Transitioning to college has given me a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what it means to “do research.” Growing up, I heard the word, “research” in various contexts: in the discussion of scientific discovery, in the review of historical events, and even in the creation of works of art. However, I never understood the details nor appreciated the rigor associated with quality research.
Research is the wax seal on an envelope that brands the content as complete and veritable. Research is the invocation of science as proof of validity. Ultimately, research is the process of collecting, organizing, and using data in order to substantiate or disprove a premise.
College assignments have given me a glimpse into what the research process can entail, and they have taught me to approach sources that claim to be backed by research with a critical eye. For example, I recently wrote a paper for my History of Science class about the discovery and implementation of x-rays and x-ray technology. When I first created an outline for my paper, I realized how many different sources had essential information for my topic; some were for historical context, while others were more directly related to the development of x-ray technology. I never would have anticipated having to read a 300-page book to write a nine-page paper! Even though the professor did not require me to do this much research, I felt it was necessary to ensure the quality of my work. Having a firm foundation in scholarship on a subject helped to contextualize my stance, and it helped prepare me for more substantial research projects down the road.
The works cited page, footnotes, or index section of a piece of writing serves as a testament to the amount of research that goes into it. While the number of sources varies by article or paper, I have studied some works with hundreds of sources. For a novice, just looking at the references section at the bottom of Wikipedia articles is a good way to understand how much research goes into creating quality content. While Wikipedia articles are not scholarly sources and do not go through a rigorous peer-review process, they often reference scholarly sources.
One of the reasons scholars reference many sources is to establish their work as contributing to a pre-existing narrative. For example, research into the evolution of the diet of chinstrap penguins might contribute to the broader body of knowledge on how animals are adapting to climate change. This research might reference studies on the populations of common prey for chinstrap penguins or even the changing diets of other varieties of penguins over the last millennium. Citing several sources that connect your research to other well-established research makes it more credible. Additionally, citing a range of sources is one way of demonstrating the verifiability and replicability of data.
Before going to college, I had never understood the different ways research could be conducted and the vast amount of resources available to conduct it. Stepping into the University of Washington’s main library gave me a palpable sense of the sheer scale. The university’s system includes 9+ million books, not to mention their online databases. The main library has 2+ million books, and I nearly got lost while perusing the seemingly endless aisles. I had come to the library to find a specific version of a speech that I was writing about for a history paper. The library uses online databases to filter search results to sources that have gone through a rigorous peer-review process, and without those databases, I never would have found what I was looking for.
Becoming immersed in actual academic research has made me more critical about the sources I trust, even when reading about current events. I’ve started asking questions: Does the source list how the research was conducted? Do they list other sources that they referenced, and, if so, are these sources reputable? Are the sources supported by a broader body of research? The answers to these questions can help determine trustworthiness.
As arduous as the research process can be, it is sometimes more interesting than the findings themselves. Had I not done as thorough of a job on my x-ray research paper, I would have missed out on a fascinating book, and the quality of my paper would have suffered. Knowing more about what proper research demands eventually creates more informed readers who can evaluate the validity of their sources, and that will lead to more fact-based conclusions and arguments.