Method and Happenstance

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Key To Successful Research

I have written here before about serendipity and methodology in research, and I have been thinking lately about it again. Recently, Read, Write, Web reported that the website discovery tool StumbleUpon, among social media referral sites, is responsible for driving over half of the web traffic to websites. They surpass even Facebook and Twitter for referral traffic.

StumbleUpon was one of the first social media sites that I dabbled in, even before my beloved, now defunct, Ma.gnolia. As a professional researcher and information addict, I loved StumbleUpon as a discovery tool. Through that portal, I encountered sites of interest that I would not have discovered any other way. At the time I thought of it as random and happenstance, and above all it was fun! Not to mention enlightening and useful.

With the evolution of other tools that have captured my attention because of my social network, I haven’t given my presence on StumbleUpon my attention over the last few years. This news about traffic and my continuing exploration of social media and research tools is making me take a second look.

It also causes me to reflect on what I think about methodology versus happenstance in conducting effective research. What are some of the other ways that I have found useful information by serendipity?

  • Reading hard copy newspapers or magazines. My eyes wander to other articles, and I flip the pages to browse what’s there. I am led to other sources of information I wasn’t even looking for.
  • Browsing the library bookshelves. When I look up a book at the library, I make a habit of perusing the books on the shelf around the one I was looking for to see if there is another one on the subject that might be equally valuable.
  • Reading footnotes, indices, citations, and resource lists in books and articles. This is research 101. It can lead to other sometimes primary resources that will be useful for whatever I am researching.
  • Getting sucked into the vortex of the Internet. Following the same principle stated above, checking out the links from websites of interest opens portals to useful information.
  • Social media. I’m biased, of course, but my friends and colleagues post really interesting stuff. A personal recommendation from someone I know and respect means a lot to me. They have already vetted what they post as valuable and useful.

Happenstance and serendipity are simply other research methodologies. To be an effective researcher, you must do due diligence and use all of your skills and all of your tools. This includes setting up your news alerts and searching for terms in all of your databases. But it also means being aware of your surroundings and knowing that information can come from where you least expect it.

As a researcher, sometimes I feel like a private investigator methodically looking for a specific answer to a specific question. Sometimes I feel like a baseball player in left field, standing at the ready to catch that random fly ball. Sometimes I feel like a fisher casting a wide net and never sure what I’m going to come up with. Whatever the means, it is important to always ready to receive useful information from a variety of sources.

You never know where you’re going to find the answers to your questions, so be open to all possibilities.

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