Characteristics of Research
Our topic is characteristics of research. Previously, our question ‘What is Research’? stated that ‘research is a systematic process’, but what does a systematic process look like in a scientific research study? The type of research method or the way in which we go about doing research using very precise methods is a crucially important component of scientific research. We previously discussed what research was from a general perspective and used the example of an experimental design study. In this post, we will examine some main specific pieces of the systematic approach commonly used in scientific research and get a better understand of the characteristics of research.
Recall that the overriding goal of scientific research is to add to existing information regarding a topic of interest by providing new empirical evidence through research. We continue to use the example of our group of patients, who were treated for pain following knee replacement surgery. We were investigating whether or not our new ABC pain reliever worked better than the current treatment or gold-standard pain relieving drug. Patients in the experimental group were given the new ABC drug and the other half of the patients, the control group received the standard drug treatment. The systematic approach, in this case, used the experimental design, which incorporated the scientific method. Through our observations and data recording, we looked to see if there was any evidence the ABC drug worked as good or better than the gold-standard treatment. If yes, we would have contributed new knowledge about treating our health issue using the ABC drug.
Regardless of what type of research we are doing, for example, our experimental design or a different approach, such as an observational study common in public health that attempts to determine the number of cases of a disease in the population, we may use very different processes; however, we must always start with a well-defined and precise research question or research objective. A mainstay of the characteristics of research is a useful and well-defined research question, which requires that the research question must be answerable within the context of the research study. For example, a research team using the following as their research question “How can we cure dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is a question of course, but it is not a research question because the research team cannot test their question within their study [An Upcoming Post will detail the information surrounding research questions/objectives].
Once a research question is well-defined, is testable and clearly states what the research study is attempting to answer, the question may be modified into a research hypothesis. It is important to note that not all research studies use or even require a research hypothesis. In our experimental design example, where we were testing a new drug, we used a hypothesis as it is a mainstay of an experimental design study. However, other types of research studies use different processes that do not always include a hypothesis.
An observational study (as opposed to an experimental study) is common to research in the social sciences (sociology, history or anthropology to name a few) and may gather data from the community to determine the state of a public health problem. In this example, the research study has a clear goal or objective, for example, to count the number of new mothers breastfeeding in a particular area over a certain period of time, but an observational study does not necessarily have a testable hypothesis [Again, as we progress in our understanding of research we will examine factors associated with creating, testing and analyzing data regarding a research hypothesis or objective].
Once the research question and any subsequent hypothesis or objectives are determined, the remaining pieces of the systematic approach such as data collection and data analysis are also factored into the process. In any scientific study, researchers will use the information (data) observed and collected during the process to analyze the study’s results and make specific conclusions.
Here is the key point to remember: in any scientific study, regardless of the method used, the procedure must be so clearly defined and executed so that any other research team could take the project’s details and replicate results. Again, key to including the important characteristics of research. The goal of all scientific research knowledge is to continuously add to what is already known by providing cumulative results. Research is based on an important premise of incremental replication, where the collective work of many researchers is completed, reviewed and published over time in small manageable segments in order to contribute to the overall body of research knowledge.
An important distinction between research and a review is required for our understanding at this point. Thus far we’ve discussed systematic processes necessary to produce scientific research knowledge. Conversely, when researchers take a number of facts or the work of many other researchers and put it all together in a way that the information is re-organized, it is called a review. Researchers, in this case, do not develop and answer a research question or complete a specific objective by examining data produced in their study. Formally, the collection of the research work done to date by many researchers is called a literature review. Similarly, the creation of a course textbook that contains a lot of research information on a topic of interest is a review and not research.
In closing this post regarding the characteristics of research, let’s recap the highlights of the systematic approach and add to our answer of What is Research?
- The goal of scientific research is to produce credible results
- Scientific research requires a well-defined research question (or research objective)
- Scientific research uses objectives, goals and/or a hypothesis depending on the type of research method used in the study
- The process of scientific research facilitates researchers observing and recording data that is used to draw conclusions about the study’s results
- There is a clear distinction between performing scientific research study versus a review of scientific literature
- Scientific research must use a clearly defined processes so that other researchers can both reproduce the original study and verify results