Foundations of Research
What is research? How is research conducted? What tools and skills are required to address a scientific question? Throughout this lesson we will answer these questions to help you become an effective and unbiased researcher and consumer of information.
What is research?
Research is a systematic process of examining sources or data to draw conclusions, establish theories and facts, and develop new questions to drive future investigations. While you may think that research is an activity reserved for scientists, you likely conduct research in your everyday life. For example, collecting and analyzing information on a topic to help answer a homework question is considered research.
For more details on the steps involved in answering scientific questions, please visit our lesson on
Scientific terms can sometimes be confusing and ambiguous. The words below are often used interchangeably in everyday conversion but actually have significantly different definitions:
Fact: Observations about the world (ex: water freezes at 0°C)
Hypothesis: a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation (ex: the sun will rise tomorrow morning)
Theory: A group of linked ideas or accepted beliefs that explain and phenomenon (ex: all organisms evolve by means of natural selection)
Law: A statement based on repeated experimental observations that describes some phenomenon of nature (ex: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction)
Critical thinking is essential to research and informed decision making. By definition, critical thinking is a careful and unbiased analysis of information in order to come to a conclusion or judgement. This concept can be better understood using examples:
Imagine you needed to purchase a new computer, there are many to choose from, and they all have different features. You probably know what you want to achieve with your new computer, maybe it’s for your study or your work. Looking at the different laptops’ features then actively evaluating how they will help you achieve what you need from a laptop is critical thinking.
Here is another example: Imagine you want to invest your money in the stock market. You wish to invest in a stock that will result in the greatest net profit. You see advertisements from a startup company that is creating a new high-end robotic lawnmower. To decide if it is worthwhile investing in this company, you will want to gather as much information as possible. This may include:
How reputable is the company?
Do consumers actually want/need this product?
Are there any factors that might halt or delay the production or selling of the lawnmower?
Are there other robotic lawnmowers currently on the market? How does this new machine compare to those currently being sold?
These are just a few questions that may help you decide if you should invest your money in this company. Additionally, you will want to make sure that your answers to these questions are coming from credible sources (more details in the following section). This process of asking questions, analysing research, and coming to a conclusion or judgement is critical thinking.
Here are some general questions that critical thinkers will ask:
For more information, watch this TED Ed video on critical thinking
Evaluating Sources of Information
We mentioned in the previous section that critical thinking and informed decision making requires the use of credible sources of information, regardless of whether the information comes form a book, newspaper, website, or peer reviewed journal article.
Credible sources base their information on facts whereas non-credible sources base their information on personal opinion or incomplete/inaccurate facts. Here are a few ways in which the two can be differentiated:
Who is the author?
Are they an expert in the field?
What are their credentials and affiliations?
When was the source published or last updated?
Is the subject area rapidly changing? Is the source still relevant?
How is the information organized and presented?
Is the information appropriately cited and referenced?
Is the content in line with other sources?
Objectivity and reliability:
Does the author’s opinion appear to be biased?
Is the author/organization recognized and respected in the field?
The more you practice critical thinking and evaluating sources, the more you will notice the abundance of misinformation in mainstream media. Take for example the following headlines:
This is a falsely informed tweet regarding the death of Queen Elizabeth II. While the BBC News may seem like a credible source, you would want to check and make sure the content of this tweet is in line with other sources.
This is presented in a misleading manner. The article actually discusses the high employee turnover rate (near 100%) at the restaurant Panera.
This is clearly an inaccurate headline regarding the sinking of the Titanic. This information is not up to date.
Check out the following site to see how easy it is to create and convince, yet inaccurate, headline: https://breakyourownnews.com
With this new information, you are now ready to conduct effective research in an unbiased manner. Remember to ask questions regarding the authority, timeliness, content, objectivity, and reliability of your sources. This will ensure that you are only critically analyzing logical and fact-based information when answering your research questions.