create the circumstances from which your [mind] can spit out an idea
"Step 2" begins with...
Before you read the latest news articles or dive too deep into any specific area of your research topic, it's a good idea to lay down a general foundation by looking into the main people, organizations, places, milestones and other fundamental concepts related to the technology you're researching. A great place to find this sort of background information is an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is definitely a good option (you should read the entire wikipedia page for your topic), but keep in mind Wikipedia is collaboratively edited.
According to Wikipedia, Wikipedia is "the largest and most popular general reference work on the World Wide Web and is one of the most popular websites by Alexa rank. It is owned and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that operates on money it receives from donors." In the early days it was very easy to vandalize Wikipedia, and it initially got a reputation as an contentious resource. While everyone is still free and open to edit Wikipedia there's much more rigorous guidelines, filters and bots in place for maintaining the quality of the articles, and ensuring the information is verifiable and that the process is transparent. Here are some important/useful things to know when using Wikipedia:
- "All encyclopedic content on Wikipedia must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), which means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic."
- Given the policy on NPOV, the requirement for reliable sources means that you can not publish original research on Wikipedia and the sources editors use must be verifiable by the reader.
- When an article does not meet Wikipedia's standards it will usually get flagged, this can mean different things but generally an article will have a banner at the top explaining any issues pertaining to the current state of a given article. Take these seriously.
- It's a good idea to view the "Talk" page to see what the conversation around this particular article is, (are editors in agreement or is it a contentious subject?). The Talk page can be accessed by clicking the Talk tab next to the Article tab on every Wikipedia article.
- In addition to the talk page you can also view the history of changes (who made it, when did thye make it, what did they change) made to every article, these are similar (in fact inspired by) the "commits" we make in a repository with Git.
- When Wikipedia's bots, automated filters and senior editors aren't enough to stop vandalism of a page, perhaps because it's a particular controversial one, a page can be "locked". There are different types of locks (degrees to which editing restrictions are imposed on a page) and you can usually spot this lock on the top right hand corner of any article.
Digesting your background research
After reading the Wikipedia page it's also a great idea to follow the links in the References section (at the bottom of every article). To guide you in this initial background research phase you should create a markdown file (.md) with the answers to the following guiding questions (this was due on Feb 28):
- Briefly explain the main idea behind the idea/technology you're researching, what is it exactly? what is it for? How does it work?
- Who are the important people and/or organizations related to this idea/technology? Don't just list names, briefly explain who these are and what their relationship to your research area is.
- What are the important historical events/milestones in the development of this technology and why do they seem particularly note worthy?
- Draw (literally or figuratively) connections between the technology you are researching and other related technology. This could include sub-categories within your research area and/or technological predecessors and/or technology which is otherwise related to your area.
It's often helpful create visual maps of your research, these can be web like maps of connections between overlapping technologies, figures or groups or a timeline outlining the key people, institutions, technologies and milestones most relevant to your research topic. This could be as simple as chronologically listing the important points with brief notes on each item. For example, say I'm researching "bitcoin" as a technology. My timeline might start on Nov 2008 with a note that Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of bitcoin, published the first paper on the subject on this date to a cryptography mailing list. The next important date on my timeline would be Jan 2009 with a note saying that this was when the first bitcoin network came online. The initial draft of your timeline should be started early on in your research process but you should continue to add to it as you do further research and come across other important milestones in your research topic's history.
Online Research Tools
As you know from having taken Research Studio I, the SAIC library is a great resource. Not only do they have a great collection of materials and a very friendly staff to help you navigate them, but they are also your connection to various other libraries and institutions throughout the state (via I-Share). That said, there are other online tools available to you on the web which can help in your research, here are some tools/things to consider:
- Our online research is generally scattered across various posts and tabs, so it's important to have a system for organizing our links to various sources. This is what browser bookmarks are for. While most browsers have this functionality built in, I suggest using a service like Pocket. You should create an account, download the browser plugin for your laptop and download the mobile app for your phone. You never know when/where you are going to come across a post or article relevant to your research topic and you might not always have time right then and there to read it. Use pocket (or something like it) to 'bookmark' relevant links every time we come across one. Pocket allows you to tag your bookmarks, so you should develop a list of tags you can re-use for various articles as a way of categorizing and organizing your sources. Try to evolve a system of tags that you use consistently, try not to have too many or too few tags.
- Bookmarks are grea, but bookmarks are subject to "link rot", which is what you call a link pointing to a website which is no longer there. There's no telling how long an article might be up online, for this reason I always recommend saving a local copy of any important articles. You can do this simply by using the File > Save Page As option in your browser. If that doesn't work, there are also free "web scrappers" you can use to download local copies of larger web sites like sitesucker.
- If a site you saved a bookmark to points to a 404 page before you had the chance to save your own copy, the Internet Archive proves a tool called the Way Back Machine, which lets you visit archives of older sites (they've been saving copies of old web pages since 1996)
- You have access to loads of books through the SAIC library and I-Share, but how do you know which books contain the information you need? You can use Google Books to search for keywords inside of books. Google Books lets you preview the pages within a book that contain your search query so you can figure out if the book might be relevant to your research. They won't let you read the entire book though, you'll need to visit the library for that.
- Similar to Google Books, Google Scholar is another tool you can use to search for keywords within academic papers, journals and other scholarly literature.
- Sometimes your search query is an image not text, say for example you came across a photo in a post and you're trying to track down what book or article it came from. Google Images lets you search by uploading images rather than writing text. Just click the camera icon in the search bar and upload you image.
- Maybe you're not using Google for search (for the various privacy reasons we've discussed in class) or maybe you are, in either case most search engines provide special keys/phrases you can include in your query or filters you can access on their page which help to refine your search. For example, if you type a phrase between quotes like "I like turtles", your results will be for the entire phrase (rather than the individual words "I" "like" "turtles"). Another example is if you add filetype:pdf to your query you will only get results that match the filetype of "pdf". These two tricks work for most search engines, but if you want to learn more look up "cheat sheets" for your search engine of choice.
Evaluate Your Sources
The web is an amazing wealth of knowledge, but it's also littered with all sorts of "fake news." It's important that you evaluate your sources, especially when reading/listening/watching something by an author or publication you are unfamiliar with. The Cornell Library page has a helpful and relatively concise guide for how to evaluate sources, below I've put together some other points to keep in mind when evaluatig sources.
Who is creating the information?
It's important to ALWAYS ask yourself "Who's behind this article/video/etc I'm reading?" You want to make a habit of looking into the author[s] behind everything you research and not simply wait until you seem skeptical of something to start evaluating a source. Anyone can publish online, which means today more than ever we are responsible for ensuring the legitimacy of a source. Furthermore, we are all susceptible to believing a source that isn't trust worthy when it matches up with our preexisting word view (see Confirmation Bias). Remember that everyone has a point of view, this doesn't mean that they have an extreme bias, it just means they have a point of view. It's important to know what that is in order to understand how that might inform/effect the material they produce:
- Understand the authority of your source.
- Is the author identifiable? Look for links that say "Who We Are," "About This Site" or something similar.
- Is there contact information for the author? (e.g., e-mail address, mailing address, phone number)
- What is the author's background? (e.g., experience, credentials, occupation, whether he or she has written other publications on the topic)
- Is the author producing original research? If so how did they do it? Some sites (like journalistic publications) often publish their ethics, philosophies and methodologies on their sites (these are generally good signs, skim their handbooks!).
- If it is not original research, does the author cite his or her sources?
- Is this site linked to often by other sites? (the page's ranking on Alex or popular search engines are good indicators of this)
- Do links on this site lead to other reputable sites?
- Are there systems in place to catch and correct mistakes? Spelling errors or incorrect grammar are usual bad signs.
- What domain does the site belong to? (e.g., .edu, .gov, .com, .net, .org)?
- When was the site last updated?
There's a lot you can learn about a site's credibility on the site itself (as mentioned in the section above), but a site can be deceiving (for example, nice design isn't always an indicator of a reputable website, remember again that anyone can publish content online). The best thing to do is to see what other sources say about the site that you are on, this is called Lateral Reading. The opposite of Lateral Reading is Vertical Reading. Vertical reading is when we stay on a single site, scrolling down (vertically). Vertical reading is great for diving deep into material, but when you read vertically before reading laterally you risk falling prey to misinformation and becoming a part of the problem!
- Lateral Reading is reading across tabs.
- Lateral Reading is using different sources to gauge the legitimacy of any given argument or material.
- Lateral Reading is opening up other sites to see what they say about the site you are on.
There are some great fact checking sources out there for evaluating the validity of sources online like Snopes but it's important to understand yourself how to evaluate the evidence any of your sources use to make an argument. As mentioned earlier the Cornell Library page has a helpful and relatively concise guide for how to evaluate sources, but below are a few points I put together specifically on evaluating a sources evidence:
- reliable sources have solid evidence that support the material!
- good evidence comes from another reliable source!
- good sources have multiple reliable sources!
- be conscious of your own confirmation bias (as mentioned earlier)
- correlation is not causation! beware of Spurious Correlations, in today's Internet these are rampant! Just because a source provides reliable evidence for some fact, does not mean that fact has any bearing on the claim they are making.
Like Vannevar Bush's Memex1, the web allows for "selection by association rather than indexing", meaning you rarely start with a table of contents when exploring the web, instead you might be reading an article about tax reform, which links to an article about the senate majority leader which itself links to an article about campaign financing which itself leads to an article about the CEO of a large oil company. While these sort of associative jumps allow the web to be organized more in line with the way that we think (as Vannevar Bush argued), it can quickly lead your research down an irrelevant path and you could start to feel overwhelmed with too much information. Hyperlinks are a blessing and a curse.
Below are some tips for avoiding information overload, but keep in mind, this does not mean we want to artificially limit the amount of information we consume on our topic. Like Kirby mentions in the video above, you should learn as much as you can about your research topic. The trick is to avoid feeling anxious by staying within your boundaries, for example:
When reading an article you might come across names of people/places/ideas that are unfamiliar to you. It's definitely important to look these up to learn who/what they are, but you want to avoid falling down a hyperlink whole. Return back to the main article once you've clarified an unfamiliar reference.
Try not to multi-task while doing research, this includes doing other things online. Close any tabs in your browser that aren't relevant and turn off notifications on your phone.
When you sit down to do research, try setting a specific goal. This could be a short list of articles you want to read or a particular set of questions you want to answer. Every few minutes check in with yourself to make sure you haven't steered too far away from these goals.
If a particular question leads you to a web search which results in opening up way too many tabs for one night, take a few minutes to skim through the various articles. Close any tabs that don't seem relevant enough and reorder the remaining tabs from most interesting/relevant to least.
Take time to actively digest your research! After a night of researching take time document the following:
- list out any sources covered in that session (these can simply be URLs or other citation format), followed by...
- ...a summary of the material covered in those sources (what you learned from reading/watching/listening/etc those sources) as well as any...
- ...additional commentary you might have on what you learned. This last part is subjective, it might include some issues you had with the way a particular writer covered the topic in an article you read, or it might be some ideas you got while being inspired by another source.
Producing written digests is great, but a similar and helpful trick (perhaps before writing the digest) is to sit down with someone in person (or on the phone, or on video chat) and tell them about what you've just learned.