Disciplined research

Research Process graphic

“Help!” said the email. "I’m stuck on this one line of research. I’m not a newbie. I’ve done research for years. I spend hours every day online, doing research. I’d appreciate a suggestion from an expert."

O.K. This is it: 

Success depends upon how we define the word research. Most roadblocks happen because we are doing searches—not research.

Most roadblocks result from the strategies we use—or don’t use. If our main strategy is to (a) identify records; (b) look up the name of interest, and (c) look for direct evidence an explicit answer to our research question), then roadblocks are very likely to happen and can last forever. Once we shift our mindset from sources and names to strategies and then train ourselves to recognize and correlate indirect evidence, most problems can be solved.

Our success rate as genealogists also changes once we adopt a disciplined approach to research.

There’s so much available online that we could wander the web forever and not solve our problem. We need planned expeditions. That usually means four steps, which we repeat over and again until the problem is solved.

  1. Analyze the research problem—every detail now known and the strength of the evidence that supports each detail.
  2. Develop a research plan that identifies every known source of data for the place and time and prioritizes them.
  3. Work that plan systematically—which usually means several segments of work in groups of related records before a tough problem is solved.
  4. Create analytical research reports for each segment. Real research reports. Reports that enable us to evaluate our findings in context—to study the whole mass of data we have gathered—as opposed to the typical habit of finding a document, making a copy, and extracting bits and pieces of information into pigeon holes within our software.

So: how do you conduct “research”?

Are your hours allocated to problem analysis, project planning, systematic research, and analytical reporting? Or do you log onto your favorite website, type a name into the search box, get 137 hits for the name, spend hours wading through them, find one record that looks like it “might be her,” and then type that data into your relational database program?

Our QuickLesson 20 offers a full tutorial. Check it out!

IMAGE CREDIT: Adaptation by EE of "Time, Quality And Money Concept Stock Photo," CanStockPhoto (https://www.canstockphoto.com/time-quality-and-money-concept-7758037.html : acquired 5 April 2015), uploaded by robbiverte on 7 November 2011; used under license.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Disciplined Research," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.org/quicktips/disciplined-research : posted 13 November 2018).