(Editor’s note: As we kick off a new year, many of us want to take a look at different ways we can enhance our lives and better our overall health. Writer, BEST guest blogger and longtime investigative journalist, Isaac Peterson, offers his tips in researching ANY topic. Thank you, Isaac! KT)
I’ve been asked to pass along some guidelines, mostly because, as it indicates below in my biography, I am a recovering investigative reporter.
But it turns out there is no one way to do that kind of investigating, since each of that type of investigation is different. Rather than bore you with my exploits from when I was actively committing journalism, I thought I would offer some tips and things to keep in mind when you do your own investigating.
Turns out that after a little practice, it’s as easy as falling out of a tree.
First, let’s assume you are looking for specific information about some aspect of traumatic brain injury, especially since you’re reading this blog. First off, the topic of traumatic brain injury is too broad a topic, covering too many areas, so the first thing you need to do is to define the scope of your search.
What area of traumatic brain injury are you hoping to find information about? Treatment? Medications or side effects? Symptoms? While it’s good to know where you want to end up, it’s also good to know where to start. Before you begin you must be clear on just what you are looking to find.
Two questions to ask yourself that will help narrow the scope of your search: What questions do you need answered? Who will the answers help?
We’ll assume you are using the internet for your investigation and that you know how to use a search engine. We’ll also assume you are doing the research for yourself or someone you know.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way right up front: Researching can be quite frustrating and time-consuming. The good news: With time and through trial and error, researching gets to be easier and easier.
We’re going to use me as a personal example. Recently I heard someone use the term neuroplasticity and although I thought I knew what neuroplasticity was, I wasn’t quite sure. So before I start tossing the term around like I know what I’m talking about, I figured I would learn something about neuroplastcity.
My first step is to go to Google and start with just the search word neuroplasticity. The first search result is from Wikipedia, as it so often is. Wikipedia is often a good place to begin a search (some people still view Wikipedia as unreliable, which it definitely could be in its early days but it has gotten much better over the years.) I’ll use Wikipedia as my example because the internet is a really big place and I have limited space. There are other sources, but for this article, it’s Wikipedia.
Wikipedia’s neuroplasticity entry gives an in-depth definition of the term and its history, then goes into an extensive breakdown of subcategories.
These subcategories can be quite useful in helping narrow your search and can be helpful for generating new search terms for specific subcategories. It can give ideas you (or I) might not have thought of or even knew existed. The entries for the general topic neuroplasticity can be quite complicated and technical. But don’t worry; many topics can be easily understood by laypeople, and Wikipedia has a mechanism to help determine the credibility of sources. It’s the main reason Wikipedia has gained credibility in recent years (in my book at least).
Wikipedia provides citations at the bottom of the page listing all the sources used for its entries—the treatment of neuroplasticity cites 98 primary sources. Depending on the purpose of your search this can be essential: I recommend using at least two sources to verify the information (this is my inner journalist talking here). Wikipedia citations allow you to check the contents of its sources against the information in their articles so you can make sure that source actually says what Wikipedia says it does.
You will definitely want to also check the credibility of the sources cited as well. For my example, neuroplastcity, medical and neurological sources take precedence. For this search. the best sources will likely be the ones from universities, scientists, government research projects and science journals.
A few things you want to avoid researching information:
- Confirmation bias: Using a source only because it reinforces what you already believe.
- Clickbait: You find this in popular press publications. Avoid articles that make sensational claims. If you are researching weight loss for example, steer clear of articles with titles like Lose Weight With The Miracle All Twinkies Diet! The purpose of those articles is to bait you into reading and often to sell you some sham product.
- Use primary sources as much as possible: Information that comes directly from the original source.
- Only use the dictionary for a general definition, not for in-depth information.
You don’t have to limit your research to the internet. The library can be quite useful when you’ve narrowed your search. Use your keywords to search the library catalog. You may be surprised to find out how many hard copy resources are available, and a librarian can be handy in helping you locate materials.
If there is a university nearby, I find that making an appointment with someone on the faculty in the department concerning your topic can be a great way to find information. My experience shows these people are usually very open to an outsider expressing interest in their area of expertise. These people are very busy, but I have never had one refuse to make some time to talk, but the appointment may not be possible until tomorrow or the next day.
I’ve saved the best one for last. If you’re researching a topic related to traumatic brain injury, check to see if there is a TBI-related organization in your area. These organizations are full of people who would love to help you; that’s what they’re there for in the first place. These people know what they’re doing and they know what they’re talking about. They will no doubt be able to steer you to the information you need. There might be periodic TBI conferences in your area as there are here in Washington state. Those conferences are literally crawling with TBI professionals as well as TBI survivors who are quite approachable.
As I said above, researching can be a long, frustrating process. I’ve done my best to keep it simple but there’s more I could say; there’s always more. But I hope I gave you enough to start with; as I said, if you keep at it, it will get simpler with practice and experience. If you have further questions you may contact me at the email address shown next to my photo or contact me through our Facebook page.
I hope this helps.
Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He also doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab. Peterson also welcomes reader comments. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.