Introduction to Research in Library and Information Science

“You have to do the research. If you don't know about something, then you ask the right people who do.Spike Lee

About this page

This page is designed for LIS students and beginning researchers. The topics, covered briefly, are pieces of information that fit the overall puzzle of conducting research. Topics on this page include definitions of research, research terminology, the philosophy of research approaches, and research ethics. Links to other resources are included. This page is not meant to replace scholarly tomes, textbooks or expert advice. You may want to visit the related pages of Research Methods and Research Tools.

Definition of Research

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines research as a “detailed study of a subject in order to discover information or achieve a new understanding of it.” A concise definition of research in Library and Information Science (LIS) is difficult to capture given the broad scope of the field. Some may agree that LIS research is conducted “to solve professional problems, develop tools, and methods for analysis of organization, services, and behavior, to determine costs and benefits of our services, and most importantly, to establish or develop a body of theory on which to base our practice.” (Shaughnessy)

Definitions of Research Terminology

As with any field of study, understanding the jargon is crucial to gaining knowledge. Below are a few online glossaries of research terms.

University of Southern California Library - Glossary of Research Terms

Colorado State University - Glossary of Key Terms

Quizlet includes Flashcards - 180 Social Science Research Terms

Philosophy of Research Approaches

(or a brief push to learn about the Pesky Paradigms of Positivism, Post-Positivism and Interpretivism)

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is a philosophical question regarding observation and the nature of reality. A research study is based on a philosophical stance about the nature of reality, whether or not that stance is identified by the researcher. You might ask how one can make such a claim. First, research in the social sciences, including LIS research, was developed by borrowing methods from the natural sciences, including the Scientific Method, which are built on certain beliefs about the nature of reality. In other words, reality can be observed, measured, classified and defined. This view of reality is positioned in the epistemology of positivism, view of the world that holds that science is “the way to get at truth, to understand the world well enough so that we might predict and control it. The world and the universe were deterministic -- they operated by laws of cause and effect that we could discern if we applied the unique approach of the scientific method.” (Trochim)

One of the complications in the reliance on principles and methods from the natural sciences is that human beings, while easy to observe, are not as easy to know or predict as are subjects in the natural sciences. Other approaches to social science research include Post-Positivism and Interpretivism; both offer differing views of the nature of reality that help expand the researcher’s methodological repertoire. LIS researchers use a variety of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and often a mixture of both, in their research. For more about LIS and social science methods visit Research Methods. (link to LARKS Research Methods page)

Second, we all operate from a philosophical stance, whether or not we are aware of it, or have ever studied philosophy, and that philosophy influences our view of the world and so will affect how we approach research.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines philosophy in this instance as “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group.” LIS research is influenced by personal beliefs, even while we aim for objectivity, and by the philosophical underpinnings of the approaches and methods practiced in both the natural and social sciences. Understanding the philosophical paradigms of research allows the researcher to make informed choices about research practice.

The Scientific Method as described as described in the natural science and social science textbooks:

“From a textbook in geology text: “Scientific method – a logical, orderly approach that involves gathering data, formulating and testing hypotheses, and proposing theories” (Wicander & Monroe, 2006).

From a chemistry textbook: “Scientific method – Scientific questions must be asked, and experiments must be carried out to find their answers” (McMurry & Fay, 2008).

From a biology text: “The classic vision of the scientific method is that observations lead to hypotheses that in turn make experimentally testable predictions” (Raven, Losos, Mason, Singer, & Johnson, 2008).

From a psychology textbook: “The scientific method refers to a set of assumptions, attitudes, and procedures that guide researchers in creating questions to investigate, in generating evidence, and drawing conclusions” (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2000).

From a sociology textbook: “The scientific method is an approach to data collection that relies on two assumptions: (1) Knowledge about the world is acquired through observation, and (2) the truth of the knowledge is confirmed by verification--that is, by others making the same observations”(Ferrante, 2008). (Keyes, 2010)

Research Ethics

Are you thinking of doing a study with human beings as participants? If so, there are several ethical issues that must be addressed, including those below. Check with your institution about the requirements for conducting ethical research.

  • Voluntary Participation requires that people not be coerced into participating in research.
  • Informed Consent requires that research participants be fully informed about the procedures and risks involved in research and must give their consent to participate.
  • Risk of Harm requires that researchers not put participants in a situation where they might be harmed, physically or psychologically, by participation in the study.
  • Privacy must be maintained either through confidentiality or anonymity. Confidentiality is an assurance that any information provided in the study will not be accessible to anyone not directly involved in the study. Anonymity is harder to achieve and means that no one will know who the participant is, not even the researcher.

Research Ethics Resources

  • Institutional Review Board (IRB) - If you are conducting research that involves human beings, then check with your college/university for information about its IRB. Research is defined as a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.  Activities which meet all three of the elements of this definition constitute research.  A project requires IRB review if it includes both research and human subjects.
  • The Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) provides leadership in the protection of the rights, welfare, and wellbeing of subjects involved in research conducted or supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). OHRP helps ensure this by providing clarification and guidance, developing educational programs and materials, maintaining regulatory oversight, and providing advice on ethical and regulatory issues in biomedical and social-behavioral research.
  • The American Psychological Association (APA) provides research ethics guidelines at Five Principles for Research Ethics
  • National Research Council of Canada The National Research Council (NRC) is the Government of Canada's premier organization for research and development.
  • Social Sciences and Research Council The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is the federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training in the humanities and social sciences. Through its programs and policies, the Council enables the highest levels of research excellence in Canada, and facilitates knowledge sharing and collaboration across research disciplines, universities and all sectors of society.
  • Health Canada's Research Ethics Board (REB) The REB helps ensure that this research meets the highest ethical standards, and that the greatest protection is provided to participants who serve as research subjects.


Keyes, G. (2010). Teaching the Scientific Method in the Social Sciences. The Journal of Effective Teaching, , 10 (2), 18-28.

Shaughnessy, T. Library Research in the 70's: Problems and Prospects. California Librarian , 37 (July 1976), 42-52.

Trochim, W. M. (n.d.). Positivism & Post-Positivism. Retrieved March 2014, from Research Methods Knowledge Base:


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