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What Is Research?

Research asks and answers questions

When you think of research, you probably picture a scientist in a lab developing a new vaccine or historians debating the causes of the Civil War. But research is something we all do almost every day. You do it when you check your cell phone for the latest weather update, ask a friend whether the food they ate at a new restaurant was any good, or search Autotrader for a reliable used car. This is research at its most basic level - asking a question and then answering it. Whether it's the formal research scientists conduct or the informal research you do every day, research is the process of finding answers to questions. The amount of work you invest and the methods you employ differ, but both you and the scientist are trying to learn something you don't already know, either the solution to a problem or an increased understanding of the world.

The research required for a college research paper falls between these two ends of the spectrum. You won't perform your own experiments in a lab but your questions can't be answered with a quick Google search.  The following steps outline an appropriate and effective research strategy: identify the questions you want to answer, gather information from appropriate sources to develop your perspective, then analyze your results to draw and support your conclusions. At the end of the process, you'll not only discover the answers to your questions, you'll also learn how to find, evaluate and organize information, defend a point of view, and present your ideas to others in a meaningful way.

Characteristics of research:

  • Research creates new knowledge. Research doesn't mean parroting all the information you can find on a topic. It requires analyzing, studying and dissecting the topic to come up with new answers or a fresh perspective.
  • Research generates more questions. In the process of answering your first question, new questions might crop up. For instance, you may ask yourself why you have blue eyes while your best friend's are brown.  You discover eye color is determined by the amount of melanin in the iris.  You wonder why this amount differs from person to person which leads you to learn about genetics. Then you want to know why some genes are dominant while others are recessive, and the process continues.
  • Research is cyclical. Although you'll follow a step-by-step process, you may find yourself circling back and repeating the same steps as you ask new questions or adjust your focus. Think of research as a circle rather than a straight line.
  • Research is an ongoing conversation. Scholars analyze, dissect, evaluate, debate and build on one another's research. You'll do likewise in your paper, adding your own voice to the discussion.
  • Research can be challenging. Writing a college research paper requires a lot of time, energy and effort. You may experience feelings of uncertainty and frustration. This is a normal part of the process.