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Last update: 22nd August 2012

What is research?

Scientific research is about the discovery or creation of new knowledge. In an academic context, this knowledge is 'harvested' for the benefit of humanity. However, nothing is for nothing, including new knowledge. Funded research is paid for by sponsors who have particular interests in the generation of particular kinds of knowledge, often with a strong idea about how that knowledge might be applied to their serve their needs. A distinction is often made between basic and applied research.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a standardised approach to international research and development, published as the 2002 edition of the 'FRASCATI MANUAL' (ISBN 92-64-19903-9). On page 30, the Frascati Manual states that:

Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.

R and D covers three activities: basic research, applied research and experimental development.

Human-Computer Interaction, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Computer Science

Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work are fascinating and vibrant fields of research. They focus on the design, evaluation and usage of interactive technologies by people, from a fundamentally user-centred perspective. That is, they put people first in order to conceive of innovations that genuinely add value to activities that people wish to carry out. HCI and CSCW draw on varied scientific traditions, all the way from sociology to mathematics, and design expertise, ranging from architecture to hardware ergonomics. For this very reason, many of the those who research in these fields are fascinating, enthusiastic people for whom lateral thinking is a way of life. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Computer Science

Computer Science is primarily concerned with representing and manipulating information. Its concerns are commonly described in terms of defining data, on the one hand, and on the other the computations that may be performed over those data in order that they might be informative in a particular context. For the 2008 UK Research Assessment Exercise, Computer Science and Informatics were described as:

The study of methods for acquiring, storing, processing, communicating and reasoning about information, and the role of interactivity in natural and artificial systems, through the implementation, organisation and use of computer hardware, software and other resources. [Computer Science and Informatics] are characterised by the rigorous application of analysis, experimentation and design.'

Computer Science seeks to develop theories for defining systems of computation and methods for their use. In many ways, it is concerned with the effectiveness of processes for organising instructions that are intended to manipulate information, such that desirable outcomes result from their execution. The products of Computer Science are new logical design methodologies, algorithms, and tools, methods for verification and validation of concepts. So Computer Science defines principles for creating and working with information and thereby defines new arenas for working with knowledge. CS research may be applied in contexts that have inherent risk, such as in systems for glass-cockpit flight controls or systems to support health care teams and systems to provide healthcare information.

The study of human beings fits into Computer Science research when it is important to externally validate a Computer Science concept or practice. Informally, it is easy to distinguish between data, information and knowledge. However, from a scientific perspective there are many unsolved problems to do with the conditions that permit one to transform data into information (typically, requiring a known problem context) and then how to derive knowledge from information. The fields of Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work are cases of CS research that fall into this category. In these fields, processes for organising instructions must extend a concern for how their execution should be accomplished by division of labour between one or more machines and one or more human beings. Such processes are thus governed jointly by an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of automation in concert with the strenghts and weaknesses of cognitive and social systems.

Several disciplines might address the same set of issues within a given interdisciplinary field of research, such as HCI, but will do so in different ways. This is because the scientific concerns that motivate interest in the issues are quite different. That means there is a particular communication burden on those who wish to convey their results both within and outside of their "home discipline". The relevance and assumptions of the work need to be made clear for each of the audiences that might benefit from it.