Negative Findings



2 February 2014

When you conduct a block of research—whether it’s for yourself, a client, or an academic paper—how do you handle negative findings? Do you simply state, “A search of XYZ turned up nothing?” Or do you record, in detail, the parameters used for your search?

If we were doing research in the hard sciences, we would record every action we take, all the methodology we tried, and every line of reasoning we applied. We would record the conditions under which we performed this research. We would certainly record all results—not just positive results but negative ones as well.

As researchers who analyze and interpret the past, the validity of our conclusions also depends upon whether we follow these same core standards. At a minimum, we should

  • itemize and fully identify the subject(s) of the search; if they are people, we should specify the exact spellings for which we searched and every identifier and delimiter we used;
  • fully cite each record set or publication we used—adding descriptors needed to understand the source, details about any gaps or flaws in the source, the time frame covered by the source, and any limitations we may have imposed upon the use of that source.
dsliesse's picture

Don't forget this isn't only a matter of showing thoroughness.  It also helps the researcher later on when there's something else that needs to be looked up.  A simple note that "a search of XYZ turned up nothing" can be misleading with regard to a different search.

EE's picture
Thumbs up

Right you are, dsliesse!


The Editor