Research Study in University


Academic research is highly regarded in university, and research of various kinds carried out in other institutions also commands prestige in the public eye. However, this is not without controversy as research tends to be costly and its value may not be recognized. Research is exploratory in nature and outcome is often uncertain. This makes research a risky business, and research funding a thorny issue. Whether a specific research work is useful may be debatable, yet some may argue that basic research may be pursued for academic interests and usefulness should not a consideration.

Research may be seen as an idealistic kind of occupation which is not practical, and researchers walk with their heads in the cloud. However research is also prone to be exploited as dress-ups for vested interests and uncomely purposes.

There is therefore much to defend about what good research is. A continual debate of what good academic research is would be the mark of a researcher’s conscience, which is all the more important for research supervisors responsible for the training of the next generation of researchers.


1. What are the distinctive qualities of research work?

Scholarship of discovery is the term Carnegie Foundation uses to mean the “scholarly investigation closest to what is meant when academics speak of ‘research’, that confronts the unknown and creates new knowledge”1. Originality is therefore a core value of research, and often a stated requirement for a doctoral thesis.2 However, research is risky business and it is quite possible that original results come only occasionally, if at all.3 It is necessary to recognize research work in aspects other than the outcome.

Research may be distinguished by the inquiry, the questions being posed. In scientific disciplines the importance of a good hypothesis is crucial, so much so that some would describe research as being hypothesis-driven. It may relate to some open problems widely recognized by researchers in the field, or it may be formulated out of curiosity by an individual researcher. In either case, recognition from fellow researchers would be necessary to keep the inquiry going, especially when results are still wanting.

Research may also be recognized by the way it is carried out. Different fields may develop different research practices, protocols for data collection, experimental procedures, standards for validation, reporting and publication, etc.

Originality of results, aspirations of the inquiry, qualities of the process would distinguish research works of many kinds. However, what their relative importance is and whether they are all strictly necessary would probably lead to heated debate even among researchers of close kins.


2. What are the advantages of university over other institutions for undertaking research works?

Universities such as CUHK have research as their core mission but many research works are carried out in other institutions in public and private sectors too. Sometimes non-university research may complement research in university, as in numerous partnership and technology transfer projects in social, natural and engineering sciences. Other times they may compete, as in many engineering projects where the potential promise is in both knowledge and profit, or public surveys, when findings may be value-laden and policies are at stake. The competitive advantage of university research is a basic question here.

On one hand, autonomy and freedom of pursuit are core academic values embodied in the university institution, and the advantage over corporations with mandates and top­down control is obvious and significant. University is a society of intelligent minds covering a broad range of knowledge with research works carried out on many levels.

On the other hand, CUHK is publicly supported, which conditions and restricts its activities. For instance, CUHK’s prevailing policy states explicitly that it “will not normally undertake classified or proprietary research, or perform purely commercial work4, that it “should not compete with the commercial sector … develop and commercialize a product5, and “all knowhow, inventions and such related patentable properties be utilized for the greatest possible public benefits6.

In other words, a key difference between university and non-academic institutions is the nature of research drive. University thrives on individual researchers’ own initiatives while a non-academic institution tends to be mission-driven, organized and controlled top-down. Some suggest academic autonomy as an advantage, making university a rich breeding ground of ideas, especially for multi-disciplinary research, but others may point to the difficulty in conducting large scale research work for which organization and resources may be critical. How does it fare in different disciplines? For instance, when disciplines of the same faculty or researchers of the same department are so advantaged, or disadvantaged, to different extents, would it mean problem?

If such consideration should shape the range of university research to be different from that outside, what is the impact on research training of students, especially for those whose career opportunities may lie in non-academic research?7


3. What does it mean to distinguish research works undertaken in university as being "academic"?

It may be surprising for many to know that the early modern universities in 19th century Europe were not as keen on research, or the business of knowledge creation. Their mission then was more traditional, focussing on scholarly subjects such as philosophy and mathematics, and elite professions in church, government and medicine. Cardinal Newman’s famous work, The Idea of a University, was partly a defence of the traditional reason against secularization, the ideal against the practical, and, in education, character building more than vocational training.

The modern university in free pursuit of knowledge was an idea well articulated by the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, also once Prussian minister of education. Such is an original meaning of being academic - being free in the pursuit of knowledge. Academic research may then be taken to mean an ideal of being free in the pursuit of knowledge through research, an ideal in which individual researchers carry out their works without fear or favour.

However, how the ideal works out in a university where academic staff members are salaried employees, also accountable to public fund in the case of CUHK, is no simple matter. Here lies a distinctive challenge of university as an institution: it employs academic staff and at the same time has to defend their academic freedom, including autonomy in their research.

Besides, academic research is also distinguished by a system of practice and conventions in free circulation of research information, peer reviews, professional organizations, career and qualification, etc.

While the importance of these ideal and practical distinctions are agreed upon, how flexible they are may subject to debate. For instance, funding and other influential agencies inside and outside university may seek to suggest and influence research directions, with conditions and incentives for the research support. Also, patenting as a means to capitalize on research may impose restrictions on early publication of “sensitive” information. When researchers comply, are they negotiating flexibility, or are they compromising autonomy in the range of university research, and research education? Will they become more like researchers in non-academic institutions, and should they?8

Many a university researcher may aspire to the academic ideal, becoming academic in character, even in their way of living.9 However, should he “preach” to a student whose interest is but research as professional skill? Is being academic important in research training in university?


4. Is there conflict between getting research work done and getting research students well trained?

Ideally research supervision should be mutually beneficial with both parties achieving what either may not achieve alone. In practice there may be significant gaps in research interests and aspirations between them, and compromise in research matters, time, even standards may be necessary. Compromise may be arrived at through closer coupling, forging common goals and interests, or through loosening coupling of faculty and graduate research and a more advisory role for the supervisor.

In the case of close coupling, supervisor and student work together on a project of common interest. Presumably, the supervisor may expect quality work only if the student becomes skillful enough in time for completion of specific tasks. However, the student may be constrained in many ways, such as time needed for learning, expiry of his candidature, etc. If the research work becomes dependent on the student’s effort, should he graduate even if he has done “enough” for thesis writing? Are there obligations due to research collaboration beyond responsibilities of research supervision?

In the case of loosened coupling, supervisor’s time allocation would be a challenge as he has to juggle between his own research and supervision of his student’s. Conflict may appear between his research commitments and getting his students well trained in time for satisfactory completion of thesis research.


1 Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of The Professoriate. US: Jossey-Bass.
2 [New knowledge … no one has come up with these ideas in the past before” - Lee]
3 [“Most of our experiments might not give you any results.” - Tse]
4 Policy on Research, IP and KT, CUHK. Apr 2013. Retrieved from
5 ditto
6 ditto
7 [Product and technology orientated, testing, validation and surveys, contract research in engineering and business; commercial drug research - Tang; “Research on areas relevant for practice, but delving deeper with more precision than the time constraints of practice allow.” - Donald]
8 [Constraints from links with international community - Lee, Yiu]
9 [intellectual - Lee]



Appendixes: Interview reports

Research in Academic and Non-academic Institutions (PDF)
By Irene Leung, Junior Research Assistant, CLEAR
"Academic" Research in University (PDF)
By Karen Kwok, Junior Research Assistant, CLEAR
The Conflict between Academic Research and Teaching (PDF)
By Henry Chiu, Research Assistant, CLEAR