What is research?
November 2011 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
(This is an incomplete draft of an article from 2011 ... I figure that it's better to just upload it rather than letting it languish.)
For the past five years, my full-time job as a Ph.D. student has been to do academic research in a few sub-fields within Computer Science. However, when I tell people that I do “research” as my job, they often don't have a clear sense of what I actually do. In contrast, everybody knows what doctors, teachers, and firefighters do at work.
I soon realized that the word research has vastly different meanings to different people. In this article, I will elaborate on the different meanings of research, starting with the broadest definition and then narrowing to describe the kind of research that I've been doing throughout my Ph.D. years. [I never got around to finishing this article, though.]
Research in its broadest sense
The broadest definition of research I can think of is “learning about the state-of-the-art and then creating something new using that knowledge.” Under this definition, anyone who produces something new out of existing knowledge is doing some form of research. For example,
Many kinds of people do “research” when the term is used in its most colloquial sense. But usually people who do research for a living use the term to refer to something more specific: either applied research or academic research.
Applied research, sometimes known as R&D (Research and Development), involves creating an innovative product or policy with the goal of creating direct impact within the foreseeable future (e.g., the next three years). Many (but not all) people who work in applied research have a Ph.D. degree.
For example, technology companies often have R&D divisions where scientists learn about the state-of-the-art in some field and then create prototypes that improve on the best currently-available technology. The outputs of such R&D efforts are prototypes, patents, and tightly-guarded intellectual property that companies can potentially use in their future products to beat their competitors.
More broadly, an example of applied research in the humanities is when the government hires sociologists and psychologists to develop an innovative policy for, say, remedying a specific poverty issue plaguing a city. The output could be a set of policy recommendations, backed by state-of-the-art knowledge about current social and psychological circumstances surrounding the issue at hand.
Academic research, sometimes known as basic research, involves creating something innovative without the explicit goal of creating a direct impact on the world in the foreseeable future. Rather, the primary purpose of academic research is to contribute to the body of published papers in a particular academic field. Thus, publishing papers in peer-reviewed venues like journals or conference proceedings is the main goal of an academic researcher. Academic research is almost exclusively done by people with Ph.D. degrees (e.g., professors) or by students who are working with these people.
The academic peer-review process works roughly like so: A researcher first submits a manuscript describing his/her research findings. Then a committee of other researchers within the same sub-field (peers) reviews the paper and decides whether it is deemed worthy of publishing in a given journal or conference proceedings. Some journals allow papers to be conditionally accepted pending certain changes. Acceptance rates vary greatly by field and time. Some journals publish as little as 5% of submitted papers while others publish as much as 50% or more. Anonymity is central to the peer-review process in order to promote honesty in reviews; researchers are not supposed to know know who reviews their papers.
The criteria for what constitutes “acceptable” academic research are determined by the senior members in the field at a particular point in time; they are the gatekeepers who control which papers get published and which get rejected. The best way to get a sense of what is considered acceptable academic research is to read a few dozen published peer-reviewed papers in a particular field.
Although research in different fields are vastly different, one feature that all types of academic research shares is the use of bibliographic citations to refer to related academic papers. Each research paper must build off of the work of earlier related papers. It is impossible to publish a paper with few to no citations to related work.
Since the primary job of academics (e.g., professors) is to do academic research, they sometimes look down on applied research as not being “real research,” since applied researchers don't use the same methodologies and don't aim to publish peer-reviewed papers. On the flip side, applied researchers sometimes look down on academic research for not having a direct, short-term impact on the world.
Academic researchers can even look down on the research of their fellow academics. What kind of work counts as acceptable academic research depends greatly on one's field. For example, theoretical physicists might not consider anthropology researchers as doing “real” research because they haven't derived or proven their theories from mathematical first principles. Even within the same academic field, researchers in different sub-fields often criticize one another for not doing “acceptable” research. In the social sciences, for example, the quantitative researchers criticize the qualitative researchers for being too “soft” in their methods, and the qualitative researchers argue that numbers alone aren't enough to construct a compelling research contribution.
Due to these cultural factors, it is often very difficult to be taken seriously as an academic researcher in multiple fields or sub-fields, since one must make a significant investment in learning the styles and conventions of each sub-field. As a result, truly interdisciplinary work can be difficult to pursue.
Lastly, even though the primary goal of academic research is not to directly impact the world, the reason why governments and companies fund such forms of research is that a small fraction of academic research results have profound impacts on our world. For example, the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century made possible the computer revolution that transformed our world. However, the physicists who worked on quantum mechanics didn't give a damn about creating nifty futuristic technologies; they just wanted to figure out how the heck the universe worked!
My research sub-field
To get a sense of the specific kinds of research that I do and how it is evaluated, read Two Examples of HCI Research.
[I never got around to finishing this article.]