Fail Club: Reflections on What Happens When Research Does Not Go To Plan

Fail Club: Reflections on What Happens When Research Does Not Go To Plan

Rebekah Willson, Emma Nicol, Heidi Julien, Devon Greyson, Lisa M. Given

Failure in research remains a taboo topic for many academics and students. The pressure to be the perfect researcher can make discussing failure with peers and mentors extremely difficult, if not impossible. Academic publishing – not unreasonably – tends to favor the publication of “successful” research. The resulting culture of silence around failure often extends beyond complete failures, leading to the avoidance of discussing what did not go well or what could have gone better in any meaningful way. What opportunities are being missed by not having conversations about failure? 

In some fields in the natural sciences, journals dedicated to negative results have emerged as partial solutions to the bias against “insignificant” studies or findings. In information science, by contrast, how we deal with failure in research (or scientifically-accurate but disappointingly unremarkable findings) remains a largely underexplored topic. Where failure has been written about in information science, the focus has been more on retractions, such as studies of the retraction of published work when errors in research or instances of fraud have been revealed post-publication. There remains a lack of exploration where authors have felt able or been enabled to be open about their experiences of failure in research across all stages of the work.

—What opportunities are being missed by not having conversations about failure? —

The first rule of Fail Club is to talk about Fail Club. In order to change how we address failure, we first have to talk about failure, including making ourselves vulnerable and having open conversations. As a step towards this, we held a panel session at the ASIS&T 2023 Annual Meeting. We asked participants to consider several questions, focused mainly around “How do we deal with failure?” Our purpose was to make a space for conversations, where those involved in research in information science might begin to find ways of making failure something that can be more openly discussed, published, and learned from. We had fruitful conversations and wanted to both report on many of the points raised in group discussions, as well as to make recommendations for how we as a field could continue these conversations.

How should we frame discussions of failure with mentees and students? Emerging from the group discussing mentorship were the mentor’s role in normalizing failure, including the need to be approachable regarding such discussions and in providing a space for the conversation to happen. Also, discussed was the need for mentors to provide a tailored approach to discussions about failure for each individual: there might be cultural or other reasons why a different approach might be required. The importance of dealing well with the first time of failure for the mentee emerged as a crucial element. 

How do we address failure in collaborations, particularly with partners from practice and industry? The discussion on failure in research collaborations discussed breakdowns in trust and respect and situations where research integrity has been compromised including instances of plagiarism when writing collaboratively. Other such failures of trust and respect involved collaborators not being acknowledged for their work by for example author credits, by which  PhD students might be particularly affected.

How should failed research be addressed in the published literature? The discussion on publishing included the need to understand that a bad review is not an indicator of your worth and understanding the flaws of the peer review process. There were also discussions about the need to ensure that a journal is the right place for your work, the need to choose the right “playing field,” understand the rules of the game before playing it, and realize that the rules might sometimes be contradictory. There were also discussions about the power of adding your failures/challenges to papers, showing your mistakes might save others from making them.There was an acknowledgement though that it might be difficult to know how to do this well, including “I planned; I actually did; I should’ve done;” can help others thinking about the process of research.

How do we address failure in our planning and execution of research projects? The discussion on methods focused on the need to openly talk about methods and make it clear what actually took place. Part of this includes publishing protocols and research designs, which can be difficult as findings are often privileged over methods. It also includes discussing outliers and unexpected results, which may require reframing our thinking about these results as points of interest rather than failures. The discussion included the benefits of using methodologies and methods when developing research studies that encourage openness and flexibility to respond to challenges and failures. This was noted particularly for students. Preparing students for the experience of research – including the inevitable failures – are important, as well as the need to help them to plan ahead for the challenges and how they will respond. The importance of personal ownership of failure was highlighted, including reflecting on what needs to change in the future. However, the culture of silence around expressing failure and – as the publishing group noted – being unable to publish methodological failures makes cultural change difficult. 

The conversations we had demonstrated both that there is a recognition that it is important to talk about failure, as well as that these conversations are not easy. However, we miss out on a lot when we do not talk about failure. We need a cultural shift to discuss research process, which recognizes the role of failure, and that can help to encourage new ideas and methods, as well as to train new researchers in information science. 

As part of our panel, we gave out stickers that read “Failure Club” and attendees placed them on their conference badges. This led to questions of “What is Failure Club” and interesting conversations at coffee breaks. We were excited to hear that CHI 2024 had ribbons that read “Rejected Author” (as seen here) that could be attached to conference badges. We hope that these are small signs of larger changes. But most importantly, the first  rule of Fail Club is to talk about Fail Club. 

Cite this article in APA as: Willson, R., Nicol, E., Julien, H., Greyson, D., & Given, L. M. Fail club: reflections on what happens when research does not go to plan. (2024, June 11). Information Matters, Vol. 4, Issue 6.


  • Rebekah Willson
  • Emma Nicol
  • Lisa M. Given

    Lisa M. Given, PhD, is Director, Social Change Enabling Capability Platform, and a Professor of Information Sciences at RMIT University (Melbourne). Her interdisciplinary research in human information behaviour brings a critical, social research lens to studies of technology use and user-focused design. Her studies embed social change, focusing on diverse settings and populations, and methodological innovations across disciplines. A former President of the Association for Information Science and Technology, Prof Given has served on the Australian Research Council’s (ARC’s) College of Experts. She holds numerous grants funded by ARC, Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, working with university and community partners across disciplines. She is lead author of the forthcoming 5th edition of Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs and Behaviour, co-authored with Donald O. Case and Rebekah Willson.

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  • Heidi Julien

    Heidi Julien, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Information Science at the University at Buffalo.

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