Research is a systematic inquiry of knowledge that usually involves the collection, compilation, and publication of coherent data. It aims to build on established lines of inquiry or develop new realms of study. The latter does not necessarily involve a complete break from established lines of inquiry. More often than not, it involves uncovering a unique perspective of an existing body of work.
Research requires meticulous work, and one can broadly break it down into five stages for ease of understanding.
1.The Exploratory Stage
This is the first stage of the process. I call this exploratory since the researcher is likely still uncertain about the topic. It involves active looking-out. Interestingly, the research topic can stem from anywhere and take different forms. Researchers can be inspired by news articles, books, documentaries, movies, debates, discussions, online forums, social media, or build on existing ideas or work. This stage is all about keeping oneself open to eccentricities and searching for a fascinating idea.
2. The Narrowing Down Stage
The researcher has done enough groundwork in the exploratory stage to identify the tentative research subject. In this second stage, the broad research area has to be narrowed down to something more specific. From the joy of ‘reading around’ the subject, the researcher will now have to somewhat ruthlessly filter their choices to reflect their specific topic. There can be little deviation or experimentation beyond this stage. The researcher will have to study the specific topic in-depth, and ideally bring out new, unexplored, or under-researched themes.
3. The Revisiting Stage
This stage not only follows naturally from the earlier stage but also should ideally take place simultaneously. Nonetheless, I’ve mentioned this distinctively for better clarity. Now that the researcher has chosen their topic, they need to be sure they know the recent trends and developments in the field. This is called the ‘pre-emption check’ and can be done by performing smart keyword searches online and in journal databases specific to one’s topic – the classic ‘literature search’. With the power of the internet today, researchers can reach further afield and identify other researchers or partners working in the same field with whom they might collaborate. The researcher may be disappointed to discover at this stage that their topic is redundant or does not add any value after all, so further work would be futile. This stage is the researcher’s opportunity to change and modify their topic to ensure that it is meaningful to the specific body of work.
4. The Writing Stage
This is not only important but also a very difficult part of research. The volume of data has to be compiled and presented in an interesting, comprehensible, and persuasive manner. Although it is essential to be vigilant and careful with our writing, excess caution can also be disruptive. It is a mistake to assume that there is no room for passion in academic writing. Ensuring proper formatting and good grammar are especially challenging and demand much effort.
If you are feeling uncertain about writing (or writing in the language that you are required to write in, which may not be your first language), it pays to invest some time trying out and using online writing tools to simplify this process. If you intend to publish in a particular publication, make sure you familiarise yourself with the House Style of that publication before you start. If necessary, you may need to hire an editor to help you. Naturally, it’s vital to avoid plagiarism and ensure the integrity of your research, and one way to do this is to ensure that you are fully and correctly citing any sources that you’ve used – including your own published work.
5. The Review Stage
Review is a crucial stage and one that is not always done as thoroughly as it should be. After months of grueling work, it is understandably difficult (impossible even) for researchers to review and reread their work as if they are a neutral reader. It’s difficult after being immersed in the subject to see and consider flaws and amendments. This is when an external peer reviewer is of great help. I usually share my final draft with friends and peers who have good subject knowledge and language skills. This ensures that the work is scrutinised from multiple perspectives, and the feedback helps fill the leaks and strengthens the final output.
The whole research process is an emancipating and self-realising process for a researcher. It is a knowledge pilgrimage where the researcher is ideally better off at the end. That is one of the reasons why research has to be undertaken with utmost sincerity: the researcher is after all satisfying their own intellectual quest and writing for the greater good simultaneously. In other words, the researcher is accountable to both themselves and the world at large.