Any good research has to be a systematic process of collecting, collating, and analysing information to better our understanding of the phenomenon under study.

Research is a term that challenges easy definition. Like socialism, it may mean different things to different people. It involves inquiry and search for knowledge. A sharper definition would be diligent inquiry or examination to seek or revise facts, principles, theories, or applications. Any good research has to be a systematic process of collecting, collating, and analysing information to increase our understanding of the phenomenon under study. A carefully planned and performed investigation searching for previously unknown facts.

There are different kinds of research, such as basic research, quantitative research, qualitative research, applied research, descriptive research, analytical research, market research, and research and development. Applied research for example is original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge, but is directed primarily towards a specific practical objective like improving public health in a country.

It may also be original investigation or development of an already reported finding with emphasis on application to society.

A cynic once asked, “Why do you call it re-search? Does not the word ‘search' carry the message?” After all, it is only a cynic's show of scepticism. Research means much more than just search. Any research is a serious mental adventure driven by intellectual curiosity. It is a way of thinking. We raise questions at every stage of progress. We analyse cause and effect. We have to be free from bias and prior decision of the result that would emerge. We should have an open mind.

We stop and patiently assess our work, take feedback, and resort to essential course correction. We pay attention even to minute detail. Keenness in observation is the hallmark of any research. It is not just a one-time effort of searching and leaving it, if we do not succeed in that first attempt. Without persistence and sustained effort, no researcher can reach his significant findings.

We have to be driven by a burning desire to blaze a trail. You must have heard the story of Socrates etching the value of burning desire in the mind of his disciple Plato by almost drowning him and releasing him just before the final moment. The mentor wanted the disciple to develop the desire for knowledge as he desired a breath of air at the verge of suffocation. There is no greater motivation for research than the burning desire that comes from within. The famous research chemist and inventor Hudson Maxim (1853 – 1927) said, “All progress is born of inquiry. Doubt is often better than over-confidence, for it leads to inquiry, and inquiry leads to invention."

Any process we find has to be repeatable. It should not be just a one-time wonder. If we or anyone else cannot replicate the result, it is no result at all. It has neither validity nor reliability. Our work should not be a carbon copy of another person's work. It has to be unique and original. Often we may be moving in a long dark tunnel. When we see light at the end, we rejoice over it with a sense of fulfilment.

Attributes of research

We mentioned that research may be quantitative or qualitative. We may not be able to make a strict classification, consigning the two into watertight compartments. There would be quantitative and qualitative elements in any research. The proportion may vary depending on the discipline and the area. But in research that is predominantly quantitative, the approach would be structured where all the elements, including questions to be asked to respondents, are predetermined. In qualitative research, on the other hand, the approach would be flexible and unstructured.

So also, the classification of research into pure and applied cannot be too sharp. Any research would have an area of application though not immediately perceivable. Perhaps its result may prove to be a springboard for fresh research. But there are indeed efforts in applied research with specific well-defined objectives. The targets would be fixed beforehand. Often the question would be how quickly you achieve them. For example, industries facing stiff competition or countries with serious security threats may demand innovative methods for survival. The researcher has no option but to bring up new ideas, equipment, or styles of operation. History tells that the adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention' is very often proved right, in times of war.

There are instances of research where the researcher has no control over the variables, as in fact-finding surveys in social sciences. Descriptive research involves such surveys. The physical or biological science researcher, on the other hand, often plays with different variables and watches the effects, which are subjected to analysis leading to research findings. Even in such cases, deriving correlation between data from a survey and analysis of the data is a valuable research element.

Yet another category is conceptual research that is based on an idea, theory, or a concept on which the researcher further builds to reach new theories. Not only thinkers in philosophy or ethics, but experimental scientists are sometimes called up for conceptual research.

Establishing cause and effect relationship may be rather complex in certain contexts as in the study of social sciences. We may have practically no control over any of the variables involved. For example, if we are asked to determine the impact of the policy of liberalisation and globalisation on poverty alleviation in India, we have no control at all on any of the factors involved. Collection of data from a vast population may prove to be a Herculean task, which could perhaps be undertaken only by a large establishment as a department of the government. Of course, the findings of such studies have applications of giant magnitudes as in the formulation of national policies of finance and social work. But in the realm of physical sciences, laboratory experiments permit easy control of desired parameters for establishing cause and effect relationships or interdependence.