Agile research

Michael Twidale and Preben Hansen at First Monday: “Most of us struggle when starting a new research project, even if we have considerable prior experience. It is a new topic and we are unsure about what to do, how to do it and what it all means. We may not have reflected much on our research process. Furthermore the way that research is described in the literature can be rather disheartening. Those papers describe what seems to be a nice, clear, linear, logical, even inevitable progression through a series of stages. It seems like proper researchers carefully plan everything out in advance and then execute that plan. How very different from the mess, the bewilderment, the false starts, the dead ends, the reversions and changes that we make along the way. Are we just doing research wrong? If it feels like that to established researchers with decades of experience and a nice publication record, how much worse must it feel to a new researcher, such as a Ph.D. student? If they are lucky they may have a good mentoring experience, effectively serving an apprenticeship with a wise and nurturing adviser in a supportive group of fellow researchers. Even so, it can be all too easy to feel like an imposter who must be doing it all wrong because what you are doing is not at all like what you read about what others are doing.

In the light of these confusions, fears, doubts and mismatches with what you experience while doing research and what you think is the right and proper way as alluded to in all the papers you read, we want to explore ideas around a title, or at least a provocative metaphor of “agile research”. We want to ask the question: “how might we take the ideas, the methods and the underlying philosophy behind agile software development and explore how these might be applied in the context of doing research?” This paper is not about sharing a set of methods that we have developed but more about provoking a discussion about the issue: What might agile research be like? How might it work? When might it be useful? When might it be problematic? Is it worth trying? Are people doing it already?

We are not claiming that this idea is wholly new. Many people have been using small scale rapid iterative methods within the research process for a long time. Rather we think that it can be useful to consider all these and other possible methods in the light of the successful deployment of agile software development processes, and to contrast them with more conventional research processes that rely more on careful advance planning. That is not to say that the latter methods are bad, just that other methods that might be characterized as more agile can be useful in particular circumstances.

We believe that it is worth exploring this idea as a way of addressing the problems that arise in trying to do a new research project, especially where an exploratory approach is useful. This could be in a domain that is new to the researcher, or where the domain is new in some way, such as involving new use contexts, new ways of interacting, new technologies, novel technology combinations, or new appropriations of existing technologies. We suspect this may be especially useful in helping new researchers such as PhD students get a better understanding of the research process in a less daunting manner. This work builds on prior thinking about how agile may be applied in university teaching and administration (Twidale and Nichols, 2013)….(More)”.