Research key words – significance


We all want to do research that matters. Right? Surely no one out there wants to spend a load of time and energy doing research that is of no value, that nobody will take any notice of and that won’t make an iota of difference to anyone anywhere? Why do that?

Of course, there is a road between the research results and having it taken up. So rather than making a difference, research has to have real potential to do something – stimulate other work, bring about a change in a field, explore something because it could be of vital concern, point out issues that require discussion, raise questions about policy, point the ways to changes in practice. And so on.

But what about blue skies research I hear you ask? Well, people who do curiosity driven research which has no immediate application still choose topics which they think are worthwhile. Out of all of the things that they could do, they choose to investigate an area that they can justify in terms of its value.

When we talk about research having potential and being worthwhile, we are talking about significance. We are talking about choosing some research because we think it is important. What’s more, we can make a sound case for why we think the topic and our research results are important.

And in most kinds of research, importance is not simply about the fact that there is a gap, or a dispute, or several ways of thinking about something, or it’s a few years since anyone looked at it, or no one has used this approach. Generally, we decide something is important because of the possible actions that might arise from it.

Doctoral researchers focus on significance at the start of their programme. They have to justify to someone, or several people, that their proposed research is important. Doctoral researchers also focus on significance as they are writing their thesis text, or papers that come from their research. They not only have to justify and explain their topic at the outset, they also have to say at the end why their results matter, to whom, how and when.

Establishing the relevance of a topic and final results is usually integral to talking about significance. It is an expected aspect of introductions and conclusions, particularly in Western and English language research approaches and genres.

It’s not surprising then that examiners want to hear  (viva) and read a statement (thesis, paper) about the importance of the research in question – and they might ask for it to be added in into a text if it’s not there.

It’s not just doctoral researchers who have to take significance seriously. Pretty well all researchers have to focus on significance. Attending to significance is crucial in funding applications, book proposals, conference presentations, keynotes and the like.

The job of a researcher is to tell a reader or listener how we understand our topic, why we’ve chosen it and why it matters. We help our reader/listener to understand this too. We write a compelling and persuasive text. We make an authoritative and well evidenced pitch. We start our presentations and papers with a succinct and judiciously crafted rationale. We connect our topic and our results with wider conversations in the field.

So getting clear about significance is a significant aspect of the research process. Now, significance is of course related to claims and contribution. It’s hard to talk about significance without mentioning either of these. They’re coming up next.