Three things I’d like online research guides to do

Can the research process come to life in a handout?

I participated today in an interesting and productive conversation among librarians, academic support staff, students, and faculty about resources our library has developed for explaining research.

This “Guide to Academic Research” was one of the main pages under discussion. I take the page to be a good example of its kind, in both senses: a typical and well-constructed one. The conversation helped me understand three elements that I find important to the research process and generally missing in guides, even good and thoughtful guides, to that process. (I’m thinking here of relatively compact guides, not book-length treatments that one might use in a research methods course.) Here they are:

1. That the research creates the research question as much (or more) than the research question creates the research. I don’t want my students to understand research as a process that can begin with a topic and research question that form a stable ground for serious reading. We all know that our questions guide our readings, which then refine our questions, and so forth. How can we represent that reciprocity to our students? Can forming the research question be step 1, step 4, step 6, step 9, and so forth?

2. That research requires you not only to “Access useful sources” but also to order the process of reading meaningfully. A good web interface will allow most users to figure out how to find books and articles on a topic. A guide to research could explain logic by which a scholar might order the use of subject-oriented bibliographies, general bibliographies, library catalogs, article databases, and so forth. How can we help our students see the conversation that develops among scholars rather than dropping them into an ocean of keyword-linked data?

3. That good research involves reacting to what you read, or picking up the signals that other authors are sending about the research field. How should you react when an author refers to a classic (seminal, foundational) treatment of a subject? How do you read academic footnotes?

I have developed a handout to address some of these issues for advanced undergraduates, and I’ll try to post a digital version of that document soon. Our conversation today, however, primarily addressed introductory undergraduate courses, and I wonder what teachers and students have found useful in that context.