What is research?

A Scrabble board covered in words
End of the game, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We all know what research is – it’s the thing we do when we want to find something out. It is what we are trained to do in a PhD program. It’s what comes before development.

The wonderful people at Wordnet define research as

Noun: systematic investigation to establish facts; a search for knowledge.

Verb: attempt to find out in a systematically and scientific manner; inquire into.

An etymologist might tell us that it comes from the Old French word cerchier, to search, with re- expressing intensive force. I guess it is saying that before 1400 in France, research meant to search really hard.

If I was talking to a staff member at my university, though, I would say that searching hard was scholarship. The difference? Research has to have an element of discovering something new, of creating knowledge. While a literature search is one important part of a research project, it isn’t research in and of itself. It is scholarship.

Don’t take my word for it. In Australian universities, we define research this way:

Research is defined as the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes.

This definition of research is consistent with a broad notion of research and experimental development (R&D) as comprising of creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humanity, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications

This definition of research encompasses pure and strategic basic research, applied research and experimental development. Applied research is original investigation undertaken to acquire new knowledge but directed towards a specific, practical aim or objective (including a client-driven purpose).

Drawn from the 2012 Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications for the collection of 2011 data.

What research sounds like

Sometimes, however, you don’t want to talk about ‘Research. If you are applying to a philanthropic foundation, for example, they may not be interested in your new knowledge so much as the impact that your work will have, your capacity to help them to solve a problem. Industry partners may also be wary of the ‘R’ word. “Don’t bank your business on someone’s PhD”, they will say (and I would wholeheartedly agree).

This creates something of a quandary, as the government gives us money based on how much research income we bring in. They audit our claims, so everything we say is research has to actually be research. So, it helps to flag it as research, even if you don’t say it explicitly.

Instead, you might talk about innovation, or about experimentation. You could describe the element of risk associated with discovery. Investigation might lead to analysis. There might be tests that you will undertake to prove your hypothesis. You could just say that this work is original and has never been done before. You could talk about what new knowledge your work will lead to.

You might describe a new method or a new data source that will lead to a breakthrough or an incremental improvement over current practice. You could make it clear that it is the precursor to development, in the sense of ‘research and development’.

It really helps if you are doing something new.

What research looks like

Sometimes, it isn’t what you say, but what you do. If your work will lead to a patent, book or book chapter, refereed journal article or conference publication, or an artwork or exhibition (in the case of creative outputs), then it almost always fulfills the definition no matter what you call it.

What research isn’t

Sometimes, you can see a thing more clearly by describing what it isn’t.

Research isn’t teaching. Don’t get me wrong – you can research teaching, just like you can research anything else. However, teaching itself is generally regarded as the synthesis and transfer of existing knowledge. Generally, the knowledge has to exist before you can teach it. Most of the time, you aren’t creating new knowledge as you teach. Some lecturers may find that their students create strange new ‘knowledge’ in their assignments, but making stuff up doesn’t count as research either.

Research isn’t scholarship. As I said at the start, a literature search is an important aspect of the research process but it isn’t research in and of itself. Scholarship (the process of being a scholar) generally describes surveying existing knowledge. You might be looking for new results that you hadn’t read before, or you might be synthesizing the information for your teaching practice. Either way, you aren’t creating new knowledge, you are reviewing what already exists.

Research isn’t encyclopaedic. Encyclopedias, by and large, seek to present a synthesis of existing knowledge. Collecting and publishing existing knowledge isn’t research, as it doesn’t create new knowledge.

Research isn’t just data-gathering. Data-gathering is a vital part of research, but it doesn’t lead to new knowledge without some analysis, some further work. Just collecting the data doesn’t count, unless you do something else with it.

Research isn’t just about methodology. Just because you are using mice, or interviewing people, or using a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC) doesn’t mean you are doing research. You might be, if you are using a new data set or using the method in a new way or testing a new hypothesis. However, if you are using the same method, on the same data, exploring the same question, then you will almost certainly get the same results. And that is repetition, not research.

Research isn’t repetition, except in some special circumstances. If you are doing the same thing that someone else has already done, then generally that isn’t research unless you are specifically trying to prove or disprove their work. What’s the difference? Repeating an experiment from 1400 isn’t research. You know what the result will be before your start – it has already been verified many times before. Repeating an experiment reported last year probably is research because the original result can’t be relied upon until it is verified.

Is development research? Development (as in ‘research and development’) may or may not be classified as research, depending on the type of risk involved. Sometimes, the two are inextricably linked: the research leads to the development and the development refines the research. At other times, you are creating something new, but it is a new product or process, not new knowledge. It is based on new knowledge, rather than creating new knowledge. If the risk involved is a business risk, rather than intellectual risk, then the knowledge is already known.

Help me out here – what are your favourite words that signal research?


  1. currently, im doing postgraduate education for both social science and technological science. i can’t help but to feel slightly amused by your assertion ..

    “Don’t bank your business on someone’s PhD”, they will say (and I would wholeheartedly agree).

    this is quite true when you’re doing phd for social science. however, if your phd is technologically inclined, the business entity who intends to commercialize it, may have to bank on your research for success.

    illustrating this would not be a feat.

    are you using google? well, did you know that google was actually a phd research?
    if they hadn’t banked on page’s and brin’s research, there wouldn’t be google today, would it?
    presently, it is rumoured that google and microsoft are competing for phd graduates from ivy leagues and what not.

    personally, i’ve met a couple of ‘technopreneurs’ who have successfully commercialized their phd research. though they may not be as successful as google, financially speaking, their achievement should not be trivialized.


    • Thanks, pikir kool.

      You are right, of course. I’m a big fan of businesses who provide scholarships for PhD students. It is a great way for the student to get funded, and for the business to get a bit of an edge.


  2. ‘Chercher’, the modern French word for chercier means to explore or get. Re-chercher adds the concept of re- or ‘again’ to indicate looking-again, usually on the basis of evidence or experience pointing to the object of the search being in a particular place, hence to ‘search really hard’. French-speaking individuals will ‘rechercher’ a criminal on the run, ‘rechercher’ the more probable destinations of a friend who is out shopping, and so forth.
    I agree Australian businesses consider PhD graduates are overpriced ‘scholars’ and ‘technicians’ trained to avoid risk, hold similar opinions, and assume as little responsibility for group/enterprise outcomes as possible. What shocks me is your suggestion graduates should misinform potential employers by suggesting they might be able to innovate, discover, and lead the business toward new markets and technologies by simply choosing hot button words.
    In France, universities are centres of ‘learning’ where individuals experience a rich intellectual environment that the government believes ‘develops’ curiosity, opens up new horizons, tests principles to live by, and rewards leadership. The ‘elitist’ French haut écoles are often criticised by Anglo-saxon countries, but I say the learning environment, which – by the way – focuses less on methodology, reflects human diversity (unique identity). The Australian system is based on an equal opportunity social objective and is funded to produce an intellectual resource pipeline .


    • Hello Gordon

      Thanks for your information on ‘Chercher’.

      I was not trying to suggest that anybody misinform anybody else with the use of words, hot button or otherwise, but I can understand how you read it that way.

      I wrote that section, in part, as a guide to staff who are trying to satisfy two audiences – the people who are providing funding and the government auditors who are deciding what is counted as research. The easiest way to satisfy the government auditors that something is research is to call it ‘research’. However, in some funding situations, that simply isn’t appropriate. One way forward is to describe the work using words other than ‘research’ that signal to the auditors that the work satisfies the criteria for research.

      I’m afraid that I’m not experienced enough with research in France to reply to your comparison of the French and Australian research training environments. I work within the Australian environment, and try to do the best job that I can.


  3. Thank you for this post – very relevant for me right now and thought-provoking. I’m 13 months into my PhD investigating communication designers’ engagement with research and I’m astounded that there is so little consensus in academic literature (not to mention in professional practice) about what legitimate research is.

    It seems that any definition or criteria for research that I find, I can also find an example of research that contradicts it. For example, in your post you note “data gathering is a vital part of research” but when I included this in my definition, a highly respected scholar in my field pointed out that research in his own field of Philosophy did not involve data gathering, yet he believed constituted research. So I’m still thinking about it : )


    • Hi Emma

      Your philosopher is right, of course. Some researchers are working with ideas and recombining them, reworking them, creating new ideas.

      I deal with applied research, mostly, and I guess my definition reflects that.

      I would love to see your definition when you are done.


  4. Your article is rad. It shaped the whole concept of research in my mind. And I think that it exactly is a ‘re- search’, where you will be searching the facts again & again, on grass root level, following a sequence of systematic processes to reach a novel & efficient conclusion .


  5. Thank you for the post on ‘What is Research?’ Interesting and useful posts and comments. Since I am considering naming a blog page The Synthesist, I got off on a tangent relating to the words thesis, synthesis, etc. A couple thoughts …

    I think you may be undervaluing the function of “synthesis” when it is only referred to in relation to encyclopedic summaries of existing knowledge, I think true synthesis is when 2 or more ideas combine to create a new idea. I also learned, when I served a literacy tutor, that “synthesis” is considered to be a more sophisticated learned literacy skill than “analysis,” which I thought was interesting. We live in analysis culture, creating deep silos of knowledge, with few strong horizontal threads that truly support “learning.”

    Interesting comment on French value of learning as the highest human capacity. Not feeling that here in America.

    Also, I was hoping to see in your answer of what research IS, a reference to the importance of questions and question formation.



    • I’m prompted to comment by Amy’s:

      After a long time working outside of academia I’m returning to begin a Masters in Disaster Communication and Resilience; I’m still at that early stage of being excited by ideas, and not quite ready to decide on a research topic. What I am sure of is that, in the area of disaster (post-typhoon for example) one of the biggest challenges is that the specialists don’t feel comfortable talking to each other and therefore need the generalist communicators / networkers to listen to what they are on about, develop a general understanding of what they are saying, and link them together with people in other specialist areas whose work might be strikingly different but potentially have enormous potential for synergy/ synthesis.

      And I doubt that any research is being done on this.


  6. This is perhaps a slightly different point of view/perspective from a reasonably long career in applied research, and I am now enrolled in a Doctorate program.

    What I find really interesting is pondering where does ‘innovation’ especially in terms of various forms of professional practice or creative endeavour actually come from, if not from ‘research’ as you describe it above? (I often heard and still hear people in industry or the professional practice word using the word ‘research’ to describe an often fairly informal literature search to back up what they have already decided to do in practice – but that is probably another story.)

    However, I often wonder where do the ideas for ‘innovation’ actually come from?

    When they are drawn from research conclusions (or initially drove the research question) this probably makes that particular research more valuable from a funder point of view.

    But it kind of begs the question as to what comes or should come first especially in terms of good applied research.

    And then finally, where does creativity come in – especially when deciding what to research, and how to interpret the data and conclusions from the research?

    I am off to think of some more concrete examples and to ponder the nexus between research – innovation and creativity.

    BTW love this discussion so far!


    • Hi Jane

      The nexus between research, innovation and creativity is a great topic! If you are interested in writing it up as a blog post, let me know. We’d be happy to consider it for a guest post on the Research Whisperer.



      • Jonathan
        Let me think about it – this has provoked my thinking about the issues but not sure if I am there yet in terms of writing a post about it.
        I will let you know!


  7. Well, it certainly was interesting to see this comment thread come back to me after three years.

    I was about to reply to this person named Amy who said she was going to start a blog called The Synthesist to tell her that I had myself started a blog called Neon Synthesist.

    Then I realized it was myself. Strange mirror of time. In 2014, I discovered there was a rock band called Synthesist and named it Neon Synthesist instead, since it tends to be provocative.

    There are some fun posts there like “What is an Idea?” and “Why Philosophy Isn’t Dead” and, funding researchers might like, a four-part series called “The Philanthropy Games” … but alas this page will probably go away. No subscribers that I could tell.




  8. Research is creating new knowledge through systematic investigation and analysis of data. Research leads to development but not in all cases and Repetition of a research already done can be said valid only when we try to prove or disprove it. It sounds great!!!


  9. Research is the effort done by an individual or group of people, to explore something new. It can be an effort to prove the same matter but applying new methods, it also can be done to prove a different findings.


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