Monday, 17 March 2014

Back to the iFuture (by J.E.A. Wallace)

Those of you who were around last year may remember iFutures. For those who need a reminder, however, iFutures is a one-day conference for PhD researchers in the information science community, organised by students in the Information School at the University of Sheffield. Last year, the conference was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University’s Information Studies department, but this time around, we’re looking into the theme of "Research into Practice".

The plan is to interpret this theme in two ways. The first is to try and provide an opportunity for students to introduce their work and the ways in which it can potentially impact on society; while the second is to offer a forum for discussions about the practical steps young researchers can take to maximise the impact of their work, and to engage effectively with the world beyond academia.

To support this second strand we plan to run two parallel interactive workshops. 
  1. "Research Beyond Academia" (led by Sheila Webber) - will look at how to engage with industry as part of the research process, with a focus on how to identify research questions that are relevant and interesting to non-academic institutions, how to determine appropriate potential non-academic partners for grant proposals, and how to approach them and "sell" your new research ideas. 
  2. "Disseminating your Research to Maximise Impact" (led by Dr. Paul Clough) - will explore interesting and innovative ways in which "new" researchers can disseminate their research beyond academia, and what strategies we can use to maximise the impact of our research on practice. 
I will be focussing on these workshops in the Researcher’s Discussion Group. Their format has not yet been fully decided, and the committee is interested in your views as to the sort of issues you would like to see covered.

As for the rest of the schedule, the programme will include keynote talks by two distinguished speakers - David Bawden (Professor of Information Science, City University) and Mounia Lalmas (Principal Research Scientist, Yahoo! Labs). There will also be papers presented by PhD students, and a lunchtime poster session. Finally the programme includes a repeat of last year's highly successful Pecha Kucha session. While nerve-wracking for presenters (just ask Dan and Simon), we hope the unconventional format (twenty slides each displayed for twenty seconds) will both entertain and stimulate discussion.
We welcome submissions from doctoral students at any stage of their research, and full details of the submissions process can be found on our site,

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

What do we want? Inductive models! When do we want them? When we have an evidence base!

After a researchers' discussion, I usually adjourn to the pub with others from the group.  Following the last meeting however, I rushed off to a talk by the Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England.

I sat next to a Chinese PhD student who introduced himself and asked my name.  "Andrew" I said. He looked at the ticket he was holding.  "Ah!" he replied, "The same as the speaker.  An important name."

We had come to hear Andrew Haldane in conversation.  The academic conversing with him was introduced as Professor Andrew Gamble.  "No" I observed, "just common".

Andrew Haldane may have a commonplace name, but for someone embedded at the core of the establishment, his views are not commonplace.  He has attracted attention in the past for speaking in favour of the Occupy Movement.  In the course of his conversation with Professor Gamble, he criticized economists' over-reliance on deductive models and expressed the view that greater efforts should be made to develop more pragmatic inductive models.  

Amongst the questions asked by members of the audience was one from an economics student at Sheffield University.  She bemoaned the fact that she was learning the type of model that Haldane had criticized.  What, she asked, should she and her fellow students do about it?  "Protest!" was his succinct response.

Haldane’s objection to many of the standard economic models was that they were devised to evaluate risk rather than to address uncertainties.  The difference, explained Prof Gamble, was the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns.  Risk analysis identifies a spectrum of outcomes and assigns probabilities to each, then uses those probabilities to help prioritise actions. So for example, if an unbiased coin is tossed, probabilities can be assigned to whether it will, on coming to earth, be seen to display heads or tails.  If it falls down a crack in the floor, those calculations become invalid.  

Although the probability of a coin disappearing in this way is small, there are numerous other improbable things that could happen to the coin, each of which could affect knowledge of whether it displays heads or tails (or lands on its edge!).  There is a high probability therefore, that at least one improbable event will occur, with an impact that has not been considered in the risk analysis.

Because deductive models tend to focus on known unknowns, these get over-emphasised.  By contrast, pragmatic models based on rules of thumb, implicitly adjust for the accumulated improbables.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Post-viva questionnaire - responses from Angharad Roberts

What is the title of your thesis?
Conceptualising the library collection for the digital world: a case study of social enterprise

Can you provide an abstract (for inclusion in this blog)?
This collaborative research project, supported by the British Library, used a case study of the library collection for social enterprise to develop a conceptual approach to the library collection in the digital world, exploring stakeholder perceptions of collections, terminology and collection development and management processes. A mixed-methods multiphase case study design was used to address the research questions. Three strands of data collection are described: a case study of the British Library’s collections and content for social enterprise, searches for relevant material on 88 publicly accessible UK library catalogues, and an exploratory sequential study involving stakeholder interviews (19 interviews with 18 people) followed by two surveys of a larger stakeholder population (149 completed responses in total). Findings from each strand are described and three core concepts of collection are identified: “collection-as-thing”, “collection-as-process” and “collection-as-access”. Conventional views of library collections may tend to focus more on the idea of “collection-as-thing”; this research emphasises the importance of taking a more dynamic view of collection. Three models of collection are described: a revised collection development hierarchy which suggests links to different levels of strategic management; a model of interrelationships between the three concepts of collection; and a model which examines how collection adds value to content by providing context. This research demonstrates that the concept of collection remains highly relevant in the digital world, although the onus is on libraries to embrace all dimensions of these three concepts of collection if they wish to add maximum value to the content they identify, select, hold, make accessible and to which they connect.

How long did you spend preparing for your viva?
I re-read my thesis over the course of a week or so before, and dipped into some chapters again (methodology, discussion and conclusion) on my way to the viva. I also met with my supervisor a couple of days before the viva to talk about it, which was very helpful.

How long did your viva take?
2 hours, followed by fifteen minutes waiting for the examiners to call me back in to give their decision.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I spent quite a bit of time in the days and weeks preceding the viva scaring myself by imagining really tough questions! It's useful to think through possible answers to broad general questions which are highly likely to be asked (such as "why this topic?" or "why this methodology?"). However, you can never prepare for every question, and spending time dwelling on very specific and unlikely possible questions can take time away from more useful forms of preparation (such as re-reading the thesis).

Did the examiners concentrate on any particular section of your thesis? If so, which?
We mainly discussed the literature review, methodology and discussion chapters, with some discussion of practical recommendations and recommendations for future research from the conclusion.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were pleased with your performance?
Early on I was asked about whether any of the strands in my methodology were weaker than others. I was candid about the limitations of one of my strands and that was received well by the examiners.

What was it you did that pleased you?
That strongly reinforced the idea that the viva is about being honest, reflective and critical about your own work, rather than being about “dressing things up” or trying to show everything in a positive light.

Can you describe any part of your viva where you were dissatisfied with your performance?
I was asked about whether I agreed with a specific quotation which I had included in my literature review. I floundered a bit when trying to answer, and I think my perspective changed quite a bit following the exchange with the examiners.

Please give an example of a question that you found hard.
I was asked about the order of concepts in a revised collection development hierarchy which I had developed.

Why was it hard?
I needed to think about my model in quite an abstract way.

What was the outcome of your viva?
Passed subject to minor corrections.

Please give some examples of the sort of corrections you need to make (if any).
Clarification of my use of the word “for” in the phrase “library collection for social enterprise” from my research aims and objectives.

Minor adjustments to one of my conceptual diagrams.

Corrections to typos, formatting (eg avoiding splitting tables over multiple pages).

Do you have any tips for looking and feeling confident in front of the examiners?
Wear smart comfortable clothes. Try to get a good night’s sleep the day before.

Can you think of any good advice that you would give to students who are preparing for their viva?
  • Try to meet your supervisor in the run up to your viva to talk over any issues and for reassurance.
  • You can ask your supervisor to sit in as an observer. I did and found it helpful to have someone else’s perspective on how things had gone.
  • If you submitted an electronic copy of the thesis on CD, you can go and collect it from Research and Innovation Services straight after the viva.
  • Have something nice to look forward to. I didn’t get a holiday last summer so a long weekend away after the viva was just what I needed.
After the viva
Bear in mind that the viva is only a part of a longer process (although obviously it’s an absolutely vital part of that process!) First you submit the thesis for examination, then you have the viva, then you are likely to need to make corrections and your internal examiner needs to confirm whether the corrections made are acceptable. Finally you submit the library copy of the approved amended thesis and, if you started your course after 2008, upload the final version to White Rose eTheses. Completion of each of these stages inspires varying degrees of euphoria!

The following point doesn’t quite relate to the question above (about preparing for the viva), but prior to submission it is worth thinking about the practicalities of how you will get your thesis printed and bound. It does cost quite a lot to get this all done by Print and Design Solutions. For the initial submission I printed two copies (for the examiners) and only went to Print and Design Solutions to get them bound. For my final submission, I got Print and Design Solutions to print and bind three copies – one for the University Library, one for an organisation which supported my research and one for myself.

It's also useful to be aware that you may not receive any formal communication following the viva - my internal examiner emailed me the list of minor corrections. Once the University Library copy of the final thesis had been submitted, I was sent copies of the more detailed examiners' reports, which were really interesting and helpful to read.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The problem of identifying research with impact

The deadline for submissions to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) from UK higher education institutions passed on 29 November 2013.  Academics around the country breathed a big sigh of relief and returned to normal life (i.e., preparing for the next exercise in research evaluation).

Research evaluations of this sort began in the UK in 1986 and play a major part in the allocation of research funds.  Up until the REF they relied very heavily on citations (eg, Norris & Oppenheim, 2003).  When the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was replaced with REF, the new evaluation attempted to shift the emphasis away from citations to other forms of impact.

The obvious advantage of citation-based measures of impact is that they are relatively simple to calculate and to organise, making comparisons possible.  Amongst the disadvantages is the fact that publications that are highly cited in the few years following their publication are often cited because they are convenient summaries of existing research and say little that is original.  Conversely, truly ground-breaking ideas often have no detectable impact in their first few years because their implications are not understood.

A classic example of such a case is that of Gregor Mendel's paper on hybridisation, which is generally regarded as laying the foundation for genetics.  It was published in 1865 but remained almost uncited throughout the remainder of the century ("about three times" according to Wikipedia 06/01/14, and twice according to Google Scholar).

Boris Belousov suffered similar lack of recognition but took it more to heart.  He tried for several years throughout the 1950s to publish a description of an interesting reaction he had observed, but reviewers considered it to be impossible.  It is now recognised as a discovery which forced "a change of perspective and emphasis". (Winfree, 1984)

Winfree, Arthur T. (1984), The Prehistory of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky Oscillator, Journalof Chemical Education 61(8) 661-663.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Summoning of demons: an inappropriate response to criticism

Life sometimes gets in the way of blogging, so I haven't written anything here for a while.  The last entry (by Mary Anne Kennan) discussed the assumptions that underpin research methodologies.  The group discussion that followed its publication touched on some of the problems that arise when such assumptions are not properly examined.  One example that I proffered was the issue of research undertaken according to one methodology being assessed by reviewers following a different methodology.

A few months ago I published a blog entry in which I included some reviews of a paper that was subsequently published. The research being reported on was interpretivist, but it was reviewed as though it were positivist.  Consequently, the reviews were hostile.

Amongst the things that have got in the way of blogging recently has been Christmas, with its abundance of distractions.  One of the smaller distractions was Mark Gatiss' production of the M.R. James story "The Tractate Middoth".  Much of it took place in a library, and the vital clue to a missing will was an accession number.

As a child, I read quite a few M.R. James stories but did not remember this one.  I set out to discover and rediscover some.  One that I discovered was James' story, Casting of the Runes, which the inspiration for a 1950s horror film called Night of the Demon (renamed 'Curse of the Demon' in the USA).  In the film, the leader of a Satanic cult uses his knowledge of the occult to summon up demons to destroy his enemies.  I had seen the film but not read the story.  I did so and found that, in the original, the occult powers were used in response to bad reviews of the author's work. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

(Re)opening a discussion about our methodological landscape (by Mary Anne Kennan, Charles Sturt University)

It is uncommon for published research to articulate the meta-theoretical assumptions which underpin different paradigms/approaches/traditions of research. Instead, methodological discussion tends to focus on research methods, techniques and tools. As researchers however, our methodological assumptions determine 
  • our choice of research paradigm; 
  • the formulation of, and the way in which we consider and address our research questions; 
  • and also our selection of methods and techniques.

In this discussion we will consider the pros and cons of adopting a broader view of research methodology.  This includes being specific about meta-theoretical assumptions and their importance for achieving greater reflexive awareness of the “unconscious metaphysics” that underlie and influence how we see and research the world.  To do this we need to make a clear distinction between the concept of methodology as an overall logic of inquiry, and research method as a much narrower concept that defines processes, procedures and techniques that can be used to conduct empirical studies and collect and analyse data (Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2011).  To achieve this clear distinction, it is necessary to make explicit the assumptions and paradigms on which different methodologies are founded.

Methodological issues are discussed therefore, within a broader landscape which includes more than just research methods and techniques, but also addresses what lies behind them.  By discussing the issues in this context, we can ask questions such as:

How does our view of the world and meta-theoretical foundation influence the type of questions we will ask (and answers we will find) as researchers?

How does our world view open (and/or limit) the potential methodological paths that we will choose from?

How does being methodologically explicit help us to select and justify the research methods we choose to answer our questions?


Cecez-Kecmanovic, D. & Kennan, M.A. (2013) Chapter 5. The methodological landscape: Information systems and knowledge management in Research Methods: Information, Systems, and Contexts Williamson, K. & Johanson, G. (eds.). Tilde Publishing, Prahran, Victoria. pp113-138 ISBN 978-0-7346-1148-2

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Giving an oral presentation (by J.E.A. Wallace)

All researchers need to learn to communicate details of their projects to a wider audience.  Obviously, different audiences require different approaches but to try to give some perspective, here are a few hints and tips gleaned from the experiences I’ve had with my own project thus far.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly: know your audience.   This is not so much about the tone (although over-familiarity is a really bad idea in a formal setting!), but rather about the content of your talk. When presenting to your own group, there is perhaps a level of common knowledge that means that you can assume the basics and only give abbreviated reports on progress.   However, in any other context, it is best to assume that the audience has little knowledge of the specifics of your work. To that end, a brief introduction is useful to set the scene before getting into the details.

Secondly, pacing and timing are key.  A talk divided into clear sections holds the interest of an audience better than a long talk without breaks. It also makes it easier to rehearse timings and to be flexible.   Both are useful in preparing to talk in a formal setting such as a conference.  In such a setting, the Chair will offer some sort of signal near to the end of your slot, or a clock will be made available.  In either case, rehearsing timings beforehand is useful.  Do bear in mind though, that people tend to talk more quickly when nervous.
On the subject of nerves, remember that the audience is there to hear what you have to say. Everyone in the room is on your side so if there are any minor slip-ups, focus on your work and just keep going.  No-one will object if you need to take a moment to gather your thoughts mid-talk.

Lastly, don’t dread question sessions – they are usually a great opportunity to engage with the audience and possibly to establish some beneficial networking connections. From personal experience, these sessions have led to many worthwhile discussions after the fact, and to one worthwhile collaboration.

If anyone has any other experiences or additional suggestions  for presentation, please feel free to contribute in the comments.