Brian Romans’ blogpost that he wrote in response to that of Chris Chambers discusses the frequent reality of the course of scientific research. It’s perhaps even an understatement to say that things don’t always work out quite the way you expect them to. Brian argues that there’s a lot to be learned from a piece of research that ‘fails’ and that “stumbling about” can sometimes mean that you stumble into something significant. As Daniel Richardson’s rather honest account makes clear, this way of talking about the process of research is in stark contrast to the way we teach it:
“It generally begins at a conference bar or through an email with a friend when we’ll come up with a half-formed idea and we won’t have any idea what we’re doing. We’ll plunge through the literature, we’ll revise, we’ll completely change the focus, or do one experiment that won’t work but then something strange will happen and we’ll investigate that instead. It’s a collaborative, shoddy, directionless sort of exploration, completely different from the very clean, straightforward way that we teach research.”
It’s not just that we teach research as though it were a very linear process, but it’s also the way we usually report it in papers, theses, talks etc. I remember being a grad student and wondering how on earth I was ever going to create a thesis that hung together, out of a patchwork of studies with unpredicted results. More recently, it felt rather unnatural at first to describe a “failed” experiment in my talk last week at CHI2012. On the one hand it didn’t contribute anything to the theory being put forward in the paper, but, on the other, it was important to demonstrate how our original ideas (about how challenge leads to increased experience of immersion in videogames) were just wrong.
Having spent a few moments myself in a conference bar last week, I’m full of enthusiasm and half-formed ideas, which I hope to investigate over the coming months. Rather than being daunted though about whether experimental results will work out as I expect them to, I’m already looking forward to the unpredictable journey ahead and the challenge of weaving together an interesting story out of whatever happens….perhaps even in time for the CHI2013 deadline.