Writing in Research Series: Establishing Common Definitions in Collaborative Research is Crucial

By: Derek Higgs, MPA
June 3, 2020


Research is a collaborative process that requires communication, coordination, deliberation, and assistance between several parties. Each party has its own unique culture, work process, and personality. Therefore, it is crucial that the researcher conduct their work with competent diplomacy. At the Utah Data Research Center (UDRC), we collaborate with several distinct organizations and individuals, known to us as “partners.” Our partners each provide us with distinct feedback, data, direction, and support; each partner offering a spectrum of ideas and expectations. The challenge for the researcher, then, is to consider each partner’s unique expectations and compile them into a single, cohesive vision.

One crucial way the researcher can synchronize the various expectations is to produce a common, or standardized, definition of terms. As mentioned above, each partner is unique and often uses terms that may mean something completely different to other partners. Misunderstanding a simple term can have undesirable effects, such as the introduction of unwanted friction between partners, or an incorrect interpretation of the research agenda. It is crucial, then, that the researcher exercise their duty by establishing clear and concise definitions that will act as anchors of understanding within the scope of their research project.

For example, one objective of my current research project is to determine which high school courses better prepare students for college. For this project, I am collaborating with the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) and the Utah System for Higher Education (USHE). When I was first developing the initial outline for the project objectives, each partner had a different definition for “college ready.” They used different variables as criteria and/or valued certain variables, such as GPA or ACT score, differently. Because it was my duty as a researcher to compile multiple expectations into a single, coherent voice, it was necessary for me to develop a standardized definition of “college readiness.” That way, not only would each partner be participating under the exact same expectations and understanding, but the potential reader of the report would have a solid, consistent understanding of what “college readiness” meant within the scope of my research project.

How I determined the definition for “college readiness” within my own project began with the literature review. I studied how many different organizations had used the term in their research, the criteria that they used, and how they measured college readiness. Then, I compiled my own variables and criteria by averaging how other researchers had used the term. I then analyzed the similarities and differences between the USHE and USBE definitions and included only the variables that each partner had deemed valuable. I also made my decision based on the current data I had access to. After determining my own definition, I communicated it with each partner and explained to them exactly how I had established this standardized definition. I also made it clear that this was the definition to which I would be adhering within the scope of the research project.

Although this is just a single example, it is beyond adequate for demonstrating the responsibility of the researcher to clarify the definitions of terms that they will be using in their research. It is the researcher’s obligation to make certain that all partners and individuals collaborating on the project have the same exact understanding of what certain terms mean, especially when it is common to have multiple interpretations of terms among collaborators.