Isn’t all research creative?

Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay

I’ve spent a couple of semesters now teaching students about different research contexts, including academic, scholarly, creative, personal, professional and scientific. For the most part, they do really well with understanding the idea that research works differently in different situations and what some of the differences between each context might be. They seem to especially like learning about personal research because they like hearing that all of the Googling they’ve been doing all their life to fulfill their personality counts as research, at least by the standards of our particular course.

There’s one type of research they have more difficulty with than others, though, and that’s creative research.

The source of the confusion doesn’t seem to have anything to do with understanding the existence of creative research. Like a lot of people, my students may have never stopped to think about it before, but the idea that research can be an important part of the creative process makes a lot of sense once you make a point of noticing that this is the case. There are examples everywhere.

So students never try to challenge the idea that creative research is a thing. But a surprising number of them will ask: isn’t all research inherently creative?

As someone who has taught information literacy for over 10 years, this question actually kind of thrills me, at least to some extent. I’m glad that students see a certain creativity in the research process, even when they’re conducting it as part of a relatively boring assignment. Because, yeah: there can be a lot of creativity in how you search for sources, how you identify which sources are useful to you, and how you go about connecting ideas from and otherwise synthesizing the information from those sources. This is true no matter what type of research you’re doing.

But even though all research can be creative, not all research is creative research. Just like writing: all writing is inherently creative, but not all writing falls under the umbrella of what is commonly called “creative writing.”

When I see this error in thinking, I try to help students understand that creative research isn’t defined necessarily by the methods used or what the research process looks like. Instead, it’s defined more by its purpose: creative research is research undertaken in order to enhance a creative product, like a novel or a painting or a film.

In fact, when it comes to creative research, there doesn’t have to be anything special or especially creative about the research process itself. It still counts as creative research if you entered a bunch of keywords into a library database and used the first handful of peer-reviewed sources you found that seemed relevant or useful. If you used this information to enhance a creative product, then it’s still creative research even though the process itself sounds kind of, well, boring.

Of course, this begs the question of what, exactly, qualifies as a creative product. Novels and paintings and films, sure. Music also. Fashion. But isn’t there a certain amount of creativity in a work presentation or a scholarly article or even a research paper as well?

Yes. Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of where the line is between “creative product” and “not creative product,” I don’t have a good answer. In my defense, the writing studies field has been grappling with this question a lot longer and they don’t have a good answer, either. Composition instructors in particular seem pretty adamant (and I don’t disagree) that there is a lot of creativity in the types of writing they ask their students to do, even though what they teach is not considered “creative writing.” And no one can seem to agree whether different types of creative nonfiction belong in composition or creative writing. Or really what distinguishes “creative” nonfiction from any other type of nonfiction.

So whether students realize it or not, what they’re asking is sort of a complicated question. One that, as far as I know, hasn’t been explored in much detail in any field of scholarship, whether in library and information science or writing studies or somewhere else. And certainly one too complicated to get into in a short course like mine where the unit on creative research is only a week long.

But I’m glad students are asking this. In part, because it gives me a chance to try to clarify what distinguishes one context from another (not only the nature of the research process, but the purpose for which the research is being done). But also because it shows that their experiences with college-level research haven’t completely killed their ability to see research as something more than a rote, boring activity—that there can be at least a spark of creativity there as well.


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