First - why do we even need a navel-gaze-y definition of the word “research?” It’s primarily for myself because it is a term that both applies to a broad and Nebulous range of activities and about which I often make positive statements. This combination is a dangerous recipe for a circularly defined Suitcase Handle Word. I suspect that by rigorously defining the term, it will make it easier to distinguish useful statements about it from bullshit. Additionally, I’ll argue that the definition of research is not a binary discriminator but is the end of a spectrum. A clear definition combined with the why behind it can enable conversations about “how research-y is this activity” and to what extent positive statements about ‘research’ apply to that specific activity.
Cycles of Invention and Discovery defines research as “the unscheduled quest for new knowledge and inventions whose outcome cannot be predicted.” It is a very good definition. My niggle with it is the piece about unpredictable outcomes. That is certainly one mode of research - “let’s drop a mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke and see what happens!” But there are some other research projects that actually have fairly binary outcomes “either inoculating someone with cowpox protects them from smallpox or it doesn’t.” You could say that the latter example does have unpredictable outcomes because you don’t know whether it will succeed or fail. In light of that, I think my specific problem with describing the outcomes as “cannot be predicted” is that it evokes the idea of “what will happen? Who knows!” While it does technically describe situations where you know one of two outcomes is going to happen, unpredictability has a connotation that just doesn’t jive with that situation. I tried the term “unbounded” instead, but that doesn’t jive with the vaccine example where there are pretty clear bounds - either it works or it doesn’t. Then I tried “hard-to-bound” which still wasn’t right. Weirdly then, ‘hard-to-predict’ has a very different connotation than ‘unpredictable’ while maintaining almost all of the technical meaning.
Breaking apart the definition to get at the delicious “why’s” in the middle
Partially, the unscheduled nature of research is merely an empirical observation: Einstein took a few years to come up with the ideas he published in Annus Mirabiles but then took a few decades more to figure out general relativity. This is a common pattern. The nature of Where do ideas come from? is still incredibly mysterious. Some of it seems to require a combination of marinating in ideas and just the right stimulus. Partially the unschedulability of research ties to the newness of the endeavor. Even if a new thing resembles an old thing, it may be different in an unknown way that introduces a lot more time into the equation. Trying to figure out new things is often fractal - figuring out one thing actually generates more work than it reduces. So concretely, the more creative leaps and newness an activity involves, the more researchy it is.
This word seems important. Quests can fail. Quests are glorious not because of their outcomes but because of the process and to some extent we culturally do not appreciate the process of real research, only the outcomes.^1. Additionally, the concept of quests actually comes along with a lot of useful knowledge - structure, tropes, etc. that are quite useful in thinking about research.
Perhaps we should distinguish between locally new and globally new. The more globally new the goal of the quest, the more unschedulable it will be.
knowledge and inventions
Sometimes we think of research as producing only knowledge, but I think that’s a mistake. Almost all of the attributes that apply to the quest to create new knowledge applies attempt to build something that has never been built before. The difference is thatScientific inquiry is an abstracting process while engineering design is a narrowing process (where scientific inquiry is the creation of new knowledge and engineering design is the creation of a new invention.) Another reason not to separate the two is the in reality, a quest for one necessitates doing some of the other and vice versa.
“A quest for new knowledge and inventions” also means that we may call many things “research” that this definition would not consider research. A gathering of facts, for example, can be research if you intend to synthesize those facts into new knowledge or an invention. Often people gather facts just to learn (wikipedia wormholes, etc.), which I would call studying. Studying is great! But it’s not research. The more insidious version is when someone goes through the motions of research, vomits a lot of data without doing the work to create new knowledge, and we treat it the same as research. This happens far too often with empirical studies. It’s not enough to go through the motions.
Of course, you can fail in a quest and externally the outcome will look the same as if you had just been studying. So to some extent, whether you’re doing research depends on the intentions in your heart-of-hearts.
It’s also critical to point out that this definition is one end of a spectrum, not a binary discriminator. There are things that are common-sense-clearly research that can be scheduled to some extent. But at the same time, there is something important to the notion that you cannot schedule research in the same way that you can schedule other projects. I describe it as a ‘platonic ideal’ because I both think that this idea of completely unscheduled unfettered exploration is both useful and nonexistent in the real world. People always have some time or budget constraints and some suspicion or desires about outcomes.
So in reality statements about “research” are statements about “activities that sit on a spectrum more towards this definition” and the farther on the spectrum they sit the more strongly the statements apply to them.
Of course, this introduces tricky discussions about where on the spectrum any given activity sits. On one hand, someone can use “you can’t schedule research!” as a way to avoid accountability. On the other, someone can use “research is a spectrum!” To justify scheduling demands on an activity that really cannot handle scheduling constraints. These tensions are one reason that Research requires more trust than other disciplines. The hope is that acknowledging the continuously variable nature of research can enable high-trust individuals to discuss “how research-y is this activity and why?”