When research goes awry: getting back on the horse

Two academics walked into a pub…

One beer coaster-transcribed book proposal and a pre-existing publisher’s meeting later comes 33 tales of trial and tribulation from researchers across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Republic of Ireland, USA, Malaysia and Europe, in this collection from editors, Associate Professor Keith Townsend (WOW) and Professor Mark Saunders (University of Birmingham).

Associate Professor Keith Townsend

How to Keep your Research Project on Track: Insights from When Things go Wrong, is not, however, just a compilation of complaints. While a cathartic experience for many of its 38 contributors says Keith (pictured left), it is as the title suggests, a book that offers solutions for pressing on when the proverbial hits the fan (refer to the editors’ introduction for more on this…):

“In this work-intensified environment, I think we miss out on conversations about stuff…like the perils of interpreting qualitative data. …Mark and I had done similar books and thought it would be fun and useful…not just for research students and early career researchers, but old-timers that forget just how complicated the research process is when they might now be a step removed, having Research Assistants and Fellows doing their data collection and analysis.”

“This book is about all forms of research and documenting how people solve problems when things go awry, whether it is a qualitative or quantitative project; it draws to mind the classic line from the Blues Brothers movie, ‘Oh, we got both kinds [of music]. We got country and western!’”

While there were many stories to choose from–the book could have been six times longer, adds Keith–there are parables that translate well to other realms:

“The book is not only relevant to academics, but to remind people that not all jobs are easy and straightforward and you need to find ways to solve your problems. There’s one chapter on writers block for example [by Dawn C. Duke, University of Surrey]. This is important for anyone if you take the writer’s block bit out: it’s quite useful for getting back to work when you’re struggling.”

Julia Carins is a Food and Nutrition Scientist who takes a social marketing approach to improving eating behaviours. She co-authored ‘Rolling with the punches’ with Social Marketing@Griffith director, Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, and Christiane Stock, Southern Denmark University. In this chapter the team recommends (paradoxically) planning for things to go wrong even when you don’t know what that will be!

Dr Julia Carins

Speaking about the observational data collection methods she employed during meal service times in a busy workplace cafeteria for her PhD research, Dr Carins (pictured right) reflects on how, despite months of planning with the employer and their caterers:

“The most predictable thing about field work is that it is totally unpredictable! Things can change very quickly when you are outside the controlled laboratory environment. But one of the advantages of observational research is that you are there to record what happens–and if you go prepared to be flexible and adapt, and capture what actually does happen you can be assured that your research objective will be met.”

With a similar collection expected for release in 2020 (Edward Elgar) focusing on the PhD process, the challenge now says Associate Professor Townsend, is finding a way to structure it so as to capture the variety of ways PhDs are done around the world.

In keeping with the theme of keeping projects on track, perhaps the common denominator of this book may be what goes wrong with a PhD…!

How to Keep Your Research Project on Track: Insights from When Things Go Wrong is available from Edward Elgar (2018), ISBN 978 1 78643 575 0.