Leaning In or Leaning Back?

by Marjorie Mitchell
Research Librarian, UBC Okanagan Library

With apologies to Sheryl Sandberg.

I am going to admit it here first – I’m going through a bit of a dry spell with my research. Actually, it’s not the research – that feels like it’s making some forward movement for the time being. No, the dry spell I’m experiencing has to do more with disseminating my research results and getting my findings “out there” than it has to do with the “research” per se. I’ve recently had proposals for two conference presentations (one traditional presentation and one poster) rejected. Now I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m trying to read the message of these two rejections to determine whether I should continue this line of research or not. Do I continue and hope the results of my research will be more convincing and compelling nearer completion (leaning in) or maybe it’s a good time to adjust the focus of my research (leaning back).

Research is a funny thing. While many of us conduct research for reasons like “contributing to the profession” or “out of curiosity” or “because I’m required to do research for tenure and/or promotion”, few of us spend enough time determining whether our topic meets the criteria Hollister (2013) called “noteworthy”. Basically, he is pointing out the importance of saying something new, or utilizing something existing, either a theory or method, in a new and unique way.

I would take this a step further and say that a topic also needs to be timely. If your topic has already been written about and presented on many times, it might be that the topic has become stale, even if you have found something new to add to the knowledge about the topic. Another contribution to a topic that has occupied our professional attention for some time just isn’t as appealing as something newer. There is also the problem of being too new. There are some topics and ideas that are just a bit too far ahead of the crowd and won’t be accepted in the current round of conferences and upcoming journals.

Some ideas are just ahead of what the profession is ready to be discussing at any given time. No matter how well composed, researched and executed, an idea that is ahead of its time will fall on deaf ears. You may have had the experience of coming up with a topic and pitching it, only to see it presented by someone else two years later at your favorite conference. There is no quick or easy solution to this. You can only console yourself with a hot cup of tea, secure in the knowledge that you had that idea first.

I think one solution to the issue of being timely is also to develop a certain passionate detachment to the research you’re doing. Research needs a certain amount of objectivity, but I truly believe research needs passion and enthusiasm to carry it forward. I’ve come to recognize, however, I also require a certain amount of detachment, particularly at the conclusion of my research, to allow me to withstand the rejections my ideas sometimes receive.

Sometimes it is worthwhile to step back from the research, particularly after a rejection, and honestly weigh whether the research is still worth pursuing and finishing. It may be your great idea is just a little too late. For now, I’m going to take my proposals to a colleague and get a second, less biased, look at them before I make any decisions. So, before I lean in any direction, I’m going to lean on a friend for advice. I don’t think Sheryl mentioned that kind of leaning.


Hollister, C. V. (2013). Handbook of academic writing for librarians. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries.

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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