The most important method used in research is note-taking.
To conduct research, you need to develop a flexible system of keeping and organizing your notes.
When taking notes, you should strive for accuracy and detail. You should practice the art of reading something, and then describing its content in your own words. You should write down page numbers.
To organize my own notes, I make individual computer files dedicated to every source I consult, organized by date of publication, name of author, and title (in that order).
The advantage of having good, accurate notes, especially when they are already in a word-processing file, is that when it comes time to write up your research, you can just begin by re-reading and organizing your notes.
The Spiral of Research
The process of research can be imagined as if it were like a spiral. Usually, one's research activities cycle through a circle of tasks, spiraling down from a broad to a narrow focus.
You begin by naming a topic and developing basic questions about the topic.
Then you contine by seeking (and finding!) sources which will help you clarify your chosen topic's basic terminology, as well as the methodological and theoretical issues involved in the study of your topic.
You move from these opening stages back through the same types of tasks in a kind of spiral.
In other words, you next rename your topic with more specific, topic-appropriate terminology, you develop new questions about your newly renamed topic, and you seek (and find!) the right primary sources and secondary sources which help you explore your more focused topic in more depth.
Usually, you'll have to go through this process at least one more time before you find a topic that is narrow and specific enough to write a paper about it.
Here is a common path through the spiral of research:
- Name a general topic (use at least 2-4 words).
- Define the topic's main terms (using dictionaries and encyclopedias).
- Define general questions about the topic.
- Read newspaper and magazine articles on the topic, if available.
- Read book reviews and encyclopedia articles on the topic.
- Refine and redefine your topic (use at least 4-6 words) and go through the same steps again.
- Identify and read primary sources for your more narrowly defined topic.
- Read commentaries, encyclopedias and dictionaries to help you understand the details of your primary sources.
- Find and read academic journal articles and books on your detailed topic.
- Find and read the relevant sections of academic books and monographs on your detailed topic.
- Refine and redefine your topic (using at least 5-7 words) and go through these same steps again.
- Begin to formulate a thesis (an argumentative claim) about what you have learned through your research.
It is assumed that you will keep bibliographic records of every source you consult along the way, and write something, even if brief, about it.