Thanks to the digital age, primary documents are quickly becoming available to anyone who wants to access them. Unfortunately, a growing issue that is a result of this accessibility, is that people who have never researched anything before are unknowingly sharing unsound research with others. It is great to have so many people interested in evaluating history for themselves without the lens of a historian but there are some common pitfalls that new or amateur researchers make.
Common Mistakes to Avoid:
-Not doing enough research and making theories. Some people find one piece of evidence for something to support a claim and end their research. One piece of evidence is not research; it is a piece of data. Research is the culmination of a lot of evaluated data. (See next mistake.)
-Finding one source that gives evidence for something without evaluating the source. When one researches thoroughly, they find evidence and spend a lot more time studying the source of the evidence. How common a view would it have been? How widely spread was the publication? Did the author have any ulterior motives? Does the information only pertain to a certain area, religious or political group, or country? Was the piece supposed to be satirical?
-Having a firm hypothesis and making the research fit the hypothesis. This includes not including research that would negate your thesis. Ethical researchers will make note of the evidence that goes against their theories as well as the evidence that does. This is so readers can evaluate the source documents themselves and see if they agree with a researcher’s conclusions. Good researchers use “working hypotheses” which can change when new information is uncovered. Good researchers must be willing to change their views. There is no shame in being wrong but there is shame in trying to skew research to fit a hypothesis.
-Ignoring research done by others. It is very important to be cognizant of the research that others have done on your topic. It is not good manners to ignore the hard work that others have done before you and it is silly to present your research to your field if you have nothing particularly new to share. Your research should build on or negate the works of others as well as introduce new information, if possible. Reading the works of others alerts you to resources you might not have find yourself and keeps you up to date.
I'm sure there are more but these are the ones I notice most and remember doing myself. I am very much a supporter of amateur historians because they typically research things that are very interesting that don't tend to get a lot of professional attention. I like to encourage people to try their hand at research if they are inclined because local history and material culture tend to only get attention from amateurs and it is some of the most interesting history to learn about. But we have to keep the research well founded, bad research gives amateur historians a bad reputation.