Investigation methods for effective research, reporting

Use keyword search best practices, don’t discount newer content venues, reach out directly to experts, and refine your results

By Jim Montague

One problem that irritates me no end is when we can't run one of Control's regular departments. This month it was the popular Resources column, which I enjoy researching and compiling because it gives readers a concentrated dose of educational items, whitepapers, videos and other materials on a different topic each month.

Before you hit search, take a minute and really think about what you're after. Just a few representative words that are likely to appear in the material you're seeking can be a big help in finding useful results.

Of course, I know we can run an unlimited amount of articles and other materials online, but I was also thinking of an alternative and more flexible solution. Dear readers, do some of your own research and reporting.

Seriously, don't wait for me or some other outlet to come up with something that sounds interesting, but is all too often half-baked. You can do a fine job on your own. After all, if this was that well-known rocket science or brain surgery, I'd be scanning the want ads, I mean, posting my resumé on LinkedIn.

Just pick an intriguing topic and go to town. Of course, I know everyone can Google whatever. However, there are a few subtle investigation methods that I think can make many research efforts more productive.

First, I've found that simple, two- to four-word phrases tend to yield better search results. Boolean search methods are nothing new, but it's important to avoid long, unspecific descriptions with unneeded words. They typically generate huge and bad results.  

So, before you hit search, my advice is take a minute and really think about what you're after. Just a few representative or relatively unique words that are likely to appear in the material you're seeking—maybe a slightly unusual name or technical concept—can be a big help in turning up useful results. Don't just search for "flowmeter." Search for "flowmeter" and "pipe diameters" or "turbidity" or something else.

Second, quality search methods aside, you must also be willing to wade through a lot of baloney. With a little practice, you can usually tell in a second or two if most citations hold any promise.  

2017 State of Technology Report: control systems

Third, dive into the websites of individual companies and organizations. These can be painfully slow because many apparently haven't devoted sufficient resources to bandwidth. However, they may also have useful materials that don't readily show up in general web searches, possibly because they're also not working on search engine optimization (SEO) or promoting their content more widely. Still, everyone seems to be writing white papers and shooting videos, and many are useful and worth seeking.

Fourth, don't neglect newer search and content venues like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. Many chatrooms of old or their descendants are still active, but they've been joined by a host of more dynamic content-sharing applications and communities with unique voices and equally interesting materials.

Fifth, make some phone calls. The young folks have informed me that calling is rude, at least if it isn't prefaced by a text or email query. However, I've also found that even digital content only goes so far, and following up with some real people and pointed questions can generate some excellent answers. I may just be unlucky, but email responses are typically wishy-washy and unspecific. Phone calls have much better give-and-take, and if someone isn't answering a question, you can say, "Excuse me, but you're not answering the question" Plus, when I'm done asking sources what they know, I can finish up by asking who they know. I call this the "human bibliography." 

Sixth, examine your initial results, refine your terms, and search again. You know, lather, rinse and repeat, if desired.

Finally, beyond researching editorial and technical topics, these basic inquiry steps can be used in all areas of life to assist yourself, your family and your community. One reporter friend of mine was hit with brain stem cancer many years ago, but he approached it like another story, found one of the early providers of Gamma Knife treatments in the Chicago area, and is still on Facebook as of a couple days ago. How's that for reporting?

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