Defining research

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

I’ve been talking quite a bit here so far about research and I realize that I haven’t really defined my terms. On the one hand, “research” is a term that doesn’t seem to need defining. You know it when you see it. For example, when you type “research” into Pixabay, the images that come up show things that are recognizably related to the idea of research. There’s a guy staring at a bunch of notes pinned to a board. A microscope. A book with some glasses resting on it. A woman sitting at a computer while sipping from a cup of coffee. Stacks of books in a library. Another woman in a white coat in a lab. Beakers. Charts. Graphs.

Research. Obviously.

But maybe it’s not so obvious.

I mean, how is it that both a beaker and a book represent research? How is it that the woman in the lab coat is doing the same thing as the woman sitting at her computer? Is research the scientific method? Or is it poring over books in a library? Is it an internet search? Or is it something that has to be represented by charts and graphs? The ACRL Standards for Information Literacy said research is finding, evaluating, and using information, preferably the kind you find in a library. The ACRL Framework changed this to “a reflective discovery of information.” But the Office of Human Research Protections says that it’s a systematic investigation intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.

All of these refer to research in an academic or scholarly context. What about other contexts? What about a journalist who interviews an expert on a subject they’re writing about? What about a fiction writer who calls a local winery to ask them what the “wire thing” on a bottle of wine is called? What about a pet owner who does a Google search to find out if grain free food is actually good for your pet?

All of it is research.

This is both surprising and not. Like I said, when it comes to research, you know it when you see it. But the word itself tends to conjure mental images of academic or scholarly contexts. Maybe scientific ones. All other types of research are usually referred to as “information seeking” but the difference seems mostly to be one of formality. “Information seeking” is what “research” is called when it’s in its pajamas.

You would think librarians would know this but I think we’re actually the worst of all. It’s not that we believe that information seeking has to take place in a library in order to be called research. It’s just that sometimes we talk and teach like we think it should and we do this without realizing that we’re imposing a very narrow view of research onto the people we’re trying to talk to or teach and maybe that’s part of why we struggle so much to be taken seriously by those people.

Thinking of research in any other way is a big shift from a librarian point of view because it means potentially taking ourselves out of the equation, or at least acknowledging that we don’t always have to be part of the equation. There are some forms of research in which it’s perfectly appropriate not to use library sources. Being an effective researcher isn’t about how well or how often you use the library. It’s about knowing what’s most appropriate for the context in which you are conducting research.

Which brings us back to the people in the Pixabay images: the guy staring at the notes on a pinboard, the woman sitting at a computer, and the woman in the lab. None of them are in a library but they’re all doing research. Different types of research, yes. But research just the same. So how do you define research in such a way that captures not just these activities but some of the other ones I’ve mentioned as well? Library-based definitions don’t quite cut it on their own.

Here is my proposal:

Research is any formal or informal investigation undertaken to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.

You may or may not agree with that, but that’s a simplified version of the definition I used in “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” and that’s the one I’m usually thinking of when I talk about research here.

Glad we got that cleared up.








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