What is Research?
Defined in simplest terms, research is searching for and gathering information, usually to answer a particular question or problem. Research projects of various types and complexity are an integral part of the college experience and offer you the opportunity to learn a valuable set of skills. In fact, the ability to locate and evaluate information - which is the essence of research and a valuable skill in many areas of life - is a large part of what it means to be an educated person.
The focus of this course is on bibliographic research, which is any research in which information is gathered from published materials. Traditionally, this has included books, magazines, journals, newspapers and various specialized documents. In addition to printed materials, bibliographic research may also include audio and video recordings, photographs, films, and, more recently, computer-based programs and online information. Until recently, most bibliographic research was done only in libraries, but with the arrival of the computer certain amounts and kinds of bibliographic research can now be done wherever a computer and phone line or network connection are available.
Although this course will emphasize bibliographic research, there are two other broad categories of research you should be aware of: empirical research and oral research. Empirical research is any method of collecting information from direct experience, observation or experimentation. A laboratory experiment involving mice is an example of empirical research. Oral research is any type of research which involves gathering information by directly talking to people. Examples of oral research include interviews, surveys, polls and questionnaires. Most of the research done at the undergraduate level is bibliographic research, but keep in mind that these other two methods of doing research can be incorporated into your overall research project. For example, personally interviewing an expert about a research question on which you are working can often give you insights and information you might never find in published sources.
When you undertake bibliographic research, what should be your overall purpose and goal? What end result are you striving for? In some courses, your instructor may only be seeking a summary of what others have already said or written about a topic. For example, you may be asked to write a paper, in which you present both sides of the controversy over global warming, thus summarizing the scientific debate. Your own position on the controversy would not be included.
Very often at the college level, however, you will be asked in research projects to go beyond merely reporting and summarizing, and present your own evaluative perspective. Thus, you may be asked not only to summarize the debate over global warming but also to evaluate each side in order to develop your own thesis, i.e. your own view, opinion, or stance. This is a far more complicated and challenging undertaking than merely copying facts, figures, and dates from various sources, reorganizing and rewriting that information and calling it "research". Of course, you will still read what others have written on a topic, but you do so because it will inform, strengthen or complement your own ideas.
Therefore, the goal of research is to develop an informed opinion on a topic (Dornan and Dawe 367). This goal is only achieved when you have carefully and widely read what others have written on your topic; analyzed, compared and evaluated those ideas; and come up with your own conclusions. Although no instructor will expect you to become a world-renowned expert on a topic or settle a long-running debate, you will often be expected to show original thinking in your thesis statement and discussion.
In sum, "a research paper is more than a summarized version of what others have said or written . . . Ideally, your research paper represents a synthesis of your own perceptions, attitudes, ideas, and experiences supported by information gained from other sources" (Dornan and Dawe 367-8).