Lesson #3 | The Citizen’s Guide to Research

Open the pod bay doors

Read this in what you imagine to be my “stern teacher voice”: Have you been doing your homework from lessons 1 and 2?

If not, here’s the simple version: When you encounter a reference to a “study” — for example, in a magazine article about the health benefits of wheatgrass — see if you are able to track down the original study.

Easy, right? Yeah, not exactly.

Last week we talked about the basics of determining a study’s credibility: meaning, what makes a researcher’s findings, published in a research journal, reliable and scientific? Tracking a claim back to its original source, and evaluating the credibility of the results, is a great place to start. But what if you can’t even access the original research?

Like last week, this week we’re talking specifically about research published in research journals. As you’ll learn in the coming weeks, research and data takes many forms, and research articles in journals are just one form. But studies published as research articles still make up the bulk of how research is conducted, shared, funded, and used for impact in various industries (such as policy, education, or health).

And unless you are an academic, librarian, or high-level industry research, you’re likely not being exposed to many research articles. Even journalists who report on the study findings are usually not reading full articles.

That’s because accessing research as a non-researcher (or as a citizen researcher, like you) can be difficult and expensive. The vast majority of world-changing research is not accessible to the general public. Much of it is locked behind a paywall, costing anywhere from $10 to $100 to access a PDF of a study.

As citizen researchers, you do have options. (And no shortage of research memes.)

Go to the library

This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I see people ask where to find a research article. Most libraries pay for database access, and all you need is a library card. Depending on what article you’re looking for, you may want to visit your local college or university library. University libraries have the most extensive access to research databases.

If you’re not an alumni or affiliated with a university, you may need to pay a small fee to access anything at the library. This is to help cover their costs of paying for database access. But, in my opinion, a one-time fee of $20 is worth it for almost unlimited access to research and media.

Read open access

The open access movement refers to research that is made public and freely available. The internet has made this a much more viable option for publishing and sharing research. PLOS (the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit) puts it best:

Most publishers own the rights to the articles in their journals. Anyone who wants to read the articles must pay to access them. Anyone who wants to use the articles in any way must obtain permission from the publisher and is often required to pay an additional fee.
Although many researchers can access the journals they need via their institution and think that access is free, in reality it is not. The institution has often been involved in lengthy negotiations around the price of their site license and reuse of this content is limited.
Paying for access to journals makes sense in the world of print publishing, where providing articles to each reader requires the production of physical copies of articles, but in the online world, with distribution as wide as the internet’s reach, it makes much less sense.

There are many criticisms of open access, many which have been defended by academics and open access advocates. This article is a good breakdown of common concerns and why these concerns shouldn’t prevent open access from being a priority for the research community.

Open access journals are very similar to traditional journals and databases. In fact, many longtime databases now have open access options. The stigma of open access being less credible than traditionally published research is quickly changing as more and more researchers choose open access.

Part 1:
Find an open access journal using one of these links:

Look up a topic that interests you. See what articles you can find about that topic. Is there anything in the articles you find that you don’t understand? Are you confused about any of the terminology you see? Anything that you’re not sure about, write it down.

Part 2:
Make it a goal to visit your local library once a month. You’ll likely be surprised by all of the great resources a library has to offer, beyond books — movies, e-books/audiobooks, popular magazines, community events, and sometimes even tools or free food.

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