Conducting Research

Most of the guidance in this handbook surrounds presenting the research professionally, effectively, and clearly, but the research stage is the foundation that you build your project on. Most of the time, projects and paper that score poorly do so as a result of lackluster or incomplete research. This is usually due to lack of attention and unwillingness to use any research tools other than Google's top ten results.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • The more research you do, the more you have to write about. You're less likely to have to pad a well-researched paper to meet a page requirement.
  • Better research means that you'll have the knowledge, evidence, and confidence to write a stronger thesis.
  • Spending the time to look up words, events, and people that you don't know is worth it. 
  • Limiting the focus of your thesis and your research helps you find higher quality information, and doesn't mean you have less to write about. A vague thesis doesn't help.
  • Conduct preliminary research BEFORE writing your thesis statement, or you will be stuck cherry-picking information that proves you right, which is historically irresponsible.

Planning Your Research

The first step is to actually determine what the prompt is asking you to research. For example, this very basic expository prompt:

Complete a 2-4 page research paper examining the social and political causes of the decline of the Roman Empire.

First, bound your research. The prompt does not include the rise of the Roman Empire or its expansion. Many students erroneously either try to tell the entire store preceding the decline, or try to pad their paper with extra information. Focus on the decline of the Roman Empire. There's no set start or end date for that, as you would find early on in your research.

Secondly, determine your scope. This prompt requires social, and political causes. These are primarily (though not entirely) internal factors, so focus away from external. However, there is an important caveat here; the military, while seemingly grouped with external factors, needs to be examined in this prompt as well. Politics and social structure in the empire were deeply intertwined with the military, and some of the social and demographic changes in the military contributed to the decline. However, the prompt does not include military action or discussions of tactics. While research specific battles and territory loss might be interesting, don't spend your research time doing that. Spend your free time doing that. (Unless you can find evidence to link it back to the prompt.) Battles may be related, but they cannot be the focus of this prompt.

Finally, determine what types of sources you're going to need. Your options may include books, newspapers, academic journals, videos, or any number of other media. Determine what types of media and sources are most likely to have the information you need. If you determine this ahead of time, you will have a much easier time operating search engines, databases, and even books later.

Create a Preliminary Historical Question

To further guide your research, it's best to have a question that you're trying to answer. See the page on asking historical questions here in the handbook.

Ensure that you understand what a thesis is (check the handbook page on writing a thesis), and how you're going to write it, before you create one.

Be willing to revise your question and your thesis based on evidence.

If you aren't willing to change your point of view, you're not a historian. You're a person with an opinion, and there are plenty of those. As historians, we aim higher than opinion. We aim to inform opinion.

Your task when given a history assignment is to act as a historian, which comes with certain responsibilities. Coming as close as possible to an objective truth is your job.1

Doing Research

To many students, "doing research" sounds like scrolling through Google results, finding the same couple of paragraphs on several sites, and giving up on understanding and lowering the goal to "get this done with a decent grade" while snapchatting and listening to music. This procedure will keep you up to date on the absolute nonsense of your friends' lives, but it will do nothing to actually produce work and it certainly won't help you complete your assignment.

Do yourself a favor. Set the distractions aside and complete the research.

You either complete the research, or you get a lousy grade. You can fool yourself into thinking that you're doing research while doing all of these other things, but you really know better. You're not. You're distracted, and you barely know what's going on in the articles you're reading.

Your friends can wait a little while, and so can YouTube. Set the phone and the distracting websites aside, and find your data.

Historians and scientists are, during the research stage, extremely similar. We collect evidence, and we use it to inform a conclusion that we must not attach personal emotion to. If you discard sources because they don't match your conclusion, you have not conducted research, you've picked cherries. 

Steps to Doing Good Research

  1. Consult a variety of sources, including sources that may not match up with your expectations or opinions.
  2. Consult sources that disagree with each other, and determine how each contributes to the research by evaluating biases, points of view, and credibility.
  3. Don't stop looking as soon as you think you've found the answers to your prompt. Keep looking for a while to make sure there aren't other possibilities.
  4. Ensure that you've set aside an appropriate amount of time to conduct historical research responsibly.
  5. If you find references to other sources or historical figures with relevant opinions or information, spend some time tracking them down. Additional information and viewpoints are worth it.
  6. Check the footnotes. Whatever source you're using, check their sources. You may realize in a hurry that the source you're using is completely lacking credibility, and the quick check will save you a ton of time.
  7. Ensure that you have evidence to support your thesis fully. Don't stop looking until your thesis is fully supported. Alternatively, if your thesis disagrees with the evidence, rewrite the thesis.
  8. Ask questions of your sources (e.g., "was that really the case?") and be critical and aware of their 

 Finding Resources

There are hundreds, if not thousands of websites with articles relating to history. You'll find, within the first few minutes of Google searching, dozens of pages about your topic that seem to speak with some credibility. You must assess their credibility before using any of them. This means that, despite the fact that the interesting and provocative Buzzfeed article has some interesting (and, albeit, possibly true) trivia, you must verify all of their claims.

Credible sources:

  1. Show where supporting evidence can be found.
  2. Are peer-reviewed (meaning that other historians have looked through them and found them to be accurate).
  3. Do not contain numerous grammatical or spelling errors.
  4. Are established sources of trustworthy info.
  5. Have identifying information (author name, institution name, address) and a reputation to uphold. 
  6. Make logical sense.
  7. Do not intend to persuade you of something (e.g., have questionable ulterior motives).
  8. Come recommended from your instructor.

Examples of credible sources:

  1. Peer reviewed journals
  2. Historical magazines that lack modern political motivation
  3. Collections of curated primary sources with the context of each document explained

If you are unsure of the credibility of a source, do some digging. See what their reputation is for bias and evaluate that against the lean of the document you are considering using. Look up the source, determine their ownership, and the motivations of the parent company/owners. All of this might take five minutes, but it will make up the time lost in making corrections if you notice later that a source wasn't actually all that credible. It's all about context.

Warnings while conducting internet research:

  1. Websites are not required to state their beliefs, intentions, or motivations. Their content may be curated in such a way that history could be misrepresented despite the fact that the website appears otherwise credible.
  2. Not everyone with a Ph.D or other collegiate title is necessarily trustworthy. Again, it's all about context. If a source seems to be making some wild claims, verify them with another source. Optionally, see if there are any sources that respond to or refute the source you're considering using, and determine credibility that way.
  3. On the internet, just about everyone has something to sell. A tremendous number of websites that appear informational are actually pumping out pages and content to attract people for the purpose of exposing them to ads. Most websites consider your attention a commodity; spend it wisely, and avoid sites that do this by sticking with known institutions.
  4. If you're having trouble, consult your instructor. All of use have been trained in the use of databases, the evaluation of sources, and more. We have a lot of knowledge that we can bring to bear in a short period of time. Upon observing the process, you might learn for yourself how to check validity.

Keep a running list of sources.

Whether or not your assignment requires citations, collect all of the sources you use. Keep them printed in a folder, or URLs in a document online, or some other method of organization so that you can return to sources later. This will save you repeatedly.

  • 1. Many books have been written about this, and they recognize the challenges of claiming or attempting objectivity in historical research. See That Noble Dream by Peter Novick for a full treatment and history of this topic.