Research Methods

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					Research Methods
     David Parkinson
      26th April 2007

What is research?
How do we do it?
How can we do it more efficiently?
 Science is the process of using accumulated
  knowledge to explain observed phenomena.
 It proceeds from hypothesis to experiment to
  analysis to conclusion.
 It is (or should be):
  logical (each inference step proceeds rationally from the
   previous one)
  transparent (all steps from hypothesis to conclusion are
  reproducible (the same conclusions can be drawn by
   another scientist doing exactly the same steps again)
 Research is the process of creating ideas and
  solving problems.
 It quite often:
   proceeds in a disconnected manner (some steps may
    be solved before others)
   relies on intuitive leaps (new methods of solving
    problems become obvious only in retrospect)
 Although science is scientific (by definition),
  research is often more of an art-form
Research Process
                     With thanks to Archimedes of Syracuse

 Definition
   Define the problem to be solved
 Collation
   Collect materials relating to the problem
 Frustration
   Start solving the problem, but get stuck
 Incubation
   Think about it for a bit
 Inspiration
   The “Eureka” moment
 Deciding on a research topic can be the hardest step
 Talk to friends and co-workers about what you are working on, what
  they find interesting and what you find interesting
 (Bassett method): Find a paper in your subject, list the assumptions,
  and then remove one, as to make the work more general.
     Perhaps even find a new collaborator this way
 But know your own abilities:
     “A scientist gets no credit for failing to solve a problem that is
      beyond his capabilities" Sir. Peter Medawar
 Try not to think about publication right at the beginning
     Think “Does this interest me?”, not “Will other people find this
 Find material that relates to the problem
    (see my previous talk on conducting a literature review)
 Break the project down into segments, and find literature
  that deals with each bit
    Look outside your own particular research area for material. A
     problem unsolved in astrophysics may have already been
     partially solved elsewhere
 As new problems become apparent, be prepared to
  stop working and go back to the literature.
 It may be that there is no material that deals with the
  problem. In that case, go back to basics (textbooks,
  lecture notes etc)
 Takes three forms:
    Lack of knowledge (no idea how to proceed)
    Failure of method (what should work doesn‟t)
    Hydra effect (solving one problem creates many new ones)
 Debugging tips:
    Try breaking the problem down into smaller parts and solving
     each in turn
    Try removing elements from the problem until it looks less
    Try a case that you already know the answer to first, before
     extending it into the unknown regime
    Reverse the problem, or look at it from some other angle
 The unconscious mind is also really good at doing research. It just
  needs a chance to examine the problem.
 If you have made no progress with a problem for a while, take a
     (maybe have a bath)
 Explain the problem to someone else
     Rubber Ducking: the act of explaining a problem to someone who
      has no technical knowledge at all (such as a Rubber Duck). It is the
      act of explaining the problem that makes the solution clear
 Go back to the literature
     Maybe someone else has solved this problem, or something similar
 Try something completely different
 Give up, and work on some other (hopefully) more solvable problem
 May come upon you at any time
  So remember to put on clothes before rushing back to
   the office
 Don‟t forget the answer once you have it
  Write it down
  Explain it to someone else
 Remember to CHECK the answer
  Just because it sounds right in your head, it doesn‟t
   mean it will necessarily work on paper
 The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the concept of
  „flow‟: when a someone is completely immersed in the task at hand.
 It is characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment and
  fulfillment, and external concerns (time, food, ego, deadlines, etc.)
  seem to fade away.
 He found the happiest experiences of peoples lives came when they
  were in this state.
 Procrastination “tasks” (such as reading email, surfing the web,
  doing admin etc) make it impossible to concentrate hard enough to
  enter flow at work.
 However, if you can enter flow while researching, it becomes its own
  reward, and will positively reinforce itself so that you keep working,
  without the need for external motivation
Words of Advice
 Consider that your current method of doing research
  may not be the most efficient.
    Examine how you can improve your work style and
 Research is (in many ways) an art-form, and like all
  creative arts, you can improve with practice.
    So don‟t be disheartened if inspiration takes a while to come
     at the beginning
 Know your abilities, and be prepared to try and challenge
  yourself by attempting harder problems.
    The closer that a problem‟s difficulty is to your own skill level,
     the easier it will be to enter flow, and the better you will feel in
     solving it.

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