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Research and Reading are not the same thing.

May 24, 2020

I know, I know, a long time between posts again but things are changing around here and I’ve had lots of non-blog things going on.  I have still been thinking about you, about this blog, about how I teach, about words and the meaning they hold, about how and what we read and how that informs our thoughts.  So, whether I like it or not, this is where the rubber hit the road this month – Research…


Can be used to identify a class of things including papers, articles, books etc

And with that I see the first clue as to what is going on and why it isn’t getting people very far. Best to start off with this doing bit as that’s what people tell me they have been doing with their lives, often for years in their quest for knowledge (another clue maybe).
Investigate Systematically.  Two words that imply a direction and a method.  As a scientist I am immediately drawn to accept the challenge laid out within this definition as to me those two words get me thinking about ideas that can be probed and prodded by doing something.  Scientists systematically investigate things by first coming up with a hypothesis.  While there are many different ways of laying out a hypothesis, the simplest is often just a statement that positively or negatively relates one thing with another.  I’ll give you an example:
We could start with a big picture issue in the world,  maybe chemical pollution.  We could narrow that down to think about pollution in waterways from every-day chemicals.  We could then narrow our thoughts down even more to help us pinpoint our research target into something measurable and manageable.  Maybe we focus on cosmetic chemicals that could potentially be released into waterways every-day during use.  The activity I’m doing here is what I’d call ‘building the scope for an investigation’ or ‘getting my eye in’.   I am interested in pollution as a ‘big picture’ topic but realise it’s too large and broad a topic to ‘do my research’ on pollution per se, I have to narrow things down so that I can go deeper and test what I find – test is another important word. 
Up to this point I’ve not really had to do any reading (reading before research) as I’m still in the vague phase but sooner or later I’ll have to get more specific.
What I do have though, are two variables  that I could try and prove or disprove a relationship between:
Variable one: chemical pollution in waterways.
Variable two: Peoples cosmetic use.
Now I’m getting closer to a hypothesis.
I could hypothesise (state) that ‘the use of cosmetics causes chemical pollution levels in water to rise’ but that’s quite vague and could do with a bit of polishing. It would also need clearly defining – another important word.   A good hypothesis is one that is targeted and specific while remaining meaningful and testable.  Polishing our hypothesis is easier when we’ve done our background reading…
If we leave the examination of the term ‘research’ for a while and flip over to examine the word ‘reading’ you may start to see what I’m talking about.
Reading (definition sourced from here)
Reading is defined as a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to arrive at meaning. Reading is an active process of constructing meanings of words. Reading with a purpose helps the reader to direct information towards a goal and focuses their attention.
Reading is a very, very useful thing to do.  As you can see from this definition, reading with purpose (being discerning in the texts you select) does help one to form a useful and relevant research hypothesis but reading by its self is not the same as research.  I’ll come back to that again as it may still be hard to see why.
If we think about the idea I had above, about a link between cosmetic chemicals and water pollution we could use our reading time to help us select tighter and more relevant variables and (very importantly) to define what we mean by ‘chemical pollution’ and (also very importantly) how we may tell if it rises or not.
Diving off the side for a moment.
The subtle detail of what I’ve just said above is what is frequently lost when a scientific method of investigating is not followed.  It may seem pedantic to spend hours going off on what seems like a tangent to work out what ‘chemical pollution’ is when you have a gut feeling OR have read a few MSDS’s and already know that some of the chemicals used in cosmetics can cause damage to aquatic ecosystems.   It seems entirely logical, especially if one has seen the ‘campaign for safe cosmetics’ video  about garbage in-garbage out – that if you only make cosmetics with natural ingredients they will either cause less damage than ‘regular’ cosmetics or (fingers crossed) none at all.  Why bother painstakingly defining what you mean. Pollution is pollution is pollution.  Only of course it is not.
Same goes for how we may tell if it rises or not.  Where, when, how often, by what measure – these are all critically important when trying to compile a data set that gives you results that can be compared.  I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘comparing apples with apples’. well if the data that you collect is based on measurements taken using different metrics then that’s what you are doing.  Again, sounds like a case of ‘computer-says-no’ (Little Britain reference if you want to Google it) but it isn’t.
To say the devil is in the detail is not at all over-dramatic here.  This stuff really matters and is why when I create something like my ‘oil table master data sheet’ it takes literally hours and hours of sifting through data, converting figures,  checking on methodology,  finding alternative sources that use the same methodology and get comparable results etc.  That’s research,  if I just ‘did’ reading I’d have ended up with a mish-mash of bull-shit.
Anyway, that’s enough of that, back to reading.
Reading Comprehension.
This is easy when we are reading every-day things like a blog, newspaper, website or magazine but very tricky when you start diving into academic literature which includes scientific reports, medical journal data,  meta data analysis and other technical data.  For this type of reading a lot of prior knowledge is necessary to be able to comprehend what is being said in order to then make an informed choice as to what to do next.
Cosmetic brand owners may read technical data from time to time to help them compare one ingredient with another and make a choice as to what’s better.  A good example of the type of data that might be accessed in relation to the ‘chemical pollution’ hypothesis we are trying to form could be MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets).   These are a good starting point for getting a feel for the safety of individual cosmetic ingredients.  If you decided, for example, that you would become very specific and narrow your ‘chemical pollution’ hypothesis down to shampoo use you could do some reading of websites, product bottles, magazines, blogs or whatever to get a feel for the types of shampoo that people are using.  You could then compile a list of all the chemicals that are found in these formulations, source MSDS for each and then compare them.  Sounds very simple and indeed, this is exactly what some people do.  However,  did you notice that not all MSDS sections for environmental impact are filled out fully,  those that are completed don’t all use the same metrics to report their data and, very, very importantly, unless you are a really experienced formulator you’ve likely no real idea of how all of these different chemicals relate to one another in a formula – do people typically formulate that chemical at 1% or 50% of the formula?  How common is its use?  In shampoos made with these chemicals is their in-use performance excellent, average or poor compared to other products and does this lead to people double-shampooing?  If so, that could change what comes out the other end.  Are some ingredients targeted to people with specific hair/ scalp issues or is everything equivalent?   See how difficult it becomes to APPLY something as seemingly simple as MSDS data to your project and we haven’t even gone into things like LD50 values or what terms like biodegradable actually mean in this context.
The bottom line is that reading is easy, comprehending what you are reading fully is harder,  comprehending that reading in relation to building a hypothesis is even more difficult and actually performing comparative data analysis (which is a research step) is right up there as a very hard thing do to.
In terms of educational level you’d be looking at reading going from primary school level (most blogs, magazines,  popular news sites and websites etc) to maybe a year 12 (18 year old ish) level for some more popular science publications and supplier technical data sheets including MSDS (with appropriate training behind you) to Degree level for the curation of basic science publications including conducting a basic to intermediate level of research to investigate a hypothesis.  Masters degree level is where research gets more thorough and more complex relationships can start to be investigated culminating in a PhD when both reading and research is at a level where it can really break new ground in a very thorough and deep way.
Another aside-Maths.
People find maths difficult, I know this because I see enough people (who have businesses BTW) who can’t ‘do’ percentages.  While this is nothing to be ashamed of, it is concerning to me as a scientist and business owner (if you can’t ‘do’ percentages how do you know what level of profit you are making (if any?) let alone be able to tell if your formulas are safe?).  If you are trying to create a brand or a product even that is better than something else in as much as it is a safer (broad statement but commonly used) than a ‘regular’ cosmetic you have to, at some point, use maths to interrigate that, to work out if your product/ brand actually IS safer in a statistically significant way.  There really is no other way around it if you care about being ‘evidence based’ and truthful.  Gut feelings, hunches, popular opinion and ‘common sense’ don’t make for robust science-based evidence.
Another aside – how does it feel?
Picking up from my last point that these gut feelings, old-wives tales, popular opinion or whatever aren’t ‘science’ they are not nothing.  These things help us inform our direction by pointing us to areas where people need solutions or clarity. To put it simply, these alternative conceptions/ ideas or solutions are opportunities.
If people don’t trust mainstream products to keep the waterways chemical-pollution free then there is a problem. It may purely be one of perception or, more worryingly, it may actually be reality either in part or in full.  Listening to what people ‘chatter’ about and how they instinctively go about solving the problems they come across is like gold dust to the commercial chemist.  We need to listen, un-pick, critically evaluate and then RESEARCH to fill in the gaps.
So research and reading are not the same thing.
Reading helps you to understand where things are at, to get a feel of the landscape and to start informing you of where the gaps and/or opportunities may be.
Reading research from other people and curating it is useful and is something that many scientists (me included) do – that’s what this blog often tries to do.  However, doing this involves a scientific process and the ability to discern scientific information and make sure you are comparing or compiling a list of apples and apples so you can build a logical and scaffolded solution.
Reading to inform a hypothesis that is meaningful and that can be investigated in a scientifically robust way is something that takes considerable skill and prior knowledge, including, in many cases, an understanding of and ability to interpret statistics and other mathematical data. These are the skills you learn and develop through Degree and Masters Degree studies before exploring them deeply in a PhD program.
People without these qualifications can, of course, ‘do’ research but it helps if there is not only an awareness of what ‘doing research’ means but also an appreciation for its complexity and challenges.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful and that it encourages you to concentrate on developing the best hypothesis questions you can.  Once you’ve mastered the art of hypothesis building, researching becomes somewhat easier and more targeted and, with a good hypothesis you would find it much easier to get help in working through any difficult bits of information you stumble upon.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    May 24, 2020 1:22 pm

    Yep. Research is hard work. But I’m wondering if it’s still fashionable these days.

    Years ago I spent two years researching and testing, and re-testing my original soap formulations. As a scientist, its how I work. But people look at my soap formulations and say they are very simple. And ask, why did it take so long.

    Is seems our society has moved on.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      May 26, 2020 9:53 am

      Hi Mike, Fashionable (as in popular) no, still important (as you know) yes. After thinking about this for a bit I think that as a consultant I’m seeing a dilution in the appreciation for research amongst what should be my peers. I think that’s mainly because it’s possible to do a cosmetic chemistry course and feel qualified without understanding the scientific method. At this point I feel it is important to state that one can be a good formulator but a bad research chemist (and vice versa – I’m a better research chemist but everyday formulating bores me to tears as it is not very inventive). It used to be that all cosmetic chemist consultants were chemistry (or at least general science) trained to at least degree level, now that’s not the case so you get what I call ‘cosmetic cooks’ who can whip up a number of recipes but who struggle to understand how they might optimise them or systematically trouble shoot things when they go wrong. That’s fine for the most part as you can be financially successful as a small-medium brand without this level of formula scrutiny but try growing beyond that and you are squeezed out due to sloppy costings, unscalable use of material or method, marginally rather than robustly effective formula structure etc… For the average brand owner looking for a cosmetic chemist (or being their own cosmetic chemist as many now are) I’d just like to shine a light on what they don’t know so they realise that a good research chemist who practices cosmetic chemistry and a cosmetic ‘cook’ are not equivalent. Not worse or better (from a business perspective) but definitely different. A final note here would be that one can’t expect strategic innovation from a cosmetic cook – creativity, yes but structural innovation, no. You can’t lead a revolution if you are always looking for existing answers that you can follow. I hate following anyone or anything.

      • Mike permalink
        May 26, 2020 9:59 am

        Yes indeed. There’s a lot less traffic if you are in your own lane.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        May 26, 2020 10:02 am

        and I’m loving it – I’m lucky to be in a position where I can now really craft my own consulting journey somewhat. I’m taking more time to work on creating cosmetic ingredients from natural materials (real chemistry/ application work) which is lovely. Growing things and extracting then changing them is also interesting. Trouble shooting and teaching are still paying the bills though and I do enjoy that but I’ve now got some more time to explore and develop my research interests. Hope you have too 🙂

      • Mike permalink
        May 26, 2020 10:15 am

        It sounds like a nice space you are in.

        For me, I continue on the side with my poverty alleviation work…. my specialization in science education, and particularly teacher training. But COVID-19 has put a stop to my activities in Sudan, Myanmar, and Viet Nam.

        But I see some changes as a result of the travel restrictions…. donors are looking at remote conferencing, etc. Not sure how effective it will be, but I have a good network of local consultants in each country who can do the leg work. So we will see.

        And our cosmetics manufacturing business? Not sure how the market will end up and if the small indie brands we serve will survive.

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