What Research Is Not… And What It Is

The popular understanding of the term “research” is incorrect and somewhat misleading. It is quite common to assume that the word refers to gathering information—browsing through the Internet or books in search for information about the topic. Some even use “research” as a marketing ploy to back up claims of product or service superiority. But research is much more than copying and pasting information: it involves the human mind and requires much thought, organization and method. Research is the deliberate and planned quest for meaning and truth.

Leedy and Ormrod (2010) attempt to define research by listing eight of its characteristics. According to the authors, the beginning of research is a problem or a question. The existence of this question or problem should lead the researcher to formulate a clearly stated and defined goal for the research. This goal, in turn, should guide the formation of a plan to reach a solution to the problem or an answer to the question. In order to achieve the goal, the researcher should break the main question or problem into subunits, making the whole process more manageable. The hypotheses, based on the question or problem, should guide the whole research process and work in concert with the critical assumptions of such research. Throughout the research process, data must be gathered and interpreted in order to try to solve the problem or answer the question. The whole process is repeated as many times as necessary until the answer to the problem or question is found.

During the research process, researchers must find or create valid instruments that serve to measure the phenomena being studied. This can be more challenging in some fields than others (Drost, 2011). If a researcher conducts experiments on climate change, for example, a thermometer would be a straight-forward instrument, which would give him or her the ability to read different temperatures at different times of the day, week, month or year. Thermometers should be valid instruments for climate change research because they are directly related to the topic under study: they measure temperature, and temperature variance is one of the main objects of study in this kind of research.

In addition to valid instruments, researchers need reliable ones too. Reliability refers to the “consistency with which a measuring instrument yields a certain result when the entity being measured hasn’t changed” (Leedy & Ormrod, 2010, p. 29). Climate change researchers have come under scrutiny in the media recently because one of their main instruments—the thermometer—has been shown to be unreliable when measuring changes in atmospheric temperature (“A sensitive matter,” 2013). According to global warming skeptics, including some scientists, the location where some thermometers were placed to measure the variance in Earth’s temperature affects the readings and may cause temperatures displayed to be higher than they actually are. Correspondence between climate scientists would seem to confirm the unreliability of the field’s main instrument.

This interplay of validity and reliability is crucial in research. Researchers must find—or in some instances create—instruments that are at the same time valid measurers of phenomena being studied and reliable sources of data. Without positive validity and reliability, researchers are bound to make errors in reasoning and will likely reach incorrect conclusions, making the whole research process flawed and even worthless (Gibbert, Ruigrok, & Wicki, 2008).

Critical thinking is one way to ensure that research is relevant and devoid of errors. When the human mind is applied to a problem in a systematic and logical way, the solution to such problem is more likely to be found. This systematic and logical approach includes awareness and critique of persuasion techniques, analytical capacity to understand the logic behind arguments, the ability to make decisions, and evaluation of known data (Leedy & Ormrod, 2010). Critical thinking, when applied on the foundation of the scientific method, can yield tremendous results and help humans to solve the most challenging problems and answer the most difficult questions.

Doctoral research requires that the researcher find or formulate a question or problem, which in turn will serve as the central issue in that research. This can be challenging, especially for candidates who are just now being introduced to the field in which they are specializing at this level. For some such researchers, what constitutes an original or unanswered question may in fact have been thoroughly investigated and fully answered in the literature that the newcomer does not yet know. For others, interest in the topic may be what guides their interest, and questions or problems may not be clearly defined to them at present. In such cases, guidance from mentors and colleagues is much needed, as is exposure to the literature of the field.

The formulation of a clear problem or question may be even more challenging for researchers who have multi-disciplinary backgrounds and interests (Osgood, Morris, & Rice, 2009). At first glance, it seems that it would be relatively easier for someone who specialized in Math all his or her life to be aware of the questions being posed in that field and to come up with a clearly stated problem that needs to be solved, than for someone who spent his or her academic career in Biology or History—but who is now venturing into Math—to do the same. Interdisciplinary backgrounds can be extremely helpful in interpreting data, but can also be an impediment to clearly stated goals for research.

A clear understanding of what research is (and what it is not) is crucial to the success of the researcher. When research is approached from its ideal starting point—the question or problem—and is carried through to completion based on the scientific method, drawing on the human mind to critically analyze and interpret the data gathered during the process, the researcher will be one step closer to answering the question or solving the problem. The answer or solution may not be completely satisfying or definite and final, but it will have taken humans further towards a more complete and thorough knowledge of the world they live in.



Drost, E. (2011). Validity and reliability in social science research. Education Research And Perspectives, 38(1), 105-123.

Gibbert, M., Ruigrok, W., & Wicki, B. (2008). What passes as a rigorous case study? Strategic Management Journal, 29(13), 1465-1474.

Leedy, P. D., & Ormrod, J. E. (2010). Practical research: Planning and design. Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Osgood, D., Morris, L., & Rice, K. (2009). How can an interdisciplinary research program be managed effectively? Council On Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 30(2), 16-20.

A sensitive matter. (2013, March 31). The Economist (Online). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21574461-climate-may-be-heating-up-less-response-greenhouse-gas-emissions



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