What is Research?
Research is the pursuit of knowledge
- to advance one’s knowledge about a topic
- to replicate, vet, and potentially extend previous knowledge claims
- to develop new knowledge for humankind
- to create new businesses, new applications.
This desire to advance human knowledge is sometimes categorized as either basic or applied. Research results—knowledge claims-—are important. But, how researchers claim to know what they know—their research methods and research methodology—are equally important.
Research is a powerful way of learning and thinking about the world, solving problems, and empowering you to make informed decisions and develop commercially viable applications and businesses.
Research is an elastic term: different researchers and methodological communities have unique and distinct methods, or ideas about what it means to conduct research. Training in academic and professional disciplines often involves learning about disciplinary-specific methods and tools for gathering and assessing information. Thus, a heart surgeon has quite distinct research methods from a lawyer, engineer, geologist–and so on.
Research is a contested term: different methodological communities have different epistemological assumptions about knowledge and knowledge claims that lead them to disagree with about what constitutes a valid knowledge claim or research method. For instance, a scientist in the lab may not consider the humanist’s textual dialectics to be a credible form of research. Scientists sometimes dismiss critical literacy and information literacy perspectives & practices as background, contextual work rather than real research.
Research & Mindset
Researchers are curious about the world. They embrace openness, a growth mindset, and collaboration. They undertake research projects in order to review existing knowledge and generate original knowledge claims about the topic, thesis, research question they are investigating.
Research & Ethics
Researchers and consumers of research are wise to view research claims and research plans from an ethical perspective. Given human nature, like the tendency to look for confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence and to allow emotions to cloud reasoning, it’s foolhardy to disregard critical literacy practices when consuming the research of others.
Research as an Iterative, Recursive, Chaotic Process
Research is commonly depicted on websites and textbooks on research methods as systematic work (see, e.g., Wikipedia’s Research page).
Depicting research as systematic work is certainly valid, especially in natural and social science research. For instance, scientists in the lab working with a virus like COVID-19 or Ebola aren’t going to play around. Their professionalism and safety is tied to rigorously following research protocols.
That said, it’s an oversimplification to suggest research processes are invariably systematic. Discoveries have emerged from basic research that have been wildly popular and useful real-world applications. (See, for example, 24 Unintended Scientific Discoveries — the video below). Scientists may begin researching hypothesis A but rewrite that hypothesis multiple times until they find hypothesis Z — something that explains the data. Then they go back and repackage their investigation, following ethical standards, for a wider audience.
Ultimately, because research is such an iterative process, the thesis or hypothesis a researcher began with may not be the one the researcher ends up with. The takeaway here is that research is a learning process. Research efforts can lead to unpredictable applications and insights.
Ultimately, research is about curiosity and openness. The question that initiates a research effort may morph into other questions as researchers
- dig deeper into the literature on the topic and become more conversant
- endeavor to make sense of the data/information they have gathered during the conduct of the study.
During the early stages of a writing project, you can identify research questions worth asking by engaging in Information Literacy practices.
Research could be organized at Writing Commons under Information Literacy After all, Research as Inquiry, as articulated by the ACRL, addresses how research is produced.
However, we have chosen to present research as a major heading at Writing Commons and not subsume it under Information Literacy because Information Literacy is more commonly associated with being a critical consumer of textual research whereas research is associated with the efforts of people to develop original knowledge claims and personal insights.
Information Literacy is focused on getting and vetting information whereas research is focused on producing new knowledge claims.