More research should be solid instead of novel

Novelty is often highlighted as the most important criterion for getting research funding. That a manuscript is novel is also a major concern for many conference/journal reviewers. While novelty may be good in some contexts, I find it more important that research is solid.

I started thinking about novelty versus solidity when I read through the (excellent) blog posts about the ISMIR 2021 Reviewing Experience. These blog posts deal with many topics, but the question about novelty caught my attention. Even though the numbers are small, it turned out that the majority of the survey respondents listed novelty as the most important selection criterion for the conference. This is not unique to ISMIR; I think many journals and conferences ask about novelty.

Defining novelty

Given that novelty is a criterion “everyone” considers all the time, few people discuss what it actually means. What does it actually mean that something is novel? Merriam-Webster suggests that it is “something new or unusual.” But what should be new or unusual? The questions? The answers? The methods?

Research is about contributing new knowledge to humankind. After all, it is not really any point in reinventing the wheel. Still, most research is incremental. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. New research questions spring out of the “future work” sections of our colleagues’ articles. Our methods are based on the refinement of disciplinary developments. Even so-called “groundbreaking” projects are incremental in nature if you scrutinize the details. Still, we have an idea that “something unheard of before” is ideal.

Research needs to be solid

My research is creative in both form and content. As such, many people think that my projects are novel in the sense of being new. I also work both multi- and interdisciplinary, which means that I don’t really fit well anywhere. That could also be considered novel in the sense of being unusual. Still, what I am doing is not particularly new or unusual. From my perspective, I am working incrementally—everything I am doing builds on other people’s work. True, I combine theories and methods from different fields. This makes it look novel.

I can illustrate this with a research project I just finished: MICRO. Over the last years, we have studied human music-related micromotion, the smallest actions it is possible to produce and perceive. This is new because no one has studied such motion in a musical context before. It is also unusual because the team comprised researchers from musicology, psychology, human movement science, and computer science.

The MICRO project can be considered novel. However, does that mean that everything we did in the project was novel? Some parts were, I guess. For example, we collected data by running the Norwegian Championship of Standstill annually. This was new and unusual the first time we did it. We even got quite a lot of media interest (it is not so often that music research is featured in the sports news on national TV).

However, collecting data once does not make for outstanding science. Research is about asking questions, finding answers, and verifying those answers. Repeating experiments, making slight modifications to the research design, improving the methods, refining the analyses. That is what solid research is about.

I have researched human music-related micromotion for nearly ten years now. We have some answers, but there are many open questions. Many of these questions are neither new nor unusual any longer. But if we want to understand more about what is actually going on inside our bodies when we experience music, we need to continue researching what is not any longer new and unusual. That is about doing solid research, not novel.

Open Research is better research

I believe that open research is better research. Opening the research process makes researchers think more carefully about what they do and how they document it. This takes (some) more time than working closed. But it also makes it easier for others to understand what has been done. This is important from a peer review perspective. It also facilitates incremental research.

The MICRO project has been an open research flagship project. I began by sharing the funding application openly. Throughout the project, we have continuously described how we have worked. The data has been released in the Oslo Standstill Database, and source code has been shared on GitHub. All of this has taken time “away” from publishing journal articles. However, it is time for researchers to publish fewer articles and focus more on making more data, code, etc., available.

Opening the research process is part of solidifying the research. As researchers, we cannot hide behind a “black box” any longer. Everyone can scrutinize what we have done. In fact, I hope that more people will analyze our data and develop our code. That is part of the incremental nature of science.

Summing up

I am not against novel research. However, I think we have gotten to a point where there is too much focus on novelty. If you are applying for a large research grant, it may make sense to doing something new. But it must be possible to submit a presentation to a conference or a manuscript to a journal based on plain, solid research. That may, in fact, be novel in itself! Hopefully, the transition to open research may actually help to focus more on solidity instead of novelty.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.