This is the first contribution to our science blog. This category is designed to help students improve their research and rewrite and edit papers into articles ready for publication. We interview senior academics and ask them for their tips for successful and innovative research. This article is the first in a series and deals with the search for an innovative research question and testable hypotheses. For this purpose, we have talked to Prof Dr Christoph Demmke (University of Vaasa) and Prof Dr Berthold Rittberger (University of Munich) to ask them a bunch of questions that have always interested us.
YJEA: Which subject area are you researching in?
Christoph Demmke: I am Professor of Public Management at the University of Vaasa in Finland. My research focuses on the question of how state and administrative reforms in Europe influence unethical/ethical behaviour. I also work on the (in-)effectiveness of ethical policies and the institutionalisation of ethical measures.
Berthold Rittberger: In my research, I mainly focus on the EU and its institutional development. My first book was about the creation of the European Parliament, which started off as a somewhat inconsequential assembly in the 1950s and evolved into a heavyweight in EU decision-making. What I found exciting was that EU member states could not escape the normative logic that the supranational authority vested in the Commission or the Council was perceived as incomplete – even illegitimate – without supranational parliamentary accountability. My research still revolves around questions of EU integration, in particular questions about how political institutions are designed, how they evolve, and the consequences they have. For instance, I have worked on how institutions (candidate section rules) affect women’s representation in the European Parliament. I’m currently studying how the distribution of authority in the EU affects the attribution of blame for EU policies, and how the political institutions underpinning the liberal international order unleash self-undermining dynamics.
Did you always want to go into research (since the beginning of your studies)? Or when did you know that you wanted to pursue this career path?
Demmke: No, I think few people have such a precise career plan. A career in research is hardly plannable, there are far too few good positions. And it is always a gamble to make a career at a university. I remember the first time after my Master’s degree I had a concrete dream of becoming a scientist.
Rittberger: I think I was quite committed to my studies when I was an undergraduate at the University of Konstanz. I was hanging out with a group of students, some in more advanced semesters, who liked to discuss politics, mainly new concepts and theories in IR. I found that interesting and in order to follow their discussions, I felt I had some catching up and reading to do. In the late 90s, when I was an undergrad, the debate between rationalism and constructivism was in full swing, and it felt like you had to identify with one side. I felt compelled to give this debate some thought. When I was working on possible thesis topics, one of my former lecturers told me that he thought that what I did was “esoterics”. It hit me pretty hard and it took a while to regain a modicum of confidence to carry on. When I started my PhD I considered myself very lucky that I had mentors who supported me and my work and gave me the confidence that what I was working on was good and worthwhile. I think that without their encouragement I would not have persevered in academia.
Why did you decide to do research and pursue an academic career path?
Demmke: I wrote my first small research paper for myself and my family when I was 18. “Man and Society”. Very fancy. Absolute world philosophy, of course! What am I trying to say? Although I only decided to do research later, I have always been very eager for knowledge and have been very happy to be interested in all kinds of things. Anything and everything, so to speak. It is probably still helpful to be simply curious and thirsty for knowledge.
Rittberger: As an undergrad, I was a research assistant and tutor for IR intro classes, which really changed my outlook. I loved to teach, but it also scared me, so I prepped a lot and thus also learned a lot, which made me even more curious. In my second or third year as a student, I thought that it must be cool to make a living from reading new and interesting things, and from teaching students who share a similar interest. At first, I didn’t give a lot of thought about what this career choice entailed in terms of how to get there, but I very soon learned about the meaning of “publish OR perish”, and even “publish AND perish”. There are few permanent positions and professorships in Germany and lots of qualified candidates, so it is hard to plan a university career. In the end, as much as I cherished the idea of going into research (and teaching) at university, various search committees took that decision for me by offering me jobs. I was lucky enough to nab my first (junior) professorship in Kaiserslautern, and then my first permanent professorship at the University of Mannheim in 2007.
What was your last research paper on?
Demmke: I am currently working on a Europe-wide research project for the European Parliament on the (in-)effectiveness of policies and rules to avoid conflicts of interest of ministers. By the way: Florian Lenner, co-editor of this blog, is also on my team.
Rittberger: I’m currently writing a paper with Dr Caroyln Moser on the Court of Justice of the European Union, in which we explore why the court sometimes acts as an engine of the EU’s constitutionalization, and why it sometimes uses its rulings to take a back seat, even if it could push for an expansion of human rights or parliamentary scrutiny rights.
How did you find the topic of your last research paper?
Demmke: I usually apply for tenders, which is always very time-consuming and bureaucratic. Often you also get rejected for very large research proposals, then you are frustrated for two weeks. But I am also often asked to work in a consortium, which means I have less work. Or I am asked to carry out smaller research projects myself.
Concerning publications, it is often the case that I have an idea of my own that I want to publish about.
Rittberger: That happened over a coffee in my institute’s inspirational cafeteria 😉
Where do you find your inspiration?
Demmke: I read a lot, in conversations, often also through discussions with colleagues and students. Or more banal: I love bike racing and that often gives me ideas. But the basic rule is: through communication and networks!
Rittberger: Whenever I least expect it. But usually in discussions with colleagues and collaborators.
Do you have any specific tips on how to find an innovative research question when so much has already been researched?
Demmke: The latter has nothing to do with the former. Even in 100 years, there will be innovative research questions. The world moves on. Science is still not a process of finding the truth, but of falsification (Popper). We are experiencing this very clearly with the findings on the coronavirus.
But basically, the same applies here: Research questions are everywhere, but on one condition: Only if you are also curious, open, and critical.
Rittberger: For one, I always benefit from discussing my ideas with others, whether or not they are still very vague or relatively concrete. This always helps me to sharpen my focus. What also helps is exposing yourself to new ideas and research. For this purpose, I like to sit in a talk or read a book – at some point I find my mind wandering off and think about how some idea or concept relates to what I find interesting.
To continue from there: I am interested in a topic that has already been researched very thoroughly. What next?
Demmke: I recently had a master’s student who had just chosen a topic for his master’s thesis and almost at the same time this topic was suddenly published as a doctoral thesis. He was quite shocked. But something like that happens again and again. Then you have to change the research question. Somehow it always works out!
Rittberger: Read the conclusions of papers carefully, and also read good state-of-the-art papers, like those published in the Annual Review of Political Science. When they are good, they provide hints or suggestions for future research on a particular topic.
What is the first step you take in your search for a research question?
Demmke: I still find it very helpful to look for meta-publications, i.e. publications that discuss and critically reflect the state of literature. Then you immediately have a good overview of the research situation and can specify your own research question. This type of publication can be found in many places. Overview books such as Oxford, Palgrave, or Routledge Handbooks can certainly be recommended. Otherwise, it is worthwhile to have a regular look at the leading journals in order to read up on current discussions. In some fields, a look into the Oxford Encyclopedia can help, in your case e.g. the Oxford Encyclopedia of International Relations. New articles are published here very regularly. Finally, it does no harm to search in search engines like Google Scholar for the state of research. I enter e.g. terms like “State of Research”, “State of the Art” or “Overview”, that can also help to find meta-publications.
Rittberger: See above and drink a coffee (or any drink of your choice) with a friend or colleague.
Do you develop your ideas best together or alone? Does the dialogue with other researchers help you to find a question?
Demmke: I confess, I enjoy working alone. It gives me more control. But working alone is anachronistic. Especially when it comes to international and comparative issues, dialogue, networking and cooperation are becoming increasingly important. In addition, you have much more access to data and information than before, which, as it were, quickly become outdated again. Working alone is actually no longer possible. However, cooperation with other scientists requires that the type and form of cooperation be clarified in advance. The leadership question of who has the right to make the final decision in the event of conflicts or uncertainties also needs to be clarified.
Rittberger: I do both, as I described above.
Which tips do you have for hypothesis building? Do you prefer induction or deduction or does it depend entirely on your research project?
Demmke: That depends entirely on the research project. There are so many, but also so different research projects. Besides, hypothesising rarely depends on me. See above. Nowadays, hypothesising is the result of a group and communication process. Of course, it is ideal to have the hypotheses clearly in front of you at the beginning of the project. Sometimes, however, it happens that hypotheses mature during the course of research work, especially in research areas in which you yourself are still learning a lot.
Rittberger: I think I’m more of the deductive type. And even if I develop a new hypothesis, I like to present it deductively in my research.
What is essential for every hypothesis? What do you pay particular attention to when formulating a hypothesis? What critical questions should each hypothesis withstand?
Demmke: Hypotheses must be clear, precise, and unambiguous. This is important to me. Perhaps without contradiction. Of course, they must be testable. Many of my students still formulate too many hypotheses. And these are often still too vague because of course one is often uncertain oneself and is still at the beginning of the research area.
Rittberger: I think a good hypothesis should be as clear as possible about the cause and its effect, and it should be embedded in theory. This also helps to have a clear idea about the causal mechanism linking cause and effect.
Do you often adjust your hypotheses in the research process?
Demmke: As I said, sometimes. But in principle, research gains in quality if the research hypotheses are clearly and precisely specified in advance. In this way, you also help yourself, because you gain a much clearer feeling of what you want.
As a student, you often have to familiarise yourself with the topics you are writing about and often adapt your hypotheses accordingly. Do you have any tips to give continuity to the research process? In other words: How do you manage to keep the core of the hypothesis and not constantly start over again?
Demmke: Yes, for students this is really a big and understandable problem. I do not have a ready answer to this. I usually ask my students if they are clear about why they are interested in a certain topic. And where does this interest come from? This personal self-explanatory process then also helps in the later adaptation of hypotheses. This can often be very distressing for the students. Ask yourself early on: What do I want? Why? What am I actually interested in? What is my goal?
Rittberger: As a researcher, I do the same thing as a student writing a research paper or a thesis. The key is to find a (a) good (interesting) question, (b) a plausible argument to answer it, and (c) evidence to support it. (a) and (b) get easier as you know more about a research field (few interesting research questions fall off a tree), and (c) is about making a decision for an appropriate analytical strategy. This gets also easier with experience, but when you take your research design and methods courses seriously, you will get there quickly. As to continuity, accept that research is a trial and error process. It’s rarely linear, there will be setbacks and plenty of dead ends. But it’s also important to remember that these ‘diversions’ are necessary so that you end up in the right place!
Which publication would you recommend to students of political science to improve their own research?
Demmke: Personally, I still consider Sandra van Thiel (2014), Research Methods in Public Administration and Public Management, Routledge, to be one of the best books, because it is very understandable and yet very good.
Rittberger: No way, find your own! For me, it was Andy Moravcsik’s ‘Choice for Europe’ (1998), which was published when I started thinking about doing a Ph. D. It is literally falling apart because I have worked (and agreed and disagreed) with it so much.
Please name an aspect that you, as a student, would have liked to have known.
Demmke: Why am I always good at exams but never super good? What is success? Can I plan that?
Today, I answer this question by saying that success, of course(!) has a lot to do with intelligence. But also with a lot of work, will, self-confidence, motivation, luck and above all “context”. For example, my context was that – quite banal – I had met a professor who happened to know that another professor was looking for a research assistant. One of them then called the other one, and so the story went on…
Or: I became a professor at the College of Europe in Bruges because a position in my field happened to become vacant when I gave a guest lecture there.
Most of the time it is a mixture of work, will, motivation and luck!
There are infinite contexts: Some colleagues get a call to a university because they are quoted a lot. Sometimes, however, the reasons are simply that the topic is a popular one, or another famous professor has co-authored it. Or a colleague publishes five top publications per year because he simply had much more time than the colleague who has two small children at home and “shares” his career with his girlfriend.
If I had known as a student that success and a research career could hardly be planned, I might not have written a doctoral thesis. But today, of course, I am glad that I did anyway. And why did I do it? Because I imagined that I would enjoy it? Intrinsic motivation, no purpose, I just wanted it.
Rittberger: When I was a student, I found it very weird that seasoned professors would boast that they had published a new paper in some journal. Isn’t that what they are paid for? I now know that irrespective of rank and experience, most research papers and projects get rejected most of the time by a system called “peer review”. I forgive them for their narcissistic impulses.