Last week, Coach Jayla made a fantastic post about systematizing your debate research. That inspired me to compile my most helpful research tips in the hopes of saving you all dozens of hours of Googling, hyperlink hopping, and manual citing. Here they are:
1. Download Zotero
Zotero is a free-to-download piece of documentation software that allows you to build an enormous digital library of every book, academic paper, and newspaper article you’ve ever read. When you enter a new item into Zotero, it stores the bibliographic information — for example, the name of the author, the date of publication, etc. — in one place, so that you can go back to the same item and automatically generate citations at will. This works much, much better than free online citation generators, since it keeps old sources stored for future use (and doesn’t pummel you with a server-crashing number of ads while you wait for your citations to load). You can even generate an entire formatted works cited page by clicking one button. Zotero also allows you to store pdf copies of sources, make annotations, and take notes.
Zotero also comes with a Chrome extension that automatically pulls all the bibliographic information from a webpage directly into your library. In other words, it allows you to document and cite a source with one click. The extension gets details wrong every once in a while, so double-checking is always advisable. But it’s pretty astoundingly accurate.
2. Start With Reference Works
Reference works are written resources that are meant to be used for reference — in other words, they are supposed to be consulted for specific items of information, rather than read cover-to-cover. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and almanacs are all exampels of reference works.
Reference works are the best starting point for most research, because they provide overviews of complex topics in condensed, easily digestible form and often point directly to the most important sources on those topics. Since I’m a philosophy student and a Lincoln-Douglas coach, my favorite reference work is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The SEP contains overviews of practically every important philosophical controversy, and each entry is peer-reviewed and written by an expert in the relevant subject-matter. Even as a graduate student, I begin writing every research paper by consulting the SEP and looking for relevant sources in its expansive bibliographies.
Many of the best reference works are only accessible via academic institutions. The Oxford Handbook series, the Cambridge Companion series, and the Routledge Companion series cover a mind-bogglingly wide range of topics in various academic disciplines. It’s worth taking a trip to a university library for these (see suggestion 4 below).
3. Use Optimized Search Engines
It turns out that standard search engines like Google are not your only options when it comes to internet searches; some engines have been designed with particular kinds of research in mind. My favorite search engine, as far as competitive debate is concerned, is Think Tank Search, an engine maintained by Harvard University. Think Tank Search is indexed to several thousand online think tanks, and it will only give you search results from those think tanks. Almost every article it turns up is free to access and packed with relevant information. I was introduced to Think Tank Search by a TP coach last summer, and within 13 seconds of using it for the first time, I found the best article on this year’s STOA resolution I had seen.
4. Go To the Library
The internet is a wonderful place (depending on which corner of it you’re in, and depending on what you mean by “wonderful”). But the fact is that the vast, vast majority of quality information pertaining to most resolutions is accessible only through libraries. Besides the stellar reference works I mentioned above, you can access most academic journals through college and university libraries that have digital catalogue subscriptions. Most of these libraries allow guests to visit and read materials on-site (some even let you check out books in limited numbers). You can often download (legally) hundreds of pages of research onto a personal device for later use.
If you live near a college or university (you probably do, given how many colleges and universities there are in the United States), I would strongly recommend spending several days there over the course of the competitive season. It will save you a ton of time, and it will give you a substantial competitive edge.
If you can’t find a book in a university library, try using the Open Library. It’s an enormous, free-to-access digital archive of books that operates like a physical library. It’s also entirely legal. And probably one of the greatest achievements of the human species. I regularly find books here that I can’t find in my university’s library. Unfortunately, you can’t access many journal articles this way, but the book selection is incredible.
Noah McKay is a debate coach and sourcebook author at Ethos Debate currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He has coached individuals and groups in LD for five years.