A spiral of research process

Research process for me goes in a spiral manner through these (or similar) stages: you gather what you already know (make assumptions), you hypothesize, you test the hypothesis, analyse results, critically appraise them, apply the results,  adjust or change the assumptions, and repeat. Science therefore, is an iteration-based process.

Unfortunately, sometimes research chooses only one set of assumptions, neglecting all the other options. This approach poses a risk if the particular set of assumptions is wrong. The trends in research funding promote research in some areas more than in others too. T

In a few short years of my career as a sport physiotherapy researcher, I have already seen quite dramatic changes in clinical practice guidelines resulting from changes in assumptions. Was the previous science wrong? No. It was the best it could be at that time. Could we have gotten to better science quicker if we regularly revise the assumptions? Probably.

I will try to keep in mind this spiral research process throughout my research career:

1. Gather what you know

At the beginning you try to learn everything you can on the topic. You can start with textbooks and Wikipedia to subsequently move on to read journal articles. If you struggle with reading journal article, I have written before in the Goal-oriented reading – 6 ways to read research papers efficiently.

You can take notes, make mind-maps, diagrams, doodles or  whatever makes it easier for you to process the information. Try to summarize what is known and what is still unclear. What questions you have that are not answered? What problems need solution?

2. State your hypothesis

As you gathered what is known and unknown, try to plan how to answer the remaining questions. If there are many, try to choose one, and plan your experiment.

In academia, this stage takes a loooong time. You have to write up a proposal, get ethics approval if your research involves humans, apply for a grant, gather equipment, materials and a team.

3. Test the hypothesis – experiment time

Experimenting is what comes to mind if we think science. This stage is where all the fun and stress begins.

If you work with humans, experimenting starts with recruitment. As recruitment may be challenging as least to some extent, I often find this stage the most stressful. But as the experimenting phase progresses, the excitement of taking part in a special discovery process kicks in.

The experimenting stage usually takes a considerable amount of time as it requires hours of running experiments, managing logistics, collecting and processing data. During this time many unexpected things happen which keeps researchers engaged and busy.

4. Analyse the data

After obtaining the data, the analysis begins. Sometimes, the analysis have to be incorporated in the experimental process, especially if the direction or parameters of your next experiment depend on what come-up from the previous one.

Formulating results and answering research questions are the final products of data analysis. At this point you have found something new, or at least you confirm or disprove what other people had suggested before you.

5. Critically appraise the results

Thinking time! Why these results occurred? What do they mean? How they relate to the previous research? What are possible implications? Also, how these results can be applied in “real life” to solve a particular problem?

6. Apply the results

Application of the results is really important, and yet notoriously delayed by multiple reasons. Without an attempt to apply the results, research is useless, literally.

Of course some results will be able to improve research method, or slightly change the way we define things. Application has not be big, but without it research is waisted.

Also, some applications may not be so obvious, others need more development or further testing. Nonetheless, this step is critical in research process.

7. Adjust the assumptions

And the most important step – updating. What changed after finishing your research project? Changing your state of knowledge on the basis of your research project’s results has to follow.

In this step you will also read what other people have done from the last time you have looked at the literature. Now you have a completely new set of knowledge or at least an updated version.

8. … and repeat!

Now, you are ready to state a new hypothesis and repeat the whole research process. And this process goes in this manner in perpetuity.

Is this how you see the research process stages or completely differently? Share in the comments below, I’m super curious.

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