The Contextual Nature of “Un-Research”

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

At this point, I’ve written a few things about the contextual nature of research and offered some thoughts on how to bring that idea into information literacy classrooms. I’ve also mentioned that my opportunities for changing my own teaching in the way I’m advocating for are somewhat limited at the moment.

Then I realized that some of these ideas actually have connections to something I tried in the past and wrote about in an article that was published in Communications in Information Literacy called “Teaching Information Literacy Through ‘Un-Research.’”

The Un-Research Project is a slightly different take on an annotated bibliography, which is a common culminating project for information literacy courses as well as a component of other courses that might teach about writing and/or research. In a typical annotated bibliography, students cite sources and write annotations explaining what the source is about and why the source is valuable for their research. My experience was such that  it seemed students had a lot of difficulty articulating why a source was valuable for their research in a meaningful way. This was true even with the good students who were less likely to just be citing the first source to come up in a Google or library search.

So I came up with something called the Un-Research Project, which roughly works like this:

  • Step 1: Students write a short essay on a topic of their choice. They are not allowed to do any research to help them write the essay.
  • Step 2: Students create an annotated bibliography of sources that they could incorporate into their annotated bibliography. They must choose: 1) a source that adds to their knowledge of the topic, 2) a source that supports something they already knew, 3) a third one that contradicts their own viewpoint, and 4) a source from which they can pull a significant quote. In each case, they have to discuss the specific contributions each source would make to their essay.
  • Theoretical Step 3: I never got to this part because there wasn’t time in the class I taught, but theoretically students would then revise their original essay incorporating the sources that they had found.


I only used this project myself one time but I’ve heard from others who have adapted it for their own purposes (and even won awards for it!). At the time I used the project, I wasn’t even close to thinking yet about the importance of context to research but now I see a couple of different ways the un-research project could be used to relate to that idea, with a few changes.

The first possibility would be to add a step between the writing the un-research essay and the annotated bibliography where students would be required to find a piece of research on their chosen topic and notice the way sources are used in that piece of research. This could involve an exercise where students make note of which sources the author used to support their argument, how/whether they made use of sources they disagreed with, etc. Then students could study a different kind of source on the same topic and be asked to notice the same things.

Another possible route to connecting the un-research project to the contextual nature of research would focus on students’ roles as information creators. The directions for  that annotated bibliography might look like this:

  • Choose a source that would be appropriate if you were to write a scholarly or academic source based on your research and explain why it would be appropriate for that type of project.
  • Choose a source that would be appropriate if you were writing a personal blog post based on your research and explain why it would be appropriate for that type of project.
  • Choose a source that would be appropriate if you were writing a professional report based on your research and explain why it would be appropriate for that type of research.
  • Choose a source that would be appropriate for quickly satisfying your personal curiosity on your topic and explain why it would be appropriate for that type of research.


I’ve found that when I try to convince students that different types of sources are appropriate for different types of research, they get confused. This is inconsistent with what other instructors have told them about how scholarly sources are the gold standard and Wikipedia is the devil and students generally don’t like that kind of inconsistency.

(Seriously, though, the level of outrage students throw my way when I tell them the case for/against Wikipedia as a source of information is way more complicated than they’ve been told can be pretty astonishing.)

But really they know this. They know that if they have a question about how to write a resume, they’re not going to be using a scholarly source to answer that question. Probably. Depending on the field they end up in, they’re probably also not going to need (much less have access to) scholarly research to create professional reports. I mean, I’m an academic and I don’t need to cite scholarly sources when I create presentations for department meetings.

The original goal of the un-research project was to get students to think more deeply about the roles sources can play in a research product. I would be interested to see how changes like this might get them to start thinking beyond academic research and perhaps begin to better understand the contextual nature of research.

In both of these cases, the annotated bibliography would still come last but adding a reflection piece at the end could add a metacognitive element to the project.

These are just some thoughts. If you’re interested in learning more about the un-research project in its original form, you can read the original article and if you’re interested in adapting it for your own purposes, you can access the materials here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s