If you can’t find and understand other people’s arguments, you tend to get stuck either with what your intuition tells you or with the opinion of just one person who managed to catch your attention.
That is why you do research. Research is an essential part of thinking for yourself.
We want you to get better at research and in this article, we want to share how an expert researcher goes about it on the internet.
If you are a student and not quite sure how to start to clarify your thinking and satisfy your curiosity, here’s how experts start:
Setup the scope and topic
Unlike in the classroom setting, research tends to be open-ended. There’s always another book or paper you can read that potentially has an important insight. You rarely reach a stopping point that will tell you you’re done.
This is the reason why most people can’t sustain their efforts in doing research. Our brain likes to check off boxes from the pending to-do list. Open-ended activity suffers from that lack of completeness.
It is then recommended to decide how much time you want to commit in advance. Another thing is to decide what you want to do with the information, such as writing a research-driven essay—rather than having it just for mental satisfaction.
Look for key works and keywords
Once you have a scope and topic, the next step is to find the expert vocabulary that matches the topic you’re interested in.
Wikipedia is usually a good starting point because it tends to bridge the ordinary language way of talking about phenomena, expert concepts, and hypotheses.
Type your idea into Wikipedia in plain English, and then note the words and concepts used by experts.
With keywords in hand, you can start by trying to identify key works and ask the following questions:
- What are the central texts in this field that other experts all agree are important?
- Which summarizes the field so that you can get a birds-eye view without needing to read too many papers?
Literature review, meta-analysis, and textbooks
Once you’ve narrowed down the keywords and found some central papers or authors that everybody cites on the topic, try to find a review of the field. In particular, look for:
- Literature review, which is a qualitative review of all the papers on a particular topic.
- Meta-analyses, which try to aggregate effects from many papers to provide a quantitative answer to a question.
- Textbooks, which experts use to teach beginners about the field.
A good way to start is to go to Google Scholar and type one of the keywords you identified with the words “review” or “meta-analysis” and see what comes up.
If for example, you’ve identified “Semmelweis effect” as a concept to note from Wikipedia, you then type in “Semmelweis effect review” or “Semmelweis effect meta-analysis”.
It’s also helpful to go to Amazon and put in the keyword and then limit your search for textbooks.
Read previews on what you think are the most relevant ones. If possible, read a couple of books in full.
Whether you should start with review papers or textbooks depends on the scope of the question you want to ask. Textbooks are good for bigger topics while review papers are good for more specialized ones.
Follow citation trails
Once you have a foothold within the field, the next step is to follow down citation trails. Limit yourself to the most promising ones, unless you hit a dead-end.
WARNING: Following citation trails can easily lead to an exponentially growing reading list.
When following citations, look for frequency and relevance.
Works that are cited frequently are more central to a field. If you see the same paper, book, or author popping up multiple times, read it even if it doesn’t seem central to your original inquiry. Of course, follow up on any reference that seems to address your original inquiry.
This is where you will spend most of your time. In general, it’s better to follow a breadth-first approach rather than a depth-first. With depth-first, you can easily spend too much time and miss alternate perspectives.
TIP: In following citation trails, you might dig into interesting research that answers questions you didn’t even know you had.
How to read research papers
Forgetting what you’ve read (or where you’ve read it) is a classic problem in research. Some people have very sophisticated systems for avoiding this, such as Zettelkasten. Others find it helpful, others don’t.
The simpler approach is to read everything you can, including highlights of sections you might think you may need to revisit later.
If you finish a book or a long paper, make a new document where you can pull notes and quotes from the original reading. Do your best to summarize what you’ve read in memory.
The goal here is to practice retrieval and understanding. It can also give you breadcrumbs so you can find things easily.
Some re-reading is probably necessary, though, especially if you’re tackling a big project. Note that the goal is not to get every fact and detail inside your head but to have a good map of the area so you know where to look when you need it again.
Other tips and tactics
Beyond this basic approach, a few other tools can also be helpful:
Emailing authors directly often works to get access to papers, but it tends to slow things down as you follow citation trails. Use Sci-Hub instead.
NOTE: The site has cycled through different domain names.
If you want to find something in a book, search for it within the book on Google. You don’t have to flip through the index.
Map out key arguments and players
In some cases, the question you want to ask has been settled already. More typically, you’ll find a wide variety of different arguments defended by different groups. Map out the key positions and proponents.
Don’t be afraid to take courses
Reading in a field is like joining midway through a conversation. Except it’s a conversation that’s been happening for hundreds of years. It doesn’t hurt to take some courses that provide a background on the topic.
Experts are willing to talk
Ask for feedback from experts. You’ll be surprised that they are nice enough to discuss their work.
We haven’t addressed whether the literature itself is trustworthy. How to Read a Paper offers a good intro to evaluating research. Still, with the replicability and generalizability problems ingrained in many fields, it’s always worth being on guard that today’s consensus will end up being tomorrow’s quackery.