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The What: Defining a research project

During Academic Writing Month 2018, TAA hosted a series of #AcWriChat TweetChat events focused on the five W’s of academic writing. Throughout the series we explored The What: Defining a research project; The Where: Constructing an effective writing environment; The When: Setting realistic timeframes for your research; The Who: Finding key sources in the existing literature; and The Why: Explaining the significance of your research. This series of posts brings together the discussions and resources from those events. Let’s start with The What: Defining a research project.

Before moving forward on any academic writing effort, it is important to understand what the research project is intended to understand and document. In order to accomplish this, it’s also important to understand what a research project is. This is where we began our discussion of the five W’s of academic writing.

Q1: What constitutes a research project?

According to a Rutgers University resource titled, Definition of a research project and specifications for fulfilling the requirement, “A research project is a scientific endeavor to answer a research question.” Specifically, projects may take the form of “case series, case control study, cohort study, randomized, controlled trial, survey, or secondary data analysis such as decision analysis, cost effectiveness analysis or meta-analysis”.

Hampshire College offers that “Research is a process of systematic inquiry that entails collection of data; documentation of critical information; and analysis and interpretation of that data/information, in accordance with suitable methodologies set by specific professional fields and academic disciplines.” in their online resource titled, What is research? The resource also states that “Research is conducted to evaluate the validity of a hypothesis or an interpretive framework; to assemble a body of substantive knowledge and findings for sharing them in appropriate manners; and to generate questions for further inquiries.”

TweetChat participant @TheInfoSherpa, who is currently “investigating whether publishing in a predatory journal constitutes blatant research misconduct, inappropriate conduct, or questionable conduct,” summarized these ideas stating, “At its simplest, a research project is a project which seeks to answer a well-defined question or set of related questions about a specific topic.” TAA staff member, Eric Schmieder, added to the discussion that“a research project is a process by which answers to a significant question are attempted to be answered through exploration or experimentation.”

In a learning module focused on research and the application of the Scientific Method, the Office of Research Integrity within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that “Research is a process to discover new knowledge…. No matter what topic is being studied, the value of the research depends on how well it is designed and done.”

Wenyi Ho of Penn State University states that “Research is a systematic inquiry to describe, explain, predict and control the observed phenomenon.” in an online resource which further shares four types of knowledge that research contributes to education, four types of research based on different purposes, and five stages of conducting a research study. Further understanding of research in definition, purpose, and typical research practices can be found in this video resource.

Now that we have a foundational understanding of what constitutes a research project, we shift the discussion to several questions about defining specific research topics.

Q2: When considering topics for a new research project, where do you start?

A guide from the University of Michigan-Flint on selecting a topic states, “Be aware that selecting a good topic may not be easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information.”

Schmieder responded to the chat question with his approach.“I often start with an idea or question of interest to me and then begin searching for existing research on the topic to determine what has been done already.”

@TheInfoSherpa added, “Start with the research. Ask a librarian for help. The last thing you want to do is design a study thst someone’s already done.”

The Utah State University Libraries shared a video that “helps you find a research topic that is relevant and interesting to you!”

Q2a: What strategies do you use to stay current on research in your discipline?

The California State University Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program Community Commons resource offers four suggestions for staying current in your field:

  1. Become an effective consumer of research
  2. Read key publications
  3. Attend key gatherings
  4. Develop a network of colleagues

Schmieder and @TheInfoSherpa discussed ways to use databases for this purpose. Schmieder identified using “journal database searches for publications in the past few months on topics of interest” as a way to stay current as a consumer of research.

@TheInfoSherpa added, “It’s so easy to set up an alert in your favorite database. I do this for specific topics, and all the latest research gets delivered right to my inbox. Again, your academic or public #librarian can help you with this.” To which Schmieder replied, “Alerts are such useful advancements in technology for sorting through the myriad of material available online. Great advice!”

In an open access article, Keeping Up to Date: An Academic Researcher’s Information Journey, researchers Pontis, et. al. “examined how researchers stay up to date, using the information journey model as a framework for analysis and investigating which dimensions influence information behaviors.” As a result of their study, “Five key dimensions that influence information behaviors were identified: level of seniority, information sources, state of the project, level of familiarity, and how well defined the relevant community is.”

Q3: When defining a research topic, do you tend to start with a broad idea or a specific research question?

In a collection of notes on where to start by Don Davis at Columbia University, Davis tells us “First, there is no ‘Right Topic.’”, adding that “Much more important is to find something that is important and genuinely interests you.”

Schmieder shared in the chat event, “I tend to get lost in the details while trying to save the world – not sure really where I start though. :O)” @TheInfoSherpa added, “Depends on the project. The important thing is being able to realize when your topic is too broad or too narrow and may need tweaking. I use the five Ws or PICO(T) to adjust my topic if it’s too broad or too narrow.”

In an online resource, The Writing Center at George Mason University identifies the following six steps to developing a research question, noting significance in that “the specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the ‘all-about’ paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.”

  • Choose an interesting general topic
  • Do some preliminary research on your general topic
  • Consider your audience
  • Start asking questions
  • Evaluate your question
  • Begin your research

USC Libraries’ research guides offer eight strategies for narrowing the research topic: Aspect, Components, Methodology, Place, Relationship, Time, Type, or a Combination of the above.

Q4: What factors help to determine the realistic scope a research topic?

The scope of a research topic refers to the actual amount of research conducted as part of the study. Often the search strategies used in understanding previous research and knowledge on a topic will impact the scope of the current study. A resource from Indiana University offers both an activity for narrowing the search strategy when finding too much information on a topic and an activity for broadening the search strategy when too little information is found.

The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing identifies scope as an element to be included in the problem statement. Further when discussing problem statements, this resource states, “If you are focusing on a problem, be sure to define and state it specifically enough that you can write about it. Avoid trying to investigate or write about multiple problems or about broad or overly ambitious problems. Vague problem definition leads to unsuccessful proposals and vague, unmanageable documents. Naming a topic is not the same as defining a problem.”

Schmieder identified in the chat several considerations when determining the scope of a research topic, namely “Time, money, interest and commitment, impact to self and others.” @TheInfoSherpa reiterated their use of PICO(T) stating, “PICO(T) is used in the health sciences, but it can be used to identify a manageable scope” and sharing a link to a Georgia Gwinnett College Research Guide on PICOT Questions.

By managing the scope of your research topic, you also define the limitations of your study. According to a USC Libraries’ Research Guide, “The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the interpretation of the findings from your research.” Accepting limitations help maintain a manageable scope moving forward with the project.

Q5/5a: Do you generally conduct research alone or with collaborative authors? What benefits/challenges do collaborators add to the research project?

Despite noting that the majority of his research efforts have been solo, Schmieder did identify benefits to collaboration including “brainstorming, division of labor, speed of execution” and challenges of developing a shared vision, defining roles and responsibilities for the collaborators, and accepting a level of dependence on the others in the group.

In a resource on group writing from The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both advantages and pitfalls are discussed. Looking to the positive, this resource notes that “Writing in a group can have many benefits: multiple brains are better than one, both for generating ideas and for getting a job done.”

Yale University’s Office of the Provost has established, as part of its Academic Integrity policies, Guidance on Authorship in Scholarly or Scientific Publications to assist researchers in understanding authorship standards as well as attribution expectations.

In times when authorship turns sour, the University of California, San Francisco offers the following advice to reach a resolution among collaborative authors:

  • Address emotional issues directly
  • Elicit the problem author’s emotions
  • Acknowledge the problem author’s emotions
  • Express your own emotions as “I feel …”
  • Set boundaries
  • Try to find common ground
  • Get agreement on process
  • Involve a neutral third party

Q6: What other advice can you share about defining a research project?

Schmieder answered with question with personal advice to “Choose a topic of interest. If you aren’t interested in the topic, you will either not stay motivated to complete it or you will be miserable in the process and not produce the best results from your efforts.”

For further guidance and advice, the following resources may prove useful:

Whatever your next research project, hopefully these tips and resources help you to define it in a way that leads to greater success and better writing.