4. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.
Part of the process of identifying credible sources involves reading critically to find the best information available for your purposes, and those are whatever you’ve determined your audience’s needs to be. When collecting sources online by entering key terms into a search engine, examining the list of titles, and clicking on those that seem relevant, you begin the process of narrowing down your topic by what research materials are available. Of course, you don’t have time to read all the thousands or even millions of webpages and articles that turn up in Google search results to determine which fulfill your (and your audience’s) purposes. You skim.
Successful skim-reading depends on the effective organization of the sources you’re sorting through as well as your own time-management strategies. For articles, you would focus on the abstract or synopsis—a paragraph that summarizes the entire piece and helps determine if it’s what you’re looking for. For webpages, you would read the very top and then skip down to see if the section headings indicate topics of interest; you can also do a word search (ctrl + f) if you’re scanning for specific concepts. At the level of each paragraph, you rely on the first sentences representing the topic of the paragraph so that you can skim the topic sentences, and perhaps the concluding sentences, to capture the main points and get a sense of how the content flows. Bolded key words and illustrations also help. (If your sources are effectively organized in this fashion, you can express your gratitude by paying it forward to your own readers. Organize your own writing so that you place main points strategically in topic sentences and highlight topics as subheadings. Your readers will be grateful if you help them to skim effectively.)
When you find online sources relevant to your topic, best practice for preparing to document and use them properly is to collect them in an informal annotated bibliography. A formal annotated bibliography lists full bibliographical entries and a proper summary under each entry; as a set of notes, on the other hand, an informal annotated bibliography need only include the source titles, web addresses (URLs that allow you to get back to the sources and collect more information about them later if you end up using them), and some summary points about the sources under each URL. When you begin your research investigation, however, you may want to collect only titles and URLs until you’ve narrowed down a list of sources you think you’ll use, then go back and confirm their relevance by writing some notes under each. (Getting some note-form points down on paper—or on your word processor screen—counts as your first step in the actual writing of your document, giving you a foundation to build on.
The most relevant and useful sources meet the needs of the audience you are preparing your document for. For this you must choose sources with the right amount of detail. You may find plenty of general sources that offer decent introductions (e.g., from Wikipedia) but fall short of providing appropriate detail; in such cases you might be able to find more detailed coverage in the sources that they’ve used if those introductory sources you found are credible for having properly documented their research in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles might offer a level of detail that far exceeds what you need along with content that goes way over your head; you may want to include these as mere citations if only to point readers in the direction of credible evidence for a minor point supporting a major point. In such cases, you should at least ensure that they indeed prove your point rather than prove something distantly related but not relevant enough to your topic.
During this process you will encounter plenty of information in sources that may both confirm and contradict what you already know about your topic. It’s important that you do what you’re supposed to do as a student: keep an open mind and learn! Refrain from simply discarding contradictory information that will over-complicate your argument. If it turns out that a reputable source undermines your argument entirely, then this is the right point in the game to change your argument so that you don’t end up embarrassing yourself in the end with a fantasy-driven document. If you’re doing a research report into the viability of a waste-to-energy gasification facility, for instance, and you really want to say that it solves both your city’s municipal garbage disposal and energy production needs, you don’t want to find yourself too far down that road before addressing why no such facility has ever achieved profitable positive energy production. Ignoring such a record and the reasons why investors tend to avoid such opportunities, such as the failed Plasco plant in Ottawa, will undermine your credibility.
As a final word of warning, be careful with how you collect source content so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize by the time you use the sources you’ve collected in your final document. If you copy and paste text from sources into your notes as a basis for quotations or paraphrases, ensure that you put quotation marks around it and cite the page numbers (if the source has them) or paragraph numbers (if it doesn’t have page numbers) in parentheses immediately following the closing quotation marks so you can properly cite them if you go on to use them later. If you don’t put quotation marks around copied text, you run the risk of committing plagiarism by rolling unmarked quotations into your final document; even if you cite them, implying that you’ve paraphrased when you’ve really quoted still counts as a breach of academic integrity. We will return to the problem of plagiarism in the next section when we continue examining the process of building a document around research, but at this point it’s worth reviewing your collection of research material to ensure that it meets the needs of the audience and works towards fulfilling the purpose you determined at the outset of the writing process.
Narrowing down a research topic involves skimming through database search results to select relevant sources, as well as skimming through source text to pull out main points that support your hypothesis by knowing where to find them.
Building on Exercise #1 in the previous section, develop the sources you found into an informal annotated bibliography with just titles and URLs for each source, as well as 2-3 main points in quotation marks pulled from the source text and bullet-listed under each URL.
- Freedman, L. (2012). Skimming and scanning. Writing Advice. Retrieved from http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/researching/skim-and-scan/ ↵
- Chianello, J., & Pearson, M. (2015, February 10). Ottawa severs ties with Plasco as company files for creditor protection. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/plasco-energy-group-files-for-creditor-protection ↵