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Undergraduate Research in Australia

What is Research?

Edited extract from Brew, A. (2001). The Nature of Research: Inquiry in Academic Contexts. London: Routledge Falmer, pp. 21.

Research has complex meanings that differ depending on the discipline but for the purposes of providing a simple definition, more as a point of departure rather than a conclusive statement, research can be defined as a means of generating, testing, validating knowledge and making it public. It is a systematic process of investigation, the general purpose of which is to contribute to the body of knowledge that shapes and guides academic and/or practice disciplines.

The Tertiary Education Commission of the New Zealand government provides a more comprehensive definition of research:

...research is original investigation undertaken in order to contribute to knowledge and understanding and, in the case of some disciplines, cultural innovation or aesthetic refinement. It typically involves enquiry of an experimental or critical nature driven by hypotheses or intellectual positions capable of rigorous assessment by experts in a given discipline. It is an independent[1], creative, cumulative and often long-term activity conducted by people with specialist knowledge about the theories, methods and information concerning their field of enquiry. Its findings must be open to scrutiny and formal evaluation by others in the field, and this may be achieved through publication or public presentation. In some disciplines, the investigation and its results may be embodied in the form of artistic works, designs or performances.

Research includes contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of subjects and disciplines (e.g., dictionaries and scholarly editions). It also includes the experimental development of design or construction solutions, as well as investigation that leads to new or substantially improved materials, devices, products or processes.

The following activities are excluded from the definition of research except where they are used primarily for the support, or as part, of research and experimental development activities:

  • preparation for teaching;
  • the provision of advice or opinion, except where it is consistent with the definition of research;
  • scientific and technical information services;
  • general purpose or routine data collection;
  • standardisation and routine testing (but not including standards development);
  • feasibility studies (except into research and experimental development projects);
  • specialised routine medical care;
  • the commercial, legal and administrative aspects of patenting, copyrighting or licensing activities;
  • routine computer programming, systems work or software maintenance (but note that research into and experimental development of, for example, applications software, new programming languages and new operating systems is included);
  • any other routine professional practice (e.g., in arts, law, architecture or business) that does not comply with the definition.[2]

[1] The term 'independent' here should not be construed so as to exclude collaborative work

[2] Clinical trials, evaluations and similar activities will be included, where they are consistent with the definition of research

(Tertiary Education Commission. Available at: )

In recent years there has been a growth in studies exploring how different people (academics, researchers, students, supervisors) think about and understand the nature of research. Gerlese Åkerlind's article An academic perspective on research and being a researcher: an integration of the literature in Studies in Higher Education 2008, Vol. 33 Issue 1, p17-31 provides a useful overview of this research.

See also: Brew, A., & Lucas, L. (2009). Academic Research and Researchers. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and the Open University Press.

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