Clever hacks that'll improve any research project

April 18, 2016
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Major research projects are typically the end-all pieces of assessment. Depending on what you’re actually researching, projects can be an exhaustive yet simple experience, or they can push you over the edge like a textbook-crazed Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Here’s how to avoid the latter.

Keep your research question open-ended

If you’ve chosen something that there truly isn’t much information on - like online library management in rural and remote Australian libraries - the best thing to do is to ensure your research question allows for blind spots in your particular project.

Give it room to wiggle. One strategy may be excluding numerical measurements from the question. Instead of proposing to find the amount of (x) or the rate of (y), you may want your research to question the relationship between (x) and (y). Identify potential problems with your research and shape the question. The ultimate situation you want to avoid is getting halfway through and finding out that your research phenomena can’t actually be measured the way your question suggests.

Base methodologies off other studies in the same field

Of course, the decision to exclude numerical measurements (or to only include them) in a research project will impact the methodologies you are using, whether they are only hypothetical or being practiced. While there are always topics that people haven’t written about, it’s likely that there will be some old studies here and there related to your area of research. If you’re struggling with the project, identify what previous authors have done to conduct research on your chosen subject or demographic. If you are observing the relationships between two phenomena for example, then having participants complete qualitative surveys or interviews will give you more usable information than tallying.

Collect at least 20 relevant references before anything

This one is really important, mainly because you get an idea of the risks associated with your research before you start writing anything. If you’re reading a range of sources on your area of research, you’re going to quickly spot a lot of things that could make your project better. You might find that your question has actually been done before, or previous research might have found that your proposed methodology is flawed. If there’s very little existing literature, then you want to look for secondary references related to your research, which includes everything from newspaper articles to representations in popular culture.

Use other annotated bibliographies to inform yours

Annotated bibliographies are kind of a genre of book specific to university libraries, and you’ve likely encountered them a number of times before. If you’re doing a research project, then you’ve suddenly become exactly who they were made for. Look for any that deal with your topic and you’ll likely find a comprehensive cheat sheet about your area of study, including previous trends of thought and new developments. Use these to your advantage.

Check news and Hansard for relevant real-world tie-ins

While many undergraduate research projects will be mock or dummy assessments, it’s likely you’ll still be graded on real-world viability. Good research is always thorough and well-conducted, but a lot of the time good research is also timely - it is specific to the contemporary times and seeks to solve an issue requiring investigation. These types of projects are often the ones to receive government funding, so you want to scan the news to double-check for recent political discussion that might give your project the ‘real-world’ edge.

Jonathon Davidson

Jonathon is studying journalism at Murdoch University in Perth.

Image: Jimmie, Flickr Creative Commons license