By Ryan Leach
How theory-centered does scientific research need to be in order to provide useful information? Should the selection of a theory always precede the collection of data, or can the data sometimes be used to develop a new theory? These questions formed the crux of an educational session at the 2013 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition, in which Linda Behar-Horenstein, M.A., Ph.D., presented her study on the use of theory in Journal of Dental Education (JDE) articles over the past decade. In response to her findings, past and present JDE Editors, L. Jackson Brown, D.D.S., M.Phil., Ph.D.; Nadeem Karimbux, D.M.D., M.M.Sc.; and Marita Inglehart, Ph.D., expressed appreciation for Dr. Behar-Horenstein’s work and evaluated its applicability to the greater mission of the JDE.
According to Dr. Behar-Horenstein’s presentation, very few JDE article authors describe the use of a specific theory for their research, and those that do are often methodologically flawed. The lack of a clearly stated theoretical perspective can lead to “implicit and/or erroneous assumptions.” Therefore, Dr. Behar-Horenstein believes that the author has an obligation to be transparent about the theory underlying the study. She claims that studies without a theoretical basis, or those based on theoretical “hunches,” have a limited impact on the overlapping fields of education and research. If the articles in the JDE lack a theoretical center, how might this affect its reputation as a journal dedicated to the scholarship of teaching and learning?
After Dr. Behar-Horenstein presented her study, three past and present JDE Editors responded to the criticisms with presentations of their own. Drs. Brown and Karimbux emphasized the difficulty of applying Dr. Behar-Horenstein’s criteria to a broad range of material that is marketed to a global audience. According to Dr. Brown, the criteria are primarily relevant to hypothesis testing research and thus are not applicable to all of the material published in the JDE. In addition, theory-centered research is often incomprehensible to those with little or no prior knowledge of the utilized theories; therefore, it is extremely important, and oftentimes difficult, for an interdisciplinary journal to clearly define the theoretical concepts that form the basis of each article. Without such clear definition, theory can be a divisive force, alienating those outside of its respective discipline.
Dr. Inglehart approached the study from a completely different angle. Instead of focusing on the applicability of Dr. Behar-Horenstein’s criteria to the JDE, she questioned the validity of the criteria itself. The research problem of the study asks, “What evidence suggests that educational research papers published in JDE promote the generation or a verification of theory to guide practice and research …?” Borrowing from Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, Dr. Inglehart expressed a distrust of theory verification and the belief in an absolute truth, and instead insisted on the necessity of continually generating and testing new theories—theories that cannot be verified yet still serve to expand our knowledge. In addition, Dr. Inglehart defended articles entirely devoid of theory by emphasizing her emotional response to reading the JDE and the value of raising an issue and disseminating preliminary data—even before a theory has been developed—in order to immediately initiate thought on the subject.
Although the session ended before a general consensus on all of the issues, the presenters did manage to agree that there is value to be found in both action/exploratory and theory-based research, as well as in each other’s perspectives.