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Research FAQs

In learning about how to do research, there are several issues that often crop up. Here, the most common questions are dealt with. If you have a question relating to research practice that is not here, please e-mail it to Will Hughes. I do not undertake to provide an answer, but if it is a commonly asked question, we can add to this list of issues.

What is the difference between aims and objectives?

Aims are a general statement about what you wish to achieve, objectives are specific measurable targets that can be ticked off once achieved.

What is the difference between method and methodology?

Many people use the word methodology when they mean method, perhaps because it is a longer word and sounds more authoritative. However, the words are not interchangeable as methodology refers the study of method, method means the techniques used to do something. A thesis should contain a discussion of methodology, which is about how you choose the methods and why. It should also contain a description of the methods used to carry out the research. Incidentally, it is not good practice to refer to literature searching as a research method.

What is a literature search and why do I have to do one?

In order to contribute anything sensible to our collective knowledge in a subject, it is first necessary to understand the current state of knowledge in that field. The literature on a subject records progress in that subject. The literature section in a thesis should summarize and critically review the most important work in a field. The basis of any critical review is the evaluation of the quality of the research. Literature should be grouped together under themes and some attempt should be made to impose a structure into the report of the literature. Frequently, research studies involve pulling disparate aspects of the literature together. While you may not find anything on your topic, you may find lots on two or three seperate aspects of your topic that you can then pull together in your literature review section.

In reviewing literature, how do you tell good papers from bad ones?

Good papers tend to appear in scientific refereed journals. But beware! Many magazines call themselves journals because they think it sounds better. Magazines are designed to sell advertising space to targeted and highly specific market sectors. Academic journals are intended to record progress in a particular field. The key thing about a good journal is that it should be refereed. This means that all papers submitted to the journal are sent by the editors to experts in the field. These experts review the paper for scientific quality and robustness. If their criticism is major, the paper will be rejected for publication. The higher quality journals reject more papers than they publish, but it can be difficult to find the rejection rates. The highest quality journals publish their rejection rates, and their editors will be glad to tell you what the rejection rate is. If the author's identity is concealed from the referees, and vice versa, the process is called "double-blind" refereeing. Having established whether the journal is of an appropriate quality, the paper itself can be judged by the extent to which it makes clear what the researcher did in carrying out the work. Many papers do not report the results of research but simply form a record of what the author thinks about some aspect of the subject. Remember, if you cannot determine from the paper what research has actually been carried out by the author, it is the author's fault, not yours.

Who should do a PhD?

Anyone with a reasonably good first degree can take on a PhD. It is not necessary to be the best in your group or to have a first class degree. Most PhD students are ordinary folks. Any good Department should be able to arrange the kind training that you would need in research methods to prepare you properly for the research process, and for writing and defending a thesis.

What does a research question look like?

A research question builds upon your initial statement about what you want to study, and explains it in such a way that variables are identified and the nature of the data that you intend to collect is clear. It should also make clear how the data will be analysed.