What is Research?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the essential components of research writing

What is Research?

At its most basic level, research is anything you have to do to find out something you didn’t already know. That definition might seem simple and obvious, but it contains some key assumptions that might not be as obvious. Understanding these assumptions is going to be essential to your success in this course (and in your life after college), so let’s look at them carefully.

Finger on a book page, as if searching for specific information.

Figure 1. Research means searching for the answer to your research question and compiling the information you find in a useful and meaningful way.

First, research is about acquiring new information or new knowledge, which means that it always begins from a gap in your knowledge—that is, something you do not already know. More importantly, research is always goal-directed: that is, it always begins from a specific question you need to answer (a specific gap in your body of information that you need to fill) in order to accomplish some particular goal. This research question is the statement of the thing you don’t know that motivates your research.

Sometimes the answer to your question already exists in exactly the form you need. For example,

Question 1: Does Columbus, Ohio, have a commercial airport?

The answer to this turns out to be yes, and the time to find the answer is about ten seconds. A Google search of “airports in Ohio” produces a Wikipedia entry titled “List of airports in Ohio.” A quick glance at this document shows that Columbus does indeed have a commercial airport, and that it is one of the three largest airports in Ohio.

Question 2: Do any airlines offer direct flights from Kansas City to Columbus, Ohio?

The answer to this appears to be no, and the time to find the answer is about two minutes. Using Travelocity.com and searching for flights from MCI (Kansas City International Airport) to CMH (Port Columbus International Airport) gets the message “We’ve searched more than 400 airlines we sell and couldn’t find any flights from Kansas City (MCI) … [to] Columbus (CMH).” Doing the same search on Expedia.com and Orbitz.com yields the same answer. There appear to be no direct flights from Kansas City to Columbus, Ohio.

Often, however, the questions we need to have answered are more complicated, which means that the answer comes with some assembly required.

Question 3: What’s the best way to get from Kansas City to Columbus, Ohio?

To answer this question requires a two-step process of gathering information about travel options and then evaluating the results based on parameters not stated in the question. We already know that it is possible to fly to Columbus, although no direct flights are available. A quick look at a map shows that it is also a relatively straightforward drive of about 650 miles. That’s the information-gathering stage.

Now we have to evaluate the results based on things like cost, time and effort required, practicality given the purpose of the trip, and the personal preferences of the traveler. For a business traveler for whom shortest possible travel time is more important than lowest cost, the final decision may be very different than for a college student traveling with a large dog.

Although all three questions we listed above require information gathering, for the purposes of this course we are going to call questions like #1 and #2 “homework questions.” These are homework questions because you can find the answer just by going to a single reference source and looking it up. We will address the “research question” like #3 for which developing a fully functional answer requires both gathering relevant information and then assembling it in a meaningful way. In other words, a research question differs from a homework question because research is the process of finding the information needed to answer your research question and then deriving or building the answer from the information you found.

Research Writing

Some high school and first-year college writing courses use the term “research paper” or “research writing” to apply to any situation in which students use information from an outside source in writing a paper. The logic behind this is that if the writer has to go find information from a source, that action of going and finding information is similar to research, so it is convenient to call that kind of writing task a “research paper.” However, it is only true research if it starts from a question to which the writer genuinely does not know the answer and if the writer then develops or builds the answer to the question through gathering and processing information.

One way to consider this distinction is to think of research as the goal-directed process of gathering information and building the answer to a research question, and source-based writing to refer to the many other types of information gathering and source-based writing one might do.

A young man sitting underneath a question mark sign, positioned as if he is posing a question himself.

Figure 2. In true research-based writing, you begin with a research question and go hunt for the answer.

One important indicator of the difference between research and other source-based writing tasks is when in the process you develop the thesis (main point) of your paper. In a research project, you begin with a question, gather the data from which you will derive or build the answer to the question, build the answer, and then state your answer in a single sentence. This one-sentence statement of your answer to your research question then becomes your thesis statement and serves as the main point of your paper.

Any assignment you begin by developing a thesis that you then go out and gather information to support is source-based writing, but it is not technically “research” because it begins from the answer instead of the question.

Being aware of this distinction is helpful, as it can shape the way you approach your writing assignments, whether they be true research papers or source-based writing tasks. The work processes that lead to efficiency and success with research projects are different from the work processes you may have used successfully for other types of source-based papers. Both offer valuable learning experiences, but it is important to understand which type of assignment you are being asked to do so that you can plan your work.

Think of the most recent writing project you have done that required sources. Based on this definition, was it a research project or a source-based writing project?

Research Writing

We defined research as the physical process of gathering information plus the mental process of deriving the answer to your research question from the information you gather. Research writing, then, is the process of sharing the answer to your research question along with the evidence on which your answer is based, the sources you use, and your own reasoning and explanation. The essential components or building blocks of research writing are the same no matter what kind of question you are answering or what kind of reader you are assuming as you share your answer.

The Essential Building Blocks of Research Writing

These guidelines will help you as you approach research writing.

Step 1: Begin with a question to which you don’t know the answer and that can’t be answered just by going to the appropriate reference source. That is, begin from a research question, not a homework question.

  • Decide what kind of information or data will be needed in order to build the answer to the question.
  • Gather information and/or collect data.
  • Work with the information/data to construct your answer.

Step 2: Engage in the research process.

  • Create a one-sentence answer to your research question. This will become the thesis statement/main point/controlling idea of your research paper.

Step 3: Share your answer to research questions in a way that makes it believable, understandable, and usable for your readers.

  • Include plentiful and well-chosen examples from the data/information you gathered
  • Indicate the validity of your data by accurately reporting your research method (field or lab research)
  • Indicate the quality of your information by accurately citing your sources (source-based research)

Try It


homework question: a question for which a definite answer exists and can easily be found by consulting the appropriate reference source

research: the physical process of gathering information plus the mental process of deriving the answer to your research question from the information you gathered

research question: a question that can be answered through a process of collecting relevant information and then building the answer from the relevant information

research writing: the process of sharing the answer to your research question along with the evidence on which your answer is based, the sources you use, and your own reasoning and explanation