Introduction to Collecting Data


Part of the prewriting stage for any paper is the process of finding things to say. In rhetoric, the art of finding such material is called "invention." Different kinds of papers call for different kinds of invention. For example, a lab report usually requires that the writer spend some time in the lab conducting experiments and taking readings so that there is something to talk about. A statistical report requires that the writer do surveys or collect numerical data in some other way and then run statistical analyses. Someone writing a description of a place or of a specimen will need to spend a good deal of time in the place observing or in front of the specimen looking at details.

In this page, I am focusing on the invention involved in an argumentative research paper. Part of the invention process is to consider the questions of stasis, in order the issue of debate, and to try arguing both sides of the case to find out which arguments readily present themselves on both sides. But it is also important to bring in the opinions, the voices, of others who are concerned with the same topic you are. You do not write in vacuum for no one; instead, you write for an audience. More than that, you enter an ongoing conversation or debate about the subject.

The opinions of others can be either "testimony" or "authority." Testimony is the opinion of someone who has experience pertinent to the subject but does not have expertise in it. For instance, someone who saw a car accident may give testimony as to what she saw, but she would not be an authority unless she holds the requisite credentials in the field of forensic investigation and has looked carefully at the accident scene. When considering the future instead of the past, a writer may wish to include testimony from someone who has been in a similar situation to the one being proposed.

Authority, on the other hand, is the opinion of someone considered to have expertise in the field of investigation at hand. Usually, such a person holds credentials and, often, has published a great deal on the subject. Supposedly, such peoples' opinions are more likely to be right than those of non-experts, and so their "authoritative testimony" usually carries more weight than the testimony of the common observer.

How do you get the opinions of that can serve as testimony or authority? First, you have to look in the right places--the forums of discourse. A forum is a place where opinions are exchanged. The letter to the editor page of a newspaper is a forum for general lay people to express their opinions. News magazines or on investigative reporting TV are also forums, usually considered to have more authority than mere lay opinion, but often looked at with suspicion by the general public. The WWW is a new forum, but unlike other forums, the opinions posted on the Web are seldom in conversation with each other. Professional journals within a discipline or scholarly books are the forums where specialists exchange their opinions with each other. These publications contain well-documented papers, but they are still usually offer only tentative findings. After publication, the opinions or findings will be looked at by others. There are books, of course, but don't think that books are necessarily any more authoritative than other kinds of publications. Finally, there is the interview. Normally, you figure out who you want to interview, either to get testimony or authority, and then you set up a personal or phone appointment. It is important to have a set of questions ready to ask.

Second, you need to judge the level of authority of the text you have found. Who is the author and what are her credentials? Is her expertise pertinent to the question at hand? Does the opinion presented argue convincingly? What kinds of claims are made and what kind of evidence is offered. Don't be a sucker. There is nothing more crippling than to be found out using someone as an authority who is not respected as such.

Third, you need to abstract the material. To abstract is to draw out. You can abstract material by summarizing the whole argument, by paraphrasing part of the argument, or by quoting short sections of the argument. A summary reduces the length, but keeps the general structure. A paraphrase is roughly the same length as the original passage, but it is written in the researcher's own language, and it captures only a short portion of the original. The quotation is a word for word copy of the original and it appears in quotation marks or in indented quotes.

All three forms of abstraction need to be referenced back to the original each time they are used, so the fourth step is to record the material and its reference. Since the research projects precedes the writing of a draft, you often do not know if you will use what you are recording, so it is important to keep a good record of

If the source is a newspaper, magazine, or journal, you will need the inclusive page numbers, the volume number, and the date, as well as the author's name, the title, and the journal's name. For WWW documents, you need the author, the web site name, its address, and the dated you read or downloaded the information.

You may still be wondering what do to first. I'm not a librarian, nor an expert on the various holdings in a library, but I would encourage you to go to the library and begin looking in electronic card catalogue and in the various periodical indexes. If you don't know what they are or where they are, ask a librarian. When you begin to get some good articles, look at the references in them, and go find the material they cite. You want to build a brief recounting of the conversation so far, and the best way to do that is to become familiar with the writings used by others. Besides the library, start doing some WWW searches. Eventually, if you look hard enough, you'll find yourself in the middle of an ongoing debate or conversation. At that time you need to be willing to investigate the debate more fully and to adapt to the debate--bend to fit in--instead of insisting on simply extracting material for your "research paper." You should strive to enter the conversation you have found.