It should comes as no surprise that the first of the “Research Skills” we will discuss is the one about how to effectively conduct a search. Unless you have been handed the exact URL for an online document or you know right where a book is on a shelf, you will need to conduct a search in a database to find where useful information might be found.
Searching usually involves goal-directed and highly targeted information strategies using well-established sources of information found in many types of information spaces – libraries, databases, public records repositories, and so forth. When we talk about the specific kinds of research skills related to locating certain kinds of information (public records, surveys, information about individuals or companies, etc.) you will need to have the ability to:
- find an appropriate databases to search
- construct an effective search equation
- evaluate and assess what you found
Getting Started on Your Information Strategy
In the section on Question Analysis we worked on developing a list of information tasks that you must undertake to get the information needed for your message assignment. These tasks and the questions that must be answered are crucial at the start of your information strategy.
Searching will be your first step to completing most information tasks. Whether your task is to find a quick fact (What does the W in George W Bush stand for?), a particular public record (I need the 10-K reports for our three main competitors), to get ideas or background (What kind of coverage has there been on digital wallets?), audience data (What is the demographic profile of people who buy energy drinks?), or a well-documented government statistic (What is the population of Duluth?), searching will be required.
There are a number of things that stand in the way of finding good information when you start your strategy:
You may not know where or how to start.
You may be asking a question that is too specific.
You may be asking a question that is too broad.
You may not understand the relevance of things you find as you search.
You may not be focusing on likely sources for the information you are seeking.
Developing your search skills and knowledge of how and where searching is done online will help you address each of these issues.
Databases Are Not All Created Equally
Virtually all of the resources you regularly use online are giant databases. Google is a database with links to material stored on web sites. Facebook is a social media site with a database you search to find friends or people with particular characteristics. The library digital catalog has a database that will help you locate resources the library has available or database services it subscribes to.
Completing any information task will require skilled knowledge about how to locate and use databases with the kinds of information that will help answer your questions.
But remember, it starts with the questions. No one clicks on Google and thinks, “I’m going to search the topic ‘Google’.” Instead, you click on Google with a clearly defined topic that you need to research, and an information task you must accomplish. This will help you create a question to answer which will inform how to structure your search query.
For example – if the topic you need to learn about is “food insecurity” there may be a number of tasks:
Task: Get a clear idea of the definition of the term
Question: What does “food insecurity” mean?
Search: “food insecurity” AND definition
Task: Need experts or people involved in the area that I can talk with
Question: Are there any associations that deal with “food insecurity”?
Search: “food insecurity” AND association
Task: Get data that can help me understand the scope of the issue
Question: How many people are affected by “food insecurity”?
Search: “food insecurity” AND statistics
We understand that students these days believe they know how to search just fine, thank you very much. But the ease of “Googling” makes it easy to be a lazy and uninspired researcher. Just relying on doing a Google search without understanding and exploring the vastly rich and diverse search resources available will prevent you from becoming a truly inspired, clever, and resourceful researcher.
And this is what employers are looking for. In a survey in 2013, 93% of the 318 employers surveyed by Hart Research Associates for the Association Of American Colleges And Universities said what they most highly value in a new hire is “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”
Honing your search skills requires all three of those capacities.