Creativity and Research, Part I: #overlyhonestmethods

One of the most fun parts of my job is doing research. There are times when I have to remind myself of that, like the recent Saturday night I spent recoding 800 pieces of data because one statistical program wouldn’t talk to another one. But I really enjoy finding something that makes me wonder, hmm, why is that the way it is? – and then having the opportunity to go out and collect data, and trying to figure out an answer. (You can see examples of some of my research here and here.)

Research often gets portrayed in the media as a very mysterious and lofty pursuit that can only be carried out or understood by people with very specialized training. It’s true that a lot of research reports are written in discipline-specific jargon that isn’t easy to follow (which is why the media often misunderstands and misreports research outcomes) or are difficult to understand because they’re just really badly written.  It’s also true that researchers are, or should be, trained in accepted ways of doing research. Researchers’ work needs to be designed and carried out thoughtfully, so that the research gets as close as it can to answering specific questions, and so that the results are accurate and meaningful.

But it’s also true – and this is something that always surprises the students I work with – that research is never a flawless process that unfolds exactly as you planned. Something you thought would work turns out not to work, so you have to figure out another way to do it. You might  have to restructure your research project because of resources (usually because of a lack of resources) or time (usually because a deadline is coming along faster than your research is). You might also have to just do whatever you have to do to get the thing finished.

It’s these types of situations, and how researchers deal with them, that this week have sparked some very funny posts on Twitter, using the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods. As one commentator observes, this is how experiments really get done. I encourage you to take a look at the Twitter feed, because there’s a lot of great posts, but here’s a few examples that made me laugh particularly hard.

(credit: fark.com)

(credit: fark.com)

  • Our sample was of 1,000 undergraduate students because who else can you get to do surveys for free? (from @snchancellor)
  • Slices were left in a formaldehyde bath for over 48 hours, because I put them in on Friday and refuse to work weekends. (from @aechase)
  • When the experiment doesn’t work out, I bribe people with my grant money to say it did. (from @jacen569)
  • To ensure sterilization, viral agent testing glassware was brought to the cafeteria and ran through the dishwasher. (from @Xittenn)
  • We chose this data capture system because it’s the only viable combination of left over parts from other projects. (from @mahnaca)
  • The citations were chosen because they include the editor of the journal we are submitting to. (from @jamuslim)

One commentator on  #overlyhonestmethods is taking some flack for suggesting that these kinds of statements  might cause non-scientist readers to distrust research, or think that scientists are unethical or unprofessional. I have to disagree. For one thing, I doubt that researchers who really do things like waste grant money or fake data to go to a conference somewhere sunny are boasting about it on Twitter. (This blog  is the place to read stories about bad or fraudulent science.)

If anything, showing researchers as real people who make real-life decisions – and who also have a sense of humour about some of the ridiculous things they have to do in their work – is a good thing. It makes the whole process of research more accessible and less obscure. And creating a better understanding of how research works might encourage people to think about science more seriously and more critically, and that would be a great thing.

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