Research Methods for Information Research

7. Beyond research methods

7.11 Researchers, research information and research methods

Some time ago we conducted a national investigation of the training of academic researchers in research information methodologies and tools. This work covered all UK universities and a cluster of other higher education institutions and involved a combination of interviews, questionnaires, case studies and a research workshop. Since the starting point was that all postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers should be benefiting from a national training initiative focused on generic research skills and knowledge, including research information skills and knowledge, the obvious first question is ‘What do we mean by research information?’

The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. If you talked (as we did) to the organisers of the central research methods training programmes now offered by many universities, they tended to identify a set of information gathering, processing, presentation and management competencies needed by the researcher at various stages in their path to complete the next stage in their research career. It was assumed that, depending upon the stage of the research, attention was likely to be needed to systematic literature searching, critical appraisal of previous research findings, research data collection, management, statistical analysis and interpretation, writing research reports and papers for publication, or presenting findings at conferences. The training programmes tended to reflect these assumptions by offering sessions on these topics or variations on them.

If you talk to library service managers (as we again did), most are concentrating what they deliver on aspects of information-seeking and information storage, with heavy emphasis on tools such as RefWorks or EndNote. However, many of the library-based providers are recognising a need to do more on critical evaluation of published research and on the management of information as a researcher. Some library managers are also more or less active in developing e-learning support for researchers to supplement their training sessions or are planning to strengthen their provision by developing blended learning approaches to combine the strengths off face-to-face and e-learning. Meanwhile, nearly all academic libraries offer one-to-one advice and support for researchers on any aspect of information literacy.

If you talk to the researchers about research information (which we also did) their answers depend upon their subject of study and their prior experience. Not unnaturally, the scientists who responded tended to focus fairly narrowly on obtaining research papers within their specialism, on statistical working of their own research data and on writing research papers. By contrast, the social scientists were likely to draw upon a wide range of materials covering a range of disciplines, which might include access to research papers, databases and large data sets, and even blogs and wikis. For some of the arts researchers, their creative work was the research product and their needs were likely include visual information-seeking.

What was apparent across the board is that research information needs are changing, and not only for the scientific researchers who might be seen as most likely to capitalise on developments in electronic communications. How much change is likely within humanities research was demonstrated in the preface to a recent book on eighteenth century history45 whose author, Robert Shoemaker, stressed that:

“The extent of the research conducted for this book would not have been possible before the information technology revolution, which has made it possible rapidly to search vast bodies of primary sources for relevant material.”

He went on to cite the electronic version of the Eighteenth century short title catalogue and the digital catalogues of the manuscript collections of the British Library. He drew attention to the “complete digital editions of printed primary sources that are now being created”, pointing out that “once it becomes possible to search an entire collection of sources by keyword or character string you can find virtually every piece of relevant evidence … virtually instantaneously.” But, as Shoemaker added “One does need to know what keywords to search for … and how to use wild cards and Boolean operators to include variant spellings.”

One neglected group of researchers identified in this investigation, and one which is now (since Autumn 2007) being included in the central research methods training provision in universities, is the teaching staff of the universities in their research role. Not only are teaching staff often assumed to have all the research skills that they might need but they are expected to give guidance to the research students that they supervise. Some academic staff report difficulties until now in taking advantage of whatever training is on offer because it has not usually been targeted towards them. This can lead to training being offered at too low a level but some people also report that they fear being seen as deficient if they seek help or that they are challenged with ‘creating a precedents’ by asking to participate in training.

Are the teaching staff employed in university departments of library and information studies an exception to this rule? There are certainly some very able researchers around in UK universities but there have also been critical comments made by representatives of the Research Councils about unimaginative research proposals emanating from the LIS field. Imagination in research is not, of course, just about research methods, but there does appear to be ample scope for more challenging and innovative approaches to LIS research.

The underlying assumption from almost all of the library staff interviewed in this project is that academic libraries should be doing more to support postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, including academic staff as researchers. But how can this support be extended in the direction of more effective training, when this requires a more integrated approach to overall training in research methods, including joint planning and delivery of sessions involving central training staff and library staff? There are barriers to be surmounted for library staff in enhancing their own training skills, finding ways to increase their understanding of the world of research by connecting them more closely to research and researchers and, at the same time, keeping up with the latest advances in electronic research tools. There is a whole new research project here!

45. Shoemaker, R. The London mob: violence and disorder in eighteenth century England London: Hambledon and Loudon 2004