researchers reflect and write about their practice We
tend to think of research as a systematic form of
inquiry that is regulated by conceptual frameworks, theories,
and methods, and the aim of which is to establish new knowledge.
This is not wrong, but it is seriously incomplete. Research
is also, and first of all, a kind of social practice. What forms
of inquiry are considered "research"; how we do it and how
we assess and use its results; the ways it shapes our perceptions of reality
and our notions of knowledge and expertise – these essential
aspects of our understanding of research are all
socially constructed (see Berger and Luckmann, 1966); that is,
they evolve through practice.
from the general notion of "research" to the level
of specific research efforts, a similar observation applies.
The aims and requirements that researchers associate with a
specific research effort, no less than the assumptions
that inform its findings and conclusions, will be shaped as much by the specific research
context at hand as by general epistemological, methodological
and sociological notions research; for it is only the specific
context that allows defining what is needed and relevant.
Research quality, then,
is no less a matter of research practice than
it is a matter of what for lack of a better term I will call
"research theory." Research theory as I understand
it is made up not only by general theories of knowledge and
science (an influential example is Popper, 1961, 1963, and 1972)
but includes all kinds of theoretical and methodological frameworks
other social conventions –
for social conventions they all are – that stipulate what
researchers are expected to do and what accordingly in
the worldwide research community as well as in the public domain
is to be considered respectable research. By research practice,
on the other hand, I mean what researchers actually do when
they "research" a specific issue or situation
and try to do justice to it, so as to come up with valid and
relevant findings and conclusions. This effort requires reflection
on how theoretical and methodological concepts can usefully
be put into practice and adapted to the situation; it also requires
a proper handling of all those genuinely practical
aspects of research that are indispensable to do justice to
the situation but which cannot be derived from general research
theory and justified in its terms, for example, because they
depend on the specific views and interests of the people involved
or in some way concerned.
be sure, as a matter of principle it is hardly adequate to oppose
research practice to research theory; adequate research theory
and practice should mutually inform one another. Adequate research
theory would thus be grounded in and support research practice,
and vice-versa. Unfortunately, this is not exactly the current
state of the matter. Practicing researchers are often lost when
they turn to the theoretical literature for advice about research
practice. The bulk of established research theory has focused
so much on the abstract, cognitive and methodological requirements
of research that it has tended to lose sight of the importance
of those other, "practical" aspects of research that
cannot adequately be described and decided in terms of research
theory, or at least not only so. For example, an
important aspect of what I mean by research practice is its
"self-reflective" quality: do the researchers
involved in a specific inquiry systematically question the manifold
assumptions on which its results depend and do they lay them
open, as well as making sure that all the users understand their implications for all
the parties concerned?
Another, related aspect of research practice is its "emancipatory"
quality: does research tend to make those it is supposed to
serve depend on its ways to define and answer the issues in
question, so that in effect
it puts them in a situation of incompetence, or does it enable
them to play a competent role?
philosophical as well as "applied" interest in such research-practical
questions explains why I have become
a co-editor of the Journal of Research Practice (JRP),
a journal that aims to help researchers in sharing
and improving their research practices.
its inception in 2005, the journal has managed to maintain quite
remarkable level of quality; but this has gone at the expense
of rejecting many submissions or requesting revisions that did
not ultimately result in publications. As a consequence,
there has been a certain lack of papers that the journal was
able to publish on a regular basis without compromising its
standards of quality. There was thus a very practical need for
helping potential authors – researcher practitioners and scholars – in preparing
submissions that respond to the journal's aims and quality standards.
JRP Concept Hierarchy To do something
about the situation I initiated, together with my co-editor
D.P. Dash, the development of a specific
kind of research dictionary or
"taxonomy" for the journal. A
taxonomy is a systematic, hierarchical classification of concepts
that are considered useful for describing essential objects
or topics in a certain field of interest. A well-known example
is provided by biological taxonomies of species, say,
a taxonomy of plants (or of a subcategory of plants, say, flowers).
Such a taxonomy allows identifying individual plants (or flowers)
systematically on the basis of certain observable characteristics.
These characteristics then permit a step-by-step procedure of
examining and specifying the precise kind of plant one faces,
as if in a decision tree.
be sure, a research taxonomy is a more complex undertaking;
the aspects of research that can be of interest to research
practice are so multifaceted and interdependent that they can
hardly be arranged in the form of a strict decision tree. A
better way to approach the task is by thinking of these aspects
as elements in a complex conceptual network that we want to help
users explore, beginning at any place and moving in all
directions. The more important it is that the concepts in questions
are arranged and defined hierarchically, so as to provide a
basic structure of order in the form of higher-level and lower-level
cooperation with my fellow editor D.P. Dash, we designed
the basic structure and initial content of what we call the
JPR Concept Hierarchy. It has a three-level
structure, and its initial content consists of well over 5,000
entries (but it is clear that many more entries will need to
be added as the intended users make the framework their own
and suggest new entries to meet their needs and interests).
It aims to be a tool that researchers can use to reflect on
their research and write about how they understand, practice,
and experience it. At the same time, it aims to be a tool for
the journal's editors in defining and communicating JRP's thematic
priorities and editorial focus, so as to strengthen its profile.
Ultimately, all the journal's readers, contributors, and staff
belong to the intended users: readers can use it to find
in the journal material of interest to them; authors and commentators
can use it to make sure their contributions respond to the interests
of the journal, as well as to index their content; and the editorial
staff and reviewers can use it to support well-founded decisions
about individual submissions, by considering whether a paper
contributes to the journal's aims and how it can be made to
focus more clearly on one of its thematic priorities, as well
as how it may be properly classified and indexed.
term "concept hierarchy" may require some further
explanation. Basically, a concept hierarchy is exactly what
the term says – a conceptual framework that is structured hierarchically
and is to form the nucleus of a specialized language (terminology)
in a field of knowledge or inquiry. In the case of JRP, which
is a transdisciplinary journal aiming to help researchers
share their research experiences and learn from them, it
is particularly challenging to develop such a research dictionary
and underlying system of classification, given that there is
such a wide range of interests and activities that may be pursued
in the name and spirit of research. Trying to achieve completeness
is neither feasible nor meaningful. What is feasible and meaningful,
however, is to strive for a conceptual network that assists
its users in systematically exploring and thinking through a
certain research interest, project, or experience, or the way
they report and reflect on such an experience in a planned submission
to the journal.
three levels: The
framework's three conceptual levels stand for three kinds of
concepts to which we refer, in a top-down perspective, as focus
areas, subject areas, and keywords (Fig. 1):
1: A three-level concept hierarchy for research
areas stand for broad topics of particular interest in which
the journal aims to be strong and which it considers to be of
key importance for reflecting about research practice. To put
it differently, they mirror the core questions on which the
journal aims to focus as a platform for discussing research
practice. Accordingly, the focus areas are defined by characteristic
core questions along with a limited number of subject areas
assigned to them.
areas stand for more specific (but still fairly broad) issues
that such discussion may raise, for example, concerning notions
of research competence and training, or the institutional and
societal contexts within which researchers work, or the basic
methodological frameworks and paradigms they rely on. Subject
areas are described by an open-ended number of keywords assigned
to them. Not all subject areas need to be and currently are
constitutive of focus areas; some may be assigned to several
finally, are basic terms for describing the nature and content
of specific research projects or papers. There is no such thing
as a definitive or complete list of keywords. The list of keywords
assigned to each subject area will need to grow and to be continuously
be adapted to the development of that subject area, its changing
topics of central interest as well as its changing language.
This is why we consider the concept hierarchy as merely an initial
version, the beginning rather than the end of an effort that
we hope will become a collective effort of all those
interested in it and contributing to the journal.
its initial Version 1.0, the concept hierarchy consists of 6
focus areas, 41 subject areas (of which 30 are constitutive
of focus areas), and around 5,800 keywords. We refer to all
these entries as index terms, a general term that offers
itself as all three levels of concepts can be used for purposes
of indexing articles.
network structure: Depending on whether one
at the concept hierarchy from a bottom-up or top-down perspective, its entries lend themselves
to searching for the "parent concepts" or "child concepts"
that are related to some initial concept of interest. Say, you
start with an interest in "research competence" as
your initial concept. A related parent concept will then
be "research education" and a related child concept
will be "researcher's role & responsibility" (see
2: Example of a concept family taken from the JRP concept
(Source: Ulrich and Dash, 2011, p. 6).
this example our initial concept (research competence) belongs
to the middle level, so we take it to stand for a subject area.
Accordingly the mentioned parent concept (research education)
represents a focus area and the mentioned child concept (researcher's
role & responsibility) a keyword. Further, via related parent
concepts or children concepts, one may also identify and explore relevant
sister concepts (or siblings) of the initial concept (e.g.,
in this case, all the middle-level concepts shown in Fig. 2).
offered at the lower two levels may, in addition, stand for
cross-references to other parent concepts (i.e., other
subject areas or focus areas) where more lower-level concepts
of related interest
(siblings and/or children
concepts, in the example: subject areas and assigned keywords) can be found. In the
example, "researcher's role & responsibility"
is a child concept not only of the subject area "research
competence" but also of the subject area "professionalism
& expertise." Accordingly the index terms entered under
"research competence" include a cross-reference to
the alternative subject area "professionalism & expertise."
To distinguish such cross-references from other index terms,
they are listed in italics. This simple feature enables users
to systematically explore conceptual family relationships that
go beyond the search for parent concepts, or for child concepts
or siblings, and may include conceptual aunts and uncles, cousins,
nieces or nephews as it were. The concept hierarchy thus allows
being used as a conceptual network rather than a conceptual
tree only; one may start anywhere and can then move up or down
and laterally in all directions.
main tools: So
much for a brief introduction. Should I have raised your interest,
I invite you to visit the Journal
of Research Practice, which is available on-line in
the open-access mode. You will find there three basic resources
that explains the aims, construction, and intended uses
of the JRP Concept Hierarchy (Ulrich and Dash, 2011);
overview of the JRP
Focus Areas; and
initial list of the JRP
Subject Areas and Keywords (with currently some
is an entry
page to the Concept Hierarchy in which you can find the
above three links. Further, the overview of the JRP Focus Areas
is also presented in the Editorial, and a compact version of
it can be found in the JRP
index or "Home" page, conforming to the aim of
defining and communicating the journal's thematic priorities
The concept hierarchy has several basic uses and expected
benefits for the journal and all its contributors and readers:
to authors: Starting with the focus areas and considering
corresponding core questions and subject areas, potential
authors can henceforth make a quick initial assessment
whether a contribution they envisage may be relevant
to JRP. Likewise, working their way through the concept
hierarchy may help them in structuring an article
system: Index terms can be drawn from
all three levels of the concept hierarchy. By means
of a balanced selection of index terms from the three
levels, submitting authors can systematically indicate
to JRP editors and reviewers what they see as the paper's
relevance to the journal; conversely, the editors and
reviewers can better assess a paper's aims and relevance
and thus also can better assist the authors.
of journal content: A systematic choice of index
terms will do much to make sure a paper finds its target
audience. It matters in this context that index terms
drawn from the concept hierarchy will from now on be
indicated not only in the published articles as they
appear to readers (either in HTML or in PDF format)
but will also be included in the paper's metadata, that
is, that is, in the electronic data set that is not
visible to readers but which search engines may use
for identifying content. All potential readers, whether
they are aware of the Journal of Research Practice
or not, will thus have a greater chance of finding,
by means of a simple Internet search, material of interest
to them in JRP. This will increase the visibility of
published papers in the global research community.
In addition, JRP readers will also be able to search
the journal's content more systematically from within
the journal's web site.
tool: The journal's editorial staff and reviewers
can refer to the concept hierarchy for the purpose of
thinking through any topic with regard to its potential
relevance to JRP. Actual submissions can be assessed
more easily as to their relevance. Connections of a
paper's subject matter with other subjects that the
journal aims to cover can be explored systematically.
Options for developing a paper or for suggesting additional
contributions may thus be identified. Finally, the journal's
editors and staff can use the concept hierarchy, and
particularly the table of the JRP Focus Areas, as
a basis for taking well-considered staffing and policy
we intend to nominate new members of the editorial team
so as to bring in specific qualifications regarding
defined focus and/or subject areas. We may also design
special issues so as to cover focus and subject areas
that have remained underrepresented in the journal.
Or, as a third and final example, we may periodically
review the journal's aims and scope by redefining the
JRP Focus Areas so as to keep pace with new insights
and issues in the quest for good research practice.
the over-all visibility and profile of JRP:
Indirectly, all the previous uses of the concept hierarchy
should also strengthen the journal's visibility and
profile. If potential authors can better assess how
to prepare relevant submissions; if reviewers have a
better basis for assessing a submission's relevance
and potential; if the journal thus ultimately publishes
articles that are focused on well-defined aspects of
research practice; if the journal's editorial staff
includes an increasing number of research scholars and
practitioners with a well-defined and recognized profile
in some of the journal's focus and subject areas; if
due to the journal's thus-increased profile the quality
of what it publishes grows further; and finally, if
potential readers worldwide, thanks to systematic indexing, have
higher chances to find material of interest to them
in JRP – all these factors should in the end make sure
that the journal's quality and reputation can grow,
which in turn should allow it to secure the collaboration
of qualified researchers and to generate a regular influx
of high-quality submissions.
addition to these expected benefits for the journal, it is an
equally important aim of the concept hierarchy to serve the
global research community:
the research community a general taxonomy of research
practice: Everyone is free to use the JRP concept
hierarchy in whatever ways they find useful, regardless
of whether or not the aim is contributing to the journal.
Our hope is that many researchers will indeed find it
useful to use the concept hierarchy as a framework for purposes
– structuring a research project;
or assessing a research report; and
or revising a research paper.
some of the users will then also decide to contribute
to the framework's further development, by communicating
to the JRP editors omissions they observe or suggestions
they may have for enriching the concept hierarchy and
improving its usefulness. The aim must be that over
time, the JRP concept hierarchy becomes a tool that
its users own and continuously help to develop.
therefore invite you to feel free and adopt the JRP
Focus Areas for your personal use, regardless of
whether you plan to contribute to the journal. Use it
as a tool for structuring and thinking through, within
the context of your research work, the rich and complex
issues of research that together make up "research
To be sure, the concept hierarchy that is available today represents
an initial version; as the Editorial introduction mentioned
above makes quite clear, the task of developing the framework
beyond its initial stage must be understood as a collaborative
project for which we depend on interested users (see particularly
Section 6 of the Editorial). Further, it is a never-ending task,
as the framework will always need to be adapted periodically
to the on-going development of research practices in different
second major development that we envisage is an interactive
graphic interface for displaying and exploring the concept hierarchy.
The electronic journal management platform that JRP's publisher
employs does not currently allow us to implement such a feature.
It remains a challenge for the mid- or longer-term future; for
more discussion, see again the Editorial (Section 5).
any case, an initial version is necessarily imperfect; what
matters more than perfection for the present undertaking is
that an impetus be given towards a richer understanding and
practice of research. Today, it is still common to conceive
of one's research and assess its quality in terms of theoretical
and methodological issues only, rather than in terms of both
research theory and research practice. The research community
can only gain by deepening its interest in, and understanding
of, the role of research practice as a force that shapes virtually
all aspects of research – from the research interests and questions
that motivate a research effort to the way the research context
is understood; from the research methods and procedures that
are chosen to the ways they are applied; and ultimately, from
the findings and conclusions that are identified to the way
they are interpreted, validated, communicated, and put into
it a personal habit to question one's research proposals, projects,
and products in terms of both research theory and practice is
not a bad idea. It can mark a major step forward in a researcher's
individual quest for research competence.
wish you good research practice.
– two invitations Before
you now move on to exploring the Journal
of Research Practice (if you have not already done so,
I suggest you begin with the JRP
Focus Areas), allow me to end this Bimonthly with
these two invitations:
invitation to contribute to the Journal of Research
Practice: The fact that you are
reading this Bimonthly and perhaps even are a
regular visitor of my home page may mean that you have
interests similar to mine. If this is so, you may also
be interested in topics that are of interest to JRP.
I would like to invite you, therefore, to visit the
journal's site and consider contributing to it. See
the journal's page "Contributors"
for a brief outline of the different ways in which you
can contribute. To be sure, the best way to contribute
is by submitting articles for publication (use the on-line
upload facility to this end). Thanks to its quality-conscious
but efficient and supportive peer-review system, JRP
provides an excellent opportunity for sharing your research
experiences and reflections with other researchers or
professionals and to see your contributions published
a possible misunderstanding, the sometimes rather philosophical
character of my Bimonthly essays should not have
you assume that only philosophically oriented papers
will be considered for publication in JRP. Research philosophy
is only one of the journal's focus areas, as it is
only one among the many resources that can help researchers
achieve good research practice. Accordingly, it is only
one among many considerations that may help authors to achieve what really matters
for successful submissions: their self-reflective
nature. JRP is a vehicle not for reporting research
results but for reflecting on the ways they
are produced and used; on the underlying notions of "good"
research practice; and on what may be learned from specific
research experiences. These may consist in both completed
research projects or research in progress. The experiences
of novice researchers are also of interest; you need
not be an accomplished researcher to publish in JRP,
we also welcome contributions by diligent students of
research. JRP is a journal for all people who want to
learn about research as a practice, so try to
contribute by sharing your personal quest for learning
invitation to participate in the next
Lugano Summer School: In the second
half of June, 2012, I will run the last planned event
in the current series of Doctoral and Postdoctoral
Summer Schools on Soft and Critical Systems Thinking,
LSS 2012. These Summer Schools pursue aims similarly
to those of my publications on reflective professional
practice, but they focus more specifically on the use
of soft and critical systems thinking as tools for improving
the participants's research or professional practice.
Soft systems thinking is represented by Peter Checkland's
(e.g., 1981, 1985; Checkland and Holwell, 2001; Checkland
and Poulter, 2006, 2010) work on Soft Systems Methodology
(SSM); critical systems thinking is represented
by my own work (e.g., 1983, 2000, 2003, 2006; Ulrich and
Reynolds, 2010) on Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).
This is the first time
that I allow myself to draw attention to an upcoming Lugano
Summer School event in the Bimonthly, and
it will remain the only time. The exception may be justified given
that LSS 2012 offers the last opportunity ever to learn
about SSM and CSH directly from their originators, in
one and the same event. If this opportunity is of interest to you, please visit the LSS
site (see particularly the sections "Announcements"
and "Academic Program"). Also, in case you know of
other people who might be interested, I am grateful
if you draw their attention to the LSS site. Thank you.
sign off for this year with my very best wishes to all those
who belong to the occasional or regular visitors of my site
or who (if you are a first-time visitor) may become future faithful
visitors. Thank you for your interest, and stay well. Merry
Christmas and all the best for the year's end – see you in 2012.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
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