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I'm writing a proposal to acquire funding for a competition to be hosted at my university. The competitors are restricted to graduate students who are engaged in research under the auspicies of a faculty advisor from my university. In the process of making my proposal more clear and precise, I find myself struggling with the problem of defining what exactly is (and more importantly, what isn't) research.

At first, I equated research with publishable in a peer reviewed journal, but I soon realized that the terms publishable and peer reviewed would have to be defined... And even if I do that, then I would have to define the words that I used to define those words, et cetera ad nauseam.

I want to approach it the same way I would approach mathematical set theory: it's either research or it's not, and there should be no room for ambiguity. But I suspect that any attempt to define research this way will certainly either circumscribe or inscribe the set of all things we call research.

I don't think this is necessarily the best way to approach defining what is research, especially for my purposes. Is there another way I can approach clarifying what constitutes research as opposed to other publishable works in the context of academia?

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    How helpful is the Wiki page? – scaaahu Mar 29 '13 at 4:38
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    I want to approach it the same way I would approach mathematical set theory: it's either research or it's not, and there should be no room for ambiguity. — Good luck. While you're out, could you get me a pony? – JeffE Mar 29 '13 at 13:08
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For purposes like this, I would define research as loosely, broadly, and generically as possible. If your definition is too strict, then you exclude valid efforts, and you will likely be bound by the language in your proposal.

For example, if you define research to be "scientific investigation," then you exclude the humanities. If you define research as "investigative work leading to a peer-reviewed publication or conference presentation," then you may inadvertently exclude unpublishable and unpublished results.

If the requirements of the agency do not specify the need for a definition of research, then do not supply one. If you are writing to an agency that regularly supports research proposals, then there is no need to define research - they know what it is. If you are writing to an atypical funding source, like a business, local government, or charity, then they would probably rather you be inclusive (and thus generic) unless you have specific instructions otherwise. Leave the job of deciding whether an entry is qualified research to the judges of the composition.

If you feel that you absolutely need a definition, then "investigative work" is probably generic enough. Your institution's Office of the Provost may also have an "official" definition of research for your institution.

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    And in the spirit of things, but not asked, leave the selection criteria/methods for judges, judging criteria, application procedure, etc., as vague as possible in case you need to change them. "The judges shall be a committee of faculty selected for this purpose." – Ben Norris Mar 29 '13 at 11:17
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I suspect that, for your question to be properly answerable, you'd first need to define what you want to mean by "research". In particular, from what you write:

"The competitors are restricted to graduate students who are engaged in research under the auspicies of a faculty advisor from my university."

I gather that your university also has some graduate students who don't do anything you would call research, or you wouldn't feel the need to be so specific.

So, what is it that these students, which you want to exclude from the competition, do instead? Just coursework? If so, why not just write "research (not merely coursework)" or something like that?

(If you do want a fancy definition of "research", I'd go with something like "original work intended to contribute to the body of academic knowledge". But you'd probably be better served by just explicitly stating what kinds of student activities you want to include or exclude from your admission criteria.)

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Have you verified that the definition isn't provided by the competition itself? Typically, there are pretty well-defined guidelines as to who is and is not eligible to apply for a given contest (i.e., "only full-time students", or "only students currently funded under a research grant"). I would definitely either contact the competition sponsor or check their website to ensure that they haven't already defined what does and does not count as research.

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    I am both the organizer and sponsor. – Paul Mar 29 '13 at 15:08
  • @Paul - I'm sorry, I see that now; I didn't read the question correctly. I was going to edit my answer, but I re-read Ben's answer, and I would basically write what he wrote, so I just upvoted his answer instead :) – eykanal Mar 29 '13 at 15:11
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How about trying to define research would it help to spcify "Scientific Research". Since research is a search for new knowledge it is thus a wide term. Since Science is defined as "the body of reliable knowledge itself, of the type that can be logically and rationally explained" (shamelessly stolen from the wiki page for Science) the word scientific would exclude everything not included in the definition. Or, is there any academic research that does not qualify as science?

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    And some would say that "Scientific Research" may inadvertently exclude "Humanities Research". I favor as generic a definition as possible. – Ben Norris Mar 29 '13 at 11:08
  • @BenNorris Yes, I guess that was what I was afraid of – Peter Jansson Mar 29 '13 at 11:11

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