QuickLesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success
Elizabeth Shown Mills
The research process has three basic steps: preparation, performance, and reporting. If we use database management software or spread sheets, we add a fourth: data entry. In the popular mindset, Steps 2 and 4 get all the hype. News flash, everyone! It is those neglected Steps 1 and 3 that determine our success long-term.
In a soundly executed project, a block of research begins when we have defined an objective—not when we have a few spare minutes to spend surfing the web. Every block of research will begin with a document, a problem, an hypothesis, or some combination of these. For example:
- We have found, in published government documents, a 1769 petition from Anson County, North Carolina—a precursor to the unrest that spawned the Revolutionary War; we wonder whether the signer John Watts is (as some allege) the same John Watts who in 1789 signed the constitution of the new state of Georgia.
- Or, we have noticed numerous published references to an African-American freed slave of the Early Federal period named Marie Louise Mariotte, about whom the authors seem to know little; we would like to identify her and determine how she navigated her life as a freed woman of color in a slave regime.
- Or we’ve been asked to conduct a historical site investigation and are given a body of local lore as a beginning point for recreating the history of that site.
How do we begin our project? Do we jump online and Google for “John Watts,” or “Marie Louise Mariotte,” or “Yucca Plantation”? If so, what do we do with our findings? Do we then download images and articles, enter cherry-picked details into our database, and thank Clio that we have wonderful tools to organize and preserve our discoveries? If so, we are information-gatherers and we are information-processors, but we are not yet researchers. Worse, our long-term results are likely to be unproved conclusions drawn from random findings.
Successful research is a carefully planned, carefully targeted, and systematically executed effort. It requires us to apply techniques and strategies that go considerably beyond looking for names, downloading images, and weaving disconnected threads from random records into some design. Let’s take a quick stroll through the stages of a thorough research effort to observe how each stage is executed.
Step 1: Preparation
Each new project—or each new effort within an ongoing project—should begin with (a) an analytical review of what we have; and (b) the development of a research plan. The work-product we create in this stage is the first section of a research report. We create it in whatever word-processing software we are comfortable with. Ideally, we have a basic template at hand, one that is adaptable for each new project. Its format should see us through all three stages of this block of research.1
Here in the preparation stage, we create the first two elements of our research report.
- Project title (a unique description of the focus of this particular block of research—e.g.: "Yucca Plantation Lore: An Analysis" or "Marie Louise Mariotte of Colonial Natchitoches: The Raw Evidence," or "John Watts and Associates of Anson County, N.C.: An Extraction of All Courthouse Data"
- Identification of the problem or person-of-interest, with a summary of relevant data known to-date (one or two paragraphs typically suffice)
- Identification of associated individuals to be included in the search—including all spelling variants of their names
- A list of specific resources that should be used
- A discussion of strategies that should be applied
- Identification of any known problems in access or use of those records
Step 2: Execution
Onsite or online, we reopen our research report and begin a new section: Findings. One by one, we work our way through our research plan. For each record book, database, etc., we consult, we create a full citation in our research report and then record our findings and evaluations directly into the report. Right then. Right there. No grab-and-go copying, telling ourselves that we can read and analyze later. What we find, each time we find something, should determine what we do next. So we process that find when we find it: we identify the source, we abstract or transcribe the record, and we add our observations about the record or our appraisal of how the details correlate or differ from past findings. Those observations should go in a separate block of text—distinctly indented to clearly separate it from the contents of the document and, ideally, prefaced by a flag such as Comment: or Comment by [our name].2
Because we are working through each record as we encounter it, we may discover a passage buried deep in a document that totally or partially changes our research plan. That discovery may introduce a new associate who needs to be included in the search. It might reveal our person-of-interest taking an action that alters his life radically, thereby redirecting our focus to a different locale or a different set of records.
As we abstract or transcribe documents, we also download or create image copies if that capability is available. Each document image should be numbered and a cross-reference inserted in our report, clearly linking each image to our record abstract or transcription.
As we complete our use of a resource that we itemized on our work plan, we drop that item from the plan. If any findings reveal a new direction in our person’s life, then we reevaluate the plan, add new materials, and delete items now unneeded. Eventually, if time permits in this block of research, we will have eliminated all the items in our work plan. Our to-do list will have been replaced by our findings.
After we have worked our way through our research plan, or have exhausted all the time available for this block of research, the “Findings” section of our research report should contain at least these elements:
- Identification of each source consulted, including those that produced negative results. We should have a full citation for each, in reference note format.
- Abstracts or transcriptions of any and every finding.
- Analyses or commentaries on individual records or record sets--attached to, but clearly separated from, the text of the abstract or transcript to which it relates.
Step 3: Reporting
Once we have completed this block of research—an effort that might stretch across multiple days online or onsite—then it is time to finalize our research report. At this point, we typically do the following:
- We read the report analytically. In light of the whole body of evidence we have accumulated, we reevaluate the individual commentaries we made during research as each new record was found. We make alterations and new observations as needed.
- We create an "Executive Summary" (aka “Summary of Findings”) that highlights the main points discovered or the issues eliminated as a result of this research. We insert this into the report immediately after the background section, where it can be easily spotted each time we come back to review this phase of our research.
- (If our goal remains unfilled), then we follow our detailed "Findings" with a new work plan, based on those new findings, to direct our research the next time we come back to this project. We list any resources left to be examined and new materials suggested by our new findings. (When we come back to this problem for another block of research, we need only copy-paste this work plan into the start of a next research report.)
- We create a source list of all materials consulted in that project.
- We add full citations to the margin of each document image, map, or similar item that will be attached as appendices.
- We proofread the whole, make corrections, and proofread again.
Step 4: Data entry?
If we are maintaining a database, this is the point—but not until this point—that we cherry-pick individual bits of data and record them in a spread sheet or other data-management software. If it is our practice (as many researchers do) to include abstracts, extracts, or transcriptions of documents in our database, then those items have already been prepared. We need only cut-and-paste them from our research report. If it is our practice (as many researchers do) to maintain “person files” for each person involved in the records we use, we can quickly cut-and-paste each record abstract or transcription (and the citation and analyses we’ve already created for it) to each person involved. Data entry is now quick and consistent across all parties.
What, exactly, have we accomplished with the production of this research report? How have Steps 1 and 3 helped us in ways that Steps 2 and 4 cannot?
If our concept of research is to gather images and extract individual details into specific fields of a database program (Steps 2 and 4), then our research is forever fragmented. Isolated bits of data are attached to different individuals, or to different household addresses in a community study. To borrow from the “can’t see the forest for the trees” analogy, we are thereafter looking at individual leaves on individual trees without the ability to see what's going on in the rest of the forest.
By contrast, our research reports serve throughout the life of the project as one centralized location for all records relating to each segment of research. For example,
- If our research ranges broadly across numerous geographic areas, each research segment—and its report—might relate to a separate region;
- If our research is localized, each research segment—and its report—might centralize all findings about a specific topic or problem.
Thanks to the background data we recorded at the start of each project, we now have a record of the exact basis on which each investigation was made. We will know what suppositions underpinned each block of research, and exactly what sources were combed on the basis of that knowledge or supposition.
If we are doing cluster research, we will know exactly what individuals or families made up the cluster at the time we conducted the search. After years or months of working on a project, we do not have to wonder whether, at the time we used the records of the State Land Office, we knew that the legislator John Watts of Georgia was also a surveyor—or whether we need to reexamine plat files for him. Long after we completed research on his military activies during the Revolutionary era, we don’t have to guess whether our research included the individuals who served in his units and migrated with him post-war. Our research reports will quickly answer all these questions.
In sum, a research report is not
- a consolidation of everything we know about a person. That is a biographical sketch.
- a compilation of everything we know about a family. That is a genealogy.
- a discussion of everything we have learned about a specific subject. That is an essay or a monograph.
Rather, a research report is a full account of one block of research—a specific block that began with a defined goal and a detailed plan. The research report provides permanent documentation of what we did, why we did it, what we found, what we did not find, and what we concluded from that one targeted block of research. Each research report we do is a self-contained document that we can share with others working on the same problem—even after our recollection of the work has grown cold. As a document, it will also live long after us—in circulation, online, or in traditional archives.
The Research Cycle
Research is a cyclical process, not a linear one. When we launch a new project we define our goal, both immediate and long-term. We develop a research plan, execute that plan, evaluate the results, and then develop a new plan for going forward with the project. In most cases, we repeat this cycle many times before we achieve our long-term goal. If that goal is a broad one, we will likely accumulate a massive amount of data across time, in which case each research report is a foundational document to which we return over and again to study group activities in a targeted area or to probe our past work for insight after new cycles of research have revealed more about our subject. If our research is a problem-resolution project, our cyclical process becomes a spiral in which the circles constantly tighten until eventually it closes in upon a body of evidence that suggests a credible solution.
1. As a sample report, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Revolutionary War Capt. John Watts of Camden District, SC: Was He John Watts of Fairfield's Wateree Creek or John Watts of Kershaw's Lynches Creek?" report to file, 2 November 2014; archived at Mills, Historic Pathways (http://www.historicpathways.com/download/RWCaptJohnWatts.pdf). This website also offers sample reports for other types of projects under the tab "Research."
2. Alternately, if our report does not have a separate "Research Notes" section—if we choose, instead, to insert our abstracts and transcripts amid a narrative account of the research—then our narrative would logically be flush with the margin and our record abstracts/transcripts would be indented. The issue at point here is that our personal observations, opinions, and conclusions should always be distinctly separate from the contents of the record.
Posted 23 May 2015