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What Is Research?

Updated: Jul 10

Blue question mark

I want to start with a little exercise. Think about all the times when a random question popped up in your head. I suggest you jot it down somewhere.

Here’s mine, since I just had breakfast: Is there science behind people preferring milk before cereal or cereal before milk?

Your question may be: why do cats have so many amazing patterns on their fur?

See! Research does NOT need to be scary, technical language. It’s fun… and can even involve toilets. For example, one research paper I read is titled “The Toilet Paper Problem” by Knuth, Donald E., which was published in 1984 in The American Mathematical Monthly. This paper is a mathematical research. It describes that in the toilets of Stanford, there are two rolls of paper. Some people stick to using the bigger ones, some people tend to use the smaller ones, and some people will use them randomly. After the paper runs out, some staff replace it with a new one, and when two rolls are all empty, everybody is in trouble. Actually, the paper uses math, equations, probability, and logic to solve the problem!

That's interesting, right? Actually, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, “Research is a systematic investigation (i.e., the gathering and analysis of information) designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”

Coming back to the exercise at the beginning, the important thing to understand about what research is the research question or the problem you want to solve. My question about cereal can turn into an experiment with different variables! I could go down the rabbit hole and explore different ways to test this, which tools to use, how to get a proper number of participants in my experiment… Your question about the fur patterns of cats can probably also be tested with cool things like analyzing DNA and stuff! The toilet paper problem, too!

So, I want to leave you all with a question to think about when you read scholarly articles: What is the KEY question this paper tries to answer? Many papers answer this question blatantly for you by saying “the key research questions are…” So, try to do this exercise by simply reading the abstract of the paper and formulating the key research question. We’ll get into what an abstract is later on, but for now you just need to know that it’s the first paragraph on the first page of a paper. Usually there will be something written there like the word “Abstract” to indicate that it’s the abstract, so you’ll have no trouble finding it.

Basically, if you get your research questions right and use the right research methods, you’re almost there!

See, that wasn’t too complicated, right?


Knuth, Donald E. 1984. The Toilet Paper Problem. The American Mathematical Monthly. Vol. 91, No. 8 (Oct., 1984), pp. 465-470.

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