The research process begins by identifying a gap in our knowledge or our understanding. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about scientific research or real life. In real life, for example, you might be going to Lisbon and you need to find a good, cheap hotel near the city centre. Or you might need to figure out how to make carrot soup. But hold onto this idea: research fills a gap in our knowledge. If you don't have a knowledge gap, you're not doing research, you're just noodling around on the internet.
Scientific research involves adding to knowledge. In order to do this, you must know the current state of knowledge, the current theoretical approaches and current best practice in terms of measurement.
All biostats people have the experience of the person who comes in with a great research idea that looks like this:
The person: I have sixteen patients with rapid cycling mood disorder
Me : So what are you going to research?
The person: The patients with rapid cycling mood disorder
Me : No, I meant what question are you going to research. What do we not know about rapid cycling mood disorder?
The person : Oh…
Of course, those sixteen patients are a research opportunity. But they aren't a research project until we can find a question that will add to our knowledge, and that can be answered with sixteen patients. Often our job supporting student research is to help the student identify the research opportunities in their environment and then to see if any of these opportunities can be used to study a question that we need answered.
The introduction to your research paper should do three things
1. It should outline the current state of knowledge.
2. It should identify a gap in that knowledge and
3. It should state the research question in clear, simple language.
Being able to write the first two sections is critical. There will be no step 3 – no research question – without the first two steps.
But what about a great research question that just sort of pops into your head? I hear you ask?
Two things: first, this question may have a well-known answer. You need to know the literature to avoid duplicating work already done.
The second is to do with connectedness. Research is like a jigsaw. The best contributions are made by people who find the edge of the work in progress and join up with it. Sciences advances because each piece of research links into the existing body of knowledge like a jigsaw piece.
So find out where the edge of our knowledge is. That's where you need to go to work.