What Research Is: Definition And Characteristics

To answer what research is, perhaps it is best to look at what researchers do. Take a moment and imagine passing by a few research labs on your campus. What do you see?

Let me guess: disheveled men and women dressed in white-coats writing unintelligible equations on a board that looks like hieroglyphs. Or maybe entire rooms filled with bottles of various shapes and colors – a scenario straight out of Dexter’s laboratory.

Leaving the stereotypes associated with scientists aside, you’ll likely see ordinary people like you and me, hard at work, pursuing a life-long ambition for answering essential questions. And that’s what research is all about: discovering new knowledge.

Allow me to take five minutes of your time and join me in a brief dive to find out what research is and how you can make your study better than others.

What research is?

Definition: Research is the process through which new knowledge and ideas are discovered. It starts by asking a question and ends with formulating a conclusion, often by following the scientific method‘s rigorous approach. A good research project subscribes to a set of characteristics that makes it stand out. Respectively, research:

  • is built on the previous studies.
  • is doable.
  • can be replicated.
  • is incremental.
  • is linked to existing theory.
  • generates new questions and scope for further research.
  • is apolitical and ads value to society.

So what exactly are these factors, and how do they affect research quality? Let’s take a moment and have a look at each.

1. Research is built on previous studies

Do you remember how often your supervisor asked you to add more previous research to your study?

And no. This does not mean that we go ahead and copy the work of previous researchers. That’s plagiarism and something not easily overlooked by the scientific community. 

When we refer to adding previous studies to our research, we aim to create an academic background or review the existing literature as a basis for the subject we are researching. 

For example, if you study the impact of gender on leadership style and there are 100 studies previously conducted on this subject, the result of those studies should not be ignored.

You should refer to previous studies’ research methods and outcomes, driving parallels and comparisons, and argue what new knowledge your study adds to the existing body of literature.

After all, we are trying to add something new to the existing body of knowledge. How can we do that if we don’t know what or if something is missing in the first place?

Putting together a solid literature review for your study is a critical aspect of good research and something that will definitively help you understand the question you’re trying to answer.

2. Research is feasible

Often students feel under pressure to come with a research idea quickly and think that almost anything will do for their study. 

Research statements such as “the purpose of this study is to see why factories pollute the water if they are not regulated,” or “how artificial sweeteners affect people” not only lack a conceptual framework but also render the statement nearly useless. And certainly not feasible. 

Good research asks a question that can be answered and then provides the answer straight to the point. 

For instance, the correct way of formulating the above statements is “How do government regulations prevent factories from polluting the water” and “How does aspartame affect post-menopausal women suffering from indigestion.”

Remember, if you want your research to provide a good answer, you have to ask first the right question.

3. Research is replicable

Arguably, one of the significant advantages provided by the scientific method is the ability to replicate a study. The methods and procedures used to conduct an investigation are part of the methodology in research.

But why is replicating research necessary? 

Think of writing a new recipe hoping that you will get famous one day. You specify the brand for each product used, carefully measure each ingredient, describe each step in the process to the smallest detail, so on. In other words, make sure that anyone following the instructions in your recipe will achieve the same result. 

In the same way, researchers communicate their hypotheses and findings to the scientific community. Consequently, the scientific community may replicate your study by following the same methodology to reach similar conclusions.

If enough evidence to support a hypothesis is gathered, the hypothesis is accepted as a valid explanation for the phenomenon under study and becomes a theory. This is how progress is made.

Research replicability is essential because it helps other researchers verify our work, opens the door to new inquiries, leads to new scientific insights, and promotes further research for the betterment of us all.

4. Research is incremental

Every skyscraper starts with a foundation and is built brick by brick by countless engineers and constructors until it “reaches the skies.” 

In the same way, knowledge is built incrementally through the many contributions made by scientists spanning across many generations. No scientist is an island.

For instance, the first study conducted on language development did not answer all questions about the complexity of language, nor did the latest study on the matter.

And this is the great thing about researching the world that surrounds us. It never runs out of questions. 

5. Research is based on the theory

Since no scientist is an island, no research stands by itself either. The reality that surrounds us is a big, intriguing puzzle, and each time we answer a question the right way, we add a new piece to it. 

It would be unfair to expect a scientist to understand, through one humongous research, the impact of social media on adolescents or the risks of climate change and global warming. 

Such significant areas of study need to be split into smaller pieces and bound together through a common theme which is, in most cases, a fundamental, guiding theory.

6. Research should generates new questions

Research is cyclical in nature, and every answer we find will likely lead to new questions. In other words, it starts with a problem and ends with another one. This is a fundamental aspect of scientific inquiring

Greenwood and Levin (1998) described the research process as “a cycle of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and then returning to planning.” 

If we investigate the impact of social media on teenagers’ social skills and find a positive link, should we stop there? Absolutely not. 

For instance, we could conduct the same study on a larger population of teenagers and see if the results are consistent. Or maybe we look into gender differences in the association between age trends of social media, attention deficit, etc. 

As you see, research is a never-ending cycle of asking questions and finding answers. And that’s why learning is a process that never stops. 

7. Research should be apolitical and contribute to society

It is probably worth adding “at best” as special interests may often dictate the direction of a study and how funds in a research project are spent.

Scientific research is not something happening in a vacuum. It is a process that requires time, effort, and money. You probably already see the link between science and politics here.

One could argue (and won’t be anything new) that the synergy between the two became apparent when people found they could do research and ask others to fund it. Knowledge is power, and power is politics.

But should A.I. research be abandoned due to its increased misuse of societal control? Of course not. It is not knowledge that harms but rather the misuse of it. 

Though ideally should be apolitical, the ultimate goal of any research project should be the collective benefit. That way, the focus is on the long-term gains for many rather than the small immediate benefits for a few.

So, what is bad research?

Well, everything mentioned above and more. For instance, studies that make a poor contribution to the existing body of knowledge, plagiarise other studies, lack an important idea, manipulate or falsify data to prove a point might end up being labeled that way. 

Another technical aspect that may contribute to bad research is poor and inconsistent referencing.

The good thing is such practices are not very common in the scientific community. And when that happens, it earns the author a poor reputation often hard to fix.

A massive world of questions awaits to be answered out there. And that’s what research is all about: creating new knowledge in a never-ending quest of understanding the world around us. 

There is really no reason not to be original in your study. Here are some more tips to conduct research and make sure your study stays on the right path. Happy researching!

Cite this article in your research paper:



Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (1998). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change. Sage Publications, Inc. 

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