Do Your Own Research? A Reference Librarian's Recommendations

In recent years it's become common to hear people say, “I do my own research”, or "Do your research!" These phases have become so widespread and controversial that there are cartoons and memes making fun of them. Most of them show someone looking at a webpage that says “What I already believe”. In one meme, a guy in the top panel is browsing the internet, saying, “I do my own research”, while in the bottom panel, a scientist in a research lab says, “That’s cute.” In recent months of the pandemic the memes have taken a darker turn, showing tombstones saying, “I did my own research”. 

Watching all this is especially interesting to me, because as a reference librarian, I’m basically a professional researcher, who spends a lot of time helping people do their own research. So I look at the calls to “do your own research”--and the fun made of people trying to do that--with mixed feelings. On the one hand, as a reference librarian in a public library, I absolutely want people to be empowered to research topics they want--and need--to know more about. The idea that people should educate themselves to become more informed is central to the whole idea of public libraries, and indeed of democracy itself. On the other hand, having watched hundreds of people “doing their own research”, I also know it can go very, very wrong. Many people just don’t have a very clear idea of what research is, or how to do it. 

Oftentimes it’s just like in the memes. People find the first link on Google, or the first video on Youtube, or the first group on Facebook that supports what they already believe, and declare their “research” finished. Worse--because these sites are programmed to show more of what people have already searched for--they end up going down algorithmic rabbit holes where they see increasingly far-fetched or extreme content...which starts to seem more reasonable with continued exposure. We’re all at risk of falling into such traps, because we’re all prone to cognitive biases like confirmation bias, in-group bias, and dozens of others that make it very hard to see the world as it really is.

At the same time, some of the memes can be a little unfair. For example, you don’t have to be a scientist in a lab to do legitimate research, because not all research is original scientific research. Also, do we really want to tell people that they shouldn’t do research to become better informed? Do we want people to get into the habit of believing whatever those in authority tell them to believe, without even asking questions or seeing supporting evidence? No, I don’t think we do want those things. 

As a reference librarian, then, I’d like to offer some professional thoughts about when and how it’s a good idea for people to do their own research. Yes, they need to do their own research to become better informed. But they also need to know how to do it well. They need to know how to do good research. But what does that mean? Let’s start with the basics, and look at what the word “research” actually means.

Primary and Secondary Research

According to the Oxford Dictionaries database, research is “The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions”. Research, then, is a search or investigation, to gain knowledge you didn’t have before. In formal, professional research, this new knowledge is then usually published and used as a foundation for future research. Research is a cyclical process that builds on itself.

That’s straightforward enough, but we also need to consider the different types of research. One important distinction is between primary research (sometimes called original research), and secondary research. A medical researcher doing a clinical trial, a geologist out mapping rock formations, and a historian reading hundred-year-old letters are all doing primary research. They’re gathering data right from the source and using it to draw new conclusions, which they will usually try to publish in the professional literature. Later, someone else in that field may go and gather this published primary research, and use it to gain new insights, without actually going out and collecting data firsthand. They’re doing secondary research. (Quick note: The distinction between primary and secondary research is related to, but not the same as, the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. The first refers to the type of activity being done, while the second refers to the type of materials being consulted.)

It's not accurate to suggest that if you aren’t doing primary scientific research, you’re not doing real research. Plenty of serious research is secondary research. For example, one important kind of scientific research involves gathering multiple scientific studies and combining them in a larger statistical analysis, to draw broader conclusions than you can draw from just one study. And even people doing primary research almost always start by doing secondary research--a literature review--of the field they’re studying, before they go out and collect their own data. Again, research is a cumulative process, and human knowledge builds through the interplay of primary and secondary research. 

When laypeople do their own research, whether online or in a library, archive, etc., they may be doing primary research--for example, if they’re looking at census records or letters while researching their family history. But more often they’re doing secondary research: looking up what other people have written, or data other people have collected. In fact, as a reference librarian I often recommend that people start with tertiary sources--sources like encyclopedias, introductory texts, review articles and so on, which synthesize primary and secondary research into an introduction that a layperson can use to get an overview of a topic. Starting with an overview instead of the details is a good idea, for the same reason that it’s a good idea to get a map of a new city instead of trying to learn it by driving around randomly. It’s easy to get lost if you don’t have some sense of the big picture. 

Reading tertiary sources prepares you to move to more in-depth sources--books for beginners, magazine articles for laypeople, etc. Then, once you start to learn the specialized vocabulary used by experts in the field, you may want to venture into the primary research literature--academic journal articles, technical reports, books for specialists, and so on. But as anyone who has tried to read technical literature knows, it’s not easy. It can take months or years to gain the background knowledge to understand a research article in a complex field. Unless you're an unusually brilliant person, you can’t just go out and pick up a research report on astrophysics or biochemistry and expect to understand it. That’s true even if you’re a renowned expert in another field. None of us can be experts in everything. 

That means that for all of us, an unavoidable part of the research process is learning about the topic from people who know more than we do. We have to listen to the experts and pay attention to expert consensus. That’s an essential part of doing your own research, and always has been.  I’ll talk more about the value of expertise and how to evaluate the credibility of expert opinions in a later blog post. For now, I want to list some good places to start doing your own research, but doing it the right way, with credible sources and the understanding that nobody can become an instant expert with a few hours of internet searching. 

Finding an Overview: Encyclopedias and other Tertiary Sources

Encyclopedias and other Reference Works: DPL has many print reference books in the reference department at Central, as well as around the system. These can be found by searching our catalog or asking a librarian for recommendations. However, we also have access to hundreds of reference books you can access online with your library card. 

  • Gale Ebooks: This database contains hundreds of books, many of which are encyclopedias and other reference books. If you want to start researching a question in science, for example, you can consult the 8 volume Gale Encyclopedia of Science. If you want to learn more about law, check out the Gale Encyclopedia of American Law. Databases like Gale Ebooks give you a virtual wall of reference books you can use anywhere you have an internet connection.
  • Other Gale Reference Books: Many of our other Gale databases also have online reference books, some of which aren't available in Gale Ebooks. The easiest way to search for those is to go to Gale Powersearch, and click on Books in your search results. An example of what you can find this way is the 2020 Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine
  • EBSCO Ebooks: This database has over 20,000 online books, including many reference books and textbooks. It's a little less useful than the Gale resources above, because the reference books tend to be a little older, but it's possible to find some gems. For example, I recently made use of the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends to plan a library program. 

CQ Researcher: If you want to find an objective overview of a controversial issue in society, CQ Researcher is a great place to start. It features detailed articles by professional journalists, with coverage of opposing viewpoints, and lots of references for further research. Here's their latest article, concerning vaccine mandates

Medline Plus: From the National Library of Medicine, this is a great place to start if you want to research medical questions. Offers a wide range of articles and links selected by medical librarians. 

Legal Information Resource Center: Tertiary sources are especially useful when researching legal questions, because law is an especially difficult topic for lay people to understand. This database offers a wide range of books with introductions to common legal questions. 

Newspaper and Magazine Articles: You can often find good introductions to a technical topic by finding an explanatory article in a newspaper or magazine. These may be written by professional writers, but they are often written by experts in the field. DPL has access to an enormous number of newspapers and magazines, though the databases listed on our Research page. If you decide you're ready to dive into the academic literature, most of these offer full text academic journal articles as well. Two good choices are Academic Search Premier and Gale OneFile

Books for Beginners: Of course, the tried and true method of learning about a new topic is to read a book about it. There are many different books and book series that are written as introductory works. One excellent series is the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press, which covers hundreds of different topics. Despite the names, the Dummies and Complete Idiot's Guide series can be excellent introductions to many different topics. For help finding introductory books on whatever topic interests you, just ask a librarian.

Textbooks: It doesn't occur to most non-students to learn about a topic by reading a textbook, but it's actually an excellent approach, because textbooks are expressly designed to teach about a topic, and are usually well-organized and illustrated, with useful chapter summaries. While DPL doesn't collect many textbooks, we do have some, and we can get many others through Prospector and Interlibrary Loan

Guides to Research: The sources below are good introductions to the research process. Some are geared toward college students writing research papers, and contain information on writing and citation that may not be relevant, but they still have good information about what research is and how to do it well. If you're looking for guides to researching specific topics, like law, genealogy, etc; please ask us

Finding reliable information online : adventures of an information sleuth / Leslie F. Stebbins

The craft of research / Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, William T. FitzGerald.

Research and documentation in the digital age / Diana Hacker, Barbara Fister

The Chicago guide to fact-checking / Brooke Borel.

Fake news, propaganda, and plain old lies : how to find trustworthy information in the digital age / Donald A. Barclay.

Research: Where to Begin. Purdue Owl

Obviously, what I've discussed in this article barely scratches the surface of what research is and how to do it. When people say, "I do my own research", they're usually talking about learning the facts about some politically-charged issue, so I've focused on sources that can help with that sort of research. Lots of research is about less fraught topics, like business and marketing, seeking grants, or consumer research. Whatever your research needs, we can help you get started. Just ask Reference Services or call 720-865-1363.


Written by Ross on November 2, 2021