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What is Research?

Research Scientist

Research is the application of scientific methods to investigate concepts and phenomena, with a view of gaining a greater understanding about what it is we are investigating. Research can be undertaken in a variety of different contexts, where the three main functions of research are to:

  1. Describe the characteristics or broad behaviora of a population of interest. For example, a national census describing the characteristics of a country’s population, such as age, sex distribution and ethnicity.
  2. Explore a concept or phenomenon that hasn’t been looked at before, which often leads to research where more definitive conclusions can be drawn. An example of this could include testing the effects of a new, and not yet tested, pain-relieving drug as a treatment for chronic migraines.
  3. Explain the effects of or changes in specific variables on a variety of outcomes, usually via experiments. This could include investigating why hormones make chocolate the preferred type of comfort food when people are stressed.

Developing Research:

The development and conduct of research need to be done systematically to ensure accurate, unbiased and consistent conclusions. Researchers therefore often follow the same procedure when designing and conducting their research, which includes:

  1. Development of a research question: a research question is a very specific hypothesis that can be answered empirically. To develop a research question, we need to carefully assess the literature to see what has, or has not, been done before. Using this information, we can then decide what we would like to investigate in our study and make a prediction about what the outcomes will be.
  2. Choose the right kind of method: we then need to choose the right research type and study design that will allow us to answer our research question most effectively. The method of any study is dependent on how and when the variables of interest need to be measured.
  3. Collect and analyse the data next, we collect the data needed and then analyse it to see what the data tells us. Analyses of the collected data depend on the type of data we have. Some types of data require analyses using statistics, whereas other types of data tend to be only described. You can learn more about the levels of measurement in statistics with our guide on nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio scales.
Research scientist in a lab

Research Types and Study Designs:

Research is broadly classified into two main categories – quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research involves the collection and analysis of data that can be quantified, or is numerical in nature (i.e. involves numbers and varies in amount).Quantitative data is collected by measuring the variables of interestand is analysed using statistical inferences. Common quantitative research methods include questionnaires/surveys, or experiments.

In contrast, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of data that is thematic and non-numerical in nature (i.e. involves categories and varies in kind). Qualitative data, including text, video or audio recordings, is collected based on interviews, conversations or observation and is analysed by reporting broad themes in the language of those interviewed (i.e. quotes). Common qualitative research methods include interviews or focus groups.
Since we wish to investigate different concepts and phenomena in research, to accomplish this we need to utilise an appropriate research study design. Several designs can be applied to either or both quantitative and qualitative research, and include:

Type Definition
Longitudinal Examination of a group of individuals over the course of a specified time frame.
Cross-Sectional Examination of a group of individuals at a specific point in time.
Case Study In-depth investigations of a small number of individuals.
Observational A non-experimental study where the behavior of individuals is observed and recorded, and not changed/manipulated.
Experimental The systematic, and tailored,manipulation of two or more variables to investigate how the change in one variable influences the other(s).
Correlational Examination of a potential relationship between two variables with correlation coefficients

What makes research valid?

It’s important to remember that good quality research and research designs must have both reliability and validity. In this context, reliability refers to the degree to which a research method or study design produce the same result(s) on different occasions. On the other hand, validity relates to how accurately the research method or study design measure what we intended to measure. If reliability and/or validity are questionable, this means that we may not get accurate answers to the research questions we pose. To ensure reliability and validity in research, it’s important to choose an appropriate research design, method and sample, and then conduct the research with care and consistency.

Research scientist in a lab

Helpful References:

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2021). Statistical Language – Quantitative and Qualitative.
  2. Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (2021). Study Designs.