Researchers are driven by a desire to solve personal, professional, and societal problems. These problems may be simple everyday problems like the best restaurant in town for Greek food or they may be major problems that require vast teams of researchers working in well funded labs.
“The spectrum of inquiry ranges from asking simple questions that depend upon basic recapitulation of knowledge to increasingly sophisticated abilities to refine research questions, use more advanced research methods, and explore more diverse disciplinary perspectives”(ACRL, Framework, n.p.)
Imagine you and your best friend are planning a trip to a place you’ve never been before—perhaps Sweden. You are bound to have questions: What’s the best way to travel? Where should you stay? What sights and attractions are “must-do’s”? In order to answer these questions you will want to research each of the questions. You will need to figure out the best and most reliable way to answer each question (and the questions will probably each need a different research strategy).
Now imagine that you are doing academic work or professional research. You are a member of a discipline or profession and you have a good idea of the foundational texts for your research topic. A bit of reading you have done has caught your attention: perhaps a text, newspaper article, or journal article. You begin to question how this reading fits in with what you know about your discipline. First you search to see if scholars have been writing about this question (textual research). They may have answered it, but most likely, they have not yet come to a firm conclusion. You decide to do some research on your own to try to answer the question.
Both of these situations illustrate the Research as Inquiry Framework as conceptualized by the Association of College and Research Libraries. When scholarship is working right, publication of research results produces inquiry by other scholars, which in turn produces more research. On the other hand, doing research for other reasons than to answer a question can be half-hearted or sloppy. If students, for example, research a topic only because they are required to by an assignment, and not from a desire to learn anything in particular, the results will often be subpar.
To solve problems, researchers may employ a range of methods. Each discipline has its own methods for making or vetting knowledge claims. In Psychology, for example, experimentation with human subjects is quite common, but it is less common in Mathematics. Part of becoming a skilled researcher is learning the epistemology of one’s discipline. Say a mathematician was trying to solve an equation that had not yet been solved. If the approach was to put twenty people in a room and watch how they solved it, other scholars in the discipline would not take the results seriously, but if something similar were done by a psychologist, the results could be quite important (see Research).
Thus, as they engage in inquiry, researchers will choose methods based on the values of the Communities of Practitioners in their disciplines. They may sift through research publications across disciplines with hopes of synthesizing published information in a new way; test past research claims in a lab; or interview people.
Researchers follow an iterative process to solve problems. People (and research communities) are constantly revising research questions. The scope of research, the methods, and even the topic driving the research changes over time. It’s common for people to begin a project with one research question in mind only to abandon it once they learn that question has been asked countless times or is too broad to be meaningfully pursued.