Research Planning 101

Photo: choose from miki** on Flickr


Now that you've gathered up appropriate materials, it's time to choose which ones to use.

How to Choose?

Let's say you're new to campus. You've decided to join an organization so that you can meet people. How do you choose which organization suits you best?

You gather information about several organizations:

  • Club web sites list social events and service opportunities
  • Your advisor identifies activities that would look good on your resume
  • Club officers invite you to sit in on a meeting and ask questions

You evaluate your choices in light of your own interests and goals. You find the organization that fits you best.

Photo: 20080410016 from vermin87 on Flickr.

Doing research is similar.

You'll find plenty of sources of information, but some will fit your assignment better than others.

Finding information is not the end of research.

You want information that offers high quality evidence for the answer to your research question. Some sources can be outdated, biased, or just plain wrong, and using that information makes it a lot more difficult for you to present a convincing argument.

Taking the time to critically evaluate information as you find it will help you to avoid wrong turns in the research process.

The criteria for choosing which sources are most likely to help with your research are not rules, but guidelines. Being aware of them will help you think critically about the information you find.

  • Relying on more than one source of information
  • Thinking about how new information fits in with what you already know
  • Organizing information and making notes about what may or may not be useful

How can you know if information is appropriate for your research?

Use the following criteria to evaluate the source:

  1. Currency
  2. Relevance
  3. Authority
  4. Accuracy
  5. Purpose

Criteria 1: Currency

Currency is important because information can quickly become obsolete. Supporting your thesis statement with facts that have been superseded by new research or recent events weakens your argument. Of course, not all assignments require the most current information; older materials can provide an historical or comprehensive understanding of your topic.

How do you know if the timeliness of your information is appropriate?

  • When was the information published or last updated?
  • Have newer articles been published on your topic?
  • Are links or references to other sources up to date?
  • Is your topic in an area that changes rapidly, like technology or popular culture?

Criteria 2: Relevance

Relevance is important because you are expected to support your ideas with pertinent information. A source detailing Einstein's marriage and family life would not be germane to his theories in physics.

How do you know if your source is relevant?

  • Does the information answer your research question?
  • Does the information meet the stated requirements of the assignment?
  • Is the information too technical or too simplified for you to use?
  • Does the source add something new to your knowledge of your topic?

Criteria 3: Authority

Authority is important in judging the credibility of the author's assertions. In a trial regarding DNA evidence, a jury gives far more authority to what a genetics specialist has to say compared to someone off the street.

How do you know if an author is an authority on your topic?

  • What are the author's credentials?
  • Is the author affiliated with an educational institution or prominent organization?
  • Can you find information about the author from reference books or the Internet?
  • Do other books or articles cite the author?

Top photo: Larry Lessig by Robert Scoble at Flickr. Bottom photo: lessig x 2 by laihiu at Flickr. Both images are CC BY-NC 2.0.

Criteria 4: Accuracy

Accuracy is important because errors and untruths distort a line of reasoning. When you present inaccurate information, you undermine your own credibility.

How do you know if your source is accurate?

  • Are there statements you know to be false?
  • Are there errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar?
  • Was the information reviewed by editors or subject experts before it was published?
  • What citations or references support the author's claims?
  • What do other people have to say about the topic?
  • Is it clear who the authors are?
  • What is the date of the material?

Image: Darts by Kachra King at Flickr.

Criteria 5: Purpose

Purpose is important because books, articles, and web pages exist to educate, entertain, or sell a product or point of view. Some sources may be frivolous or commercial in nature, providing inadequate, false, or biased information. Other sources are more ambiguous concerning their partiality. Varied points of view can be valid, as long as they are based upon good reasoning and careful use of evidence.

How do you determine the purpose of your source?

  • Why did the author or publisher make this information available?
  • Is there an obvious bias or prejudice?
  • Are alternative points of view presented?
  • Does the author omit important facts or data that might disprove a claim?
  • Does the author use strong or emotional language?
  • For web pages what is the domain or site?

Applying Criteria Example:

Q. Which source would be more authoritative on your topic?

  1. A peer-reviewed article published in UNLV Gaming Research and Review
  2. An article published in Sports Illustrated

A. The peer-reviewed article is written by an expert and evaluated by other experts before being published. It was not written by a paid journalist.

Applying Criteria Example:

Q. Which source is likely to be more accurate?

  1. Employment statistics from a newsletter published by a grassroots organization opposed to gambling.
  2. Employment statistics from the U. S. Department of Labor web site.

A. The best choice is the U.S. Department of Labor statistics. The U.S. government is considered a reliable source. While a grassroots organization opposed to gambling may use legitimate statistics but exclude those that do not support a specific agenda.

You've seen some examples of how to choose between different resources when you're answering your research question.

To recap…

Think about information resources as "evidence".

Viewing information as a tool to prove a point or support an argument is a useful starting point for evaluation.

Don't assume that one format of information is better than others.

All kinds of information should be evaluated carefully, including books, articles and web sites.

Evaluation is an art, not a science.

There is no "one size fits all" set of guidelines for this important activity.

Now you're ready to use the resources you've chosen.

Credits / Colophon