On “The Timing of the Research Question” by Jennifer E. Nutefall and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder

So I’ve been spending some time lately working on a new article idea intended to examine which research contexts tend to get the most attention in the library and information science literature on information-seeking. In the course of this study, I’ve stumbled upon some older articles in core journals that seem interesting and worth a deeper look. Some of these are related to information-seeking and some aren’t.

One such article is “The Timing of the Research Question” by  Jennifer E. Nutefall and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder, which was published in portal in 2010.

At the core of Nutefall and Ryder’s study is a really interesting question about some of the differences between how librarians think about research and how non-library faculty think about it. In particular, the authors focus on research questions. They found that both librarians and faculty generally agree on what makes for a good research question: “that it must be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student” (p. 441) but they have different ideas about when in the process the researcher should formulate their research question.

It turns out that the librarians who participated in the study were pretty rigid about this: they felt that the research question needs to be formulated before you start your search for information. Meanwhile, the non-librarian participants seemed to feel that the search for information should start with only a vague idea of what the student would like to research. The search itself is what helps shape and refine the student’s research topic.

The authors attribute this difference in thinking to the differences in how librarians themselves engage in research in their field versus the type of scholarship that’s produced by the non-library faculty. I find this explanation interesting, though I don’t necessarily agree. I’ll admit that in the course of my research I do often write the abstract first as a way to make it clear to myself what problem I’m trying to solve. But in the course of my actual research, I tend to deviate from whatever I wrote in that original pseudo-abstract. A lot. So much so that the finished product often bears little resemblance to that original abstract because of the way the search for information often shapes my thinking as I go along.

Defining a problem I’m trying to solve is arguably a bit different from having a research question. If I’m being honest, the only time I’ve ever attached a research question to my work before starting it is when I co-authored a paper with several colleagues. If you ever see any research questions in my sole-authored work, it’s probably because a peer reviewer or editor asked me to put them there, not because I conducted my research with any specific questions or hypotheses in mind. (Oops.)

I can’t say that this is how research works for other librarians or LIS scholars. Like I said, the one time I co-authored something, we did have specific research questions but that’s probably because the type of systematic investigation we were doing required us to have them. For paperwork purposes. Because when you’re doing something that qualifies as human subject research, you can’t get it past the Institutional Review Board without a set of actual research questions.

That said, I wonder if librarians’ rigid insistence on defining a research question before you search for information might have had more to do with the ACRL Standards and how they affected how we teach information literacy. Since the article was published in 2010, the Standards were still very much in place and according to the Standards, the first step in the research process (after identifying a gap in knowledge, presumably) is to “determine the extent of information needed.” The first step! The first performance indicator for this Standard, by the way, is to define and articulate the need for information. Part of which is to formulate a research question and/or a thesis statement.

As a first step!

To be fair, the outcomes associated with this performance indicator do allow for some exploratory behavior on the road to articulating your thesis statement but there’s still an assumption that this exploratory behavior takes place before you get down to the business of actually searching for information in any serious way.

Maybe I’m biased, but this is not how research actually works, especially outside of academic contexts. You don’t start searching for information about something because you have a clear, defined research question in mind. You start searching because you’re curious about something. And maybe because someone told you to, if you’re doing the research as part of a job or course assignment.

So I feel like the faculty members in the survey have a more realistic view of what the research process actually looks like in this respect. The librarians’ rigid insistence that you have to have a research question ready to go at the very start is…well, incredibly rigid. It doesn’t account for curiosity or how a person’s understanding of a topic can evolve as they seek information about it.

To be fair to the librarians, current instructional models for teaching information literacy and research are such that you don’t have a lot of room for nuance. If a course instructor is bringing their students to the library so they can learn how to search databases for information, then the only way that lesson is going to be useful is if students have some idea of what they’re searching the databases for. And what keywords to use. Requiring students to come in with a research question or at least a pretty well-defined topic is necessary for what we teach them as part of a typical session to be useful.

Which is another reason why one-shot sessions kind of suck as a way to teach students anything meaningful about information literacy or research. That’s not to say anything against those who teach primarily or exclusively in this format. It’s just the model we created for ourselves and one we’re stuck with unless and until we can advocate for something better.

And hopefully we’re finding ways to be more realistic and less rigid with our ideas about what research looks like. In my own recent one-shot teaching, I’ve had the opportunity to talk more with students about the role of curiosity in research and how to apply curiosity to academic research, which often comes with more restrictions. Teaching them how to explore their curiosity is, I think, a lot more meaningful than teaching them how to extract keywords from a research question.

Anyway. I don’t fully agree with the overall lesson that Nutefall and Ryder took from their study at the time they conducted it but I’m glad that this question about how librarians think about research versus non-librarians is one that they thought to ask and took the time to explore. I’m hoping to look into any work they (or anyone who cited them) might have done since 2010 to follow up on this work. Definitely a worthwhile topic.

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