Today, there’s an attack on research.
But you knew this already.
You’re thinking about a friend, a family member, or a colleague you’ve talked to recently. In a moment of vulnerability, you mention how worried you are about the state of the world today.
They agree, it’s bad out there.
You get specific; you talk about that political issue affecting your aunt. Or, you discuss vaccine mandates. Or, you talk about that one celebrity and that one comment they made at their concert — THAT was a bad look.
But being specific was your first mistake.
Shockingly, your compatriots are on the other side of the argument. They talk about what they’ve learned, how they feel, and why it matters. But, you’re too stunned to even answer logically. How can they think this? You ask them: where did you even get this information from?
“See, I’ve done my own research.”
They talk about Youtube videos, online chatrooms, and websites you’ve never heard of. You’re morbidly interested in the Google search history, but you don’t have the emotional energy to take that step.
Here’s what’s worse: if you fell down the rabbit hole they’ve gone, you’re not sure you’d come out as a rational human being.
Our information ecosystems have become filled to the brim with misinformation. Countless people use it to harness movements against vaccine protection, racial equality, feminism, climate justice, and more. The internet “reality bubbles” have started to build walls between people and objective truth.
You want to make change. But you’re still worried: how do I make sure I don’t fall into the misinformation trap? How do you sift the truth from fiction when it seems like the entire digital world is constructed to keep us from being able to tell the difference?
As a firm filled with researchers from vast fields, experiences, and backgrounds, it pains us to see research theatre become so commonplace. We’ve seen the failings of institutions to include others into how research can change the world — but this attack on ‘research’ is clearly setting up average citizens to be loud, wrong, and caustic.
In our work, we’ve found six key steps that help us ensure our policy research is equitable, credible, and useful.
1. Decide on a rough broad scope for your research, and break it down into smaller, more manageable scopes.
Ask yourself some key questions before you dive in.
Why is this topic important?
What are other people saying about this topic?
What is the current literature missing?
If I were explaining this topic to someone who knows very little about it, what are the main pieces of information they’d need to know to get a rough understanding?
There are many other questions that can be asked and answered in the research around your topic, and often, you won’t know what they are until you’re already deep in it. That’s why this first step doesn’t have to be perfect. The key to equitable research is keeping an open, inquisitive mind.
So don’t listen to that voice in your head telling you to come up with a rigid plan and stick to it. Trust the process, and be open to changes that inevitably come.
2. Experiment with Google searches to see what articles/essays/papers already exist out there on your research scope.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Even if no one out there has written about the very exact same topic with the exact same scope you’re after, chances are high that you can find a few great articles that get close.
Of course, experimenting with a few searches is the key here, because relying on only one or two articles (even if they’re great!) isn’t very credible. Trying out a bunch of different search terms from various angles — for example, we always make sure to search for criticisms of the topic. This will unlock new questions that keep the process moving forward.
3. Keep a running list of interesting insights and data points that you think MIGHT be helpful — and link to them.
Trust me, you’ll save yourself a whole lot of time and heartache if you let go of the idea that you need to start writing right away.
Instead, as you research, just dump some relevant statistics, paragraphs, sentences, data points, charts — whatever you find useful! — into a document and link to the source where you got it from. Not all the research you collect will be useful, but you aren’t going to know what’s good or not at the outset.
Saving it all in one place to review later is not only very handy, but it’ll be immensely helpful as you move onto Step 4:
4. Be mindful of your sources.
You probably heard this from your high school teachers, but this means more than just “don’t cite Wikipedia.” You have to be aware that every source you find is likely going to have some sort of bias or ulterior motive to how they present the information you’re digesting. Unfortunately, more often than not, identifying the biases/motives are not going to be clear cut.
Here’s the most helpful piece of advice to counter this: “Be wary of any research that bills itself as a cure-all for the problem it’s addressing.”
Equitable researchers recognize that humans — and our problems — are always changing. We come up with solutions that make the initial problem worse, cause new problems, or partially fix the problem but don’t address key parts. Good researchers know to identify their own flaws and limitations, and suggest areas where further research is needed. If your research doesn’t include a healthy degree of self-awareness and critique, it’s probably just snake oil.
5. Spend some time reflecting on what the initial research you’ve gathered ISN’T saying.
In all research endeavors, there’s likely going to be missing information or data that would be useful to you. Being aware of the research limits that even the best and brightest face will help you understand what sources can and can’t confidently say about your topic.
Your topic might be too new for enough research to be collected on it. Or maybe no matter how many different searches you try, you’re not getting relevant information. It could be that you’re missing the right terminology — this is a common issue for folks researching in a second language, or studying a phenomenon in a foreign country. Asking around in your research community helps mitigate this.
If you’re still turning up nothing, your topic may just be under-researched. But don’t despair! That makes your task much more important. Even if it’s frustrating, you’re building research that will help someone else someday. Gather what you can and then brainstorm some original research methods that might help you gather the data you’re looking for.
6. Think deeply about this question: What do you want to do with the research you’re collecting?
Knowledge isn’t power — applied knowledge is power. Too many people spend too much time asking countless questions about how the world works without thinking about what they’ll eventually do with the content. That usually means one of two things: finding a community to learn with and from, and finding places to apply the things you learn to make equitable change.
Look, we’re not saying that we shouldn’t search for knowledge just because we find it personally compelling. It’s fun to know things! What you shouldn’t do, however, is believe that simply knowing a thing is the end: take a second and meditate on why this topic matters to you, and what you can do with this new power you’ve amassed.
Research is tough. Believe us, we know.
It takes a lot of time and energy to learn — in-depth — about a specific topic that you started out knowing nothing about. There are heaps of biases and perspectives that make it harder for any person to find the truth. Any of us on the team can fire off the COUNTLESS methods, approaches, and purposes of the knowledge you’re building.
Here’s the thing about online knowledge: we rarely ever try to understand what we see more than at a surface level. There’s so much to know, and the data’s increasing exponentially every day. It’s an extremely hard task, in a world where everyone — and everything — can be posted online.
At the same time, you can’t lose this opportunity: to be a one-person bulwark against the encroaching world of misinformation. Few people come to a social change issue excited about how much more they have to learn. VERY few people are trying to engage in holistic, principled, actionable research. You have an opportunity here: not only to learn and understand an issue, but to support, build, and help communities make the world better.
Don’t look at the hole you’ll fall down. Imagine the bridges you’ll build for yourself — and others — with the journey you’ll take.
Want to go deeper? Your org might need more research capacity to make actionable — and equitable — change in the world. Interested? Come talk to Think Rubix to see how we can help.