Research for Technical Report Writing

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to: 

  • Understand the value of critically assessing your sources
  • Distinguish the differences between a scholarly source and a popular source
  • Apply evaluative criteria to information and its source (e.g. author's expertise, currency, accuracy, point of view, type of publication or information, sponsorship)

1. Why should you evaluate information?

As we conduct research, it is important to evaluate the information.  Even if the author is an expert in the field, we should view everything through a critical lenses.  To look at information critically means you approach it like a “critic”. You must question, analyse and contextualize your sources in order to make a decision about their value and appropriateness.

2. Using C.A.R.S. to evaluate sources

There are several checklists available that serve as guidelines to help us evaluate the quality of sources that we wish to use. One of the checklists that we use often at uOttawa is C.A.R.S. This checklists outlines four categories, along with questions that we can ask ourselves, to help us distinguish high-quality from low-quality sources. 

Credibility:  concerns the reliability of the information you are reading, both the author’s credentials and the quality of the writing itself.

  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's qualifications to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?

Accuracy: concerns the quality of the information being presented, essentially is the information timely, factual, and would it be considered comprehensive in scope.

  • When was the information published or posted if it is an online sources?
  • Has the information been updated?
  • Is the information current or out of date for your topic?
  • Is the information consistent or can you spot contradictory statements?
  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?

Reasonableness: concerns the objectivity of the information that is being presented?

  • Does the language or tone seem biased and free of emotion?
  • Does the author provide a balanced view of the information?
  • Could there be conflict of interest by the author or organization?
  • What is the purpose of the information?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?

Support: concerns the reliability, accuracy and support of the information being presented.

  • Where does the information come from? Do the references listed meet the criteria we have listed for evaluation?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source?
  • Can the references listed by the author(s) be easily located?

It is important to note that not all sources will be able to meet all listed criteria.  These criteria will allow you to better distinguish between high-quality information sources from lower-quality ones.

3. How to Read an Article

When doing research for your assignments, research articles will be a key source type used. Since research articles are written by experts, for experts, they can be very dense with information, contain a lot of discipline specific terminology and assume a certain level of background knowledge on the topic. Because of this, they can be very difficult and overwhelming to read.

Below we have outlined three steps that can follow to help you to refine your results to those that are most relevant and begin the active reading process. 

1. First look at the article title and abstract, followed by any headings and figures, and lastly the discussion or conclusion. These key areas will give you an idea of the main purposes and findings of the research. After this, you can easily reject the articles that do not fit within the scope of your report, and continue onto the next step with the remaining articles.

2. Read through the article from beginning to end. This initial read through will allow you to view the article in more detail and determine if it fits within the scope of your report. 

3. Now that you have refined your results to those that are most relevant you will begin to have a critical look at the source, through the active reading process. It is at this stage that you will slowly read through the article while:

  • highlighting key words, phrases or ideas
  • making notes (either in the margins or on a separate document) to help you to summarize the content, remember any questions that you had while reading, or any thoughts and ideas that you might want to include in your report
  • reflecting on the limitations of the work 

Perils of peer-review

Peer reviewed refers to works that have been evaluated by a committee of professional peers using rigorous selection standards prior to publication.

Though peer reviewed sources are seen to have significant weight, this process is not perfect.  There are cases where articles are published after being reviewed and subsequently are retracted for a number of reasons.  Retractions can occur for simple mistakes as well as for fraud and / or misconduct.  They can be initiated by the author(s) of the paper, their institution of employment or journal editor(s).  For these reasons, it is important to view all information through critical lenses.

A notable example is the case of researcher Haruko Obokata whose published articles in Nature were later retracted when concerns were raised by other researchers regarding reproducibility and image manipulation.  The retractions also list findings that occurred during the investigation by RIKEN, the research facility where Obokata had been employed.

Obokata, Haruko; Wakayama, Teruhiko; Sasai, Yoshiki; et al. (2014). "Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency". Nature. 505 (7485): 641–647. doi:10.1038/nature1296

Obokata, Haruko; Sasai, Yoshiki; Niwa, Hitoshi; Vacanti, Charles; Andrabi, Munazah; Takata, Nozomu; Tokoro, Mikiko; Terashita, Yukari; Yonemura, Shigenobu; Vacanti, Charles A.; Wakayama, Teruhiko (January 30, 2014). "Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency". Nature. Nature. 505 (7485): 676–680. doi:10.1038/nature12969

Retracted articles will be flagged with either an accompanying retraction note or a link with a detailed retraction notice.  If you looked at the articles listed above, you will see there is a retraction notice that clearly details why a retraction has occurred.