Basic Steps in the Research Process

The following steps outline a simple and effective strategy for writing a research paper. Depending on your familiarity with the topic and the challenges you encounter along the way, you may need to rearrange these steps.

Step 1: Identify and develop your topic

Selecting a topic can be the most challenging part of a research assignment. Since this is the very first step in writing a paper, it is vital that it be done correctly. Here are some tips for selecting a topic:

  • Select a topic within the parameters set by the assignment. Many times your instructor will give you clear guidelines as to what you can and cannot write about. Failure to work within these guidelines may result in your proposed paper being deemed unacceptable by your instructor.
  • Select a topic of personal interest to you and learn more about it. The research for and writing of a paper will be more enjoyable if you are writing about something that you find interesting.
  • Select a topic for which you can find a manageable amount of information. Do a preliminary search of information sources to determine whether existing sources will meet your needs. If you find too much information, you may need to narrow your topic; if you find too little, you may need to broaden your topic.
  • Be original. Your instructor reads hundreds of research papers every year, and many of them are on the same topics (topics in the news at the time, controversial issues, subjects for which there is ample and easily accessed information). Stand out from your classmates by selecting an interesting and off-the-beaten-path topic.
  • Still can't come up with a topic to write about? See your instructor for advice.

Once you have identified your topic, it may help to state it as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about the epidemic of obesity in the American population, you might pose the question "What are the causes of obesity in America ?" By posing your subject as a question you can more easily identify the main concepts or keywords to be used in your research.

Step 2 : Do a preliminary search for information

Before beginning your research in earnest, do a preliminary search to determine whether there is enough information out there for your needs and to set the context of your research. Look up your keywords in the appropriate titles in the library's Reference collection (such as encyclopedias and dictionaries) and in other sources such as our catalog of books, periodical databases, and Internet search engines. Additional background information may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings. You may find it necessary to adjust the focus of your topic in light of the resources available to you.

Step 3: Locate materials

With the direction of your research now clear to you, you can begin locating material on your topic. There are a number of places you can look for information:

If you are looking for books, do a subject search in One Search . A Keyword search can be performed if the subject search doesn't yield enough information. Print or write down the citation information (author, title,etc.) and the location (call number and collection) of the item(s). Note the circulation status. When you locate the book on the shelf, look at the books located nearby; similar items are always shelved in the same area. The Aleph catalog also indexes the library's audio-visual holdings.

Use the library's  electronic periodical databases  to find magazine and newspaper articles. Choose the databases and formats best suited to your particular topic; ask at the librarian at the Reference Desk if you need help figuring out which database best meets your needs. Many of the articles in the databases are available in full-text format.

Use search engines ( Google ,  Yahoo , etc.) and subject directories to locate materials on the Internet. Check the  Internet Resources  section of the NHCC Library web site for helpful subject links.

Step 4: Evaluate your sources

See the  CARS Checklist for Information Quality   for tips on evaluating the authority and quality of the information you have located. Your instructor expects that you will provide credible, truthful, and reliable information and you have every right to expect that the sources you use are providing the same. This step is especially important when using Internet resources, many of which are regarded as less than reliable.

Step 5: Make notes

Consult the resources you have chosen and note the information that will be useful in your paper. Be sure to document all the sources you consult, even if you there is a chance you may not use that particular source. The author, title, publisher, URL, and other information will be needed later when creating a bibliography.

Step 6: Write your paper

Begin by organizing the information you have collected. The next step is the rough draft, wherein you get your ideas on paper in an unfinished fashion. This step will help you organize your ideas and determine the form your final paper will take. After this, you will revise the draft as many times as you think necessary to create a final product to turn in to your instructor.

Step 7: Cite your sources properly

Give credit where credit is due; cite your sources.

Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes: it gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used, and it allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed as references. The  MLA  and the  APA  Styles are two popular citation formats.

Failure to cite your sources properly is plagiarism. Plagiarism is avoidable!

Step 8: Proofread

The final step in the process is to proofread the paper you have created. Read through the text and check for any errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Make sure the sources you used are cited properly. Make sure the message that you want to get across to the reader has been thoroughly stated.

Additional research tips:

  • Work from the general to the specific -- find background information first, then use more specific sources.
  • Don't forget print sources -- many times print materials are more easily accessed and every bit as helpful as online resources.
  • The library has books on the topic of writing research papers at call number area LB 2369.
  • If you have questions about the assignment, ask your instructor.
  • If you have any questions about finding information in the library, ask the librarian.

Contact Information

Craig larson.

Librarian 763-424-0733 [email protected] Zoom:  myzoom   Available by appointment

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Research Process Steps: What they are + How To Follow

There are various approaches to conducting basic and applied research. This article explains the research process steps you should know.

There are various approaches to conducting basic and applied research. This article explains the research process steps you should know. Whether you are doing basic research or applied research, there are many ways of doing it. In some ways, each research study is unique since it is conducted at a different time and place.

Conducting research might be difficult, but there are clear processes to follow. The research process starts with a broad idea for a topic. This article will assist you through the research process steps, helping you focus and develop your topic.

Research Process Steps

The research process consists of a series of systematic procedures that a researcher must go through in order to generate knowledge that will be considered valuable by the project and focus on the relevant topic.

To conduct effective research, you must understand the research process steps and follow them. Here are a few steps in the research process to make it easier for you:

10 research process steps

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Finding an issue or formulating a research question is the first step. A well-defined research problem will guide the researcher through all stages of the research process, from setting objectives to choosing a technique. There are a number of approaches to get insight into a topic and gain a better understanding of it. Such as:

  • A preliminary survey
  • Case studies
  • Interviews with a small group of people
  • Observational survey

Step 2: Evaluate the Literature

A thorough examination of the relevant studies is essential to the research process . It enables the researcher to identify the precise aspects of the problem. Once a problem has been found, the investigator or researcher needs to find out more about it.

This stage gives problem-zone background. It teaches the investigator about previous research, how they were conducted, and its conclusions. The researcher can build consistency between his work and others through a literature review. Such a review exposes the researcher to a more significant body of knowledge and helps him follow the research process efficiently.

Step 3: Create Hypotheses

Formulating an original hypothesis is the next logical step after narrowing down the research topic and defining it. A belief solves logical relationships between variables. In order to establish a hypothesis, a researcher must have a certain amount of expertise in the field. 

It is important for researchers to keep in mind while formulating a hypothesis that it must be based on the research topic. Researchers are able to concentrate their efforts and stay committed to their objectives when they develop theories to guide their work.

Step 4: The Research Design

Research design is the plan for achieving objectives and answering research questions. It outlines how to get the relevant information. Its goal is to design research to test hypotheses, address the research questions, and provide decision-making insights.

The research design aims to minimize the time, money, and effort required to acquire meaningful evidence. This plan fits into four categories:

  • Exploration and Surveys
  • Data Analysis
  • Observation

Step 5: Describe Population

Research projects usually look at a specific group of people, facilities, or how technology is used in the business. In research, the term population refers to this study group. The research topic and purpose help determine the study group.

Suppose a researcher wishes to investigate a certain group of people in the community. In that case, the research could target a specific age group, males or females, a geographic location, or an ethnic group. A final step in a study’s design is to specify its sample or population so that the results may be generalized.

Step 6: Data Collection

Data collection is important in obtaining the knowledge or information required to answer the research issue. Every research collected data, either from the literature or the people being studied. Data must be collected from the two categories of researchers. These sources may provide primary data.

  • Questionnaire

Secondary data categories are:

  • Literature survey
  • Official, unofficial reports
  • An approach based on library resources

Step 7: Data Analysis

During research design, the researcher plans data analysis. After collecting data, the researcher analyzes it. The data is examined based on the approach in this step. The research findings are reviewed and reported.

Data analysis involves a number of closely related stages, such as setting up categories, applying these categories to raw data through coding and tabulation, and then drawing statistical conclusions. The researcher can examine the acquired data using a variety of statistical methods.

Step 8: The Report-writing

After completing these steps, the researcher must prepare a report detailing his findings. The report must be carefully composed with the following in mind:

  • The Layout: On the first page, the title, date, acknowledgments, and preface should be on the report. A table of contents should be followed by a list of tables, graphs, and charts if any.
  • Introduction: It should state the research’s purpose and methods. This section should include the study’s scope and limits.
  • Summary of Findings: A non-technical summary of findings and recommendations will follow the introduction. The findings should be summarized if they’re lengthy.
  • Principal Report: The main body of the report should make sense and be broken up into sections that are easy to understand.
  • Conclusion: The researcher should restate his findings at the end of the main text. It’s the final result.

LEARN ABOUT: 12 Best Tools for Researchers

The research process involves several steps that make it easy to complete the research successfully. The steps in the research process described above depend on each other, and the order must be kept. So, if we want to do a research project, we should follow the research process steps.

QuestionPro’s enterprise-grade research platform can collect survey and qualitative observation data. The tool’s nature allows for data processing and essential decisions. The platform lets you store and process data. Start immediately!



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Starting Your Research Process

The journey from choosing a topic to completing a research-based assignment is called the research process.

This process is made up of all the necessary steps you complete to be successful in finding the information you need.

Choosing a topic is an important early part of that process. Flexibility is a virtue when choosing a topic, and your finished topic may not always look exactly like your original one. Your original topic might be too broad or too narrow, or there may not be enough information on your topic, or you may discover a more interesting one as you conduct your research.

Once you have a general idea of your topic, you may be tempted to head straight for the library databases to begin your search, and you may not initially see a lot of useful information. This does not mean you have a bad topic. Begin instead with a search for background information, especially if you are not familiar with the subject area. This will help to better inform and define your topic. As you search for background information, look for keywords that you may be able to use a search terms within the databases. These may be words that you see over and over as you read through the information on your topic. Your keywords may also be synonyms or related terms.

Most importantly, don’t panic!

While the research process can seem overwhelming at first, with regular practice, thoroughly researching and writing about your topic becomes second nature.

Let’s take a look at a sample research process to help us get a fuller understanding of the complete process.

Sarah’s art history professor just assigned the course project, and Sarah is delighted that it isn’t the typical research paper. Instead, it involves putting together a website to help readers understand a topic. It will certainly help Sarah get a grasp on the topic herself! Learning by attempting to teach others, she agrees, might be a good idea. The professor wants the web site to be written for people who are interested in the topic and with backgrounds similar to the students in the course. Sarah likes that a target audience is defined, and since she has a good idea of what her friends might understand and what they most likely need more help with, she thinks it will be easier to know what to include in her site. For this project, Sarah’s professor has formed the students into teams. Sarah wasn’t sure she liked this idea at first, but it seems to be working out okay. Sarah’s team has decided that their topic for this website will be 19th century women painters. However, one of her teammates, Chris, is concerned: “Isn’t that an awfully big topic?” The team checks with the professor, who agrees they would be taking on far more than they could successfully explain on their website. He suggests they develop a draft thesis statement to help them focus and, after several false starts, they come up with: The involvement of women painters in the Impressionist movement had an effect upon the subjects portrayed. They decide this sounds more manageable. Because Sarah doesn’t feel comfortable with the technical aspects of setting up the website, she offers to start locating resources that will help them to develop the site’s content.

Step One: Plan

Before we learn more about what happens with Sarah and her team, let’s look at the components of the planning process. To do this, we’ll look at two different concept maps because the planning process involves a lot of different components such as:

  • Understanding a range of searching techniques
  • Understanding the various tools and how they differ
  • Knowing how to create effective search strategies
  • Being open to searching out the most appropriate tools
  • Understanding that revising your search as you proceed is important
  • Recognizing that subject terms are of value

And these are just the items to understand! There are also the things you need to be able to do:

  • Clearly phrase your search question.
  • Develop an appropriate search strategy, using key techniques.
  • Selecting good search tools, including specialized ones.
  • Use the terms and techniques that are best suited to your search.

Here is a visual representation of these components:

Visualization of the previously stated proficiencies in the Plan pillar, separating information the student should know from skills a student must master.

Now, take a look at the essence of these items condensed into a different concept map:

Concept map simplifying the components of the Plan pillar, stating tools have range and must be appropriate, strategies must be appropriate and use search terms, and you, the searcher, need to think like a specialist and adaptability

As you read about Sarah’s quest for information, and reflect on your own information searches in the past, remember particularly the bullet within the Plan pillar that emphasizes the need to revise your search as you work. It is very important to do this, and to build time into the process so you are able to revise. As you learn more about your topic, or the terms used in conjunction with its concepts, or key scholars in the field, it is only natural that you will need to shift focus, and, perhaps, change course. This is a natural part of the research process and indicates that your efforts are bearing fruit. Let’s return to Sarah…

Step Two: Develop Research Strategies

The next time the class meets, Sarah tells her teammates what she has done so far:

“I thought I’d start with some scholarly sources, since they should be helpful, right? I put a search into the online catalog for the library, but nothing came up! The library should have books on this topic, shouldn’t it? I typed the search in exactly as we have it in our thesis statement. That was so frustrating. Since that didn’t work, I tried Google, and put in the search. I got over 8 million results, but when I looked over the ones on the first page, they didn’t seem very useful. One was about the feminist art movement in the 1960s, not during the Impressionist period. The results all seemed to have the words I typed highlighted, but most really weren’t useful. I am sorry I don’t have much to show you. Do you think we should change our topic?”

Alisha suggests that Sarah talk with a reference librarian. She mentions that a librarian came to talk to another of her classes about doing research, and it was really helpful. Alisha thinks that maybe Sarah shouldn’t have entered the entire thesis statement as the search, and maybe she should have tried databases to find articles. The team decides to brainstorm all the search tools and resources they can think of.

Here’s what they came up with:

Based on your experience, do you see anything you would add?

Sarah and her team think that their list is pretty good. They decide to take it further and list the advantages and limitations of each search tool, at least as far as they can determine.

Alisha suggests that Sarah should show the worksheet to a librarian and volunteers to go with her. The librarian, Prof. Harrison, says they have made a really good start, but he can fill them in on some other search strategies that will help them to focus on their topic. Would Sarah and Alisha like to learn more?

Let’s step back from this case study again, and think about the elements that someone doing research should plan before starting to enter search terms in Google, Wikipedia, or even a scholarly database. There is some preparation you can do to make things go much more smoothly than they have for Sarah.

Step Three: Self-Reflection

As you work through your own research quests, it is very important to be self-reflective:

  • What do you really need to find?
  • Do you need to learn more about the general subject before you can identify the focus of your search?
  • How thoroughly did you develop your search strategy?
  • Did you spend enough time finding the best tools to search?
  • What is going really well, so well that you’ll want to remember to do it in the future?

Another term for what you are doing is metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. Reflect on what Sarah is going through as you read this chapter. Does some of it sound familiar based on your own experiences? You may already know some of the strategies presented here. Do you do them the same way? How does it work? What pieces are new to you? When might you follow this advice? Don’t just let the words flow over you, rather think carefully about the explanation of the process. You may disagree with some of what you read. If you do, follow though and test both methods to see which provides better results.

Step Four: Selecting Search Tools

After you have thought the planning process through more thoroughly, start to think about where you can look for information. Part of planning to do research is determining which search tools will be the best ones to use. This applies whether you are doing scholarly research or trying to answer a question in your everyday life, such as what would be the best place to go on vacation.

“Search tools” might be a bit misleading, since a person might be the source of the information you need. Or it might be a web search engine, a specialized database, an association—the possibilities are endless. Often people automatically search Google first, regardless of what they are looking for. Choosing the wrong search tool may just waste your time and provide only mediocre information, whereas other sources might provide really spot-on information and quickly, too. In some cases, a carefully constructed search on Google, particularly using the advanced search option, will provide the necessary information, but other times it won’t. This is true of all sources: make an informed choice about which ones to use for a specific need.

So, how do you identify search tools? Let’s begin with a first-rate method.

For academic research, talking with a librarian or your professor is a great start. They will direct you to those specialized tools that will provide access to what you need. If you ask a librarian for help, they may also show you some tips about searching in the resources. This chapter will cover some of the basic strategies that will work in many search tools, but a librarian can show you very specific ways to focus your search and retrieve the most useful items.

If neither your professor nor a librarian is available when you need help, check your school’s library website to see what guidance is provided. There will often be subject-related guides or lists of the best resources to assist researchers. There may be a directory of the databases that the library subscribes to and the subjects they cover. Take advantage of the expertise of librarians by using such guides. Novice researchers usually don’t think of looking for this type of help, and, as a consequence, often waste time.

When you are looking for non-academic material, consider who cares about this type of information: Who works with it? Who produces it or help guides for it?

Some sources are really obvious, and you are already using them—for example, if you need information about the weather in London three days from now, you might check  for London’s forecast. You don’t go to a library (in person or online), and you don’t do a research database search. For other information you need, think the same way. Are you looking for anecdotal information on old railroads? Find out if there is an organization of railroad buffs. You can search on the web for this kind of information, or, if you know about and have access to it, you could check the Encyclopedia of Associations . This source provides entries for all U.S. membership organizations, which can quickly lead you to a potentially wonderful source of information. Librarians can point you to tools like these.

As you consider the information presented in this chapter, keep the scope of the information you are looking for in mind. In the previous chapter we examined the topic of scope in detail. The breadth and depth of the information you require will have an impact as you plan.

Consider Asking an Expert

Have you thought about using people, not just inanimate sources, as a way to obtain information? This might be particularly appropriate if you are working on an emerging topic or a topic with local connections. There are a variety of reasons that talking with someone will add to your research.

For personal interactions, there are other specific things you can do to obtain better results. Do some background work on the topic before contacting the person you hope to interview. The more familiarity you have with your topic and its terminology, the easier it will be to ask focused questions. Focused questions are important if you want to get into the meat of what you need. Asking general questions because you think the specifics might be too detailed rarely leads to the best information. Acknowledge the time and effort someone is taking to answer your questions, but also realize that people who are passionate about subjects enjoy sharing what they know. Take the opportunity to ask experts about sources they would recommend.

Determine Search Concepts and Keywords

Once you’ve selected some good resources for your topic, and possibly talked with an expert, it is time to move on to identify words you will used to search for information on your topic in various databases and search engines. This is sometimes referred to as building a search query. When deciding what terms to use in a search, break down your topic into its main concepts. Don’t enter an entire sentence, or a full question. Different databases and search engines process such queries in different ways, but many look for the entire phrase you enter as a complete unit, rather than the component words. While some will focus on just the important words, such as Sarah’s Google search that you read about earlier in this chapter, the results are often still unsatisfactory. The best thing to do is to use the key concepts involved with your topic. In addition, think of synonyms or related terms for each concept. If you do this, you will have more flexibility when searching in case your first search term doesn’t produce any or enough results. This may sound strange, since if you are looking for information using a Web search engine, you almost always get too many results. Databases, however, contain fewer items, and having alternative search terms may lead you to useful sources. Even in a search engine like Google, having terms you can combine thoughtfully will yield better results.

First, let’s take a look at a video that explains the process pretty clearly:

The following worksheet is a written example of a process you can use to come up with search terms. It illustrates how you might think about the topic of violence in high schools. Notice that this exact phrase is not what will be used for the search. Rather, it is a starting point for identifying the terms that will eventually be used.

Topic: Violence in high schools. The concepts section is split into two columns: Violence and High school. Possible alternate terms for violence are listed in the first column, with OR separating each word. These are bullying, guns, knives, or gangs. Possible alternate terms for high school are listed in the second column, with OR separating each word. These are secondary school and 12th grade.

Now, use a clean copy of the same worksheet to think about the topic Sarah’s team is working on. How might you divide their topic into concepts and then search terms? Keep in mind that the number of concepts will depend on what you are searching for. And that the search terms may be synonyms or narrower terms. Occasionally, you may be searching for something very specific, and in those cases, you may need to use broader terms as well. Jot down your ideas then compare what you have written to the information on the second, completed worksheet and identify 3 differences.

Topic and Concepts chart. The topic is “The involvement of women painters in the Impressionist movement had an effect upon the subjects portrayed.” The concepts are (1) Women (2) Painters (3) Impressionist Movement and (4) Subjects. There are 8 blanks below each concept, each separated with the word OR. These blanks are for alternate terms for each concept.

Boolean Operators

Once you have the concepts you want to search, you need to think about how you will enter them into the search box. Often, but not always, Boolean operators will help you. You may be familiar with Boolean operators. They provide a way to link terms. For a better understanding of a complex topic, let’s  take a look at a video:

Now let’s  look at an example using Sarah’s group and the same written form we used above:

We will start by capturing the ideas of the women creating the art. We will use  women painters and women artists  as the first step in our sample search. You could do two separate searches by typing one or the other of the terms into the search box of whatever tool you are using:

women painters

women artists

You would end up with two separate result lists and have the added headache of trying to identify unique items from the lists. You could also search on the phrase

women painters and women artists

But once you understand Boolean operators, that last strategy won’t make as much sense as it seems to.

There are three Boolean operators:  and, or , and  not .

And  is used to get the intersection of all the terms you wish to include in your search. With this example

you are asking that the items you retrieve have both of those terms. If an item only has one term, it won’t show up in the results. This is not what the searcher had in mind—she is interested in both artists and painters, because she doesn’t know which term might be used. She doesn’t intend that both terms have to be used. Let’s go on to the next Boolean operator, which will help us out with this problem.

Or  is used when you want at least one of the terms to show up in the search results. If both do, that’s fine, but it isn’t a condition of the search. So  or  makes a lot more sense for this search:

women painters or women artists

Now, if you want to get fancy with this search, you could use both  and  as well as  or :

women and (painters or artists)

The parentheses mean that these two concepts, painters and artists, should be searched as a unit, and the search results should include all items that use one word or the other. The results will then be limited to those items that contain the word  women . If you decide to use parentheses for appropriate searches, make sure that the items contained within them are related in some way. With  or , as in our example, it means either of the terms will work. With  and , it means that both terms will appear in the document.

Type both of these searches in  Google Scholar  and compare the results (please note, you must capitalize OR when using it as a Boolean operator in Google products). Were they the same? If not, can you determine what happened? Which result list looked better?

Here is another example of a search string, using both parentheses and two Boolean operators:

entrepreneurship and (adolescents or teens)

In this search, you are looking for entrepreneurial initiatives connected with people in their teens. Because there are so many ways to categorize this age group, it makes sense to indicate that either of these terms should appear in the results, along with entrepreneurship.

However, this search string isn’t perfect. Can you pick out two problems with the search terms?

The third Boolean operator,  not , can be problematic.  Not  is used to exclude items from your search. If you have decided, based on the scope of the results you are getting, to focus only on a specific aspect of a topic, use  not , but be aware that items are being lost in this search. For example, if you entered

entrepreneurship and (adolescents or teens) not adults

you might lose some good results. Why? If you would like to see graphical representations of the effects of Boolean operators, take a look at the Scope chapter in this book.

Here is another good visual overview of Boolean operator use from MIT.

Other Helpful Search Techniques

Using Boolean operators isn’t the only way you can create more useful searches. In this section, we will review several others.

In this search:

Entrepreneurs and (adolescents or teens)

you might think that the items that are retrieved from the search can refer to entrepreneurs plural or entrepreneur singular. If you did, you spotted a problem. Because computers are very literal, they usually look for the exact terms you enter. While it is true that some search functions are moving beyond this model, you want to think about alternatives, just to be safe. In this case, using the singular as well as the plural form of the word might help you to find useful sources. Truncation, or searching on the root of a word and whatever follows, lets you do this.

So, if you search on

Entrepreneur* and (adolescents or teens)

You will get items that refer either to the singular or plural version of the word  entrepreneur , but also  entrepreneurship .

Look at these examples:

Think of two or three words you might retrieve when searching on these roots. It is important to consider the results you might get and alter the root if need be. An example of this is  polic* . Would it be a good idea to use this root if you wanted to search on  policy  or  policies ? Why or why not?

In some cases, a symbol other than an asterisk is used. To determine what symbol to use, check the help section in whatever resource you are using. The topic should show up under the truncation or stemming headings.

Here is the same search terms worksheet you saw earlier, but with truncation acknowledged:

A version of the previous complete Topic and Concepts chart. This chart has been altered to use truncation techniques. The alternate terms for women are wom*n, female*, mother*, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. The alternate terms for painters are painter*, and artist*. The alternate terms for Impressionist Movement are impressionis*. The alternate terms for subjects are subject*, figure*, still life, and cityscape. Note: Some systems might use a different symbol for internal truncation, which might be called a wildcard. It might be a question mark (e.g., wom?n), but it is best to check the help files before you begin your search.

Phrase Searches

Phrase searches are particularly useful when searching the web. If you put the exact phrase you want to search in quotation marks, you will only get items with those words as a phrase and not items where the words appear separately in a document, website, or other resource. Your results will usually be fewer, although surprisingly, this is not always the case. Try these two searches in the search engine of your choice:

“essay exam”

Was there a difference in the quality and quantity of results? If you would like to find out if the database or search engine you are using allows phrase searching and the conventions for doing so, search the help section. These help tools can be very, well, helpful!

Advanced Searches

Advanced searching allows you to refine your search query and prompts you for ways to do this. Consider the basic  search box. It is very minimalistic, but that minimalism is deceptive. It gives the impression that searching is easy and encourages you to just enter your topic, without much thought, to get results. You certainly do get many results. But are they really good results? Simple search boxes do many searchers a disfavor. There is a better way to enter searches.

Advanced search screens show you many of the options available to you to refine your search, and, therefore, get more manageable numbers of better items. Many web search engines include advanced search screens, as do databases for searching research materials. Advanced search screens will vary from resource to resource and from web search engine to research database, but they often let you search using

  • Implied Boolean operators (for example, the “all the words” option is the same as using the Boolean  and )
  • Limiters for date, domain (.edu, for example), type of resource (articles, book reviews, patents)
  • Field (a field is a standard element, such as title of publication or author’s name)
  • Phrase (rather than entering quote marks)

Let’s see how this works in practice.

Exercise: Google Searches

Go to the  advanced search option in Google .

Take a look at the options Google provides to refine your search. Compare this to the basic Google search box. One of the best ways you can become a better searcher for information is to use the power of advanced searches, either by using these more complex search screens or by remembering to use Boolean operators, phrase searches, truncation, and other options available to you in most search engines and databases.

While many of the text boxes at the top of the Google Advanced Search page mirror concepts already covered in this chapter (for example, “this exact word or phrase” allows you to omit the quotes in a phrase search), the options for narrowing your results can be powerful. You can limit your search to a particular domain (such as .edu for items from educational institutions) or you can search for items you can reuse legally (with attribution, of course!) by making use of the “usage rights” option. However, be careful with some of the options, as they may excessively limit your results. If you aren’t certain about a particular option, try your search with and without using it and compare the results. If you use a search engine other than Google, check to see if it offers an advanced search option: many do.

Subject Headings

In the section in this chapter on advanced searches, you read about field searching. To explain further, if you know that the last name of the author whose work you are seeking is Wood, and that he worked on forestry-related topics, you can do a far better search using the author field. Just think what you would get in the way of results if you entered a basic search such as  forestry and wood . It is great to use the appropriate Boolean operator, but oh, the results you will get! But what if you specified that  wood  had to show up as part of the author’s name? This would limit your results quite a bit.

So what about  forestry ? Is there a way to handle that using a field search? The answer is yes. Subject headings are terms that are assigned to items to group them. An example is cars—you could also call them autos, automobiles, or even more specific labels like SUVs or vans. You might use the Boolean operator or  and string these all together. But if you found out that the sources you are searching use  automobiles  as the subject heading, you wouldn’t have to worry about all these related terms, and could confidently use their subject heading and get all the results, even if the author of the piece uses  cars  and not  automobiles .

How does this work? In many databases, a person called an indexer or cataloger scrutinizes and enters each item. This person performs helpful, behind-the-scenes tasks such as assigning subject headings, age levels, or other indicators that make it easier to search very precisely. An analogy is tagging, although indexing is more structured than tagging. If you have tagged items online, you know that you can use any terms you like and that they may be very different from someone else’s tags. With indexing, the indexer chooses from a set group of terms. Obviously, this precise indexing isn’t available for web search engines—it would be impossible to index everything on the web. But if you are searching in a database, make sure you use these features to make your searches more precise and your result lists more relevant. You also will definitely save time.

You may be thinking that this sounds good. Saving time when doing research is a great idea. But how will you know what subject headings exist, so you can use them? Here is a trick that librarians use. Even librarians don’t know what terms are used in all the databases or online catalogs that they use. So a librarian’s starting point isn’t very far from yours. But they do know to use whatever features a database provides to do an effective search. They find out about them by acting like a detective.

You’ve already thought about the possible search terms for your information need. Enter the best search strategy you developed, which might use Boolean operators or truncation. Scan the results to see if they seem to be on topic. If they aren’t, figure out what results you are getting that just aren’t right, and revise your search. Terms you have searched on often show up in bold face type, so they are easy to pick out. Besides checking the titles of the results, read the abstracts (or summaries), if there are any. You may get some ideas for other terms to use. But if your results are fairly good, scan them with the intent to find one or two items that seem to be precisely what you need. Get to the full record (or entry), where you can see all the details entered by the indexers. Here is an example from the University at Albany’s Minerva catalog, but keep in mind that the catalog or database you are using may have entries that look very different.

Once you have the “full” record (which does not refer to the full text of the item, but rather the full descriptive details about the book, including author, subjects, date, and place of publication, and so on), look at the subject headings (they may be called descriptors or some other term, but they should be recognizable as subjects) and see what words are used. They may be identical to the terms you entered, but if not, revise your search using the subject heading words. The results list should now contain items that are relevant for your need.

This chapter presents a strategy for developing a successful search. This figure reviews the key points:

There are four steps in a recurring cycle: Select topic, then select concepts, then determine relationships, then use variations and refinements. The cycle then repeats. When you select your topic, you then break it into concepts. With these concepts, you should then select related terms or synonyms. Once you’ve determined relationships, you can select boolean operators and how to phrase your searching. After this, vary and refine your search with truncations, field searching, and subject headings.

It is tempting to think that once you have gone through all the processes around the circle, as seen in this diagram, your information search is done and you can start writing. However, research is a recursive process. You don’t start at the beginning and continue straight through until you end at the end. Once you have followed this planning model, you will often find that you need to alter or refine your topic and start the process again, as seen here:

There are four steps in a recurring cycle: Refine topic, then select concepts, then determine relationships, then use variations and refinements. The cycle then repeats. When you refine your topic, you narrow or broaden the scope and select a new aspect of the topic. You then revise existing concepts and add or eliminate concepts. Once you’ve determined relationships, you can select boolean operators and how to phrase your searching. After this, vary and refine your search with truncations, field searching, and subject headings.

This revision process may happen at any time, before or during the preparation of your paper or other final product. The researchers who are most successful do this, so don’t ignore opportunities to revise.

So let’s return to Sarah and her search for information to help her team’s project. Sarah realized she needed to make a number of changes in the search strategy she was using. She had several insights that definitely led her to some good sources of information for this particular research topic. Can you identify the good ideas she implemented?

Sources Used to Create this Chapter

The majority of the content for this section has been adapted from the following OER Material:

  • Information Literacy Concepts by David Hisle & Katherine Webb, and published under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.
  • The Information Literacy User’s Guide by Deborah Bernnard et al., and published under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

Media Resources

Any media resources not documented here were part of the original chapter from which this section has been adapted.

McMaster Libraries. “How Library Stuff Works: How to Choose Keywords.” YouTube, 2015. Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US).

McMaster Libraries. “How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Operators (AND OR NOT).” YouTube, 2016. Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US).

Starting the Journey: An Intro to College Writing Copyright © by Leonard Owens III; Tim Bishop; and Scott Ortolano is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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first thing to do in research

How to Conduct Effective Research: Tips and Tricks for Beginners

  • 11 July 2023

first thing to do in research


Research serves as the foundation for advances in every conceivable subject and is the cornerstone of progress. Starting a research journey can be intimidating for novices. But if you have the correct tools and approaches, it may be a worthwhile endeavor. This blog article seeks to instruct new researchers on how to conduct fruitful research by offering helpful advice and strategies to help them become productive researchers.

1. Define Your Research Question

Determining your research question is the first stage in conducting successful research. A well-crafted question gives you direction and helps you focus your efforts on a certain objective. Ask a question that is as specific as you can. A better inquiry may be, “How is climate change affecting crop production in California?” rather than, “What are the effects of climate change?”

2. Develop a Research Plan

A roadmap is essential for effective research. Describe your strategy while considering the type of information you require, potential sources, and a rough time frame. You can effectively manage your time by taking this step, which will also give your research structure and keep you on track.

3. Understand the Types of Research

There are two basic categories of research: primary and secondary. Primary research is when you collect your own first-hand information, such as through surveys or experiments. Using information gathered by another person, such as data from books, papers, or scholarly articles, is known as secondary research. Knowing the difference can help you choose the approach that best fits your research issue and available resources.

4. Use a Variety of Sources

Your research’s scope and depth are constrained if you rely solely on one type of source. Utilize a variety of credible websites, books, scholarly articles, podcasts, and even multimedia sources like documentaries. Remember that the trustworthiness of your study is influenced by the caliber of your sources.

5. Learn How to Use Databases Effectively

Your time will be much reduced if you learn how to use databases. Scholarly articles can be found in abundance in databases like JSTOR, PubMed, and Google Scholar, among others. Recall that various databases have various advantages; thus, investigate a few to determine which ones best meet your requirements.

6. Master Effective Search Techniques

The research process can be significantly sped up by using excellent search techniques. Learn how to broaden or narrow your search using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), phrase searching using quotation marks, and truncation symbols. You can quickly uncover additional pertinent sources using these methods.

7. Evaluate Your Sources

Information is not all created equal. Always assess the trustworthiness and veracity of your sources. Verify the author’s credentials, the publishing date, and the veracity of the information. Websites with,.gov, extensions are usually more trustworthy than those with extension.

8. Keep Track of Your Sources

To properly reference your sources and prevent plagiarism, keeping track of them is crucial. Making a system (such as a spreadsheet) where you enter all the relevant citation data as you go is an excellent practice. Also very beneficial are reference management programs like EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero..

9. Take Effective Notes

Making thorough notes can help you remember knowledge and draw connections across sources. To improve understanding, try to summarise the main ideas in your own words. To show the data and connections, you can also utilize charts, mind maps, or colors.

10. Analyze and Synthesize Your Findings

Making meaning of the information you have gathered involves analysis and synthesis. You must comprehend the situation, evaluate many points of view, spot trends, and reach conclusions. The development of your arguments or the development of your hypotheses depends on this step.

11. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Finally, if you are stuck, don’t be afraid to seek for assistance. Teachers, classmates with more expertise, and librarians can all offer helpful advice. Keep in mind that even experienced researchers occasionally require help.

One size does not fit all when it comes to research. Different projects call for various approaches and plans. However, you can become a successful researcher by defining your question, creating a plan, utilizing a variety of sources, learning efficient search strategies, evaluating your sources, keeping track of references, taking good notes, analyzing and synthesizing data, and asking for assistance when necessary. The most crucial advice is to always be curious and to keep learning. Enjoy your research!

It’s important to keep in mind that understanding how to perform excellent research is a journey that requires constant practice, learning, and development. Research can be a fulfilling and enlightening experience as you gain experience and get more familiar with the procedure. Wishing you well as you pursue your research!

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Essential Things to Do Before Starting Your Research Study

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Conducting a research study is an enormous task. It requires a lot of pre-planning and considerations. A thorough literature review needs to be carried out and a detailed plan of work needs to be made to ensure everything runs smoothly. Overlooking of small details can have an impactful outcome and result in wastage of time, money and effort. This checklist covers three significant aspects: Awareness, Planning, and Preparation that are essential to researchers before starting a new project. We hope this checklist ensures that you are adequately prepared to take on your next challenging project.

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  • Citation Styles

How to start the research process (6 tips)

How to start the research process

Research can be a fun and informative process, but so many writers struggle to know where to begin. In this post, we’ll discuss six tips for starting the research process.

1. Understand how the research process works

If you’ve never undertaken a research project before, or if you find it difficult to get started, take some time to learn how the research process actually works. Your grasp of how research gets done will inform your ability to not only start the process, but to persevere until the end.

All research begins with a question or set of questions. These questions eventually transform into thesis statements and main ideas. However, even before you can come up with the questions that you want your research to answer, you need to familiarize yourself with what other researchers have written about your topic. This is called preliminary research .

Preliminary research helps you situate your own ideas within the ongoing scholarly conversation. It also allows you to establish whether your idea is worth exploring.

2. Make a plan and know when to stop

The most successful research process will be both well-planned and flexible. On the one hand, you should plan to complete your research in a way that enables you to meet the deadline.

On the other hand, you should allow for the possibility that your topic or main idea might be too broad or narrow (see step three below). Even the most well-planned research projects sometimes veer in unexpected directions.

Additionally, you’ll want to be aware of when it’s appropriate to stop your research. While you could feasibly go on researching a topic forever, use the assignment guidelines (and your own instincts) to help you determine when you need to move on to the next component of the project.

3. Choose a manageable topic

Many research projects start with a broad topic, but it’s essential to know when a topic is too broad to manage. The complexity of your topic should depend on the required length or size of the assignment.

Preliminary research can help you determine if your topic is too broad because it forces you to engage with the scholarly conversation. This allows you to find the gaps in the current research, which are likely narrower than general topic ideas.

4. Meet with a librarian

A librarian can help you formulate a topic, narrow or broaden your ideas, and find relevant sources for your research. Consider scheduling a research consultation with a librarian at the start of your research process. Librarians can also provide guidance on citing your sources.

5. Create an outline

You can use an outline to map out the areas that you want to explore in your research process. An outline will equip you with a set of clear directions for undertaking systematic research on your topic

6. Keep track of your sources

You’ll want to keep track of the sources that you’re consulting throughout the research process. This will be especially important when you create the bibliography or reference list for your research project. It’s a good idea to cite your sources as you work, rather than wait until the last minute.

BibGuru’s citation generator can help you keep track of your references, create in-text citations, and assemble your bibliography. Use BibGuru’s projects feature to organize your research by assignment or source type, or create a folder for each of the main points of your outline.

Frequently Asked Questions about how to start the research process

The first step in the research process is identifying the question or set of questions that you wish to answer with your research.

The most important step in the research process is coming up with your primary research question.

An effective research process is well-planned, yet flexible, and incorporates ample time for finding, reading, and citing sources.

Start by creating an outline that maps out the directions you want to take with your research. Then, schedule time for tasks like meeting with a librarian, finding and reading your sources, and citation.

Research is a process because it includes multiple steps that allow you to gradually refine your ideas about a given topic.

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How To Write A Research Paper

Step-By-Step Tutorial With Examples + FREE Template

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | March 2024

For many students, crafting a strong research paper from scratch can feel like a daunting task – and rightly so! In this post, we’ll unpack what a research paper is, what it needs to do , and how to write one – in three easy steps. 🙂 

Overview: Writing A Research Paper

What (exactly) is a research paper.

  • How to write a research paper
  • Stage 1 : Topic & literature search
  • Stage 2 : Structure & outline
  • Stage 3 : Iterative writing
  • Key takeaways

Let’s start by asking the most important question, “ What is a research paper? ”.

Simply put, a research paper is a scholarly written work where the writer (that’s you!) answers a specific question (this is called a research question ) through evidence-based arguments . Evidence-based is the keyword here. In other words, a research paper is different from an essay or other writing assignments that draw from the writer’s personal opinions or experiences. With a research paper, it’s all about building your arguments based on evidence (we’ll talk more about that evidence a little later).

Now, it’s worth noting that there are many different types of research papers , including analytical papers (the type I just described), argumentative papers, and interpretative papers. Here, we’ll focus on analytical papers , as these are some of the most common – but if you’re keen to learn about other types of research papers, be sure to check out the rest of the blog .

With that basic foundation laid, let’s get down to business and look at how to write a research paper .

Research Paper Template

Overview: The 3-Stage Process

While there are, of course, many potential approaches you can take to write a research paper, there are typically three stages to the writing process. So, in this tutorial, we’ll present a straightforward three-step process that we use when working with students at Grad Coach.

These three steps are:

  • Finding a research topic and reviewing the existing literature
  • Developing a provisional structure and outline for your paper, and
  • Writing up your initial draft and then refining it iteratively

Let’s dig into each of these.

Need a helping hand?

first thing to do in research

Step 1: Find a topic and review the literature

As we mentioned earlier, in a research paper, you, as the researcher, will try to answer a question . More specifically, that’s called a research question , and it sets the direction of your entire paper. What’s important to understand though is that you’ll need to answer that research question with the help of high-quality sources – for example, journal articles, government reports, case studies, and so on. We’ll circle back to this in a minute.

The first stage of the research process is deciding on what your research question will be and then reviewing the existing literature (in other words, past studies and papers) to see what they say about that specific research question. In some cases, your professor may provide you with a predetermined research question (or set of questions). However, in many cases, you’ll need to find your own research question within a certain topic area.

Finding a strong research question hinges on identifying a meaningful research gap – in other words, an area that’s lacking in existing research. There’s a lot to unpack here, so if you wanna learn more, check out the plain-language explainer video below.

Once you’ve figured out which question (or questions) you’ll attempt to answer in your research paper, you’ll need to do a deep dive into the existing literature – this is called a “ literature search ”. Again, there are many ways to go about this, but your most likely starting point will be Google Scholar .

If you’re new to Google Scholar, think of it as Google for the academic world. You can start by simply entering a few different keywords that are relevant to your research question and it will then present a host of articles for you to review. What you want to pay close attention to here is the number of citations for each paper – the more citations a paper has, the more credible it is (generally speaking – there are some exceptions, of course).

how to use google scholar

Ideally, what you’re looking for are well-cited papers that are highly relevant to your topic. That said, keep in mind that citations are a cumulative metric , so older papers will often have more citations than newer papers – just because they’ve been around for longer. So, don’t fixate on this metric in isolation – relevance and recency are also very important.

Beyond Google Scholar, you’ll also definitely want to check out academic databases and aggregators such as Science Direct, PubMed, JStor and so on. These will often overlap with the results that you find in Google Scholar, but they can also reveal some hidden gems – so, be sure to check them out.

Once you’ve worked your way through all the literature, you’ll want to catalogue all this information in some sort of spreadsheet so that you can easily recall who said what, when and within what context. If you’d like, we’ve got a free literature spreadsheet that helps you do exactly that.

Don’t fixate on an article’s citation count in isolation - relevance (to your research question) and recency are also very important.

Step 2: Develop a structure and outline

With your research question pinned down and your literature digested and catalogued, it’s time to move on to planning your actual research paper .

It might sound obvious, but it’s really important to have some sort of rough outline in place before you start writing your paper. So often, we see students eagerly rushing into the writing phase, only to land up with a disjointed research paper that rambles on in multiple

Now, the secret here is to not get caught up in the fine details . Realistically, all you need at this stage is a bullet-point list that describes (in broad strokes) what you’ll discuss and in what order. It’s also useful to remember that you’re not glued to this outline – in all likelihood, you’ll chop and change some sections once you start writing, and that’s perfectly okay. What’s important is that you have some sort of roadmap in place from the start.

You need to have a rough outline in place before you start writing your paper - or you’ll end up with a disjointed research paper that rambles on.

At this stage you might be wondering, “ But how should I structure my research paper? ”. Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, but in general, a research paper will consist of a few relatively standardised components:

  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methodology

Let’s take a look at each of these.

First up is the introduction section . As the name suggests, the purpose of the introduction is to set the scene for your research paper. There are usually (at least) four ingredients that go into this section – these are the background to the topic, the research problem and resultant research question , and the justification or rationale. If you’re interested, the video below unpacks the introduction section in more detail. 

The next section of your research paper will typically be your literature review . Remember all that literature you worked through earlier? Well, this is where you’ll present your interpretation of all that content . You’ll do this by writing about recent trends, developments, and arguments within the literature – but more specifically, those that are relevant to your research question . The literature review can oftentimes seem a little daunting, even to seasoned researchers, so be sure to check out our extensive collection of literature review content here .

With the introduction and lit review out of the way, the next section of your paper is the research methodology . In a nutshell, the methodology section should describe to your reader what you did (beyond just reviewing the existing literature) to answer your research question. For example, what data did you collect, how did you collect that data, how did you analyse that data and so on? For each choice, you’ll also need to justify why you chose to do it that way, and what the strengths and weaknesses of your approach were.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that for some research papers, this aspect of the project may be a lot simpler . For example, you may only need to draw on secondary sources (in other words, existing data sets). In some cases, you may just be asked to draw your conclusions from the literature search itself (in other words, there may be no data analysis at all). But, if you are required to collect and analyse data, you’ll need to pay a lot of attention to the methodology section. The video below provides an example of what the methodology section might look like.

By this stage of your paper, you will have explained what your research question is, what the existing literature has to say about that question, and how you analysed additional data to try to answer your question. So, the natural next step is to present your analysis of that data . This section is usually called the “results” or “analysis” section and this is where you’ll showcase your findings.

Depending on your school’s requirements, you may need to present and interpret the data in one section – or you might split the presentation and the interpretation into two sections. In the latter case, your “results” section will just describe the data, and the “discussion” is where you’ll interpret that data and explicitly link your analysis back to your research question. If you’re not sure which approach to take, check in with your professor or take a look at past papers to see what the norms are for your programme.

Alright – once you’ve presented and discussed your results, it’s time to wrap it up . This usually takes the form of the “ conclusion ” section. In the conclusion, you’ll need to highlight the key takeaways from your study and close the loop by explicitly answering your research question. Again, the exact requirements here will vary depending on your programme (and you may not even need a conclusion section at all) – so be sure to check with your professor if you’re unsure.

Step 3: Write and refine

Finally, it’s time to get writing. All too often though, students hit a brick wall right about here… So, how do you avoid this happening to you?

Well, there’s a lot to be said when it comes to writing a research paper (or any sort of academic piece), but we’ll share three practical tips to help you get started.

First and foremost , it’s essential to approach your writing as an iterative process. In other words, you need to start with a really messy first draft and then polish it over multiple rounds of editing. Don’t waste your time trying to write a perfect research paper in one go. Instead, take the pressure off yourself by adopting an iterative approach.

Secondly , it’s important to always lean towards critical writing , rather than descriptive writing. What does this mean? Well, at the simplest level, descriptive writing focuses on the “ what ”, while critical writing digs into the “ so what ” – in other words, the implications . If you’re not familiar with these two types of writing, don’t worry! You can find a plain-language explanation here.

Last but not least, you’ll need to get your referencing right. Specifically, you’ll need to provide credible, correctly formatted citations for the statements you make. We see students making referencing mistakes all the time and it costs them dearly. The good news is that you can easily avoid this by using a simple reference manager . If you don’t have one, check out our video about Mendeley, an easy (and free) reference management tool that you can start using today.

Recap: Key Takeaways

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. To recap, the three steps to writing a high-quality research paper are:

  • To choose a research question and review the literature
  • To plan your paper structure and draft an outline
  • To take an iterative approach to writing, focusing on critical writing and strong referencing

Remember, this is just a b ig-picture overview of the research paper development process and there’s a lot more nuance to unpack. So, be sure to grab a copy of our free research paper template to learn more about how to write a research paper.

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Referencing in Word

Can you help me with a full paper template for this Abstract:

Background: Energy and sports drinks have gained popularity among diverse demographic groups, including adolescents, athletes, workers, and college students. While often used interchangeably, these beverages serve distinct purposes, with energy drinks aiming to boost energy and cognitive performance, and sports drinks designed to prevent dehydration and replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates lost during physical exertion.

Objective: To assess the nutritional quality of energy and sports drinks in Egypt.

Material and Methods: A cross-sectional study assessed the nutrient contents, including energy, sugar, electrolytes, vitamins, and caffeine, of sports and energy drinks available in major supermarkets in Cairo, Alexandria, and Giza, Egypt. Data collection involved photographing all relevant product labels and recording nutritional information. Descriptive statistics and appropriate statistical tests were employed to analyze and compare the nutritional values of energy and sports drinks.

Results: The study analyzed 38 sports drinks and 42 energy drinks. Sports drinks were significantly more expensive than energy drinks, with higher net content and elevated magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C. Energy drinks contained higher concentrations of caffeine, sugars, and vitamins B2, B3, and B6.

Conclusion: Significant nutritional differences exist between sports and energy drinks, reflecting their intended uses. However, these beverages’ high sugar content and calorie loads raise health concerns. Proper labeling, public awareness, and responsible marketing are essential to guide safe consumption practices in Egypt.

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How to Do Research in 7 Simple Steps

first thing to do in research

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first thing to do in research

It’s 2 am, and you’re on your fifth cup of coffee (or was it your sixth?). You’re crouched at a table in some dark corner of the library surrounded by fifteen open books. Equally as many tabs are open on your laptop, and you still haven’t written a word of the paper that’s due in 7 hours.

Many things can explain how you got to this point, including procrastination , poor organization , and a messy schedule .

Very often, however, the problem is a lack of research skills .

And it’s not your fault. High school does a poor job of teaching you how to do research, and most college classes do little better. It feels like you’re expected to figure it out through trial and error.

I think we can do better than that, however. In this guide, I’m going to show you the 7-step process for researching everything from a 10-page term paper to a final presentation. Not only will you learn how to do better research; you’ll also learn how to research more efficiently.

What Is Research?

Before we go any further, what  is  research?

At its core, research is an attempt to answer a question. This could be anything from “How can we reduce infant mortality rates?” to “Why does salt make food taste good?”

To answer your question, you consult books, academic papers, newspaper articles, historical records, or anything else that could be helpful. The broad term for these things is “sources.”

And, usually, once you’ve done the research, you present or summarize it in some way. In many cases, this means writing an essay or another type of scholarly paper, but it could also mean giving a presentation or even creating a YouTube video.

Even if you have no interest in academia, research is an extremely useful skill to learn. When you know how to do research, it’s much easier to improve your life and work more effectively . Instead of having to ask someone every time you have a question, research will help you solve problems yourself (and help others in turn).

Note:  Research can also mean conducting surveys, performing experiments, or going on archaeological digs. While these activities are crucial for advancing human knowledge, I won’t be discussing them here. This article focuses on the research you can do with only a library and an internet connection.

The 7 Steps of the Research Process

Research can feel overwhelming, but it’s more manageable when you break it down into steps. In my experience, the research process has seven main steps:

  • Find a topic
  • Refine your topic
  • Find key sources
  • Take notes on your sources
  • Create your paper or presentation
  • Do additional research as necessary
  • Cite your sources

Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

1. Find a Topic

If you don’t have a topic, your research will be undirected and inefficient. You’ll spend hours reading dozens of sources, all because you didn’t take a few minutes to develop a topic.

How do you come up with a topic? My number one suggestion is to create a mind map.

A mind map is a visual way to generate ideas. Here’s how it works:

  • Get a piece of paper and a pen. Make sure the paper isn’t too small — you want lots of room for your ideas.
  • Draw an oval in the center of the paper.
  • Inside that oval, write a super vague topic. Start with whatever your professor has assigned you.
  • Draw lines from the oval towards the edges of the paper.
  • Draw smaller ovals connected to each of these lines.
  • Inside the smaller ovals, write more specific ideas/topics related to the central one.
  • Repeat until you’ve found 3-5 topic ideas.

When I write it out step by step, it sounds kind of strange. But trust me, it works . Anytime I’m stuck on a writing assignment, this method is my go-to. It’s basically magic.

To see what mind mapping looks like in practice, check out this clip:

Want to create a digital mind map like the one Thomas uses in the video? Check out Coggle .

2. Refine Your Topic

Okay, so now you have a list of 3-5 topics. They’re all still pretty general, and you need to narrow them down to one topic that you can research in depth.

To do this, spend 15 minutes doing some general research on each topic. Specifically, take each topic and plug it into your library’s catalog and database search tools.

The details of this process will vary from library to library. This is where consulting a librarian can be super helpful. They can show you how to use the tools I mentioned, as well as point you to some you probably don’t know about.

Furthermore, I suggest you ask your professor for recommendations. In some cases, they may even have created a resource page specifically for your assignment.

Once you’ve found out where to search, type in your topic. I like to use a mixture of the library catalog, a general academic database like EBSCO Host , and a search on Google Scholar .


What exactly are you trying to find? Basically, you’re trying to find a topic with a sufficient quantity and variety of sources.

Ideally, you want something with both journal articles and books, as this demonstrates that lots of scholars are seriously engaging with the topic.

Of course, in some cases (if the topic is very cutting edge, for example), you may be only able to find journal articles. That’s fine, so long as there are enough perspectives available.

Using this technique, you’ll be able to quickly eliminate some topics. Be ruthless. If you’re not finding anything after 15 minutes, move on. And don’t get attached to a topic.

Tip: If you find two topics with equal numbers of sources available, ask your professor to help you break the tie. They can give you insight into which topic is super common (and thus difficult to write about originally), as well as which they find more interesting.

Now that you have your topic, it’s time to narrow down your sources.

3. Find Key Sources

If you’ve picked a good topic, then you probably have lots of sources to work with. This is both a blessing and a curse. A variety of sources shows that there’s something worth saying about your topic, and it also gives you plenty of material to cite.

But this abundance can quickly turn into a nightmare in which you spend hours reading dense, mind-numbing material without getting any closer to actually producing a paper.

How do you keep this from happening? Choose 3–5  key sources and focus on them intently. Sure, you may end up needing more sources, especially if this is a long paper or if the professor requires it. But if you start out trying to read 15 sources, you’re likely to get overwhelmed and frustrated.

Focusing on a few key sources is powerful because it:

  • Lets you engage deeply with each source.
  • Gives you a variety of perspectives.
  • Points you to further resources.
  • Keeps you focused.

4. Read and Take Notes

But what do you do with these sources, exactly? You need to read them the right way . Follow these steps to effectively read academic books and articles:

Go through the article and look at the section headings. If any words or terms jump out at you, make note of them. Also, glance at the beginning sentences of each section and paragraph to get an overall idea of the author’s argument.

The goal here isn’t to comprehend deeply, but to prime your mind for effective reading .

Write down any questions you have after skimming the article, as well as any general questions you hope the article can answer. Always keep your topic in mind.

Read Actively

Now, start reading. But don’t just passively go through the information like you’re scrolling through Tumblr. Read with a pen or pencil in hand , underlining any unfamiliar terms or interesting ideas.

Make notes in the margins about other sources or concepts that come to mind. If you’re reading a library book, you can make notes on a separate piece of paper.

Once you’ve finished reading, take a short break. Have a cup of tea or coffee. Go for a walk around the library. Stretch. Just get your mind away from the research for a moment without resorting to distracting, low-density fun .

Now come back to the article and look at the things you underlined or noted. Gather these notes and transfer them to a program like Evernote .

If you need to look up a term, do that, and then add that definition to your notes. Also, make note of any sources the author cites that look helpful.

But what if I’m reading a book?   Won’t this take forever?  No, because you’re not going to read the entire book.

For most research you’ll do in college, reading a whole academic book is overkill . Just skim the table of contents and the book itself to find chapters or sections that look relevant.

Then, read each of those in the same way you would read an article. Also, be sure to glance at the book’s bibliography, which is a goldmine for finding additional sources.

Note: The above method is a variation on the classic SQ3R method , adapted slightly since we’re not interested in taking notes from textbooks .

5. Create Your Paper or Presentation

“You can’t turn in raw research.”

Research is crucial to crafting a great paper or presentation, but it’s also a great way to procrastinate. I had classmates in college who would spend 8 hours researching a 5-page paper. That’s way too much!

At some point, you need to stop researching and start writing (or whatever method you’re using to present your research).

How do you decide when to stop researching? There’s no strict rule, but in general I wouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes per page of the final paper.

So if the final paper is supposed to be 10 pages, don’t spend more than 5 hours researching it.

6. Do Additional Research (As Necessary)

Once you’ve started writing the draft of your paper, you’ll probably find a few gaps. Maybe you realize that one scholar’s argument isn’t relevant to your paper, or that you need more information for a particular section. In this case, you are free to return to researching as necessary.

But again, beware the trap of procrastination masquerading as productivity! Only do as much additional research as you need to answer your question. Don’t get pulled into rabbit holes or dragged off on tangents. Get in there, do your research, and get back to writing .

To keep yourself focused, I suggest keeping a separate document or piece of paper nearby to note points that need additional research.

Every time you encounter such a point, make note of it in the document and then keep writing. Only stop when you can’t get any further without additional research.

It’s much better to get a full draft done first. Otherwise, you risk suffering a cognitive switching penalty , making it harder to regain your focus.

7. Cite Your Sources

Whether you’re creating an oral presentation, essay, or video, you’ll need to cite your sources. Plagiarism is a serious offense, so don’t take any chances.

How to cite your sources depends on the subject and the professor’s expectations. Chicago, MLA, and APA are the most common citation formats to use in college, but there are thousands more.

Luckily, you don’t need to painstakingly type each of your citations by hand or slog through a style manual. Instead, you can use a tool like Zotero to track and generate your citations. To make things even easier, install the Zotero Connector browser extension. It can automatically pull citation information from entries in an online library catalog.

Once you’ve collected all of your sources, Zotero can generate a properly formatted works cited page or bibliography at just the click of a button.

For help setting up and using Zotero, read this guide . If you need further assistance, ask a librarian.

Go Research With Confidence

I hope you now understand how to do research with more confidence. If you follow the procedures I’ve covered in this article, you’ll waste less time, perform more effective research, and ultimately have the material for a winning essay.

Curious about how to use your research to write a great research paper? Check out this guide .

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Cornell University Office of Undergraduate Research

  • About Research
  • In the Beginning: What to Consider

Before you get started in “research,” it is important to identify your goals and objectives.

Consider these questions:.

  • What are your expectations for becoming involved in college-level research projects?
  • How committed are you to a project in terms of time, energy, and enthusiasm?
  • How will you evaluate your experience?

Knowing what you can learn from research will not only help you to find a great position, it will help you make the most of it. The following information should give you a few “thinking” points to consider.

Requirements and planning ahead

In many fields, you will need to take some courses before you understand the work well enough to do research. If you have an interest already, go speak with faculty members who work in your area of interest and ask them what they require from undergraduate researchers. Don’t have a defined interest yet? Don’t worry; take some classes. When you find a topic that is interesting, go see the professor and talk to them about your interest.

Research position availability may not necessarily correspond with your interest and your availability. You may need to be flexible with your interests and open to trying new topics. You may also need to take classes, learn procedures or get more experience before being competitive for a research project with some faculty.

Research can have a number of goals

Many researchers do theoretical work in which they are attempting to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Sometimes theoretical research is defined as research that cannot yet be tested. Other researchers consider themselves to be doing basic research, which attempts to answer questions that are fundamental to the discipline. And finally, applied research involves the practical application of theories and basic knowledge for a specific problem or client. During the course of your research, you may take one or more of these approaches to the problem you are working on.

Research locations are as variable as research projects

When you begin to talk to faculty about projects, be sure to inquire where the work is done. There are a number of research labs and sites in Ithaca that will require you to travel to do your work. Some of them are accessible by bus, shuttle or bicycle. Other projects will allow you to work on a computer in any location in the world. Just make sure that you ask where you need to do your work!

Student role(s) in a project

Students are always interested in how much intellectual input will be expected of them. This depends on the faculty member’s personality and needs. In the beginning, everyone needs help and will be trained and closely mentored. Once you have the basics down, it will depend on your ability and interest in the project. There are some projects that are more technique-oriented; once you learn the technique, you will spend your time executing the technique and collecting data. In time, some groups will expect you to function at a high level and to be able to design, carry out and analyze your work. If you are working on a project in the humanities, you should expect to have a great deal of intellectual input.

Research Groups

Working independently or as part of a team.

Different research groups are organized in different ways. In some groups, there are researchers who have specialized training in different fields. They will use their very different expertise on a project. For example, the group may be looking at identifying chemicals that will inhibit bacterial growth in aquariums. There may be an expert in the surface qualities of glass, a chemist who is experienced in inhibitory compounds, a microbiologist and a fish expert. In other groups, each person will have their own, separate project that they are entirely responsible for.

Size of the research group

Some research groups at Cornell are very large with 20 to 30 people working there. Some research is done by faculty members working by themselves. What works for you? Are you outgoing and confident enough to ask questions in a large group? Are you more comfortable working with 1 or 2 other people?

Roles in a research group

  • All research projects have a principal investigator (PI). The PI is the head of the research group or lab and serves as a research advisor to any undergraduate student(s) participating in research. Ultimately, the PI is responsible for all aspects of the research group, including training and supervision of all research staff members.
  • The PI is a faculty member. When a faculty member first comes to Cornell, they are assistant professors. They will be defining their research and building their research group. In 5 or 6 years they will go through the tenure process, where their research and teaching will be evaluated. A professor granted tenure is now an associate professor. A full professor is a tenured professor who has been promoted to the most senior rank. Some retired professors continue to do research with undergraduates and are called emeritus professors.
  • Research groups have people with different types and amounts of training. Some groups have a technician or project manager who is responsible for keeping the research going. They may be in charge of ordering, hiring undergraduates, supervising other researchers, maintaining equipment and doing their own projects.
  • Graduate students have finished their undergraduate degrees and are now working full time on an advanced degree, such as a doctorate (PhD) or a masters (MS, MA, or MEng). They may be close in age and experience to the undergraduates in a research group. They will be spending the majority of their time doing research and they can be great teachers and advocates for undergraduates doing research in their field.
  • Post-docs are people who have finished their doctorates and are getting more research experience before becoming a professor. They often have their own project related to the expertise of the research group or lab and are very knowledgeable about techniques and the research field. They may be looking for jobs, and are often interested in mentoring undergraduates to gain experience.
  • When you join a research group, there often will be senior undergraduates that are working on their senior thesis or a publication. They are great to ask questions of and often can help with trouble-shooting problems.

Multiple research projects as an undergraduate

There is no right or wrong path for undergraduate research. You may find the perfect project in the beginning and stay with that project and faculty member for your remaining time at Cornell. Obviously, if you stay in one field or group for 3 or 4 years, it will increase the chance that you will master a project and perhaps publish your data.

On the other hand, if you are considering a career in research, you may want to try a couple of projects so that you can figure out what kinds of research you really like to do. You may be able to work on several projects with one research group or you may want to change your field or project. Faculty will be supportive of you as long as you communicate clearly when you will be leaving. Be responsible in finishing up the project in your current lab.

Finding a Research Advisor

Just like finding an opportunity, network to find an advisor you are comfortable with.

Some students work well with constant direction and others work with almost none. You’ve got to identify someone you can work with. Talk to a number of people about your interests. Generally, professors you’ve had in class are a great place to start. You may also consider asking professors to introduce you to researchers in their department. Graduate teaching assistants can also be good sources of information about faculty who are great mentors for undergraduates.

Cornellians you could talk with to get advice about research projects

  • Your academic advisor
  • Your student advisor
  • Cornell Undergraduate Research Advisors
  • Department advising staff in your major or college
  • Experienced students. Talk with upper-class students you meet. Can your department put you in touch with upperclassmen who might assist you?
  • Graduate Teaching Assistants or Graduate Residence Fellows
  • Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB) Peer-Mentors
  • Defining Research
  • Why Perform Research at Cornell?
  • Student Research by the Numbers
  • Is Research for You?
  • Research Skills

How to Do Research: A Step-By-Step Guide: Get Started

  • Get Started
  • 1a. Select a Topic
  • 1b. Develop Research Questions
  • 1c. Identify Keywords
  • 1d. Find Background Information
  • 1e. Refine a Topic
  • 2a. Search Strategies
  • 2d. Articles
  • 2e. Videos & Images
  • 2f. Databases
  • 2g. Websites
  • 2h. Grey Literature
  • 2i. Open Access Materials
  • 3a. Evaluate Sources
  • 3b. Primary vs. Secondary
  • 3c. Types of Periodicals
  • 4a. Take Notes
  • 4b. Outline the Paper
  • 4c. Incorporate Source Material
  • 5a. Avoid Plagiarism
  • 5b. Zotero & MyBib
  • 5c. MLA Formatting
  • 5d. MLA Citation Examples
  • 5e. APA Formatting
  • 5f. APA Citation Examples
  • 5g. Annotated Bibliographies

Research Essentials Video Tutorials

Related guides.

  • Elmira College Writing Center Get one-on-one assistance for all types of writing.

Recommended Websites

  • Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Research Process Overview

Step 1.  Develop a topic Select a Topic | Develop Research Questions | Identify Keywords | Find Background Information | Refine a Topic

Step 2. Locate information Search Strategies | Books | eBooks | Articles  | Videos & Images | Databases | Websites | Grey Literature

Step 3. Evaluate and analyze information Evaluate Sources | Primary vs Secondary | Types of Periodicals

Step 4. Write, organize, and communicate information Take Notes | Outline the Paper | Incorporate Source Material

Step 5. Cite sources Avoid Plagiarism | Zotero & MyBib | MLA | APA | Chicago Style | Annotated Bibliographies

For research help,  use one of the following options:

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From ideas to studies: how to get ideas and sharpen them into research questions

Jan p vandenbroucke.

1 Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, the Netherlands

2 Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

3 Department of Medical Statistics and Centre for Global NCDs, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

Neil Pearce

Where do new research questions come from? This is at best only partially taught in courses or textbooks about clinical or epidemiological research. Methods are taught under the assumption that a researcher already knows the research question and knows which methods will fit that question. Similarly, the real complexity of the thought processes that lead to a scientific undertaking is almost never described in published papers. In this paper, we first discuss how to get an idea that is worth researching. We describe sources of new ideas and how to foster a creative attitude by “cultivating your thoughts”. Only a few of these ideas will make it into a study. Next, we describe how to sharpen and focus a research question so that a study becomes feasible and a valid test of the underlying idea. To do this, the idea needs to be “pruned”. Pruning a research question means cutting away anything that is unnecessary, so that only the essence remains. This includes determining both the latent and the stated objectives, specific pruning questions, and the use of specific schemes to structure reasoning. After this, the following steps include preparation of a brief protocol, conduct of a pilot study, and writing a draft of the paper including draft tables. Then you are ready to carry out your research.


How do you get an idea for a study? How do you turn your idea into a testable hypothesis, and turn this into an appropriate and feasible study design? This is usually at best only partially taught in epidemiology courses. Most courses and textbooks assume that you know your research question and the general methods that you will need to answer it. Somehow it is assumed that you can readily translate your idea into a specific framework, such as the PICO framework (Patient, Intervention, Control or Comparison, Outcome) 1 or the FINER framework (Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical, and Relevant) 2 or that you can fit it into counterfactual reasoning. 3 However, before describing your project in one of these frameworks, you first need to have an idea for your study and think about it in general terms: why you might do a study and how you might do a study.

This paper considers the complex process of having ideas, keeping track of them, turning them into studies, trying them out in pilot studies, and writing a draft paper before you finally embark on your study.

The paper is intended for novice researchers in clinical or public health epidemiology. It is not intended to be a comprehensive literature review about creativity, nor a sociology or philosophical treatise about why scientists get particular ideas (and not other ideas). It is based on our personal experience of (a combined) 70+ epidemiologic research-years. We have worked on very different topics, mostly on opposite sides of the globe, yet found that our experiences are quite similar. The fact that these issues are rarely covered in epidemiology courses has provided motivation to reflect on our experience.

Getting new ideas

So how do you get an idea? How some juxtaposition of neural patterns in our brain suddenly creates a new idea is a process that we are far from understanding. According to Karl Popper, the origin of new ideas does not matter; the only thing of interest is to devise how to test them. 4 Over the past decades, the literature has been enriched with new ideas about “being creative” in science – as witnessed in the book Innovation Generation by Ness. 5

In the present paper, we will not cover the literature about creativity and discovery in depth, but we will discuss the issues that we consider relevant to epidemiologic research. We will first consider the more general principles.

The real complexity of the thought processes that lead to a scientific undertaking is almost never described in published papers. Immunologist Medawar claimed that in this respect almost all scientific papers may be a fraud – not in the sense that scientists deliberately produce misleading data, but in the sense that the real thought processes that lead to the data and conclusions are not mentioned. 6 Scientists tell us about their real thought processes in memoirs, inaugural, or valedictory lectures – which is why these are so much more interesting than “standard” papers or presentations.

What strikes our minds: regularities or anomalies?

All sciences study a particular “object of knowledge” (eg, “matter”, “life”). Ideas come from experience and previous knowledge or facts about this object of knowledge, although this knowledge is always filtered through the perspective of one or more theories. 7 Epidemiology studies the distribution and determinants of disease in human populations, 8 and epidemiological ideas arise from observing and thinking about populations. 9 These could be clinical populations (ie, clinical experience, sometimes involving just a few patients), exposure-based populations (eg, workers exposed to a particular chemical), or general populations (geographically defined or sociologically defined). Whatever the population we are interested in, ideas come from observing either regularities or anomalies.

The observation of regularities (“induction”) is a common origin of new ideas. 4 , 10 – 13 Philosopher David Hume described “Induction” as: regularly seeing two things happening in succession (like pushing a switch and a light going on) leads to suspicions of causality. As he pointed out, causality can never be proven by the mere observation of “constant conjunctions”, but observing regularities can start our train of thought. 12

An anomaly (or irregularity) strikes our mind, because it defies our expectations. The regularity that we expected was our “hypothesis” (even if it was not really explicitly formulated); the anomaly is a “refutation”. 4 , 13 It forces us to think about other explanations, and these lead to new hypotheses that we then try to test. Thus, scientists do not usually start from hypotheses that are nicely formulated “out of the blue”, but instead start from previous knowledge and experience; when they are challenged by anomalies, scientists seek new explanations. 14

An interesting way to discover anomalies is to enter a new field of research; since you have other background experience than the people already in the field, you see things that they take for granted but that strike you as odd – at the same time, you may also see new explanations for these anomalies. One of the pioneers of clinical epidemiology, Sackett, once wrote that scientists should “retire” from a field as soon as they become “experts”. 15 When you are too long in a field, you will no longer see the anomalies, and you may even obstruct newcomers with new explanations. Of course, there are differences between scientists: some roam across various fields and others stick to a problem area that they explore with increasing depth – then the increasing depth and the new techniques that one needs for advancing one’s thoughts will be like a “new field”.

Taxonomies of discovery

Few researchers have listed the different ways in which one can arrive at new ideas, that is, lists of ways of discovery. We will present two of them – which have very different origins but remarkable similarities. Several examples of studies corresponding to items on these two lists are given in Appendix Examples A1–A10 .

Sources for new ideas about health care evaluation were described by Crombie and Davies in the chapter “Developing the research question” of their book on Research in Health Care that reflects a UK public health experience. 16

  • “Review existing practice […] the current organisation and delivery of health care is not as good as it could be […]”
  • “Challenge accepted ideas […] much of health care is based on accepted practice rather than research evidence […]” ( Appendix Example A3 )
  • “Look for conflicting views […] which indicate either that there is not enough evidence, or that some practitioners are misinformed”
  • “Investigate geographical variation […] reflecting on the reasons [for geographical variation] can be a fruitful source of research questions […]” ( Appendix Example A6 )
  • “Identify Cinderella topics […] important areas of health care are often overlooked […]”
  • “Let loose the imagination […] look for wild or impossible ideas […] free the mind from the constraints of conventional wisdom […].”

A taxonomy for sources of clinical research questions about medical care and clinical problems was proposed by Hulley and Cummings, in the context of clinical research in the US: 2

  • “Build on experience;” your own experience, that of close colleagues with whom you can freely discuss your research ideas, and that of a good mentor, because young researchers might not yet have much experience, “An essential strategy for a young investigator is to apprentice himself to an experienced senior scientist who has the time and interest to work with him regularly.”
  • ○ By harvesting “the medical literature and attending journal clubs, national and international meetings, seeking informal conversations with other scientists and colleagues”
  • ○ “A sceptical attitude about prevailing beliefs can stimulate good research questions”
  • ○ Be alert to “careful observation of patients, which has historically been one of the major sources of descriptive studies” ( Appendix Examples A1 and A2 )
  • ○ Your experiences in teaching; having to explain something may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge; questions by patients and colleagues may similarly identify things that we do not fully understand or ignore
  • “Keep the imagination roaming […]” by a mixture of creativity and tenacity; “put an unresolved question clearly in view and turn on the mental switch that lets the mind run freely toward it”.

A special mention needs to be made about the last categories of both the lists: “Let loose the imagination” and “Keep the imagination roaming”. These are especially important to find innovative solutions. In many situations wherein you cannot do a perfect study and you run a grave danger of potential confounding or bias, it helps to “get deeply immersed”: to understand the problem biologically, clinically, socially, organizationally, and environmentally will help you to think about what is happening, why it is happening, and whether you can find situations in which the potential confounders or biases do not exist or exists in reverse. You should forget formal designs and think out of the box: you will find instances of studies that mutually reinforce each other and may even arrive at formulating new designs or analytic solutions (see Appendix Examples A7–A10 ).

Keeping track of your ideas

It is not only important to have good ideas but also important to develop them. Researchers who work in laboratories have the habit of keeping “lab logs”. They write down briefly the results of an experiment, note why they think it went wrong, and how they will perform the next experiment. This permits them to trace how they changed the experiments or even the content and the direction of their research. We should do the same in epidemiologic and clinical research, particularly in the stage of creating new ideas. Such notes about ideas can include not only hypotheses and views or results by others but also drawing directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) (see “Intermezzo: specific schemes to structure reasoning” section) to make the causal structures of ideas clear.

The greatest minds kept track of their thoughts. Charles Darwin’s notebooks document his ideas, his observations, his readings, and new theories and facts that struck him. 17 For example, Darwin noted a story that he heard from his father, a medical practitioner. His father recounted that he had been struck by one of his patients’ ways of expressing himself, because he had attended a parent of the patient who had had the same mannerisms – even though the parent had died when the patient was still an infant. Remarks like these still have relevance today when we think about the heredity and evolution of behavior.

The sociologist C Wright Mills carried the description of the process one step further in the appendix of his book on The Sociological Imagination . 18 He encourages young sociologists to set up a file of stacked cards to keep track of “[…] personal experience and professional activities, studies underway and studies planned […]” which “[…] encourages you to capture ‘fringe thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, stretches of conversations […]”. These notes are continuously reshuffled, regrouped under new headings, and pondered. Mills denounced the habit of most (social) scientists who feel the need to write about their plans only when they are going to apply for a grant. He thought that scientists should continually work with their file of ideas and regularly take stock of how these have evolved.

Such strategies are still relevant today, even if our “logs” are kept in electronic form, particularly because grant writing has become more demanding, hectic, and time-consuming. From such files, new research projects are born: while your ideas gradually develop, you keep wondering what data you might need to prove a certain proposition, and how you might get those data in the easiest way possible. Often, ideas are reshuffled and regrouped under new headings. A new observation, a new piece of literature may make old ones fall into place, or there may suddenly be a new opportunity to work out an old idea.

A complementary advice recently came in a blog from a contemporary sociologist, Aldrich: his advice is to “Write as if you don’t have the data”, that is, to write “[…] the literature review and planning phase of a project, preferably before it has been locked into a specific research design”. 19

The role of emotions

Underlying the discovery process, there are often two emotions: “surprise” and “indignation”. Surprise is the intellectual emotion when we see something happening against expectation: a patient with an unusual exposure, unusual disease manifestation, sudden cure, or sudden ill-understood deterioration; a laboratory result that is an anomaly; and a sudden epidemic of disease in a population. Indignation is the moral emotion: a group of patients is not being treated well because we lack sufficient knowledge, or because we are blundering in organizing health care or in transmitting and applying public health knowledge. Some passion is useful to bring any undertaking to a good end, be it that the passion should be restrained and channeled into polite undertakings, like in a research protocol. While doing the research project, maintaining some of the original passion will help you to find ways to overcome the daily hassles of research, the misadventures, the difficulties of getting others to collaborate, and the difficulties of getting published ( Appendix Example A11 ).

Sharpening the research question: the pruning

Pruning a research question means cutting away anything that is unnecessary, so that only the essence remains.

The initial spark of an idea will usually lead to some rather general research question. Invariably, this is too ambitious, or so all-encompassing that it cannot be researched (at least not within the time frame of a single grant or PhD project). You have to refine your research question into something that is interesting, yet feasible. To do so, you have to know clearly where you are heading. The emphasis on a clear preconceived idea about what you want to attain by your research often comes as a surprise; some people object: “[…] isn’t research about discovery? How can you know in advance what you want to find?”

The social scientist Verschuren proposed the “wristwatch metaphor”. 20 A researcher is not like a beachcomber, who strolls along the beach to see whether anything valuable washed ashore. Rather, a researcher is like someone who has lost her wristwatch on the beach and returns to search for it. She knows what part of the beach to look, she can describe her wristwatch in detail, and once she has found it, she knows that this is the watch she was looking for. Some further background to these ideas can be found in Appendix B .

Charles Medawar wrote in his Advice to a Young Scientist (page 18) 21 that as much as politics is the ‘art of the possible’, research is the ‘art of the soluble’. A research question should be limited to a question that can be solved with the resources at hand. This does not mean that you should preferentially study “trivial” questions with easy solutions. It does mean that you should seek out your particular niche: something specific, something that was overlooked by others, or some new twist to a general question, so that you can make your own contribution.

The concept of “serendipity” is often invoked when thinking of “seeking novelty”: it means finding something that you were not looking for. For a full discussion of the more complex reality that shows how, in reality, “chance favors a prepared mind”, see Appendix C .

Proceed in the inverse order of the paper that you will write

From the aforementioned, we know that we need a precise aim and a soluble research question.

How can we achieve this? The best approach is to “begin at the end”, that is, the conclusion that you hope to support when you eventually publish your research findings, perhaps many years from now. 22 Most medical research papers have a fixed format: introduction, methods, results, discussion. Usually, the discussion has three parts: summary of the results, discussion of the strengths and limitations, and the importance and interpretation of the findings. There you start: you try to imagine what such last lines of the eventual paper might be – in particular what their intent, their message to the reader might be. Another useful strategy would be to imagine what might be written in the separate box “What this paper adds” that many journals nowadays ask to convey the message from the authors clearly and succinctly to the readers.

The “latent” versus the “stated” objective

The pioneer clinical epidemiologist Feinstein wrote that a good research consultant should be like a good clinician, who first wants to learn from the patient: “What is the chief complaint?”, that is, which is the problem that you want to study. Next, “What will you do with the answer?” 22 The latter question is not just about the potential conclusions of the research paper, but more importantly, their meaning. What is the intended effect (or impact) of the findings? He called this the “latent objective”: what do you want to achieve or change by your project; the “stated objective” is different, it is the type of result that the study will deliver. For example, the stated objective can be that you want to do a randomized trial to compare one intervention versus another and that you will look at recurrence of disease. The latent objective might be that you are concerned that one intervention may be harmful to patients, driven by special interests, and that if this is the case it should be abolished.

Rather analogously, the long-time editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine , Edward Huth, proposed in his book about medical publishing the “So-What” and the “Who-Cares” tests: “What may happen if the paper’s message is correct?”; may it change concepts and treatment or stimulate further exciting research? 23 In fact, many funders now require such an “impact statement” as part of the grant application process.

Experienced research consultants know that when trying to discover the latent objective, it is useful to brush aside the detailed protocol and to ask directly what the meaning of the research is. The meaning of the research is often not clearly stated in a formal study protocol that limits itself more or less to “stated aims”. 24 Like a patient who cannot articulate her/his complaints very well, would-be researchers lose themselves in trivial “side issues” or operational details of the protocol. Appendix Examples A2 and A11 explain the importance of elucidating the underlying frustration of the clinician-researcher to clearly guide a research effort.

After initial questions have set the scene and clarified the “latent objective” of a project, the next questions are more operational, translating the latent objective back into a “stated objective”. 22 The stated objective should be a feasible research project. According to Feinstein, one should ask: what maneuver is to be executed (what intervention, deliberate or not, and how is it administered), what groups are to be compared (and why those groups), and what is the outcome that we will study?

In these phases of discussion, one needs to immerse oneself into the problem: one has to understand it biologically and clinically, and how it is dealt with in the daily practice of health care in the setting in which you will do research. Getting deeply immersed in the problem is the only way of arriving at shrewd or new solutions for studies on vexing medical or public health problems ( Appendix Example A9 ). Mere discussion of technical or procedural aspects of a proposed design, data collection, or analysis will usually not lead to new insights.

Specific pruning questions, to ask yourself or others

In initial discussions, one goes back and forth between the general aim (the latent objective), the scientific questions that follow from it, and the possible research designs (with stated objectives). After feeling secure about the “latent” aim, proceed with more specific questions.

  • Try to describe exactly the knowledge gap that you want to fill (ie, the watch that you lost at the beach). Is it about etiology, about pathogenesis, about prognosis? What should change for the benefit of a particular group of patients? Try to be as specific as possible. Do your colleagues see these problems and their solutions as you do? – and if not, why don’t they?
  • Once you know the point you want to make, describe what table or figure you need to fill the gap in knowledge, that is, what would your results look like? This means drawing a simple table or graph. Are these the data you want? Will these tables convince your colleagues? What objections might they have? Keep in mind that if the research results go against ingrained beliefs, they will be scrutinized mercilessly, so the important aspects of your research should be able to withstand likely objections.
  • Thereafter, the questions become more practical: what study design is needed to produce this table, this figure? Can we do this? Do we have the resources or can we find them?

Be self-critical

You should always remain self-critical about the aspects that threaten the validity of your study ( Appendix Example A12 ). 25 If the practical problems are too large, or the research question too unfeasibly grandiose, it might be wise to settle for a less ambitious aim ( Appendix Example A13 ).

Paraphrasing Miettinen, 26 the first decision is whether you should do the study at all. There might be several reasons to decide not to pursue a study. One might be that arriving at a satisfactory design will be impossible, because of biases that you are unable to solve. It serves no purpose to add another study that suffers from the same unsolved problems as previous studies. For example, it does not serve any purpose to do yet another study that shows lower mortality in vegetarians, if you cannot solve the problems of confounding that vegetarians are persons who have different lifestyles in comparison with others. 27 (If, however, you have found a solution – pursue it at all means!) Nevertheless, thinking about the potential problems and ultimate aims of a seemingly impossible question can foster the development of a new study design or a new method of analysis, ( Appendix Examples A2, A9, and A10 ). In the same vein, deciding that you cannot do a study yourself might make you look for collaboration with persons who have the type of data that you do not, for example, in a different population where it is believed that confounding is not so severe or may even be in the opposite direction.

All studies have imperfections, but you need to be aware which ones you can tolerate. 28 In the early stages of an enquiry, an “imperfect” study might still be worthwhile to see whether “there might be something in it”. For example, time trends or ecological comparisons are often seen as poor study designs to assess causality by themselves, but they can be very valuable in helping to develop ideas, as well as providing a “reality check” about the potential credibility of some hypothesis. 29

Conversely, it is pointless to add yet another study, however perfect, showing what is already known very well – unless you have to do it for “political” purposes, say, for convincing decision makers in your own country.

Finally, it is not a good use of your time to chase something completely improbable or futile. For example, at the present state of the debate, it serves no purpose to add another study about the presence or absence of clinical benefits or harms of homeopathy: no one will change his or her mind about the issue. 30 , 31 An exception might be something that is highly improbable, but that if true might lead to completely revolutionary insights – such an idea might be worth pursuing, even if the initial reaction of outsiders might remain incredulousness. Still, you should pursue unlikely hypotheses knowingly, that is, with the right amount of self-criticism – in particular, to make yourself aware when you are in a blind alley.

To keep yourself on the “straight and narrow”, it helps to form a group of people who cover different aspects of the problem you want to study: clinical, biochemical and physiological, and methodological – to discuss the project as equals. Such discussions can not only be tremendous fun but also will invariably lead to more profound and diverse research questions and will help to find solutions for practical as well as theoretical problems. In the right circumstances of a “machtsfreie Dialog” 32 (a communication in which all are equal and that is only based on rational arguments and not on power – which all scientific debates should be), such a circle of colleagues and friends will help you to be self-critical.

Finally, when pursuing one’s research interests, one should be prepared to learn new skills from other fields or collaborate with others from these fields. If one stays only with the techniques and skills that one knows, it might not lead to the desired answers. 33

What if the data already exist? And you are employed to do a particular analysis with an existing protocol?

Even in the circumstance that the data already exist, it greatly helps to not jump into an analysis, but to think for yourself what you would ideally like to do – if there were no constraints. As Aldrich mentioned, 19 also in that circumstance researchers should still

[…] begin their literature review and conceptual modeling as if they had the luxury of a blank slate […]. Writing without data constraints will, I believe, free their imaginations to range widely over the realm of possibilities, before they are brought to earth by practical necessities.

Moreover, this will make clear what compromises one will make by accepting the available data and the existing analysis protocol. Otherwise, one starts an analysis without being sufficiently aware of the limitations of a particular analysis on particular data.

The difference between explanatory and pragmatic research

A useful distinction is between explanatory and pragmatic research: the former is research that aims at discovery and explanation, whereas the latter is intended to evaluate interventions or diagnostic procedures. The first type of research consists of chasing explanations by pursuing different and evolving hypotheses; the second type of research aims at making decisions about actions in future patients. 27 The two opposites differ strongly in their thinking about the types of studies to pursue (eg, observational vs randomized), about the role of prior specification of a research hypothesis, about the need for “sticking to a prespecified protocol”, and about subgroup analyses and multiplicity of analyses. Some of these will be explained in the following subheadings.

The difference between explanatory and pragmatic trials is sometimes thought to mirror the difference between doing randomized trials versus observational research. However, even for randomized trials, a difference exists between “ pragmatic” and “explanatory” trials (coined first by Schwartz and Lellouch). 34 Because it is not always easy to delineate what aspects of a randomized trial are “pragmatic” or “explanatory”, instruments have been crafted to help researchers and evaluators. 35 , 36 Conversely, not all observational studies are explanatory: some are needed for pragmatic decisions (think about adverse effects of drugs and also about diagnostic evaluations where studies should influence practice guidelines) – while other studies aim at explaining how nature works.

Which iterations should you allow yourself? Anticipating the next project

Thinking about a research problem is a strongly iterative process. 2 , 33 , 37 One starts with a broad aim and then tries out several possible ideas about studies that might lead to better understanding or to better solutions.

Likewise, project proposals characteristically go through many iterations. In the early phases of the research, it is commonplace that the study design or even the research question is changed. Specific suggestions about common research problems and their potential solutions were given by Hulley and Cummings, 2 which we reproduce in Appendix D .

The revision of the aims of a project may be profound, in particular in explanatory research (see “The difference between explanatory and pragmatic research” section), in contrast to pragmatic research (see “Shouldn’t you stick to a predefined protocol?” section). The chemist Whitesides wrote: “Often the objectives of a paper when it is finished are different from those used to justify starting the work. Much of good science is opportunistic and revisionist”. 38 Along a similar line, Medawar proposed that to do justice to the real thought processes of a research undertaking, the discussion section of a paper should come at the beginning, since the thought processes of a scientist start with an expectation about particular results. The expectation determines which findings are of interest and why they will be interpreted in a particular way. 6 He added that in real scientific life, scientists get new ideas (ie, new expectations) while doing their research, but “[…] many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their mind along uncharted byways of thought”. 6

“Seeing something in the data” can be an important part of scientific discovery. This is often decried as “data dredging”, which it is not: one sees something because of one’s background knowledge and thereby there always is some “prior” that exists – even if that was not specified beforehand in the study protocol. 27 , 39 The word “exploratory” is often misused when it is used to characterize a study. True “exploratory” data analysis would only exists if it is mindlessly done, such as a Genome Wide Association Study (GWAS) analysis – but even GWAS analyses have specific aims, which becomes clear when results are interpreted and some findings are designated as “important” and others not. As stated by Rothman:

Hypotheses are not generated by data; they are proposed by scientists. The process by which scientists use their imagination to create hypotheses has no formal methodology […]. Any study, whether considered exploratory or not, can serve to refute a hypothesis. 40

Appendix Examples A5 and A7 show how projects changed mid-course because of a new discovery in the data or in the background knowledge about a research topic.

Generally, it is a good habit to think through what the next project might be, once you will have the result of the project you are currently thinking about, so as to know what direction your research might take. 33

Shouldn’t you stick to a predefined protocol?

Different research aims, in particular along the “explanatory” versus “pragmatic” continuum, may lead to different attitudes on the amount of change that protocols may endure while doing research. 27 , 39 For randomized trials, and also for pragmatic observational research, the research question is usually fixed: does a new therapy lead to better outcomes for a particular group of patients in a particular setting? Because findings from randomized trials or pragmatic observational research may lead to millions of patients to adopt or avoid a particular therapy (which means that their well-being or even life depends on the research) researchers are generally not at liberty to change their hypotheses at the last moment – for example, by suddenly declaring an interest in a particular subgroup. They should stick to the predefined protocol. If a change is needed for practical reasons, it should be clearly stated in the resulting publications. This makes thinking about research questions and doing pilot studies beforehand all the more important (see “Pilot Study” section).

In contrast, much epidemiologic and clinical research tries to explain how nature works. This gives greater leeway: exploration of data can lead to new insights. Thus, “sticking to the protocol” is a good rule for randomized trials and pragmatic observational research, but may be counterproductive for explanatory research. 39 , 41 Nevertheless, it is good to keep track of the changes in your thoughts and in the protocol, even if only for yourself. In practice, many situations are intermediate; in particular when using large available data sets, it often happens that one envisages in a protocol what one would do with the data, only to discover upon opening the data files that the data fall short or are more complex than imagined; this is another reason for doing pilot studies, even with large available data sets (see “Pilot Study” section).

How much literature should you read?

If you are setting up a new research project in a new area, do not start by reading too much. You will quickly drown in the ideas of others. Rather, read a few general reviews that identify unanswered problems. Only return to the literature after you have defined your research question and provisionally your study design. Now, the literature suddenly becomes extremely interesting, since you know what types of papers you need. You also know what the potential objections and shortcomings are of the different design options, because you thought about them yourself. The number of relevant papers usually greatly shrinks, see Appendix Example A4 .

Shouldn’t you do a systematic review first?

It is argued that before embarking on a new piece of research, one should first do a systematic review and/or meta-analysis, because this may help to define the gaps in knowledge more precisely, and guide new research – or may show that the question has been solved. This argument is somewhat circular. A systematic review is a piece of research in itself, intended for publication, and requires much time and effort. Like any piece of research, it requires a clear research question. As such it does not “identify gaps”: a systematic review is about a research question which is already specified, but for which more information is needed. Thus, the main function of the advice to first do a systematic review is to know whether the research question that one has in mind has not yet been solved by others. Perusing the literature in depth is absolutely needed, for example, before embarking on a randomized trial or on a major observational study. However, this is not the same as doing a formal systematic review. In-depth scoping of the literature will suffice. If it is found that potentially valuable studies already exist on the research question that one has in mind, then the new study that one is thinking about may be discarded, and a systematic review should be done instead.

Intermezzo: specific schemes to structure reasoning

Specific schemes have been proposed to guide our reasoning between the stage of delineation of the “gap in knowledge” and the stage of proposing the research design.

The acronym FINER (feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant) was coined by Hulley and Cummings 2 and denotes the different aspects that one should consider to judge a budding research proposal. These words are a good checklist for an in-depth self-scrutiny of your research. The central aspects are the feasibility and whether the possible answers are exciting (and/or much needed).

The PICO format (Patient, Intervention, Control or Comparison, Outcome) is advocated by the evidence-based medicine and Cochrane movements and is very useful for clinical therapeutic research, particularly randomized controlled trials (RCTs). 1 , 42 Questions about therapeutic interventions are highly specific, for example, a particular chemotherapeutic scheme (the intervention) is proposed to study survival (the outcome) among young women with a particular form of stage III breast cancer (the patients). This framework is less useful, and becomes a bit pointless, for etiologic research about generalizable questions such as: “Does smoking cause lung cancer?” which applies to all humans and to different types of smoking. Of course, all research will be done in particular population, with particular smoking habits, but this does not necessarily define the research question. Some of the first investigations about smoking and lung cancer were done in male doctors aged ≥35 years in the UK 43 – this was a very convenient group to research, but being a male doctor in the UK is not part of the research question.

The PICO format is thus most applicable for pragmatic research. A much more detailed and elaborate scheme for pragmatic research was proposed by the US Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) which has published Methodology Standards, including “Standards for Formulating Research Questions”. While we would not agree with all six standards, junior investigators may find the structure useful as they think through their options – especially for pragmatic research questions. 44

Counterfactual reasoning 3 emphasizes those aspects of the “ideal randomized trial” that should be mimicked by an observational study. A key question is whether your study is addressing a hypothesis that could in theory be studied in a randomized trial. For example, if the research question is “does smoking cause lung cancer?”, then this is a question that could in theory (but not in practice) be addressed by randomizing study participants to be smokers or nonsmokers. In this situation, it may be useful to design your observational study with the intention of obtaining the same answer that would have been obtained if you had been able to do a randomized trial.

However, the aims of explanatory observational research are different from those of randomized trials. 27 Explanatory research about disease etiology may involve “states” like being female, being old, being obese, having hypertension, having a high serum cholesterol, carrying the BrCa1 gene, and so on, as causes of disease. None of these causes are interventions. In contrast, RCTs focus on what to do to change particular causes: which interventions are feasible and work? For example, being female might expose a person to job discrimination; the intervention might be to have women on the appointment committee or to use some kind of positive discrimination. Likewise, the gene for phenylketonuria leads to disease, but the intervention is to change the diet. For carriers of BRCa1 genes, different strategies can be evaluated in RCTs to evaluate their effectiveness in preventing premature death due to breast cancer: frequent screening, prophylactic mastectomy, hormone treatment, and so on – which may have different effects. For obesity or hypertension or hypercholesterolemia, different types of interventions are possible – with potentially different effects and different adverse effects.

The interventionist outlook, that is, trying to mimic an RCT, can be very useful, for some type of observational studies, for example, about the adverse effects of drugs. It helps to make certain that one can mimic an “intervention” (ie, patients starting to use particular drugs) that is specific and consistent in groups of patients that are comparable (more technically, exchangeable – meaning that the results of the investigation would not change if the persons exposed and nonexposed were swapped). These conditions can be met in a credible way, if there are competing drugs for a similar indication, so that there is an active drug comparator: the interventions (use of different drugs in different patients) will be well defined, and the patients on the different drugs will tend to be comparable. This works particularly well if you are focusing on adverse drug effects that were unknown or unpredictable at the time of prescription. 45 , 46 For example, you may obtain more valid findings in a study that compares the adverse effects of two different beta agonists for asthma care (ie, two different drugs within the same class), than to design a study which compares patients who are prescribed beta agonists with patients who are prescribed other asthma medication, or no medication at all – because the latter might be a highly different group of patients. 47

As mentioned, there are some important studies about causes of diseases where a randomized trial is not feasible, even in theory. In particular, there are various “states” which are major causes of disease (obesity, cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, etc). These states strongly affect the risks of disease and death, but cannot be randomized. For example, it is difficult to conceive of randomizing study participants to be obese or not obese; however, we could randomize them for the reduction of obesity, for example, through exercise, but such a study would assess the effects of a particular intervention, not of obesity itself. Still, it remains important to estimate the overall effects of obesity, that is, to answer the question “would this group of people have had different health status, on the average, if they had not been obese”. In this situation, the concept of “interventions” is not relevant to designing your study (at least in the way that the term “intervention” is commonly used). What is more relevant is simply to focus on the counterfactual contrast which is being assessed (eg, a body mass index [BMI] of 35 versus a BMI of 25), without specifying how this contrast came about.

A technique that has gone hand in hand with counterfactual reasoning in epidemiology is drawing DAGs; several introductions to DAG theory can be found in epidemiologic textbooks. 3 , 48 DAGs can be useful in the brainstorming phase of a study, after the general research question has been defined. At this stage, a general structure for the study is envisaged and the complexity of the causal processes needs clarification. A DAG can be extremely useful for illustrating the context in which a causal question is being asked, the assumptions that will be involved in the analyses (eg, whether a particular risk factor is a confounder, a mediator, or a col-lider), and help us question the validity of our reasoning. 49 Using DAGs helps us also decide which variables we need to collect information on and how they should be measured and defined. Given that DAGs root in causal thinking, their construction is, of necessity, subjective.

Preparation: pilot study, protocol, and advance writing

Doing a pilot study and collecting ancillary information about feasibility.

May I now start? is a question heard after lengthy deliberations about the research question and the potential studies that follow from it. Such deliberations almost invariably produce a lot of enthusiasm and exhilaration – because they are fun. The researcher wants to begin collecting data or start the analysis. However, Crombie and Davies, in their chapter about “Developing the research question” state emphatically: “Don’t rush into a study”. 16 Separate from doing a pilot study, which is about the procedures of your study, you may also need to collect ancillary information before actually starting your study.

Pilot study

Even if you think you are totally certain of what you want, you should first do a pilot study, based on a brief protocol. 2 , 22 That initial protocol should be easy to write. You have already discussed the aim and design of your study. Write them down. You expect a particular type of information that is essential and that will tell the essence of your message (a particular 2-by-2 or X-by-Y table, a particular graph), which you can describe.

Pilot studies are not done to know the likely direction of the results; instead, the aim is to see whether you will be able to perform the procedures of your study – and ultimately whether that really is the study you want to do. 50 The aim is to save yourself from embarrassment: data that very surprisingly do not turn out to be what you expected, questionnaires that are misunderstood or do not deliver the answers that you need or that are not returned, laboratories that do not produce, patients who do not show up, heads of other departments who block access to their patients or materials, or yourself who needs more time to manage the complexity of the undertaking.

We have never heard of someone who was sorry for having done a pilot. Conversely, we know many persons who found out at much personal embarrassment and institutional cost that their project was unfeasible. In intermediate cases, the pilot may show the need to change questionnaires or procedures before the study goes ahead.

In principle, a pilot study should be exactly like your final study and test out all your procedures on a small number of persons. Often, it is better to approach the task piecemeal and pilot different aspects of the research one by one.

A tough question is how to do pilot studies and pilot analyses when ethical or institutional review board approval is necessary for some of the actions in a pilot study. One solution might be to avoid piloting some procedures; for example, try parts of the procedure – for example, you may not be able to randomize in a pilot, but you may be able to try out data collection procedures and forms. There is a degree of circularity about piloting, also in obtaining funding, as one may need funding for the pilot. In practice, the best step might be to ask the ethics committee or review board of your institute which aspects of the research can be piloted and under what conditions.

In Appendix E , several questions that you might ask in pilot studies are listed. They may lead to profound reassessments of your research – particularly if you are piloting the collection of new data, but also if the research involves analyses of existing data.

Ancillary information

It may be necessary to collect additional information about event rates or standard deviations of measurements to calculate the statistical precision that might be obtained. Also, sometimes you need other ways of “testing the water” like procedures to streamlining data collection from different centers in order to know whether the study is feasible. Depending on the study size and importance, such activities may become studies in themselves and actually take a lot of time and money.

Advance writing of paper: before full data collection and/or analysis

Whitesides’ advice is:

The key to efficient use of your and my time is that we start exchanging outlines and proposals as early in a project as possible. Do not, under any circumstances, wait until the collection of data is ‘complete’ before starting to write an outline. 38

After the pilot study, you have a firm grasp of all elements that are necessary for a scientific paper: introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion. In the introduction, you explain why you have done this research. Almost always, an introduction comprises three ideas: what is the general problem? what is the particular research question? what study will you perform to answer that question? This is followed by the materials and methods section. They have been extensively discussed and have been fine-tuned in the study protocol and the pilot study. Thereafter come the results sections. By now, you know what tables or figures you want and how you can obtain them, but not what the final numbers will look like. You will also have an idea about the auxiliary tables that you might need to explain your data to others (such as a table with the baseline characteristics or an additional table with a subgroup analysis). You can now draft the layouts of all these tables. Visualizing the presentation of your results in advance is the “bare minimum” of writing in advance.

Finally, the discussion section. Can you write a discussion before you know the final data? Of course you can; you even must think ahead. In principle, there are only three possible outcomes: the study can give the results that you hoped for; it can show the inverse; or something indeterminate in between. In all instances, you can imagine how you will react. One possibility is that you are disappointed by the results of your study, and you will tend to find excuses for why it did not produce the results you hoped for. What excuses might your produce? The other possibility is that it does show what you wanted; then you may have to imagine how others will react and what their objections might be. If the results are indeterminate, everybody might be disappointed, and you will need to explain the failure of your research to give clear-cut results. When you detect a specific weakness by imagining this situation, you may wish to change aspects of your study.

As we explain in Appendix F , there is no need to write a very extensive paper as a first draft – on the contrary, it might be more useful to write a short paper, which has the advantage that others will more readily read it and comment on it.

Never be afraid to discuss your study at all stages extensively with others, not only your immediate research colleagues but also semi-outsiders and also in this advance-writing stage. If you know, or are told by others, that a particular direction of your results might not be believed and therefore draw criticism because of some potential deficiency in your study, why not remedy it at this stage? Looking at what you have written, or by discussing potential results with others, you will be able to imagine more clearly what your readers and critical colleagues might object to.

Writing a paper beforehand is the ultimate test of whether the research project is what you wanted, whether your reasoning flows logically, or whether you forgot something. The initial draft will be a yardstick for yourself and for others – whatever happens during the course of your research. This will help you to surmount surprise happenings: you have written down where you started and why, and therefore you will also know very securely when and why you have to take a detour – or even a U-turn.

Writing is difficult and time-consuming. Writing a paper can easily take 5–10 revisions, which might span a full year (inclusive of the time it takes your supervisor or your colleagues to produce comments). During the writing, you will often be obliged to go back to the data and do additional or different analyses. Since your paper will need many revisions, and this will take such a long time, why not take a head-start at the beginning of your data collection? It will save frustration and lost time at the end of your project.

Many guidelines and advices exist about writing, both about the substance (how to use words and phrases) and about the process. All beginning researchers should have a look at some books and papers about writing, and seasoned researchers can still profit from rereading them. Several reporting guidelines exist for several types of studies (RCTs, observational, diagnostic research, etc). They are often very detailed, in describing what should be in title, abstract, and so on. Although they should not be mechanically adhered to, 28 they help writing. In Appendix F , we have collected some wisdom that we particularly liked; several books on writing are listed, as well as reporting guidelines that help researchers to craft papers that are readable and contain all the information that is necessary and useful to others.

Now you can start “your research”

After the piloting and after having written your paper, you are ready to start your data collection, your analysis, or whatever is needed to “do your research”.

The work that is needed before you can start to “do your research” will take a great deal of time and effort. What will you have achieved after setting up a piece of research following the lengthy and involved precepts of this paper? You will have specified a limited research question that you will solve. You will add one little shining stone to the large mosaic of science. At the time that you do the study, you may still be too close to see its effect on the overall picture. That will come over the years.

Further reading

Some texts that we mention in the paper might be especially worthwhile for further reading; see Appendix G .


We thank Miguel Hernán, Stuart Pocock, and Bianca De Stavola for their informative comments on an earlier draft manuscript, as well as two anonymous reviewers of Clinical Epidemiology . The Centre for Global NCDs is supported by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (097834/Z/11/B). This work was also supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013 / ERC grant agreement number 668954).

The authors report no conflicts of interest in this work.

15 Steps to Good Research

  • Define and articulate a research question (formulate a research hypothesis). How to Write a Thesis Statement (Indiana University)
  • Identify possible sources of information in many types and formats. Georgetown University Library's Research & Course Guides
  • Judge the scope of the project.
  • Reevaluate the research question based on the nature and extent of information available and the parameters of the research project.
  • Select the most appropriate investigative methods (surveys, interviews, experiments) and research tools (periodical indexes, databases, websites).
  • Plan the research project. Writing Anxiety (UNC-Chapel Hill) Strategies for Academic Writing (SUNY Empire State College)
  • Retrieve information using a variety of methods (draw on a repertoire of skills).
  • Refine the search strategy as necessary.
  • Write and organize useful notes and keep track of sources. Taking Notes from Research Reading (University of Toronto) Use a citation manager: Zotero or Refworks
  • Evaluate sources using appropriate criteria. Evaluating Internet Sources
  • Synthesize, analyze and integrate information sources and prior knowledge. Georgetown University Writing Center
  • Revise hypothesis as necessary.
  • Use information effectively for a specific purpose.
  • Understand such issues as plagiarism, ownership of information (implications of copyright to some extent), and costs of information. Georgetown University Honor Council Copyright Basics (Purdue University) How to Recognize Plagiarism: Tutorials and Tests from Indiana University
  • Cite properly and give credit for sources of ideas. MLA Bibliographic Form (7th edition, 2009) MLA Bibliographic Form (8th edition, 2016) Turabian Bibliographic Form: Footnote/Endnote Turabian Bibliographic Form: Parenthetical Reference Use a citation manager: Zotero or Refworks

Adapted from the Association of Colleges and Research Libraries "Objectives for Information Literacy Instruction" , which are more complete and include outcomes. See also the broader "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education."

When Should I Begin My Research?

The first thing that most students learn in graduate school is that taking classes is fun, and teaching is rewarding, but research is hard and sometimes frustrating. Therefore, there is a tendency to focus on the first two legs, and put off either the initiation or the completion of the third. This is a mistake; all graduate students should be involved in research from the first month of their graduate careers. If you do not yet have a clear idea for a research project, ask your advisor -- they will help you find a project. As you progress through the program, you will become increasingly independent of your advisor. However, science is necessarily a collaborative enterprise, and it is the rare (and not necessarily the most successful) student whose dissertation is entirely independent of other work going on in her/his/their advisor’s laboratory. Most of your research will be conducted in collaboration with your advisor, but it is a good idea to do some research with someone else in the program. It broadens you intellectually.

The Department requires a second-year research project of all students, but you should be involved in research at some level during your first year as well – not least because it takes more than one year to get a research project off the ground and see it through to fruition. The purpose of the requirement is to ensure that students are involved in research throughout their careers as graduate students. Accordingly, the second-year project should reflect work done at Berkeley since the time of your matriculation in the doctoral program.

Note that it often takes two years to complete even the simplest study. Accordingly, do not put the initiation of your second-year project off until the end of the first semester of your second year. You should have a clear idea of what you are going to do before the end of your first year, so you can complete data collection, analyze your data, and write the project up before the end of your second year. It may seem silly to say so, but do not plan on a five-year longitudinal follow-up study for your second-year project.

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What Is Research, and Why Do People Do It?

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Part of the book series: Research in Mathematics Education ((RME))

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Abstractspiepr Abs1

Every day people do research as they gather information to learn about something of interest. In the scientific world, however, research means something different than simply gathering information. Scientific research is characterized by its careful planning and observing, by its relentless efforts to understand and explain, and by its commitment to learn from everyone else seriously engaged in research. We call this kind of research scientific inquiry and define it as “formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses.” By “hypotheses” we do not mean the hypotheses you encounter in statistics courses. We mean predictions about what you expect to find and rationales for why you made these predictions. Throughout this and the remaining chapters we make clear that the process of scientific inquiry applies to all kinds of research studies and data, both qualitative and quantitative.

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Part I. What Is Research?

Have you ever studied something carefully because you wanted to know more about it? Maybe you wanted to know more about your grandmother’s life when she was younger so you asked her to tell you stories from her childhood, or maybe you wanted to know more about a fertilizer you were about to use in your garden so you read the ingredients on the package and looked them up online. According to the dictionary definition, you were doing research.

Recall your high school assignments asking you to “research” a topic. The assignment likely included consulting a variety of sources that discussed the topic, perhaps including some “original” sources. Often, the teacher referred to your product as a “research paper.”

Were you conducting research when you interviewed your grandmother or wrote high school papers reviewing a particular topic? Our view is that you were engaged in part of the research process, but only a small part. In this book, we reserve the word “research” for what it means in the scientific world, that is, for scientific research or, more pointedly, for scientific inquiry .

Exercise 1.1

Before you read any further, write a definition of what you think scientific inquiry is. Keep it short—Two to three sentences. You will periodically update this definition as you read this chapter and the remainder of the book.

This book is about scientific inquiry—what it is and how to do it. For starters, scientific inquiry is a process, a particular way of finding out about something that involves a number of phases. Each phase of the process constitutes one aspect of scientific inquiry. You are doing scientific inquiry as you engage in each phase, but you have not done scientific inquiry until you complete the full process. Each phase is necessary but not sufficient.

In this chapter, we set the stage by defining scientific inquiry—describing what it is and what it is not—and by discussing what it is good for and why people do it. The remaining chapters build directly on the ideas presented in this chapter.

A first thing to know is that scientific inquiry is not all or nothing. “Scientificness” is a continuum. Inquiries can be more scientific or less scientific. What makes an inquiry more scientific? You might be surprised there is no universally agreed upon answer to this question. None of the descriptors we know of are sufficient by themselves to define scientific inquiry. But all of them give you a way of thinking about some aspects of the process of scientific inquiry. Each one gives you different insights.

An image of the book's description with the words like research, science, and inquiry and what the word research meant in the scientific world.

Exercise 1.2

As you read about each descriptor below, think about what would make an inquiry more or less scientific. If you think a descriptor is important, use it to revise your definition of scientific inquiry.

Creating an Image of Scientific Inquiry

We will present three descriptors of scientific inquiry. Each provides a different perspective and emphasizes a different aspect of scientific inquiry. We will draw on all three descriptors to compose our definition of scientific inquiry.

Descriptor 1. Experience Carefully Planned in Advance

Sir Ronald Fisher, often called the father of modern statistical design, once referred to research as “experience carefully planned in advance” (1935, p. 8). He said that humans are always learning from experience, from interacting with the world around them. Usually, this learning is haphazard rather than the result of a deliberate process carried out over an extended period of time. Research, Fisher said, was learning from experience, but experience carefully planned in advance.

This phrase can be fully appreciated by looking at each word. The fact that scientific inquiry is based on experience means that it is based on interacting with the world. These interactions could be thought of as the stuff of scientific inquiry. In addition, it is not just any experience that counts. The experience must be carefully planned . The interactions with the world must be conducted with an explicit, describable purpose, and steps must be taken to make the intended learning as likely as possible. This planning is an integral part of scientific inquiry; it is not just a preparation phase. It is one of the things that distinguishes scientific inquiry from many everyday learning experiences. Finally, these steps must be taken beforehand and the purpose of the inquiry must be articulated in advance of the experience. Clearly, scientific inquiry does not happen by accident, by just stumbling into something. Stumbling into something unexpected and interesting can happen while engaged in scientific inquiry, but learning does not depend on it and serendipity does not make the inquiry scientific.

Descriptor 2. Observing Something and Trying to Explain Why It Is the Way It Is

When we were writing this chapter and googled “scientific inquiry,” the first entry was: “Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” The emphasis is on studying, or observing, and then explaining . This descriptor takes the image of scientific inquiry beyond carefully planned experience and includes explaining what was experienced.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “explain” means “(a) to make known, (b) to make plain or understandable, (c) to give the reason or cause of, and (d) to show the logical development or relations of” (Merriam-Webster, n.d. ). We will use all these definitions. Taken together, they suggest that to explain an observation means to understand it by finding reasons (or causes) for why it is as it is. In this sense of scientific inquiry, the following are synonyms: explaining why, understanding why, and reasoning about causes and effects. Our image of scientific inquiry now includes planning, observing, and explaining why.

An image represents the observation required in the scientific inquiry including planning and explaining.

We need to add a final note about this descriptor. We have phrased it in a way that suggests “observing something” means you are observing something in real time—observing the way things are or the way things are changing. This is often true. But, observing could mean observing data that already have been collected, maybe by someone else making the original observations (e.g., secondary analysis of NAEP data or analysis of existing video recordings of classroom instruction). We will address secondary analyses more fully in Chap. 4 . For now, what is important is that the process requires explaining why the data look like they do.

We must note that for us, the term “data” is not limited to numerical or quantitative data such as test scores. Data can also take many nonquantitative forms, including written survey responses, interview transcripts, journal entries, video recordings of students, teachers, and classrooms, text messages, and so forth.

An image represents the data explanation as it is not limited and takes numerous non-quantitative forms including an interview, journal entries, etc.

Exercise 1.3

What are the implications of the statement that just “observing” is not enough to count as scientific inquiry? Does this mean that a detailed description of a phenomenon is not scientific inquiry?

Find sources that define research in education that differ with our position, that say description alone, without explanation, counts as scientific research. Identify the precise points where the opinions differ. What are the best arguments for each of the positions? Which do you prefer? Why?

Descriptor 3. Updating Everyone’s Thinking in Response to More and Better Information

This descriptor focuses on a third aspect of scientific inquiry: updating and advancing the field’s understanding of phenomena that are investigated. This descriptor foregrounds a powerful characteristic of scientific inquiry: the reliability (or trustworthiness) of what is learned and the ultimate inevitability of this learning to advance human understanding of phenomena. Humans might choose not to learn from scientific inquiry, but history suggests that scientific inquiry always has the potential to advance understanding and that, eventually, humans take advantage of these new understandings.

Before exploring these bold claims a bit further, note that this descriptor uses “information” in the same way the previous two descriptors used “experience” and “observations.” These are the stuff of scientific inquiry and we will use them often, sometimes interchangeably. Frequently, we will use the term “data” to stand for all these terms.

An overriding goal of scientific inquiry is for everyone to learn from what one scientist does. Much of this book is about the methods you need to use so others have faith in what you report and can learn the same things you learned. This aspect of scientific inquiry has many implications.

One implication is that scientific inquiry is not a private practice. It is a public practice available for others to see and learn from. Notice how different this is from everyday learning. When you happen to learn something from your everyday experience, often only you gain from the experience. The fact that research is a public practice means it is also a social one. It is best conducted by interacting with others along the way: soliciting feedback at each phase, taking opportunities to present work-in-progress, and benefitting from the advice of others.

A second implication is that you, as the researcher, must be committed to sharing what you are doing and what you are learning in an open and transparent way. This allows all phases of your work to be scrutinized and critiqued. This is what gives your work credibility. The reliability or trustworthiness of your findings depends on your colleagues recognizing that you have used all appropriate methods to maximize the chances that your claims are justified by the data.

A third implication of viewing scientific inquiry as a collective enterprise is the reverse of the second—you must be committed to receiving comments from others. You must treat your colleagues as fair and honest critics even though it might sometimes feel otherwise. You must appreciate their job, which is to remain skeptical while scrutinizing what you have done in considerable detail. To provide the best help to you, they must remain skeptical about your conclusions (when, for example, the data are difficult for them to interpret) until you offer a convincing logical argument based on the information you share. A rather harsh but good-to-remember statement of the role of your friendly critics was voiced by Karl Popper, a well-known twentieth century philosopher of science: “. . . if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can” (Popper, 1968, p. 27).

A final implication of this third descriptor is that, as someone engaged in scientific inquiry, you have no choice but to update your thinking when the data support a different conclusion. This applies to your own data as well as to those of others. When data clearly point to a specific claim, even one that is quite different than you expected, you must reconsider your position. If the outcome is replicated multiple times, you need to adjust your thinking accordingly. Scientific inquiry does not let you pick and choose which data to believe; it mandates that everyone update their thinking when the data warrant an update.

Doing Scientific Inquiry

We define scientific inquiry in an operational sense—what does it mean to do scientific inquiry? What kind of process would satisfy all three descriptors: carefully planning an experience in advance; observing and trying to explain what you see; and, contributing to updating everyone’s thinking about an important phenomenon?

We define scientific inquiry as formulating , testing , and revising hypotheses about phenomena of interest.

Of course, we are not the only ones who define it in this way. The definition for the scientific method posted by the editors of Britannica is: “a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments” (Britannica, n.d. ).

An image represents the scientific inquiry definition given by the editors of Britannica and also defines the hypothesis on the basis of the experiments.

Notice how defining scientific inquiry this way satisfies each of the descriptors. “Carefully planning an experience in advance” is exactly what happens when formulating a hypothesis about a phenomenon of interest and thinking about how to test it. “ Observing a phenomenon” occurs when testing a hypothesis, and “ explaining ” what is found is required when revising a hypothesis based on the data. Finally, “updating everyone’s thinking” comes from comparing publicly the original with the revised hypothesis.

Doing scientific inquiry, as we have defined it, underscores the value of accumulating knowledge rather than generating random bits of knowledge. Formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses is an ongoing process, with each revised hypothesis begging for another test, whether by the same researcher or by new researchers. The editors of Britannica signaled this cyclic process by adding the following phrase to their definition of the scientific method: “The modified hypothesis is then retested, further modified, and tested again.” Scientific inquiry creates a process that encourages each study to build on the studies that have gone before. Through collective engagement in this process of building study on top of study, the scientific community works together to update its thinking.

Before exploring more fully the meaning of “formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses,” we need to acknowledge that this is not the only way researchers define research. Some researchers prefer a less formal definition, one that includes more serendipity, less planning, less explanation. You might have come across more open definitions such as “research is finding out about something.” We prefer the tighter hypothesis formulation, testing, and revision definition because we believe it provides a single, coherent map for conducting research that addresses many of the thorny problems educational researchers encounter. We believe it is the most useful orientation toward research and the most helpful to learn as a beginning researcher.

A final clarification of our definition is that it applies equally to qualitative and quantitative research. This is a familiar distinction in education that has generated much discussion. You might think our definition favors quantitative methods over qualitative methods because the language of hypothesis formulation and testing is often associated with quantitative methods. In fact, we do not favor one method over another. In Chap. 4 , we will illustrate how our definition fits research using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods.

Exercise 1.4

Look for ways to extend what the field knows in an area that has already received attention by other researchers. Specifically, you can search for a program of research carried out by more experienced researchers that has some revised hypotheses that remain untested. Identify a revised hypothesis that you might like to test.

Unpacking the Terms Formulating, Testing, and Revising Hypotheses

To get a full sense of the definition of scientific inquiry we will use throughout this book, it is helpful to spend a little time with each of the key terms.

We first want to make clear that we use the term “hypothesis” as it is defined in most dictionaries and as it used in many scientific fields rather than as it is usually defined in educational statistics courses. By “hypothesis,” we do not mean a null hypothesis that is accepted or rejected by statistical analysis. Rather, we use “hypothesis” in the sense conveyed by the following definitions: “An idea or explanation for something that is based on known facts but has not yet been proved” (Cambridge University Press, n.d. ), and “An unproved theory, proposition, or supposition, tentatively accepted to explain certain facts and to provide a basis for further investigation or argument” (Agnes & Guralnik, 2008 ).

We distinguish two parts to “hypotheses.” Hypotheses consist of predictions and rationales . Predictions are statements about what you expect to find when you inquire about something. Rationales are explanations for why you made the predictions you did, why you believe your predictions are correct. So, for us “formulating hypotheses” means making explicit predictions and developing rationales for the predictions.

“Testing hypotheses” means making observations that allow you to assess in what ways your predictions were correct and in what ways they were incorrect. In education research, it is rarely useful to think of your predictions as either right or wrong. Because of the complexity of most issues you will investigate, most predictions will be right in some ways and wrong in others.

By studying the observations you make (data you collect) to test your hypotheses, you can revise your hypotheses to better align with the observations. This means revising your predictions plus revising your rationales to justify your adjusted predictions. Even though you might not run another test, formulating revised hypotheses is an essential part of conducting a research study. Comparing your original and revised hypotheses informs everyone of what you learned by conducting your study. In addition, a revised hypothesis sets the stage for you or someone else to extend your study and accumulate more knowledge of the phenomenon.

We should note that not everyone makes a clear distinction between predictions and rationales as two aspects of hypotheses. In fact, common, non-scientific uses of the word “hypothesis” may limit it to only a prediction or only an explanation (or rationale). We choose to explicitly include both prediction and rationale in our definition of hypothesis, not because we assert this should be the universal definition, but because we want to foreground the importance of both parts acting in concert. Using “hypothesis” to represent both prediction and rationale could hide the two aspects, but we make them explicit because they provide different kinds of information. It is usually easier to make predictions than develop rationales because predictions can be guesses, hunches, or gut feelings about which you have little confidence. Developing a compelling rationale requires careful thought plus reading what other researchers have found plus talking with your colleagues. Often, while you are developing your rationale you will find good reasons to change your predictions. Developing good rationales is the engine that drives scientific inquiry. Rationales are essentially descriptions of how much you know about the phenomenon you are studying. Throughout this guide, we will elaborate on how developing good rationales drives scientific inquiry. For now, we simply note that it can sharpen your predictions and help you to interpret your data as you test your hypotheses.

An image represents the rationale and the prediction for the scientific inquiry and different types of information provided by the terms.

Hypotheses in education research take a variety of forms or types. This is because there are a variety of phenomena that can be investigated. Investigating educational phenomena is sometimes best done using qualitative methods, sometimes using quantitative methods, and most often using mixed methods (e.g., Hay, 2016 ; Weis et al. 2019a ; Weisner, 2005 ). This means that, given our definition, hypotheses are equally applicable to qualitative and quantitative investigations.

Hypotheses take different forms when they are used to investigate different kinds of phenomena. Two very different activities in education could be labeled conducting experiments and descriptions. In an experiment, a hypothesis makes a prediction about anticipated changes, say the changes that occur when a treatment or intervention is applied. You might investigate how students’ thinking changes during a particular kind of instruction.

A second type of hypothesis, relevant for descriptive research, makes a prediction about what you will find when you investigate and describe the nature of a situation. The goal is to understand a situation as it exists rather than to understand a change from one situation to another. In this case, your prediction is what you expect to observe. Your rationale is the set of reasons for making this prediction; it is your current explanation for why the situation will look like it does.

You will probably read, if you have not already, that some researchers say you do not need a prediction to conduct a descriptive study. We will discuss this point of view in Chap. 2 . For now, we simply claim that scientific inquiry, as we have defined it, applies to all kinds of research studies. Descriptive studies, like others, not only benefit from formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses, but also need hypothesis formulating, testing, and revising.

One reason we define research as formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses is that if you think of research in this way you are less likely to go wrong. It is a useful guide for the entire process, as we will describe in detail in the chapters ahead. For example, as you build the rationale for your predictions, you are constructing the theoretical framework for your study (Chap. 3 ). As you work out the methods you will use to test your hypothesis, every decision you make will be based on asking, “Will this help me formulate or test or revise my hypothesis?” (Chap. 4 ). As you interpret the results of testing your predictions, you will compare them to what you predicted and examine the differences, focusing on how you must revise your hypotheses (Chap. 5 ). By anchoring the process to formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses, you will make smart decisions that yield a coherent and well-designed study.

Exercise 1.5

Compare the concept of formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses with the descriptions of scientific inquiry contained in Scientific Research in Education (NRC, 2002 ). How are they similar or different?

Exercise 1.6

Provide an example to illustrate and emphasize the differences between everyday learning/thinking and scientific inquiry.

Learning from Doing Scientific Inquiry

We noted earlier that a measure of what you have learned by conducting a research study is found in the differences between your original hypothesis and your revised hypothesis based on the data you collected to test your hypothesis. We will elaborate this statement in later chapters, but we preview our argument here.

Even before collecting data, scientific inquiry requires cycles of making a prediction, developing a rationale, refining your predictions, reading and studying more to strengthen your rationale, refining your predictions again, and so forth. And, even if you have run through several such cycles, you still will likely find that when you test your prediction you will be partly right and partly wrong. The results will support some parts of your predictions but not others, or the results will “kind of” support your predictions. A critical part of scientific inquiry is making sense of your results by interpreting them against your predictions. Carefully describing what aspects of your data supported your predictions, what aspects did not, and what data fell outside of any predictions is not an easy task, but you cannot learn from your study without doing this analysis.

An image represents the cycle of events that take place before making predictions, developing the rationale, and studying the prediction and rationale multiple times.

Analyzing the matches and mismatches between your predictions and your data allows you to formulate different rationales that would have accounted for more of the data. The best revised rationale is the one that accounts for the most data. Once you have revised your rationales, you can think about the predictions they best justify or explain. It is by comparing your original rationales to your new rationales that you can sort out what you learned from your study.

Suppose your study was an experiment. Maybe you were investigating the effects of a new instructional intervention on students’ learning. Your original rationale was your explanation for why the intervention would change the learning outcomes in a particular way. Your revised rationale explained why the changes that you observed occurred like they did and why your revised predictions are better. Maybe your original rationale focused on the potential of the activities if they were implemented in ideal ways and your revised rationale included the factors that are likely to affect how teachers implement them. By comparing the before and after rationales, you are describing what you learned—what you can explain now that you could not before. Another way of saying this is that you are describing how much more you understand now than before you conducted your study.

Revised predictions based on carefully planned and collected data usually exhibit some of the following features compared with the originals: more precision, more completeness, and broader scope. Revised rationales have more explanatory power and become more complete, more aligned with the new predictions, sharper, and overall more convincing.

Part II. Why Do Educators Do Research?

Doing scientific inquiry is a lot of work. Each phase of the process takes time, and you will often cycle back to improve earlier phases as you engage in later phases. Because of the significant effort required, you should make sure your study is worth it. So, from the beginning, you should think about the purpose of your study. Why do you want to do it? And, because research is a social practice, you should also think about whether the results of your study are likely to be important and significant to the education community.

If you are doing research in the way we have described—as scientific inquiry—then one purpose of your study is to understand , not just to describe or evaluate or report. As we noted earlier, when you formulate hypotheses, you are developing rationales that explain why things might be like they are. In our view, trying to understand and explain is what separates research from other kinds of activities, like evaluating or describing.

One reason understanding is so important is that it allows researchers to see how or why something works like it does. When you see how something works, you are better able to predict how it might work in other contexts, under other conditions. And, because conditions, or contextual factors, matter a lot in education, gaining insights into applying your findings to other contexts increases the contributions of your work and its importance to the broader education community.

Consequently, the purposes of research studies in education often include the more specific aim of identifying and understanding the conditions under which the phenomena being studied work like the observations suggest. A classic example of this kind of study in mathematics education was reported by William Brownell and Harold Moser in 1949 . They were trying to establish which method of subtracting whole numbers could be taught most effectively—the regrouping method or the equal additions method. However, they realized that effectiveness might depend on the conditions under which the methods were taught—“meaningfully” versus “mechanically.” So, they designed a study that crossed the two instructional approaches with the two different methods (regrouping and equal additions). Among other results, they found that these conditions did matter. The regrouping method was more effective under the meaningful condition than the mechanical condition, but the same was not true for the equal additions algorithm.

What do education researchers want to understand? In our view, the ultimate goal of education is to offer all students the best possible learning opportunities. So, we believe the ultimate purpose of scientific inquiry in education is to develop understanding that supports the improvement of learning opportunities for all students. We say “ultimate” because there are lots of issues that must be understood to improve learning opportunities for all students. Hypotheses about many aspects of education are connected, ultimately, to students’ learning. For example, formulating and testing a hypothesis that preservice teachers need to engage in particular kinds of activities in their coursework in order to teach particular topics well is, ultimately, connected to improving students’ learning opportunities. So is hypothesizing that school districts often devote relatively few resources to instructional leadership training or hypothesizing that positioning mathematics as a tool students can use to combat social injustice can help students see the relevance of mathematics to their lives.

We do not exclude the importance of research on educational issues more removed from improving students’ learning opportunities, but we do think the argument for their importance will be more difficult to make. If there is no way to imagine a connection between your hypothesis and improving learning opportunities for students, even a distant connection, we recommend you reconsider whether it is an important hypothesis within the education community.

Notice that we said the ultimate goal of education is to offer all students the best possible learning opportunities. For too long, educators have been satisfied with a goal of offering rich learning opportunities for lots of students, sometimes even for just the majority of students, but not necessarily for all students. Evaluations of success often are based on outcomes that show high averages. In other words, if many students have learned something, or even a smaller number have learned a lot, educators may have been satisfied. The problem is that there is usually a pattern in the groups of students who receive lower quality opportunities—students of color and students who live in poor areas, urban and rural. This is not acceptable. Consequently, we emphasize the premise that the purpose of education research is to offer rich learning opportunities to all students.

One way to make sure you will be able to convince others of the importance of your study is to consider investigating some aspect of teachers’ shared instructional problems. Historically, researchers in education have set their own research agendas, regardless of the problems teachers are facing in schools. It is increasingly recognized that teachers have had trouble applying to their own classrooms what researchers find. To address this problem, a researcher could partner with a teacher—better yet, a small group of teachers—and talk with them about instructional problems they all share. These discussions can create a rich pool of problems researchers can consider. If researchers pursued one of these problems (preferably alongside teachers), the connection to improving learning opportunities for all students could be direct and immediate. “Grounding a research question in instructional problems that are experienced across multiple teachers’ classrooms helps to ensure that the answer to the question will be of sufficient scope to be relevant and significant beyond the local context” (Cai et al., 2019b , p. 115).

As a beginning researcher, determining the relevance and importance of a research problem is especially challenging. We recommend talking with advisors, other experienced researchers, and peers to test the educational importance of possible research problems and topics of study. You will also learn much more about the issue of research importance when you read Chap. 5 .

Exercise 1.7

Identify a problem in education that is closely connected to improving learning opportunities and a problem that has a less close connection. For each problem, write a brief argument (like a logical sequence of if-then statements) that connects the problem to all students’ learning opportunities.

Part III. Conducting Research as a Practice of Failing Productively

Scientific inquiry involves formulating hypotheses about phenomena that are not fully understood—by you or anyone else. Even if you are able to inform your hypotheses with lots of knowledge that has already been accumulated, you are likely to find that your prediction is not entirely accurate. This is normal. Remember, scientific inquiry is a process of constantly updating your thinking. More and better information means revising your thinking, again, and again, and again. Because you never fully understand a complicated phenomenon and your hypotheses never produce completely accurate predictions, it is easy to believe you are somehow failing.

The trick is to fail upward, to fail to predict accurately in ways that inform your next hypothesis so you can make a better prediction. Some of the best-known researchers in education have been open and honest about the many times their predictions were wrong and, based on the results of their studies and those of others, they continuously updated their thinking and changed their hypotheses.

A striking example of publicly revising (actually reversing) hypotheses due to incorrect predictions is found in the work of Lee J. Cronbach, one of the most distinguished educational psychologists of the twentieth century. In 1955, Cronbach delivered his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Titling it “Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology,” Cronbach proposed a rapprochement between two research approaches—correlational studies that focused on individual differences and experimental studies that focused on instructional treatments controlling for individual differences. (We will examine different research approaches in Chap. 4 ). If these approaches could be brought together, reasoned Cronbach ( 1957 ), researchers could find interactions between individual characteristics and treatments (aptitude-treatment interactions or ATIs), fitting the best treatments to different individuals.

In 1975, after years of research by many researchers looking for ATIs, Cronbach acknowledged the evidence for simple, useful ATIs had not been found. Even when trying to find interactions between a few variables that could provide instructional guidance, the analysis, said Cronbach, creates “a hall of mirrors that extends to infinity, tormenting even the boldest investigators and defeating even ambitious designs” (Cronbach, 1975 , p. 119).

As he was reflecting back on his work, Cronbach ( 1986 ) recommended moving away from documenting instructional effects through statistical inference (an approach he had championed for much of his career) and toward approaches that probe the reasons for these effects, approaches that provide a “full account of events in a time, place, and context” (Cronbach, 1986 , p. 104). This is a remarkable change in hypotheses, a change based on data and made fully transparent. Cronbach understood the value of failing productively.

Closer to home, in a less dramatic example, one of us began a line of scientific inquiry into how to prepare elementary preservice teachers to teach early algebra. Teaching early algebra meant engaging elementary students in early forms of algebraic reasoning. Such reasoning should help them transition from arithmetic to algebra. To begin this line of inquiry, a set of activities for preservice teachers were developed. Even though the activities were based on well-supported hypotheses, they largely failed to engage preservice teachers as predicted because of unanticipated challenges the preservice teachers faced. To capitalize on this failure, follow-up studies were conducted, first to better understand elementary preservice teachers’ challenges with preparing to teach early algebra, and then to better support preservice teachers in navigating these challenges. In this example, the initial failure was a necessary step in the researchers’ scientific inquiry and furthered the researchers’ understanding of this issue.

We present another example of failing productively in Chap. 2 . That example emerges from recounting the history of a well-known research program in mathematics education.

Making mistakes is an inherent part of doing scientific research. Conducting a study is rarely a smooth path from beginning to end. We recommend that you keep the following things in mind as you begin a career of conducting research in education.

First, do not get discouraged when you make mistakes; do not fall into the trap of feeling like you are not capable of doing research because you make too many errors.

Second, learn from your mistakes. Do not ignore your mistakes or treat them as errors that you simply need to forget and move past. Mistakes are rich sites for learning—in research just as in other fields of study.

Third, by reflecting on your mistakes, you can learn to make better mistakes, mistakes that inform you about a productive next step. You will not be able to eliminate your mistakes, but you can set a goal of making better and better mistakes.

Exercise 1.8

How does scientific inquiry differ from everyday learning in giving you the tools to fail upward? You may find helpful perspectives on this question in other resources on science and scientific inquiry (e.g., Failure: Why Science is So Successful by Firestein, 2015).

Exercise 1.9

Use what you have learned in this chapter to write a new definition of scientific inquiry. Compare this definition with the one you wrote before reading this chapter. If you are reading this book as part of a course, compare your definition with your colleagues’ definitions. Develop a consensus definition with everyone in the course.

Part IV. Preview of Chap. 2

Now that you have a good idea of what research is, at least of what we believe research is, the next step is to think about how to actually begin doing research. This means how to begin formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses. As for all phases of scientific inquiry, there are lots of things to think about. Because it is critical to start well, we devote Chap. 2 to getting started with formulating hypotheses.

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Cronbach, L. J. (1986). Social inquiry by and for earthlings. In D. W. Fiske & R. A. Shweder (Eds.), Metatheory in social science: Pluralisms and subjectivities (pp. 83–107). University of Chicago Press.

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Hiebert, J., Cai, J., Hwang, S., Morris, A.K., Hohensee, C. (2023). What Is Research, and Why Do People Do It?. In: Doing Research: A New Researcher’s Guide. Research in Mathematics Education. Springer, Cham.

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Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 113 great research paper topics.

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General Education


One of the hardest parts of writing a research paper can be just finding a good topic to write about. Fortunately we've done the hard work for you and have compiled a list of 113 interesting research paper topics. They've been organized into ten categories and cover a wide range of subjects so you can easily find the best topic for you.

In addition to the list of good research topics, we've included advice on what makes a good research paper topic and how you can use your topic to start writing a great paper.

What Makes a Good Research Paper Topic?

Not all research paper topics are created equal, and you want to make sure you choose a great topic before you start writing. Below are the three most important factors to consider to make sure you choose the best research paper topics.

#1: It's Something You're Interested In

A paper is always easier to write if you're interested in the topic, and you'll be more motivated to do in-depth research and write a paper that really covers the entire subject. Even if a certain research paper topic is getting a lot of buzz right now or other people seem interested in writing about it, don't feel tempted to make it your topic unless you genuinely have some sort of interest in it as well.

#2: There's Enough Information to Write a Paper

Even if you come up with the absolute best research paper topic and you're so excited to write about it, you won't be able to produce a good paper if there isn't enough research about the topic. This can happen for very specific or specialized topics, as well as topics that are too new to have enough research done on them at the moment. Easy research paper topics will always be topics with enough information to write a full-length paper.

Trying to write a research paper on a topic that doesn't have much research on it is incredibly hard, so before you decide on a topic, do a bit of preliminary searching and make sure you'll have all the information you need to write your paper.

#3: It Fits Your Teacher's Guidelines

Don't get so carried away looking at lists of research paper topics that you forget any requirements or restrictions your teacher may have put on research topic ideas. If you're writing a research paper on a health-related topic, deciding to write about the impact of rap on the music scene probably won't be allowed, but there may be some sort of leeway. For example, if you're really interested in current events but your teacher wants you to write a research paper on a history topic, you may be able to choose a topic that fits both categories, like exploring the relationship between the US and North Korea. No matter what, always get your research paper topic approved by your teacher first before you begin writing.

113 Good Research Paper Topics

Below are 113 good research topics to help you get you started on your paper. We've organized them into ten categories to make it easier to find the type of research paper topics you're looking for.


  • Discuss the main differences in art from the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance .
  • Analyze the impact a famous artist had on the world.
  • How is sexism portrayed in different types of media (music, film, video games, etc.)? Has the amount/type of sexism changed over the years?
  • How has the music of slaves brought over from Africa shaped modern American music?
  • How has rap music evolved in the past decade?
  • How has the portrayal of minorities in the media changed?


Current Events

  • What have been the impacts of China's one child policy?
  • How have the goals of feminists changed over the decades?
  • How has the Trump presidency changed international relations?
  • Analyze the history of the relationship between the United States and North Korea.
  • What factors contributed to the current decline in the rate of unemployment?
  • What have been the impacts of states which have increased their minimum wage?
  • How do US immigration laws compare to immigration laws of other countries?
  • How have the US's immigration laws changed in the past few years/decades?
  • How has the Black Lives Matter movement affected discussions and view about racism in the US?
  • What impact has the Affordable Care Act had on healthcare in the US?
  • What factors contributed to the UK deciding to leave the EU (Brexit)?
  • What factors contributed to China becoming an economic power?
  • Discuss the history of Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies  (some of which tokenize the S&P 500 Index on the blockchain) .
  • Do students in schools that eliminate grades do better in college and their careers?
  • Do students from wealthier backgrounds score higher on standardized tests?
  • Do students who receive free meals at school get higher grades compared to when they weren't receiving a free meal?
  • Do students who attend charter schools score higher on standardized tests than students in public schools?
  • Do students learn better in same-sex classrooms?
  • How does giving each student access to an iPad or laptop affect their studies?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the Montessori Method ?
  • Do children who attend preschool do better in school later on?
  • What was the impact of the No Child Left Behind act?
  • How does the US education system compare to education systems in other countries?
  • What impact does mandatory physical education classes have on students' health?
  • Which methods are most effective at reducing bullying in schools?
  • Do homeschoolers who attend college do as well as students who attended traditional schools?
  • Does offering tenure increase or decrease quality of teaching?
  • How does college debt affect future life choices of students?
  • Should graduate students be able to form unions?


  • What are different ways to lower gun-related deaths in the US?
  • How and why have divorce rates changed over time?
  • Is affirmative action still necessary in education and/or the workplace?
  • Should physician-assisted suicide be legal?
  • How has stem cell research impacted the medical field?
  • How can human trafficking be reduced in the United States/world?
  • Should people be able to donate organs in exchange for money?
  • Which types of juvenile punishment have proven most effective at preventing future crimes?
  • Has the increase in US airport security made passengers safer?
  • Analyze the immigration policies of certain countries and how they are similar and different from one another.
  • Several states have legalized recreational marijuana. What positive and negative impacts have they experienced as a result?
  • Do tariffs increase the number of domestic jobs?
  • Which prison reforms have proven most effective?
  • Should governments be able to censor certain information on the internet?
  • Which methods/programs have been most effective at reducing teen pregnancy?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the Keto diet?
  • How effective are different exercise regimes for losing weight and maintaining weight loss?
  • How do the healthcare plans of various countries differ from each other?
  • What are the most effective ways to treat depression ?
  • What are the pros and cons of genetically modified foods?
  • Which methods are most effective for improving memory?
  • What can be done to lower healthcare costs in the US?
  • What factors contributed to the current opioid crisis?
  • Analyze the history and impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic .
  • Are low-carbohydrate or low-fat diets more effective for weight loss?
  • How much exercise should the average adult be getting each week?
  • Which methods are most effective to get parents to vaccinate their children?
  • What are the pros and cons of clean needle programs?
  • How does stress affect the body?
  • Discuss the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • What were the causes and effects of the Salem Witch Trials?
  • Who was responsible for the Iran-Contra situation?
  • How has New Orleans and the government's response to natural disasters changed since Hurricane Katrina?
  • What events led to the fall of the Roman Empire?
  • What were the impacts of British rule in India ?
  • Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary?
  • What were the successes and failures of the women's suffrage movement in the United States?
  • What were the causes of the Civil War?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln's assassination impact the country and reconstruction after the Civil War?
  • Which factors contributed to the colonies winning the American Revolution?
  • What caused Hitler's rise to power?
  • Discuss how a specific invention impacted history.
  • What led to Cleopatra's fall as ruler of Egypt?
  • How has Japan changed and evolved over the centuries?
  • What were the causes of the Rwandan genocide ?


  • Why did Martin Luther decide to split with the Catholic Church?
  • Analyze the history and impact of a well-known cult (Jonestown, Manson family, etc.)
  • How did the sexual abuse scandal impact how people view the Catholic Church?
  • How has the Catholic church's power changed over the past decades/centuries?
  • What are the causes behind the rise in atheism/ agnosticism in the United States?
  • What were the influences in Siddhartha's life resulted in him becoming the Buddha?
  • How has media portrayal of Islam/Muslims changed since September 11th?


  • How has the earth's climate changed in the past few decades?
  • How has the use and elimination of DDT affected bird populations in the US?
  • Analyze how the number and severity of natural disasters have increased in the past few decades.
  • Analyze deforestation rates in a certain area or globally over a period of time.
  • How have past oil spills changed regulations and cleanup methods?
  • How has the Flint water crisis changed water regulation safety?
  • What are the pros and cons of fracking?
  • What impact has the Paris Climate Agreement had so far?
  • What have NASA's biggest successes and failures been?
  • How can we improve access to clean water around the world?
  • Does ecotourism actually have a positive impact on the environment?
  • Should the US rely on nuclear energy more?
  • What can be done to save amphibian species currently at risk of extinction?
  • What impact has climate change had on coral reefs?
  • How are black holes created?
  • Are teens who spend more time on social media more likely to suffer anxiety and/or depression?
  • How will the loss of net neutrality affect internet users?
  • Analyze the history and progress of self-driving vehicles.
  • How has the use of drones changed surveillance and warfare methods?
  • Has social media made people more or less connected?
  • What progress has currently been made with artificial intelligence ?
  • Do smartphones increase or decrease workplace productivity?
  • What are the most effective ways to use technology in the classroom?
  • How is Google search affecting our intelligence?
  • When is the best age for a child to begin owning a smartphone?
  • Has frequent texting reduced teen literacy rates?


How to Write a Great Research Paper

Even great research paper topics won't give you a great research paper if you don't hone your topic before and during the writing process. Follow these three tips to turn good research paper topics into great papers.

#1: Figure Out Your Thesis Early

Before you start writing a single word of your paper, you first need to know what your thesis will be. Your thesis is a statement that explains what you intend to prove/show in your paper. Every sentence in your research paper will relate back to your thesis, so you don't want to start writing without it!

As some examples, if you're writing a research paper on if students learn better in same-sex classrooms, your thesis might be "Research has shown that elementary-age students in same-sex classrooms score higher on standardized tests and report feeling more comfortable in the classroom."

If you're writing a paper on the causes of the Civil War, your thesis might be "While the dispute between the North and South over slavery is the most well-known cause of the Civil War, other key causes include differences in the economies of the North and South, states' rights, and territorial expansion."

#2: Back Every Statement Up With Research

Remember, this is a research paper you're writing, so you'll need to use lots of research to make your points. Every statement you give must be backed up with research, properly cited the way your teacher requested. You're allowed to include opinions of your own, but they must also be supported by the research you give.

#3: Do Your Research Before You Begin Writing

You don't want to start writing your research paper and then learn that there isn't enough research to back up the points you're making, or, even worse, that the research contradicts the points you're trying to make!

Get most of your research on your good research topics done before you begin writing. Then use the research you've collected to create a rough outline of what your paper will cover and the key points you're going to make. This will help keep your paper clear and organized, and it'll ensure you have enough research to produce a strong paper.

What's Next?

Are you also learning about dynamic equilibrium in your science class? We break this sometimes tricky concept down so it's easy to understand in our complete guide to dynamic equilibrium .

Thinking about becoming a nurse practitioner? Nurse practitioners have one of the fastest growing careers in the country, and we have all the information you need to know about what to expect from nurse practitioner school .

Want to know the fastest and easiest ways to convert between Fahrenheit and Celsius? We've got you covered! Check out our guide to the best ways to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit (or vice versa).

These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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Research: Why We Choose the Hard Way to Do Tedious Tasks

  • Alicea Lieberman

first thing to do in research

And how to stop getting stuck in ruts.

In life and at work, we often get stuck persisting in unpleasant activities even when more enjoyable and equally effective alternatives exist. Research shows this happens due to “entrenchment,” where repeating an activity blocks consideration of better options and makes you more likely to keep doing it. The author’s research focuses on enhancing well-being by limiting over-persistence in these tasks and suggests solutions that include reducing repetition, dividing attention, and alternating tasks to break the cycle of entrenchment. By adopting strategies to prevent entrenchment, individuals and organizations can increase employee satisfaction and efficiency.

We often find ourselves mired in unpleasant tasks. And the longer we do an unpleasant task, the more stuck we become — persisting even if there are opportunities to switch to more enjoyable alternatives that would achieve the same goal. For instance, think about the last time you struggled to type a long email on your phone rather than switch to your nearby computer, where you could complete the task more comfortably. Or consider the last time you painstakingly formatted a document by hand rather than using a readily available software that could automate the process. Or even reflect on the last time you had an hour to pass and spent it watching an unenjoyable TV show rather than going outside for a pleasant stroll.

  • AL Alicea Lieberman , PhD, MPH is an Assistant Professor in Marketing and Behavioral Decision Making at The UCLA Anderson School of Management. Her primary research focuses on judgment and decision making with an emphasis on self-control, motivation, and behavior change. She uses lab and field experiments and is committed to harnessing social and behavioral research to impact policy and improve societal health and well-being.

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Q&A: These researchers examined 20 years of data on same-sex marriage. Here’s what they found

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Twenty years ago this month, Marcia Kadish and Tanya McCloskey exchanged wedding vows at Cambridge City Hall in Massachusetts and became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the United States .

The couple had been together since 1986, but their decision to wed was radical for its time. In 2004, only 31% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, while 60% were opposed , according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Much of that opposition was fueled by fears that expanding the definition of marriage beyond the traditional union of a man and a women would undermine the institution and be destabilizing to families. Researchers at the Rand Corp. decided to find out if those predictions turned out to be true.

A team from the Santa Monica-based think tank spent a year poring over the data. The result is a 186-page report that should be reassuring to supporters of marriage equality.

Two women hold each other's hand high and smile in a paneled room

“If there were negative consequences in the last 20 years of the decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples, no one has yet been able to measure them,” said Benjamin Karney , an adjunct behavioral scientist at Rand.

Karney, who is also a social psychologist at UCLA, led the report with Melanie Zaber , a labor economist and economic demographer at Rand. They spoke with The Times about what they learned.

Does marriage make people better off?

Benjamin Karney: On average, yes. People who are married experience fewer health problems , they live years longer , they make more money , and they accumulate more wealth than people who marry and divorce or who don’t marry at all. People who are married also experience more stable and positive psychological health , and they have sex more frequently than people who are not married.

All those benefits accrue primarily to people who are in happy marriages. Unhappy marriage is very, very harmful. But most people who are married are happy — that’s why they stay married.

What prompted you to examine same-sex marriage now?

BK: At the time that these policies were changing, there were a lot of arguments on both sides about whether the consequences would be positive or negative. Twenty years is a long time, and during that time, a lot of research has been conducted. It seemed like a good time to ask the question: What did happen as a consequence of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples? So that’s one reason.

The second reason is that in the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade , Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion said explicitly that this Supreme Court should consider reviewing and potentially overturning other decisions , and he named the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges decision that legalized marriage for same-sex couples by name. Given that people may be wondering about the merits of that decision, it seemed like a good time to evaluate the consequences of that decision, and that’s what we’ve done.

What did you find?

BK: We found 96 studies across a range of disciplines. Some are in economics. Some are in psychology. Some are in medicine. Some are in public health.

Melanie Zaber: We wanted it to be research that actually measured something. There were a number of more qualitative or theoretical or legal arguments that we excluded.

BK: What I found most notable is that all of the studies drew the same conclusions: There was either no effect or beneficial effects on any outcome you could look at. That’s 20 years of research, 96 studies, and no harms.

FILE - With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person waves a rainbow flag as they participant in a rally in support of the LGBTQIA+ community at Freedom Plaza, Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Washington. The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday, July, 19, 2022, to protect same-sex and interracial marriages amid concerns that the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade abortion access could jeopardize other rights criticized by many conservative Americans. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

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Does it seem plausible that the results could be so one-sided?

BK: I was not surprised. There’s a lot of good theory in family science and relationship science to argue that if you extend rights to a group that’s been stigmatized, that group should do better, and the majority group should not be affected. Indeed, that’s what we found.

MZ: I don’t find it particularly surprising. When we say there are no harms, that doesn’t mean everything’s coming up sunshine and roses — it means sunshine and roses or nothing. In this case, where the prediction was something negative, then nothing still feels like sunshine and roses.

What sorts of things did these studies measure?

BK: There were three general categories. The largest group was looking at outcomes for LGBT individuals and same-sex couples. The second bucket looked at the children of same-sex parents. And the third bucket was the effect on everybody else.

There was no evidence of harms anywhere.

That’s interesting because opponents of these policy changes very strongly — and very explicitly — predicted there would be harms. They predicted it in front of the Supreme Court , arguing that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, the consequences for the country will be negative and severe and unavoidable and irreversible.

Same-sex marriage cake toppers are displayed on a shelf in San Francisco.

Who benefits the most from legalizing same-sex marriage?

BK: Same-sex couples. Their relationships last longer when they are able to marry and cement their commitment. Their incomes go up. Their mental health improves.

That mental health improvement extends to LGBT individuals whether or not they are married. Even if you’re not married , if you’re a member of a sexual minority and live in a world that validates same-sex relationships, that relieves a stressor and has measurable benefits on physical and mental health.

What’s behind these improvements?

BK: The effects on health seem like they operate partly through employer-based health insurance being extended to spouses.

The mechanisms for mental health have been described by minority stress theory . Living in a society that is constantly sending you a message that you are less worthy of equal treatment is stressful, partly because it leads to discrimination. Being the target of discrimination is stressful , and that stress has real mental and physical consequences .

You found 96 studies about gay marriage. Why did you conduct your own research as well?

MZ: Some of those studies were conducted when only a few states had marriage for same-sex couples. A state like West Virginia or Wyoming might say, “Well that’s all well and good that you have evidence from Massachusetts or Vermont, but New England isn’t the center of the universe.”

By looking at a broader range of years, we’re better able to capture some of those states that did allow same-sex couples to marry but weren’t among the first to do so. We have reason to think those states may be very different environments. Our approach was to use each state as a quasi-experiment.

What did all that data tell you?

MZ: The headline from our new analysis is no negative impacts and some positive ones.

We see an increase in marriage, and that increase is driven not just by newly marrying same-sex couples, but also by an increase in marriage among different-sex couples. That was a bit surprising to us.

In this July 11, 2013 file photo, Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur, right, are married by officiant Paulette Roberts, rear center, in a plane on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Glen Burnie, Md. Federal Judge Timothy Black on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, questioned the constitutionality of Ohio's ban on gay marriage and whether state officials have the authority to refuse to recognize the marriages of gay couples who wed in other states. Black earlier ruled in favor of the couple in a lawsuit seeking to recognize the couples' marriage on Arthur’s death certificate before he died in October from ALS. (AP Photo/The Cincinnati Enquirer, Glenn Hartong, File) MANDATORY CREDIT, NO SALES

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What do you think was going on?

MZ: There are a few different mechanisms for this, none of which we can explicitly test.

One could be allyship . There are individuals who identify as cisgender straight individuals, but they want to show their allyship so they delay marriage until everyone’s able to marry.

There’s an increasing number of individuals who identify as bisexual in the United States. Even if they’re marrying a different-sex partner, they may be trying to have validation of their broader identity.

The argument we find most compelling is that having people loudly clamoring for all the great things that come along with marriage made people in the broader population say, “Oh hey, getting married means people can go visit me in the hospital, and that if I’m in an accident there’s no concern about who my property will go to, and we have more access to health insurance.” Talking about that may have made some people realize, “You know, marriage actually is pretty helpful.”

BK: If you hear about a restaurant that everyone’s trying to get into, you want to eat at that restaurant.

MZ: That is an excellent way of putting it!

Do you think this research will persuade those who were concerned that same-sex marriage would have terrible consequences?

MZ: That’s our goal — to put evidence out to the public so policymakers can make informed choices.

BK: I’d like to believe so. At the time those arguments were made, they were speculative. People were trying to predict the future. Now we don’t have to predict the future. Twenty years have passed and we have the data. We can document what has happened.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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first thing to do in research

Karen Kaplan covers science and medical research for the Los Angeles Times. She has been a member of the science team since 2005, including 13 years as an editor. Her first decade at The Times was spent covering technology in the Business section as both a reporter and editor. She grew up in San Diego and is a graduate of MIT and Columbia University.

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'Maximize their potential': Canisius' IAR shows pivotal results on new autism research

first thing to do in research

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Inside of Science Hall at Canisius University sits the Institute of Autism Research, also known as the IAR. The institute's work is dedicated to understanding autism and helping individuals and families affected by autism.

"What we're out to do is help maximize their potential," Co-Director of the IAR Dr. Marcus Thomeer said. "We help them navigate the social world".

Dr. Thomeer is a part of the research team at Canisius University that led new research on the IAR's summerMAX and schoolMAX social intervention programs. This new research showed that the children who participated in the programs had long-term, positive outcomes.

"It’s not just one and done," Thomeer said. "The kids maintained gains or the skills that we’ve taught and they’ve practiced beyond just the program itself."

In the initial research, the IAR took 103 kids living with autism from around Western New York to participate in either the summerMAX program or the schoolMAX program. The schoolMAX program teaches not just the children participating in the program different skills to add, but it also teaches parents, teachers and others involved with the child's life on how to teach the skills.

In the schoolMAX, the experimental group received the schoolMAX teachings while the control group received the regular lessons provided by their schools. As a result, the children who received the schoolMAX program grew in their social abilities. The children who did not participate in the schoolMAX program, they participated in the summerMAX program.

After four years of initial research with the two programs, the IAR team decided to conduct a long-term follow-up from 2.5 to 5 years, following 90 of the children who participated in the intervention programs. The follow-up research tested the children three times a year to see the retention rate of the skills they learned in the program. All 90 children yielded those same positive results from immediate training and even showed decreased autism symptoms.

This is the first study to demonstrate those long term durability of the findings.

Recognizing the Canisius team's research is The Lancet Commission, an independent medical journal. The Lancet mentioned the IAR's summerMAX program in a newly published report "The Lancet Commission on the future of care and clinical research in autism", confirming the results of the IAR's findings. The Lancet Commission team who confirmed the results was composed of over 30 reviewers from six continents.

"To be recognized by the highest level of medical view and expert review as a program that truly demonstrates that works was a really meaningful experience for us"

A unique part of this research is the student involvement. Over 500 students at all levels at Canisius were able to participate in conducting the research for the study.

"At most universities on research teams, it would be doctoral students or it would be postgraduate assessors," Rodgers said. "At Canisius University, we provide undergraduate students the experience and the training to be able to do those kinds of assessments effectively".

According to Dr. Rodgers, this new research can help shape the future of care for autistic children and their development on all fronts.

"Demonstrating that what we have done over time really makes an impact for our kids and our families and also makes an impact on the scientific community," Rodgers said. "Demonstrating that this method of teaching of practicing and reinforcing skills is what really helps these kids grow in these areas."

The IAR will not be continuing the summerMAX program for the summer of 2024 as they plan to expand the research from the programs further. The center will introduce the SoFit program, taking the same social intervention practices and using them for fitness.

If you'd like to learn more about Canisius University's Institute of Autistic Research , you can reach out by email to [email protected] or by phone at 716-888-2800.

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