An overview of the research process

Research is the process of identifying a question, or questions, choosing and applying the most suitable method for collecting and analysing the information to answer the question and finally disseminating the findings for the benefit of others. Development has been defined as ‘…the systematic evaluation of the application of the results of research in practice’.

Identify the research question

Often, research questions develop over time and can originate from a number of different sources, including previous research, the literature and observation. For example, a researcher may have read in the literature that a change in practice may lead to greater service uptake with a particular ethnic group. He/she wants to see if a similar practice change will result in a similar change among a different ethnic group. This question is the starting point but it is not sufficiently specific to go out and collect information to answer it.

The research question needs to be operationalized, i.e. framed so as to define exactly why, how, what and who is being studied. Without a tightly focused research question, it is difficult to interpret the results. For example, an investigation into the level of depression in a group of older patients, would require careful definition of the type of illness, how it will be measured and what the rationale is for asking the research question, i.e. is it clinical or reactive depression and why? The manner of the illness may well dictate the measure used as this determines different aspects of the illness.

Conduct a literature review

Reviewing the literature is an essential part of defining the research question or hypothesis. It can give background to the research by identifying what, if any, research has gone on before, what factors have been considered and the variables measured.

Existing literature forms the basis for research and can provide a context for interpreting findings as well as preventing unnecessary repetition of research.

When the review stops providing any new material to that already identified, this usually suggests that the review has been comprehensive. However, the review should not be limited to publish research material. The ‘grey’ literature, such as unpublished reports or work-in-progress, can also be important as can non-research-based literature and the popular media, which can highlight areas of concern, opinion and attitudes.

Formalize the final research question

Finally, the research question must be formalised so that what is to be measured and how, is made explicit. Using a hypothetical example, we could ask: ‘Why is the pregnancy termination rate in single women aged between 25 and 35 attending the outpatients clinic, with moderate reactive depression as measured by the Beck Depressive Inventory, significantly higher than married women aged 25 to 35 years with moderate reactive depression?’

Choose appropriate methodology

Research methodologies can be generally classified as either qualitative or quantitative. Broadly speaking, quantitative methods seek to measure broad patterns of health and illness and identify specific problems or groups of particular ill health or behaviour, while qualitative methods help to develop an understanding of the experiences and behaviour underlying the quantitative findings (Nazroo and O’Connor, 2002). The choice as to which to use is heavily dependent on the nature of the research question/hypothesis and the kind of information required to answer it.

Collect the information

Obviously, before analysing the data, it must be decided how it will be collected and who it will be collected from. The two approaches are qualitative and quantitative.

– Qualitative approaches

The two most common approaches to exploring the person’s view of the world are through depth interviews and group discussions. Depth interviews are conducted on a one-to-one basis by the researcher, generally with the aid of a topic guide, which is a list of areas or themes to be discussed in the interview. However, because the questioning is responsive to what the interviewee is saying, e.g. through the use of probing questions (e.g. ‘could you tell me more about that?’ or ‘why do you feel that way?’), both the time spent on the different themes and the order in which they are addressed can vary between interviews.

– Quantitative approaches

Although clinical studies may use a variety of measurements of physical attributes or physiological processes, much health-related research collects quantitative information, often using a questionnaire. There are three main ways in which information can be obtained using questionnaires: self-completion, in which respondents fill in the answers by themselves; face-to-face interviews, where the interviewer asks the question in the presence of the interviewee and also records the respondent’s answers; and telephone interviews, in which the respondent is contacted by telephone and the interviewer asks questions and records answers.

Conduct the analysis

– Qualitative analysis

There are a number or approaches to the analysis of qualitative research data. Generally speaking, analysis comprises a number of stages involving content analysis of the transcripts leading to the summarising and classifying of data in a thematic framework, which is grounded in the respondents’ own accounts. Each transcript is analysed in a systematic way using a common methodological framework such as theme analysis. The analysis of qualitative data are discussed in more detail in Bryman and Burgess (1994) and Miles and Huberman (1994).

– Quantitative analysis

Analysis of data collected by quantitative research will usually involve some form of statistical analysis. Statistics is ‘…the mathematics of organising and interpreting numerical information. The results of statistical analyses are descriptions, relationships, comparisons and predictions’ (Fink, 1995b) with statistical techniques ranging from simple aggregation to complex trends and multivariate analysis. See ?? for a more detailed discussion of statistical techniques for the analysis of quantitative data.

Report Results

Dissemination of research is essential if the findings are to be of benefit to others and researchers must be open to critical examination by their peers. Dissemination can also reduce the chances of unnecessary, and possibly costly, replication by others.

There are a number of audiences to whom the results of research are disseminated which include, policy makers and the academic and scientific community and the users and representatives of primary care.

This paper represents a reworked and modified version of the Author’s series of articles So you want to do research? as published in the British Journal of Community Nursing 2003-4; 8-9(8-13)


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