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There’s more to good research than a Google search

James Davis

Careers Commentator
We’ll cover some great ways to verify and test your assumptions for great marks and sound conclusions when you’re new to uni.

Remember middle school? All it’d take to get a good mark was slapping a link into your paper, so long as it was somewhat relevant! There wasn’t much need for a well-constructed case. High school would have taught you a lot more, but even then you’ll probably be held to a higher standard at uni! If you’re about to head into first year, it takes more than just correct referencing to properly evaluate your claims throughout research papers, experiments and essays. Let’s run through some of the mindsets and techniques to put you on the right track. Even if you don’t see yourself doing much in the way of research, these methods can be helpful in daily life to help you make good decisions and combat your weaknesses.

You’ve no doubt heard of or used some of these by now, but there’s a good chance some might be new to you. Let’s get cracking.

Try to disprove your hypothesis before you prove it

Ever heard of ‘confirmation bias’? It’s our natural tendency to find information supporting our claim and discard information going against it. When two people with contrary, mutually-exclusive positions employ confirmation bias, it’s possible for both to apparently be justified. Being justified does not mean being right, however. They can’t both be right! 

This is why it’s healthy when asking questions, constructing hypotheses or exploring a claim to first find information to the contrary. The reason this works so well is because showing why something isn’t true is often much easier than proving definitively that something is. This is particularly relevant to anthropology, psychology, philosophy or any other topic without the empiricism of something like physics, for instance. The importance of falsifying a claim is a cornerstone of science and good research generally. You don’t need to be a scientist to make good use of it!

In the information age, we have reams of information at our fingertips. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed with misinformation, draw erroneous conclusions, base your arguments on flawed data or interpret accurate data incorrectly if you believe something is true. Even if you believe something ought to be true, but aren’t sure it is, confirmation bias can still kick in. 

To become better at falsification, put extra effort into understanding positions contrary to yours, not only in research, but even daily life. You may catch yourself defending all sorts of positions and beliefs simply because you’ve held them for a while! This is normal and can be prevented. If you want to be a great researcher, learning to prevent confirmation bias and seek contrary evidence will help. If it helps, try to distance yourself from the hypothesis as much as possible and treat it as a disembodied idea quite apart from yourself. It’s just another claim in a realm of claims waiting to be tested. If you can keep the idea of it being ‘yours’ at bay, this may go some way to helping you test it fairly. 

Check the integrity of your sources

Just growing up in the world today has likely taught you how to spot the obvious Nigerian prince scams. What even the most experienced fact-finders can fall prey to are sources they trust. Even if it’s by accident, big newspapers and reporters can be wrong. Even the most iron-clad looking scientific papers can have their issues. Perhaps they’ve not controlled for a variable that renders all data virtually inapplicable to your objective? Maybe the study took place in a country with a culture too far removed. In any case, there are a few quick checks you can do without spending three hours trawling through the study. Some of these include:

  • Was the sample size big enough (where applicable)? If the study wasn’t representative of the population it purported to assess, it should be treated with caution.
  • Was it published in a reputable journal (think Nature or Science), or is it original research? There are plenty of draft PhD theses floating around online, which can muddy the waters. Particularly when they’re freely available and the good stuff is behind a paywall! This doesn’t necessarily mean the research is bad. It just means it hasn’t necessarily been peer-reviewed. That magical term ‘peer-review’ is why we love solid journals to begin with. It means the study has been looked over by professionals in the field and approved for academic integrity. 
  • How well does it try to falsify its thesis statement/ hypothesis/ arguments? If a good portion of the paper is spent on attacking itself (with criticisms that appear legitimate to the best of your knowledge and aren’t strawmen), that’s a sign of honesty! 

Even if you tick all these boxes and the paper still turns out to be a dud, whatever! You did your due diligence. To the best of your knowledge at the time of your evaluation, it appeared to be legitimate and worthy of a citation, which is all anyone can expect of you. What matters is you do indeed follow that process. Don’t just trust. Verify! Your university has likely cut a deal with an outlet of academic papers. See if you can get into your uni’s online library, which will be full of reliable information. 

A similar set of guidelines and checks can be made for articles, but it’s sometimes easier to check their legitimacy. In addition to making sure the article has come from a trustworthy outlet (think The Conversation or ABC News), try the following:

  • Be aware of the outlet’s political affiliation. For example, although the ABC is pretty good at reliable journalism, it has a centre-left political affiliation. If you’re left-leaning yourself, this just sounds like gravy! However, it’s always good to keep this in mind so you can differentiate speculation from cold, hard reporting. 

  • Check multiple sources. If you’ve got at least three outlets reporting on the same event and can corroborate their stories, that’s a vote of confidence. If it’s one dodgy place you’ve never heard of and a Google search turns up nothing else, treat it with caution… and definitely don’t mention it in a research paper! 

  • Conversely, if those outlets are just following each other, for example if the ABC puts out a story based on a wayward Tweet and others follow, they all may simply be wrong! So check the sources of the sources where possible. Sometimes the blind can lead the blind.

  • Check the date of publication. Times change pretty rapidly, so an article containing plenty of census information, economic stats and market trends may not be evergreen. Always ask yourself if it’s still relevant today. 

With a preliminary understanding of falsification and good fact-finding, now it’s time to look at what it takes to prove your thesis statement, test your claim or answer your question. 

Aim to find the truth first… and persuade a distant second

If you’ve found a paper demonstrating a trend crucial to your case, you may find yourself wanting to believe it, so become invested. Even so, you must continue your due diligence.

Let’s assume you’ve applied the methods above for now and found the paper to be from a reputable source, well-conducted, replicable and all the criteria for sound research has been met. Even in a case such as this, it’s possible to become intellectually dishonest, misrepresent a point or skew information in order to appear persuasive and better suit your needs. The scary thing is, you may not even know you’re doing it! 

To counteract this possibility, distance yourself from the source and ask yourself exactly what the paper concludes independent of your current project. Difficult, we know, but if you can look at it as impartial as possible, you may find it’s not as well-suited as first thought. If the goal of research is to produce true conclusion, it’s within your best interest to find out you’re wrong now than when your professor scratches their head and marks you down later. Even if there was no professor involved, you owe it to yourself to keep yourself from falling into these habits. Bear in mind you’re not a bad person if you’ve ever done this accidentally. Just keep catching yourself and you’ll develop into a progressively better researcher. 

Persuasiveness is a tool for communication, but it should ideally never get in the way of truth. Papers you’ve done in high school often demand persuasiveness and arguing a case above all else. Your teachers will likely have taught you to prove your points and support your arguments, but this alone isn’t always a reliable method for deriving true conclusions. This merely produces the veneer of truth. If you want the real thing, you’ll have to stay impartial. 

So what does staying impartial mean? 

Statistics can be ironclad, but their interpretations aren’t

A crucial distinction in good research is the stat versus its interpretation. If you see words like ‘correlation’ or ‘suggests’, these don’t mean there’s 100% a causal link between event A and event B. It just means there might be. Knowing this is a key tenant of staying impartial. If you instantly buy into the interpretation you’re given after all, you may be lead astray! So, draw conclusions based on statistics carefully. It’s great to have some, but you want to be as sure as possible the stats you’re using do indeed support what you’re saying… and aren’t just a rhetorical device. In other words, make sure they don’t just make you sound correct. 

Let’s use an example. Say you’ve got one piece of reliable economic data showing people purchased 15% more butter in Q1 this year. You’ve got another piece of data showing the cow population in Australia has remained constant for the last ten years. One interpretation could be there’s a growing demand for butter, which incentivised farmers to turn more milk into it. Not necessarily the case; what if the demand for milk is the same; maybe there ought to be issues sustaining production? Maybe the cows are simply more productive, or more calves have reached maturity? Perhaps a celebrity recently decried margarine and people are looking for alternatives? Maybe we’re importing it to meet demand? 

For any given contrasting array of stats, there are likely multiple interpretations… meaning all the more ways to go wrong. This example makes it quite apparent, but the problems won’t always be as obvious. As a fine researcher in the making, it’s up to you to try your best in discerning the best interpretations. In this particular example, you could even test each conflicting alternative and eliminate as many possibilities as possible to deduce the best explanation. Are we importing more butter? Let’s look it up. Do we have more calves reaching maturity? Maybe; let’s check just in case. Was there even a greater demand for butter to begin with? Perhaps a new chain of French restaurants just opened up; controlling for this, it could be the case the population hasn’t consumed any more or less butter at all. So many possibilities! 

However, with many more questions comes just one more consideration we’ll go over in this article.

Stay within scope

Ideally, we’d all have infinite time and infinite resources to answer the limitless questions we have! Unfortunately, time is very precious, particularly as a new uni student finding your footing with too little time (and often too few words) to delve with extreme depth. You’ll have to save that for your PhD if you wish to go down that road! In the meantime, you’ve got to narrow your scope and just make peace with the fact you’re not going to write a perfect, all-bases-covered research paper or thesis. In fact, it’s often good practice to acknowledge where there’s room for further research, so those that come after you can contribute! For first-year uni papers, it’ll likely only be your professor reading the paper, but taking some time to reflect on potential flaws in your argumentation and methodology are not only important for your own process of falsification, but transparency. It’s like showing your work in math class. 

As Gandalf would say, all we need do is decide how best to spend the time we’re given. Jot down branching queries and concerns to maybe include later, but remember: the best research is all for naught if nobody gets to read it. To this end, you’ll need to do two major things:

  1. Structure your paper.

  2. Plan your time.

You’ll have learned the importance of structure throughout high school. It’s no less important at uni. If you’ve structured your paper well, you’ll be in better shape to understand what’s essential to your paper and what isn’t. Once you’ve budgeted a loose quantity of words and type of content to each portion of your thesis or research paper, you can start time budgeting. How long do you estimate each section will take? Remember to consider the planning fallacy whilst doing this; we’ve all got a tendency to be too optimistic! As nice as it is to be optimistic, it can get in the way of realistic plans and could result in falling behind. To be safe, take how long you think each section will take and double it. This will help you stay within scope and get your research done in a timely manner.

You should now have a much better idea of what it takes to do quality research when you’re new to uni. If you decide to progress into an honours year, master’s by research or PhD, there are many more nuances to be learned, but these should serve you well for now! You can check out all kinds of research programs on PostgradAustralia. For now, we wish you luck and will be right here when you need us again.