By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Like professional researchers and analysts, college students must sometimes search for significant data needed for a project. One common aspect of all collegiate research is the internet to search for data and information.
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A project may be a routine weekly college paper on a topic chosen by the professor, your master’s thesis or that Ph.D. dissertation you have been struggling to complete.
You might be responsible to research the changes to the salmon population in Alaskan waters, cursive writing reforms for the third and fourth grades, or Russian weapons systems upgrades. You might also want to find data on how to cook with pecans.
Online Research versus a Visit to the Library
One common aspect of all collegiate research is that students and professors use the internet to search for data and information. Today’s internet search engines are laced with smart software or artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can almost predict what data or information you need for your research topic. If you type in the term “pecan pie” into a search box, you will pull up images of many kinds of pecan pies and links to many different recipes.
As a researcher, you may have enough of a topic focus from your teacher or your boss. Or your own interest might narrow the research word or term you are searching for.
However, let’s stick with data and information about pecans. You may want data on all products that use pecans, not just for pies. So, you search for “pecan recipes.” You will find that the search engine is full of pecan recipes from magazines and stores.
The Search Needs to Focus as Narrowly as Possible
That’s because the term you used to create the search, pecan recipes, is too vague. The search needs to focus as narrowly as possible.
For example, data can be narrowed by location. What if your data search is for all pecan recipes published in all books in the U.S.? What about pecan data from a specific town? If you want to narrow the focus for analyzing pecan recipes to one specific town, pick a town and see what you find. Also, be sure to have a research objective.
By choosing one town from the thousands in the U.S., you narrow the focus and the data field. It is similar to picking up a seashell from the beach. A study of the data about that type of shell may be fine as a research objective. For this research on data and information, we chose Wilson, North Carolina.
While one town in America might narrow the data location and focus, you may find that the data sources for pecans are varied. Many towns have religious and civic organizations that produce cookbooks as fundraisers. So, you would think that a simple internet search of “cookbooks Wilson NC” should produce the needed documentation for continued research. Not so.
A search for digital cookbooks in Wilson, N.C., found no such books. As a research writer, your only option then is a visit the library at Barton College in Wilson or the town’s public library. So it’s into the car and off to the Wilson County Public Library. Many students in a doctorate program have encountered this aspect of data collection.
Non-Digital Books for Library Research
A phone call to the director of the library yielded limited information. The initial answer was that the library did not have such cookbooks.
However, later that same day, the director called again to say that the reference desk had indeed found an entire section of cookbooks that had been published by local community organizations and church groups.
The section contained at least 15 different cookbooks that dated from the 1920s to 2004. They were published by numerous local organizations, including the Wilson Christian Academy Booster Club, Wilson County Extension Homemakers Association, J.C. Penney Associates to Benefit United Way of Wilson County, Wilson Women’s Club, Hometown Hospice, Winstead United Methodist Church and the Quilter’s Guild.
None of these books was digitized so they were not available for an internet search for information regarding cooking pecans.
These books had data integrity because the primary sources were listed with each recipe and the publishers of these books. The accuracy of the data and information was based on hundreds of individuals who had signed their name to each recipe.
However, I did not use the normal method of determining data accuracy. Instead, I assumed that the authors of each recipe were the sole sources for that data and that information.
The Database Search Blind Spot
The database consisted of 15 cookbooks. The initial search used the index of each book to identify the page of each pecan product. This resulted in 43 references to recipes that used pecans.
However, there is a blind spot in searching a physical book compared to a digital book. One of these physical cookbooks turned out to have more recipes for pecans than was listed in the index. A detailed, page-by-page search identified 150 recipes.
That meant 107 recipes were left out of the index. In this case, if students were to write a paper on pecans in Wilson cookbooks and only used the index, they would find only 28% (43 out of 150) of what is available.
Most college students and professionals researching data and information might not come across such a data source. But for those who are trying to earn a Ph.D., these data and information searches are important.
So if your research includes sources that are in a book or series of articles that are not digitized, you must determine their value to your Ph.D. focus. This process could add months or even years to your search, depending on how many sources are uncovered.
Research Found All Pecan Pie Recipes Were Not the Same
The pecan pie recipes I found during my research were not all the same. That was somewhat of a surprise. That surprise was finding so many different cooking recipes with pecans. There was pecan surprise, cherry pecan squares, pecan dainties, Kentucky pecan cake, pecan fingers, King’s Arms tavern pecans, and pecan Ritz cracker pie, among many others.
How to Improve Your Research Data Search
The moral of the Wilson story is do not rely solely on the internet search process for all your data needs. As you work on your research project, consider that data could be hidden in other publications, not just online. That is why your instructor will request that you actually read a few dozen possibly boring dissertations and peer-reviewed publications to glean one or two key data points or interpretations of how to actually use data.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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