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We have hundreds of questions tagged , and many of them lie unanswered. The reason several seem to be unanswered is due to the fact that there are simply no studies or past research on the topic the question asks about. In these cases, how can an answer be appropriately framed to convey to the asker that no studies exist?

Saying simply that

No past research on this topic exists, so the answer to your question is unknown.

seems quite blunt and unhelpful. Are there any more useful ways to write an answer like this or is this the best option?

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It is hard to impossible to prove that something does not exist, but it is possible to report that certain searches did not lead to relevant results.

For this reason, my suggestion is to list paper databases, sites of academic publishers etc where no relevant research could be found. Ideally, a helpful answer would not only list relevant databases or sites that were queried, but also one or more example queries. This makes the "findings" reproducible for the OP and other users. The example search terms or queries may help other users (especially those who know the field better) find out why nothing relevant was found.

Without this type of information, it is hard to judge whether sufficient research has been done to justify the claim that "no past research on this topic exists", unless there is a recent publication or literature review that has come to the same conclusion.

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The example you provided is indeed blunt and not likely to be of further value to any future visitors to that particular question. In the case that no studies exist, I propose including the following information in the answer:

  • A list of the sources checked for research pertaining to the question
  • Related studies that may provide a helpful perspective on the question while not directly answering it
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If the answer is literally that no answer exists, then not providing an answer is probably the best course of action. Future research may be done, allowing a suitable answer at a later time.

If information that is tangentially relevant, but doesn't directly answer the question, is available, then answering accordingly makes sense.

"I could find no directly relevant information about ___, however, Dr. ____ has done some research in a related field published at _____, that may provide insight."

Even answering "I've spent days searching _, _ and ___ databases, and found nothing" isn't a very useful answer. It's probably more comment material, IMO.

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