Lost Art of Discovery

Science is all about discovery–the discovery of the atom, of penicillin, and of the planets in the solar system. The organizational and social sciences have discoveries too, such as the discovery that rewards encourage behavior, that goal setting increases motivation, and that psychological tests can predict job performance. In the paper The Lost Art of Discovery I talk about how these sciences have become so focused on theory, that they have all but abandoned the tradition of discovery.

The Nature of Scientific Inference

There are three forms of inference in science: Induction, Abduction, and Deduction. Induction is about exploration–finding interesting patterns and relationships among phenomena. This could involve experimenting to see if certain practices might have desired effects, a process Edison used to invent the incandescent light bulb. It also could involve systematic observations to see how variables relate. Abduction is about explanation–coming up with potential reasons for observed patterns. Such explanations can become theories that describe the mechanisms underlying phenomena. Deduction is about testing hypotheses and theories to see if they can be confirmed. Will a study be able to find that predictions based on theory are correct?

These three forms of inference are equally important in a healthy science. Induction is what leads to discovery of important phenomena, for example, that mold will kill bacteria. The basis of science is this art of discovery–the scientist conducting research and noticing interesting connections. Abduction is vitally important as it concerns the development of theories that explain phenomena and synthesize results. But coming up with a theoretical explanation for results of exploratory studies is incomplete until it is rigorously tested. This is the domain of deduction where predictions are made based on theory to see if that theory can be confirmed.

Have Organizational Sciences Lost Discovery?

Since the 1980s the organizational and related social sciences have moved so much in a theoretical direction that major journals are reluctant to publish papers that are inductive rather than deductive. The introductions of most, if not all papers in major journals contains hypotheses that are deductively tested. It is difficult to find a truly exploratory study that offers new insights into important questions. This has produced a distorted science in which discovery is downplayed and undervalued. It has undoubtedly contributed to a breakdown in research integrity as researchers must present their findings as deductive even when they were not. But there is reason to be optimistic that things are changing. The Academy of Management launched AOM Discoveries that publishes papers that take an exploratory and explanatory approach, and some journals (e.g., Journal of Business and Psychology and Occupational Health Science ) are open to publishing such papers. Hopefully these and other journals will lead us to a rediscovery of discovery.

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