Conducting quality research

08 December 2020

The Psychology Research Day, hosted by the BPS and Senate House Library, is an opportunity for graduates and early career psychologists to explore essential resources. At this year’s online event, experts shared insights and advice on all aspects of conducting research, from literature reviews and methods to blogging and impact.

Diverse methodologies

Three researchers shared some challenges and opportunities in their work. A challenge that Dr Aleksandra Herbec faces in her applied research in digital health is the digital divide – disadvantaged groups who might benefit from interventions can be difficult to reach because they lack access to digital technologies. This research can also have low engagement and high attrition, making it difficult to assess impact. But this is a rich area for future research, with many ongoing questions that have the potential to improve health: Who benefits, when and why? How should digital health programmes be scheduled and at what dose? How to engage the non-engaged?

There are myths about qualitative research – that it’s fluffy, easy and quick – but Dr Laura Kilby explained that qualitative research has to stand up to scrutiny like any research. ‘Quality is everything.’ A qualitative approach can provide an in depth understanding of an issue, and may be for you if you want to explore the ‘noise’, empower participants by giving them a voice, or have ecological validity in your research. 

Focusing on quantitative methods, Dr Gillian Shorter said that it is important to ‘do your science well’, and not rush to publish. Uncertainty in research should be embraced, Shorter said, and you shouldn’t worry if things don’t turn out how you hoped. Shorter also encouraged researchers to work together and support each other – ‘no psychologist is an island’.

Before and after data collection

Before you start conducting your research, you need to make sure it’s built on solid foundations, and this is where the literature review comes in. Dr Geoff Walton recommended getting to know your subject librarian who will know about the research landscape. Familiarise yourself with the available databases, e-journals and e-books, like PsychInfo, PsycArticles, PsycBooks, Web of Science and Wiley Online Library. Identify keywords, Walton said, and use those with the right Boolean operators (like AND, OR, NOT, SAME) to find the right articles for you.

Once you’ve gathered and analysed your data, you’ll want to share your outputs. This doesn’t just mean a journal article, but as Jez Cope described, encompasses data (where it can be anonymised), methodology and analysis code. Making your research open not only increases accessibility for other researchers, but can open up new opportunities. Cope said it can raise your profile and influence, attract collaborators and gain you more citations.

Communicating your research

The traditional model of communicating research is through publications, but David White said that there has been a shift over the last 15 years towards more online communication and shorter formats like blogs. Blogging is becoming a more authentic mode of communicating research, White said, and there’s no doubt blogs are read more than journal articles which can be very rewarding. White said you should consider who you want to become and which numbers matter to you – do you want to ensure your academic credentials through traditional publishing, or do you want to communicate ideas widely and have impact through online communication?

The editor of our Research Digest, Dr Matthew Warren, echoed White’s view that blogging can be rewarding – you can write a piece and then get it online within minutes, rather than the usual long waits for traditional publishing. Scientists have a duty to communicate with the public, Warren said, as much research is taxpayer funded. Warren said to drop the scientific jargon and suggested finding an editor and being open to their feedback and edits. If you have a friend who also blogs, you could edit each other’s work. If not, be your own editor by stepping away from your piece after the first draft, and coming back to it after a break. As Warren said, nobody writes a perfect first draft, so that second set of eyes or re-reading after a break can help you share your message clearly.

Impact through research

Professor Daryl O’Connor’s keynote talk highlighted the integral role that psychological science has in helping societies recover from the pandemic. The BPS Covid-19 research priorities group developed a position paperto set out seven psychology research priorities to support recovery from Covid-19: mental health, behaviour change and adherence, work, education, children and families, physical health and the brain, and social cohesion and connectedness. O’Connor said that inequality is of central importance to all of those priorities – psychological scientists need to consider ethnicity, socioeconomic status, health, age, sex, social exclusion and social support, and the intersections of these factors. 

To achieve these goals, O’Connor said there is a need for coordinated, large scale data collection and the establishment of research consortia. Innovative research methodologies need to be developed, and researchers must maintain high quality, open and rigorous research and ethical standards. O’Connor’s talk showed the wide-ranging impact that psychology research can have, and the importance of having high standards in that research.

Doing your research well

The ‘Ask an Expert’ sessions emphasised how much help is out there for early career researchers. Librarians are on hand to assist with the beginning stages of your research and press officers can help you to communicate your findings. Mura Ghosh hosted a virtual tour of Senate House Library, which is free for BPS members to join, and offers access to journals, e-books, psychological tests and conference proceedings. The BPS History of Psychology Centre holds archives documenting psychology’s development, described by Claire Jackson as ‘a window into the minds that created the psychological tools and concepts that we use today’.

Research goes far beyond data collection, analysis, and the publication of a journal article – the processes before and after are important too. Collaboration and communication are key parts of the research process, and will help you to do you research well, consider your future work priorities and importantly, maximise your impact. As O’Connor said, ‘the science is only as good as the impact it can have’.