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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Qualities of good research

Qualities of good research:
As well as being valid and reliable, psychological research needs to be public, cumulative and parsimonious. To become public, research must be published in a reputable scholarly journal. Sometimes, though rarely, it is translated into popular writing, as was the work of Freud, Pavlov, Piaget and Milgram. The likelihood of a piece of psychological research being adopted for popular publication can depend on such things as topicality, shock value or political trends, and its impact may be transitory. In contrast, the criteria for publication in scientific journals are much more clearly laid out, and they provide an enduring record of the key findings that emerge from a particular piece (or programme) of research. Cumulative research builds on and extends existing knowledge and theory. It is not enough just to collect information in a haphazard or random fashion. Instead, research should build on previous insights in a given area. Newton expressed this idea clearly when he observed: ‘if I have been able to see further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’. Generally speaking, a piece of psychological research does not have value in isolation, but by virtue of extending or challenging other work in the field.
The cumulative nature of research is often revealed through literature reviews. These are research papers (normally published in reputable scientific journals) that discuss the results of multiple studies by different researchers. In some cases these reviews involve statistical analyses combining the results of many studies. This process is called meta-analysis. Parsimonious research develops explanations of findings that are as simple, economical and efficient as possible. In explaining the results in a given field, psychologists therefore attempt to account for as many different findings as possible using the smallest umber of principles. For example, it may be that person A performs better than person B on a test of memory because A was more alert as a consequence of being tested at a different time of day. Or A might have ingested a psychoactive agent before testing took place, whereas B had not. By controlling for the possible influences of time of day, ingested substances and so on, we are left with the most parsimonious explanation for why A and B differ in their level of memory performance.

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