Is there value in absent results?

by Angie Gerrard
Murray Library, University of Saskatchewan

There is a movement in the academic literature regarding the value of publishing negative research results. While the most accepted research tends to favour positive results, there is a growing call for a more holistic picture of the realities of research. This just makes sense. As a researcher and practitioner, I want to know what worked, for whom, in what context, but I also want to know what did not work, why it did not work, and what lessons can be drawn from that. There is obvious value in learning from other people’s so-called ‘failures’.

But what about those research findings that never see the light of day because they are not truly results, but rather the first few steps of the research process that simply failed? It is one thing to complete a research project and share the negative results but quite another when the research is stalled and there is nothing to share. Is there value in reporting a research experience that produced nothing in the most tangible sense?

This is my reality at the moment; a liminal state along the research journey. I am currently on sabbatical and part of my research program is dedicated to information literacy instruction; more specifically, trying to better understand faculty’s perceptions and practices of information literacy. My hypothesis is that while faculty are not likely consciously adopting information literacy in the curriculum, they are in fact incorporating many of the underlying principles encompassed within information literacy. Therefore, if librarians want to continue to play a key teaching and learning role on campus, we need to better understand what is being taught in the classroom. To begin to understand this, I proposed getting faculty together in focus groups to discuss how they perceive their undergraduate students’ abilities to access, use, and evaluate information and how, if at all, they teach these constructs and if so, is this is done in any scaffolded manner throughout the curriculum.

Thus began the design of my research project. A grant application was written and was successfully granted (yikes, this was getting real). A literature review was conducted and many, many articles were read and annotated. Focus group methodology was studied and a focus group question guide developed. Ethics documentation was written. A research assistant was hired. Ethics documentation was re-written and re-submitted. Focus group dates were set and a moderator was booked. Contact information was gathered for more than 500 faculty. Many, many Excel spreadsheets were developed. Six focus groups were created using stratified data from potential participants. Email protocols and procedures were written and finally, drum roll please, the initial call for participants was emailed in early March with a deadline to respond by mid-month.

And then I waited.

Crickets.

And then I “failed”.

Of the 180 potential randomized participants contacted, two people agreed to sit on our focus groups; a response rate too embarrassingly low to even report. In all reality, we received six total responses: two who agreed to participate (bless their hearts), one said thank-you but count me out, two reporting the time of year wasn’t good for them, and another reporting that he did not meet the eligibility requirements but offered some interesting input. We had planned for six focus groups, each with five to eight participants, where three groups were stratified by subject disciplines and the other three represented mixed disciplines. In the end, we had a total of two willing participants; not near enough for one focus group, let alone six.

So this a snapshot at where I am at the moment, with the most important part of my research project missing. I have carefully planned and budgeted for the next steps of my project, i.e., data collection, data analysis, dissemination and knowledge translation, but none of this can go forward. I have nothing if I have no data.

When I reflect back on all the work and time invested in this project to date, did I actually fail? Is there value in nothing? The jury is still out of this. While this process has taught me much about undertaking a large research project (or at least the beginning stages of such a project) and the joys of qualitative research involving human participants, this is not the kind of value you can take to the bank or in my case, represent in a promotional case file.

Reporting positive results remains king. It has rightfully earned its place at the head chair at the big table. Slowly but surely, negative results are now being invited to take a seat at this table. Is there a place for absent results? Well, for the time being, these research experiences may be best relegated to the kids’ table.

On a more positive note; I have drowned my sorrows and moved on to Plan B. With the sabbatical clock ticking, I have simplified both my recruitment approach and focus group compositions and plan to hold the discussions at a less busy time. Fingers crossed there will have tangible and valuable data to share.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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