“Engaging” with your sources

It can be a bit scary to be told to “engage” with your sources. After all, who are you to decide what’s right and what’s wrong? The research you’ve been looking at was carried out by people who have spent years in the field, and you’re just beginning your academic career. 

First, it’s liberating to realise that you don’t have to take a side or attack in order to engage. All that you have to do is situate different research positions against one another. Where do the positions overlap? Can the insights of one approach be captured in the other? What objections have been raised? Are they insuperable? Asking even a few of these questions will have you on the way to a deeper engagement with your sources.

Of course, you may very well want to criticise, and that’s a good thing. But it’s usually best to underplay your hand here. It’s certainly possible that your insights completely demolish an established research program, but it’s much more likely that you’ve actually misread whatever it is that you’re attacking. Don’t claim victory prematurely.

Instead, make your criticism all about finding issues and presenting them to the reader for judgement. Look for contradictions in what people say. Check the accuracy of the data that’s presented. Could certain effects be explained by a different cause? Is there a piece of counterevidence that was overlooked? If you’ve come up with enough reasons to be suspicious of someone’s claim, you won’t need to huff and puff to blow it over.

On the contrary, it’s important to be generous in how you read your opponents. The game you’re playing is not about piling up as many advantages for your side as possible and setting them beside a heap of disadvantages for the other side. Having an obviously biased approach like that makes it look as though you either don’t fully understand the problem or are being dishonest about it. Neither is a good look for a researcher. In Scientific Writing for Psychology, Robert Kail points out that incomplete or biased descriptions of research annoy the reader. I think that’s true whether the reader is on your side of the argument or not. Try to present different views as fairly as you can. I always try to imagine the researchers whose work I’m writing about coming across my paper. I wouldn’t need them to agree with my views, but I wouldn’t want them to feel as though they’d been mistreated.

Of course, you may fully agree with what a paper has to say. This can almost be worse, in a way: you might think there’s not much more to write than “me, too”. But claims can nearly always be bolstered by additional evidence. And sometimes old claims can be applied to new areas in new ways. The claims you agree with might be vulnerable to counterarguments in their current forms, so you can provide them with the additional support they need to fend off attacks.

What’s important is that engagement with research is a very different activity from, for instance, clicking “like” or “dislike” on online videos. Too many papers have brief summaries of articles followed by the equivalent of “loved it” or “nonsense”. You’re asked to read sources not so that you can rate them, but rather so that you can assemble them into an detailed picture of what the research community has to say about whatever topic you’ve chosen to discuss.  It’s a far more interesting task.