What is “research,” anyway?

I’ve been thinking recently (or maybe my whole career) about what the word “research” actually means. It’s a word I use frequently: in conversation, in the classroom, in one-on-one consultations. And broadly, too — in relation to acts of inquiry and information seeking, large and small, whether I’m helping a student look for an article for a discussion board post or mentoring a student working on designing their own semester-long study. I like the sense of intention the word engenders, the space it creates for reflection on process, how it helps us think about such work in terms of concepts, not just clicks.

It was some years ago, early in my career at my former institution in a reference and instruction librarian position, when I got my first inkling that my expansive use of the word “research” could feel prickly to others. I remember sensing, on a few occasions, some tension or territoriality with faculty. I think their concern stemmed from anxiety about the library’s possible infringement on their autonomy or their domain expertise. Being mindful to define my scope and intentions — specifying “research” as “library research” or research skills as “information literacy skills or concepts” and acknowledging “research” as a larger umbrella — seemed to help. 

Some years ago, when I first came into my current institution and position, I was eager to connect with my new colleagues around our undergraduate research program. Helping support and grow this program at my campus has since become a priority area for me. This work has also given me further perspective on another kind of disconnect, wherein I continue to use “research” expansively and some prefer to preserve the integrity of the term for the highest levels of inquiry and the most independent work. To me, though, it continues to feel both relevant and important to use the word early and often in order to show how small acts of inquiry can be part of a developmental spectrum, a way to build stepping stones to the ultimate “undergraduate research.” 

In the last year or two, the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR), a leader in this arena, updated their definition of “undergraduate research.” Their earlier definition — “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” — always gave me pause. It seems to me very much in the vein of reserving “research” for the loftiest pursuits. And that bit about “original,” especially, always tripped me up — a tall order and is that the point anyway? Their new definition feels more on track to me: “Undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative inquiry is fundamentally a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. With an emphasis on process, CUR defines undergraduate research as: A mentored investigation or creative inquiry conducted by undergraduates that seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge.” The revised version suggests that undergraduate research is much more about process and less about product, aligning with that developmental lens I’m aiming to foreground and justifying the use of “research” more broadly.

This all makes me think, too, about the podcast that my colleague and I have been working on, “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” (Shameless plug: you can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Season 2 coming soon!) We started “From Concept to Creation” because we think it’s important to share stories about research and inquiry — not just the what, but the why and the how. So often, when we talk about research, we just talk about the final polished product, our findings or outcomes. Those final products and takeaways are of course important, but our goal here is to take a peek behind the curtain to see how folks get from start to finish. By uncovering the steps, increasing the transparency of the processes of research and inquiry — the parts that are so often hidden from view — we think those projects and paths become more approachable to everyone. 

And that’s really the larger point behind this wordsmithing, or nit-picking some might say. It seems to me that framing even small acts of information seeking or other small forays into inquiry as “research” lends them a kind of gravity; it enlarges our thinking and can empower students to engage. 

I’d love to hear how you approach, define, and use the word research in an undergraduate context (or otherwise). Please share your thoughts in the comments.

3 thoughts on “What is “research,” anyway?”

  1. I like this focus on the process, not the product! I start off most IL sessions by asking students to define research. My favorite definition is paraphrased from The Craft of Research: research is gathering information to solve a problem. I use that definition so students can make the connections between the skills they use in everyday research to buy a new shirt or find the nearest Starbucks and academic research. I might start sprinkling in an edited version of the CUR definition: An investigation or creative inquiry that seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge. Being original is indeed a tall order! As Alan Jacob discusses in How to Think, we tell students to create original work but we’re really asking them to show evidence of their thought processes through a synthesis of resources.

  2. I often hear the word “research” used as a synonym for “search”, as in “I’m researching that” when, in fact, they are in the preliminary search stage. In my mind search is foundational to the dynamic, iterative research process. Librarians contribute in significant ways to this process. But, the research process consists of “twists, turns, and roller-coaster rides” (Gioia et al., 2013, p. 19) Research is more than searching for information or facts. Research entails critical thinking, evaluating, and putting different pieces of information together to find patterns, correlations and connections. In many cases, research requires engaging directly with data. The literature, meanwhile, may contextualize and assist the researcher with ideas and approaches to bring to their engagement with the data. Ultimately, I like to think of research as a stroll through the woods. There might not be a clear direction or destination, and you might get lost or need to double back multiple times, but it will also take you to unexpected and interesting places.

  3. This is a question I’ve found interesting and important. My response may be a little askew.

    Years ago in a course on science teaching methods, my instructor (a Texan, I believe) revealed to us the essence of scientific practice, which I believe can be generalized to “research,” either for everyday use or in its higher manifestations:

    1. Mess with stuff.
    2. Get ideas.
    3. Repeat.

    Or it could begin differently:

    1. Get ideas.
    2. Mess with stuff.
    3. Repeat.

    In the most general case, the “stuff” can include text that you read, or even your own ideas (though science itself demands we have some contact with real stuff).

    After some time and effort, your activity may produce an output. Your ideas, or your messing with stuff, may change your beliefs, or solve a problem, or they may be published in some form. If what you publish is a text that expresses your ideas, then you are probably a traditional scholar/researcher. On the other hand, if what you “publish” is a direct result of your messing with stuff, then you are probably a visual/performing artist or a technologist.

    This approach, via iterative activity and thought, is common to our everyday private lives, to many non-academic authors, and it is also found in the mentored inquiry of undergraduates. In these cases, our “publications” are more informal.

    I, too, hope for a general concept of research that can be shared across different topics, communities, and methodologies. At its core would be the practice of inquiry and what grows out of it.

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