Does My Work Count as Research?

I have an odd habit. Whenever I get very entrenched in a subject, I want to know how it features in the mainstream. I want to know, in other words, how it appears to people who aren’t entrenched. That’s when I search stock photo sites.

Stock photographs trade in cliches. They are a great barometer for stereotypes.

A quick stock photo search for “research” reveals something quite alarming. The stereotypical view of a researcher is that of someone who works with microscopes, computers, test tubes, and protective glasses. Blue or white gloves, apparently, are mandatory.

Research, according to Shutterstock

Do you recognise yourself, or your work, in that stereotype? I don’t, at all. If you were to photograph me during my research time, you’d get one of two images: me reading, or me writing. Not Pulitzer Prize-worthy photographic subjects, I admit. But that’s the reality of my research process.

Others might have different processes; a portrait of your research might depict you conducting an interview or focus group, populating tables and plotting graphs, creating artworks, or drawing diagrams.

When we’re bombarded with images of the stereotypical view of research – labs, coats, test tubes – it’s easy to feel that other forms of investigation and knowledge production ‘don’t count’ as real research. I remember being surprised when I first enrolled for a postgrad qualification and my work analysing novels was described as ‘research.’

But those who attended Professor Welby Ings’ keynote talk at the PG Symposium back in August will recall that the definition of research can be very wide. Professor Ings quoted the definition used for the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) in New Zealand:

“Research is original, independent investigation undertaken to contribute to knowledge and understanding and, in the case of some disciplines, cultural innovation or aesthetic refinement. Research typically involves inquiry of an experimental or critical nature driven by hypotheses or intellectual positions capable of rigorous assessment by experts in a given discipline.” [Tertiary Education Commission, 2016, p.14]
By that definition, research is so much more than stock photos would have us believe. The keywords in that definition – “investigation,” “understanding,” “inquiry,” “assessment” – imply that research is a process of questioning, discovering, testing, and learning. But that learning doesn’t have to be about uncovering new facts. It can be about building understanding, or deepening existing knowledge, in ways that aren’t necessarily tangible or easily defined.
So if we lived in a parallel universe in which stock photographs were actually realistic, their depiction of research would be very different. People with lab coats and test tubes would still be included, of course. But so would people making sketches, and asking each other questions, and conducting autopsies, and measuring buildings, and reading books, and working with ceramics, and mapping the dots on moth’s wings, and doing any number of other common or bizarrely specific things.
I’m proud to be a researcher, in the form my research takes. And I hope that you are too.
Source Cited

Tertiary Education Commission. (2016). Performance-Based Research Fund: Guidelines for tertiary education organisations participating in the 2018 Quality Evaluation. Wellington: Tertiary Education Commission.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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