How We Research: A Look Inside the Buffer Blog Process

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research-microscope

I often get asked about my research process for the Buffer blog. For my science and life hacking posts in particular, I rely heavily on scientific research to back up my points, so there’s a lot of research to be done.

Unfortunately there’s no secret sauce or magic bullet when it comes to this process. It’s mostly just a matter of time and practice. I do have a few tips to share about where and how I find the sources for my research, though, so hopefully you’ll find these useful.

Finding the research you need

The first thing I do when I start a research-heavy post is start digging into the topic to learn everything I can. Here are a few ways I find studies and research papers for my posts.

Google Alerts

I have a few different Google Alerts set up to send me new research papers. Thanks to some advice from Leo, I usually get interesting scientific studies in my inbox once a week from these alerts.

google alerts email

Most of my alerts include the words “study OR research.” Using Google’s search operators like OR make my results more useful.

google alerts email 2

Here are some of the alerts I have running currently:

  • study OR research + sleep
  • harvard OR stanford OR columbia AND “new research”
  • study OR research + exercise

Just head to google.com/alerts to set up a new alert, and choose to have it delivered immediately, daily or once per week. I get mine once per week so my inbox isn’t overloaded, and I usually run through the list and save any interesting links to my reading list.

reading list

Read a lot

The other way I collect research material is to simply read a lot. I follow authors and blogs I like reading on Twitter—you might prefer to use RSS, Facebook or Google+ for this. Whenever I come across something that seems interesting, I save it to my read later list.

I end up reading a lot of material that I never use, because I always keep track of things that might be relevant some day, rather than only what I need right now. I try to keep track of ideas and topics I read about, however, so that I can come back to them later on when they are relevant.

For instance, I use Day One to save quotes from blog posts or books I read, and tag them with whatever topics they touch on. This makes it easy to go back through all of my saved quotes to see what’s relevant to the blog post I’m writing today.

day one quotes

I also drop ideas and notes into Day One, and tag them with topics they relate to. I used to use a Moleskine notebook for the same purpose, but I like being able to search by tags in a digital journal.

dayone notes

I also like reading related stuff, to expand my knowledge of particular areas. I often end up saving five or six books to my Amazon wishlist at a time, because I find a lot of the related books to be quite interesting. Here’s an example of what my wishlist tends to look like:

amazon wishlist

Bloggers often make this easy for you as well, by including links to related posts at the bottom of each one, or by including inline links to other, related posts they’ve written. Here’s an example of how we do this on the Buffer blog:

buffer inline links

Save all the research you find

I save everything I read that might come in handy one day. I use Pinboard for this, but there are lots of free options you could try, such as Delicious, Kippt, Diigo or Saved.io.

pinboard

I use multiple tags for each item. For studies, for instance, I’ll add the tag “research” and then tags like “sleep,” “naps” or “running” to help me find it again later.

pinboard tags

Google searches

Once I have a good idea for a blog post I usually need a lot more research to fill it out. This is when I’ll turn to Google and start hunting for related studies. I usually start with a Google Scholar search:

google scholar

I usually start with a fairly basic phrase to start uncovering related studies:

google scholar search

After a few tries of different keyword combinations, I’ll start to work out which keywords researchers use in the kind of studies I’m after. This process isn’t usually much fun, but it’s important if I want to find the right studies for my topic.

The other useful thing about Google Scholar results is that they often show the number of citations a paper has received. This isn’t necessarily proof that it’s a high-quality paper, but it’s a clue that it’s at least popular and worth taking a look at. It’s a bit like when you see someone on Twitter with a high follower count: It doesn’t prove that they’re the best, but you’d probably give them a try, at least.

google scholar citations

Bringing it all together

When I have some research ready for each point I want to make, it’s time to start bringing it all together into a draft.

Start with the basics

Usually I’ll find that I need some background about the basics of a topic I’m looking into—both for my own understanding and to add context for readers. A good example is this recent post I wrote: 6 Research-Tested Ways to Improve Your Memory.

memory post

I started out with a basic break down of how memory works before moving into the main topic of the post, which was how to improve your memory.

I get this basic information from a few places. One of my favorites is this book which covers each section and function of the brain in just a few pages. It’s a great way to get a really basic understanding of how something like memory works and where to start looking when I dive further into the research process.

I also use Wikipedia for this. I don’t use Wikipedia as a research source, since it’s not reliable enough, but for my own understanding it’s a really helpful place to start.

citogenesis

Read studies carefully

From reading a lot of research studies, I’ve discovered a few important things that I try to keep in mind. Whenever I can, I read the full study rather than just an abstract. I usually find that any statistics and mathematics sections are beyond my understanding, but I find the introduction, results and discussion sections to be really helpful. The discussion section of a study paper usually talks about suggested causes of the results found, caveats to what the study has shown (such as a small sample size or results that apply to a specific group of people only), and related research areas.

Reading full studies can be quite expensive, so a lot of the time I’m stuck with only an abstract or a preview to go on. In these cases, I try not to draw conclusions from the abstract that may not be true—an abstract usually doesn’t include any caveats about the study, or a detailed analysis of what the results mean.

Link to original sources

Studies often get covered by multiple news sites which simplify the results of the research for a non-scientific audience. This can sometimes lead to inaccuracies and misunderstandings. For that reason, I try to always link back to an original study or source, rather than linking to someone who has interpreted the information. That’s almost like relying on other people to do your research for you.

Doing the work myself to fully understand the research I’m using helps me to feel more confident about backing up the points I make, and sharing information that isn’t misleading.

Don’t include everything

One of the most important things I’ve learned recently about research-heavy posts is that I don’t need to include every single bit of research I can find. A good example is this post I wrote about junk food cravings: Why we crave junk food and how to turn down the cravings.

I first got the idea for that post when I read about a study that showed eating avocado at lunchtime can stave off food cravings in the afternoon. Once I’d written the piece, I struggled to find a place to squeeze in that fact about avocados. No matter where I put it, it just didn’t fit in with the rest of the post. Eventually I realised it just wasn’t necessary.

Sometimes knowing what to cut is just as important as knowing what to write.

What research methods do you have? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this post, you might also like From Ideas to Traffic Results: How We Run a Blog with 700,000 Readers Per Month and 6 Ways I’ve Improved My Writing In the Past 6 months You Can Try Today.

Image credits: El Bibliomata; xkcd

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    As a fellow researcher/writer, this is helpful!!

    Like you, I used google alerts & RSS feed. I use evernote to store everything. I’m TRYING to get out of the bad habit of storing articles in my email.

    • http://clickjolt.com/ Daniel Marlin

      You’re right to capitalize trying… I need a rubber band on my wrist so I’ll stop doing this. I always think it’s a great idea until I need what I’ve saved.

  • Courtney

    Huh. I may be costing myself extra work by working upside-down. I start with the topic, then put the feelers out.

    I like the idea of saving everything interesting, then fitting things together and filling in. My brain works better that way – I like to sort things through from the middle out.

  • http://www.pattonwebz.com/ William Patton

    LOL & +1 for the Tim Minchin quote in your scrapbook. He’s surprisingly insightful if you can handle the extreme quirky-ness :p

  • donnasvei

    Belle,

    Thanks for the tips. I wanted to share that the NY Public Library will give nonresidents library cards for $100 per year. That gets you free access to most academic journals through their online databases.

    Donna Svei
    AvidCareerist.com

  • http://www.codenutz.com/ Matthew Whetton

    Really excellent post

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    Informative and excellent post. Thanks Belle.

    I follow the same steps for my articles except that I am less methodical. And I use Pocket (earlier, Read It Later) to store the articles I like.

  • Lauren

    Great post — I especially liked the section about reading the ACTUAL scientific studies rather than relying on the words of others. I know that can get expensive, and we researchers hate that too. I encourage folks to look up some reputable Open Access journals that interest them — Open Access means that the full papers are made available to read for free, and you can often re-use parts of the article (like charts or figures) if they’re licensed by Creative Commons. One great example is PLOS ONE (http://www.plosone.org/), which has an “in the news” section; BioMed Central also has a lot of interesting journals (http://www.biomedcentral.com) and is a go-to place for publishing new medical research. Getting article alerts on subjects that interest you directly from the journals might be helpful as well!

  • Mike

    Belle – you – rock

  • http://www.snipcart.com François Lanthier N.

    Thanks for sharing those tips and tools. The science-backed approach you guys have for a lot of content you put out there is very interesting indeed!

  • http://erikvanmechelen.com/ Erik van Mechelen

    Thank you, Belle. Quite instructive. Also! The memory post is timely since the USA Memory Championship is this weekend in New York!

  • Ameena

    I am new to your site and am excited by content and service. Thank you. Please add me to the appreciation list for these research tips from you & other readers. I feel very at home!

  • Christian Ruß

    Hey Belle,
    great blog post! And it’s quite funny how similar some methods evolve independently. I’m currently preparing my own blog and therefore started some weeks ago with research. How did I do it? Almost exactly like you (following many sources via RSS, Twitter etc.).

    The most fun thing to mention: I try to determine what the main content is about, and if I think it’d be useful later, I push it to my read it later app.
    There I tag it exactly like you with “research” + topic keywords… I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one with this workflow, because it feels a bit ineffective but haven’t found a better way to do yet.

    So again thanks for sharing, I feel understood now quite well ;-)

  • http://audiopress.com Justin Fowler

    Awesome. Really liked the Google Alerts you set up.

  • http://www.GenericDomainMarket.com Sameh

    One of the books in your wishlist is titled “Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown”. I like this saying!

    I guess your post(s) is a proof of that saying. Thanks for the tips.