#001: What is Research?

"Words matter; unless, of course, you don’t know the definition of the words being used"

How many times have you heard, or read, “make sure you do your own research”? What does the mean? If I did know what means, how do I do my own research, anyway?

How many times have you heard, or read, “make sure you do your own research”? What does the mean? If I did know what means, how do I do my research, anyway?

When personal computers were first coming on the market in the early 1980s there was a lot to know about these machines and very few people who knew anything about them. I bought an Apple II+ and learned about it by devouring the manuals (I taught myself the programming language called Applesoft). There were a few magazines that I bought and read. Like EVERY article! Most of the time I had no idea what the article was about, but I read it anyway. By systematically reading everything, I learned the definition of the many words and made connections between one article and another. I was intensely interested in computers, so the reading was engaging whether I understood it or not. What about learning about something I wasn’t that interested in?

When I entered college to start my nursing education the lessons I learned from my experience learning about computers would be a great help. We weren’t asked to ‘do’ research, but we were asked to write about research that had been done. It was a lot of reading. I wanted to do well so I read everything I could on the topic of my paper. We had to list our references, too. In other words, we weren’t allowed to write about something unless we could prove that we got the idea from other people who did the research. We paraphrased them. It was like, “Hey, I’m saying this because these guys over here did look into it, did some ORIGINAL research, and they found this…”. It was daunting at first, but I learned there was a way to get closer to the truth when researching.

University was a different story. Not everything I did was intensely interesting. Many things were requirements for getting credit. I knew that I was going to produce some ORIGINAL research of my own and write about that. The requirements for writing a thesis are strict. I was looking, reading, and sorting hundreds of research papers to support, or discounted, my thesis. This, more than anything, taught me how to research my thesis than it was about my thesis. It matters what words you use to do an online search whether in Wikipedia, Google, or a medical database like Medscape. The database matter, too, but that’s for another post. The first-year courses were learning how to research: what is a credible source, how do you evaluate a research paper for credibility, how many credible papers do you need, are the statistical methods used the right ones, and many more angles to figure out what to believe. In many ways, scientific research is never complete. Instead, research should lean more toward one side than the other. There will always be unanswered questions. Where do you start?

There are many ways to learn how to research. The best place to start is understanding the language of research. Learning the language of nursing was quite the experience, but constant exposure to nursing ‘words’ eventually led to understanding what the words meant. This was the same for learning the words of research. There are over 600,000 words in the English language (1) and many words mean the same, or close to the same thing. How we phrase something is important. Words matter; unless, of course, you don’t know the definition of the words being used. Another thing I learned from university is to be skeptical of an article or statement unless it was coming from a credible source—one that I had already determined was OK to believe. Even so, it’s good to practice checking out your trusted sources once in a while.

Once I had a grasp of the language of research I was able to begin to understand the research papers and articles that supported my work. The next piece was to learn what makes research credible. What were the different levels of credibility for a research paper (2)? For example, why is ‘expert’ opinion is less credible than data from a large and lengthy double-blind randomized control trial? Unfortunately, there are many ‘experts’ today who are happy to pontificate their vast understanding. In my next post on research, I’ll talk about what makes statements believable—or not.

How do you research?


(1) English Live: How Many Words are There in the English Language?


(2) Reliability vs validity: what’s the difference?


Image Credits:

reliable vs valid: https://bit.ly/39nkaOZ

define definition: https://bit.ly/3m9HCEN

[this is an abbreviated blog post]

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