The false dichotomy in research

The word “digital” is ubiquitous and is a major part of 21st century vocabulary. “Digital” is sometimes used interchangeably with the word “online”, but clearly there is a difference. For example, the use of digital communications may refer to online, television, radio or mobile.

In education, we have digital learning, digital education, digital research and digital-based subjects. The pandemic has accelerated the pace with which many universities have made the transition to online learning, further blurring the lines between so called traditional and digital learning. Digital continues to be used in so many contexts, however, my issue here is with the term “digital research”.  

I’ve taught in higher education for over 20 years, so have witnessed the huge strides in digital technologies in education. This is particularly evident in research – so much so that it’s hard to imagine conducting research without an element of digital technology. Here lies the issue, have we now reached a stage where it’s time to drop the word digital?

There is no one definitive definition of digital research. The term is misleading and needs to be specified in greater detail. Tsatsou (2018. P.1241) defines digital research as “the employment of digital technologies in research practices.” This may imply everything from using the internet to conducting a literature research, to making digital the object of the research. Similarly, Burke (2018, p.248) acknowledges the difficulty in defining digital research, by providing a generic definition – “the research of all technology-related connective matters.”

On Twitter, I recall one post where the researcher commented the pandemic meant they were only able to conduct digital research from home.  But this suggests an inability to do any form of traditional research. This is not the case. Simply reading a book or an interview transcript might be interpreted as traditional research. Yet, what if the reading was undertaken online? There is now a blurring between digital and traditional methods. 

We talk about digital research, yet digital is an essential part of all research. This is what makes digital and traditional research a false dichotomy. Does research really become so different when it’s in digital form? I propose that digital research is just another form of research.

Why do we feel the need to choose between traditional and digital research? Would it really matter if the word was dropped? Surely, by focusing on digital research there would have to be traditional, or non-digital research?

Digital is so ubiquitous and encompasses so many aspects of research. So, will 2021 be the year when we finally drop digital? I think the term ‘Research’ works just fine.  


Maria Burke (2018) ‘Making choices: developing digital research frameworks for information management’, Journal of Documentation, 74(1), pp. 247–254.

Panayiota Tsatsou. (2018) ‘Literacy and Training in Digital Research: Researchers’ Views in Five Social Science and Humanities Disciplines’, New Media & Society, 20(3), pp. 1240–1259. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *