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14.2: Strategies for Gathering Reliable Information (Part 2)

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    6313
  • Using Other Information Sources: Interviews

    With so many print and electronic media readily available, it is easy to overlook another valuable information resource: other people. Consider whether you could use a person or group as a primary source. For instance, you might interview a professor who has expertise in a particular subject, a worker within a particular industry, or a representative from a political organization. Interviews can be a great way to get firsthand information.

    To get the most out of an interview, you will need to plan ahead. Contact your subject early in the research process and explain your purpose for requesting an interview. Prepare detailed questions. Open-ended questions, rather than questions with simple yes-or-no answers, are more likely to lead to an in-depth discussion. Schedule a time to meet, and be sure to obtain your subject’s permission to record the interview. Take careful notes and be ready to ask follow-up questions based on what you learn.

    tip

    If scheduling an in-person meeting is difficult, consider arranging a telephone interview or asking your subject to respond to your questions via e-mail. Recognize that any of these formats takes time and effort. Be prompt and courteous, avoid going over the allotted interview time, and be flexible if your subject needs to reschedule.

    Evaluating Research Resources

    As you gather sources, you will need to examine them with a critical eye. Smart researchers continually ask themselves two questions: “Is this source relevant to my purpose?” and “Is this source reliable?” The first question will help you avoid wasting valuable time reading sources that stray too far from your specific topic and research questions. The second question will help you find accurate, trustworthy sources.

    Determining Whether a Source Is Relevant

    At this point in your research process, you may have identified dozens of potential sources. It is easy for writers to get so caught up in checking out books and printing out articles that they forget to ask themselves how they will use these resources in their research. Now is a good time to get a little ruthless. Reading and taking notes takes time and energy, so you will want to focus on the most relevant sources.

    To weed through your stack of books and articles, skim their contents. Read quickly with your research questions and subtopics in mind. The table below explains how to skim to get a quick sense of what topics are covered. If a book or article is not especially relevant, put it aside. You can always come back to it later if you need to.

    Tips for Skimming Books and Articles
    Tips for Skimming Books Tips for Skimming Articles
    1. Read the dust jacket and table of contents for a broad overview of the topics covered.
    2. Use the index to locate more specific topics and see how thoroughly they are covered.
    3. Flip through the book and look for subtitles or key terms that correspond to your research.
    1. Skim the introduction and conclusion for summary material.
    2. Skim through subheadings and text features such as sidebars.
    3. Look for keywords related to your topic.
    4. Journal articles often begin with an abstract or summary of the contents. Read it to determine the article’s relevance to your research.

    Determining Whether a Source Is Reliable

    All information sources are not created equal. Sources can vary greatly in terms of how carefully they are researched, written, edited, and reviewed for accuracy. Common sense will help you identify obviously questionable sources, such as tabloids that feature tales of alien abductions, or personal websites with glaring typos. Sometimes, however, a source’s reliability—or lack of it—is not so obvious.

    To evaluate your research sources, you will use critical thinking skills consciously and deliberately. You will consider criteria such as the type of source, its intended purpose and audience, the author’s (or authors’) qualifications, the publication’s reputation, any indications of bias or hidden agendas, how current the source is, and the overall quality of the writing, thinking, and design.

    Evaluating Types of Sources

    The different types of sources you will consult are written for distinct purposes and with different audiences in mind. This accounts for other differences, such as the following:

    • How thoroughly the writers cover a given topic
    • How carefully the writers research and document facts
    • How editors review the work
    • What biases or agendas affect the content

    A journal article written for an academic audience for the purpose of expanding scholarship in a given field will take an approach quite different from a magazine feature written to inform a general audience. Textbooks, hard news articles, and websites approach a subject from different angles as well. To some extent, the type of source provides clues about its overall depth and reliability. The table below ranks different source types.

    Source Rankings
    High-Quality Sources
    These sources provide the most in-depth information. They are researched and written by subject matter experts and are carefully reviewed.
    • Scholarly books and articles in scholarly journals
    • Trade books and magazines geared toward an educated general audience, such as Smithsonian Magazine or Nature
    • Government documents, such as books, reports, and web pages
    • Documents posted online by reputable organizations, such as universities and research institutes
    • Textbooks and reference books, which are usually reliable but may not cover a topic in great depth
    Varied-Quality Sources
    These sources are often useful. However, they do not cover subjects in as much depth as high-quality sources, and they are not always rigorously researched and reviewed. Some, such as popular magazine articles or company brochures, may be written to market a product or a cause. Use them with caution.
    • News stories and feature articles (print or online) from reputable newspapers, magazines, or organizations, such as Newsweek or the Public Broadcasting Service
    • Popular magazine articles, which may or may not be carefully researched and fact checked
    • Documents published by businesses and nonprofit organizations
    Questionable Sources
    These sources should be avoided. They are often written primarily to attract a large readership or present the author’s opinions and are not subject to careful review.
    • Loosely regulated or unregulated media content, such as Internet discussion boards, blogs, free online encyclopedias, talk radio shows, television news shows with obvious political biases, personal websites, and chat rooms.

    tip

    Free online encyclopedias and wikis may seem like a great source of information. They usually appear among the first few results of a web search. They cover thousands of topics, and many articles use an informal, straightforward writing style. Unfortunately, these sites have no control system for researching, writing, and reviewing articles. Instead, they rely on a community of users to police themselves. At best, these sites can be a starting point for finding other, more trustworthy sources. Never use them as final sources.

    Evaluating Credibility and Reputability

    Even when you are using a type of source that is generally reliable, you will still need to evaluate the author’s credibility and the publication itself on an individual basis. To examine the author’s credibility—that is, how much you can believe of what the author has to say—examine his or her credentials. What career experience or academic study shows that the author has the expertise to write about this topic?

    Keep in mind that expertise in one field is no guarantee of expertise in another, unrelated area. For instance, an author may have an advanced degree in physiology, but this credential is not a valid qualification for writing about psychology. Check credentials carefully.

    Just as important as the author’s credibility is the publication’s overall reputability. Reputability refers to a source’s standing and reputation as a respectable, reliable source of information. An established and well-known newspaper, such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, is more reputable than a college newspaper put out by comparatively inexperienced students. A website that is maintained by a well-known, respected organization and regularly updated is more reputable than one created by an unknown author or group.

    If you are using articles from scholarly journals, you can check databases that keep count of how many times each article has been cited in other articles. This can be a rough indication of the article’s quality or, at the very least, of its influence and reputation among other scholars.

    Checking for Biases and Hidden Agendas

    Whenever you consult a source, always think carefully about the author’s or authors’ purpose in presenting the information. Few sources present facts completely objectively. In some cases, the source’s content and tone are significantly influenced by biases or hidden agendas.

    Bias refers to favoritism or prejudice toward a particular person or group. For instance, an author may be biased against a certain political party and present information in a way that subtly—or not so subtly— makes that organization look bad. Bias can lead an author to present facts selectively, edit quotations to misrepresent someone’s words, and distort information.

    Hidden agendas are goals that are not immediately obvious but influence how an author presents the facts. For instance, an article about the role of beef in a healthy diet would be questionable if it were written by a representative of the beef industry—or by the president of an animal-rights organization. In both cases, the author would likely have a hidden agenda.

    Using Current Sources

    Be sure to seek out sources that are current, or up to date. Depending on the topic, sources may become outdated relatively soon after publication, or they may remain useful for years. For instance, online social networking sites have evolved rapidly over the past few years. An article published in 2002 about this topic will not provide current information. On the other hand, a research paper on elementary education practices might refer to studies published decades ago by influential child psychologists.

    When using websites for research, check to see when the site was last updated. Many sites publish this information on the homepage, and some, such as news sites, are updated daily or weekly. Many nonfunctioning links are a sign that a website is not regularly updated. Do not be afraid to ask your professor for suggestions if you find that many of your most relevant sources are not especially reliable—or that the most reliable sources are not relevant.

    Evaluating Overall Quality by Asking Questions

    When you evaluate a source, you will consider the criteria previously discussed as well as your overall impressions of its quality. Read carefully, and notice how well the author presents and supports his or her statements. Stay actively engaged—do not simply accept an author’s words as truth. Ask questions to determine each source’s value. The checklist below lists ten questions to ask yourself as a critical reader.

    Source Evaluation Checklist

    • Is the type of source appropriate for my purpose? Is it a high-quality source or one that needs to be looked at more critically?
    • Can I establish that the author is credible and the publication is reputable?
    • Does the author support ideas with specific facts and details that are carefully documented? Is the source of the author’s information clear? (When you use secondary sources, look for sources that are not too removed from primary research.)
    • Does the source include any factual errors or instances of faulty logic?
    • Does the author leave out any information that I would expect to see in a discussion of this topic?
    • Do the author’s conclusions logically follow from the evidence that is presented? Can I see how the author got from one point to another?
    • Is the writing clear and organized, and is it free from errors, clichés, and empty buzzwords? Is the tone objective, balanced, and reasonable? (Be on the lookout for extreme, emotionally charged language.)
    • Are there any obvious biases or agendas? Based on what I know about the author, are there likely to be any hidden agendas?
    • Are graphics informative, useful, and easy to understand? Are websites organized, easy to navigate, and free of clutter like flashing ads and unnecessary sound effects?
    • Is the source contradicted by information found in other sources? (If so, it is possible that your sources are presenting similar information but taking different perspectives, which requires you to think carefully about which sources you find more convincing and why. Be suspicious, however, of any source that presents facts that you cannot confirm elsewhere.)

    Writing at Work

    The critical thinking skills you use to evaluate research sources as a student are equally valuable when you conduct research on the job. If you follow certain periodicals or websites, you have probably identified publications that consistently provide reliable information. Reading blogs and online discussion groups is a great way to identify new trends and hot topics in a particular field, but these sources should not be used for substantial research.

    Exercise 2

    Use a search engine to conduct a web search on your topic. Refer to the tips provided earlier to help you streamline your search. Evaluate your search results critically based on the criteria you have learned. Identify and bookmark one or more websites that are reliable, reputable, and likely to be useful in your research.

    Managing Source Information

    As you determine which sources you will rely on most, it is important to establish a system for keeping track of your sources and taking notes. There are several ways to go about it, and no one system is necessarily superior. What matters is that you keep materials in order; record bibliographical information you will need later; and take detailed, organized notes.

    Keeping Track of Your Sources

    Think ahead to a moment a few weeks from now, when you’ve written your research paper and are almost ready to submit it for a grade. There is just one task left—writing your list of sources.

    As you begin typing your list, you realize you need to include the publication information for a book you cited frequently. Unfortunately, you already returned it to the library several days ago. You do not remember the URLs for some of the websites you used or the dates you accessed them— information that also must be included in your bibliography. With a sinking feeling, you realize that finding this information and preparing your bibliography will require hours of work.

    This stressful scenario can be avoided. Taking time to organize source information now will ensure that you are not scrambling to find it at the last minute. Throughout your research, record bibliographical information for each source as soon as you begin using it. You may use pen-and-paper methods, such as a notebook or note cards, or maintain an electronic list. (If you prefer the latter option, many office software packages include separate programs for recording bibliographic information.)

    The table below shows the specific details you should record for commonly used source types. Use these details to develop a working bibliography—a preliminary list of sources that you will later use to develop the references section of your paper. You may wish to record information using the formatting system of the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Modern Language Association (MLA), which will save a step later on.

    Table 11.5 - Details for Commonly Used Source Types
    Source Type Necessary Information
    Book Author(s), title and subtitle, publisher, city of publication, year of publication
    Essay or article published in a book Include all the information you would for any other book. Additionally, record the essay’s or article’s title, author(s), the pages on which it appears, and the name of the book’s editor(s).
    Periodical Author(s), article title, publication title, date of publication, volume and issue number, and page numbers
    Online source Author(s) (if available), article or document title, organization that sponsors the site, database name (if ap
    Interview Name of person interviewed, method of communication, date of interview

    Taking Notes Efficiently

    Good researchers stay focused and organized as they gather information from sources. Before you begin taking notes, take a moment to step back and think about your goal as a researcher—to find information that will help you answer your research question. When you write your paper, you will present your conclusions about the topic supported by research. That goal will determine what information you record and how you organize it.

    Writers sometimes get caught up in taking extensive notes, so much so that they lose sight of how their notes relate to the questions and ideas they started out with. Remember that you do not need to write down every detail from your reading. Focus on finding and recording details that will help you answer your research questions. The following strategies will help you take notes efficiently.

    Use Headings to Organize Ideas

    Whether you use old-fashioned index cards or organize your notes using word-processing software, record just one major point from each source at a time, and use a heading to summarize the information covered. Keep all your notes in one file, digital or otherwise. Doing so will help you identify connections among different pieces of information. It will also help you make connections between your notes and the research questions and subtopics you identified earlier.

    Know When to Summarize, Paraphrase, or Directly Quote a Source

    Your notes will fall under three categories—summary notes, paraphrased information, and direct quotations from your sources. Effective researchers make choices about which type of notes is most appropriate for their purpose.

    • Summary notes sum up the main ideas in a source in a few sentences or a short paragraph. A summary is considerably shorter than the original text and captures only the major ideas. Use summary notes when you do not need to record specific details but you intend to refer to broad concepts the author discusses.
    • Paraphrased notes restate a fact or idea from a source using your own words and sentence structure.
    • Direct quotations use the exact wording used by the original source and enclose the quoted material in quotation marks. It is a good strategy to copy direct quotations when an author expresses an idea in an especially lively or memorable way. However, do not rely exclusively on direct quotations in your note taking.

    Most of your notes should be paraphrased from the original source. Paraphrasing as you take notes is usually a better strategy than copying direct quotations, because it forces you to think through the information in your source and understand it well enough to restate it. In short, it helps you stay engaged with the material instead of simply copying and pasting. Synthesizing will help you later when you begin planning and drafting your paper. Whether you directly quote, paraphrase or synthesize, you must give credit to the original source via citations (discussed in the next section of this chapter) to avoid plagiarism.

    Maintain Complete, Accurate Notes

    Regardless of the format used, any notes you take should include enough information to help you organize ideas and locate them instantly in the original text if you need to review them. Make sure your notes include the following elements:

    • Heading summing up the main topic covered
    • Author’s name, a source code, or an abbreviated source title
    • Page number
    • Full URL of any pages buried deep in a website

    Throughout the process of taking notes, be scrupulous about making sure you have correctly attributed each idea to its source. Always include source information so you know exactly which ideas came from which sources. Use quotation marks to set off any words for phrases taken directly from the original text. If you add your own responses and ideas, make sure they are distinct from ideas you quoted or paraphrased.

    Finally, make sure your notes accurately reflect the content of the original text. Make sure quoted material is copied verbatim. If you omit words from a quotation, use ellipses to show the omission and make sure the omission does not change the author’s meaning. Paraphrase ideas carefully, and check your paraphrased notes against the original text to make sure that you have restated the author’s ideas accurately in your own words.

    Use a System That Works for You

    There are several formats you can use to take notes. No technique is necessarily better than the others— it is more important to choose a format you are comfortable using. Choosing the format that works best for you will ensure your notes are organized, complete, and accurate. Consider implementing one of these formats when you begin taking notes:

    • Use index cards. This traditional format involves writing each note on a separate index card. It takes more time than copying and pasting into an electronic document, which encourages you to be selective in choosing which ideas to record. Recording notes on separate cards makes it easy to later organize your notes according to major topics. Some writers color-code their cards to make them still more organized.
    • Use note-taking software. Word-processing and office software packages often include different types of note-taking software. Although you may need to set aside some time to learn the software, this method combines the speed of typing with the same degree of organization associated with handwritten note cards.
    • Maintain a research notebook. Instead of using index cards or electronic note cards, you may wish to keep a notebook or electronic folder, allotting a few pages (or one file) for each of your sources. This method makes it easy to create a separate column or section of the document where you add your responses to the information you encounter in your research.
    • Annotate your sources. This method involves making handwritten notes in the margins of sources that you have printed or photocopied. If using electronic sources, you can make comments within the source document. For example, you might add comment boxes to a PDF version of an article. This method works best for experienced researchers who have already thought a great deal about the topic because it can be difficult to organize your notes later when starting your draft.

    Choose one of the methods from the list to use for taking notes. Continue gathering sources and taking notes. In the next section, you will learn strategies for organizing and synthesizing the information you have found.

    key takeaways

    • A writer’s use of primary and secondary sources is determined by the topic and purpose of the research. Sources used may include print sources, such as books and journals; electronic sources, such as websites and articles retrieved from databases; and human sources of information, such as interviews.
    • Strategies that help writers locate sources efficiently include conducting effective keyword searches, understanding how to use online catalogs and databases, using strategies to narrow web search results, and consulting reference librarians.
    • Writers evaluate sources based on how relevant they are to the research question and how reliable their content is.
    • Skimming sources can help writers determine their relevance efficiently.
    • Writers evaluate a source’s reliability by asking questions about the type of source (including its audience and purpose); the author’s credibility, the publication’s reputability, the source’s currency, and the overall quality of the writing, research, logic, and design in the source.
    • In their notes, effective writers record organized, complete, accurate information. This includes bibliographic information about each source as well as summarized, paraphrased, or quoted information from the source.
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