The Myth of Insufficient Information

Pick any topic. It could be as broad as “conservation” or as specific as the reproductive cycle of Viverricula indica. Chances are good that at the next meeting or workshop you attend or in the next report you read, you will hear or read a claim that “we have insufficient information” on the subject and “there is, therefore, a need for more research.” This always sounds like a reasonable claim, partly because everybody at these meetings likes doing research and so—if a little is good, more is better. The problem is that every time I hear this, my mind’s eye flashes up images of thousands of studies and reports I have seen gathering dust on library shelves throughout the region and elsewhere. I always want to stand up and say, “Don’t you mean perhaps that we simply don’t know of or don’t have convenient access to many of the studies that do exist?” I don’t though. It would be like asking Barack Obama to give tax cuts to the rich.

Do researchers make sufficient use of the information we already have? I suspect that in some fields, particularly the “hard” and life sciences, they may. I know that in social sciences and “development” research, there is room for improvement. Why should this be so? Perhaps the first reason is the one I already mentioned. The people who attend the kind of meetings where people present research tend to be the kind of people who like doing research. For one thing, you can get money for doing research. You don’t get money for doing literature searches.

Searching the literature has no sex appeal. Research, however, is A Noble Calling. When people ask, “What do you do?” an exciting and impressive response is, “I’m conducting a biodiversity survey in Southern Laos” or “I’m measuring sediment loads in tributaries of the Mekong.” A not exciting and unimpressive response is, “I’m searching libraries for previous studies on sediment loads.” It’s the difference between, “I drive a Lexus” and “I drive a Nissan Sunny.”

Doing research is taking action. That action might be long hours in a lab, long days knee deep in marshes and swamps, or long weeks trekking around the backwaters of poor developing countries. Action means “doing something about the problem,” whatever the problem is. Poring through old research reports is tedious and boring and hard to reconcile with “doing something about the problem.”

Then there is the relevance issue. I have yet to attend a conference of experts when I don’t hear half a dozen speakers proclaim that their research is vital to decision makers or urgently needed to influence policy. I’m not convinced this is true. Most of the researchers I know would not recognize a “policy maker” if one bit them on the ankle. Researchers seldom have to make any of the big decisions. As a researcher, my job is done when I hand in my report. If somebody acts on the results, I can bask in the reflected glory. If they don’t, I get the satisfaction that comes from complaining about the stupidity of people who don’t see the importance of my research.

I am not against research. I am against uninformed researchers. Uninformed researchers write up fat project proposals and go rushing off, gathering data, and having a great old time and have absolutely no interest in what anybody has done before them because that might spoil the fun. Let me give an example.

A regional river basin organization I know of wrote up a project that required hiring lots of very expensive international consultants to come and travel around four countries and talk to lots of people and conduct lots of expensive national and regional workshops and write up guidelines for conducting environmental impact assessments in tropical climates. The rationale was that the existing guidelines applied to temperate climates and new relevant guidelines were necessary to inform decision makers and influence policy. I happened to be working for this organization at the time in the same unit. Since I had more time on my hands than things to do, I thought to myself, “I wonder if anyone has done anything along these lines before?” Over the course of a few days, I did a quick and dirty search of the available literature and this is what I found:

  • a book published by the same river basin organization in 1989: Environmental Impact Assessment in Tropical Ecosystems
  • reports on several workshops with lists of participants’ names, many who were still working for the same ministries but in higher positions
  • a list of names of people on a national environmental group in one of the four countries, all now in more senior positions.

I handed my little bibliography over to the lead consultant and got a mumbled “thanks very much, this will be very useful” and never heard a word about it again. Nor did I see any reference to it in their final report. They already had their work plan and their travel plan and probably had the guidelines half written as well. I might as well have handed them a closet full of skeletons.

My point is this: Before investing scarce resources in yet more surveys and studies on any particular topic, it would be prudent to stop and conduct a comprehensive search of the existing literature, including the gray literature in languages other than English. A literature search helps clarify where the existing gaps in our knowledge actually lie so we can target our efforts and resources more effectively. It also helps bring to light other dimensions of the problem.

That a gap exists is not a sufficient rationale for filling it. Too many development research projects are driven by the personal interests of the researchers. Resources for research and information gathering are limited and the agents driving development are not going to put their plans on hold while advocates of sustainable development conduct more surveys and impact studies. Time, effort, and money need to be directed towards activities that have the most chance of achieving the development goals of a project. If a research study or a habitat survey seems the most effective way of achieving a particular goal, then it should be done. If those same resources would have more impact helping villagers learn to engage more effectively with district and provincial authorities or learn new livelihood skills, those surveys may be a waste of time and effort.

Funding agencies need to take more responsibility by insisting that proposals include a review of the relevant literature. Agencies are demanding more evidence of impact, but they should not forget the “front end” and ask for a review of what impact has already been achieved. Teaching faculty and thesis and dissertation advisors at universities need to put more emphasis on the literature review. Most of the “reviews” I have seen are nothing more than a cut-and-paste catalog: “I read Jones (2005) and he said [cut-and-paste]; I read Smith et al. (2006) and they said [cut-and-paste].”

With more people doing more research than ever before, the task of searching for relevant work can be overwhelming, but we also have more sophisticated tools to help us. With the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our world, we can no longer afford the luxury of redundant research. In the meantime, I am waiting to hear some presenter at a conference say, “I have searched all the available literature I could find and we don’t have sufficient information on…”

Notes on this article: Article first published in the August 2009 issue of Chemistry in Australia; Volume 76, Issue 7; Aug 2009; 19–21, and subsequently in Chemistry International Vol. 32 No. 1, January-February 2010.

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