I am in the early stages of a dissertation for the Open University at the moment and I am struck by the differences in how academic and commercial research is conducted. When I look at the two approaches, I think there are things the commercial world could learn from the academics (and two key things the academics could learn from the commercial side).
Some things are similar between the commercial and academic worlds. For example, projects tend to start with a research proposal and the research proposal will have research objectives, linked to research questions, and will recommend a research method.
However, there are two things that academic research does before it wades in, and the commercial world could learn from both.
The first step is that there is some form of ethical approval process. This often takes the form of a check list filled in by the researcher, checked by a supervisor, and signed off at a higher level. With the complexities of data protection legislation, research guidelines, and the shifting world of corporate ethics, something similar would make sense for agencies and for research buyers.
The second element is the literature review. The academic researcher has to find out what is already known and published. They have to assess and critically review what is already known and published. They have to show how the research they are proposing to do will advance the current state of knowledge.
A full literature review takes months and most commercial projects do not have the time or the budget to replicate the full process. However, it would be worth asking three key questions, to create a mini literature review process:
- 1. What is already known?
- 2. What needs to be known?
- 3. How does the proposed research fill the gap?
This mini-review process should be done twice. Once at the research proposal stage and then again after the project has been commissioned. The reason for doing it twice is that the answer to 'What is already known?' is likely to be somewhat fuller once the client has booked the project. Indeed, for this mini-review process to work there are two key things that are needed:
- a) Agencies need to ask what is already known.
- b) Clients need to be willing and able to share what is already known.
Talking to clients and listening to them when they are on the platform at conferences, it is clear that many of them feel that they are not often asked about what is already known. It is also clear that some clients feel less able than others to share information, which reduces the chances that the research will be effective. If research buyers and vendors work together to conduct a mini-literature review they will make it less likely they re-invent the wheel, make it less likely they will repeat earlier mistakes, and make it more likely that a useful outcome will be produced.
Without this mini-review mentality the proposal and preparation process focuses too much on the brief and jumps straight to what needs to be known and how will we answer it.
And what could the academics learn from the commercial researchers?
- 1. Speed. Academic research often takes longer than it needs to. Much of the work I see from masters students and people finishing their PhDs is done towards the end of the three, six, or twelve months they were given for the analysis and the write-up. If they had been given less time they could often have spent the same number of hours, but in a shorter number of weeks.
- 2. Quality of Sample. As part of my literature reviews I have noted that in the majority of cases academic research is conducted with massively unsuitable samples, usually convenience samples, often with students. Even high profile work like Dan Ariely's is mostly conducted with samples of students. Commercial research may cut corners on the method and the analysis, but its samples tend to be much, much better than those used for academic research.