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How far can I fall down the research rabbit hole?

When the article I’m working on is done and published, we’ll take a look at the overall piece and see, line by line, just how much research it required. For now, a single anecdote will illustrate my point.

I need a question answered.

The answer to the question is incidental to the article, really, but I feel that if I don’t find the answer to this question, I will be missing a piece of information, albeit minor, and that I will have been irresponsible.

The question involves determining how many examples of a particular natural phenomenon exist in the entire world. In my on-the-ground experience, I have heard “7” many times, but the responses come from people in tourism who (1) have a motive to make the phenomenon seem exclusive to them, and (2) have no real motive to substantiate their claim with any hard and fast data. It seems, quite frankly, that no one has ever thought to ask them. When I ask, it becomes clear that the information is tertiary at best. What is entirely unclear is what primary source may be able to provide the definitive answer.

My job, then, is to sniff out a primary source.


I start, of course, on Google.

The results are not promising. There are pages and pages of links right back to the tourism groups that have parroted “7” to me over and over, as if they say it enough, I’ll stop asking the question.

I narrow the search to Google Scholar, which isn’t that much more useful. There are 139 results, most from the 1970s. Even if I’m able to find an answer among these articles, published in scholarly journals, I’ll need to ensure the information is up to date by finding a more current source that’s equally credible. One of the reasons doing so is important (and the reason I’m even going down this rabbit hole in the first place) is because the changing climate and human behavior are affecting said phenomenon dramatically, so the number considered definitive in the 1970s is likely to have changed by now.

I bookmark some of the older and newer articles, along with some additional articles found through some other academic databases, and make a note to skim them… in all my spare time.


I go back to regular Google.

If I can’t resolve the question quickly through scholarly journals, perhaps I can find someone who’s an expert on the topic. But this, too, proves to be a challenge.

Among the organizations that *might* have someone among their ranks who knows something about said phenomenon, which one should I choose? Which among these organizations is considered most reputable/respectable/prestigious? Should I choose an organization based in the US (easier and less expensive to contact; unlikely to encounter a language barrier; I can figure out the time zone differences in my head) or one that has “International” in its title (after all, I need to know about the phenomenon on a worldwide scale). And then there’s governmental and private interest involvement. Which of the organizations have the least amount of interference, preventing the collection of information from becoming an exercise in bureaucracy and permission-seeking?


My choice is somewhat random. I decide I’ll start with a national organization. But finding the correct press contact is overwhelming; there’s a large list of contacts based on the type of information being sought, and it’s possible that my query could fall into one of at least three categories. I close my eyes and pick one. I call the number and the contact isn’t there; she’ll be out of the office until February 28. I can call her colleague at 123-456-7890, which I do, but I’m redirected again; the colleague is teleworking, and I can reach her at yet another number. My notes are becoming unintelligible.

When I finally get her on the phone and we get through the exchange of social pleasantries, I pose the question. “Hmm,” she says. “That could fall under the purview of another department.” She says, though, that she’ll ask around and see who might be able to answer the question.


The next day, she calls back. She reports the responses of several colleagues, all of whom have differing opinions– not about the number of the phenomenon, but whether my question can even be answered. She says she Googled the phenomenon (as if I hadn’t already) and found an article that may be of interest, a suggestion which bothers me because it’s not exactly definitive. I thank her for her time, and wonder what, exactly I’ve been doing with mine.

Time, that is.

Got a research rabbit hole story? Tell us how far you fell in the comments. Or share your favorite tips for doing research.


7 responses »

  1. Damn. Was it that obvious? 🙂
    Loved your piece on WayWorded yesterday!

  2. Only for someone who knows you. What do I win?
    And thanks!

  3. A kayaking trip on a thriving bio bay?

  4. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Google Scholar. It looks pretty awesome – too bad it wasn’t more helpful with this!

    She Googled for you. That’s so discouraging! Hope you find what you need on bioluminescence (and I wonder if Hal spell checked that or just rocked it on first try. I’m guessing the latter.) 😉

  5. Pingback: Sources consulted while writing Hamptons article for Aer Lingus’ in-flight « Cuaderno Inedito

  6. Pingback: Confession of an overshot deadline « Cuaderno Inedito

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