What makes for good research?
February 24, 2008 2:35 PM   Subscribe

What makes for good research? I'm looking for books, essays, blogs or personal anecdotes on pretty much any aspect of the question.

I'm interested in everything from philosophy ("What makes a question worth answering?") through methodology and on down to the super-practical ("How do you keep your notes organized?").

I'm a first-year grad student in linguistics, so ideas from linguistics, cog sci and anthropology are especially interesting. But stuff from any field and geared towards any audience would be great. I follow thelastpsychiatrist.com, for instance, even though I'll never be doing anything like the clinical research he writes about, just because he's so opinionated on how it should be done.

Long story short, I want to expose myself to as many points of view as I can on the subject. Where should I look that I might not have considered?
posted by nebulawindphone to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Divide your time about evenly between less ambitious projects that you're sure will be successful and more ambitious projects that may fail.
posted by escabeche at 2:50 PM on February 24, 2008

Research isn't an end in itself. The right question is, "What makes research results worthwhile?" Presumably research is in support of a thesis or other scientific conclusion, and the goal of the research is to support that thesis or conclusion.

Feynman talked about it here.
It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.
In other words, research is "good" if it shows that you did your very best to disprove the thesis you claim to have proved. Good research is the utter opposite of confirmation bias.
posted by Class Goat at 3:32 PM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Craft of Research is an acknowledged classic in this field of inquiry. I recommend it.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:51 PM on February 24, 2008

What do you have a passion for? What do you love? What would keep you up at night thinking about it? What would you be thinking about while you are eating, drinking, socializing, sexing...everything. What is THAT thing?

Now, commit yourself to find out the truth about something that you don't TOTALLY understand.

Yeah...that seems hokey. But you'll be dilligent about it. I HATE research that exists just to build a name for the researcher. Don't be that guy.

Whether its microbiology, or the nepali language...find something you love and pursue it like a 13 yr old who just figured out how to masturbate.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:14 PM on February 24, 2008

I'm in a quantitative social science program.

I'd say good research is:

- expanding a theory in a new and interesting way
- using rigorous methods
- using methods well
- looking at a population in a new way or look at a population that hasn't been looked at before
- inspires other research

Maybe use the guidelines for a good theory (Popper, 1963)?
posted by k8t at 4:35 PM on February 24, 2008

Let me recommend Getting It Published which will teach you a bunch about good academic writing, especially if you're planning a career in academia. Germano's other book From Dissertation to Book will also be useful, but perhaps after your degree.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:44 PM on February 24, 2008

You asked for personal anecdotes, so at the risk of sounding a bit hokey, good research tells a story. (Note: it takes quite a few years to accumulate enough data to tell a good story, so this may not be of immediate help to you.) People who've been working in a field for a while can usually give a very good seminar because they have a story to tell: at the beginning they asked a question, in the middle they followed the clues through many twists and turns, and at the end they reached an interesting and satisfying conclusion.

The best speakers present their research as a story, introducing the characters (grad students, postdocs, competitors, etc) as they enter the plot, developing a bit of excitement with unexpected results, and finishing up with a happy ending. With a nod toward the ongoing work (the sequel), of course. Sometimes the story arc spans more than one student's time in the lab, so the student may not be around to hear how the story ends. But at heart, good research is a lot like a mystery novel.

Over the course of graduate school you may not be able to follow many twists and turns in your research. But over the course of your career you can definitely hope to acquire a fascinating story to tell, so keep looking for the unexpected results that might lead you down a new path that nobody would have guessed at the beginning. Naturally, all the usual rules about doing good solid science still apply (see previous comments), but you can think of good research as a story that's waiting to be told.
posted by Quietgal at 8:26 PM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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