3.1: Choosing a Research Methodology

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Determine the appropriate research methodology that meets the needs of the audience.

2. Distinguish between formal and informal research.

5.  Locate, select, and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources appropriate to the task.

The first step in research is to know what the situation calls for in terms of the formality or rigour of research required. Although formal research carefully documents sources with citations and references, most messages relay informal research such as when you quickly look up some information you have access to and email it to the person who requested it. Either way, you apply skills in retrieving and delivering the needed information to meet your audience’s needs, often by paraphrasing or summarizing, which are extremely valuable skills coveted by employers. Knowing what research type or “methodology” the situation calls for—formal or informal research, or primary or secondary research—in the first place will keep you on track in this still-preliminary stage of the writing process.

The research methodology where you look up information and deliver the goods in an email answering someone’s question without needing to formally cite your sources is informal research. It is by far the most common type of research because any professional does it several times a day in their routine communication with the various audiences they serve. Say your manager emails asking you to recommend a new printer to replace the one that’s dying. You’re no expert on printers but you know who to ask. You go to Erika, the admin. assistant in your previous department, and she says to definitely go with the Ricoh printer. You trust what she says, so you end your research there and pass along this recommendation to your manager. Now, because your source for the information, whom you don’t necessarily need to identify in informal research, was relatively subjective and didn’t explain in full why the Ricoh was better than all the other models available, you can’t really have 100% confidence in the recommendation you pass along. This type of research will do in a pinch when you’re short on time and your audience doesn’t need to check your sources.

Formal research, on the other hand, takes a more systematic approach and documents the sources of information compiled using a conventional citation and reference system designed to make it easy for the audience to check out your sources themselves to verify their credibility. Formal research is more scientific in discovering needed information or solving a problem, beginning with a hypothesis (your main idea when you begin, which, in the case above, could be that the Ricoh might be the best printer), and then testing that hypothesis in a rigorous way. In this case you would come up with a set of criteria including certain features and capabilities that you need your printer to have, cost, warranty and service plan, availability, etc. Next you would look at all the accessible literature on the printers available to you, including the product webpages and spec manuals, customer reviews from other vendors, and reviews from reputable sources such as Consumer Reports, which gets experts to test the various available models against a set of criteria. Finally, you could test the printers yourself, score them according to your assessment criteria, rank the best to worst, and report the results.

Formal research obviously requires more time, labour, practice, skill, and resources in following a rigorous procedure. In the case of the printer research above, having a subscription to Consumer Reports gives you access to valuable information that not everyone has. (If you simply Google-searched “best office printer,” you may get a Consumer Reports ranking as one of your top results, but when you follow the links, you’ll get to a subscription pricing page rather than the list you’re looking for. A large part of the internet exists on the other side of paywalls.) If you’re a college student, however, you can access Consumer Reports via your college library account if its journal and magazine databases include Consumer Reports, search for office printers, and get a handy ranking of the latest multifunctional printers for the modern office. You check out their selection criteria and determine that their number-one choice is the right printer for your needs, so you respond to your manager with the make and model number. Finally, to prove that the recommendation comes from a reputable authority, you cite the Consumer Reports article showing the author, year, title, and retrieval information so that your manager can verify that you used a reputable, current source.

But why go to so much trouble? Why not just look briefly at all the options and follow your gut? Well, your gut isn’t much help when you’re in over your head. If you’re going to spend a few thousand dollars on the best printer, you’re going to want to do it right. You don’t want to waste money on one that has several problems that you could have known about beforehand had you done your homework. In this case, formal research (“homework”) protects you against preventable losses.

Like formal vs. informal research, primary vs. secondary has much to do with the level of rigor. Basically, primary research generates new knowledge and secondary research applies it. In the above case, the authors of the Consumer Reports article conducted primary research because they came up with the assessment criteria, arranged for access to all the printers, tested and scored each according to how well they performed against each criterion, analyzed the data, determined the ranking of best to worst printer on the market, and reported it in a published article. If you can’t conduct primary research yourself because you don’t have easy access to all the printers worth considering, you are thankful someone else has and would even pay money for that intel.

Other forms of primary research include surveys of randomly sampled people to gauge general attitudes on certain subjects and lab experiments that follow the scientific method. If a pharmaceutical company is researching a new treatment option for a particular health condition, for instance, it starts in the chemistry lab producing a compound that could be put in a pill, tests its safety on animal subjects, then runs human trials where it’s given to as many test subjects as possible. Some are given a placebo without knowing it (making them “blind”) by someone on the research team who also doesn’t know whether it’s the real pill or the placebo (making the study “double blind”). Close observations of the effects on people with the condition and without, having taken the new pill and the placebo, determines whether the new drug is actually effective and safe. Primary research is labour-intensive, typically expensive, and may include aspects of secondary research if referring to previous primary research.

Secondary research is what most people—especially students—do when they have academic or professional tasks because it involves finding and using primary research. To use the printer example above, accessing the Consumer Reports article and using its recommendation to make a case for office printer selection was secondary research. Depending on whether that secondary research is informal or formal, it may or may not cite and reference sources.

The easiest, most common, and most expedient research, the kind that the vast majority of informative workplace communication involves, is informal secondary research. As when an employee sends company pricing and scheduling information in response to a request from a potential customer, informal secondary research involves quickly retrieving and relaying information without citing it—not out of laziness or intentional plagiarism, but because formal citations are neither necessary nor even expected by the audience. When you do a school research assignment requiring you to document your sources, however, and if your manager requires you to cite the sources you used as a basis for endorsing an office printer in a recommendation report (because it will be an expensive investment), for example, you perform formal secondary research. In business, the latter type is best for ensuring that company resources are used appropriately and can be supported by all stakeholders. In other words, formal secondary research is a necessary part of a business’s due diligence. In the following section (§3.2), we will break down the labour-intensive process of building a document around source material collected through formal secondary research.

Key Takeaway

key iconDetermine the most appropriate research methodology—informal or formal, primary or secondary—for your audience and purpose depending on the level of rigour required.


1. Use your college library account to access Consumer Reports and find a report on a product type of interest to you. Assuming that your audience’s needs are for informal secondary research only, write a mock (pretend) email making a recommendation based on the report’s endorsement.
2. Now, for the sake of comparing sources, search for recommendation information on the same product type just by Googling it. What are the top search results? Going down the results list, did you find any unbiased sources that you could use in your recommendation email? What makes these sources biased or unbiased?



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3.1: Choosing a Research Methodology Copyright © 2019 by Jordan Smith; Melissa Ashman; eCampusOntario; Brian Dunphy; and Andrew Stracuzzi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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