Monday, December 3, 2007

Research, Mind Mapping, and the Research Process

Stephen wrote a nice essay on the process he uses to do research and how he might use Kaizen to find a place to make a small change in the process and, hence, improve it.

In responding to his essay, I realized I wrote a short piece on research in general and how I organize my research process using mind maps.

Here it is:

I like the fact you've incorporated Kaizen into thinking about your research process. Research processes and tools are different for different discourse communities, but research always has the following steps in common: 1) finding tools to help you identify useful sources; 2) collecting information; 3) noting and keeping track of where your information came from; and, 4) organizing the information you find in some productive manner. Look at my post to the class blog on mind mapping for one of my favorite ways to store the information I collect, make notes on it, and organize it.

In short: I create nodes on a mind map devoted to the topic I'm researching for each source I find. I record enough information to make sure I can find the source again in a sub-node; and, I then pull out relevant information from the source into individual sub-nodes I create around the source. As I begin to make connections, learn terms which I need to remember, and figure out how ideas fit together, I either create a new mind map or I begin moving the mindmap away from one organized around sources to one organized around connections, terms, or methods. For each connection, term, or method, I will create a node, and as I wander back through sources, I begin pulling out information about the term (etc.) from each source and organizing the info as sub-nodes around that term's (etc.) node. Each time I do so, I note in a sub-sub-node the source from which the information came.

How do you know which sources are good and which aren't? Well, you do research. Go to someone in the field in which you are interested and ask. Professors are good for these kinds of recommendations as to major players in a field. Often they will have a bibliography on your topic, that is, a list of useful sources they can give you. Research librarians are also good sources for, well, good sources. As you discover the major players in a field, that is, those who are referred to again and again, then you begin to get a handle on who to trust.

Getting a handle on who to trust online is more difficult. Here, I usually start with looking for the professional organization associated with my topic. That is, I place my trust in professionals in a specific area. You'd be surprised how many such associations there are. Again, a research librarian are good for a list, or you can just google. Once I've got the organization pinned down, I look for bibliographies or look at major players in the field.

All of this leads me to a documented source. I love footnotes, end notes, and bibliographies. Why? They save me work. Once I get a documented source, I follow each source used in it until I begin building up a network in my head (or in another mind map) of who is trusted (used) and who's ideas aren't trusted.

On broad subjects, I like to begin my research with a broad source, like the Encyclopedia Britannica or even Wikipedia and let them lead me to more specific sources. Another great strategy is to learn which professional databases are used in your field. Often your school library will have bought access. Many local libraries have free access, via their web sites to commonly used databases of sources for different fields. Then the research is as easy as using keyword search. (You learn the keywords by doing the research or from tables of contents, titles of articles, etc.)

Please note: while I use research in both small and large doses, I only use the process I describe above when taking on a new field or in developing a major project.

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