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What is academic research?

'Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants'. Watch Dr Chris Fuller explain how this metaphor is at the heart of all academic research.
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CHRIS: Standing on the shoulders of giants. You find that engraved on the edge of a two pound coin. But you’ll also find it at the heart of any good academic research project. It’s a simple metaphor that sums up the core principle of academic research. Namely, that the work we do is built upon that of the scholars that came before us, to allow us to know more and to see further. Imagine these puzzle pieces represent our knowledge of a particular subject, say, evolution. Our understanding now is built upon the work of those that came before. Take Charles Darwin, for example. His work on The Origin of the Species, published in 1859, is widely regarded as the foundation of evolutionary biology.
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And because he conducted his work in an academic manner, making his sources and references transparent, explaining his methodologies and how he came to his conclusions, other scholars have been able to build upon that, expanding his theories and our understanding, as well as challenging them. And that isn’t just limited to the one subject. There are thousands of giants that have developed ideas that we build upon. Take the story of Genesis in the Old Testament in the Bible, for example. That provides a very alternative view of evolution, that the world was created in six days. And other scholars have built upon that over time, developing theories like intelligent design and creationism.
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So try to keep this metaphor in mind at any point of an academic research project. Your project should not just be regurgitating the work of those who came before. We don’t need someone else to just tell us what Darwin already has. You should be adding an original interpretation and your views. At the same time, we don’t need it to be so original that it ends up up here, adrift of any of the research and scholarship that has come before. A good research project will look at the work of previous scholars, will build upon that, while adding original views and interpretations, so that you get the opportunity to make an original contribution to the subject that interests you.

‘Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’. Did you know that you can find this metaphor written around the edge of a £2 coin?

In this video you meet Dr Chris Fuller who explains how you can also find it at the heart of all academic research. It’s a metaphor which best reflects the process. It not only sums up one of the fundamental issues of academic research – namely building upon the work of those who came before us – but also highlights the ultimate benefit of research – to allow us to see further and know more.

Through this week’s activities we encourage you to:

  • think about what inspires you (broad topic area)
  • consider what skills you might develop through undertaking a research project (transferable skills)
  • think very clearly about what exactly you are getting into by undertaking a research project (checklist)
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Developing Your Research Project

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