What did I do? – the research diary



I’ve got an OK memory. Most of the time I can summon up the details that I need to remember, when I need to remember them – passwords, deadlines, the way home. But I do struggle to recall all of the films I’ve seen, I can’t quite place the name of a novel for love or money and I rely very heavily on Endnote to produce, on call, the details of the things I’ve read. And I am prepared to leave much of what I can’t remember to chance. If the novel was that unforgettable and riveting I’d remember it, right? If I need to tell someone about a television programme and I can’t quite pinpoint the title, I can probably find it via google. And if I do forget one of those very obscure and little-used passwords I can probably reset it.

But I can’t afford to forget the details of my research projects. In a long-term project that runs for over two or three years, there are a myriad of small decisions that get made along the way. They can’t be forgotten. They can’t be left to chance. They must be remembered somehow because all of us need to be able to talk about why the research is the way it is. It’s VERY important to be able to retrace steps to justify, say, why this site and not another one, why these texts and not others, why these people in particular, why this number and not more or less.

Keeping track of these research project on-the-way decisions is crucial. In order to demonstrate that the research has been conducted rigorously you need to be able to provide a clear rationale for the choices that have been made. In order to establish the research results, you need not only to be able to say what was done and why, but also what wasn’t.

Now, some of these research decisions are deliberate. You choose to draw the line around the research somewhere. It can only go for so long. It can only cover a certain territory. You haven’t got enough person-power to do more than this many. These decisions are usually pretty easy to remember and everyone knows that you have to put them into your research design discussion somewhere, and that you have to refer back to them when you are making the claims at the end about what you ‘found’.

And sometimes this discussion has to cover the things that weren’t planned. For instance, you couldn’t get access to the site you wanted to. The people you wanted to talk to didn’t want to talk to you. The survey return was low. These disappointments and messy bits have to be tracked. The things you did to try to deal with them are part of your research account. PhD examiners are generally pretty forgiving about changes in original plans as long as they are explained – some journal reviewers less so. PhD examiners can actually see a lot about the doctoral researcher from their discussions of coping with mess and unanticipated obstacles.

BUT – well you knew there was going to be a but didn’t you – one of the places where people often forget to keep track of their decisions is when they get to their data analysis. While there is very little room to discuss data analysis in most journal articles, it needs to be part of the audit trail provided in a PhD thesis and in research reports. (The data-analysis-tracking-decisions-discussion doesn’t have to be in the main text, of course, it might be referred to and put into an appendix.) However, reporting the ongoing decisions about data analysis is often overlooked. Yet it can be an area where a lot of small choices are made. Why this theme and not others? Why this code? Why decide that this cross-tabulation would be the way to go, and not another… These analytic choices often take place over time, and they can easily get forgotten in the process of arriving at the final analysis.

These small choices can mount up to something very important in their effect on what has been seen and what can be said about the data. And if you begin the process of data analysis with some systematic trialling of different approaches, the record of those decisions will be important when you come to report back on how you got to the conclusions that you have.

Setting up a research diary to log the ongoing decisions you have made during a research project – including those about analysis – is important. The research diary can be an important aide-memoire when you finally get to writing your text. And it helps you provide important reassurance to examiners and readers that you have been thorough and thoughtful in the way that you have approached all aspects of the research – not just the design of the project, not just generation of the data, but also in the process of making sense of what you’ve got.

I rely heavily on my research diary. Mine is a big digital folder with running records which I keep on key topics: reading, field work, data analysis. I’m often surprised how much I go back to these files to retrace my steps. The diary file is my external memory, and it’s much more reliable than the internal one!

So, diary on. A research diary might seem like unnecessary record-keeping some of the time, but it will repay the effort in spades just when you are least expecting it. After all, very few of us have 100% retention of everything we do, see, say and hear. Now, where did I put my keys?