UNIV 110 IS - Independent Study

Lesson 2 - Research Questions and Evaluating Information


Part One - Developing Research Questions

In Lesson One we learned that research is not a matter of compiling information about a topic so that we can summarize the topic.  Research, rather, is a problem-solving exercise that addresses a question or a thesis and attempts to put forward evidence that leads to a conclusion.  Some analogies:

1. You are sitting down with a group of people to determine a course of action you should take.  The question at hand is, "Which of the several options is the best course to take?" There are a number of points of view, and each person speaks into the problem.  As leader of this group, you must weigh the evidence and decide which course of action your group needs to follow.

2. You are lawyer for the defense in a murder trial.  There's a lot of evidence against your client, who you believe to be innocent.  You put forward evidence and persuasive argument to defend your thesis: "My client didn't do this."

The common elements in these two examples are, first, that there is a problem to resolve; second, it is not all that easy to resolve the problem; and third, that the evidence you gather is a tool for solving the problem, not an end in itself.  This latter point means that information becomes a tool to solve the problem rather than a goal (in which you read up on a topic and summarize what you learned).  If you can answer your question by looking something up, it's not a genuine research question.  A good research question needs to require you to evaluate evidence and consider various points of view before you can come up with a solution.

Task One

View: "A Model for the Process of Informational Research" (Google Slides), ensuring you understand the model and its emphasis on problem-based research projects. Play close attention to the portion dealing with research questions.

Creating good research questions is not easy.  The textbook, in Chapter Three and Appendix A.1, provides a lot of examples.  Be sure you read this material carefully before you do Assignment Two.

Task Two

View the Prezi presentations: "Finding a Research Problem" and "Creating Research Questions": 

Go through the following Google Slides presentation:

The following presentation shows you how to draw a preliminary outline directly out of the terminology in your research question:

Part Two - Reading some scholarly writing that is problem-based

We are going to have a look at an article on the new "religion" of Kopimism and do a close reading (an analysis intended to figure out the article's message and determine to what extent it accomplishes its purposes):

O'Callaghan, S. (2014). Cyberspace and the Sacralization of Information.Online-Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet6. Retrieved from: https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/religions/article/view/17361/11172 (Click "View" and scroll down to the actual article).

This article introduces a fairly new concept related to a developing Internet-generated religion.  While the statement of the problem the author is addressing is looser than I like to see, it is fairly clear:  "There has been considerable debate around the validity of Kopimism as a religious entity and this paper explores the historical development of the movement, as well as the philosophical rationale behind what it claims to be its core beliefs."

It appears, then, that the paper is a critique of Kopimism. It attempts to evaluate the basis for its existence and beliefs.  Note the following as you go through the paper:

1. There is an abstract, which is essentially a brief summary of the subject matter of the article.

2. The keywords under the abstract help you understand the main emphases of the article.

3. The first section, "Cyberspace and Religion," is a literature review, which details the history of the link between the Internet and religious thinking.  Literature reviews are carefully structured to lay out the main ideas and also to suggest where further research needs to go.  In this case, the author points out that there is considerable debate about the extent to which the Internet can be understood as a space for religion.  We can expect that the rest of the article with look at this debate.

4. The author goes on to point out that, while the Net has spawned new religious forms (such as Jediism, based on the Star Wars movies), the particular interest of the article lies in Kopimism, which sees the Internet itself as religious ("Information is holy. Code is Law. Copying is Sacrament."). This makes cyberspace "a holy place."

5. At this point, you, the reader, need to begin questioning the purpose of the author.  Is it simply to teach us about Kopimism? To criticize Kopimism? To give suggestions as to how Kopimism can develop or mature?  Is the writer in favour of this movement?  Opposed to it?  Unsure what to make of it?  Clearly the author sees the movement as more than just an excuse for illegal Internet piracy.

6. A careful look at the conclusion shows that the author believes the movement ultimately fails as a religion.  Why? (a hint: the last sentence, which is a bit chilling, speaks of an alternate civilization which this "religion" promotes).  It is now clear that the author wanted to test Kopimism's claim to be a religion.

7. A few challenges with this paper:  

  • It could do with a much clearer research question, such as, "To what extent can Kopimism be viewed as a genuine religion?"
  • The use of very long paragraphs makes it difficult to read.  Word to the wise: Keep your paragraphs to 6-8 lines maximum.
  • There is a lot of complicated language and jargon that could be simplified.

Learning to do the kind of analysis described above is crucial to working with scholarly writing.  You need to ask constant questions of whatever scholarly work you are reading:

  • What are the qualifications of the author? What biases do you see that may slant the argument in a certain direction?
  • What is the author's purpose?
  • How well does the author use evidence?  Is it believable?  Are there points of view, counter arguments or evidence that the author is ignoring or presenting in an illegitimate fashion?
  • To what extent does the author make the case?

...and so on.