Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts
Research Process Overview
Choosing a Topic
Choosing a topic can be one of the most difficult parts of the research process. Remember that research is fluid; your topic will adapt, and even completely change, as you do your research!
This short video [3:11] from North Carolina State University gives some great advice on choosing a research topic.
Choosing Databases to Search
Searching Library Databases
Database searching is different from Google searching.
- Break your topic into keywords (or key concepts)
- Combine with AND to get fewer results (race AND college students)
- Combine with OR to get more results (college OR university)
- Try different searches using different combinations of your keywords
- As you skim your results, look for new keywords or ideas that relate to your topic
- Keep trying! Searching often takes time and requires multiple searches in a few different databases
- Ask for help
When searching in databases, you can use limits (normally on the left of your search results page) to focus on specific publication years, article types, etc.
Evaluating Information - SIFT Method
The SIFT method is a series of actions to take when encountering claims and sources on the web. Each letter in "SIFT" corresponds to an action, or "move."
Click through the tabs in this box to learn more about each move.
The SIFT Method is from "Check, Please!" by Mike Caulfield. The canonical version of "Check, Please!" exists at http://lessons.checkplease.cc (CC-BY). As the authors of the original version have not reviewed any other copy's modifications, the text of any site not arrived at through the above link should not be sourced to the original authors.
The first move is the simplest. STOP reminds you of two things.
First, when you first hit a page and start to read it — STOP. Ask yourself whether you know and trust the website or source of the information. If you don't, use the other moves to get a sense of what you're looking at. Don't read it or share it until you know what it is.
Second, after you begin the process and use the moves it can be too easy to go down a rabbit hole, chasing after more and more obscure facts or getting lost in a "click cycle". If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, STOP and take a second to remind yourself what your goal is. Adjust your strategy if it isn't working. Make sure you approach the problem at the right amount of depth for your purpose.
Here's why you need to STOP:
Investigate the Source
The key idea is to know what you're reading before you read it.
This doesn't mean you have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you're reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you're watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.
This doesn't mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can't ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.
Find trusted coverage
Sometimes you don't care about the particular article that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement.
In this case your best strategy is to ignore the source that reached you and look for other trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. In other words, if you receive an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, the winning strategy may be to open up a new tab and find the best source you can that covers this, or, just as importantly, scan multiple sources to see what the consensus seems to be. In these cases, we encourage you to "find trusted coverage" that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied.
Do you have to agree with the consensus? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context
A lot of things you find on the internet have been stripped of context. Maybe there's a video of a fight between two people. But what happened before that? Who started it? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there's a picture that seems real but the caption is dubious at best. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment supposedly based on a research paper — but you're not certain if the paper supports it.
In these cases we'll have you trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.