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Information Technology Research — A Practical Guide



(Citation)Citation information

M. S. Olivier. Information Technology Research — A Practical Guide. Published by author, updated by Olivier, Information Technology Research — A Practical Guide for Computer Science and Informatics. Self-published, 1999


Can one be taught to do research? Some sciences commonly include a research methods course relatively early in the curriculum, but such courses (and often the concerned sciences themselves) tend to embrace a fairly rigid approach to conducting research. Many textbooks in social sciences, in particular, are testament to this approach.

In addition, the skills acquired very early in many sciences’ curricula are particularly useful when doing research. Proving theorems in a first year mathematics course is essentially the same as proving a newly proposed theorem. Conducting a chemistry or physics experiment for a first year laboratory assignment essentially requires the same approach than conducting an experiment to test some new theory. Of course, as in all sciences, arriving at the new theorem to be proven or theory to be tested is not simple — and not taught.

Subjects in the field of Information Technology (known as Computer Science, Informatics, Information systems, Information Technology or similar names) at most academic institutions does not fit into either of the two categories above. The research methods used in these subjects are simply too varied to form the basis for a rigid course. The skills taught in these courses emphasise application of Information Technology - and, in Information Technology, application differs significantly from research.

Most Information Technology students who embark on a research project for an advanced qualification, are expected to study lots of research papers and reports to obtain information on previous research done in their fields. They are also expected to learn how to conduct research in their specific fields from this same literature.

The premise of this guide is that it is indeed necessary for the new researcher to learn how to do research from papers published in academic journals and presented at conferences in the concerned field (as well as from other research reports). However, it is possible to ease this burden of the new researcher by highlighting the most important issues encountered during most research projects in Information Technology. Thus sensitised, the new researcher should find it easier to distinguish between ‘standard practices’ encountered in many research projects in the field, and aspects peculiar to specific projects.

Despite the remarks in the previous paragraph, many statements in this guide may seem prescriptive — almost dogmatic. This does not mean that they are rigid; the student should feel free to deviate from them — if evidence is found in the literature to support such deviation.

The guide also attempts to list alternatives that are available to the researcher to approach certain aspects of the study. Different possibilities to arrive at a new model are, for example, given. Such lists of alternatives should not be seen as either exhaustive or representative of the techniques used by researchers in practice. (Often the techniques used by researchers in practice are not spelled out clearly anywhere and the researchers who use them find it difficult to articulate them.) Such lists are provided to present the new researcher at least with some possibilities to consider when faced with an unfamiliar aspect of research. Again, scrutinising the literature should provide additional clues.

The guide is intended either for students who are embarking on a research project or those who follow a course on research methods prior to commencing with a research project. The problems that are provided at the end of each chapter are primarily intended for students in the latter category. Students in the first category should still look at the problems and consider those that are relevant in the context of their research project.

New researchers outside a formal academic environment should also find this guide useful. However, such readers will probably conduct their research as part of their day-to-day work, as part of a community organisation or in some other context. They may therefore have less flexibility when selecting the topic of their study. In addition, their aim may not be to conduct academically (scientifically) justified research. In these (and similar) cases, such readers will have to ignore some aspects of the guide and supplement others from other sources.

As hinted earlier, the term Information Technology is intended to include all subjects that principally study the application of the computer. The term ¡em¿computing¡/em¿ will be used with this same broad meaning where its use improves clarity. Subjects included range from Computer Science, typically focussing on the technical aspects of computing, to Information Systems or Informatics — subjects that usually focus on applications of computing in a real-world context or even on the social impact of computing.

(BibTeX record)BibTeX reference

author={Martin S Olivier},
title={Information Technology Research --- A Practical Guide},
note={Published by author, updated by cite{itresmet2}} )