How to Research Well, Part Three:
The Most Important Question
By Evan Braun
For the last couple of months, we’ve been digging deep into what constitutes effective research, and how you can make sure you’re making smart choices when it comes to the information you gather for your book.
In this third and final post in the series, I will pose a foundational question that every author should ask themselves when they’re discerning which bits of research to include.
In short, when looking at a source, ask yourself a simple but powerful question: where does this information come from? In other words, who wrote it? And why?
If the information in question comes from a business, a nonprofit, or an advocacy group of some kind, consider that their agenda may present a bias. The bias may not be malicious—after all, everyone has a viewpoint—but it’s important to recognize that it’s there, and you will want to be careful not to unknowingly or uncritically import another person’s or organization’s bias into your own research—at least, not without acknowledging it.
So how can you know what kind of person it is safe to draw research from? As much as possible, try to draw information from people with good credentials.
But how can you determine this?
Ask yourself a few key questions. Is this person well-respected in their field and by their peers? Beyond that, are they respected or known by the public at large? This helps establish trustworthiness.
Do they have degrees? What are those degrees and where do they come from? For example, a person may have a Ph.D. in engineering… but if the topic at hand is something unrelated to engineering, remember that their expertise may not apply. After all, most of us wouldn’t accept medical advice from an engineer; that’s what doctors are for.
Have they been published elsewhere on the topic you’re researching? A person may have written a personal blog, sure… but have they also written any books or papers? If so, don’t rely on the blog; instead, track down the books and papers.
And if there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean the person isn’t a good enough source to include in your book, but you should recognize that there are likely better ones out there.
Books and papers are especially good sources, because their very existence tends to confer legitimacy. Editors, publishers, and people who work for academic journals all help to produce that material, and they probably wouldn’t be helping to produce it if they didn’t at least somewhat believe in it.
For example, scientific papers are peer-reviewed. This means that other scientists in the same specialty looked into what the person wrote and agreed that the writing had merit. This means that the paper is an excellent source of reference.
Personal blogs aren’t the greatest resource, because obviously, the only person who stands behind that blog is the person who wrote it. Reader, beware.
Certainly, this forces us to recall that some sources are better than others. In this series, we’ve spent a great deal of time evaluating what makes an online source valuable.
Are there any online sources that should be avoided as a matter of principle?
Yes. It’s a good idea to avoid crowdsourced information. What kind of information would be considered to be crowdsourced? I’ll give you the single best example: Wikipedia.
This is a big one. So many authors, when needing to track down some piece of encyclopedic knowledge, turn reflexively to Wikipedia. After all, it’s exceedingly easy to access.
The problem is that anyone can and does contribute to the content on Wikipedia. There is no governing body responsible for fact-checking everything on the site, and therefore the information can’t be trusted. That doesn’t mean the information is bad—in fact, the information is often good—but it should be backed by a second source (which is another principle we discussed previously in this series).
Think of Wikipedia as a great starting point for your research journey. It can spark all sorts of wonderful ideas. So make a checklist of items you found on Wikipedia that interested you, then one by one go about authenticating those items.
Another good example of crowdsourced content is Reddit, or any other online forum or chatroom. Again, the information you find may be good, but bear in mind that no one is double-checking it. Therefore you must be the one to double-check. Don’t trust what you find there blindly.
It all comes down to this: use good judgment. And check your gut. If something seems off, it probably is.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.