In Philips and Pugh's How to get a PhD, the authors describe the general philosophical concept of research 'in all disciplines'. I have two questions in this context.

A. They said that an activity that tries to answer a question like

'What are the age, sex and subject distributions of doctoral students in British higher education?'

is considered descriptive, intelligence-gathering activity, but not research. This is pretty clear and agreed upon. However, they attribute that to the 'what' nature of the question.

Later, they said:

Research goes beyond description and requires analysis. It looks for explanations, relationships, comparisons, predictions, generalizations and theories. These are the ‘why’ questions. Why are there so many fewer women doctoral students in physics than in biology? ...

All these questions require good intelligence-gathering, just as decisionmaking and policy formulation do. But the information is used for the purpose of developing understanding – by comparison, by relating to other factors, by theorizing and testing the theories.

Is it sound to consider only 'why' questions as research? How about some 'what' and 'how' questions?

B. In the same text:

All research questions have comparisons in them, as the words ‘fewer’, ‘different’ and ‘less’ in the examples above illustrate.

Should all real research questions really contain comparison (explicitly or implicitly)?

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    This definitely seems overly restrictive to me. I don't think that "all research questions have comparisons in them" is at all true. In my area (pure mathematics), probably quite a few research questions are phrased as 'what' questions, although answering these questions will also involve explaining 'why'.
    – Tara B
    Apr 23 '13 at 22:55
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    the general philosophical concept of research in all disciplinesAll disciplines? Oh, please.
    – JeffE
    Apr 24 '13 at 1:42
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    @Orion: I'm pretty sure JeffE understood that.
    – Tara B
    Apr 24 '13 at 7:47
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    Language side note: every why-question is a what-quesion as well: what is the reason for ... Apr 24 '13 at 8:26
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    It's important to keep in mind that nobody is in charge of what is or isn't research, and nobody has universal perspective or expertise across all disciplines. (Not just no person, but also no organization.) In my experience, the term "research" is used incredibly broadly: for any topic you can imagine might be considered research, there are communities of thousands of people who think it's obviously research and who would be offended if anyone questioned this. Apr 25 '13 at 4:40

In biology, what questions are extremely popular, even though they can be largely descriptive. The point is, that knowing descriptive details of a system is the first step in understanding how it works, and can often raise many interesting hypotheses. In fact, this trend of questions is increasing as high-throughput experimental methods are used to collect more and more data (which by itself is only descriptive).

Some famous examples of such what questions are "what is the structure of DNA?" and "what is the sequence of the human genome?".


The Australian Higher Education Research Data Collection specification (2012)[1] (ie: HERDC) defines research as

the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes.

and uses the OECD Frascati Manual[2][3] to support that definition as:

consistent with a broad notion of research and experimental development (R&D) as comprising of creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humanity, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications

HERDC and the Frascati Manual focus on the generation of new understandings, of new knowledges. There's a commonly agreed purposive utility to knowledge that is lacking in the generation of data and information.[4] I would suggest that as knowledge lies in a network of other knowledges, that any production of knowledge is implicitly or explicitly comparative to the existing body of literature. HERDC goes on to suggest that apart from "increasing the stock of knowledge" and being in a form suitable for the dissemination of knowledge, that research publications must "evidenced by discussion of the relevant literature, an awareness of the history and antecedents of work described, and provided in a format which allows a reader to trace sources of the work, including through citations and footnotes." This explicit comparison between the production of understandings as knowledge and the past production of understandings as knowledge would be the basic comparison at the heart of scholarship and research.

While the HERDC specifications are normative, and punative (they're about divvying up a pot of government research money), there has at least been an attempt to cover them with a fig leaf of collegiality, and for them to reflect academic practices. The absence of protest over their unfairness is an indication that they "work" as a punative practice.

[1]: HERDC (2012) http://www.innovation.gov.au/Research/ResearchBlockGrants/Documents/2012HERDCSpecifications.pdf at page 7-8, 1.3.10

[2]: OECD (2002), Frascati Manual: Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development, OECD: Paris.

[3]: Cited in HERDC (2012)

[4]: DIKW models, Zins, Chaim (2007). "Conceptual Approaches for Defining Data, Information, and Knowledge" Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58 (4): 479–493. doi:10.1002/asi.20508 cited in Wiki.


There are lots of different types of research. Some research is hypothesis driven other research is not. What questions generally are not hypothesis driven while why questions usually have a related hypothesis. Comparison words are useful to indicate both sides of the hypothesis (i.e., the null hypothesis which you are often attempting to reject and the alternative hypothesis which you are often attempting to provide support for). Hypothesis testing is the basis of the scientific method. Typically doctoral research leads to a thesis/dissertation which historically has been about hypothesis driven research. Things like design based research in the sciences and performance based research in the arts, however, are now often being submitted as dissertations. Whether this is a bastardization of the term dissertation is not clear to me.

Within the wider realm of research, the quoted material is wrong. Within the realm of getting a PhD the quoted material may be historically and technically/etymologically correct, but it is clearly a dated view.


I agree with the other responders and commenters that it's silly to generalize over all disciplines like this. What makes it particularly funny to me as someone in physics, is that it is often said that physics is concerned with the 'how', not the 'why'. I guess we, along with people in other hard sciences, don't do research at all then... At least philosophically, we're in the business of describing how nature behaves, how a particle moves and interacts, but can't really tell you why our models work, only that they more or less "fit the data". (Then there's the problem of model-dependent realism - do our models actually reflect what's going on in nature, or just happen to predict the same outcomes?)

For example, in the words of Feynman

While I am describing to you how Nature works, you won't understand why Nature works that way. But you see, nobody understands that.

Sometimes you can ask 'why' questions that lead to unifying principles, with better explanatory power. For example, "why do these properties share property X?" rather than "what properties do these materials have?", but generally, you don't get one without the other, and both are considered research. Even if you manage to answer this 'why' question, however, you'll be left with a more fundamental 'why' question that we don't know how to begin to answer. And many levels of the more accessible 'why' questions are beyond the scope and time frame of most PhD studies.

As for the statement that all research questions should have comparisons in them, I don't even know where to begin. Consider e.g. the 2017 Nobel prize in physics for the observation of gravitational waves. The LIGO project attempted to answer questions like "do gravitational waves exist?", "can we see them?", and "can we use them for new kinds of astronomy?". If you really want to twist things, I guess they could be rephrased "are there more than zero gravitational waves in the universe?" and so on. It still wouldn't be a 'why' question as described above though.

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