Learning Skills

Research: Critiquing Your Own Sources


The Purpose of Research   Now that you've had a taste of simple research attached to a larger project, there are a few things that should now be apparent to you about the research in general:
  1. First, research is a social project. The only reason to do research is to teach other people a body of information or thought that they didn't have before. You don't research for yourself; it isn't a private affair. You do research for other people. The person who wrote the work they you used, the textbook that you use everyday, and the textbook that you just wrote, are all examples of people doing research for other people.
  2. Because research is done for other people, the level of research that you do is based on what you want to communicate or to give to other people. Research that is done at a level that is too general for your audience is no good for your audience, and research that is done at a level that is too specific will result in a mass of that research being thrown out.
  3. You probably also found out that research is about getting information right. Since you're giving research to other members of the class, you have a responsibility to make sure that the information is correct. If you're passing on bad information to the rest of your classmates you're ruining their education.
The Purpose of Research   Put all these three together and you'll find that research can be defined in one way: research is the acquiring of accurate information so that you can teach others this information and its consequences.
   How do you know,however, if you've gathered accurate information? How do you know you've done it right? Any discipline that you study will involve a lengthy apprenticeship in getting research right, but this assignment was a very simple piece of research: go find what other people have written and teach the rest of the class from that.
   For this class, then, the only thing we're going to do is evaluate the quality of the library research you've done to come to some conclusions about the quality of the information that you passed on to the rest of the class. How do you evaluate your research? There are several areas:
  1. Is the source of your information current? Was it published within the last ten or twenty years or is it much older? If it's older, what justifies your using it? What other quality does it have? (Rule One: Make sure your research is current.)
  2. Is the source of your information a recognized source of information? What means can you use to find out the relative position of the work you consulted in relation to other works? (Rule Two: Make sure that you're going to a valued source of information.)
  3. Who is the source of your information? A journalist? A scholar? A writer of another sort? As far as quality of research is concerned, journalistic research tends to be of the lowest quality and is absolutely undependable. So if your source is a journalistic source, such as Time or the Wall Street Journal, even though these are highly reputable journalistic venues, the quality of your research is low. Scholars do more research before they present their information, so the quality of your research, if you use a scholarly source, is fairly high. As far as other writers are concerned, the quality of their research varies. How can you tell? Look at the sources that the researcher is using. Journalistic articles tend to quote few if any sources of information. Scholars tend to show as much as possible how the information was arrived at. Sometimes non-scholarly and non-journalistic writers cite sources, but you need to evaluate those citations carefully. For instance, when they cite research are they citing the original research or are they citing someone else who cites the original research? (This I call "research kiting" and it's similar to "check kiting," in which one writes a bad check to cover a bad check which was written to cover a bad check, and so on. A research kiter will cite a source that cites a piece of research. If you look up that source, you'll find that he was citing a source that was citing the research. If you go back far enough, you'll find that the original research was never done in the first place. This is a very common strategy in overtly political, whether conservative or liberal, arguments.) So, how do you evaluate the quality of the research done by your source? Look at their citations. Are they thoroughly documenting where their information is coming from? (Rule Three: high quality research documents the sources of its information so that you, if you wish, can check up on the quality of the research that was done in your source.)
  4. Finally, does your source have a clear agenda that they're trying to promote? What is the primary purpose of your source, to give you information or to persuade you of a point of view? Now, every piece of research does both these things, it's just that some try to balance more towards the information end and some balance more towards the persuasion end. Here's some giveaways: does your source present both sides of the question and arguments and research that supports both sides of the question? Does the source allow only one point of view to refute the other side, or does the source present one side and then allow the other to refute the arguments or research of that first side ("the privilege of refutation" I call this). Does the source present information and precede it with something like, "Most researchers believe . . .," or something of that sort? ("the weight of authority"). Just because "most researchers believe" something doesn't make it right. Unless the source critiques what "most researchers believe" in a balanced way, chances are you're reading a heavily biased presentation. (Rule Three: less biased sources are better than heavily biased sources of information).


The Assignment

For General Education 110 and 111

   On this assignment, I want you to evaluate the sources that you used to put together your portion of the "research textbook" that you composed with other members of the class. I want you to evaluate your sources of information based on the criteria above: a.) how current was your source? b.) is your source a recognized source in the field that you're researching? c.) what was the quality of your source in terms of its sources? In other words, how accurately did your source of information present its sources of information? d.) what was the relative bias of your source? Did it have a clear agenda or was it trying to present information in a balanced and fair way? How does this bias affect the quality of the information that you gathered from it?


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-5-97