1. When listening to the radio, watching the television or reading a daily newspaper it is difficult to avoid the term 'research'. The results of 'research' are all around us. A debate about the findings of a recent poll of people's opinions inevitably includes a discussion of 'research', normally referring to the way in which the data were collected. Politicians often justify their policy decisions on the basis of 'research'. Documentary programs tell us about 'research findings', and advertisers may highlight the 'results of research' to encourage you to buy a particular product or brand. However, we believe that what these examples really emphasize is the wide range of meanings given to the term 'research' in everyday speech.
2. Many of these everyday uses of the term 'research' are not research in the true meaning of the word. The ways in which the term is used wrongly are:
− just collecting facts or information with no clear purpose;
− reordering facts or information without interpretation;
− as a term to get your product or idea noticed and respected.
The first of these highlights the fact that, although research often involves the collection of information, it is more than just reading a few books or articles, talking to a few people or asking people questions. While collecting data may be part of the research process, if it is not undertaken in a systematic way, on its own and in particular with a clear purpose, it will not be seen as research. The second of these is commonplace in many reports. Data are collected, perhaps from a variety of different sources, and then assembled in a single document with the sources of these data listed. However, there is no interpretation of the data collected. Again, while data from a variety of sources may be a part of research process, without interpretation it is not research. Finally, the term 'research' can be used to get an idea or product noticed by people and to suggest that people should have confidence in it. In such instances, when you ask for details of the research process, these are either unclear or not forthcoming.
3. Based upon this brief discussion we can already see that research has a number of characteristics:
• data are collected systematically;
• data are interpreted systematically;
• there is a clear purpose: to find things out.
4. We can therefore define research as something that people undertake in order to find out things in a systematic way, thereby increasing their knowledge. Two phrases are important in this definition: 'systematic research' and 'to find out things'. 'Systematic' suggests that research is based on logical relationships and not just beliefs. As part of this, your research will involve an explanation of the methods used to collect the data, will argue why the results obtained are meaningful, and will explain any limitations that are associated with them. ‘To find out things’ suggests there is a multiplicity of possible purposes for your research. These may include describing, explaining, understanding, criticizing and analyzing. However, it also suggests that you have a clear purpose or set of 'things' that you want to find out, such as the answer to a question or number of questions.
5. Despite the variety of purposes and contexts of research, all research projects can be placed on a continuum (Fig. 1).
At one extreme of the continuum is research that is undertaken purely to understand processes and outcomes. Such research is conducted predominantly in universities as a result of an academic agenda. Its key consumer is the academic community, with relevantly little attention being given to its practical applications. This is often termed basic, fundamental or pure research. At the other end of the continuum is the research which is of direct and immediate relevance to practitioners that addresses issues they see as important and is presented in ways they can understand and act upon. This is termed applied research.