Notes from an Accidental Scholar

" title="Notes from an Accidental Scholar"> Notes from an Accidental Scholar

Bespoke Research Methods.

Published on September 7, 2011

There’s plenty of dis­cus­sion out there about ref­er­ence man­age­ment. The indus­try heavy­weights include End­note, Mende­ley, Papers, and Zotero (here’s a handy com­par­i­son chart on Wikipedia for those inter­ested). Back in 2005, when I started my doc­toral pro­gram, I used End­note. The pro­gram had recently enabled its library data­base search fea­ture, but it was slow as molasses and crashy. I aban­doned End­note in favor of a word doc with a list of my ref­er­ences which I for­mat­ted one at a time. Tedium, at its best.

Then Zotero qui­etly arrived in Fall 2006 and I was smit­ten. The devel­op­ers, aca­d­e­mic researchers them­selves, inte­grated the expe­ri­ence of research with the prac­tice of col­lect­ing ref­er­ences. The devel­op­ers under­stood that a large por­tion of aca­d­e­mic research is per­formed on the inter­net and so they designed Zotero to import sources and cap­ture web pages directly from the browser. Sites includ­ing uni­ver­sity libraries, aca­d­e­mic data­bases, and Ama­zon could be imported using Zotero. You can then export a col­lec­tion or entire Library to a bib­li­og­ra­phy in your pre­ferred for­mat. Need­less to say, I became a Zotero evan­ge­list — I sang its praises to any­one who would lis­ten (sorry husband).

It’s now 2011, I’ve used Zotero for 5 years now, and my ref­er­ences are a hot mess. There are dupli­cates, ref­er­ences that lack suf­fi­cient tags or have too many, pdfs all over the place, and I’ve sim­ply for­got­ten why I have most of these ref­er­ences in the first place. But this isn’t Zotero’s fault, it’s mine. I for­got the car­di­nal rule of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy: tech­nol­ogy is a tool, not intelligence.

Since I mis­tak­enly thought Zotero was my own sen­tient ref­er­ence assis­tant, “con­duct­ing research” became brows­ing the inter­net and import­ing every­thing that was remotely rel­e­vant to my project. When I was “done,” I had a stack of pdfs and library books that would go mostly unread and a messy list of sources full of ran­dom tags and incom­plete infor­ma­tion. Then, in the time between “research­ing” and acquir­ing the sources I for­got why these sources were impor­tant to begin with. I didn’t have a very good work­flow and I thought Zotero was some­how doing it for me.

So what is “con­duct­ing research?” There are a num­ber of great resources out there that offer great advice on how to do research (see below). Some work for me and oth­ers don’t, but in the process of read­ing and prac­tic­ing, I learned my own method. Here’s a breakdown:

1) What is the research prob­lem? Exam­ple: gath­er­ing a sur­vey of the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, specif­i­cally, any over­laps between the I.R. and caricature/print culture/conspicuous consumption/slavery. This is the ques­tion I should have in mind while per­form­ing my research. It’s my anchor and my pri­mary tool for vet­ting sources.

2) Spend 30 min­utes dig­ging for 10 sources. This means brows­ing the inter­net and sav­ing my find­ings in Zotero. Why 30 and 10? Because it’s a bound­ary. If I don’t find 10 sources in 30 min­utes, there are two rea­sons: I need more time or there likely isn’t a lot of infor­ma­tion on the topic (which is note­wor­thy itself). Plus, if I’m miss­ing some­thing glar­ing, I’ll find it later or a com­mit­tee mem­ber will point it out to me.

2a) Be sure to note why each source is rel­e­vant. Which part(s) of the answer in 1) does the source inform?

2b) Tag each source with a key­word (also called “coding”)

3) Rank the sources in impor­tance, skim, and take notes. How do I know how to rank? I go with my gut. (My “gut” is based sim­ply all pre­vi­ous knowl­edge and research I have on the topic. Put another way, it’s an edu­cated guess.)

4) Revise tags after skim­ming. I almost always have to do this because books and arti­cles don’t nec­es­sar­ily give you what’s adver­tised, so to speak. Maybe the book is redun­dant but has a killer bib­li­og­ra­phy on the role of enslaved Africans in the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, so I’ll tag it (e.g., “bib­li­og­ra­phy,” “enslaved Africans,” and “Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion”) and move on to the next one.

5) Read through sources. Usu­ally I have a chap­ter or two per book, or entire arti­cles to read. I read closely, but with an eye for my research prob­lem which can lead to skip­ping parts. This is my favorite step because the read­ing gen­er­ates writ­ing and ideas. This is where much of my writ­ing happens.

It took me 5 years to come with this sys­tem and it’s not the “best” or uni­ver­sally “cor­rect” way to con­duct research. It’s a bespoke method, cus­tomized for me and me alone. What’s your bespoke research method? Which ref­er­ence man­age­ment pro­grams do you use?

Edit: word choice

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