Reading Research or Understanding Research?

183670403_f16276f7c5_mThere’s this line in A Fish called Wanda that kept coming back to me last week: “Apes don’t read philosophy!”. “Yes they do Otto, they just don’t understand it”!

I’d been all week at a series of productive meetings but the point was being made time and again by various people “I read research”. Later on, I get into a conversation with a colleague on a different issue and the same point is raised, they were expected to read research.

Perhaps I was getting aggrieved – as a researcher in times past I know the time and effort it took me to truly understand and analyse hundreds of research papers to discover, truly and deeply, what the whole thing was about and if there was any veracity in the claims being made. Perhaps things are different and you don’t need any skills above literacy to be able to decode any piece of research. Of course, it also begs the question as to what research is anyway!

Starting there, a quick search comes up with a reasonable point. Research is (thank you, Google!) “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” For me, there are two key points. It needs to be organised and thorough, to not leave anything unexamined or overlooked. That’s systematic. I was taught you work out from a point until the papers made no contribution to your ideas and there were the boundaries. Fair enough if you don’t know where to stop. It must have worked for me as I gained the degree but it did create over 1000 references! The second point is that you must establish facts and (ideally, but not necessarily) reach conclusions. Let’s not dive into the “fact” debate here; just assume that others would agree that it appears to be a sensible, realistic element in answer to some question. Here’s my point, how can you assess evidence if you don’t what the fundamental concepts and constructs of your topic are?  Reading a book doesn’t make you an author, why should reading a research paper make you a researcher? It could be worse. By reading a paper are you then thinking you are a researcher when you are clearly not? I hear so many people, especially in education, who say “I’ve read some research papers and they say that…” when it goes on to some conclusion that they might not be able to justify.

Let me say why I’m not in favour of the current vogue for “reading research”. To me, the very phrase demeans the painstaking craft that is the lot of the true researcher. It takes time to truly know your subject and its minutiae. It’s in these finer points that debates are won and lost (and probably research grants!). Also, it suggests that any piece of work can be considered research. I take time writing a shopping list – I just don’t call it research however long it takes me to see what’s lurking at the back of the fridge and needs replacing. Research and the correct dissemination of research is an artform that takes time to acquire. I’m on slightly firmer ground here having had many papers rejected and also, as a journal peer-reviewer, knowing what it takes and what to look for. “Reading research” gives a false sense of knowledge or security – no you don’t know research if you’ve read 5 papers, or probably fifty for that matter.2213755405_566078a7e8_m

So, I’m on a crusade to get the perspective back into research. It takes time, it takes effort and it should mean that your really know your subject with all its variations. It might well take some time but that might well be the point. There’s too much of the “load, fire, aim” mentality in many areas today and that includes education. Becoming a good researcher needs a variety of skills and an ability to be humble enough to know you will never truly master your area of expertise. Consider Hamming’s oft-quoted research speech.

Finally, I’d also like to add my 2 cents to the search for quality in research. If all you need to do is to read enough research to be able to talk effectively in a field then consider the following (or post and tell me what you’d add or delete!):

  • If the topic is new to you, start with an overview and work into your area. Where does it sit in the canon of the topic? Can you make a simple mind map connecting all these thoughts (surprisingly useful despite this outward simplicity)?
  • What is the key philosophy under which research in your area runs (or is there more than one?). Looking at the theoretical roots of the paper and its debates can lead to you finding issues or flaws with the way the argument has been put forward;
  • Look at the index of several books or online sources on your topic. Who are the key authors? What are they writing about? How do others view them? Here, you’re building up an understanding of the key people who have gone before you and what they’ve said. Build up a file on key people and ideas;
  • What evidence supports the claims? Look carefully. Where was it gathered, how was it gathered? Is the obvious bias in selecting evidence? I found this student version whilst searching!

So, let’s make a stand! Research demands more than a couple of papers. Let’s make it systematic and rigorous!


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