lost in the Internet forever?
This book will provide the answer to the question “Where do I look?”
· Search the deep web: Chapter 2 provides a guide to the world of online databases that Google can’t see and explains Google’s considerable limitations.
· Search with “Advanced Search” in Google: Chapter 3 discusses how to use Google most effectively.
· Search the library: Chapter 4 explains the resources waiting for you at the library (and it’s not just books and magazines).
· Search reference resources: Chapter 5 talks about the bountiful sources of factual information and how to take best advantage of them.
· Search for association expertise: Chapter 6 will show how to enlist the advice of experts who are connected to associations, societies, and other organizations.
· Search for people: Chapter 7 offers tips and techniques for finding information on people.
· Search for company or business information: Chapter 8 explores the world of company and corporate information.
· Search the public record: Chapter 9 discusses how to harvest factual data from government sources.
Depending on your question, you will start with one of these sources. Simple questions may yield to a proper Google search. Others may require contact with an expert or a call to an organization that specializes in your subject. Some subjects are a breeze to research: The answers to questions free from controversy and that have long been accepted as fact are easy to find in collections of reference materials. Things like the speed of light, the size of a standard baseball, or the date on which Prohibition ended are always within reach. But more sophisticated questions sometimes require special education or training to answer coherently, and you will need to know who the experts are and how to contact them. For subjects that deal with abstract scientific ideas (quantum physics, advanced computer engineering, cosmology) or disciplines that require a significant fund of prior knowledge to understand (medicine, the law, high finance) the researcher without the appropriate background would be at a loss even to ask the right questions.
No matter where you decide to search first, you must be sure that you are dealing with reliable sources. The oldest joke in the research world is to tell a patron, “I can get it for you fast, cheap, and accurate. Pick two.” Deciding where to look first also includes selecting a source that will provide accurate information. Finding reliable answers means finding reliable sources.
Don’t take anything you read online at face value.
Don’t take anything you read online at face value. These days, so-called content farms are pumping out articles and putative expert sites as a way to ensnare the unwary. Those hits mean advertising dollars, and the sites do not focus on the quality of the content. They are trying to turn a buck without regard to the accuracy of the information they serve up.
Traditional newspapers, broadcast news, and mainstream websites take pains to build their reputations for credibility. That’s why they hire fact checkers and copy editors and reporters who take care to get their information straight. Respectable media organizations want to assure readers that their research is reliable. Reliability extends not only to media sources but to others that produce information, such as professional associations; companies; experts who write books; and research institutions that produce scientific, medical, political, or historical information.
Sources that strive for reliability freely admit when they are wrong and make corrections publicly. This is laudable; you should follow the same principle. The best way to do it is to find sources that have verifiable credentials in their subject area. How can you tell that your source is reliable? It deals in facts and makes clear that expressions of opinion are exactly that. (“The sun will rise at 6:12 on April 19, 2013, in New York” is a fact. “I think it’s exciting that the sun rises in the morning” is an opinion.) Next, sources should have some authority to state whatever they are making pronouncements on. Unless your Uncle Morty is a trained meteorologist, when he says that it’s going to rain next Tuesday, such apparent “fact” holds no water, but when the National Weather Service says it will, then the prediction takes on credibility. Likewise, your father, who raised three kids, may say that the best way to deal with a colicky baby is to give him sugar drops, whereas the Mayo Clinic may have other, more substantial ideas. And unlike your beleaguered Pops, the Mayo Clinic will cite its own sources, a practice that’s an immediate tip-off that a source takes pains to back up its assertions. Good sources don’t make things up, and they don’t simply make a statement and expect the statement to be believed. Reliable sources understand that smart readers are skeptical readers; they anticipate challenges and give statements heft by providing background.
Closely related to reliability is attribution. You should be able to clearly back up your own fact gathering or conclusions with sources. The ability to attribute information to a source puts the burden for accuracy on the source. If you are researching information to make a persuasive argument in a sales pitch or to sway a jury, it’s good to be able to point out that the information you’re quoting comes from a reliable source. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more Americans are aged twenty-five to thirty-five today than any other age group” stands a better chance of convincing a reader that such a thing is true and accurate than does, “Somebody named Courtney on her blog says she believes half the people she meets are about to…OMG, turn thirty! And it’s, like, half the world is between twenty-five and thirty-five.”
Reliable information is as free from bias as possible. In a famous split-screen scene from Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, Allen’s character Alvy Singer is complaining to his therapist about his love life. To the question “How often?,” Alvy says, “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Meanwhile, Annie’s shrink asks her the same question, to which she answers, “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.” In this case, the facts are not in dispute but the interpretation of them certainly is. It’s human nature to put your best spin on the available facts. A conscientious researcher, though, knows going in that almost every information source has a built-in bias. Be alert to the bias. As we’ll see in Chapter 9, advocacy groups and associations are terrific resources, but it’s no secret that they spin information in the best light for their own interests. When you’re evaluating a resource, take into account the source’s inevitable bias, even when it’s presenting seemingly factual information.
When you’re evaluating a resource, take into account the source’s inevitable bias, even when it’s presenting seemingly factual information.
Double-sourcing is a way to check that information that appears to be solid actually is. The saying “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (attributed variously to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill) is still true. Inaccuracies and falsehoods feed off themselves, like the canard that Mohawk Indian steelworkers work on high bridges and buildings because they are genetically unafraid of heights. (They’re no more or less afraid than anybody else. Many Mohawks from New York State worked in high steel projects because their fathers, brothers, and cousins helped them get good-paying jobs in the industry, not because of some chromosomal quirk.) Correct information can be corroborated. What is true in one place should also be true in another place. It is not an opinion that the sky is blue; it’s a fact—a fact as verifiable in Russia as it is in Uruguay and Canada.
Accurate information withstands scrutiny. The standard for scientific research is that experimental results need to be replicable. The laws of nature don’t change. What happens in one lab ought to also occur in another, so long as the experimental conditions are the same. Likewise, facts are the same the world over. They don’t require belief to be true. I can swear all day that the moon is made of blue cheese, but evidence from multiple sources such as NASA and satellite probes will tell me that the moon is indeed composed of rock, not Roquefort.
Think Like a Detective
Use What You Know Now to Find Out What You Need to Know Later
The root of the word detective is “detect,” which means to “discover or determine the existence of.” That’s a fair way to think about research, too. The skills that a detective uses to solve a murder and the ones a researcher uses, in hot pursuit of a stray fact to seal a marketing pitch or to convince a skeptical editor, are fundamentally the same. A detective has a crime scene with certain clues right under her nose. A researcher has a world of books, websites, and people to search through.
One of the best secrets of good research is the ability to use one bit of information to find even more information.
The detective part of research is for many the most interesting and rewarding part of the process. Leveraging a bit of information is like a smart investment that turns $100 into $1 million. The excitement of research comes when a little bit of knowledge leads to even more, and one of the best secrets of good research is the ability to use one bit of information (or document or website or article or name) to find even more information. Even small research projects can grow quickly to encompass a much larger sphere of knowledge if you’re going about things correctly. Because most researchers by nature are curious and engaged with the world of information, this is a very satisfying part of research. How do you play Sherlock Holmes without having to wear a ridiculous-looking hat and smoke a pipe? Try to make the following ways of looking at materials a habit:
Look at internal references: Footnotes, callouts, and references to other works are the hidden gems that researchers should read as closely as the primary text. Don’t ignore them.
Take note of the credentials: If the person quoted in an article has an opinion that you either like, want to challenge, or need to learn more about, note his or her affiliation. You might find additional information on the person’s company, university, or association site.
Check the other links: Most websites and blogs offer additional links or blog rolls. Check them out. If the webmaster sees value in adding a link, there likely is something of value to you in following it.
Always ask for more information: Whether you are speaking to a person face-to-face or are engaged in an email conversation, never fail to ask where else you should be looking for additional information. People love to talk; you’ll find that asking for advice can produce tips for finding more information quickly.
Perhaps you’re well organized by nature. If so, send me your secret, because I would love to naturally keep my information neat and easy to find. Judging by the appearance of many offices I visit, many other people also suffer from the heartbreak of disorganization.
The grand bazaar of information is worthless if you collect stuff and then just randomly stick it someplace. If you misplace the URL that held the exact quote you need to bolster your regulation of ostrich farms campaign or if you forget to write down the name of that nice lady from the Federal Aviation Administration who can answer all your questions about the number of failed front landing gear incidents for commercial jets that your client wants, you doom yourself to repeating work or to losing the benefit of your fine research efforts.
Get into the habit of keeping copious notes. Phone numbers, names, websites, stray facts…anything that may come in handy later. Write it all down or type it all into your computer. You’ll save yourself time, effort, and frustration in the future.
Use Your Common Sense
Young doctors in training are taught “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” This advice goes for research, too. You don’t need to search under every single rock for every single question. Most questions have straightforward answers, and often knotty questions turn out not to be as tough as you have made them out to be. By relying on common sense, you will learn how to save hours of research time. If a single website among millions says that Abraham Lincoln was shot at the Forge Theater or that the drummer for the Beatles was named Ring-o Star, you don’t need to go nuts trying to see if any standard histories or encyclopedias agree. Common sense can tell you the site is wrong or suffers from a typo or a dozing copy editor.
Get off the Computer and Talk to People
Clearly, there is a virtually limitless expanse of information on the Internet. The web, though, merely added, admittedly in a very big way, to the tools that researchers of the past had been using. Those tools have not gone away. The telephone, mail, talking with colleagues and friends, phone books, old archives, and library gumshoeing are still great ways to mine information. In many instances, the fastest and most effective way to track down what you need to know is by picking up the telephone.
Resist the urge to Google everything. As you’ll see in the next chapter, not only is Google quite limited in the information that it can provide but a strict reliance on Google cuts you off from the expertise of people with whom you can have a conversation. Picking up the phone to speak with the right person can sometimes get you an answer faster than even the fastest computer can.
Admittedly, Google is a very useful tool for finding phone numbers of people who might be able to answer questions, but so too are the online phone books I’ll talk about in Chapter 7. I’ll go into much more detail about finding experts and taking advantage of the specialized knowledge available from associations in later chapters, but the message here is that information gathering isn’t solely about digging up data online. It also means making phone calls, visiting physical libraries, and corresponding by both electronic and snail mail.
When you’re looking for information, keep in mind that everything is guilty until proven truthful. Skepticism (not cynicism) is the ally of the researcher. You should always weigh the credibility of any source in light of what you already know and never take a fact, opinion, or conclusion at face value until you can verify it. Remember the old reporter’s adage “If he says his mother loved him, check it out with her.” Healthy skepticism requires proof; misinformation is more common than the truth.
Skepticism (not cynicism) is the ally of the researcher.
Double-sourcing is always a good idea. This is the simple process of seeing if reputable sources agree on the facts. It should be fairly easy to verify that President Abraham Lincoln was in fact born on February 12, 1809, by checking standard American histories, reading biographies of Lincoln, or consulting an official Lincoln source such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Things get tough when the information you need to verify is neither that cut-and-dried nor that easy to pinpoint.
Consider the conventional wisdom that holds that male-pattern baldness skips a generation. True or false? If you Google the question “Does baldness skip a generation?” you’ll have no problem finding a variety of opinions on the matter. What you might have a problem with is discerning which of the very confident-sounding websites are publishing accurate information and which are peddling hooey. The skeptical mind will resist the charmingly ill-informed answers that bubble to the top of the Google results list from such pungently fact-free sites as Yahoo! Answers—“Yes, it can skip generations, several sometimes” is one opinion proffered by the esteemed expert named “Answerer 1”—and instead gravitate to sites with some semblance of credibility, like the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, or PubMed from the National Library of Medicine. The National Library of Medicine’s take on the question says, “The inheritance pattern of androgenetic alopecia (aka male-pattern baldness) is unclear because many genetic and environmental factors are likely to be involved. This condition tends to cluster in families, however, and having a close relative with patterned hair loss appears to be a risk factor for developing the condition.”
Which source would you trust?
You and I have heard what assuming makes us. It’s true. The smart researcher doubts everything and assumes nothing. The only worthwhile exception to this rule is to assume that an answer to your question exists and that if you follow the correct steps for research, you will find it.
Never Give Up
They didn’t nickname the lions in front of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue Patience and Fortitude for nothing. Tenacity is as much a tool of successful research as curiosity and intelligence. Sticking to the task is important. There are times when locating a needed piece of information is, frankly, tough and tedious and the information you are looking for is as elusive as a hat blowing down the sidewalk in a windstorm. Research to turn up a critical piece of information may take many online searches or hours spent sifting through multiple documents, websites, or volumes in the library. Continuing in the face of frustration is as important a research skill as correctly framing your initial question.
Tenacity is as much a tool of successful research as curiosity and intelligence.
Maybe you need to call around to government agencies or to professional associations. I can vouch that it will take at least thirteen transfers before you’re finally connected to the right person. Maybe you need to locate a specific website for a very distinct product. Trust me, you’ll visit a dozen of them before you settle on the right one. There’s no getting around it: Research requires patience. Not all of the world’s answers are at the end of a Google search. As a research project unfolds, you will hit dead ends. A magazine article that took three days to find and that promised to reveal exactly how Jell-O was invented turns out to be nothing more than a collection of recipes with no insight into the birth of Jell-O at all. A book that should have explained Robert E. Lee’s thinking about his ultimately doomed military strategy at Gettysburg winds up being factually suspicious and amateurishly written. Or a website you hoped would provide scientific data needed to flesh out your proposal for sending a manned mission to Mars hasn’t been updated in seven years. These types of strikeouts are common. Don’t let them stop you. The real-world process of research is more of a bumpy road than the smoothly flowing superhighway that the early hype of the Internet promised.
It’s tempting to think of today’s information-drenched world as an ever-ripe garden overflowing with easy pickings. That’s true in a limited way, but plucking the valuable data is not always so simple. Experienced researchers know that valuable information needs to be tracked down and is always more elusive than it seems at the outset. Researchers need to bring their own judgment to the task, evaluating sources and testing the information they find to make sure it’s accurate and that it answers the question being asked. And as I’ve emphasized, information comes not just from a simple Internet search but from research into books, questions asked of experts, and commercial services that provide access to information. Like diamonds, answers rarely appear in front of you, shiny, complete, and fully formed. Instead, answers to questions are formed from the slow accretion of facts that yield a coherent story when piled one on top of another.
Researchers should heed Winston Churchill: “Never give in, never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Of course, when Churchill made this speech at the Harrow School in 1941 he was facing down the Wehrmacht, which is not something the average librarian has to do at work every day, but his point is well taken. Plugging along pays off, whether you are defending England against the Nazi hordes or tracking down the total gross sales of linoleum in 1968. Stick to it. You will find your answer.
Now let’s take a look at the tools to help you do just that.