Friday, February 7, 2014

Conducting Research Online

How to Conduct Scientific Research On the Internet (Without Getting Duped) (Alan Henry)
Do you know how to determine if something controversial is actually true? The following is how to use the internet as a powerful research tool without being led astray. With the following tips, you'll learn how to quickly cut through the crap and get to the valid information.

Recognize Your Two Biggest Research Enemies 
Your own confirmation bias: your own natural tendency to find, believe, and source information that agrees with (or confirms) what you already believe about a topic. You may be presented with information that'll challenge your preconceived notions and beliefs--but you need to keep an open mind and seek to understand and find evidence to all side of an argument.

Questionable sources of information: articles that are unsourced or poorly cited usually draw conclusions without properly backing them up. This can occur when people cite a study that doesn't support their conclusions or report a study's conclusions blindly.

Fire Up Your Critical Thinking Skills and Start Searching
Real research takes time! Start by searching through your favorite search engines--but know that the search engines will NOT be the end of your search (they're fine for getting your feet wet). Browsing through results and sources will help you understand the depth of information available for the subject that you are researching, as well as getting an overview of what is available.

Google Scholar cuts out a lot of material and searches directly for articles in well-regarded publications, journal articles, research and reference papers, and other useful materials.

Science Direct is a leading full-text scientific database offering journal articles and book chapters from more than 2,500 journals and almost 20,000 books.

PLOS (Public Library of Science) which aims at making as many scientific journal articles and papers open and accessible to the public. You can also access PLOS's journal articles which offers some of the latest research in a number of fields.

The US Library of Congress is a good jumping off point for additional well-sources information, as well as the LoC's Ask a Librarian  service is a great way to get in touch with a reference librarian from the comfort of your own computer!

** Credible Sources When Researching (available on OU Get Smarts blog!)

Try to avoid second or third party articles that write about studies or research unless they link to or quote the study in question. When you rely on third party articles, the information usually becomes distorted.

Learn to Differentiate Good Sources from Questionable Ones
You need to determine whether the references you are reading are legitimate:
Is the paper from a real, actively published scholarly article? 
Is the paper from a known lab, institution, university and/or author? 
Can you find references to the paper and its authors in multiple places? 
Is the paper itself well-cited? Can you actually find the citations used? 
Can you easily see who funded the study the paper is based on? 
Can you read the whole paper? 

These tips don't just apply to journal articles--they go for articles and entire websites as well. Remember, most well-intentioned publications try to cite their sources, offer additional reading, and avoid drawing unfounded conclusions from individual studies.

Learn to Read and Understand Journal Articles
It's important to understand exactly what the journal articles are and how to read them. Avoid to assume that a journal article is in itself and indisputable fact. Researchers use journal articles to share new research, discuss theory among experts, and as a forum to share knowledge. They are not an end-product.

  • Read the abstract and introduction first and see if the topic is relevant to what you are researching.
  • Read the conclusions to see how the methodology panned out and what the results of the research were, along with the suggested avenues of future study.
  • Go through the data and methodology, and try to understand how the study was conducted (what was the sample size? how was the study controlled, if a control was necessary?)

*Remember, in good papers, all of these things are openly discussed.

How to Access Journals, Research Papers, and Well-Sources Reference Information
If working from home isn't working for you, other options may help:
Visit the university or public library: you have free digital access to scholarly articles, as well as full-text studies that are usually available to schools, libraries, and research institutions.

Talk to a Reference Librarian: another reason to go to the library is to consult with your reference librarians. They can offer you something the internet can't--an experienced guiding hand, sorting out good information from bad, and a crafted selection of studies and articles that are really relevant to your topic.

Reach out to scientists and science advocates:  if you have a question, ask a pointed question about the research to the person who did it. Many researchers are happy to help educate you in furthering your understanding of their research.

Just know that you can trust the internet--the key is to find well-sourced, well-cited information on a given topic before you can trust it. Becoming literate and knowledgeable in a subject  area requires time, patience and a good bit of actual open-minded research. It is worth doing every time. You'll benefit with better understanding of a topic, and you'll be more prepared to have an informed dialogue, make better health and wellness decisions, and get excited about new research in the future.

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