Research, most generally, is a powerful way of learning and thinking about the world. Researchers
- review and learn about existing knowledge
- investigate and solve problems
- develop new applications, systems, theories
- develop knowledge
- replicate, verify, question, and/or extend previous research.
Research, in terms of methods, may be
- an informal, intuitive, embodied process that is shaped by people’s curiosity, problem-solving competencies, and creativity
- a formal, empirical process that involves qualitative data, quantitative data–or a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data
- a textual process–an ongoing dialog about texts
- a mixture of informal, formal, and textual processes.
Synonyms: Inquiry, Ways of Knowing
If the occasion is fairly routine, chances are we already have the knowledge we need to respond appropriately. Yet there will be occasions when we don’t have the knowledge we need, when we have to engage in information seeking behaviors to better understand a topic or rhetorical situation.
Most globally, when it comes to research, we have four major choices:
|Informal Research||Because we tend to be strategic about how we use our time — life is, after all, too short — we first consider whether we’ve faced similar rhetorical situations before. We check our tacit knowledge about the topic. We first access our intuition, our memories before reading what others have said about a topic or conducting our own original experiments. We tap the narratives that we tell ourselves about our experiences. We ruminate. We speculate. We guess. And we reason from experience.|
Textual Research, Secondary Research
|Textual Research involves reading and thinking critically about what others have said about a topic. Thanks to our cell phones, wearables, laptops, ipads and ubiquitous access to the internet, many of us have the good fortune to be able to quickly conduct Google searches on topics of interest to us. Subsequently, should we remain curious about the topic after a bit of preliminary research, we may double down and engage in strategic searching and become more familiar with the current status of the scholarly conversation.|
|Empirical Research, Primary Research, Scientific Research||When we find that published research isn’t available on our research question or we distrust or disagree with a purported research claim, then we may conduct Empirical Research. |
Empirical Research practices are guided by ethical standards, principles, and practices. Governments and professional organizations codify ethical standards and regulations (see e.g., European Group on Ethics, Nuremberg Code, National Institutes of Health (NIH).
|Mixed Methods Research||How deeply we engage in Informal Research, Textual Research, or Primary Research is somewhat a matter of personality and kairos. Our mindset, our work ethic and professionalism, and our openness to information play a significant role in when and how we conduct research.|
Our engagement with Informal Research, Textual Research, Empirical, or Mixed-Methods Research is also tied to our training. In high schools and colleges in the U.S., students learn to Write with Sources. Some fortunate students learn to conduct lab experiments in high schools. But it really isn’t until college — and, for some, graduate school — that students receive training from experts in primary research methods.
Our information seeking behaviors are also shaped by the seriousness of the occasion to ourselves and others. For instance, when COVID-19 virus became a pandemic in the spring of 2020, many scientists from throughout the world dropped what they had been working on and turned to finding a vaccine or medications to ameliorate the virus.
Research is an Iterative, Recursive 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 is tied to 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, e.g., 24 Unintended Scientific Discoveries — the video below). Scientists may begin researching hypothesis A but rewrite that hypothesis multiple times till 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. 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 subsumed 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.