Research Artifact—Real or Not? Only the Discussion Can Tell Us for Sure

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In a fascinating use of words, the same word “artifact” has a home in the language of the arts and in the sciences. In the language of the arts, artifact refers to a relic—typically valued—of another era. In the sciences, artifact is an observation that may only occur because of something that we as the researchers did in the research itself. Research artifact means that what we observed in our study is not usually present; so instead of giving information about the process or variable, we are studying, the research artifact or atypical occurrence gives us information about the study design or the study method or the study team. Thus, we are not discovering more knowledge about what we are seeking to study or what naturally derives from nature or our care systems, but about our “workmanship.” In this regard, some might consider the research artifact that results from our study manipulations or actions as a mistake and thus not real—and in the classic sense of scientific control, well it might be given the label of “mistake” and description of “not real.” But a research artifact—just like a mistake—can be quite instructive in all of the sciences. If made and analyzed, the research artifact can be an invaluable teacher for us.
In the basic sciences, when a surprise finding emerges, the wise counsel is to repeat, repeat, and repeat yet again the same study methods under the same conditions to see if the unexpected outcome continues to result. In the social sciences, we use feasibility and pilot studies to see if we can separate and distinguish research artifact from reality. Because many of our studies and all of our clinical care situations deal directly with complex humans experiencing complicated health conditions, our ability to separate research artifact from reality is challenging. We are not as able to “repeat, repeat, repeat” many of our study designs without notable financial, human, and time investments. As members of the editorial board, we understand this limitation for the social sciences. How then do we identify the research artifact and learn from it?
We must see the research artifact for what it is at its best—a remarkable one-of-a-kind learning opportunity. We may not be sure if a finding is artifact, but approaching it as if it could be would provide a chance to reflect, dissect, analyze, and reconsider. This is really what the “Discussion” section is in a manuscript—a chance to reflect, dissect, analyze, and reconsider. Too often we use that section to repeat and support our findings as if to persuade readers as to the veracity of the findings. This is not a wrong use of the Discussion section, but it leaves the reader without the one-of-a-kind chance to think at least twice about a finding—to join with the author/s in pondering what is real, what is chance, and what could be the meaning behind what is real if only by chance. Analyzing our research artifacts—or mistakes—is a scholarly effort with practical outcomes that include helping to prevent others and ourselves from producing the same research artifact in the future. The Discussion section is where the scientist scholar challenges his/her findings; this is where the scientist scholar dissects what is validated and repeatable (or not) with crystal clarity and helps the rest of us to know what is verifiable and real.
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