I’m just starting a new project that involves doing a literature search before getting stuck into interviewing.
I spent untold years doing ad hoc research, in a cab-style ‘take the next project’ sort of way, and I can’t tell you what a complete pleasure it is to be allowed to go and look at the literature.
It’s maybe peculiar to the places I used to work, but there was quite a disdain towards Doing A Bit of Reading, and a complete horror of exerting one’s database search skills with all the Boolean logic which that entails.
Not all projects need much beyond basic immersion in what went before, but I do projects which involve setting up a new Thing, like a framework, as well as gathering data. What I have learned:
4 benefits of full-on research:
1. Not reinventing the wheel. NOT REINVENTING THE WHEEL!!! So many, many things have been done before, some of them rather well.
2. Allowing time and space for you to really consider the issue Nuff said.
3. Constructing new knowledge Outside well-researched topics, typically you’ll end up synthesising information from a grab-bag of odd-looking books, papers, and commentary. This is marvellous.
4. You can come up with theories and hypotheses! And then test them! Possibly just me…asking the right people the best questions is a luxury indeed.
And so on to …*drumroll*
7 tips for a successful search 😛
1. Join a university library. This can be hard work without current connections, but there may well be a great, relevant library that you can use. Online catalogues look like the answer to your prayers but in practice can be expensive and difficult to access, depending on the subject area. Use your academic or professional affiliations to get access to books and journals. I use the Wellcome Library, Birkbeck College, and Cambridge University Library; I also have access to the British Psychological Society’s collection. Wellcome has a great cafe.
2. Recognise that opinions are legion but facts can be sparse. Most literature reviews outside academia involve several Emperor’s New Clothes moments: typically, the absence of any evidence whatsoever for strongly-held popular opinions.
3. Web resources look infinite but actually aren’t. This is the never-ending Web Ring problem where you chase promising sets of hyperlinks that eventually loop around themselves in a giant spiral of mutual attribution.
4. Look in parallel fields for great answers. It is quite likely that your particular horrible problem has been discussed and perhaps even solved in a rather different field of operation. In my experience, teaching is a completely overlooked source of great information. Take e-moderating for example: 90% of the problems online researchers face have already been researched, written up and peer-reviewed by academics working in teaching and online learning.
5. Find the official resources. Government sources are excellent and entirely free. You can find entire datasets this way.
6. Identify the star papers and books as quickly as you can. In any field, there are some essential pieces of reading. In a brand new field, one of the most useful things you can find is the high-level textbook. These are your Little Helpers. Love them and treat them well.
7. Be flexible, don’t print out in too small a font, and carry paper, pens and a USB stick everywhere.