Reflecting on “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study,” which was published in College & Research Libraries in 2019.

When I first wrote “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study,” I kind of knew it was going to set me on a longer research path that was different from the one I had envisioned for myself earlier in my career. There were just so many threads that I thought would be worth exploring. The trouble was in picking which one to follow. I tried a few before I found the ones that I’m working on now.

The first one I tried was a follow-up study of articles that had been published in the LIS field’s top journals to find out how prevalent the study of research is in our literature. I chose this because I’d made a statement in the original article about how if you opened any issue of any journal in our field, no matter which specialization it focused on, it was likely to contain at least one article that qualified either as a direct study of research or a study that was somehow informed by the study of research. It took me a couple of tries to find an approach that worked but I think eventually I ended up reading the abstracts of almost 500 LIS articles. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I think something like 90% of them qualified as direct or indirect studies of research.

Though I think the research probably could have been done better, I still think this is an important result. Arguably, an interest in what research looks like and how it works is the underlying concept that connects (almost) all of the scholarship in our field. Without this knowledge, we would not be able to do what we do. But no one seems to realize this. So instead, we talk about research as a thing that we exist to support rather than to study and non-experts go on believing that research is nothing more than a basic skill even though we have proof that this is not the case.

Anyway. The article I wrote about all of this has yet to be published. There’s a whole story about why but basically I was stymied by a confusing and contradictory review process and, at the time that I received my second “revise and resubmit,” I decided I didn’t have the time or the energy to rewrite the article again in the hopes of pleasing a group of reviewers who seemed to want opposite things. It was a disappointing decision to make after all of the work I’d put in the article (and after all the work some of my colleagues had done to provide feedback and the reviewers had done to provide their reviews) but I can’t say that I regret it. While I still think the ideas the article explores are important and would like to return to them someday—perhaps with a better-designed study—setting them aside for the time being freed me up to follow my research in directions that I’ve found to be more stimulating and meaningful.

See, when I wrote the original article, I thought the fact that research is a subject of study was going to be its biggest and most important claim. But in retrospect, I think there’s another claim the article makes that’s at least as important as that one, if not more so and that’s the idea that research is contextual by nature.

This was an idea I stumbled into completely by accident thanks to a peer reviewer who, in reviewing an early version of the article, felt that I was being unclear and inconsistent in how I was talking about research. As a result of that comment, I decided to hunt down a definition of research that I could use that would suit my purposes.

I thought at first that either the ACRL Standards or the ACRL Framework would have what I needed since both of those documents were what informed my own understanding of what research is. So I was surprised when I found them both to be a little too limiting. The Standards basically portrays research as a library-based academic activity. The Framework is more open but it’s obviously still pretty focused on formal, academic notions of research. Based what I’d already written about in my article, I knew that I wanted to talk about research as both a formal and informal activity.

So I hunted down the definition of information seeking and that helped but it still wasn’t what I needed. Then I looked up the definition of research that my Institutional Review Board uses, which comes from the Office of Human Research Protections. Again, that one treated research as a formal process that comes with the lofty goal of contributing to generalizable knowledge.

After a while, I realized that none of the definitions I was finding were going to cover everything I needed, so I decided to come up with my own definition.

Frankly, I thought the peer reviewers would laugh at me when they saw this but I reasoned to myself that I was only defining my terms to avoid the confusion and inconsistency the reviewer had pointed out in their first review. I wasn’t trying to define research for everyone.

In the article, the definition I came up with is listed with several bullet points. When I do presentations, I boil it down to this: research is any formal or informal investigative process undertaken in order to fill a gap in knowledge, add to existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.

This whole process of defining research is a big part of what helped me realize that research is, in fact, a highly contextual activity and that a big reason the Standards were inadequate was because they missed this point…and that’s how we ended up with information literacy instruction that focuses almost exclusively on academic research. We teach students academic research skills and hope that these skills will transfer to other research contexts. But they don’t. So if we really want students to be successful researchers throughout their lives, we need to teach them about the contextual nature of research.

It’s hard to express how completely stumbling on this idea has changed my thinking and my teaching. The idea that research is a subject of study is still important, but to me the contextual nature of research is where it’s at, intellectually speaking.

So now I’m writing a whole book on the topic for ALA and presenting on it at the ACRL Conference in a few weeks. I also have this blog where I talk about teaching and context a lot.

I also talk about the role of research in fiction writing a lot. At first, this might seem unrelated to the larger concept I’ve decided to explore but actually it’s just a smaller offshoot of that idea. As scholars, we understand that research is contextual because we study the information behaviors and research habits of various populations. But creative research is something of a blank spot in our literature, probably because creative research and library systems don’t always mix very well. Because, again: context.

So that’s where I am with my current research activities. It’s been an interesting journey to think about how my thinking has changed since publishing my various peer-reviewed articles. Hopefully that growth will continue in the future and, of course, I’ll keep sharing my thoughts here for anyone who’s interested.

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