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Although practice-based research has become widespread, it has yet to be characterised in a way that has become agreed across the various fields of research where it is in use. To complicate matters further, the terms ‘practice-based’ and ‘practice-led’ are often used interchangeably. In fact we can distinguish between different types of research that have a central practice element and that distinction is summarised here as follows:

If a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, the research is practice-based

If the research leads primarily to new understandings about practice, it is practice-led.

see Overview

Practice-based Research is an original investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice. Claims of originality and contribution to knowledge may be demonstrated through creative outcomes which may include artefacts such as images, music, designs, models, digital media or other outcomes such as performances and exhibitions Whilst the significance and context of the claims are described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to those outcomes. A practice-based PhD is distinguishable from a conventional PhD because creative outcomes from the research process may be included in the submission for examination and the claim for an original contribution to the field are held to be demonstrated through the original creative work.

Practice-based doctoral submissions must include a substantial contextualisation of the creative work. This critical appraisal or analysis not only clarifies the basis of the claim for the originality and location of the original work, it also provides the basis for a judgement as to whether general scholarly requirements are met.  This could be defined as judgement of the submission as a contribution to knowledge in the field, showing doctoral level powers of analysis and mastery of existing contextual knowledge, in a form that is accessible to and auditable by knowledgeable peers.

Practice-led Research is concerned with the nature of practice and leads to new knowledge that has operational significance for that practice. The main focus of the research is to advance knowledge about practice, or to advance knowledge within practice. In a doctoral thesis, the results of practice-led research may be fully described in text form without the inclusion of a creative outcome. The primary focus of the research is to advance knowledge about practice, or to advance knowledge within practice. Such research includes practice as an integral part of its method and often falls within the general area of action research. The doctoral theses that emerge from this type of practice related research are not the same as those that include artefacts and works as part of the submission.

Domain Differences in Practice-based and Practice-led Research

The use of the term practice-based research has become widespread but it has yet to be characterised in detail in a way that is agreed across the various fields of research where it is in use. There are differences in conceptual and applied uses of the term between those fields where it is most often found: design, health, creative arts, and education.  There are, in fact, differences in the type of research in respect of whether it is practice-based or led.

In design research, for example, where the nature of practice is a major research topic and is often conducted by research specialists rather than design practitioners, the emphasis is on achieving new knowledge about the nature of practice and how to improve it, rather than creating and reflecting on new artefacts. By contrast, in the visual arts, the emphasis is on creative process and the works that are generated from that process: the artefact plays a vital part in the new understandings about practice that arise.

It is important to note that the term practice-based research rather than practice-led research is used the area of health research. Here it may include any of the following, but not limited to: literature reviews including systematic examination of intervention and outcome measures, program evaluation clinical trials, evaluation or revision of health care protocols, policies and procedures, pilot projects and peer-reviewed studies.