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What, Why & When
When conducting research, being reflexive and documenting your own progress can be very helpful. If you procrastinate, then this is for you. So basically, it is for everybody. As an active researcher, it is not only important to track your progress, you also have document it, and ideally reflect about it. This can be of specific importance for early career scientists who face their first large challenge, like writing a thesis or publishing a paper.
Document your research process thoroughly, not only how you conduct research, but also how it made you feel while you were conducting it. Different people get different facets out of keeping research diary, but people highlighted in the past, that it ca 1) Provide a basis to find your own style of documentation 2) Helps you to reflect on your timeline, goals and progress 3) Generates an understanding about the personal mindest in which the research was set and conducted 4) Continuous writing improves your writing per se- hence your academic writing may also improve over time.
Getting started is the hardest point of any research diary, or better, getting started and sticking to it. You need to design a time and ideally even a place where you want to document your research and reflect about it. Bullet journaling has introduced fancy litte A5 journals into the life of many people, and such a book could be a good start. What is most important is that no setting is ideal for everybody, you have to find your own setting. Some write in the morning before the day gets started, some write at a fixed time in the office, others use the calm in the evening, and even other write whenever ad wherever they feel like it. We have to be aware that writing a research diary should be a committed goal if we decide to do it, and it needs to be a habit. Naturally, hair changes need time, thus starting small may pay off if it is nevertheless continuously. While a diary may help us to write down how we perceive reality, a research diary helps us to write down how we perceive research, and how we perceive ourself in research.
What to write in a research diary
The core goal of research diary is to document your own research and how you perceive it. While for instance the late Oliver Sacks started a new book every few weeks at time, other may just document the main steps. What is relevant is that you take a step back and and look at your research like an outsider, but with insider knowledge. It take trying to uncouple oneself from the own research process, yet it is well worth it. In the following are some reasons how a research diary has proven valuable in the past.
Research diary for documentation
Documentation is key in science. While a certain systematic way of documentation has established itself over the last decades, the latest data security laws have put a burden on many scientists when it comes to the proper documentation of science. Although this was done with the best of intentions, a clear documentation considering all legal necessities is hard to achieve yet of course necessary. Here, a research diary can open another level, where beside the "objective" documentation of what was done in due course of our research, a personal perspective prevails. Why did we make certain choices in our research, and how did we feel about it. Having the possibility to come back to this can prove valuable, since our memories are deeply constructed and often plain wrong. Coming back to your research diary may thus offer some surprises.
Research diary for reflection
Research is often a very emotional process, which is not surprising. Whenever we spend a lot of time on something, we are more often than not deeply emotionally invested. To this end, it can be quite helpful to see how already are quite relaxed about parts of your research -say failure- about things that some months ago made you an emotional wreck. Looking back at the process has something liberating for many, as it shows that we may after all gain some process, if only at a forward inching scale.For other, a diary may be a good source to learn to focus. What is the main dish of your research, and what are side dishes? Research is a continuous endevour, and documenting this continuously can be indeed very insightful.
Research diary as a data source
Gaining insight out of the own research process is also a potential data source. The question how we conduct, perceive and ultimately facilitate research. While researchers by means of hermeneutics, content analysis etc. have investigated diaries and letters of famous or influential researchers since a long time, this is now also increasingly done while research is conducted. This allows for a clearer localisation within research, and provides an embeddedness in one's own research. Greta care needs to be taken to have a clear understanding of the respective roles, yet the potential outcome can be beneficial. Normal science may not always see the benefit in this, and would highlight the need to focus. This links to the next point.
Research diary as undiscovered country
Research is ever evolving, this is what defines it. We may not know now how research will be in a few decades, but the current societal development showcases the need to slow down and be more reflexive -and critical- of our actions. Many opportunities can be on the horizon for reflexive researchers, and the still widely hierarchical scientific system that defends resources and fights for priority about specific aspects of knowledge. It is hard to imagine that this will always be like this. New modes of research may become more prevalent in the future, and the currently mostly utilitarian way to conduct research may be replaced by more reflexive setting. A small research diary may be one step of each and every single one of us towards this goal.
Get a book, finde the time and place to write, and design this setting in a way that maximises your ability to stick to it. Once you have done this at least 20 times, it may become a habit, or you may at least realise that it does not work right now for you. In order to know this you have to try it.
Links & Further reading
- Robert Burgess - Keeping a Research Diary
- Nadin & Cassell - The use of a research diary as a tool for reflexive practice: Some reflections from management research
- Why you should consider keeping a research diary
The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.