Research Is a Spiral Process, Not a Straight Line

The Problem-solving Spiral by Elizabeth Shown Mills


An earlier posting about the research process has triggered a boatload of questions—and a bit of frustration.

“I must not be doing something right,” sighed one friend of this page. “I faithfully read the peer-reviewed journals. I study their articles carefully. What I don’t get is how their research always seems so well-planned that it goes from Starting Point to Solution with no detours, no false leads, and absolutely no wandering off onto other tracks. I can’t do that. How do they?”

Ah, yes ... illusion vs. reality. When a product is marketed, we don’t see all the mistakes that went into its design and production processes. We only see the finished product. The research process works the same.

Research never happens in a straight line. Well-planned research is actually circular—or spiral, as the attached graphic show. In a best case scenario, a research process might consist of six steps:

1. Analyze known data.
2. Challenge prior assumptions.
3. Plan the research.
4. Do the research.
5. Evaluate the new findings against prior findings.
6. Reach a conclusion.

In reality, our “conclusion” is likely to be a conclusion that we still haven’t proved our case. That means, we have to repeat that process"

7. We do new research. 
8. We correlate our new findings with prior findings
9. We make new analyses of the whole. 
10. We try to disprove whatever theories take shape—which may start the research process all over again.
11. We resolve any and all contradictions—which may start the research process all over again.

Eventually, if we’re appropriately thorough and thoughtful, our spiral will finally tighten upon a conclusion that will stand the test of time.

The spiral nature of research is greatly expanded upon in EE’s QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle), available in Kindle or print edition.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Research Is a Spiral Process, Not a Straight Line," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained ( : posted 12 November 2018).