Preparing for your research can seem overwhelming – your supervisor gives you a list of papers to read and suddenly you have a long-term goal, which like many doctoral students, one might not achieve. Knowing this, carrying out research can be a difficult task, especially if you are not clear in your research fundamentals. If you are lucky, your supervisor would have recommended you to attend a course on research methods, something that is done every year at University of Turku. This kind of course is essential for new Doctorate students, who were previously involved in result-orientated Masters or an industry project.
You can find many books which detail best practices on research methodologies and recommend dos and don’ts. Read those. However, in the interim, here you will find information on common errors that should be avoided in your research. You will come across most of the highlighted issues in the beginning of your research period, and it is important to understand and take precautionary measures to ensure that your research is not hindered.
Full disclosure: these pointers are written from my perspective, from the perspective of a young researcher and this list is by no means exhaustive.
When your supervisor provides you with a list of 10 papers to read, what he does not mean is: Here is a list of papers that will tell you all you need to know about your research subject. Instead, he is providing you with a starting point in your research, some interesting material to read. As you start devouring this limited list, you will come across acknowledgements and references that point towards similar papers in your field of study. Make it a point to get hold of them and read them.
Researching a new subject can be daunting, and the worst thing you can do is to limit your resources. As a researcher, I would recommend reading one scientific paper a day for the first 6 months, even if it does not deal closely with your subject area. This will seem difficult at first, but start skim-reading these papers if you don’t wish to go in depth. As a young researcher, you will gain important insight into how scientific papers are crafted, and understand benefits of thorough research. When you are done reading over 150 scientific papers in these 6 months, you would have brainstormed more than 10 ideas for new research papers, ideas that have never been fully explored before.
Learn to read, and appreciate what you read.
As a researcher, I often confuse ‘What I know’ to be ‘What everyone wants to know’. Unfortunately, as proud of our research and its results we may be, they can sometimes make for incredibly tedious reading for someone who is merely reading our paper to check out the ‘latest releases’. A casual reader will first glance at the abstract, and if that holds the reader’s interest, he/she would jump onto the conclusion. Only if the conclusion presents something of value and consequence to the reader, he/she would read the rest of your paper. So when you are done presenting your analysis and information – try and read your paper with an outsider’s perspective. Is it useful? Is it interesting? Would you read your own paper?
Before starting our research, we are used to writing creatively, reading newspapers and occasional fiction novels. Unfortunately, none of the writing styles represented in these print media correlated to how an academic paper is presented. Academic papers are the epitome of intellectual learning resource, providing cutting edge research details in about 10 pages, a research that took many months to complete. As a researcher, you will be challenged to re-develop your style, change it to match that of academia. Changing writing styles is a difficult skill to hone, but keep working on it. This will take some time, but the efforts will be rewarded.
Facts and Assumptions:
During the course of our research preparatory period, we read numerous papers and meet different researchers and professors. Learning as part of our research is a steep curve, an exponential curve that keeps on going. My professor told me that at the end of the research, I will be an expert in my field. That is partially true. At the end of my research, I will be one of 100 people in the academia to know expertly about my subject area, but I still won’t be an all-knowing expert. Learning never stops whether you are an undergraduate, postgraduate or a doctoral student. If you start your research with this attitude, you will appreciate and leapfrog any challenges that your research throws up.
This brings me to the point of facts and assumptions. As we gain experience within our subject area and as a result, gain confidence – it becomes easier to make careless mistakes. We start assuming that since we are leading ‘experts’ in a subject area, our assumptions are more likely to be correct. This is one of the biggest reasons why scientists are belligerently challenged for their research based primarily on assumptions. Obviously we have to make a few assumptions, but when you do, run them by someone – maybe your supervisor or a colleague. Research should be based on facts, and it is easy to assume some aspects of a long research in order to positively affect its outcome. However, this is bad practice and something that should be avoided at all costs. Considering the vast impacts of your research on the scientific world, ensure that you base your research (and subsequent academic papers) on facts and not opinions and assumptions.
Acknowledgements and referencing:
As previously mentioned, you will come across numerous academic journals within the course of your research. Much of the work you undertake will most likely be inspired by one of the papers in these journals. It is good practice to acknowledge work that has been done before and relates to your research. This has two benefits – 1) You are respected for your wider research skills and 2) The scientific community appreciates new researches that are inspired from and/or rely on old researches. Think about it: 10 years later, would you not like someone to look at your work and acknowledge it in a cutting-edge research? Remember, the legacy lives forever.
This brings me to the point of referencing. There are many different referencing techniques and guides in the market, read those. Ensure that your referencing fulfills all criteria as requested by the journal. Some journals prefer APA style of referencing, others prefer Harvard style and then there are other referencing styles too. Make sure that any unreferenced facts or opinions have not been represented anywhere else before. Use plagiarism-checking software online to make sure your unattributed work is unique. If not, your paper could be rejected, or worse still, you could be reprimanded for using someone else’s work without proper attribution.
Have I missed something important? What advice would you give to a young researcher? Please share your advice here.