April 20, 2006

Principles of effective research

The other day I stumbled on the essay Principles of Effective Research (also postscript) by theoretical physicist Michael A. Neilson.

Now, it's not about "keep your lab equipement organized" or "do a proper literature search using xyz research databases" or anything like that. It's more a personal analysis of the kinds of internalized habits and attitudes an effective researcher will have.

The fundamental principles of effective research are extremely similar to those for effectiveness in any other part of life. Although the principles are common sense, that doesn't mean they're common practice, nor does it mean that they're easy to internalize. Personally, I find it a constant battle to act in accord with these principles, a battle requiring ongoing reflection, rediscovery and renewed commitment.

Neilson then goes on to explain what some of those principles actually are:

  • Integrating research into the rest of your life
  • Principles of personal behaviour: proactivity, vision, and discipline

The next section is on Self-Development and Creativity in research and the balance that the effective researcher needs to find between the routine and the creative.
People who concentrate mostly on self-development usually make early exits from their research careers. They may be brilliant and knowledgeable, but they fail to realize their responsibility to make a contribution to the wider community. The academic system usually ensures that this failure is recognized, and they consequently have great difficulty getting jobs...

There are a lot of incentives for people to concentrate on creative research to the exclusion of self-development. Throughout one's research career, but particularly early on, there are many advantages to publishing lots of papers. Within limits, this is a good thing, especially for young researchers: it brings you into the community of researchers; it gives you the opportunity to learn how to write well, and give good presentations; it can help keep you motivated. I believe all researchers should publish at least a few papers each year, essentially as an obligation to the research and wider community; they should make some contribution, even if only a small one, on a relatively unimportant topic.

However, some people end up obsessed with writing as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible. While the short-term rewards of this are attractive (jobs, grants, reputation and prizes), the long-term costs are significant. In particular, it can lead to stagnation, and plateauing as a researcher. To achieve one's full potential requires a balancing act: making a significant and regular enough research contribution to enable oneself to get and keep good jobs, while continuing to develop one's talents, constantly renewing and replenishing oneself. In particular, once one has achieved a certain amount of job security (a long-term or permanent job) it may make sense to shift the balance so that self-development takes on a larger role.

There's much more along these lines. The final section is in many ways the most interesting as Neilson explores the differences between Problem-Solvers and Problem-Creators, but I'll leave that for you to explore.

What's the message here for us? Most of all, our patrons are trying to be effective researchers. It struck me that Neilson's essay doesn't mention the library once and only peripherally mentions reading the research literature. What then is our role in facilitating effective research? I guess it's basically getting out of the way, being invisible, providing our patrons with seemless, easy solutions that make what they're doing in the lab (or in the field, etc.) their primary concern rather than putting up roadblocks between them and the information they need to do their work. To internalize that finding information isn't their real work, for them research happens in the lab, in the field, on the blackboard and, increasingly, coded up in data and programs.

When Neilson does mention the literature, it's in the context of making sure to read fewer, more important papers carefully rather than scanning a larger number of papers. Maybe this is our role -- to provide tools to filter, organize and prioritize.

Is there a danger to being too invisible, to doing our jobs too well? A good question for which I have no answer except that the faster way to oblivion is to not do our jobs well.via Computational Complexity.

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