The 4 levels of research on a new topic

The 4 levels of research in a new topic

Scientific studies are highly-narrowed texts which require previous knowledge to understand the key ideas. Therefore, this is not a good starting point if you are new in a research topic. Depending on your knowledge on a specific subject, your starting point will be different.

In this post, I enumerate all the stages you go through before jumping into scientific articles.

Awareness – first contact

Sometimes you are reading technical content and you come up with a technical term. It could be a method, a substance, or a concept that you have never heard before.

In such situations, the first thing I recommend is to search on Wikipedia, to have a first idea of what this word is about.

Can happen that this term does not exist yet in Wikipedia. Then, google it, and this will leads you to posts in specialized blogs or comments in technical forums where you can start to frame this new term in a specific field.

This is the very first step. At this level, you are only looking for a definition and a few ideas associated with this new concept. With the word framed in a context, you gather new keywords related to which you connect with other concepts you already know. Or it opens a new branch in your knowledge tree.

Either way, you start to figure out what this term is about.

Novice – understanding

Now, with a wider perspective, you can look for those keywords in specializes websites, tech blogs, medical forums, YouTube channels, etc.

If the term you are researching is commercialized, it is convenient to look at the webpage of the companies that work on it. Commonly, they have illustrative videos explaining how they materialize this concept to their specific products or services, in a very friendly and intuitive way.

After consulting several pages, you have a clear idea of what this new term is and how it works from a general point of view. You start to familiarize yourself with the scientific jargon related and you can express the concept in your own words.

To go a step further, you should check the references cited on those pages. Frequently, discussions about technical concepts reference to more technical content via links embedded in the text or via footnotes at the bottom of the page.

As you dig deeper into the topic you will see references to more specific sources. And, ultimately they will lead you to books or scientific studies. At this level, you are not a novice anymore. You start to understand the topic and shift from just learning to questioning.

Advanced – getting serious

When you chose a topic to master, I recommend beginning with book chapters or review articles before to jump into scientific studies.

Books and review articles are not primary sources. In other words, they are a collection of studies organized around a topic written from a broader perspective. They are less specific than a scientific study and have longer introductions with many references.

Besides, review texts already separate the chaff from the wheat. They highlight the key studies in the field. The ones which have moved the research forward. They give you a good overview of the state of the art of the topic up to the publication date.

Those are the studies you have to collect first on your scientific library.

Mater – getting into the details

Original research articles are the fundamental block of science communication. They are the primary sources, where the methodology, the results, and the limitations of a study are detailed.

By carefully reading the key studies of the field you will have already come in contact with most of the ideas on the subject.

Now, you are ready to read any subject-related scientific study and understand where to put the piece in your mental puzzle. You can file them, and tag them, with a solid background.

In practice

This is an overview of the different levels you go through during research.

You don’t necessarily go through all of them that depend on your previous knowledge on the subject and your desire to go deeper, but to be efficient I recommend moving from one level to the next one without jumping a level. Because if you move too fast, you will find yourself with big holes in your understanding of the subject and it will slow down your research process.

Question for you

What is the process you follow when you start researching a new topic? Have you ever come across a scientific study and not understood anything?

Leave us your response in the comments.


How to build YOUR own scientific library

In this blog, I write about how to find, organize, and retrieve scientific studies efficiently to create your own scientific library.

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Author: Enrique Morales Orcajo, PhD

I am an engineer, scientist, and traveler based in Europe. I write about how to consume and digest scientific studies in a practical and efficient way. My goal is to help you make more sound scientific judgments.

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