Back in the early days of Study Hacks, I introduced the paper research database. The idea was to build a database of every quote you might need to cite in your paper. These citations could be sorted by date or type, and be linked to their matching source. The technique works because it helps you build and organize a comprehensive understanding of an event or idea before you start writing about it.
I should be clear: I love this technique. I used it to write two massive art history research papers while here at MIT. Recently, however, when I began the research process for my new book, I found myself drawn to a new strategy: the paper research wiki.
In this post I want to explain this approach, which has the potential to significantly improve the complexity and confidence of your written arguments.
The Basics of a Research Wiki
The research wiki I’m currently using is not my first attempt at this strategy. In fact, it’s the fourth research wiki I’ve started. The first three quickly faded in disuse. This last attempt, however, has become an incredible aid to my writing.
What’s the difference? It all comes down to structure…
If you jump blindly into a wiki, and start creating pages left and right, you’re unlikely to gain much benefit. When I attempted this approach with my first research wikis, I ended up building a page for every idea or piece of information, with few internal links. The site soon devolved into an overly complicated, wannabe notebook.
For my latest wiki, by contrast, I enforced structure. Specifically, I introduced a strict information hierarchy:
- At the bottom level, there are primary sources. Above them are second-level structures. Above them are third-level structures, and so on.
- My linking rule is simple: pages can only link to those from a lower level. Primary sources cannot link to any other pages. Second-level structures can link only to primary sources. Third-level structures can only link to second-level structures and primary sources. Etc.
As you ascend through the levels of this hierarchy, you increase the complexity of the ideas being captured. For example, here’s a screen shot of the home page for my book research wiki:
Notice, I have two types of primary sources: interview subjects and research papers. Each interview subject has his or her own page where I capture all of the relevant information — from contact information to interview transcripts. Each research paper has a page with a full citation and summary. These are the foundational blocks on top of which everything else about my book is built.
My second-level structures are ideas. For example, if you click on the ideas link you’ll see a list that includes the Failed Simulation Effect. The corresponding page describes the idea, linking back to the relevant primary sources, including the relevant research papers and students who exhibited the effect.
At the third-level, I have annotated outlines for each of the major parts of my books. The annotated outlines link heavily to both ideas and interview subjects.
When it comes to writing a part of the book, I can start with the relevant annotated outline and quickly drill down to the needed information. As you might imagine, this allows me to write with great confidence.
Applying the Technique to Your Paper
For a standard college research paper, I would suggest the following information hierarchy (this is only a suggestion, feel free to modify as needed):
- Have your primary sources include the actual primary sources: books, articles, interviews. Create one page for each such source. Include on the page the properly formatted citation and a list of the relevant quotes you might use from the source.
- Have your second-level structures include events and ideas. Create one page for each of these items. On the page, you can link every quote and fact in your description to the matching primary source.
- Have your third-level structures capture timelines and comparison charts. For example, you could have a page that orders and dates a sequence of important events (linking each to its matching second-level page), or a page that compares different related ideas (linking to the matching idea descriptions).
- Have your fourth-level structures capture large arguments. Here you can draw freely from all of the lower structures.
Notice, this wiki is different than an outline. Starting from the fourth-level argument pages, you should be able to easily drill down to the primary sources needed to build a standard flat outline. In other words, put most of your thinking into the wiki, then generate the pre-writing outline at the last minute.
The Advantages of a Wiki Approach
Wiki-driven writing enjoys two important advantages. First, the structure of the wiki helps you structure your research. Plugging your research into a clear information hierarchy is superior to simply creating a large pile of stuff. Second, working through these different levels forces you to do lots of high-level thinking before you get to the outlining and writing phase. In some sense, your paper research wiki requires you to master the nuances and complexity of the topic before you think about what you want to say about it. I can tell you from experiences, this is the approach that generates A* results.
Finding a Wiki
If you’re tech savvy, you could potentially setup your own wiki on a personal web hosting account. But I suggest just using PBworks (formerly PBwiki), which has every feature you need, works fine, and is free. It takes roughly 7 seconds to setup a PBworks wiki, so the required effort is minimal.
Practice Makes Perfect
It takes a little time to customize this technique to suit your own tastes. But if you’re serious about producing high quality papers, then I highly suggest experimenting with this strategy. I’ve been loving it.