What Is Research?

Finger on a book page, as if looking for an answerAt 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 I’m going to spell them out here.

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 don’t 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. If you are a very focused, driven person, this will seem obvious to you because you are probably already quite aware of yourself as someone who goes after the information you need in order to accomplish your goals. If you tend to be more laid-back and open to whatever experiences life brings you, you may not be as conscious of yourself as a goal-directed finder of information, but I hope to help you recognize the ways in which research is already embedded in your life.

Research (definition 1) = Anything you have to do to find out something you didn’t already know.

Research Question = Your one-sentence statement of the thing-you-don’t-know that motivates your research.

Sometimes the answer to your question or the information needed to fill your knowledge gap already exists in exactly the form you need.  For example,

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 as its first hit a Wikipedia entry titled “List of airports in Ohio.” A quick glance at the this document shows that Columbus does indeed have a commercial airport, and that it is one of the three largest airports in Ohio.

2.  Do any airlines offer direct flights from Kansas City to Columbus?

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 than this, which means that answer comes with some assembly required.

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

Poster titled "Kansas" with hand-drawn images of landmarks noted across the stateTo answer this question requires a two stage 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 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 with a large dog.

Although all three questions require information gathering, for the purposes of this course we are going to call questions like #1 and #2 “homework questions” (because you can find the answer just by going to a single reference source and looking it up) and save the designation “research question” for questions like #3 for which developing a fully functional answer requires both gathering relevant information and then assembling it in a meaningful way.

So for the purposes of this course, research (definition 2) 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 (definition 2) = The physical process of gathering information + the mental process of deriving the answer to your research question from the information you gathered.

Homework question = A question for which a definite answer exists and can easily be found by consulting the appropriate reference source.
Research question = A question that can be answered through a process of collecting relevant information and then building the answer from the relevant information.