Do you freeze up when you're assigned a research paper? Have you ever avoided taking a class because it required a huge research project? What is academic research anyway? Chances are, you've done plenty of real-life research—probably more than you realize—even if you didn't think of it in those terms.
In a nutshell, research is a search for answers. You do research all the time. Let’s say you want to go out on Saturday and make a good impression with some old friends. You decide to go to a casual restaurant in a medium price range. How do you make that choice? You want great food, good service, and an informal atmosphere. First, you ask three different friends what restaurant they would recommend given your target description. You might also check Yelp or Urbanspoon to see if something looks interesting nearby. Perhaps you’ll look online to check out a couple of different restaurants’ menus and prices once you’ve narrowed it down. With all this information, you make a decision and call in a reservation. You've just completed a research project! Here's what happened:
- First, as in all research, you found an interesting problem that needed an answer. The question was Where do I take my old friends?
- Next, you sought out information about the problem and gathered data. The data came from three different sources: friends, apps, and the restaurants’ websites.
- Then, you worked to analyze or evaluate the data. Information alone didn’t answer your question; you analyzed and evaluated before reaching a conclusion.
- Lastly, you drew a conclusion and acted on that conclusion. In this case, you made a reservation at the restaurant best meeting the criteria for your Saturday night.
Research includes all of these elements with a particular purpose in mind: asking the question, gathering the data, analyzing and evaluating the data, and reaching a conclusion.
Two Kinds of Research: Nonacademic and Academic Research
As with any kind of writing, research writing must begin with audience and purpose analysis. Different situations and environments require different approaches to the problem. For students, there are generally only two primary areas of research: nonacademic and academic.
Most everyday research is nonacademic, and, typically, this research is more informal and less rigidly structured. The audience in nonacademic research can be anyone (For more information about audience, see Analyzing Your Audience and Audience Types). You might do personal research when you buy a new car, or you might do research for your boss when you put together a needs analysis for the training of new hires. Finding a restaurant (as above) is another example. Each circumstance has a different audience, and the type, extent, and final presentation of the research will change with each audience.
With nonacademic research, the basic process is the same: Define the problem, gather the data, analyze that data, and reach a conclusion. When writing for nonacademic purposes, you might not take careful notes to accurately credit the sources, and you might not be asked to write a report. You've still done research, but your approach and the end product will be more informal.
Academic research has the same components as nonacademic research, but it requires specific conventions and a higher degree of formality. Follow these steps to complete the academic research process:
Step 1: Define the Problem
In academic research, you’ll construct research questions. What do you want to know? Why do you want to know it? Those questions will guide the research and eventually lead to the thesis. When deciding just what the topic will be, remember that you’re doing research, not just reporting. That means thinking in terms of opinions and answers rather than just information. Consider this sample research question for an academic paper: Do writers with a southern heritage have the same viewpoint of the battle of Gettysburg as writers with a northern heritage? This kind of specific question helps to formalize your approach to the research, and it can form the basis of your thesis statement.
Step 2: Gather Data
You can find information (data) from either primary sources (information about your topic that hasn't been evaluated by someone else—like a Walt Whitman poem or a study of dreams by Sigmund Freud) or secondary sources (what someone else has said about the topic). While it's generally best to use primary sources, secondary sources are often more readily available. Books and articles from the library are helpful, but remember to look for other sources as well. Perhaps you could interview someone who has knowledge about the topic, or you might conduct a survey. The data you gather will provide the best answer to your research question.
For example, for the research question on writers with a southern heritage, you could first do some preliminary research to see which Civil War authors have a known southern heritage and which ones have a known northern heritage. You could then look for an account of the Battle of Gettysburg written by authors from those two different heritages. While you're looking, you might see if anyone has written anything about Civil War history writers and the impact geographical heritage has on their writing. At this point, you would have both primary sources (the actual accounts from the authors) and secondary sources (what others have said about the topic). If you happen to know an authority in Civil War history, you might interview him or her to get another point of view. The interviewee would be another secondary source if a scholar on the topic and a primary source if an author. Since this research is for a class, take very careful notes about what information came from which source so as to give credit to those sources when you write the final paper.
Step 3: Analyze and Evaluate the Data
Once you've gathered information, analyze and evaluate it. You've read the authors as well as commentators. Your opinion will be based on all of that information as it applies to the research question. Remember to avoid merely summarizing that information. Many novice researchers think they must agree with what the experts say about a topic, but that's not the case. Part of the job as a researcher is to decide if you agree and why (or not!); take care to support your opinions with careful research.
Step 4: Draw Conclusions
After you have analyzed and evaluated the gathered information, draw conclusions. You may not decide that there’s a difference in how the battle is viewed based on the author’s geographical heritage. You may even decide that you don't know enough to reach a decision!
Step 5: Report Your Findings
In academic research, you draw conclusions and also tell people what you discovered in that research, usually through a formal paper.
That paper will follow a particular format and style depending on the discipline and instructor. The important thing to remember is to follow all of the conventions as set forth in the style guide you use. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to tell the readers what information is from which source, using in-text citations to uphold your academic integrity and build reader credibility. The paper will also need a bibliography page including a list of sources used in your research. For more information on in-text citations and your bibliography page, see MLA Style, APA Style or Chicago/Turabian Style documentation.
Think About It
In both nonacademic and academic research, you must decide upon the question, gather data, analyze and evaluate the data, and draw conclusions. How you share those conclusions will be the difference between nonacademic or academic research.
- What research question will keep you and your reader interested?
- What types of research can you use—academic, nonacademic, or both?
- Which conclusions best answer your research question?