Learning to love the stacks

June 9, 2009

Books in a Stack, by austinevan on Flickr

Books in a Stack, by austinevan on Flickr

I’m just starting a new project that involves doing a literature search before getting stuck into interviewing.

I spent untold years doing ad hoc research, in a cab-style ‘take the next project’ sort of way, and I can’t tell you what a complete pleasure it is to be allowed to go and look at the literature.

It’s maybe peculiar to the places I used to work, but there was quite a disdain towards Doing A Bit of Reading, and a complete horror of exerting one’s database search skills with all the Boolean logic which that entails.

Not all projects need much beyond basic immersion in what went before, but I do projects which involve setting up a new Thing, like a framework, as well as gathering data. What I have learned:

4 benefits of full-on research:

1. Not reinventing the wheel. NOT REINVENTING THE WHEEL!!! So many, many things have been done before, some of them rather well.

2. Allowing time and space for you to really consider the issue Nuff said.

3. Constructing new knowledge Outside well-researched topics, typically you’ll end up synthesising information from a grab-bag of odd-looking books, papers, and commentary.  This is marvellous.

4. You can come up with theories and hypotheses! And then test them! Possibly just me…asking the right people the best questions is a luxury indeed.

And so on to …*drumroll*

7 tips for a successful search :P

1. Join a university library. This can be hard work without current connections, but there may well be a great, relevant library that you can use.  Online catalogues look like the answer to your prayers but in practice can be expensive and difficult to access, depending on the subject area.  Use your academic or professional affiliations to get access to books and journals.  I use the Wellcome Library,  Birkbeck College,  and Cambridge University Library; I also have access to the British Psychological Society’s collection.  Wellcome has a great cafe.

2. Recognise that opinions are legion but facts can be sparse. Most literature reviews outside academia involve several Emperor’s New Clothes moments: typically, the absence of any evidence whatsoever for strongly-held popular opinions.

3. Web resources look infinite but actually aren’t. This is the never-ending Web Ring problem where you chase promising sets of hyperlinks that eventually loop around themselves in a giant spiral of mutual attribution.

4. Look in parallel fields for great answers. It is quite likely that your particular horrible problem has been discussed and perhaps even solved in a rather different field of operation. In my experience, teaching is a completely overlooked source of great information.  Take e-moderating for example: 90% of the problems online researchers face have already been researched, written up and peer-reviewed by academics working in teaching and online learning.

5. Find the official resources. Government sources are excellent and entirely free.  You can find entire datasets this way.

6. Identify the star papers and books as quickly as you can. In any field, there are some essential pieces of reading.  In a brand new field, one of the most useful things you can find is the high-level textbook.  These are your Little Helpers. Love them and treat them well.

7. Be flexible, don’t print out in too small a font, and carry paper, pens and a USB stick everywhere.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kevin mclean June 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm

another super post (darling!) and as someone who STILL does ‘cab-style take the next project’ research (reminds that 90s Audi ad in which the [clearly meant to be a BMW/estate agent type] test drives the Audi and doesn’t like it and is seen in last frame raising arm shouting, taxi! while the cool long-haired hero who we’re meant to identify with looks on quietly disdainful) …

… don’t get lost in the reading library! I wish we could do more ‘pre-research research’ but sometimes (just sometimes) you can have too much time, know what I mean?


Alison June 9, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Hah! Not disparaging it in the slightest – more a case of finally twigging what I liked to do and focusing on that.

You don’t always need any research at all; and often, there’s very little out there or else the whole point is to explore a certain idea with a certain audience at this particular point in time. But there are areas where there’s plenty of pre-existing knowledge.

(long and rambling reply)

I have worked a lot in usability and there is a big difference between the attitude of market researchers and usability specialists, although their interviews with end users are indistinguishable. The usability folk quote the theory, the researchers go entirely on the user reaction. Pros and cons each way: the advantage for the usability people is that they build their expertise in a way that some researchers don’t manage to do.

I’m doing a lot of work at the moment where I develop a model for something, and then road-test it in personal interviews: for that sort of thing, the review is great, because you’re trying to create a structure or a roadmap, even just identifying a useful metaphor for something that doesn’t yet exist.

Can you go too far – not so far (there’s never quite enough for that!); I think you can be inappropriately academic for the context (or because some people like that language). I kind of like asset-stripping academic papers: there’s a strange pleasure in skimming 80 pages and finding the crucial paragraph that suddenly propels you forward.

It’s usually a means to an end…not always though, I write lit reviews too and there’s a peculiar enjoyment in creating an account of a field or a problem.


Robert B June 15, 2009 at 11:13 am

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