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POLS 104: American Government in Comparative Perspective: Research basics

This guide introduces you to the Political Science resources available from the University of St. Thomas Libraries, with particular attention to resources supporting scholarship related to the political systems of the United States,.

The information cycle

As events happen, information is generated.  Understanding the ways information is associated with events helps to know where to look and what kinds of content you will find. For example:

 

Immediate information includes internet (social media) and real time reporting on TV and radio. Information from these sources is very current, even eyewitness, but not very thoughtful.  These accounts are called 'primary sources.'  Common examples: Twitter, Facebook, broadcast news, etc.

 

Next day or week: A newspaper account will come out in the day or two following the event, and will be more organized and slightly more complete, with a certain degree of context. A weekly magazine might contain even more background and is probably more reliable.  Examples: New York Times, Time Magazine, The Economist.

 

Within a year or two: Journals and books will publish accounts of the event and will have the benefit of time and research to add even more context, understanding, analysis and reliability to the events. Examples: Scholarly journal articles and popular books.

 

Two to three years: Scholarly books generally take a few years to go through the research, writing, editing and publishing process, but are very complete, contextual and, often, reliable.

 

Five or more years: At a certain point, encyclopedias and reference books will contain the 'accepted' historical analysis of events, though we understand that "history" can be subject to "revision."

 

(See also "Evaluating information")

Evaluating information

Thinking critically about the information you are using is essential to high quality research.  A few things to consider: 

  • Is the information current?  When was it written/published?
  • Is the information authoritative?  Who is the author and what is their background and education?
  • Is the information accurate? Are there notes and references giving the sources of the data?
  • Is the information objective?  Is it partisan?  If the publisher is an agency or organization, do you know who they are and what their goals and interests are? 
  • Is the information relevant?  Does it answer the question you have?

 

Scholarship is a Conversation

Research in scholarly and professional fields is a discursive practice in which ideas are formulated, debated, and weighed against one another over extended periods of time. Instead of seeking simple answers to complex problems, experts understand that an issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and create new ideas and new meaning over time.  In practical terms, look for author affiliation, look for the works cited in papers and follow leads to both earlier and later articles.  What was the seminal (first, most influential) article?  How has the idea been revised since then?  What is new in each addition to the conversation?

Scholarly content vs. Popular content

An important distinction defines the kinds of information available in libraries and online, especially in the academic environment. Your professors at the university level will want you to conduct research using "scholarly" content.  But even in your everyday use of information, it is important to note these differences.  Here are some clues:

Scholarly                                                                                                            

  • Authors are experts (look into their backgrounds, where they went to school, what they studied, who they work for)
  • Articles are reviewed by other experts and considered to add knowledge to the field (scholarship is a conversation)
  • Audience is assumed to know something about the subject
  • Sources for facts and ideas are cited 
  • Publications or sites are noncommercial - there is little or no advertising


Popular

  • Authors are professional writers, but not necessarily subject experts, and may have no academic  background in the area at all
  • Articles are meant to sell magazines or attract eyeballs to a website
  • Audience is the general public, and there is no assumption of prior knowledge
  • Articles do not contain citations or references
  • Lots advertising (commercial and profitmaking)