The depth and quality of your research is strongly correlated to your success on a given topic. For that reason, you should spend time cultivating your research skills just like you do your in-round technical skills. Here are a few tips to help improve your research skills.
1. Use Citations
To research well, you have to realize that someone has already done your work for you (in a manner of speaking). Scholarly articles are themselves a product of research in the topic area. So, collect citations from the articles you read. If you see one source cited over and over again, you know it is probably a cornerstone of the topic literature. You shouldn’t spend half of your research time combing the 15th page of Google Scholar for just the right article. Find one solid, well-footnoted article and work from there.
2. Use the Library
While the bulk of your research is probably going to be electronic, there are still two good reasons to use the library (especially a good college library if you have access). First, once again, someone has done your research for you. The Dewey Decimal System organizes books by subject area. If you find one book that is relevant to the topic area, you are likely to find a shelf full of relevant books all around it.
Second, books offer something a little different than most journal articles. They tend to be more comprehensive, which gives you a good grounding in the fundamentals of the topic area. Also, the arguments in books tend to be more in-depth – the authors have virtually unlimited space to delve into the topic. Often journal articles are written by scholars with a passing interest in the topic or even by graduate or law students. Folks who have put in the time and research necessary to write a book are often (though not always) experts. So, it may well be worth your time to head to the library and read some real 3D books like they did back in the 20th century.
3. You Don’t Have to Read Every Word
Debaters get bogged down starting at the beginning and reading every word of an article to find out if it’s useful. That’s usually unnecessary. You should always start by reading the abstract, introduction, and conclusion of an article to assess whether it’s useful. If it’s not what you’re looking for, move on. If an article looks promising, go through it reading the first sentence of every paragraph. If it is well-written, you should be able to follow the article surprisingly well. When you zero in on something you want to cut, then you can get down to the nitty-gritty and read every word so you know precisely what you are cutting.
Caveat: Reading efficiently does not mean reading lazily. Many debaters use “skimming” as an excuse to actually get nothing out of an article at all. When you are reading the first sentences of every paragraph or some other skimming method, you should be focusing and trying to follow the article. If you are not following the thesis of an article, then you are not reading properly.