“More research is needed.”
How often have you read that phrase?
It is the final sentiment of an overwhelming proportion of journal articles, and is repeated so often at academic conferences that I’ve been tempted to sell it on t-shirts.
It is so overused that the British Medical Journal has banned it completely. Famed pseudoscience debunker Dr Ben Goldacre deems it meaningless because “a scientific paper is the place to clearly describe gaps in our knowledge, and specify new experiments that might resolve those uncertainties” (p. 4). By that logic, stating that “more research is needed” in a research paper is a bit like when your Mum calls you up the phone to complain that you two don’t talk enough on the phone.
So why is this particular statement so ubiquitous?
Perhaps because it’s almost always true. No one research project can claim to provide the absolute and permanent truth on a given topic. It would be somewhat arrogant to end a paper with the opposite assertion: I’ve solved this problem. No-one need research it ever again. Maybe “more research is needed” is a way of expressing humility: My/our research isn’t the be-all and end-all. Let’s keep investigating.
The problem with this ‘humble researcher’ perspective is that it provides absolutely no concrete guidance. More research is needed: OK. What kind of research? In which direction? With which methodology?
Professor Trish Greenhalgh argues that the “more research is needed” cliche simply encourages more of the same type of research, leading us to “define the research priorities of tomorrow by extrapolating uncritically from those of yesteryear.” By stressing simply more research (as opposed to different research), we fall into the trap of planning new projects that are subject to the same blind spots or methodological flaws that may have prevented previous research from fully solving problems or answering questions.
The temptation to include the “more research is needed” line in one’s own work can be strong, given that it creates a comforting sense that our own writing is not meant to be the final word on a given topic. But there are better ways to create the same impression. Try playing with the statement “future research should…” With that opener, you can get into specific details on how future researchers could build on your work to contribute to your subject area in helpful ways.
Of course, “future research should…” is not great as a t-shirt slogan. Drat. I’ll have to find something else to sell at conferences.
Goldacre, B. (2014). I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. London: Fourth Estate.