The Craft of Research

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Admont Abbey Library, Austria

A while back I read a book called The Craft of Research, which approaches research projects from students to research reporters. It aims to help one out by delineating the general research process but, more importantly, it helps one organize its thinking and consequently its writing. The book pretty much helps you to build your argument (investment case, in our world) that compels others to accept your claim and how to anticipate possible questionable assumptions, premises and so on (risks, linchpin assumptions, in our case) so we can address those a priori.

Along the way, I have met people from different asset management companies and most of the time the process seems to be incidental. And by the way, it makes a lot of sense and many people make it brilliantly. My purpose here is just to approach the matter from a different perspective. I have worked both with the “Powerpoint method” and the “Investment case method” and the latter works best (for me, at least) in my opinion.

In the Powerpoint method it’s way easier to pitch a case. Why? You can use graphs (oh, those help a lot!) and make simple bullet points that can imply (too) many linchpin assumptions that are not debated if not made explicit, and so on. When you write things down, you think twice, you make your thinking visible, you to to connect the dots and at the end of the day it’s easier to spot “obvious” mistakes/fallacies/etc (cut to the chase, where you need to spend further time investigating). I really like those bullet points on the importance of writing.

That said, follows below my highlights from the book. Hope it helps.

• The elements of a report – its structure, style, and methods of proof – are not empty formulas for convincing readers to accept your claims: they help us test our work and even discover new lines of thought
You accurately judge the research of others only after you have done your own and can understand the messy reality behind what is so smoothly and confidently presented in you textbooks or by experts
• Most of all, experienced researchers know how to get from start to finish not easily, perhaps, but as efficiently as the complexity of their task allows. (…) In fact, they create two kinds of plans: one helps them prepare and conduct their research; the second helps them draft their report of it
• That plan for a draft helps researchers write, but created with their readers in mid, it also helps readers read
Write to remember, to understand, and to TEST YOUR THINKING
• Try to anticipate your readers’ inevitable and critical questions: how have you evaluated your evidence? Why do you think it’s relevant? What ideas have you considered but rejected? When in writing to meet their readers’ expectations, they found a flaw or blunder in their thinking or even discovered a new insight that escaped them in a first draft written for themselves. You can do that only when you imagine and then meet the needs of expectations of informed and careful readers. When you do that, you create what we call a rhetorical community of shared values
• “Roles” are worth thinking before you write a word
Consider your audience: When you do research, ou learn something that others don’t know. So when you report it, you must think of your reader as someone who doesn’t know it but needs to and yourself as someone who will give her reason to want to know it
• They expect you to be objective, rigorously logical, able to examine every issue from all sides. Above all, they will care about your documents only if you can show how they serve as evidence that helps you answer a question important to understanding
Ask about the history of your topic: how does it fit into a larger developmental context? Ask about its structure and composition (execs and owners) Ask how its categorized (Compare to and contrast with). Turn positive questions into negative ones. Ask What if and other speculative questions. Ask questions suggested by you sources.
Avoid dead-end questions. Once you have a few promising questions, try to combine them into larger ones
• Think of it: What will be lost if you don’t answer your question? How will not answering it keep us from understanding something else better than we do? Start by asking So what.
• Write summaries, critiques, questions, responses to your sources. Keep a journal in which you reflect on your progress. Break the task into manageable steps.
Skimming: search for key words, check first & last paragraphs, read the last chapter, check the bibliography and foot notes
• When you look beyond the standard kinds of references relevant to your question, you enrich not only your analysis but your range of intellectual reference and your ability to synthesize diverse kinds of data, a crucial competence of an inquiring mind.
Don’t accept a claim just because an authority asserts it (Thanks Feynman for that one!)
• You’re more likely to find a research problem when you disagree with a source
• What new insights can it provide? Is there confirming evidence the source hasn’t considered? (the best ones are the contradictory ones though)
Don’t try to find every last jot of data relevant to your question. That’s impossible.
• To learn what works, you must know what doesn’t
• You do not plagiarize a source when you borrow its logic
• It’s risky to attach yourself to what any one researcher says about an issue. It is not research when you uncritically summarize another’s work. Even if your source is universally trusted, be careful.
What’s my claim? What reasons support my claim? What evidence supports my reasons? Do I acknowledge alternatives/complications/objections, and how do I respond? What principle makes my reasons relevant to my claim? (we call this principle a warrant)
• Readers judge your arguments not just by the facts you offer, but by how well you anticipate their questions and concerns. In so doing, they also judge the quality of your mind, even your implied character, traditionally called your ethos.
• When you learn to make one kind of argument, don’t assume that you can apply it to every new claim. Seek out alternative methods, formulate not only multiple solutions but multiple ways of supporting them, ask whether others would approach your problem differently
Nothing damages your ethos more than arrogant certainty. Limit your claims to what your argument can actually support by qualifying their scope and certainty
When you candidly acknowledge weak spots in your argument, you seem more credible by showing readers that you are trying to make an honest case and dealing with them fairly
Facts are shaped by those who collect them and again by the intentions of those who use them
• Any one person’s version of the truth is complicated, usually ambiguous, and always contestable. They will think better of your argument and of you if you acknowledge its limits.
• When you respond to alternatives with reasons and evidence for rejecting them, you thicken your argument, making it increasingly rich and complex
What you don’t say says who you are
• Hemingway said you know you are writing well when you discard stuff you know is good

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2 thoughts on “The Craft of Research

  1. Pingback: Psychology of Intelligence Analysis Annotated: Making Things Visible | Tropical Value Investing

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