Research methods

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Research bearing torch of knowledge (1896) by Warner
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This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, June 2017


See also Altmetrics | Hand-searching | Promotion and tenure | Research Portal for Academic Librarians | Systematic narrative review methods

Research methods, broadly speaking, can be either qualitative or quantitative (or combination, called "mixed methods") in nature. The most common research method in medicine is the randomized controlled trial though the clinical trial and the prospective study come a close second (see major clinical studies & trial types). Research methods are generally always supported by the literature in medicine, and should reflect current theories, medical practices and current best practices. To arrive at some understanding of patients' perceptions of care, qualitative methods in medicine have drawn from a range of social science methods such as focus groups, personal interviews, telephone surveys, email surveys and Internet surveys. In any case, whatever research methods are selected in medicine should fit within the parameters and the goals of the proposed research project or study. The method should also be used to elucidate an issue optimally and reveal a set of facts. Generally speaking, the phrase research methods refers to a range of ways to collect and assimilate data. The result will either support or refute the a priori hypotheses of researchers. The entire process from searching for existing research, framing questions and matching them to study design is called the scientific method. The history of the word "research" reveals it comes from the French recherche or rechercher: to search closely where "chercher" means "to search". Its literal meaning is therefore 'to investigate thoroughly'. Research is funded by public agencies, charitable organizations and private entities including many companies.

See also York University Library Research Roadmap

What is research?

Research involves the discovery and creation of new knowledge, and conducting enquiries into the nature of something, to discern or learn something new, or that has not been known before, is the basis of research. Defined differently by different disciplines, research is perhaps best understood by a number of key characteristics. First of all, research will often follow a structured, systematic and formal process which can be be replicated or designed specifically to solve complex local problems or to uncover new facts and relationships within a given context (Waltz and Bausell, 1981). As such, research is the process of seeking reliable answers to questions in an organized and objective way. (Payton, 1979). Research may be a controlled, empirical and critical investigation of hypothetical propositions (Kerlinger, 1973); it seeks to find the truth through study, observation, comparisons and experimentation. Searching for knowledge (often called objective truth) through systematic methods is a critical part of the research process (Kothari, 2006). Many of the definitions available suggest a link between good research which is systematic and well-designed studies which are directed towards objectively investigating problems.

Academic library research

Successful library research is defined as the systematic study and investigation of some aspect of library and information science where conclusions are based on the analysis of data collected in accordance with pre-established research designs and methodologies. Research is central to the ongoing development of library and information science (LIS) as a profession. Our field gains attention and stature through our collective research outputs and the concomitant advances in theory. When there is good basic evidence from which to make decisions, academic librarians can better serve their users and design better library services for users. In drafting new research and grant proposals, the selection of an effective research design is one of the more important considerations that can be made. Research design links various abstract concepts (and their associated observations or questions) to empirical methods. Research design should strike a balance between specificity and flexibility. Any design should be expansive enough to adapt to complexities that might arise in the course of researching a topic while keeping uppermost what is being investigated. Contrary to many claims made in the literature, there is no single method that one should follow in performing research. A range of options and alternatives should be investigated and an appropriate selection should be made the fits the research question accordingly. Many Canadian academic librarians lack confidence about doing research because they feel unprepared with respect to research methods. In some cases, research may even be discouraged within a library system or culture. Some librarians feel overburdened with daily tasks and cannot find time to even think about research. Finally, some librarians feel that conducting research is not important to their institution, supervisors or advancement. Each academic library system in Canada is a bit different.

To determine whether your research topic has been done before you can look at some scoping studies. See also Bayley L, Eldredge J. The structured abstract: an essential tool for (beginner) researchers.


The goal of research is to create new knowledge which can take one of these three forms:

  • Exploratory research, which structures and identifies new problems
  • Constructive research, which develops solutions to a problem
  • Empirical research, which tests the feasibility of a solution using empirical evidence

Types of research

Research can also fall into two distinct types:

  • Primary research
  • Secondary research

And, generally, deals with either of two types of research methods (though some studies combine both):

  • Qualitative research
  • Quantitative research

Case studies in library research

A case study is a particular method of qualitative research. Rather than using large samples and following rigid protocols to examine something, case studies involve in-depth, longitudinal examination of a single event: a case. Cases provide a way to examine something, collect data, analyze information and report on results. Researchers gain an understanding of why something happens and what might be important for further research. Case studies lend themselves to generating (rather than testing) hypotheses.

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