Defining Research

CIRI Blog

Published: July 2, 2012 by Dr. Bill Fisher

As I was starting to draft what I intended to post for this week, I asked myself: “What is research?” We see and hear the term used by a multitude of individuals covering a wide variety of contexts or situations, often without a great deal of uniformity. This may leave us wondering if one perspective or definition is more accurate or appropriate than another.

So, I changed my focus and decided to see how research is defined. First I went to a pocket dictionary (Webster’s New World Dictionary) I keep handy to check spelling and such. Here I found two definitions – one for research as a verb: “to do research on or in” and another definition for research as a noun: “careful, systematic study and investigation in some field of knowledge.” I don’t find the verb definition particularly helpful, but the noun definition seems to cover a goodly portion of our professional literature that is described or labeled as research.

I realize that a pocket dictionary may not be the most credible source around, so I moved things up a notch and went to see what the American College Dictionary (a single volume, abridged, hard-bound dictionary) had to say. Here I also found a definition for research as a verb: “to make researches; investigate carefully” and a definition for research as a noun: diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover facts or principles.” Again, I’m not enthralled with the verb definition. The noun definition reaffirms that research is a systematic investigation in some field, but now there is some purpose to the research – to discover facts or principles. This still encompasses much of our professional literature mentioned above, but does leave some of it behind if the research doesn’t help us discover facts or principles.

Being a man of many dictionaries, I decided to bring out the “big guns” so I checked Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary to see if I could take this further. I was not disappointed – there were multiple definitions for research as a verb and as a noun. The verb definitions were: 1) “to search again or anew” and 2) “to research, seek out; to search or investigate exhaustively; to make researches or investigations.” Nothing particularly earth-shattering but at least the first definition of research as a verb looks at the word structure itself: re-search, which the other two dictionaries overlooked. Webster’s Third provides us with a few options for research as a noun: 1) “careful or diligent search; a close searching,” 2-a) “studious inquiry or examination; critical and exhaustive investigation or experimentation having for its aim the discovery of new facts and their correct interpretation, the revision of accepted conclusions, theories, or laws in light of newly discovered facts, or the practical applications of such new or revised conclusions, theories, or laws,” 2-b) “a particular investigation of such a character, a piece of research; a presentation (as an article or book) incorporating the findings of a particular research”, and 3) “capacity for or inclination to research <a scholar of great research>.” Definition 2-a should resonate with anyone who has pursued a doctoral degree and learned that discovering facts is not enough. We need to discover new facts and interpret them correctly or use that new information to revise currently accepted conclusions, theories or laws for our efforts to be considered research. This approach considerably narrows the range of our professional literature that can be defined as research.

As I consider these definitions, I am lead to two conclusions. First, I need to get a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I know I could access the OED online, in fact I could have found all these definitions online, but the methodology used here was what I had available in hard copy at home. The second conclusion is the research “tent” for LIS is large and can accommodate all the definitions found, whether someone is engaged in a systematic study of some topic or seeking to uncover new knowledge to extend the field in a certain direction. Regardless of the intended outcome of the investigation, if this Center for Information Research and Innovation encourages and/or supports the work of anyone covered by the LIS research tent, then the Center will be well defined.