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Research Process

What is Scientific Research?

Some people use the term research loosely, for example:

  • People will say they are researching different online websites to find the best place to buy a new appliance or locate a lawn care service.
  • TV news may talk about conducting research when they conduct a viewer poll on current event topic such as an upcoming election.
  • Undergraduate students working on a term paper or project may say they are researching the internet to find information.
  • Private sector companies may say they are conducting research to find a solution for a supply chain holdup.

However, none of the above is considered “scientific research” unless:

  1. The research contributes to a body of science by providing new information through ethical study design or
  2. The research follows the scientific method, an iterative process of observation and inquiry.

The Scientific Method

  1. Make an observation: notice a phenomenon in your life or in society or find a gap in the already published literature.
  2. Ask a question about what you have observed.
  3. Hypothesize about a potential answer or explanation.
  4. Make predictions if our hypothesis is correct.
  5. Design an experiment or study that will test your prediction.
  6. Test the prediction by conducting an experiment or study; report the outcomes of your study.
  7. Iterate! Was your prediction correct? Was the outcome unexpected? Did it lead to new observations?

The scientific method is not separate from the Research Process as described in the rest of this guide, in fact the Research Process is directly related to the observation stage of the scientific method. Understanding what other scientists and researchers have already studied will help you focus your area of study and build on their knowledge.

Research Study Design

Designing your experiment or study is important for both natural and social scientists. Sage Research Methods (SRM) has an excellent "Project Planner" that guides you through the basic stages of research design. SRM also has excellent explanations of qualitative and quantitative research methods for the social sciences.

For the natural sciences, Springer Nature Experiments and Protocol Exchange have guidance on quantitative research methods.

Natural vs. Social Science

  Natural Science Social Science
Definition The natural sciences are very precise, accurate, and independent of the person making the scientific observation. The science of people or collections of people and their human activity and interactivity.
Example Disciplines
  • physical science: astronomy, chemistry, engineering, physics
  • earth science: geology
  • life science biology, botany, medicine
  • psychology
  • sociology
  • economics
  • education
  • anthropology
  • communication
  • political science
Example experiments
  • Measuring the melting point of paraffin wax
  • Measuring the molecular weight of caffeine
  • What enhances learning in primary school?
  • What contributes to poverty?
  • Why individuals engage in crime?


Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

Qualitative research is primarily exploratory. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. Qualitative research is also used to uncover trends in thought and opinions and to dive deeper into a problem by studying an individual or a group.

Qualitative methods usually use unstructured or semi-structured techniques. The sample size is typically smaller than in quantitative research.

Example: interviews and focus groups.

Quantitative research is characterized by the gathering of data with the aim of testing a hypothesis. The data generated are numerical, or, if not numerical, can be transformed into useable statistics.

Quantitative data collection methods are more structured than qualitative data collection methods and sample sizes are usually larger.

Example: survey

Note: The above descriptions of qualitative and quantitative research are mainly for research in the Social Sciences, rather than for Natural Sciences as most natural sciences rely on quantitative methods for their experiments.

More Information on Qualitative Research in the Social Sciences

Qualitative research is approaching the world in its natural setting and in a way that reveals the particularities rather than doing studies in a controlled setting. It aims to understand, describe, and sometimes explain social phenomena in a number of different ways:

  • Experiences of individuals or groups
  • Interactions and communications
  • Documents (texts, images, film, or sounds, and digital documents)
  • Experiences or interactions

Qualitative researchers seek to understand how people conceptualize the world around them, what they are doing, how they are doing it or what is happening to them in terms that are significant and that offer meaningful learnings.

Qualitative researchers develop and refine concepts (or hypotheses, if they are used) in the process of research and of collecting data. Cases (its history and complexity) are an important context for understanding the issue that is studied. A major part of qualitative research is based on text and writing – from field notes and transcripts to descriptions and interpretations and finally to the presentation of the findings and of the research as a whole.

For more information, see: