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Tips on Researching


For serious debaters, there is no end to the amount of research and preparation which can be done for a debate. There are a very small number of debaters who make researching and preparing for debate tournaments the number one priority in their lives. For these people, researching and preparing for debate tournaments may consume 20 or more hours each week. At the extreme, some debaters expend over 60 hours each week on debate. However, these cases are extremely rare, and such extensive preparation and research is not even encouraged. By far the majority of debaters spend less than five hours a week in research and preparation for their tournaments. Nevertheless, it is a critical element of learning to debate well. As you might imagine, those debaters who attempt to participate with little or no preparation whatsover are at an extreme strategic disadvantage.

If you are fortunate enough to be using this text as part of an organized classroom effort, chances are you are not only afforded time to do research and preparation as part of your grade in the class, you also will benefit from the research and preparation which other members of your team or your class are doing. In these situations, the amount of research and preparation required by a single individual may be drastically reduced.

Still, the number of possible sources for research and documentation about any particular debate resolution is virtually limitless, and one can never claim to have exhausted the possibilities. For this reason, it is to focus your research and preparation in a particular area. This often involves guesswork, but there are some clues one can take as to where to begin one's search for topic-related material such as a certain debate page.

Preparation involves the processing of the research into a usable form. There are several acceptable forms for processing documentation each having advantages and disadvantages.

The information in this chapter should be used merely as a "jumping off" point, however, There are many different research and evidence organization styles. In fact, there are arguable as many different styles as there are teams, for each debater and their partner will "customize" their evidence in small ways. Just keep in mind that the suggestions made in this chapter are general guidelines and not hard-and-fast-rules.

Researching the Topic

Research involves locating and retrieving information that is useful in supporting one's positions. Useful information is usually printed, published material from credible sources. What constitutes a credible source is a highly debateable issue, and there are no exact sources. However, it is safe to say that a debater producing evidence of hairy woman giving birth to Elvisís baby which he acquired from a supermarket tabloid is guilty of introducing evidence that is not credible. On the other hand, daily newspapers, periodicals, internet, journals, and most books are examples of sources which are generally and reasonably accepted as legitimate places from which one may extract evidence. Another underused source of information which is generally perceived as being very credible are the thousands of government documents which are printed each year. These may be reports from government agencies or transcripts of Congressional testimony. On certain topics, debaters have even found court cases extremely useful sources of evidence.

Where to start-- what to research?

The answer to these questions depends to a large extent on what type of information your school's debate program has gained access to in the period prior to your research. If, for example, your school has debaters who attended summer forensics institutes, those persons can tell you about the types of affirmative cases, negative case arguments, disadvantages, etc. which were being run over the summer. If not, you may have access to a number of handbooks on the topic, which are guides to direct quotation on issues that their editors believe will be widely run on the topic. Those issues which are in the handbooks are always among the ones run, since the handbooks not only guess what will be run, but also define what will be run to some extent.

If, on the other hand, like me you have access to neither of these sources, you will need to start (as everyone does when the topic is first announced) by braintstorming on the topic. This means that you need to define what the topic means (including what others may argue it to mean). Your next step is to define areas of subject matter which you believe are important to the resolution. Be as general as possible, and make a list of those terms. Several web sites have case lists to help you on your way. Do not limit yourself in any way. Brainstorm with others when possible, listing as many possible related ideas and terms as you can think of, and not rejecting any. Also, avoid the use of limiting terms which are likely to lead you to exclude some potentially creative and useful insights for the topic.

If you do already have access to topic information, you may wish to explore new areas of the topic, or attempt to acquire better or more recent evidence than that which has been presented to you formerly. If so, you will need to make your own brainstorming list, possibly in more specific terms since you may wish your search limited to a particular subject matter. Sometimes the library is helpful in assisting brainstorming efforts. For example, in the course of your topic research, you may come across new terms or terms which you had not anticipated encountering, or terms that you simply forgot to list. When this happens, even more possibilities for research are opened up.

Depending on the purpose of your trip, you may want to explore those options. If your trip to the library has very specifically defined parameters (for example, if your intent in going to the library is to research a single affirmative case idea), it is better to write down or make a photocopy of some of the related terms you find in order to follow-up on later-- at some point, debaters have to "stick to their" guns in the library to avoid spending all their time collecting evidence on unrelated issues.

Library tips

Public and high school libraries are almost always too small to be helpful, and you may wind up becoming frustrated at the lack of material they actually have (their current "holdings"). However, even when they do not have the actual material you want to find, they might have the indexes you need to use to look up the citations for articles which you can then find in other places. Going to a major library with a list of citations in hand which you wish to acquire will make your trip much more worthwhile-- there is no point in spending your valuable time at a major library looking up citations which you may obtain locally.

If you can, access a college or university library. First, however, ascertain their check-out policy on books and periodicals and even apply for a card if necessary.

At the library, allow yourself lots of time to find the material you want and need. Generally speaking, quick library searches are not especially productive. For in-depth research, an hour is almost never enough, and even two hours is a small amount of time. It may even take an hour just to get together a list of articles and/or books which you wish to find! Finally, allow yourself time to photocopy any articles or portions of articles and books in which you believe you will locate good evidence. Be sure to take money to the library if they charge on copying. To save cash check to see if the magazine has a web site and just copy the article from there saving time and money.

Finding citations

Once in the library, look for both books and periodicals. Of course, the right books and magazine articles will not fly out of the shelves at you, nor will all the material be in one place. For that reason, it is necessary to locate the citations you need before you go directly to the locations of the books and articles. You can find the citations by starting in the reference section of the library. The reference section contains directories, indexes, and catalogs useful in finding the material.

For periodicals, indexes are widely available. Indexes list, by subject, all the articles published in certain periodicals over a period of time. The most common and most popular of these, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, lists articles from many of the nation's major newpapers, along with all the major news digests, and many quarterly editorial publications as well. All of the major newspapers have their own indexes, though, and these list all of their articles, not just the major ones. There are also some more obscure indexes, such as the Alternative Press Index, which indexes only periodicals from a certain side of the political spectrum. For very sophisticated searchers, there is also the Social Sciences Citation Index, which not only lists the articles by subject, but all the articles quoted in that article. If your library supports it use lexis-nexis or e-library for a list of potential evidence.

When researching using the indexes, make sure to be aware of the various related words that can be used to describe the same subject matter. Especially when one is researching at very broad levels of the topic, related word searches are almost always necessary in order to get a full scan of the relevant material. For example, if one is looking for articles related to defense, one might also check under weapons, military, national security, armaments, etc.

The same cross-referencing principals hold true when one is looking for books also. When looking for books, the principal source of citations is the card catalog. Most card catalogs at major libraries are now computerized, and will allow you to enter major terms to search for books. The computer will provide you a list of books which contain information about the main subject terms which you type in, and their respective call numbers. The call numbers are numbers used to locate the books in the library. Especially important as you are looking at the list of books is to check their dates. Again, generally speaking, more than three years old gets to be a bit dated. However, if the book looks great, get it anyway.

Once you locate a book, take a few moments to look at the other books in the area around the book which you found. In most major libraries, you will find many of the nearby books equally if not more helpful. Sometimes they may not be ones for which you have obtained the citations since the computer may not have included them under the same search terms for some reason. The lesson is to do some browsing around the places where you find a good book. Be sure to pay attention to the dates, though, because many times very old books may be placed alongside very new books if they cover the same subject.

Upon finding books, do not take the time to examine them at that point. "Set up shop" in the library at a certain location. Try not to leave personal belongings, but do leave all your library books and articles which you have obtained in that place. Stopping to look at each and every book you find as you find it will slow you down.

Deciding what's good

After you have finished piling up your books and articles, you may examine them. This does not mean read them. It doesn't even mean scan through them thoroughly. It means efficiently looking through certain key parts of the book to see if it fits within certain debate parameters for usability of evidence. This is a very subjective job. There is no single checklist against which material may be scanned. In fact, chances are good that you will miss some potentially good pieces of evidence in some books which you will want to dismiss out of hand. However, for your time, you will come away with the greatest amount of potentially usable material if you adhere to certain loose guidelines.

Of course, there are qualifications to these considerations. For example, a nuclear physicist with an advanced degree and participation on major nuclear research projects may have little background which makes her credible to speak out on economic issues. As well, a White House economist may have certain reasons to overestimate the economic trends for the country if her job is to paint a favorable picture which will boost her administration's popularity ratings. The latter issue is called bias in evidence, and it should always play a role in your own research, and your examination of your opponents evidence in a debate.

Finally you should allow yourself ample time at the end of your trip to take the necessary steps to obtaining the evidence you need from the material you have assembled. Any material you have obtained which you can check out will save you money on the expense of photocopying material, since libraries often charge as much as three times more per copy than your local copy mat. As well, checking out material will allow you time to look through the pages of the books and articles more thoroughly to determine exactly what portions need to be copied, whereas copying the entire book or article in the library could be much more expensive. I myself donít believe in paying for debate items and just copy by hand out of books while cheaper it takes much longer. The easiest source for free information is the internet if you know where to look.

Hopefully you will come away from your research with a large amount of material.