The Craft of Research – A Biased Review Part 2

After sort of reviewing the first part of “The Craft of Research” I will continue in this post with the second part of the book. It is named “Asking Questions, Finding Answers” and is supposed to help the want-to-be-researcher find an appropriate topic, asking a worthwhile question, stating a research problem and identifying and engaging sources. I will again take the twisted meta-route of viewing this post as far as possible as the to-be-written-research-paper. That said, the broad topic is quite clear: the book “The Craft of Research”. And I guess it is actually specific enough. If I didn’t had the topic already, the first sub-chapters would help me find concrete topics among my interests.

The remainder of the first chapter tries to show me ways to reach at a significant research question. What might be a worthwhile question regarding my topic? The authors suggest to begin with asking the default questions applicable to gain knowledge: what, when, who, where, why and how. But concentrate on why and how. So what about these questions:

  • Why was the book written in the first place?
  • Why is there a third edition?
  • How did the authors figured out what works well and what not?
  • How does the book help you in writing your first research paper?

I think the first three questions might be interesting in their own regard, but not so much for my audience, I guess. The fourth question points more in the right direction. But it assumes that the book actually helps in writing a research paper. This is an unproven claim. But leads to another question: does reading the book and following the books advises enable one to create good research papers? Does the answer to this question have any significance to my readers? I would say: of course. As my readers might be students tackling their first major research project (I discussed my potential target audience in the first post reviewing the book), and they certainly would like to have proof that the book helps them get good grades. At first it looks hard to find sources and reliable evidence. But to take the question any further you have to be sure you can come to an answer. So maybe some freely available numbers might tell us something. I googled the following phrases and looked at the hit count:

  • “The Craft of Research” better grade – 579.000 hits
  • “The Craft of Research” worse grade – 56.000 hits
  • “The Craft of Research” success – 195.000 hits
  • “The Craft of Research” failure – 289.000 hits
  • “The Craft of Research” works – 340.000 hits
  • “The Craft of Research” sucks – 46.800 hits

Without digging any deeper in the search results, I guess it is obvious that there is a strong tendency towards the usefulness of the book. Additionally there may be other resources for hard numbers: positive vs. negative reviews at Amazon.com or Goodreads.com. You even might conduct a survey that asks for the grades of students, and if they read and used the book. To sum it up, here is the three step “significance test”, discussed in sub-chapter 3.4:

  1. I’m studying the usefulness of the book “The Art of Research”
  2. Because I want to find out if it actually helps students and researchers to write better research papers
  3. In order to help my readers understand if the book is worth reading in preparation of their first major research project.

The next chapter is focused on the transition from step 2 to step 3. In doing so you state a problem focused towards your readers, whom might agree that a solution to that problem is needed. Actually I feel quite lucky with the example I have chosen here. In my own real research project: my master thesis, I’m still struggling trying to do the same for any topic I have looked at so far. The chapter discusses common aspects of a problem and the differences between a practical and a conceptual problem. Let’s come back to the example. A practical problem, might be:

  • a situation or condition: a recommendation to read the book to become better at writing research papers
  • the cost: the loss of some money to buy and time to actually read the book

To arrive at a conceptual problem you have to state something that must be understand by your readers or is currently unknown for them:

  • a situation or condition: the student or want-to-be-researcher doesn’t know if the book does help in writing research papers
  • the consequence: possibly bad grades or reviews when not reading the book and following its advises.

But why this hassle? The authors argue, that it is crucially important that your readers understand and acknowledge the reason for doing the research. When they do see your problem worth pursuing, they are longing for the solution you might present them. I agree with the authors. I even think there is a deeper pattern as I see similar statements in many different areas. Maybe it’s just that everyone tries to do meaningful things and avoids “monkey work”.

The next sub-chapter addresses a further distinction of research: pure versus applied. I guess most of us have a quite clear understanding of this. But in short: the former seeks out problems for the sake of just knowing the answer. The second has some practical relevance. You can act upon finding a solution to the problem. As you might have guessed, my example falls in the second category. The rest of the chapter gives hints at finding a research problem worth pursuing. As I already identified an example research problem – may it be not that extraordinary – I will only summarize the key points:

  • Not knowing the concrete problem to solve is not a big deal at the beginning of your research project – many researchers identified theirs on mid-flight and contributed often more, than those who found a solution to a well known problem.
  • Talk to others about your topic and the questions they ask might hint at a problem worth pursuing.
  • When you are reading papers look out for possible contributions, corrections or open questions.
  • Reread your own drafts. When writing things down you serialize your thoughts and often find gaps in your thinking that might offer research problems on their own.

The chapter continues with some further information on how to work with your problems. It finishes with encouraging words regarding and overcoming the inexperience everyone feels, who is new in an area of research. In short: accept that uncertainty and anxiety are unavoidable, get control over your topic through writing about it, divide et impera and define achievable concrete goals.

The subsequent chapter exists to help the inexperienced researcher find sources. At this point you have to have at least a research question and one ore more promising answers. Wait a second, what actually is a promising answer? Two things came instantly to my mind. The first: this point wasn’t touched so far. The second: is ‘Yes’ a valid answer?

I guess ‘Yes’ is indeed a valid answer. But how can I possibly proof that it is the correct answer. I should make my hypothesis more narrow: focused on specific contents of the book or circumstances in which the book can be applied.

But before diving into developing a promising hypothesis I will continue with the further content of the chapter. Which discusses a totally different matter. Maybe the announcement of a “promising answer” was just one small glimpse on what will come later? I don’t really get it.

Nevertheless the book continues with some theory about the distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources and some tips on how to find sources in the library and the internet. As I will NOT go to the library to find sources on “The Art Of Research”, I omit an in-depth discussion of the library hunt. The internet search part is quite useless in my opinion. But the next sub-chapter: “5.4 Evaluating Sources For Relevance and Reliability” has some decent hints on the topic. In sum, when deciding to use a source, you should always consider: your paper/thesis is only as reliable as the sources it is built upon and that it is meaningless when it is based upon outdated or even worse, proofed wrong information.

The fifth chapter concludes with a quick tip regarding the implications of using people as sources and demands that a researcher willing to take this route should check back with her institutions “Human Subjects Committee”. That might be US specific, though.

The sixth chapter: “Engaging Sources” starts of with some cautious words regarding the bias to read sources in favor to the first solution we think we have found and are simply overlooking contradictions and problems. It continues with a distinction of different kinds of evidence that is accepted by your readers. The right choice depends mostly on the area of research and in my case the option last presented fits best: “quantitative data gathered in laboratory experiments and surveys.” As I’m rooted deep in the natural sciences and favor facts over opinions, this presents the channel to convince me on something.

The authors make a big deal of proper note-taking. Because it is not really important for the example I have chosen, I will not dive into details here. The same is true for sub-chapter: 6.3, which discusses strategies to read important secondary sources thoroughly by first reading open-minded with good will and more critical in a second run, as well as to question blunt claims even from authorities. The next sub-chapter goes a step back to the topic of finding a resource problem – not really interesting in the examples case either.

The chapter concludes with a sub-chapter on planning your argument – which seems quite natural and obvious, but it is worth reading nevertheless – a sub-chapter on the nitty-gritty details of note-taking and finally a quick tip regarding moments of anxiety. The quick tip holds some encouraging words and some strategies for the people feeling lost in their notes.

Thats it for part two of the book. I guess the third part will fill another quite long blog post. The fourth and fifth parts will be combined in one post. But I don’t really know when I will find time and energy to engage those. To be honest, writing a review this way is really exhausting. Hopefully not the reading. If it is, I sincerely apologize and promise to make it better the next time.

Before I close one final thought.

While writing this blog posts I was going through the book at a real slow pace. I kept moving back and forth and reread certain parts a few times. I must conclude: the books structure is not perfect. Some, I thought closed, topics are reopened. Other things are not properly introduced. I guess there is some room to improve in a fourth edition.

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