There is no one best way to collect data. Different types of research
call for different collection techniques. There are, however, four important
considerations that apply to all data collection and that will help
ensure the overall integrity of both the process and the information
methods. Reliable data are vitally dependent on reliable
methods. If you use a test that can detect an effect in one of every
100 samples to find an effect that may not occur more frequently than
1 in every 1,000 cases, your results will not be reliable. Failure to
find the effect could be due to either your experimental design or the
lack of an effect, but you will not know which is true. The common saying,
“garbage in, garbage out,” applies to research methods.
Although the need for appropriate methods might seem obvious, studies
have suggested that researchers sometimes use inappropriate statistical
tests to evaluate their results (see articles by DeMets and Gardner,
Additional Reading). Methods can also be compromised by bias—choosing
one method or set of experimental conditions so that a particular conclusion
can be drawn—or sloppy technique. Whatever the origin, the use
of inappropriate methods in research compromises the integrity of research
data and should be avoided. Responsible research is research conducted
using appropriate, reliable methods.
to detail. Quality research requires attention to detail.
Experiments must be set up properly and the resultsaccurately recorded,
interpreted, and published. A failure to pay attention to detail can
result in mistakes that will later have to be corrected and reported.
Correcting the record takes time and resources that are better spent
on the research itself.
Obviously, it is not possible to avoid all mistakes in research. However,
take a look at the errata section of any scientific journal and ask
yourself how the mistakes reported could have been avoided. Did the
authors check to make sure that each figure was correctly labeled? Were
the calculations double checked? Did someone check to make sure the
authors were properly listed? Since others rely on their work, researchers
have a responsibility to make sure their work is carefully undertaken
and reported. Sloppy research wastes funds and should be avoided.
Many types of data collection need to be authorized before they can
proceed. Typically permission is needed to use:
- human and animal subjects in research;
- hazardous materials and biological agents;
- information contained in some libraries, databases, and archives;
- information posted on some Web sites;
- published photographs and other published information; and
- other copyrighted or patented processes or materials.
Researchers have a responsibility to know when permission is needed
to collect or use specific data in their research. If you are not sure
whether permission is needed, check before proceeding with data collection.
The final step in data collection is the physical process of recording
the data in some type of notebook (hard copy), computer file (electronic
copy), or other permanent “record” of the work done. The
physical formats for recording data vary considerably, from measurements
or observations to photographs or interview tapes. However data are
recorded, it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of any record
is to document what was actually done and the results that were achieved.
In recording data, keep two simple rules in mind to avoid problems
later, should someone ask about or question your work:
- Hard-copy evidence should be entered into a numbered, bound notebook
so that there is no question later about the date the experiment was
run, the order in which the data were collected, or the results achieved.
Do not use loose-leaf notebooks or simply collect pages of evidence
in a file. Do not change records in a bound notebook without noting
the date and reasons for the change.
- Electronic evidence should be validated in some way to assure that
it was actually recorded on a particular date and not changed at some
later date. It is easy to change dates on computers and thereby alter
the date a particular file seems to have been created. If you collect
your data electronically, you must be able to demonstrate that they
are valid and have not been changed.
As you record your data, it may be helpful to think about them as the
legal tender of research—the currency researchers cash in when
they apply for grants, publish, are considered for promotion, and enter
into business ventures. To have and hold their value, research data
must be properly recorded.