Research: How Do I Know I Have Enough?

I almost always have a stack of library books on my desk.
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One of the questions that my students ask is “how do I know when I’ve done enough research?”

My answer isn’t especially helpful. It is – when you have enough to write the piece. If you are writing an article, this might mean that you only need 5 or 10 sources but I’m assuming this is a short piece for young readers. When I write a book, I never know how many sources I’m going to need until I’m done.

This week I am taking a manuscript to final. It is due tomorrow – Friday. As I write this, my bibliography is almost 11 full pages long but I have three more chapters to finalize. Each bibliography page has approximately 14 items. So that would give me approximately 14 x 11 or 154 items.

Should you locate each fact in three different sources?

I know what I’m expected to say and that is YES. But really? If you find it in one good source, that’s good enough but you also have to do enough reading to know what is accurate and what is suspect.

In my current project, a businessman justified the forcible buyout of another company by saying that in all the years they’d been in business they’d only developed one successful product. Initially, I didn’t question that but later it hit me. “Why would he want to buy an unsuccessful company?” I did some more digging and found at least two more products that are definitely successful.

The other problem is that if you rely on a fact because you find it multiple times, you aren’t confirming the fact. You are confirming the number of times it has been repeated. Did George Washington have wooden teeth? Going by the number of times I heard this “fact” as a child, the answer would be yes. But now we know this is one of those delightful tales that get built up and passed on.

Research until the material you find starts to repeat itself. Outline and rough out your work. As you write, research some more to fill in any blanks that need filling. And, when you’re done? You’ll know how many sources you needed.

How many sources did you use in your last project?