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Before asking, it's probably better that I give some background first. I do research on thin films for solar energy applications. A part of that job is to search for new materials that may be suitable for these applications. Basically, I'm somewhat of a glorified (unglorified maybe?) treasure hunter at times.

So, let's say I found a novel material for this application. Let's even assume that I've found a method to synthesize it and turn it into a device. The question is, when do you know to stop and tell the research community about this work? In this particular example, one can set a target efficiency and keep going until they reach it. Suppose that's never achieved though. Does one decide to try a different method until they reach the target or explore the subset of variables deemed important with the current method? If the latter, which variables and how many of them? I don't expect answers to these questions specifically, but rather ask the general question of how one defines a scope when doing such exploratory work.

  • I edited the question to remove the secondary part about terminology. Please feel free to ask it as a separate question -- you can find the text in the edit history. – David Richerby Jun 29 '15 at 7:02
  • @DavidRicherby: Note that if you edit a question from the close review queue, you remove it from that queue. If you are confident that your edit solves all the question’s problems (as yours did), this is the preferrable thing to do. – Wrzlprmft Jun 29 '15 at 7:37
  • @Wrzlprmft Are you sure about that? It's still marked as having one close vote. Does that just mean that it's been removed from the queue (in the sense that people who go to the review page won't see it listed) without annulling the vote? – David Richerby Jun 29 '15 at 7:47
  • @DavidRicherby: Yes, see here. And yes, it’s just removed from the queue. Close votes are never annulled by anything happening in the queue, they can only age away. Note however, that you did not edit from the queue. – Wrzlprmft Jun 29 '15 at 7:51
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A good bit of my own research falls into something like your "exploratory" category, and I think my own approach to it would best be described as "publish early and often."

My basic feeling is as follows: if you're doing good work, why hide that work from your community while saving up for the "big paper"? Every time you hit an interesting and significant milestone, it's worth considering whether to put it into a paper---that way you can get feedback, others in your community who are interested can learn about what's working and what's not working in that direction of investigation, they can start getting interested in your work and start collaborating and citing you, and you also never have to worry about being scooped.

In computer science, where I work, such a strategy is well-supported by the range of peer-reviewed publication opportunities. Small and preliminary results go into workshops, larger ones to conferences, longer-term "archival" work to journals. It's also nice that the workshops and conferences turn up on a regular basis with fixed deadlines, so I can look at the state of my work and ask: "Do I currently have chunk of new work of appropriate size for this publication opportunity?" Journal special issues are great for this purpose as well---just submitting generically to a journal is far to easy to let slip back one month at a time while you wait for "just this one more thing." I don't know if your field also has meaningful peer reviewed conferences, but I have noticed that in those fields without such, there is a generally some equivalent in journals, ranging from more narrow-community journals that may be receptive to smaller steps to high-impact "big hit" journals.

Now, if you're in a field that worships the impact factor or if you're trying to get patents or build a company, then you may want to save up your big hits instead. I have been fortunate enough to be in fields / sub-fields that appreciate publications evidencing a research program, and I find that to be a useful and collegial way to behave.

  • I see. So, you don't set milestones (i guess what i would call defining the scope) prior to engaging in research, but rather you have a broad objective and just keep going towards that until you secure more pieces of the puzzle that are suitable for publication in the "lower" impact venues in your field. Then if you have enough pieces you put them together for a "larger" impact venues. Does that sound about right? – Zeruff Jun 29 '15 at 9:19
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In addition to points made by @jakebeal, I would say that the scope of exploratory research, to a significant degree, is defined by constraints that researchers or their organizations face. Theoretically, under ideal imaginary conditions, one could perform exploratory research "forever" (given that their research interest in the topic is still there). However, practically, in real life, researchers and research entities face all kinds of constraints: from time and money limits to predefined scope for grants and practical physical limits of methods, experiments, equipment or people. After hitting one or more of such constraints, sooner or later it makes sense to consider some action, such as getting an advice, sharing preliminary results through publication or, even, a complete pivot. Therefore, in my opinion, the scope of exploratory research is mostly defined by the balance between intensity of research interests and constraints of researchers & research itself.

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    That brings up another point, Aleksandr. I especially feel those constraints you mentioned when I finally go to write about my work. I find myself in an awkward position because i feel i have to justify why i chose certain variables over others when in reality it was due to a constraint out of my control. In that situation, I end up just saying what I did and not why i did it, which leaves me feeling... weird. Do you experience that and if so how do you work around it? – Zeruff Jun 29 '15 at 9:35
  • @Zeruff: Well, indeed I have experienced similar situations in my dissertation research. I addressed those by providing a specific section in my dissertation report, which in my school was a required component of the report. AFAIK, it is a rather standard section for research reports and is usually referred to as "Assumptions, limitations and delimitations". While "assumptions" term is self-explanatory, limitations refer to constraints that are out of researcher's control, whereas delimitations refer to ones that a researcher has control over and establishes to limit the scope of a study. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 29 '15 at 9:48

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