How To Decide What To Read As Research Material


Monday, 7.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My writing is a combination of three elements. The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration. The second is reading literature on the subject. The third is reflection. – Ryszard Kapuscinski

Search engines lull us into a false sense of security. We think that the phrase we type will return results that are useful and tell us what we need to know. What they tell us, instead, is what’s popular, weighted a little by keywords that are similar.

For example, I’m currently looking for information on the ethics of action research. This is important because it’s a thorny area that is treated differently by other disciplines. Physicists don’t care about the ethics of gravity. Gravity just is. Ethnographers, on the other hand, make detailed notes on their “subjects” and write papers on what they observe which the people being written about may never see or know about.

With action research I might talk with you as a consultant, providing expertise and advice that helps improve a situation. The work is usually carried out under a non-disclosure agreement which means I can’t talk about the work or share what we’ve done or found.

That makes it difficult to show the world the value of a particular approach. If you can’t provide evidence because you’ve agreed to keep things confidential then what can you share?

One of the things you can share is method – you can talk about how you did something without providing details that identify individuals or companies. But you’re still short of evidence to corroborate your story. Could you use your data without breaking your obligations in some way?

But how do you walk this ethical tightrope? The place to start is by reading about action research and the way we all start with that is a search on a research search engine which turns up all kinds of stuff. Very quickly you’re staring into an endless forest of research papers.

There is so much that has been written that it’s impossible for you to read it all. Instead, you are going to have to focus and cut out vast quantities of material using simple rules. Rather than doing a simple search pick the publication that is most prestigious in your field and search that one. That will reduce the number of papers dramatically.

Start with those and identify the main points these papers make. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle – fit in the pieces you find and look for the picture that emerges and the gaps that remain.

The thing that’s most impressive about good academics is the grasp they have of the points that matter – the key ideas that have been figured out and shared in the literature. A good paper can be far more valuable than a book. Too many books take one idea that is unsupported by any evidence and stretch it over two hundred pages. A well-written paper can compress a number of ideas that are backed by rigorous research into a tenth of the space, and it’s ten times as valuable.

Of course, you still have to find those papers among the millions out there. But no one said finding useful knowledge was easy.


Karthik Suresh

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