Research Basics: What Is Research?

Why is research important?

Research helps us answer important questions. Community members can be involved in research by telling researchers about their needs. Outreach workers share a bond with the members of the communities they serve. This relationship is built on trust and helps community members to be comfortable sharing their needs and the needs of their communities with outreach workers. The better information researchers collect from communities, the better researchers can come up with solutions for and with communities.

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What is research?

Research is the process of learning about the world around us. Research is a general term that can be used in different ways. People may do internet research about new products they plan to buy, and children do research projects in school. Research done by university teams has a

specific meaning. Research teams use special processes to collect information from the world around them to try to fill gaps in what we know. Research teams have to use these processes consistently and be open to finding unexpected answers to the questions they ask.

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  •  What is evidence?

You may hear research called “the evidence”. Evidence is the information that researchers gather from hands-on experiments, interviews, surveys, looking through records, and many more ways. Researchers must gather evidence from the world around them so answers to their research questions are based on facts. Evidence can provide answers to questions and may even inspire new and better questions.

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What are the basic steps of the research process?

Research usually follows a basic set of steps. First, the research team names the problem they want to solve or information they want to find. Often, research topics are based on the needs of the community or gaps in understanding. Then the research team does a search of the information that already exists on the topic. After their initial search, the team makes a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is a statement, or educated guess, about what the research team believes they will find through their research. Next, the team will choose the design for their research study. There are several different ways a team can design a study to gather information. Then the research team recruits participants and collects data from those participants. 

Finally, the research team analyzes the data to answer their questions and shares the results with others in their field, the community, and the general public.

What are types of research?

Quantitative research organizes data into numbers or patterns to answer questions. It typically involves a large number of participants, with the goal of making generalizations, or assumptions about a larger group. 

Qualitative research uses the voices of participants to gain insight into why things happen. It typically involves a small number of participants, with the goal of gaining a deep understanding of an issue or a person’s experience. These types of research answer different questions, involve different numbers of participants, and may be used in combination.

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What is data?

Data are the pieces of information collected during a research study. Data can be collected in a variety of ways including biological measurements (for example, blood, urine, saliva), surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observation. Analysis of the data helps the research team make conclusions at the end of the study.

  •  What is validity?

Validity in research means that the research team chose the right tools to answer the questions they had at the beginning of the research study.

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  •  What is reliability?

Reliability in research means that the tool used leads to the same results when the tool is used over and over.

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  • What is sample size?

Sample size refers to the number of participants in a research study. Because one of the goals of quantitative research is to lead to results that can be generalized and applied to a large group or community, a larger sample size helps to increase the chance of data representing the larger group. For example, if only three people are surveyed out of 500, the research team may find only three strong opinions. However, if the research team surveys 100 people, the opinions are more likely to represent a range and average out to represent the feelings of the 500 people.

Who is involved in the research team?

Research teams vary in size from two to dozens of people. Everyone works together to answer a set of questions but each member has a different role. The principal investigator (PI) is the person who leads the research project. Usually the PI is part of a university and has experience and training that make him or her qualified to lead the research team. The PI is responsible for all parts of the project, from making sure the study is ethical to managing grant money and the members of the team. These team members include university colleagues, students, community health workers, and healthcare professionals among others. Team members may help develop the research questions, design, budget, and the presentation of results.

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What are data collection methods?

During a research project, the research team may use one or several different methods to gather data from the research participants. Some of the most common quantitative research methods are biological measurements (for example, blood, urine, saliva), surveys, and reviews of existing data (for example, medical records). Some of the most common qualitative research methods are interviews, focus groups, and observations.

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  •  What are biological measurements?
    • Blood
    • Urine
    • Saliva
    • Body measurements and functions
  •  What is a survey?

Researchers use surveys to ask participants questions. These surveys can be filled out with pen and paper, online, or by a member of the research team who is asking questions out loud. Outreach workers can help to create surveys that are understandable to the community and that ask questions important to the community.

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What is a review of existing data?

A review of existing data may include looking through various documents orginally collected for another reason (medical records and/or responses to completed surveys) in order to answer a new question. For example, a researcher may want to understand how common visits are for a particular health condition in a community and may review medical records to find out.

What is an interview?

An interview is another tool that researchers use to collect data from participants indiviually. An interview allows a researcher to ask more in-depth questions or questions of a more personal nature because they are one-on-one. The interviewer may stick to a strict set of pre-written questions or may allow what is most important to the participant to guide the conversation. The type of interview is determined by the question the researchers are trying to answer. The interviewer either takes detailed notes or audio records the interview to be written up later so the individual participant can be quoted. The quotations for one or more interviews are analyzed, and the researchers draw insights and conclusions.

  • What is a focus group?

A focus group is another tool that researchers use to collect data directly from participants. Focus groups are loosely structured interviews of several participants at a time. The group setting gives participants the opportunity to talk to one another and brainstorm together. There is always someone from the research team at the focus group who asks questions and keeps the discussion on track.

Usually focus groups have 6-10 participants so that the group is large enough to have good conversation, but small enough to manage the conversation and stay on schedule. Focus groups are usually audio recorded and later the recording is written up so that the participants can be quoted. The quotations are analyzed, and the researchers draw insights and conclusions.

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What are research ethics?

There are lots of rules and questions to be considered when doing research that involves people. Some of the guiding principles are outlined in a government report, called the Belmont Report. In this report, three major principles are discussed: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Respect for persons means that researchers should respect a participant's decision to take part in a study or not. The participant should also give consent once he/she is aware of all that will happen during the study. Beneficence means that researchers should increase the benefits of the study and decrease the risks to the participant as much as possible. Justice means that the study should provide useful information and the participant should benefit from the results.

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  •  What is informed consent?

Informed consent means that a participant has agreed to participate in a study after he/she has been made aware of everything that will happen during the study. Often, this consent must be documented on a consent form. If a consent form is used, it should be at a reading level that is understandable to all participants. The form should include the goals of the study, any risks involved, what the participant will have to do, how long the study will last, information about how the participant's information will be protected, and information about compensation, if applicable. In some cases, a form is not used. There may be studies in which verbal consent is acceptable. In all cases, participants must be made fully aware of the study and give consent before the collection of any data.

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  •  What is an IRB?

IRB stands for Institutional Review Board. Universities and other research organizations have an IRB to make sure research projects protect the people who are participating in research. The IRB reviews and approves all research projects before they begin. Researchers may need to make changes to their study if the IRB finds that the project does not protect the participants, their rights, or their privacy.

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  •  What is compensation?

Usually, research participants are compensated for the time they spend participating in a research project. Compensation can take the form of money, gift cards, or other tokens of appreciation (hats, water bottles, shirts). Research teams must consider ethical questions with compensation. Paying participants for their time can encourage them to participate in the study and can improve recruitment. However, research teams must be careful not to offer so much compensation that people feel pressured to participate in the study.

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How are research projects funded?

Research projects can be expensive. The federal government, state government, and foundations may give grant funding. A research grant is an amount of money given to a research team to answer a set of questions. Grant funding is competitive and the research team must complete a grant application that explains the project, the impact of the project, and the budget for the project. The grant process can be long; writing the application can take 3-6 months and decisions about funding can take up to a year.

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  •  What is a budget?

A research budget is a document that describes the costs of every part of the research project. The budget incudes salaries, equipment (for example, tape recorder), services (for example, translation, printing), supplies (for example, containers for sample collection), travel, and participant compensation.

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  •  What is a biosketch?

A biosketch is a short write-up that describes each member of the research team. It includes the team member's training or educaction, a personal statement that describes how he/she will be involved in the project, and past successes that make him/her a good fit for the team. Community partners should include their connections to the research team, any past roles in research, unique contributions, and reasons for wanting to be involved with this particular project.

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How are research results shared?

The research team may share the results of a research project with several groups of people using several different formats. The team may share results with other researchers, participants, a specific community, and/or the public. Some formats for sharing results include papers in scientific journals, presentations at community or professional meetings and press releases to the public. Scientific papers are written by the research team and include an introduction that describes the reason for the study, the methods that describe the project design and plans for analysis, the results, and a discussion of those results. Presentations can range from lectures using PowerPoint to hands-on interactive workshops. Press releases describe the most important findings from a project in a concise way for the media to share with the public.

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  •  What is peer review?

Peer review is the process papers must go through to be published in scientific journals. Papers that are peer-reviewed are considered more trustworthy than papers that are just published online or in magazines or newspapers. After a paper is sent to a scientific journal, the editor determines if it is a good fit for the journal and sends the paper to be reviewed by experts in the same area of research. Each reviewer reads the paper and makes a recommendation to the editor. The editor then decides to accept the paper, reject the paper, or ask that the author make changes. This thorough process helps to make sure the papers in journals are of high quality.

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