What is scientific research?

What is the best definition of Scientific research?

Scientific research is a careful and detailed study into a specific problem, concern, or issue using the scientific method. It’s the adult form of the science fair projects back in elementary school, where you try and learn something by performing an experiment.

Scientific research involves systematic investigation of phenomena, the purpose of which could be for:

  • Information gathering. Exploratory: e.g., discovering, uncovering, exploring. Descriptive: e.g., gathering info, describing, summarizing.
  • Theory testing. Explanatory: e.g., testing and understanding causal relations.
Scientific research

Scientific research

An etymologist might tell us that it comes from the Old French word cerchier, to search, with re- expressing intensive force. I guess it is saying that before 1400 in France, research meant to search really hard.

If I was talking to a staff member at my university, though, I would say that searching hard was scholarship. The difference? Scientific research has to have an element of discovering something new, of creating knowledge. While a literature search is one important part of a research project, it isn’t research in and of itself. It is scholarship.

Don’t take my word for it. In Australian universities, we define research this way:

Scientific research is defined as the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes.

This definition of research is consistent with a broad notion of research and experimental development (R&D) as comprising of creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humanity, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications

This definition of Scientific research encompasses pure and strategic basic research, applied research and experimental development. Applied research is original investigation undertaken to acquire new knowledge but directed towards a specific, practical aim or objective (including a client-driven purpose).

Drawn from the 2012 Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications for the collection of 2011 data.

What research sounds like

Sometimes, however, you don’t want to talk about ‘Research. If you are applying to a philanthropic foundation, for example, they may not be interested in your new knowledge so much as the impact that your work will have, your capacity to help them to solve a problem. Industry partners may also be wary of the ‘R’ word. “Don’t bank your business on someone’s PhD”, they will say (and I would wholeheartedly agree).

This creates something of a quandary, as the government gives us money based on how much Scientific research income we bring in. They audit our claims, so everything we say is research has to actually be research. So, it helps to flag it as research, even if you don’t say it explicitly.

Instead, you might talk about innovation, or about experimentation. You could describe the element of risk associated with discovery. Investigation might lead to analysis. There might be tests that you will undertake to prove your hypothesis. You could just say that this work is original and has never been done before. You could talk about what new knowledge your work will lead to.

You might describe a new method or a new data source that will lead to a breakthrough or an incremental improvement over current practice. You could make it clear that it is the precursor to development, in the sense of ‘research and development’.

It really helps if you are doing something new.

What research looks like

Sometimes, it isn’t what you say, but what you do. If your work will lead to a patent, book or book chapter, refereed journal article or conference publication, or an artwork or exhibition (in the case of creative outputs), then it almost always fulfills the definition no matter what you call it.

What research isn’t

Sometimes, you can see a thing more clearly by describing what it isn’t.

Research isn’t teaching. Don’t get me wrong – you can research teaching, just like you can research anything else. However, teaching itself is generally regarded as the synthesis and transfer of existing knowledge. Generally, the knowledge has to exist before you can teach it. Most of the time, you aren’t creating new knowledge as you teach. Some lecturers may find that their students create strange new ‘knowledge’ in their assignments, but making stuff up doesn’t count as research either.

Research isn’t scholarship. As I said at the start, a literature search is an important aspect of the research process but it isn’t research in and of itself. Scholarship (the process of being a scholar) generally describes surveying existing knowledge. You might be looking for new results that you hadn’t read before, or you might be synthesizing the information for your teaching practice. Either way, you aren’t creating new knowledge, you are reviewing what already exists.

Research isn’t encyclopaedic. Encyclopedias, by and large, seek to present a synthesis of existing knowledge. Collecting and publishing existing knowledge isn’t research, as it doesn’t create new knowledge.

Research isn’t just data-gathering. Data-gathering is a vital part of research, but it doesn’t lead to new knowledge without some analysis, some further work. Just collecting the data doesn’t count, unless you do something else with it.

Research isn’t just about methodology. Just because you are using mice, or interviewing people, or using a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC) doesn’t mean you are doing research. You might be, if you are using a new data set or using the method in a new way or testing a new hypothesis. However, if you are using the same method, on the same data, exploring the same question, then you will almost certainly get the same results. And that is repetition, not research.

Research isn’t repetition, except in some special circumstances. If you are doing the same thing that someone else has already done, then generally that isn’t research unless you are specifically trying to prove or disprove their work. What’s the difference? Repeating an experiment from 1400 isn’t research. You know what the result will be before your start – it has already been verified many times before. Repeating an experiment reported last year probably is research because the original result can’t be relied upon until it is verified.

Is development research? Development (as in ‘research and development’) may or may not be classified as research, depending on the type of risk involved. Sometimes, the two are inextricably linked: the research leads to the development and the development refines the research. At other times, you are creating something new, but it is a new product or process, not new knowledge. It is based on new knowledge, rather than creating new knowledge. If the risk involved is a business risk, rather than intellectual risk, then the knowledge is already known.

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