Is your research biased? Answer: Yes. (Here’s why.)

Sarah Eaton blog technology researchThis semester I am teaching a course on Research Methodology in Education. One of the topics that has come up is bias.

Bias is present is bascially every research study. Even though we strive to be objective — and that is part of our work, we nevertheless start with a set of values, beliefs and philosophies that shape our opinions and world view.  It is important for reasearchers to understand the biases they bring to their work and to acknowledge them.

For example, one of my biases is that I hold is that everyone is capable of learning. Not everyone is capable of earning a Ph.D. (for any number of reasons), but everyone is capable of learning something. This is one of my values and beliefs that shapes my work. If I am an honest researcher, I must declare and acknowlege that bias when I do research. It is one thing to have and acknowledge bias. It is an entirely different matter to purposely bias our research in favor of a particular outcome or do research just to prove a point.

There are two ways to approach research:

Approach #1 – Conduct research in a manner that supports your argument

The first is to start with an argument or a position and conduct research and find literature that supports your point of view.

Though some scholars might disagree, I would submit that is an undesirable starting position. The reason is that you are likely to skew either your research or your results so they fit with your argument. Forcing results to fit to a pre-determined argument may be considered unethical. For example, pharmaceutical companies that conduct drug tests in order to prove the drug is safe and refuse to release research that may contradict that starting point are harshly criticized. Such research is not considered believable because it is skewed.

Approach #2 – Start with a research question, hypothesis or topic. Conduct your research in a manner that seeks to answer a question.

The second way to approach you research is to begin with a problem you want to solve or a question you want to answer. Then, you conduct your research in a manner that seeks to answer your research question. Once you have conducted your research, your argument emerges from your data.

The data is the information that you gather that allows you develop a cogent argument to persuade others. You can gather primary data (e.g. interviews) or secondary data (e.g. literature review).

Part of a research study almost always involves a review of previous literature written on the topic you are studying. In your literature review, it is valuable to cite opposing views. Once you have considered your question or problem from a variety of angles, then you can begin to develop an argument, based on your findings. Considering a variety of viewpoints is highly desirable as it demonstrates that you are not attempting to skew your results in favor of a pre-determined outcome.

Be aware that just because you start your research with a particular question or topic, it is unwise to assume that your starting position is the correct one. Be curious, rather than dogmatic. What themes emerge from the literature that you surveyed? What surprised you? What arguments can be made? What conclusions can be drawn?

In my own research, it has happened to me that I start with a research question, problem or hypothesis and as I surveyed the literature, my hypothesis was proven to be incorrect. Be prepared for that to happen. It does not mean you are a bad researcher. Quite the contrary, it means you have allowed your hypothesis or question to be challenged and your research is driven by the data you find.

We may come to our work with a bias. But ultimately, the research needs to speak for itself. That’s what makes it credible.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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