INTRODUCTION Scientific merit is the degree of quality of a research study. When the scientific merit of a research study is high, this means that the research has contributed valuable, meaningful, and valid information to a scientific discipline. This presentation will explain the basic components of scientific merit so that you so that you can evaluate the work of others as well as your own.
WHAT IS SCIENTIFIC MERIT There are three dimensions to scientific merit, and each will be discussed in turn. The three dimensions include advancing the current knowledge base, contributing to theory, and meeting the hallmarks of good research.
ADVANCE KNOWLEDGE BASE The first requirement for research to have scientific merit, is that is must advance the knowledge base in the field of study. That is to say that for us to value the research, it must contribute new knowledge to one's discipline, such as psychology. In order to determine whether research advances the knowledge base, we should ask, "Does the study address something that is not known or has not been studied before?" If the study only replicates previous findings, then it does not advance the knowledge base. In order to know whether or not research addresses something that has been studied before, you need to read and have an understanding of the literature, meaning the primary research articles on the topic. Knowledge represented in a literature review tells us what IS known. Once we understand what IS known, then we are in a position to see what is NOT known. The gap in the literature is also called the research problem. Research that is published in journal articles will present a pertinent literature review in the Introduction section of the article so that the reader can understand the current knowledge in the field.
We should also ask, "How does the research study make new contributions to the empirical knowledge base about the specific topic?" The manner in which information is gained in order for it to contribute to the knowledge base is important. Research in psychology must be empirical, which means the data collected is based upon observations that can be made and measured by anyone under the same conditions. We should also ask, "How is the research study extending the information to what is known in the literature already?" That is, we need to know how the research study connects to, relates to, or fits in, with other research findings. By extending information, we increase our depth of understanding about a phenomenon.
To evaluate how well the research advances the knowledge base, we might ask questions in layman's terms such as: So what? Why is this research important? Who cares? Seriously, who is interested in the results of the study? Who is the intended audience, and how might they use the results? What change or new understanding do the findings bring? What does this study offer that is new and fresh? As an analogy, think of research findings as individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, how and where will this research finding—this piece—fit in? Will it help bridge a large gap, a small one? Is it a piece that will pull together several areas of the
puzzle? Is it a piece that might go in a certain area of the puzzle, but not really connect to anything that's already there? As the French scientific philosopher Henri Poincare noted, "Science is facts; just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science." Therefore, part of understanding how well a research finding advances knowledge in the field depends on how it fits in with other findings.
CONTRIBUTION TO THEORY Theories are the foundation of a researcher's toolkit. Theories provide the theoretical framework that underlies research and organize the observations that have been made regarding a particular phenomenon. We all have theories. For example, you might have a theory about effective parenting. Whether you are a parent or not, you have made observations of people parenting their children, seen movies or TV shows of the same, heard about others' experience, and read books. If you are a parent, you have direct experience with parenting. As we make observations, we think about what is being observed. We organize our thoughts in such a way that beliefs, attitudes, and opinions are formed about phenomenon. These beliefs, attitudes and opinions that are formed from our thoughts about observations can be used to formulate theories about how and why things occur. Researchers use theories as the basis of their research studies; testing, advancing, extending, and even creating new theories that provide insight into a particular phenomenon.
The second dimension used to evaluate scientific merit is the degree to which the research contributes to theory. There are various ways in which research can do this. We might ask if the research provides evidence that generates a brand new theory. We might also ask, does the research finding refine or add to an existing theory? Theories are never perfect, and they are always open to verification. So we might also ask, does the research test to confirm or refute current theory? And last, we could ask, "Does the research expand theory by telling us something new about how it can be applies?" Some theories lend themselves well to practical applications, such as therapy or education. Research might contribute to theory by showing how the theory might be applied in a certain context.
HALLMARKS OF GOOD RESEARCH Like most other human endeavors, research can be well done, or poorly done. Obviously, research that is done well has more scientific merit than research that is done poorly. But how can we evaluate whether research is good? Simply put, research is good when it is based upon sound methodology. Specifically, we can look at whether the research meets certain hallmarks of good research. The first question is, "Can the study answer the research questions with the design and method proposed?" That is to say, the research Questions must address the research problem (the gap in the literature). Furthermore, the research questions must help solve the research problem. The methodology should logically follow the research questions. You might think of the research questions as a direct bridge between the research problem, the gap in the literature, and the actual research study.
The second question is, "Are the research questions aligned with the selection of the design, method, instruments/measures, and data analysis?" In other words, does everything match up? Do the research questions logically correspond to the design and method? Are the instruments used to collect the data appropriate to the methodology and design, and do the instruments generate data that can be used to answer the research questions? Is the data analysis appropriate? Will the data analysis give the researcher an answer to the research question? Notice that what makes research good is not the results that were generated by the study but how the study was conducted, more specifically the methodology, and how well the methodology answers the research questions, which in turn helps solve the research problem.
The third question asks, "Is the study ethically sound?" All research must meet the ethical standards put in place by a researcher's Institutional Review Board, or IRB, guidelines and regulation required by the American Psychological Association, and federal law. As part of your training as a Capella graduate student, you are required to undergo special training through the CITI program to help ensure you understand the ethical standards required when performing research. How is scientific merit related to ethics?
SCIENTIFIC MERIT AND ETHICS Besides the requirements regarding the ethical treatment of research participants, such as giving informed consent, there is the additional requirement that the research be scientifically valid. If research does not advance the knowledge base, does not contribute to theory, and does not meet the hallmark of utilizing sound scientific methodology, then it is unethical to do the research. Stated another way, it is unethical to do bad or unnecessary research. As Pilkington wrote in 2002, "If a study does not hold substantial promise of answering a significant question, thereby generating valuable knowledge, then there is no justification for exposing persons to the actual or potential risks and inconvenience of participation."