September 19, 2011

Research as conversation: Critical thinking and affect
For a quick lunchbreak post...

I was catching up on recent On the Media podcasts and a particular segment on publishing, scientific journals, and retractions really caught my eye... well, ear.

Brooke Gladstone was interviewing Ivan Oranksy about issues surrounding retractions and their effect on the scientific community and its publications ("Ivan Oransky is a doctor, the executive director of Reuters Health and founder, along with Adam Marcus, of Retraction Watch, a blog that scours scientific journals for retractions and investigates the stories behind them"). I thought this would be interesting for information literacy purposes, and what I especially thought was of particular significance was:
[LAUGHS] Having covered the medical research business so closely and of these retractions, what do you think about the state of scientific journals and the way that scientists communicate with each other before all of that stuff gets communicated to the rest of us?
When you look at a paper, there's a kind of finality to it. It’s, look, here it is. It's something you can almost frame and put on your wall or, in this case, on your CV.
If you were to say, look, here's what we found so far, and let us open up the data for you, let us show it to you, which would have probably prevented some really high profile cases from going as far as they did, if you treat that as a process and say this is how science works, nothing is final, we’re just getting there.
So papers are artificial endings to a process that doesn’t end.
Absolutely. When you actually look at the process of how science works, there aren't that many eureka moments. And when you learn the most is when you’ve actually made a mistake or tried something that didn't work. And if we start using that narrative and don't have to end it
This really drives home the concept that research is a conversation and can teach students that publications, while they should have some authority, are not always 100% accurate nor final. Other researchers will respond and the conversation will continue. This helps students learn that they should always have a critical eye, and not only that, but it helps them better understand how to write a research paper themselves: that it should be their ideas responding to the research they read, and not just a summary or a personal opinion piece with nothing to substantiate that opinion. Explaining research as a conversation (and as non-linear) can also tie in to Kuhlthau's Information Search Process [PDF] (which I also wrote about here, examining if the ISP is still relevant today through participating in the Sheffield iSchool Journal Club). Students seeing that researchers make mistakes -- and even they have struggles and can get frustrated -- can make the research process seem more human and relatable.