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Chapter 4: Effective Research
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Section 2 Becoming a Researcher/Scholar / Chapter 4 Effective Research
Not all resources are created equal, and learners must be judicious in their approach to evaluating research.
It is a good practice to create an annotated bibliography because it will help learners keep the reading materials organized and accessible.
Head and Eisenberg (2010) admitted that “Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times.” The main area learners struggle with is their ability to assess the information once it has been found. The American Library Association (2000) identified information literacy as being able to
• determine the extent of information needed,
• access the needed information effectively and efficiently,
• evaluate information and its sources critically,
• incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base,
• use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose, and
• understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally (para. 3).
Brandgruwel, Wopereis, and Vermetten (2005) found doctoral learners put more effort into their processing and evaluating phases of their problem-solving exercises than undergraduates; however, effort does not guarantee an accurate assessment of information. Not all resources are created equal, and learners must be judicious in their approach to evaluating research. Becoming information literate requires a learner to identify, understand, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each source before they can use it. Learners should examine five main areas when it comes to evaluating their research project’s source materials: authority, currency, objectivity, accuracy, and relevance. To ignore these elements can hurt learners' ability to author an effective narrative and may open them up to criticism from the academic community.
In this age of digital information and technology, evaluating the credibility of sources has become a challenge, because anyone with a computer and basic computer skills can build a webpage and publish information on a particular topic. “The Web may not be subject to filtering through professional gatekeepers, and it often lacks traditional authority indicators such as author identity and established reputation” (Metzger, 2005, p. 2). Learners must resist the temptation to access the quick and ubiquitous data littering the Internet. The authority of these sources usually is lacking, providing little more than surface-level facts. According to Metzger (2005), "There are no universal standards for posting information online and digital information may be easily altered, plagiarized, misrepresented, or created anonymously under false pretenses” (p. 2). At the doctoral level, the use of webpages, blogs, videos, and self-published books as reliable and referential sources is not acceptable. A doctoral learner should use only scholarly sources that clearly communicate an author’s expertise on a topic and the publisher’s commitment to scholarship. Here are some basic questions learners should ask themselves before incorporating a source into their body of knowledge.
• Does the article come from a peer-reviewed journal?
• What are the author’s credentials?
• Does the book provide referenced material from credible sources?
• Who is the publisher?
• Does the publisher have a reputation for scholarly publications?
In academia, it essential for doctoral learners to answer these questions or they risk their work being open to censure due to a lack of respectable sources.
A particular topic might have a long history of published research for which scholars have continually published new findings over the years. The earlier work is important because of its foundational contributions to the field, but its findings may have become dated and/or obsolete. Other than a seminal work, learners should attempt to employ current research to support their position and/or findings.
For example, a study published in 1972 examined adolescents' recreational reading preferences during a high school study period. A second study published in 2010 examined a very similar topic. Unless the doctoral learner is conducting a comparative study between the two periods, the second study should be used because the contemporary conditions surrounding today’s adolescents is much different than it was in 1972. Identifying current research is encouraged when referring to secondary source materials, such as peer-reviewed journals and books. Some fields, such as Fine Arts or Humanities, must use primary sources that could be hundreds of years old, but the secondary sources utilized usually end with the most up-to-date work being discussed. Also, using current research can help establish the doctoral learner’s authority on the topic. It is recommended that learners attempt to find research published from within the past five years whenever possible.
Bias is one of the most alarming words in a researcher’s vocabulary. Traditionally, positivist research methods have attempted to minimize bias because it suggests a researcher lacking objectivity will produce errors in methodology and analysis. However, there are post-modern theories of research, such as post-positivism, interpretivism, critical theory, and feminism that suggest bias is an unavoidable condition the researcher must accept and admit. Objectivity is important and should remain a priority for researchers conducting a preliminary search or a literature review; however, they must realize their choices and omissions can indicate a level of bias that can be avoided with a well-balanced selection of literature.
The following are a few guidelines doctoral learners should follow when evaluating the objectivity of a source.
1. Evaluate the referenced material for variety and quality. Researchers should use a variety of academic research to support their work. The absence of support or the author using their past work as the dominant source material should raise a red flag. Here are a few sample questions a doctoral learner can ask.
• What kind of sources does the researcher cite?
• Does the documented material come from academic sources, such as dissertations and journal articles, or popular sources, such as magazines and websites?
• Does the researcher provide a complete list of references from various scholars?
• Does the researcher use more than one or two sources to support the narrative?
• Does the researcher reference only his or her own work?
• Is the source current, within the past five years?
• Is the source from a peer-reviewed scholarly journal?
2. Researchers should be sensitive to their tone and choice of vocabulary.
• Does the researcher sound objective, or does his or her narrative reveal an emotional investment that would indicate bias?
• Does the narrative provide a balanced viewpoint, or does the researcher make absolute statements that limit the possibility of further investigation?
3. Controversial content material can open itself up to research bias. Passion is an important element to being a successful researcher, but if passion clouds a researcher’s judgment, it can compromise the integrity of a research project.
• Does the researcher align himself or herself with a political ideology without disclosing his or her subject position?
• Does the researcher offer an opinion that is outside of the research findings or scope of the study?
• Is the research sponsored by an outside organization (private enterprise or nonprofit)?
Determining the objectivity of a source helps doctoral learners to validate their selection and be able to differentiate the degrees of bias between multiple studies.
Doctoral learners should read and reference peer-reviewed articles because the research has gone through a rigorous review system that has determined the source’s reliability. It is important to note, peer-reviewed research does not guarantee 100% accuracy; however, this scholar-based process does provide a much stronger foundation of resources for learners to assess. Peer-reviewed research articles are not absent of limitations, but the information found within is considered the most reliable type of scholarly work. The issue of accuracy pertains mainly to websites, blogs, magazines, and other popular sources that have not been reviewed by scholars. GCU does not accept these types of sources for discussion post responses, assignments, or dissertation work.
College students have been seduced by sites like Wikipedia, Ask.com, and Answers.com because of the rapidity and simplicity of the product. However, these sites, along with blogs and other nonacademic websites should be avoided at all costs. The absence of scholarship, authority, credibility, and reliability attached to each one cannot be ignored. Can a person learn about a topic by visiting one of these websites or find some reference material to read? Yes, of course, but it is not appropriate at the doctoral level to use these resources for an academic research project, especially doctoral-level research. To put it simply, a learner’s scholarship and credibility would be called into question. To be fair and equitable, the same would go for any instructor who accepts such resources as academic in nature. It is recommended that learners become proficient using the databases available in the GCU Library.
Doctoral learners looking to develop quality research will generate a long list of sources that could potentially find their way into their reference list. It is unlikely that all of the sources found in a search will yield useful information. Also, learners may find multiple studies discussing approximately the same thing. Instead of using all of the studies, they should determine which source is better or more relevant to the project at hand. Sometimes this can be an arduous task because learners must make difficult decisions, but it is a worthwhile endeavor that will lead to a stronger document in the end.
Like Sally Smart, learners will do keyword searches and try to find as much related material as possible, read the abstracts for each item, and make a list of possible reading materials. Depending on the size of the study and the number of resources, learners most likely will skim the articles first to determine which will be most relevant to the project as well as add them to the reading list. It is a good practice to create an annotated bibliography because it will help learners keep the reading materials organized and accessible. As new ideas begin to develop and evolve, learners may need to revisit the annotated bibliography to determine which articles to read or reread more closely. As the writing process commences, learners will have to make those difficult choices and decide which sources are most relevant and will make a contribution to the narrative.