Research tips & tricks
Starting your research
But is it research?
My dictionary defines research (noun) as a diligent and systematic enquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover facts or principles. These italicised words are very important. Research is not just reporting what has been written on a subject; to qualify as research there needs to be an element of discovery, experimentation or testing of a hypothesis.
Starting with what is known
When we research a subject we start by finding out what is already known about our subject. Often colloquial opinion differs greatly from factual information and students need to take great care to establish that they have obtained truly factual information. This involves knowing the source of the original information and wherever possible, also knowing how the information was obtained? Moreover, whenever you write about the information, you must acknowledge its source by referencing it properly.
There is a great deal of information available on most subjects so in order to encompass the breadth of information, our first references are likely to be broad, some type of review, perhaps a book that has been written by an expert. Broad references include overviews, summaries and sometimes statistics produced by national or even international organisations. For example, our Australian government websites include a wealth of information about our people, our land and our industries whilst an international organisation such as the World Health Organization has reports about the health of people in different countries.
Using national and international databases to undertake your research
If your research question is about people, industry, agriculture, geography or health (for example), you will find accessible data on several of our national websites and worldwide websites such as the WHO site. You can use the information to answer many different research questions.
Media stories versus Research
Media stories are often presented to us as research. Stories frequently involve the collection of some background information and then interviews with one or more experts giving their opinions. This is NOT research! There is sometimes some simple research undertaken in a media story e.g. the reporter observes a small number of people undertaking a new exercise program and has an expert measure their fitness. However, while this is similar to research, it usually wouldn’t meet the criteria for valid research.
Moving from a story to a research project
Collecting background information is a preliminary step in every investigation but it is not enough to qualify as research. Research needs to address some type of unanswered question, point of disagreement or ‘gap’ in the current information. If there is an unanswered question, the next step is to decide what research needs to be undertaken to find the answer to the question. If we decide to research a point of disagreement, we need to think about how we could obtain reliable evidence that would argue for one side or the other. If there is a ‘gap’, is there some way we could do an experiment or collect information that might help to fill that gap?
The research process involves using our creativity not only to think of the research question but to work out how we can investigate our question with the limited resources we have at hand!
If all goes very well, as a result of our research efforts, we will add something new and original to the collective of knowledge but we will have done well if we our efforts allow us to make some interesting observations that might lead to further research.
a) How to make sure your research is valid and reliable
Background Information: From the beginning you must make sure that you obtain your information from as reliable sources as possible, usually published books and journals. You will then reference these, citing every reference that you use.
If you wish to use less reliable sources, e.g. ‘opinions’ then you need to try to discover whose opinion it really is. In many pages on the Internet we can see the same (often incorrect) information repeated on many websites. Just because it is written over and over again does not mean that it is correct. A good way to look for copied opinion is to ‘select and copy’ one or two lines of text and then place the whole section into a search engine. I have just done a test on repeated text on cyber bullying. I first searched on the term and then copied the sentence that started on the second line and was about three lines long. I found this sentence copied word for word or with only tiny changes on thirty websites before I gave up counting!
Sadly there are companies who offer to write text for website owners and this is the result. So part of your research needs to discover the qualifications of the people giving the (original) advice and/or the resources or personal experience they used to form their opinions. This is not always an easy task when you use websites for information!
Guide to evaluating websites: The University of Berkeley in California USA has developed a guide to using internet resources that is very useful.
Background Facts and Figures: Valid sources of information include published data where the details of how the information was collected, is given. Examples include data published in research journals and academic books, data collected by Governments and other authoritative sources, policy statements or ‘papers’ issued by Learned Societies, Academic Institutions and Representative Bodies. In contrast, information published in newspapers and on the Internet is often biased and unreliable.
b) Things to consider when you are planning your own research
Sample size: Whether you are studying tennis players or toads, you must try to make sure that the number of subjects you study is sufficient. If your sample is very small then you will need to explain how this might affect your conclusions.
Method: Your research question or hypothesis will influence the method you use. Whatever you do, you must make sure that you can use the results to draw valid conclusions. Usually this means using ‘controls’. As an example, you might show a picture to one group A (your experimental group) before you ask their opinion and then ask a similar group B (your control group) their opinion without their seeing the picture. As long as your groups were sufficiently similar, you could then discover whether seeing the picture influenced people’s opinion.
Analysis: Unless you are in a situation where you can get help with your analysis, yours is likely to be fairly simple. A secret that is not realised by many researchers is that a diagram or graph is usually enough to show if your results are meaningful. Seeing is convincing!
c) Common mistakes people make when researching
- Not starting with a clear question or hypothesis
- Not having the correct ‘sample’
- Not using sufficient controls
- Making unwarranted assumptions
d) Ethical Research Check List
- Permission – You will need to obtain permission to leave your school, to conduct your research in various places, to quote people’s opinions and to use certain sources of information. Make sure you include the details in your portfolio.\
- Privacy and respect – You need to protect people’s privacy and respect their wishes at all times.
- Acknowledge all your support and resources