Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Interpreting Research

Interpreting Research Studies by the Guttmacher Institute
I often hear, and struggle with, the question: What constitutes research? In all cases the work in IssueLab's archive is data-driven and includes citations, but beyond that we leave decisions on the work's validity up to the end-user. Different people have different standards. So while a report may cut it for a high school student's term paper, that same report may be dismissed as unfounded dreck by a professional researcher.

I found the brief, "Interpreting Research Studies" by Guttmacher Institute to be a great resource on this very question. Overall the Guttmacher Institute does an exemplary job of balancing rigorous research reports with briefs, fact sheets, and mixed media. This specific piece is a quick four pages of clearly-written guidelines on standards for research in the social sciences. It guides the reader through a series a questions one should consider. These questions are:
  • What makes the study important?
  • Do the findings make sense?
  • Who conducted the research and wrote the report?
  • Who published the report?
  • Did the researcher select an appropriate group for study?
  • If comparison groups are used, how similar are they?
  • What has changed since the information was collected?
  • Are the methods appropriate to the research purpose?
  • Does the study establish causation?
  • Is the time frame long enough to identify an impact?
  • Could the data be biased as a result of poor research design?
  • Are the results statistically significant?
The questions I ask myself as I consider work for inclusion in IssueLab are usually less extensive. Do the authors demonstrate where they got their information? Will a reader have some idea where to turn for further information?

What standards you judge research by are not nearly as important as being aware of the need for standards in the first place -- identifying your needs as a consumer of research, and then developing criteria to make sure those needs are met.

I see a lot of work in the nonprofit community on information sharing that focuses on the sharing aspect. How to reach new audiences, how to use social networks, how to tweetblogfacepost. As nonprofits tailor their work for this ever-changing landscape, it's useful to be revisit our expectations for the information half of information sharing.

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