Background research refers to the process that a writer uses to gain knowledge about a topic she does not know about, or much about. In our digital world, all writers, whether they are students or professionals, have or can gain access to previously published and unpublished information about just about anything. The role of the science writer is to sort through the noise and summarize information for people who don't have that luxury, but practicing that technique can be helpful to anyone planning a future in a scientific discipline. Background research is the first step of all good scientific studies, including archaeological investigations, used as an example here.
There are three main sources of information available to people who are writing research papers today: internet sources, brick and mortar libraries and museums, and people.
Wikipedia, Science Blogs and News Reports
These days, Wikipedia is a reasonable starting place for general background information, but there are other starting points that you may find more useful and reliable, such as science blogs and news reports. Be cautious and find out enough information about the news outlet or blog writer so that you can be confident of that reliability-is the blog writer's biography available and is that person qualified; do they cite scholarly references in their articles; is the tone of their blog sensible and balanced. And wherever you start, don't stop there. The problem with those types of resources, is they are not peer-reviewed.
The peer-review process requires that before a scientific paper is published, it is reviewed by one or more experts for its validity. The process has its faults: but science changes very slowly, and what a researcher believes in her heart today may be disproven tomorrow. What scientists get published in peer-reviewed articles are far more conservative, by and large, than what they say to a news reporter, in their classes, or in their own blogs. To create a balanced research report of your own, you need both types of information: What do the partisans believe about the findings right now, and what do other sources say about it.
Finding Peer-Reviewed Literature
How do you gain access to peer-reviewed literature? A lot of academic papers are locked up by the publishers with exorbitant prices for downloading a single article-US$25-40 is common. If you are a college student, you should have access to the electronic resources in the university library, which will include free access to that catalog. If you are a high school student or independent scholar, you may still be able to have use of the library; go talk to the library administration and ask them what is available for you.
Once you've logged on to the university library, where do you try out your topic keywords? Of course, you can try the university catalog: but sometimes a less-structured approach works better. While Google Scholar is excellent, it returns results from a wide variety of disciplines. So, for example, if you are researching the term "seasonality" in Google Scholar, you find information about the stock market and tourism and atmospheric circulations. You can add additional keywords to narrow down your search such as "domestication" or "archaeology," but you can also turn to specialized article databases in your subject area.
On the Internet: Specialized Article Databases
Specialized article databases are typically assembled by people who are experts in those fields and part of discipline-based societies. For archaeologists, some good anthropology-based databases include Anthropology Plus, AnthroSource, and the Annual Review of Anthropology, which has assembled bibliographic essays on discipline-specific topics. Other fields have the same sorts of databases, just search for "article databases" and add a keyword for your field of endeavor. The Annual Reviews collection has a treasure-trove of peer-reviewed syntheses of topics in all scientific disciplines, from Analytical Chemistry to Vision Science.
There are many others that you may have access to at the university library, or available via your laptop for a yearly or monthly subscription. JSTOR is a subscription-based repository for hundreds of back-catalog journals; Lexis-Nexis has been a tool for news reporters seeking information on individuals for over 30 years; and there are many publisher-specific sources such as Elsevier's Science Direct, Wiley's Science Solutions, and Taylor & Francis Online.
Brick and Mortar: Society Museums and Libraries
Another great source for information for background research is topic-specific libraries and museums. Chances are the local university has a Chemistry or Geography library; you may also find public science venues, such as local historical or genealogical societies.
These libraries have selected the most important research books and journals in that field, and you might also find books and memoirs of local residents involved in the studies that don't make it into the top searches of Google. Best of all, you may well find a librarian with a voluminous memory. Sadly, many of the public societies are shutting their facilities because of budget cuts-so if you still have one, be sure to visit this fast-disappearing resource.
Many states and provinces have governmental offices where information concerning local aspects of scientific research are stored. State level offices include Natural Resources, History, Archaeology, and Environmental offices. All of these include information that is available to professionals for assistance with their research and might be available to you even if you are not a professional.
For example, if you are a working archaeologist in a particular state, you can almost certainly obtain access to the records, articles, reports, artifact collections, and maps kept at the State Archaeologist office; but these are not always open to the general public. It won't hurt to ask, and many of the records will be open to students. The University of Iowa maintains a list of National Association of State Archaeologist Offices.
People: Oral History Interviews
One often overlooked area of background research is the oral history interview. Find people who know about your topic and go talk to them. By all means, do your background research on the subject before you reach out to your potential contacts. Don't expect them to simply tell you all you need to know about a particular subject: come with some knowledge about the subject and be ready with some pertinent questions.
To find people, use your local university again, and see if there is someone in the anthropology (or other) department who knows about or has studied your topic. Reach out to the librarian at the topic library and see if they know of a friendly resource you might chat with.
For an archaeological research paper, amateur archaeologists and historians may be excellent sources of information, as might retired archaeologists who have conducted work on a site. Members of the general public who live in the area and long-time museum directors may recall when investigations took place.
If you don't have access to the university, use Google Scholar to identify recent research, and then using email, approach the authors for insight.
Who knows? An interview might be the capstone making your research paper the best it can be.