Contribution to research, at its core, is an issue of context. The foundation of science is that it is happening in the real world. Therefore, all sciences are inherently connected by taking place in the world of human experience. In fact, the work of every researcher on the planet has implications for every other researcher. Granted, that statement is a lot to wrap your brain around, so take a moment to ponder them. Theoretical physics research about the behavior of light in a vacuum might inform doctors on how to create technologies that repair vision by altering how the eye absorbs light. Research about the best ways to maintain interpersonal relationships could have important lessons for how Google can make profits next year based on increased cooperation between employees. The connections are literally endless, but researchers don’t always consider their work as it relates to the work of others within and outside their own disciplines.
Contribution to the sciences means that the research you are doing should be original, applicable, and enhancive. Maybe the work is original because it examines a well-known phenomenon, but in a unique population or circumstance. Maybe the research examines something that was thought to be well understood, but new data may suggest we weren’t quite right. Perhaps the work is applicable because it is timely for the current political climate. Perhaps it is research that will practically enhance the lives of many people. Research can combine all these elements of being contributory. But no one can ever truly know if research contributes anything unless it is placed in the larger context of the world of research.
Think of the world of research like a dinner party. Researchers from all over the globe bring their respective dishes to make a veritable feast of knowledge. Each one wants their research dish to be eaten. As such, it should be unique from the other dishes (original); you certainly can’t make a meal if everyone only brings chocolate chip cookies. The dish should, however, still fit in somewhere at the table (enhancive); a dog biscuit is edible but really does not have a place at a human party. The dish should also, for the most part, be edible by a wide group of people (applicable); try to save the fermented whole birds for Eskimos who will appreciate that delicacy. But how could you possibly know what dish will satisfy all these requirements? A sign-up sheet should do the trick.
Existing research ought to inform new research. Scientists who check the sign-up sheet before making their dish are better equipped to contribute to the party. Others at the party, also known as readers of research, also have a task; they need to review the table in its entirety before deciding what to eat. This doesn’t mean that researchers or readers must know everything in order to judge if work is contributory. It simply means that you cannot assume contributions are being made because a single piece of research looks appetizing. You must do some leg work to be able to meaningfully contribute, or consume, food that will make the party a more satisfying experience.
Researchers and readers alike owe themselves simple responsibilities that put research contributions in perspective; all of them involve checking for context. Review other sources to balance current research and see where findings fit in the larger picture. Researchers can connect with other experts in other fields by attending professional conferences. Readers can connect with professionals by tapping into their personal networks (maybe ask your doctor about recent findings), or even participating in an online discussion board led by credible moderators. Above all, researchers and readers should train their minds to put findings into the perspective of the real world. Allow research to map onto your lived experiences, or those of others around you. Check that you have not lost sight of all the living beings that research might impact. When research does more than challenge the brains of those who read it and, instead, affects the lived experience of who or what it is written about – that’s when you know for sure that the research is contributory.
Military REACH regularly summarizes and evaluates newly published research in, what we call, TRIP reports. Contribution is a key dimension of evaluation. See our library to understand how we measure contribution. See other newsletters to learn about our other dimensions of evaluation – credible (November) and communicative (February)