How To: Incorporating Research in Debate

Throughout one’s education, especially in college, conducting effective research is prevalent in nearly every course. Throughout your collegiate career the steps and methods of research are crucial. Conducting effective research is of paramount importance in the workplace, especially if one is interested in pursuing a career in academia. If you are a current university student, you have likely heard the “5 W’s” of the researching process mentioned several times in your courses. If you are not yet a university student, learning the 5 W’s of the researching process is an important tool to add to your repertoire. If you are currently employed and are involved in research, it’s important to answer each W of the 5 W process. Finally, as collegiate debaters, especially in the realm of the International Public Debate Association contest, it is necessary to know exactly what one is looking for when building a case on a topic in fewer than 30 minutes. Hopefully, today’s piece will provide readers with valuable insights to conducting effective, goal-oriented research.

The Tennessee Speech and Debate Society teaching valuable skills such as research to UTK students

The 5 W’s

First of all… what are the 5 W’s? These five W’s are who, what, where, when, and why. Each of these W’s will be explained in detail as to exactly what they mean, the requirements to fulfill each W, and how to express the point these 5 W’s establish towards your topic, whether that be in a debate round, university research project, or theory.


When compiling research to support a claim, it is important to view the impact a source has on your credibility. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” What this quote means to the topic of the 5 W’s of research is the ethos — or personal credibility — to establish a claim which goes further than the initial researcher you are citing. A person is exceedingly more likely to be viewed as a credible source of information when that person is adding onto the side of famous historical and contemporary intellectual figures, such as Isaac Newton, John Rowles, and various other university and think-tank researchers in the field today. In a round, it is important to establish to an adjudicator that the debater’s side of a topic has been studied and agreed upon by prominent historical and contemporary thinkers.

Consequently, when coming across an article which one is considering citing, it is important to ask who wrote the article, authored the study, number of times cited, etc., because a study’s credibility is inextricably linked to the credibility of its authors in most circumstances.

Also, an expert in a certain field is another important aspect of the first step of the 5 W’s of research. If one is debating a topic regarding infrastructure, it would be worthwhile to cite a study conducted by the Department of Transportation, or the National Society of Civil Engineers, and maybe less-so worthwhile to cite the Department of Education, in this particular example.

Scott Carpenter, Deputy Public Defender in Knoxville, speaking on the importance of debate


Secondly, it’s important to understand what the researchers were looking for. In a debate round focused on the topic of income inequality and its effects on the U.S. population, a debater should seek to state what the researchers were looking for when they began, and what the findings suggested about the topic. Did the researchers set out to study whether income inequality is on the rise? Did they set out to study income inequality’s effects on voter turnout in Presidential/gubernatorial elections? Did they set out to study income inequality’s effects on crime rates in the U.S. cities? The initial goal of a researcher is something to keep in mind when searching for a study/article to cite in support of a claim, especially in the context of a round.

TSDS de-briefing an IPDA round


Where was the study or article in question conducted? Was it conducted at a major university or institute, such as Harvard University, the Brookings Institute, or Pew Research Center? When coming across a potential source to employ in a round, keep in mind where the study was conducted, because that is an integral facet of determining a resource’s credibility. If your source is a major academic journal or publication, it is less likely that the study/article will contain pseudoscience, or non-intellectual science which cannot suggest the truth value of a proposition.

Furthermore, debaters should also look to the geographical area of interest in the prospective study or article for its potential to cite. Hypothetically speaking, if a researcher begins with the goal of proving that a rise in income inequality increases the violent crime rates in Chicago and the findings suggest a link between the two variables, then it is a great indicator that income inequality may be the culprit of an increase in crime in Chicago. But, that does not mean that these results can be extrapolated to include the United States as a whole. The reason that this is the case is because Chicago is only one city in the U.S., whose income inequality and violent crime rates may not reflect those of other cities in the U.S., and the make-up of Chicago may not match the make-up of the U.S. as a whole, making it an incompatible comparison. Therefore, when examining a study or article, a researcher’s intended area of study has a profound impact on the ability to draw conclusions from that study.


Equally as crucial as the three aforementioned W’s, when is the next W in the process of the 5 W’s of research. One should ask, “When was this study conducted or article written?” before using a source in a round. For instance, a study conducted in 1990 could have found that infrastructure in the U.S. was extremely poor and needed innovation. However, a debater should not be inclined to cite this study in a debate round held in 2017. This is because of the potential changes to the issue, the legislation passed between then and now, and the availability of new data. New data on infrastructure presumably would have been released in the intermittent period between 1990 and 2017, so the study conducted in 1990 likely would not hold relevant material to today’s situation. However, if that data is the only available data and no new data has been released, then it would be the most relevant data to include. Therefore, one should always enter researching a topic for a round searching for the most recent data and studies to cite.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a debater should ask him or herself, “Why does this matter?” before deciding to use a study or article in a round. Even if the evidence is spectacular and supports the debater’s claim, if it is not linked to back to the resolution at hand, it has not served its intended purpose. Also, if a study or article is simply irrelevant to the claim one is making, then it will have no impact towards upholding one’s side of the resolution and will constitute a waste of time in the preparation process and a waste of valuable speaking time. Most crucially, if one provides a piece of evidence gathered through research which actually upholds the opposite of what that debater is trying to prove, he or she is at risk of losing a round by defeating him or herself. Each of these scenarios give credence to the notion that it is beneficial to ask oneself why does a piece of information matter in regards to supporting one’s claim.

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When researching in any instance, and especially before a debate round, the 5 W’s of research are a vital piece to the puzzle that is creating a solid debate case. Incorporating these steps should put you on the right track to win your next debate round or ace your next research assignment!

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Contributors: Nathaniel Hooper, Anna House, Denizhan Pak, Mickayla Stogsdill

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