The Process of Research


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed times since 5 June 1996.

This is Part Four of a Four Part Series on providing support for papers and speeches.


Now that you know where to find evidence, you need to know how to find it. This is the most difficult step for most people. They spend days and even weeks finding information to use in their papers or speeches. With a little thought and planning it is possible to cut that time down to hours. This is true whether you are an undergraduate having to do an English paper or public speaking assignment, a graduate student needing a review of literature, or a professional needing to do a report or speech for work.

Choose a Topic

The first step is determining your specific topic. There are many subjects, but each subject has many topics. For example, the subject may be geology, but your topic may be granite, igneous formations, or vulcanism. You can narrow down each of these topics even more specifically. You can narrow vulcanism to cone formation, ash versus lava volcanoes, dome formation, relationship of earthquakes to vulcanism, etc. Here you will concentrate your research. Don't try to study geology--that would take years. Don't try to research vulcanism--that would take months. Research cone formation.


The process of selecting a topic is called brainstorming. Brainstorming makes it sound like you're doing something extremely powerful with your mind. Well, in a way, you are doing something extremely powerful with your mind: you are allowing your mind to do what it is most capable of doing--synthesizing. It is allowing the mind to work at random, to find relationships between ideas and concepts by utilizing the subconscious rather than the conscious mind. The easiest way to illustrate this is to give an example.

Brainstorming can start anywhere. Simply look around the room, pick an object, say it or write it down, write down the next word that occurs to you without trying to think of one, then write down the next word that occurs to you, then the next, then the next, then the next. Do this until nothing occurs to you, or until your hand falls off from writer's cramp, which ever comes first. Since I am "writing" this while driving my car (using a tape recorder, actually), I will simply start anywhere, say with " car". Then, without attempting to think about it, I'll start making a list of words or ideas that occur to me in a stream of consciousness. (The following list was generated in this way; it just looks neater because I had to type it up for this paper.)

moon shot
situation comedies
Three's Company
gladiatorial games
concentration camps
Declaration of Independence
Ben Franklin
Thomas Jefferson
the light bulb
Science Fiction
Ars Poetica

Here we have a list of 59 words that can all be topics for speeches, for papers, for conversation. None of these were thought of consciously. They simply followed one after the other, although occasionally the relationship between one word and the next can be obscure. But, for example starting at the top, we have "car", which made me think of a truck, cars and trucks are made by Ford, which was also the name of the president, Gerald R. Ford, who pardoned Nixon, who ran against Kennedy, who stressed the moon shot, which required astronomy. Astrology is another way of studying stars. Other -ologies are anthropology, archeology, hemeotology (the study of blood), and oesteology (the study of bones). The last two -ologies must be understood to be able to do stage or movie make-up, which you wear when acting, which you do while someone else is directing, which someone does when making a movie or TV show. A popular form of TV show is the situation comedy, a couple of which are M*A*S*H and THREE'S COMPANY, both of which are comedies, although the latter is often considered a tragedy, a form of play invented by the Greeks who were taken over by the Romans who watched gladiatorial games, even during the times of Claudius, Nero, and Caligula, a tyrant much like Hitler who had the concentration camps in which he put followers of Judaism, the precursor to Christianity, another religion, which is playing a large part in today's politics, even though it's against the Constitution, one of America's great documents, like the Declaration of Independence which was written by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, both great inventors like Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb which is absolutely vital when lighting a set or the audience can't see the actors after all the trouble directors like Hitchcock and Spielburg have gone to. Spielburg directed movies about ETs and UFOs and other science fiction themes, some but not all based on accurate cosmology and physics as enunciated by Einstein or Newton or Aristotle, the author of ARS POETICA and a compatriot of Pythagoras, one of the great theoreticians of mathematics.

As one can see, these ideas flow naturally and require little or no thought; as a matter of fact, the less thought that you apply the more likely you are to be able to come up with a long list.

Another great advantage to this ideation or brainstorming is the fact that if you did not already know something about the topic it would never occur to you to write it down; it simply would not come into your mind. Thus, you can avoid a great deal of time and effort spent learning enough about a topic to decide whether or not you want to do it or not: you already know enough about the topic to be able to start your outline.

This latter point, that prior knowledge about a topic must be in your mind for the topic to occur to you, is the greatest reason and the greatest power of brainstorming. When you start to outline you will find that you already know enough about the topic to be able to do at least two levels of your outline. This is a great saving in time, effort, and research.

The next step in brainstorming is simply elimination. You want to remove from your list of topics anything that 1) you're not interested in; 2) is too much trouble; 3) you feel you don't know enough about; 4) your audience wouldn't be interested in; or 5) you just don't care. Don't take this last too lightly: if you don't care about your topic, neither will your audience.

The easiest way to eliminate possible topics is to go to the top of your list and brainstorm about each individual topic. Do it quickly: if nothing occurs to you when you look at it, strike it out. If something does occur to you to narrow down your topic or specify it, apply to it the same rules as above. If it's too complicated for your audience, does not fulfill the assignment, or you just aren't interested in discussing that topic, then strike it out.

For example, the topic CAR. This topic could be the history of the car, beginning with 1600 and the first self-propelled vehicle and working to the present. Or TRUCK: the uses, design, load limits, diesel vs. gasoline, numbers, taxation, etc.. FORD: Gerald, Henry, Edsel, the Edsel car, advertising, planned obsolescence, etc.. NIXON: early career as a lawyer, entry into politics, vs. Kennedy, the debates, Vietnam War, etc.. KENNEDY: in politics, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Missiles of October, assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, theory that Oswald was a KGB plant, etc.. MOON SHOT: first landing, Goddard, Tsiolikovsky, moon resources, advantages of space program, stations, Moon colonization, etc.. ASTRONOMY: planets, Sun, Barnard's Star, black holes, worm holes, quasars, neutron stars, etc..

Well, you get the idea. The list after each word was generated in exactly the same way as the original list of topics. Any of them could be the topic for a paper. If one of the topics strikes your fancy (and/or fulfills the assignment) then stop and begin to develop the idea by a combination of brainstorming and outlining.

Beginning the Research

The second step also uses brainstorming. Make a list of every major thing you know about your topic. Then for each item on the list put whatever support you can brainstorm for them. In this way you find out how much you already know about your topic. You may discover one of three things. First, you already know a lot more than you thought and thus will have an easy time finding evidence. Second, you don't know as much as you thought and therefore will have to learn more before trying to report it. Third, what you know is contradictory and you will have to do research to understand your topic. In any case, you're not wasting time in libraries or labs finding out what you already know.

Once you've reached this point it is time to plan your research. Examine your list for holes. Are there some main ideas that have only one or no pieces of support? You'll either have to eliminate or research that main idea. Are there some subpoints that have little or no evidence? You'll have to find some: a subpoint cannot stand alone. Is a subpoint or piece of evidence your opinion only? You must find some other evidence to back it up.

It should be clear by now what is happening. You are narrowing down your search for information to specifics rather than generalities. Don't research nuclear plants, research power plant disasters, pollution factors, numbers, percentage of power provided, etc.. Don't research Nixon, research Nixon's career as a lawyer, career as a politician, as Vice President, as President, in foreign affairs, in domestic affairs, etc..


Now that you know what you're looking for, how do you go about finding it? You will once again rely on your old friend, brainstorming.

You know what you want to accomplish. Sit down and take a moment or two to brainstorm every facet you could possibly look for to accomplish it. For example, if your topic is "drug use in America", you can start brainstorming and come up with:

drug trafficking
US armed forces
drug testing
US Olympics Committee
Wall Street
"Clean and Sober"
(this should give you an idea)

Once you have created your list of possible topics, think of everything you might have read or seen or heard that have any bearing on any of the topics. For example, I was once thinking about dreams (no particular reason, It was just something that popped into my head). As I thought about dreams, it occurred to me that I had read something about dreams. A few moments later I was scanning my shelves for something that would jog my memory. It happened as I came across the name Carl Sagan, author of the book THE DRAGONS OF EDEN, which does indeed contain a chapter about dreaming. That chapter led me to look into other aspects of dreams and further research. (If you think that sort of thing is worthless and a waste of time, three days later at a party the conversation turned to dreams (it came as quite a surprise), and all of my research fit right in and contributed to the conversation. It's nice being able to join in on conversations; it's even nicer to have something to say in those conversation s.)

Of course, it is beyond reason to expect you to have, in your own head, all the source material you need for any project. However, human beings have a great advantage -- an extrasomatic (a fancy way of saying "outside the body", or in this case "outside the brain") source of information. The most common extrasomatic source of information is the library.

All of your brainstormed topics are subjects to look under in indices to find evidence. Most libraries, and certainly all college and university libraries, maintain indices for magazines, journals and newspapers. These can include the READER'S GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE, THE NEW YORK TIMES INDEX, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES INDEX, TOPICATOR, etc. Naturally, don't forget the card file or computer data base for books, which will often list the chapters or subjects under which the book will be listed, a s well as the title. Armed with your brainstormed list of possible subjects to look for, check every index that might contain something on your topic to find articles or books. Under each heading write down any title and/or author (and, of course, where to find it in the library) of everything that, in your opinion, might contain anything you might be able to use. Do not look just for titles that contain words on your list, or are specifically about your topic. If the title seems only peripherally related to your topic, write it down. If a title triggers a new idea or a brainstorming session, go with it.

DO NOT SELF-CENSOR. The moment you limit what you will actually look at for information is the moment you will undoubtedly miss just the piece of information you need (remember that if it can go wrong, it already has and you just weren't paying attention, and that Murphy was an optimist). Do not rely on serendipity, but take advantage of it when opperknockity tunes.

You have now compiled a list of books, magazines, journals and newspapers at which to look. Do you now check them all out, take them home, and read them? Of course not: you're looking for evidence, not a lifetime career. You may have ten, fifty, five hundred possibilities, many, if not most, of which are of no use to you whatever. Don't let this discourage, or worse shorten your list -- diamonds only appear after sifting through tons of rock.

The sifting through the dross is the step that takes most people the most time. They don't look for what they need, they simply read. Reading an entire book is not research, it's a course of study. Reading an entire book, article in a magazine or journal may be interesting, fascinating or enthralling, but that's personal gratification (absolutely nothing wrong with that!) but it's not research. Research is getting what you need now (there is, after all, something you need to accomplish now), and save reading those fascinating articles for later. (Do go back and read them: you cannot lose and have much to gain, if only in self-gratification or conversational material (remember the dreams)).

Sifting means being left only with those things of importance. That is why anthropologists and archaeologists sift every spoonful of dirt to be left with the tiny clues of bone and stone and pottery that tell them so much. It is this process through which you want to go, and with some guidelines it's easy.


First, let's look at books. Books have two things of great value that are often ignored (it makes one wonder why anyone bothers to go to the trouble to create them). They are the table of contents and the index.

First, look at the table of contents. There may be a chapter or a subchapter (often included in the table of contents) that is just what you're looking for. If not, don't start reading yet. Flip to the end of the book. If there is a chapter that fits, turn to it.

DON'T READ THE CHAPTER. First, many chapters are subdivided into sections. Look at the section titles, which are called subheads. This will often narrow your search to what you're looking for. If there are no section titles, look at the end of the chapter for a summary. Many chapters have a summary of what is contained in the chapter (it may not be labeled as a summary, but the last few paragraphs of a chapter usually sum up what is in the chapter).

Barring that, start at the beginning and look for topic sentences in the paragraphs. DO NOT READ THE PARAGRAPHS; find out what is in the paragraphs. Scan, don't read. An advantage of the human eye and mind is that it can identify out of a mass of letters that particular combination that the mind is looking for. (Try it: turn back a bit and scan (not read) the page for the word "enthralling". The word appears only once. The exercise should take no more than 30 seconds.

. . .

Find it? See what I mean?)

If the book does contain something of value, mark the page and put it on one stack: don't read it yet, that comes later. If the table of contents fails you, do not despair. (In my research on dreams, I looked in THE DRAGONS OF EDEN and found nothing in the chapter titles that gave me the slightest clue that this was the book I actually wanted.) After all, it should take you no more than 15 to 30 seconds to read the Table of Contents, and thus you haven't wasted any time worth mentioning. You can turn to the end of the book.

At the end of the book will be the index. Use your brainstormed list of topics and see if the book has anything equal or related to them. If not, the odds are there's nothing in the book you need to bother looking at. Set the book aside. DON'T READ IT. You've got enough other sources on your list to look at. You may go back to this book, but for now, FORGET IT. (In Sagan's book I checked the index, and there it was: Dreams, followed by the pages I needed. It was just the information I needed. )

Go through all your books this way. If there is nothing in the Table of Contents nor the Index, you will eliminate many of them that you needn't bother with, at least for now.

Now is the time to sift through the books you have on your pile that you have not rejected. Turn to those pages in the chapters or from the index that do fit your requirements and help prove your points. Start by scanning for key words (words from your brainstormed list of things to look for) and reading where you see those words, and taking notes now.

Using the above method should allow you to reduce a pile of forty or fifty books to those that are of value to you in less than an hour (ignoring, of course, the time it take you to locate the books on the shelf, look at the table of contents and/or index while standing at the shelf or carry them to a desk, and work up a desire to get started (do not ignore this last--it is arguably the hardest part of your research)).

There are, naturally, disadvantages to this method. First, it is quite possible that what you are looking for is not in the index; no index contains every possible topic, or it would take up half the book. Second, you may miss, by scanning, the word or phrase that you need to find what you're looking for. Nonetheless, since you have the opportunity of examining far more books in far less time by this method, and with practice your ability to examine the index and to scan will increase, you will miss far less and find far more than by any other way.


Magazines, journals and newspapers can be done even more quickly than books, barring the time it takes pick up a new one and to turn the pages. You have already narrowed the field by selecting which ones to use by the title of the article; you can also look at the authors' names -- many scholars concentrate on a single area of research, so seeing their names can pretty well assure you that the article is on a certain topic. Now you can use the above described methods of looking for subheads and scanning to find what you need (journals in particular use subheads; they are less common in magazines and newspapers (except for such as TIME, the WALL STREET JOURNAL and THE NEW YORK TIMES)).

Again, if the articles fit what you need, keep them -- if they don't, set them aside (read them later; you can't lose). Now you can take your notes and gather your evidence. Also again, the same drawbacks that apply to books applies to using this method on periodicals. However, also again, the same advantages accrue.

It is possible that you are saying to yourself, "What does Taflinger know about this -- has he ever had to do it?" The answer is yes -- the above is from my own experience. I only wish someone had taught these methods to me before I had to invent them for myself under the gun. When doing my doctoral comprehensive examinations I had to write the equivalent of nine term papers in two weeks. This required researching many books and articles (I often had stacks of books four or more feet tall next to my desk). To get through this stack, representing several million words of research, I had to find a way. The above method is the way that worked for me, and has worked for several thousand of my students in English composition, public speaking, oral interpretation, advertising, and media criticism classes.


(I told you that you can look at the end to find a summary.)

The third, and arguably most important, human senses are the vicarious senses -- reading, listening, viewing. Since they do not necessarily involve the personal, mechanical or associative senses they are less likely to be subjective in nature. They allow for a multiplicity of views and viewpoints, resolutions of subjective conflicts, and ideas that wouldn't ordinarily arise. They also allow for gathering evidence that is acceptable to others who wouldn't ordinarily agree with the expressed viewpoint. Of course, it is necessary to know what evidence is. It is proofs that supports a contention, an opinion, a hypothesis or theory. Not everything can be evidence -- opinions, assumptions, untested ideas merely maintain preconceptions, not prove them. Evidence provides proof in such a way that even people who disagree will, if they are not completely closed-minded, accept it.

It is also necessary to know where to find evidence. It can come from books, magazines, journals, newspapers, interviews, TV programs, radio shows, movies and documentaries, and any number of other sources. By brainstorming it is possible to determine what is already known and what must be found. The search is thus narrowed down to save time, energy, and resources. Most of the above sources come with indices, tables of contents, and other ways of locating specific items of interest quickly and easily.

Of course, of the most vital importance is gathering information on a daily, even hourly, basis. Information comes from everywhere: reading, watching TV, conversations. However, there is also a need to avoid being lazy about it. You can learn a great deal from watching TV, but not if the only thing you watch is sports or MTV -- you'll get some things, but not enough. Vary what you watch; watch things you don't think you want to watch. The cable channels that are available are loaded with information (I particularly recommend PBS, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, A&E, C-SPAN, and CNBC -- they're not only informative, they're fascinating and can be downright addictive).

Even more important is reading. You must read, constantly, voraciously, every day. My students are often appalled that, whatever they talk about, I seem to know as much or more than they do. How is that possible? Because I read, constantly, voraciously, every day, an average of five books a week of every type, including (horror of horrors!) textbooks, but also science fiction, historical fiction, Terry Pratchett (my favorite author), Tom Clancy, James Clavell, Harold Coyle, Jean Auel, C.S Forester, Alexander Kent, Carl Sagan, Clive Cussler, Richard Leakey, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Hailey, Stephen Jay Gould, Morgann Llewellyn, Larry Bond, etc., etc., ad ad nauseum (if you don't recognize any of the above names, you prove my point that you're not reading enough). Add to that journals, newspapers, magazines, and, of course, my students' papers, and that's a lot of words in a row. However, it is the way I learn, learn how to learn, learn how to teach, have things to say and write, know how to speak and write because of the multiplicity of examples, and, incidentally, have a good time and kick ass at trivia.

Once information is gathered it is possible to go on to the next step -- thinking. But that's a topic for another day.

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