The Research Cycle
We've been talking recently about "the research pipeline" and visualizing as just that; a pipe. After talking with a bunch of OWW users and other members of the research community, I've come up with what I think is a more accurate description: the research cycle. This cycle is a series of rotaries you travel around and through on your way to the next idea.
Visualizing the process
Most research begins with an idea or a question. To investigate the idea you form a hypothesis, test it via an experimental process, then draw conclusions based on analysis of your data. These conclusions influence the next idea or question.
You begin your investigation by entering the research and planning cycle, which is the first subcycle in the larger research cycle. While circling around this pathway you gather the information you need to translate your idea into testable form. You talk with your PI or your peers; you read papers and other literature; you examine experimental protocols. As you continue circling in this pathway you refine your original idea (or ideas). You also begin formulating hypotheses and designing experiments to test them.
With your experimental plan in hand, you then exit the research and planning subcycle and enter the experimental subcycle. This subcycle has four major stops: experimentation, data collection, data analysis, and conclusions. With each circuit you continue to refine your experimental methods. Feedback from collaborators and peers happens along the way, but is most common at the first and fourth quadrants of the cycle. As you conduct experiments and collect data you may make one or more return visits to the research and planning subcycle before exiting the experimental subcycle with a final set of conclusions.
The experimental subcycle has several exits. The first is that your conclusions spark a new idea, which initiates another trip through the cycle or a completely new iteration. These iterations can spiral off in a carefully planned direction, or they can take exiting new directions. (Possible reference to Sydney Brenner's letter to Max Perultz.) This is the spiral of research.
The second exit scenario leads to wider communication of your idea. If your conclusions are new and/or exiting, you'll want to share them with the entire research community. So you summarize your idea, methods, data, and conclusions in a paper or poster and enter the publishing subcycle. Even though you've been soliciting feedback from your colleagues all along, the publishing process introduces peer review--a more objective form of feedback and the beginning of a small cycle within the publishing process. After a circuit or three through the comments and revisions subcycle, your paper is approved for publication, and your ideas become fodder for many other researchers traveling through their own research cycles.