All for Naught

By Bernard Wood
September 04, 2012

If you Google “phases of the research process”, the first item is a link to this document. You can tell it comes from Europe because the automatic date is set to day/month/year, and if you search a little further you find out that it comes from Jan Hanacek, a researcher in the Faculty of Medicine of Comenuis University in Bratislava, the chief city of Slovenia. This explains why it is written so well, and why it refers to patients and to clinical outcomes. I urge you to read it, and any other similar attempts to describe the research process that take your fancy.

Research is tough on the researcher, tough on the researcher’s loved ones, tough on the researcher’s colleagues, students and anyone else who crosses their path. The toughest time is what Hanacek calls “I. Phase of conception”.

This is that awful, anxiety-making time when the idea is relatively inchoate. The idea is at the “back” of your mind, not the front. You are unconsciously and consciously “chewing it over”. Nothing is organized, and what is even worse, it tends to come to the “front” (“back” and “front” are highly technical terms that only experienced neuroscientists will understand) of your mind at the most inconvenient times. When you should be paying attention to your partner or children, when you are trying to concentrate on the final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, looking over a menu at a restaurant, in the middle of a lecture, etc. etc.

The bummer is that you can never know how long that first phase will last. It could go on for hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. Many of us make the process even more difficult because we have several projects at the “Phase of conception” stage at the same time. So several ideas are churning around in your brain and they sometimes bump into each other, undergo “lateral transmission” and get confused. Sometimes this is beneficial, but most times it just adds to the agony of knowing that you have the germ of an idea, but no idea how to take it beyond what Jack Miller (of Fitch and Miller fame) used to call “bar talk”. What Jack was referring to is an idea that sounds quite plausible after a few beers, or a couple of glasses of wine (i.e., “bar talk”). The challenge is to take an idea like that and move it on to the stage when you can describe how it would work to someone who is dead-cold sober (i.e., an NSF reviewer) who may not necessarily share your sense of whimsy.

Many people who write about the four stages of research leave out Hanacek’s fifth stage, the “Disseminative phase”. This astounds, amazes, confounds, etc. me because unless you complete the final stage, publishing your research, you may as well not have gone through all that agony. For the cruel reality is that research that is not published has not happened. Your whole effort throughout all of the previous stages has been wasted. All that agonizing for nothing, zilch, zero. That wonderful idea is dead, deceased, departed, torpid, “resting”, “stunned”, “passed on”, “ex-“ (many apologies to the writers of the “Dead Parrot” sketch).

For your convenience I have reproduced Jan Hanacek’s fifth stage so you can print it out and put it on your wall, or make it your screen saver. It is on my wall. Please look at it, even read it out loud, every day and even more important, tell your students to do the same.

“V. Disseminative phase

The job is not completed, however, until the researcher communicates the result of the study to others who may find it useful.”