8 Researching Arguments

Meggie Mapes

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the importance of research
  • Explain different information types
  • Introduce lateral reading as a research tool and technique
  • Describe types of plagiarism and explain best practices in citation

What does the word “research” conjure up for you? Do you think about sitting in a library and sorting through books or searching online? Do you picture a particular type of person?

While these images aren’t incorrect (of course libraries are connected with research), “research” can feel like an intimidating process. When does it begin? Where does it happen? When does it stop?

It’s helpful to understand what is – the process of discovering new knowledge and investigating a topic from different points of view. Research is a process; it’s an ongoing dialogue with information. But, as you know, not all information is neutral, and not all information is ethical. Part of the research process, then, is evaluating information to determine what knowledge is ethical and best suited for your argument.

This chapter will focus on the research process and the development of skills—or decision-making based on evaluating and critiquing information— to identify, sort, and evaluate (mostly) scholarly information. To begin, we outline why research matters, followed by insights about locating information, evaluating information, and avoiding plagiarism.

A Research Case Study: Throughout this chapter, we’ll use our “college textbook affordability” example from Chapter 3 to walk through the research life-cycle.

Why Research?

Research gets a bad rap. It can feel like a boring, tedious, and overwhelming process. In our current information age, we are guilty of conducting a quick search, finding what we want to read, and moving on. Many of us rarely sit down, allocate time, and commit to digging deep and researching different perspectives about an idea or argument.

But we should.

When conducting research, you get to ask questions and actually find answers. If you have ever wondered what the best strategies are when being interviewed for a job, research will tell you. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to be a NASCAR driver, an astronaut, a marine biologist, or a university professor, once again, research is one of the easiest ways to find answers to questions you’re interested in knowing.

Research can also open a world you never knew existed. We often find ideas we had never considered and learn facts we never knew when we go through the research process. Maybe you want to learn how to compose music, draw, learn a foreign language, or write a screenplay; research is always the best step toward learning anything.

As public speakers, research will increase your confidence and competence. The more you know, the more you know. The more you research, the more precise your argument, and the clearer the depth of the information becomes.

Where to Start

Because you’ve done exploratory research, you will likely have basic, foundational information about your argument. With that basic information in mind, ask: “what question am I answering? What should I be looking for? What do I need?”

Your specific purpose statement or a working thesis are good places to start. Remember the college textbook affordability example discussed previously? To refresh, the specific purpose is: “to persuade my audience to support campus solutions to rising textbook costs.” Research can help zero in on a working thesis by a) finding support for our perspective and b) identifying any specific campus solution that we could advocate for.

When we begin researching, we have three initial questions that arise from our specific purpose: has the cost of college textbooks increased over time? What are the causes? And what are the opportunities to address rising textbook costs in a way that can improve access relatively quickly at your institution?

These are just our starting questions. We’ll likely revise and research for information as we learn more. As Howard and Taggart point out in their book Research Matters, research is not just a one-and-done task (2010). As you develop your speech, you may realize that you want to address a question or issue that didn’t occur to you during your first round of research, or that you’re missing a key piece of information to support one of your points.

Use these questions, prior experience, and insight from exploratory brainstorming to determine what to search for and where to start. If you still feel overwhelmed, that’s OK. Start somewhere (or ask a librarian for help), and use the insights below about information types as a guide.

Locating Effective Research

Once you have a general idea about the basic needs you have for your research, it’s time to start tracking information down. Thankfully, we live in a world that is swimming with information.

As you search, you will naturally be drawn to tools and information types that are already familiar to you. Like most people, you will likely use Google as your first search strategy. As you know, Google isn’t a source, per se: it’s a search engine. It’s the vehicle that, through search terms and savvy wording, will direct you to sources related to those terms.

What information types would you expect to see in your Google search results? We are guessing your list would include: news, blogs, Wikipedia, dictionaries, and social media.

While Google is a great tool, all informational roads don’t lead to Google. Learning about different information types and different ways to access information can expand your search portfolio.

Information Types

As you begin looking for research, an array of information types will be at your disposal.

When you access a piece of information, you should determine what you are looking at. Is it a blog? an online academic journal? an online newspaper? a website for an organization? Will these information types be useful in answering the questions that you’ve identified?

Common helpful information types include websites, scholarly articles, books, and government reports, to name a few. To determine the usefulness of an information type, you should familiarize yourself with what those sources are and their goals.

Information types are often categorized as either academic or nonacademic.

Nonacademic information sources are sometimes also called popular press information sources; their primary purpose is to be read by the general public. Most nonacademic information sources are written at a sixth to eighth-grade reading level, so they are very accessible. Although the information often contained in these sources can be limited, the advantage of using nonacademic sources is that they appeal to a broad, general audience.

Alternatively, academic sources are often (not always) peer-reviewed by like-minded scholars in the field. Academic publications can take longer to publish because academics have established a series of checklists that are required to determine the credibility of the information. Because of this process, it takes a while! That delay can result in nonacademic sources providing information before scholarly academics have tested or studied the phenomena.

In addition, be cognizant of who produces information and who that information is produced for. Table 8.1 simplistically illustrates the producer and audience of our short list of information types.

Information Type

What does it do?

Who is it produced by?

Who is it produced for?

News Report

Inform readers about what’s happening in the world.

General Public / Journalist

General Public

Social Media

Connects individuals, groups, and consumers

General Public

General Public

Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Journal Article

Provides insight into an academic discipline

Academic Researchers/Scholars

Academic Researchers/Scholar/ Students

Academic Books

Provides insight into an academic discipline

Academic researchers/Scholars

Academic Researchers/Scholars /Students

Government reports

Shares information on behalf of a government agency

Government Agencies

Policy/Decision Makers

Data and Statistics

Reports statistical findings

Government Agencies

Policy/Decision Makers

Academic Researcher

E-books

Inform, persuade, or entertain readers about a topic through a digital medium

Can be Self-Published or Published through a Scholar / Agency

General Public

                                                     Table 8.1

This is not an exhaustive list of information types. Others include encyclopedias, periodicals, or blogs. For more insight on information types, check here.

With any information type, the dichotomy of producer/audience helps us with evaluating the information. As you’ve learned from our discussion of public speaking, the audience informs the message. If you have a clearer idea of who the content is written for, you can determine if that source is best for your research needs.

Having a better understanding of information types is important, but open and closed information systems dictate which source material we have access to.

Librarians are Resources: Remember that librarians are research experts and can help you to find information, refine an argument, locate search terms, cite your sources, and much more!

Open/Closed Information Systems

An describes information that is publicly available and accessible. A means information is behind a paywall or requires a subscription.

Let’s consider databases as an example. You’ve likely searched your library’s database. Databases provide full-text periodicals and works that are regularly published. This is a great tool because it can provide you links to scholarly articles, news reports, e-books, and more.

“Does that make databases an open system?” you may be asking. Access to databases is purchased by libraries. The articles and books contained in databases are licensed by publishers to companies, who sell access to this content, which is not freely available elsewhere. So, databases are part of a closed system. The university provides you access, but non-university folks would reach a paywall.

The table below illustrates whether different information types are like to be openly available or behind a paywall in a closed system. Knowing if an information type is open or closed might influence your tools and search strategies used to discover and access the information.

Information Type

Open Access

Closed Access

News Report

Some content exposed to internet search engines and open

Licensed content available with subscription or single access payment

Social Media

General public and open

Privacy settings may limit some access

Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Journal Article

Scholarship labeled as “Open access” is free of charge

Licensed content available with subscription or single access payment

Academic Books

“Open access” books are free of charge

Many books require payment and purchase

Government Reports

Government information in the public domain is open

Classified government information – restricted access

Government Data/Statistics

Open government data

Classified government information – restricted access

Table 8.2

Information isn’t always free. If you are confronted with a closed system, you will have to determine if that information is crucial or if you can access similar information through an openly accessible system.

Having a better understanding of information types and access will assist you in locating research for your argument. We continue our discussion below by diving into best practices for locating and evaluating research.

Evaluating Research

Imagine that you’re online shopping. You have a pretty clear idea of what you need to buy, and you’ve located the product on a common site. In a perfect world, you could trust the product producer, the site, and the product itself and, without any research, simply click and buy. If you’re like us, however, being a knowledgeable consumer means checking product reviews, looking for similar products, and reading comments about the company. Once we have a deeper understanding of the product and process, then we buy!

Argument research is similar. Feeling literate about the information types described above is key, but inaccurate or untrustworthy content still emerges.

In response, we recommend – fact-checking source claims by reading other sites and resources.

Lateral reading emerged after a group of Stanford researchers pitted undergraduates, professors with their Ph.D.s in history, and journalists against each other in a contest to see who could tell if the information was fake or real (Wineburg, McGrew, 2017). The results? Journalists identified fake information every time, but the Ph.D.s and undergraduates struggled to sniff out the truth.

Why is this?

Well, journalists rarely read much of the article or website they were evaluating before they dove into researching it. They would read the title and open a new tab to check out if anyone else had published something on the same topic. Reading what other people had written gave the journalists some context or background knowledge on the topic, better positioning them to judge the argument and evidence made. They would circle back to the original article, identify the author, and open more tabs to verify the identity of the author and their credentials to write the piece. Once the journalists were satisfied with this, they had enough background information to start judging the argument of the original piece. Essentially, journalists would read the introduction and pick out big ideas or the argument, people, specific facts, and the evidence referenced in the first paragraph.

Mike Caulfield (2017), a professor who specializes in media literacy, read the Stanford study and identified steps to evaluate sources. One of those steps is to read laterally, and three additional steps include:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over, knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Let’s apply lateral reading to the college textbook affordability topic from Chapter 3 with the specific purpose to “to persuade my audience to support campus solutions to rising textbook costs.”

You decide to search “textbook affordability” into Google. Google identifies approximately 1 million sources – whoa. Where do you start? Click on one of those stories, “Triaging Textbook Costs” – a 2015 publication from Inside Higher Ed. From it, you learn about research on the rising costs of textbooks over time, how some students navigate those costs, and something called “open educational resources” (OER) as a strategy for reducing costs. You’ll use lateral reading to follow up on some of the sources linked in the story and do a little more research to fact-check this single source. By searching “OER,” you can verify that yes, many universities are turning to open educational resources to combat textbook affordability. Now, you can dive deeper into OERs as a potential solution to the problem.

Lateral reading is a great tool to verify the information and learn more without getting too bogged down. However, your research doesn’t stop there. As you begin compiling information source types around your argument, verify the credibility and make sure you’re taking notes.

Questioning Selected Source Information

Practicing lateral reading will provide you better insight into what diverse sources say about your argument. Through that process, you’ll likely find multiple relevant sources, but is that source best for your argument? Perhaps, but ask yourself the following questions before integrating others’ ideas or research into your argument:

  • What’s the date? Remember that timeliness plays a key role in establishing the relevance of your argument to your audience. Although a less timely source may be beneficial, more recent sources are often viewed more credibly and may provide updated information.
  • Who is the author / who are the authors? Identify the author(s) and determine their credentials. We also recommend “Googling” an author and checking if there are any red flags that may hint at their bias or lack of credibility.
  • Who is the publisher? Find out about the publisher. There are great, credible publishers (like the Cato Institute), but fringe or for-profit publishers may be providing information that overtly supports a political cause.
  • Do they cite others’ work? Check out the end of the document for a reference page. If you’re using a source with no references, it’s not automatically “bad,” but a reputable reference page means that the author has evidence to support their insights. It helps establish if that author has done their research, too.
  • Do others cite the work? Use the lateral reading technique from above to see if other people have cited this work, too. Alternatively, if, as you research, you see the same piece of work over and over, it’s likely seen as a reputable source within that field. So check it out!

It can feel great to find a key piece of information that supports your argument. But a good idea is more than well-written content. To determine if that source is credible, use the questions above to guarantee that you’re selecting the best research for your idea.

Take Notes

Remember: this is a lot of stuff to keep track of. We suggest jotting down notes as you go to keep everything straight. Your notes could be a pad of paper next to your laptop or a digital notepad – whatever works best for you.

This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. Poor note-taking or inaccurate notes can be devastating in the long term. If you forget to write down all the source information, backtracking and trying to research to locate citation information is tedious, time-consuming, and inefficient. Without proper citations, your credibility will diminish. Keeping information without correct citations can have disastrous consequences – as discussed below.

Plagiarism

While issues of plagiarism are mostly present in written communication, the practice can also occur in oral communication and communication studies courses. It can occur when speakers misattribute or fail to cite a source during a speech, or when they are preparing outlines or notecards to deliver their speeches and fail to cite sources.

According to the National Communication Association (NCA), “ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others” and truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason as essential to the integrity of communication (“Credo for Ethical Communication,” 2017).  This would imply that through oral communication, there is an expectation that you will credit others with their original thoughts and ideas through citation. One important way that we speak ethically is to use material from others correctly. Occasionally we hear in the news media about a politician or leader who uses the words of other speakers without attribution or of scholars who use pages out of another scholar’s work without consent or citation.

But, why does it matter if a speaker or writer commits plagiarism? Why and how do we judge a speaker as ethical? Why, for example, do we value originality and correct citation of sources in public life as well as the academic world, especially in the United States? These are not new questions, and some of the answers lie in age-old philosophies of communication.

Although there are many ways that you could undermine your ethical stance before an audience, the one that stands out and is committed most commonly in academic contexts is plagiarism. A dictionary definition of plagiarism would be “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Plagiarism is often thought of as “copying another’s work or borrowing someone else’s original ideas” (“What is Plagiarism?”, 2014). Plagiarism also includes:

  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own;
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit;
  • Failing to put quotation marks around an exact quotation correctly;
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation;
  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit;
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

Plagiarism exists outside of the classroom and is a temptation in business, creative endeavors, and politics. However, in the classroom, your instructor will probably take the most immediate action if he or she discovers your plagiarism either from personal experience or through using plagiarism detection (or what is also called “originality checking”) software.

In the business or professional world, plagiarism is never tolerated because using original work without permission (which usually includes paying fees to the author or artist) can end in serious legal action. So, you should always work to correctly provide credit for source information that you’re using.

Types of Plagiarism

There are many instances of speakers or authors presenting work they claim to be original and their own when it is not. Plagiarism is often done accidentally due to inexperience. To avoid this mistake, let’s work through two types of plagiarism: stealing and sneaking. Sometimes these types of plagiarism are intentional, and sometimes they occur unintentionally (you may not know you are plagiarizing). However, as everyone knows, “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.”

Stealing

No one wants to be the victim of theft; if it has ever happened to you, you know how awful it feels. When someone takes an essay, research paper, speech, or outline completely from another source, whether it is a classmate who submitted it for another instructor, from some sort of online essay writing service, or from elsewhere, this is an act of theft. The wrongness of the act is compounded when someone submits that work in its entirely and labels it as their own.

Most colleges and universities have a policy that penalizes or forbids “self-plagiarism.” This means that you can’t use a paper or outline that you presented in another class a second time. You may think, “How can this be plagiarism if the source is on my works cited page?” The main reason is that by submitting it to your instructor, you are still claiming it is original, first-time work for the assignment in that particular class. Your instructor may not mind if you use some of the same sources from the first time it was submitted, but he or she expects you to follow the instructions for the assignment and prepare an original assignment. In a sense, this situation is also a case of unfairness, since the other students do not have the advantage of having written the paper or outline already.

Sneaking

Instead of taking work as a whole from another source, an individual might copy two out of every three sentences and mix them up so they don’t appear in the same order as in the original work. Perhaps the individual will add a fresh introduction, a personal example or two, and an original conclusion. This kind of plagiarism is easy today due to the Internet and the word processing functions of cutting and pasting.  It also most often occurs when someone has waited too long to start a project and it seems easier to cut and paste portions of text than it is to read, understand, and synthesize information into their own words.

You might not view this as stealing, thinking, “I did some research. I looked some stuff up and added some of my own work.” Unfortunately, this is still plagiarism because no source was credited, and the individual “misappropriated” the expression of the ideas as well as the ideas themselves.

Avoiding Plagiarism

To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit to the words, research, or insights of others. When you’re integrating supporting research or using a key idea or theory, let the audience know! As you add research into your outline, you can either:

  • Use direct quotes: this means that you’re including information from a source verbatim.
  • Paraphrase: express the source’s idea but not verbatim.
  • Summarize: explain the main ideas or arguments from the source’s findings.

Citing others will bolster your credibility because it demonstrates that you have in-depth knowledge about the topic.

In English classes, you’ve likely used style guides (like MLA or APA) to ethically cite research in an essay. Continue this practice. Regardless of how you’re integrating that research – verbatim or paraphrasing—the source reference should appear both in the writing and through an oral citation.

Key Takeaway

Using Oral Citations: Research must be orally cited in a speech to note where you’re using ideas, concepts, or findings from someone else’s work. Rehearse your oral citations and be clear about why that source is credible for your topic.

Conclusion

Having a strong research foundation will give your speech interest and credibility. This chapter has shown you how to access information but also how to find reliable information and evaluate it.

This process may seem exhausting at first, but you likely already are doing this in your everyday life. We simply are asking you to be a bit more aware of and practice lateral reading. Doing so will help you better understand the context and judge the veracity of an author’s argument and their evidence. It will also likely give you plenty of new evidence to inform your own argument.

Attribution:

Sections of this chapter were adapted from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers  by Mike Caulfield.

Sections of this chapter were adapted from Speak up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. ISBN: 13: 9781946135254 License: CC BY-NC-SA.

License

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Speaking Confidently by Meggie Mapes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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