Research Confidential

1163099_1cca_625x1000 An interview with Eszter Hargittai, editor of Research Confidential, in Inside Higher Ed:

For social scientists starting their careers, creating research models that work is crucial. A new book suggests that they may be unaware of problems they face in part because scholars don't share stories of what didn't work on their projects, and how to deal with particular challenges. Research Confidential: Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have has just been published by the University of Michigan Press. The essays in the collection are all by younger scholars, including the volume's editor, Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed. Hargittai responded to questions about the book.

Q: I was struck by the part of your subtitle where you say “pretend they never have.” Why do you think social scientists don't recognize or hide from problems with their research methods?

A: This title refers less to what social scientists recognize and more to what shows up in the final write-up of their projects. When one reads journal articles, the methodological sections tend to make the projects sound rather straight-forward. In books, details about methods are usually relegated to an appendix, at best, and do not tell the reader the reality of data collection. Instead, they are pretty, cleaned-up versions of what happened. For example, they will include the number of final interviews the researcher conducted, but they won't include details about how many attempts it took to get a person to come to an interview.

It is certainly the case that such detailed descriptions may be out of place in some such write-ups, but the problem is that then readers do not realize the true complexities involved with the process. For example, students will not understand what amount of effort went into securing all of the interviews and how much frustration was associated with last-minute cancellations and other hurdles that may have come up. Similarly, journal articles don't tend to explain that it took IRB three times as long to approve a project than expected and thus everything was delayed. Again, that information may not be useful for the final write-up of results, but without seeing such details, it is hard for new scholars to recognize that they are indeed the reality of actual research and must be accounted for in planning new projects. This probably contributes to why so many people — both students and faculty — underestimate the length of time any project will take.

In another vein, I also think some social scientists encounter fewer problems, because they compromise the quality of their research.