Saturday, 10 December 2011

Journalism as an Information Study (by Scott Eldridge II, Journalism Studies)

As a brief means of introduction, my name is Scott, I'm a PhD student in the Journalism Studies department, and if you're wondering what I'm doing here, a student of ink-stained wretches and hacks set adrift in the unfamiliar Information School blog, I won't begrudge you that curiosity. If the curiosity extends to 'What does a journalism studies PhD do?', you are not alone. This blog posts comes as a follow-up to some initial conversations between our respective departments, much of which revolve around 'what is it exactly you do in journalism studies?'.

And it's a fair point.

Most people seem to know what 'journalism' is, or at least they seem to have a picture in their head of something vaguely 'journalistic'. And, as with all great things, journalism was a far easier thing to define in the ever-nostalgic simpler times when we knew that something in a newspaper or a radio broadcast or early years of the BBC was 'journalism'. On the heels of those simpler times are the turgid waters in which researchers in the Journalism Studies Department now swim, times where it can't be said that journalism is so readily defined. Increasingly as researchers we stare for long hours out over the landscape trying to clear that confusion ourselves.

But in that shift and change between knowing journalism and perhaps what can be called wondering journalism, we in Journalism Studies find ourselves confronting an expanded range of just what it is we research and study and teach. It is a time when muddied waters also hold a great deal of opportunity for clarity. 

For journalism researchers and academics, this has meant attempting to understand a whole world of information and data that has enriched the research that journalism academics do, and can do, on the one hand, and enriched the ways journalism is performed, on the other. Huge challenges have also emerged contrasting information access with information understanding, and addressing sourcing data in journalism, as well as understanding how information changes news dissemination. It goes beyond just creating a 'how-to' for journalists in the Internet era towards sating an academic curiosity to understand the potentials and pitfalls of more-readily available information and data and forums, and harnessing that for the development of better journalism (however we eventually define it).

In the end, it is all about information. And in the end, as titled above, journalism is largely an information study. And, to that point, journalism studies is a study of information flows and sources and patterns of use.

Overwhelmingly the changes of the past 20 years have meant tangling with what the technologies of the 'information age' are doing to journalism not only in terms of how news is gathered, but how its shared, and who gets to say what and with what authority. Speaking from my own research, and its focus on attempting to understand WikiLeaks and its effects on journalism, there is research going on in journalism studies that would not exist without the changes to how we understand and access information over the past decades. Beyond purely technological changes (though not discounting them) journalism studies is constantly contending with ways to approach and adopt better data management and analysis, understandings of information flows that extend far beyond the typical purview of journalists and the texts they're raised and trained on. The same could be said for my colleagues who are researching Internet censorship, news media in online environments including social networks as news outlets and those who are trying to suss out how mobile technologies fit into analyses of news media online. 

In many ways, the rise of the information society (with due acknowledgment to Castells) has brought about more obvious overlaps between what we once thought of as the provenance of information studies, and what we once considered the realm of journalism studies. I see it as a burden of riches, the torrent of information we have in front of us now washing over levees that used to acutely define journalism studies. Overflows that touch on both our schools of interest.

There is a lot to be learned between those of us who spend their days in Journalism Studies, and our neighbors across the road in the iSchool. These areas extend beyond what it is we each do in our particular offices, but ultimately it involves understanding that we're both looking at information, and hope to better understand how best to use it, evidence it, share it, retrieve it, and draw it from its darker confines into the light of day.

To draw this missive to a close, over the course of the coming weeks and months and hopefully years, it will be exciting to see where and how this shared study of information  can lead to a better understanding of the ways we communicate information to the world. 

After all journalism is in many ways an information study.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Samples of convenience and feedback forms

It was nice to learn in last month's discussion of Amazon's Mechanical Turk.  It seems that it's old knowledge amongst the programmers in the department, but its existence was news to me.  Research ethics is always a good topic around which to generate heated discussion, and Mark succeeded - though his ethical dilemma (as expressed in his blog entry) was not one that others in the group shared.  The discussion did however, take a (to me) more interesting angle when it switched to the influence of samples of convenience on research outcomes.

One of Mark's concerns was that participants were being paid significantly below the minimum wage.  Given that responses were being elicited from around the world however, the question was asked: "Minimum wage for where?"  In some parts of the world, the return for effort was (by the local standards) excellent.  These parts of the world were, indeed, highly represented in the results.

Given the extent to which IR research findings have been based on western (usually English speaking) volunteers, studies such as Mark's may help to redress the balance and produce more robust findings.

I found myself guilty of drawing inappropriate conclusions based on an unrepresentative sample earlier this week, when I looked through some student evaluation forms.  I collected the forms in after a seminar.  It was the second of two that I had taken, and I was pleased to read on a number of the forms that the respondents enjoyed the seminars and felt that there should be more of them.  What I failed to consider was that most of the students failed to turn up.  The absent students had not completed forms, so the feedback reflected only the view of the minority.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Knowledge Management in UK eGovernment Practices (by Ana Guedes Rosa)

My name is Ana and I’m from Portugal. Last year, I completed an MSc in Information Management in Sheffield University’s iSchool, and during my dissertation project I discovered some gaps regarding the knowledge and nature of Knowledge Management (KM) practices in eGovernment projects.

I recently began PhD research aimed at identifying and conceptualizing knowledge sharing efforts across organisational boundaries (mostly departmental), in the management processes necessary to develop innovative eGovernment applications at a local level.  By the end, I hope to be able to develop case studies, which identify good practice.  These can hopefully provide an interpretation of knowledge phenomena that can help to support future eGovernment projects in UK councils. (I don’t have a matured research question yet! But good things come with time, right?)

The study will take place in British municipalities that are in the initial stages of developing benchmark eGovernment applications (this being the common ground for my case study approach). The choice of UK municipalities was simple! The UK is a pioneering country in local level eGovernment, due to the 2005 pledge (ODPM, 2003). However, in a recent eGovernment benchmark exercise from the European Commission (Capgemini, 2009), the country was placed only 7th in terms of the availability and sophistication of its electronic services, and user take-up did not reach the 50% mark.

The literature argues that results are due to organisational challenges, which in turn derive from the socially constructed nature of Public Administration (PA) knowledge and its encompassing conflicts. These include, amongst others, conflicts between services’ priorities and cultures (these set PA apart from the Volunteer Sector, as was discussed in the session). There are some case studies already published that consider KM in the PA, but they reflect mostly on governance and technical issues.

Having recognised this opportunity for relevant empirical research I am now seeking to collaborate with a varied sample of municipalities, and to engage on qualitative data collection by using: structured observation, official documentary material and, at a later stage, interviews. Because of the challenges involved in working with municipalities, which need to account for issues such as time, hierarchical decision-making, public interest and privacy protection, I will keep in mind some tips suggested during the meeting. Then, after the data analysis stage, I will come again and talk a bit more.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Research Ethics (by Mark Hall)

Research ethics is a topic that is like a midnight curry. You are very likely to see it again. The University and the individual departments have forms and procedures in place to ensure that at least there is a paper trail of what (un)ethical research was planned and then performed. What falls by the way-side are the gray areas where the research might be formally ethical, but where in the practical execution the ethicality becomes unclear. An example: financially rewarding participants for taking part in an experiment is a long-established technique and has actually been shown to produce more representative results. With the advent of work-sourcing sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, you can now place money in a pot with them, source large numbers of participants and the financial reward processing is handled by Amazon. So far, so good, the ethics committee will be happy. However, the average amount of money paid to participants is usually significantly below the minimum wage. Is that still ethical?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Electrocution and PhD supervision

In last month's discussion, Nigel Ford asked what the role of the PhD supervisor is.  The answer (as is usually the case) was "It depends".   It depends on the student, the subject and the project.  Most of the group's responses are summed up in the abstract that Sheila posted on this blog last month (Thanks Sheila!).  Arguably, one of the roles of a PhD student is, under the guidance of her/his supervisor, to become an expert.  That, however, raises the question of what an expert is.

As might be expected given its title, Carolyn Marvin's 1988 book "When Old Technologies Were New" considers the impact of, and response to, some of the technologies introduced during the Victorian era.  She draws on several articles from newspapers and magazines of the period.  One of her excerpts (from London Illustrated News, 10/07/1897) has a bearing on our July discussion on the invention of the fact.  The author of the article, which is about the "unskeptical presentation of the 'facts' of science", notes that "No work of information has given me the pleasure I derive from these weekly additions to knowledge.  Sometimes they surprise as well as delight me, for example: 'Kissing originated in England.'"

The book's first chapter is called "Inventing the Expert". Just as is the case with facts, it is surprising at first to think that experts were invented.  Arguably, expertise is something that evolved as cultures developed from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones.  However, someone with expertise is not necessarily an expert.

Until the 19th century, well-educated people could understand the principals of most available technologies, and could assess for themselves the competence of a specialist in that technology.  Using a passage from Electrical Review of 22/10/1887, Marvin illustrates how things began to go horribly wrong:  "Then there is the youth who has read as much as he could understand of an elementary textbook...This youth is the genius of the family...He must be an electrical engineer.  Taking advantage of the sudden demand for men with electrical knowledge, he manages to get a situation, being ready with his set phrases, in which volts, ohms and amperes are plentifully besprinkled.  We next find him in charge of a dynamo, and shortly after read the account of his death caused by shunting some of the current into his own body."

Professionals bodies had, for centuries, played a part in assessing the expertise of novices; but often this was to ensure that the profession retained its secrets.  As technologies became harder to grasp, secrecy for its own sake became less necessary.  Instead, the assessment (in the form of a professional qualification) helped to assure employers who did not understand the technology, that the possessor of the qualification was considered competent by people who did understand the technology.  In other words, experts became people whose pronouncements replaced the need for understanding.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Conceptions of doctoral supervision

At the last researchers' meeting, when Nigel Ford talked about supervisors, I mentioned a study of supervisors' conceptions of supervising. This is the reference:

Lee, A. (2008) “How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision.” Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), 267-281. (there is an open access copy here:

"The main concepts [of supervising] identified are: Functional: where the issue is one of project management; enculturation: where the student is encouraged to become a member of the disciplinary community; critical thinking: where the student is encouraged to question and analyse their work; emancipation: where the student is encouraged to question and develop themselves; and developing a quality relationship: where the student is enthused, inspired and cared for. Supervisors of doctoral students are also trying to reconcile the tensions between their professional role as an academic and their personal self as well as encouraging students to move a long a path towards increasing independence. The concepts are examined in the light of each of these tensions. Finally the research illuminates the power of the supervisor’s own experience as a student and the paper suggests that supervisors need to be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of each of these conceptual approaches."
I discussed this study when I gave a presentation on Information Literacy and the role of the supervisor: a supervisor's perspective. last May

On trust and assurance: Towards a risk mitigation normative framework for e-learning adoption in Portuguese Higher Education Institutions (by Jorge Tiago Martins)

My research is an inquiry into trust as the main leverage for academics’ appropriation of e-learning in Portuguese Higher Education Institutions (HEI). More specifically, I seek to inductively develop a substantive theory that explains the connections between academics’ perception-based micro-foundations of trust in e-learning, and the macro institutional arrangements and managerial calculability available or not to generate a relevant cognitive base and sufficient evidence of salient value, objective gains, recognition and reward.

At a more superficial and initial level, issues of trust in e-learning seem to imply academics’ varying acceptance of a perceived risk-laden technology; these acceptances having accumulated as a consequence of insufficient knowledge or technological background. Creating, upholding and maintain a favourable perception towards e-learning derives in these circumstances from both opportunistic and enthusiastic voluntary judgement: a leap of faith taken to reduce complexity, or informed by the immediate salient values of e-learning.  Such favourable perceptions are potentially eroded by scepticism or frustration experienced during use.  They may not be immediately or homogenously acknowledged by the academic staff.

However, when the appropriation of e-learning collides with issues of organisational and environmental fit, new dimensions of trust are manifested. Such collisions tend to occur at the level of career structure and rewards, academic recognition, and the scholarship of teaching, and are in tension with ingrained organising principles that are explicit frameworks affecting the establishment of favourable e-learning appropriation behaviour.
At the level of academics’ perception-based micro-foundations of trust, research results demonstrate how trust affects the resiliency or inertia of academics when endogenously or exogenously prompted to adopt e-learning. At the level of macro-institutional arrangements and managerial calculability, research results reveal the social motives driving academics to identify with e-learning – thus combining their efforts towards e-learning development.  The results demonstrate how trust relates to the management of identification and commitment, namely to the motivational dynamics of gains, value creation, recognition and reward.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Get a (second) life

Last month's discussion on Second Life led by Sheila and Ridvan raised some fascinating questions (and not just "Why would anyone want to do washing up in Second Life?").  Sheila, for example, compared meeting an academic colleague in Edinburgh with meetings with the same colleague in Second Life.

I'm sure studies are already being done on the matter, but I'd like to know what gets lost in Second Life meetings, and what is gained.  Sharing a physical space with someone obviously overcomes problems with different time zones, but how significant is it that the meeting occurs in an environment over which neither party has much control?  If one person wants a hot room and the other a cold room, this would be achievable in Second Life.

How sensitive are people about their avatars?  I presume that many features of an avatar can be changed.  If so, can they be discussed without embarrassment so that potential causes of distraction can be removed?  In real life, requests to modify distracting elements of behaviour or appearance are unlikely to be conducive to harmonious meetings.

The discussion at our next meeting (13 October) will be led by the legendary Nigel Ford, author of over 100 books and papers that bridge (or should that be Ford) the gaps between information studies, education, artificial intelligence, and probably lots of things of which I'm unaware.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

An investigation of the influence of cultural dimensions on the use of the Internet by Libyan academics (by Abdelkarim Agnawe)

Universities all over the globe have been amongst the most active Internet adopters. They use it to facilitate their educational and research activities.  Yet, such eagerness to adopt has not been observed in Libyan Universities. An investigation of the factors behind the low rate of Internet adoption in Libya is significant for enhancing our understanding of the adoption of new innovations. Hence, this study aims to explore how some dimensions of Libyan culture influence the use of the Internet by academic staff members at the University of Garyounis.

The focus of the study was developed through the findings of an exploratory study based on interviews with eight academics from the University of Garyounis. The results showed a number of factors such as sex segregation, societal and cultural norms and lack of training that seemed to be inhibiting Internet adoption. The study is potentially significant as the Government of Libya has recently launched a nationwide program to encourage use of the Internet for educational purposes.  

A review of the related literature reveals that existing technology acceptance theories have mainly been designed in developed western countries. Researchers have criticized the blind adoption of such models in investigations of technology adoption in developing countries such as Libya.  Such theories do not pay enough attention to the role of cultural factors in influencing Internet adoption and usage. My research is attempting to fill this gap. To pursue this aim, a theoretical framework has been developed integrating Hofstede’s model of differences among national cultures and Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation theory. These two models are considered to be the most popular and powerful approaches in cross-culture studies in the information system field. The study adopts a qualitative methodology, employs case study strategy, and uses semi-structured interviews and observations for collecting data.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

More on Second Life

Ridvan Ata, who is supervised by Dr Julia Davies (School of Education) and Sheila Webber (Information School), will also be at the researcher seminar on Thursday. He will shortly be entering the data collection phase for his investigation into teaching in Second Life, the virtual world.
"As a consequence of rapid developments in information and communication technology (CI&T), three dimensional virtual learning environments (3D MUVEs) have become a focus of interest for teaching and learning environments particularly in higher education over the last decades. Therefore, the primary aim of this study is to develop a deeper understanding of 3D MUVEs, sometimes called Virtual Worlds, such as Second Life (SL), and investigate how tutors implement teaching in SL/ face-to-face(f2f) learning situations in higher education. In my work, I will be examining whether teachers find SL useful to enhance their pedagogy, including teaching strategies and approaches. Furthermore, I will look at which roles tutors undertake within SL when they are involved in blended settings, and how tutors overcome challenges such as learners' resistance to the virtual environment. As a methodological approach, this study is based on participation and observation in SL activities, meetings, group discussions, virtual conferences, social events, workshops, virtual trips etc., and interviews with tutors."

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

More on guidelines for academic writing

For the August meeting, Simon led a discussion on academic writing.  He introduced it with some comments by Richard Feynman and provided, as an example for discussion, some painfully convoluted prose from another American academic.

Some of us felt that Feynman's interpretation of the paper he was attempting to describe was overly simplistic.   Many people receive information via visual symbolic channels without necessarily "reading".  However, Feynman's point was valid.  A great deal of academic writing (particularly in social sciences and humanities) is unnecessarily opaque.  In 1996, a physicist (Alan Sokal) highlighted the problem when he published a hoax article which contained "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever...; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words"  (Sokal, 1996).

Those of us that are native English speakers often struggle with academic writing.  It was interesting to hear therefore, from researchers attending the discussion whose first language is not English.  Unsurprisingly, they too struggled with much of what they had to read.  The two Arabic speakers present felt that academic writing in Arabic was less afflicted by unnecessary complexities than was academic writing in English.  It could simply be that they were less bothered by them, but it would be interesting to devise an opacity scale for publications in different subjects and different languages.

In the course of the discussion, I asked people to nominate examples of clearly written articles for inclusion in the blog. Sadly none were suggested.  Thanks to Liz C however, I now know that there is a Postmodernism Generator available online which randomly generates academic essays, and, in the late 1990s, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran a "Bad Writing" contest.

In response to a request from some overseas students for guidance on clear writing, Ben Allen recommended  George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language".  If nothing else, the key points at the end are worth taking on board:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Second Life

I'm going to be talking a little bit about Second Life (SL) at the next researcher session, on 8th September. Ridvan Ata, who is researching teaching in SL, should also be joining us (I now co-supervise Ridvan with Julia Davies, in the School of Education). On the right you see me in SL (where my name is Sheila Yoshikawa) doing some washing-up.

I've given quite a few talks about SL, so I won't go into too much detail, since if you are interested, you can follow it up afterwards (or even beforehand).

SL is a 3D virtual world, in which you are represented by an avatar. You can sign up for free, but you need a special browser on your computer (also free, but CICS won't support it, so it is only installed in the smaller Departmental lab). If you want to customise your own SL space, though, you need to "rent" land. We have our own island, Infolit iSchool, which is paid up to September 2012.

This is a presentation in which I gave some basics and then talked about educational applications. You need to go to slide 13 to get the introduction to SL (I start by talking about my approach to teaching more generally):

People do all sorts of things in SL: it isn't a game, since it doesn't have a predefined goal or plot (although you can use it e.g. for role playing games). Most of the stuff in SL has been made and sold or given away by other people using SL.
I use SL mainly for:
- Teaching
- Sharing research results
- Organising events
- Attending events
- Collecting research data
- Making contacts
- Shopping
- Doing fashion shoots
- Interior design
- Wandering about and sight seeing.
So this is a mixture of work and play. I have 3000 pictures on my flickr stream which are mostly of SL. For example, this set documents an ESRC research seminar held last June, and this set has pictures of my SL homes
In July I gave a talk at the New Literacies research conference ("New Methods for New Literacies") held in the School of Education about Researching by/with/from Second Life. I thought I would draw on some of that material for the session on 8th September. I produced a short video about ways in which research results can be presented in SL, which I hope to show on 8th September, but I also embed it below.

I have become interested in issues to do with collecting and analysing visual data in SL, and I intend to say a little about this aspect.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Chemoinformatics - some key points (by Ben Allen)

What is Chemoinformatics?


“The application of informatics methods to solve chemical problems”


·         Databases of chemical structures
o   Searching
§  Similarity methods
§  Virtual screening
o   Creating
§  Computational library design
§  Molecular enumeration
§  Combinatorial  chemistry
·         Chemical structures
o   2D
§  Graph theory
o   3D
o   Plus other information
§  Calculated properties
§  Experimental values
·         High throughput screening
·         Databases
o   Can be very large (103-1012 compounds)
o   Often biologically active


·         Pharmaceutical
o   Biggest area of interest/development
·         Agrochemical
·         Food chemistry


·         Computer science
·         Information studies J
·         Bioinformatics

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Notes for discussion on Academic Writing - by Simon Wakeling

In the early 1950s, world renowned (and future Nobel prize-winning) quantum physicist Richard Feynman was invited to attend a cross-disciplinary conference in New York to discuss the "ethics of equality." He writes:

"There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damned thing and my eyes were coming out—I couldn't make head nor tail of it […] I had this uneasy feeling of, "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm going to stop, and read one sentence slowly so I can figure out what the hell it means."
So I stopped at random and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it and translated. You know what it means? "People read."
Then I went over the next sentence. And I realized that I could translate that one, also. Then it became a kind of empty business. "Sometimes people read. Sometimes people listen to the radio." And so on. But written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first. And when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it."
(Feynman, R. 1985. Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman! London: Vintage, pp. 281-282)

How often do we find ourselves repeating Feynman's experience? Is it a particular problem for the social sciences, or academia in general? How can we ensure we communicate our ideas clearly?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Facts and assumptions

Thanks to both Liz C and to Gibran for their contribution to last month's discussion group.

As is often the case, there was an unplanned synergy between the two sessions.  Gibran talked about his research into online communities.  He began by highlighting a number of oversimplifications that had pervaded the research literature on the subject.  These led to several significant factors being overlooked, with the result that assumptions made on the basis of the research were of dubious validity.

Liz summarized a talk she had attended on the invention of the fact.  The resulting discussion was both fascinating and challenging.  One of the challenges was to define a fact.  (I am now undergoing gender confirmation therapy since my attempt at stating a fact: "I am a man" was firmly challenged). 

Often, unquestioned assumptions can acquire the status of facts - until, of course, someone questions them.  In the course of my research interviews, subjects often refer to facts and I ask them what they mean.  One response is to suggest that, if something is corroborated by a number of sources, it can be treated as a fact.  Recently, when I asked a 6th form student to give an example of corroboration, she told me that she had found what she was looking for on WikiAnswers, Yahoo Answers and

Clearly, there is the risk that errors in one of these sites will be replicated in the others.  Experienced Web users will be aware of such risks and will be more thorough when seeking corroboration than was my student interviewee.  Such informed mistrust is, it now seems, routinely taught to school children.  Those I have spoken to however, profess to have total trust in books (though they rarely use them).

Even in books and journals however, errors can be replicated.  Generations of chemists, for example, were taught the wrong formula for mauveine, the synthetic purple dye produced by William Perkin in 1856.  A structure was published in a handbook of dyestuffs in 1924, and made its way into standard texts, from which  (according to an article in New Scientist in 1993), it carried on being disseminated throughout the literature for another 70 years.

Johnson, J. (1993) Science: The truth about the colour purple. New Scientist. 24 July, 1993

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Invention of the ‘Fact’ (by Liz Chapman)

On 5th May I attended a fascinating talk given by Professor David Wootton on “The Invention of the ‘Fact’”, part of the series of Arts-Science Encounters directed by Dr Jessica Dubow and Dr Richard Steadman-Jones.  

Professor Wootton, whose research interests focus on the history of science as well as intellectual and cultural history, presented an argument which combined micro-history (i.e. local events and contingency) with a sense of long-term inevitability (i.e. we were bound to end up believing in facts).  Through this two-pronged approach, he analysed how the concept of the ‘fact’ entered early modern scientific thought.

The word ‘fact’ in its modern sense became established in English in the 17th century (via Italian and French).  The word itself was not new: it derives from Latin factum and has a legal meaning dating from the 13th century.  However, in the legal context, the word fact implies a sense of agency, as in the phrase ‘an accessory after the fact’, where the fact is the crime.  Thus, the key linguistic shift that happened in the 17th century was from the fact as act, to the fact as event – something known by actual observation.  Professor Wootton argued that this shift played an important role in the birth of modern science, enabling the discussion of ‘facts’ rather than ‘truth’ or ‘opinion’.

Professor Wootton’s study of contemporary scientific texts suggests that Hobbes has a strong claim to have introduced the word ‘fact’ in its modern sense to the English language.  It was used by many early members of the Royal Society, but it took a while to become respectable, as it was associated with dubious concepts such as the ‘weapon salve’ - this remedy was initially thought to be empirically proven to work, but it was later realised that this was because only successful healings were reported).  However, the word was a useful way of ending debates in turbulent times, and may also have gained respectability through Salisbury’s translation of Galileo.  

After 1663 there were frequent references to facts in the English language, and the term had become institutionally entrenched through the Royal Society’s official aim of establishing new facts.  Professor Wootton then went on to discuss the practice of the fact.  Bruno Latour has argued that the printing press made facts harder; Professor Wootton suggested it might be possible to go a step further and argue that the printing press made facts.  The public space of the printed book, along with the public space of the dissecting theatre, turned private information into public knowledge.  Professor Wootton argued that “fact is an epistemological shadow cast by a material reality” – the printed book.  He concluded by suggesting that technological change may have implications for the way we think in the future.

(Apologies to Professor Wootton if I have misrepresented his argument in any way.  Thanks to Liz Brewster and Angharad Roberts for comments on my summary.)

Understanding the failure of an organisational online community: A practice-based interpretation (by Gibran Rivera Gonzalez)

Previous research into online communities has, on many occasions deliberately simplified the factors affecting (non-)participation. 

1.         Some studies have looked at online communities from a static point of view and thus neglected
a)  the existence of previous relationships, which certainly affect the way in which current interactions occur,
b)  previous usage of certain media which causes people to continue using certain media, thus making it more difficult for them to adopt new technologies,
the fact that participation occurs as an evolving  process rather than as a one-time-event. Many studies tend to assume that participation is a static event and so cannot explain how participation changes over time,
c)  previous experiences of users in regard to their use of other similar communities.

2.         Other studies have regarded online communities as information infrastructures located in a vacuum, with internal characteristics (such as technological features) and internal dynamics (such as the content of contributions) treated as the only factors defining how participation takes place.  Such studies therefore ignore other important forces that exist outside the boundaries of these communities and thus:
a)  ignore the existence of alternative competing media which can potentially hinder participation in these online spaces,
b)  minimize the effects of the organizational local practices in which online communities reside, and
c) neglect the importance of current ways of interaction (and their rationale) already taking place at specific organizational contexts.

3.                  Other simplifications have regarded online communities as ones in which only active participants are relevant, and have therefore disregarded different levels of participation, and have overlooked the place of more passive participants.

My research aims to improve understanding of participation in online communities, and focuses on the failure of an organisational online community created to support Knowledge Sharing amongst HR Directors of a Multi-Campus University System in Mexico.  During the implementation of an organisational Human Resources (HR) project across the whole organisation, a decision was made by the HR President to introduce an online community that could support the project implementation. After 6 months there was virtually no participation in the online community; however the project continued to be implemented.  

This research uses a battery of different methods for data collection (mainly semi-structured interviews) and is based on an inductive thematic analysis informed by a Practice-based approach which acknowledges the fact that online communities are located within a specific field of practices which has its own spirit, priorities, history, ways of interaction, and practitioners. Therefore, the research aims to study not only the online community, but also the overall context in which this community is located, and the practices it supports. The study is expected to provide a more holistic picture of the forces shaping online community (non-) participation.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Censored libraries and non-existent blackmailers

HIV and information behaviour
Robinah's talk last month provided yet another reminder of how important information behaviour can be in helping people come to terms with terrible circumstances. 

In the discussion, as well as discussing positive aspects of information behaviour, she talked about more negative ones, which are rarely considered in models of information behaviour.  In particular, she referred to the concealment and destruction of information by HIV victims who have either still to come to terms with their circumstances, or who feel stigmatised by their condition .  These parallel other situations.  The denial experienced by many bereaved people may lead them to refuse or destroy information relating to a situation which they refuse to recognize.  Similarly, unemployed people, wishing to conceal their status, may hide documents relating to their welfare claims.

Some interesting points were raised in the course of the discussion.  One of those attending talked about her response to books dealing with alternative medicine.  Suppose, for example, she worked in a library containing books that claimed to control HIV by crystal healing.  She would not feel able to point them out to anyone who came in and asked for information about treatments of HIV.  Arguably therefore, she was hiding information.  Similarly, old books on HIV treatment could well be out of date and so should be destroyed.

Rival detectives
After Robinah's presentation, we enjoyed a lively discussion based on the G.K Chesterton story "The Absence of Mr Glass".  Two detectives who featured in the story: Dr Hood and Father Brown.  Both were confronted with a situation that appeared suspicious.  Dr Hood made several deductions based on theories he held, while, by contrast, Father Brown induced a theory specific to the circumstances.  The relative merits of the two approaches were explored.  Clearly the author's sympathies lay with Father Brown, but Liz C noted that he was guilty of not explaining the working that led to his conclusion.  However, it was noted that research is a creative act and sometimes it can be hard to make explicit the thinking that leads to a creation.

iSchool skill set
It is always a pleasure to gain new insights into the skills of colleagues within the department.  Mark Hall's explanation of the offside rule was impressive, but did not answer the question that gave rise to his explanation, which was - "Does the offside rule exist in subbuteo?"  The answer, it seems, is yes.

Future discussions
Two suggestions for future discussions include Second Life, and the nature of academic writing (does it have to be so dry?)

Hope to see you on 14 July.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Understanding the complexities of HIV/AIDS related information behaviour (by Robinah K. Namuleme)

My doctoral study seeks to generate in-depth knowledge of the real world “lived information experiences” of people affected by HIV/AIDS. I am using ethnographic approaches to understand the complexities of HIV/AIDS related information behaviour within the context of people’s lives.

This research is very important because it is a clear demonstration of ways in which Social Science can come help to solve problems in Society. This study generated rich data illuminating the complex nature of HIV and AIDS-related information behaviour. 

The initial impact of this study is a successful 3-month community outreach project proposal “Fighting HIV on an information front”, funded from the Roberts PGR placement fund. I am convinced that the findings of my research have the potential to support innovations in society including health information design, health information management practice, policy and strategy.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

On memorizing calendars

I had a convesation recently with Peter Stordy.  He told me that he had been teaching about qualitative and quantitative research, and as part of his lesson, he had attempted to find examples in the news of recent stories relating to research.  He had no problem finding reports that referred to quantitative research, but could find no mention of qualitative findings.

I guess, the problem for journalists is the smallest reportable unit of research.  Because quantitative findings can be summed up in a few figures and charts, they can easily be fitted into a news friendly format (albeit with some loss occurring in translation).  Qualitative findings are more problematic however. 

Communication of qualititive findings often requires use of complex imagery.  The value of stories in research is increasingly recognized (eg, Koch, 1998) and it's something I've made use of (Madden, 2009).  Certainly, stories have long played a part in the transmission of ideas and cultural values.  Before the rise of literacy they were probably the most important means of cultural transmission, and humans do seem better adapted to remembering stories than names and numbers.  I once interviewed a journalist who told me that, invariably, people will remember that

Event 1 linked Person A to Person B

and give a comprehensive retelling of the story, whilst being unable to remember when or where the events took place, or the names of the people involved.

Some people get round the problem of retaining details by linking them together into little stories.  I once came across someone who memorized calendars in this way.  He would list the number of the first Monday of every month, then link that number to a word.  These he would weave into a (usually surreal) tale.

In case anyone has a wish to repeat his feat for the remaining six months of the year, I've listed below the dates of the forthcoming researchers' meetings (always the second Thursday of the month).

9 June,          14 July,           11 August,      8 September,
13 October,  10 November, 8 December.

Koch, T. (1998) "Story telling: is it really research?" Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(6) 1182-1190.

Madden, A.D. (2009) "Managing for the Ideal Research Environment". Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 31 (3). pp. 271-282.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Researchers of Tomorrow (By Liz Brewster)

A snappy title for a project, you have to admit. This three year British Library /JISC project aims to study the research behaviour of 'Generation Y' doctoral students. Running from 2009 – 2012, the project consists of a longitudinal cohort study of 60 PhD students from the UK – of which I am one.

To qualify to be in ‘Generation Y’ for the purpose of this project, the research team defined the term to include those born between 1982 – 1994, who completed seven years of secondary education in a UK secondary school. Using a variety of methods including telephone interviews, workshops and online fora, the project focuses on information-seeking behaviour, analysing the habits of ‘Generation Y’ researchers in online and physical research environments, and assessing their usage of library and information sources on and off line. The project was commissioned following the ‘Google Generation’ report published in 2008.

I think the project is interesting for two reasons:
-   As a cohort study of information seeking behaviour, it will inform practice internationally, and will help Universities to think about how they support researchers;
-   From a personal perspective, it’s been a really useful way to think about my own research and track my own progress.

Meeting students from other universities and disciplines has made me realise how different it is being an information professional doing a PhD, and how many sources of information I just take for granted which others don’t use. It’s also opened my eyes to other resources and tools that people use as a matter of course, which might be useful for me.

As a participant in the project, I’ve been asked to blog on various topics – the supervisory relationship, commenting on articles in the press, sources of information, referencing tools, how I organise my resources and my time, my use of other university libraries, how I handle information overload, and what the key challenges of my PhD have been. It’s been interesting to reflect on my own work, and to compare my experiences with those of others.

For more information on the project, various project reports are available here.

Aggregation and the researchers of the future

One of the frustrating things about doing research and teaching involving Google is that Google changes all the time.  I remember teaching a class about search skills, and explaining the concept of stop words.  Fortunately I tried a few out on Google before the class and was surprised to discover that Google will now search for pretty well anything that's entered in it.  Enter the word "the", and Times Higher Education Supplement tops the list.  Try "and" or "by" and you'll get dictionary entries.  "A" gives a Wikipedia entry on the first letter of the alphabet, and "at" gives another Wikipedia entry on the country code for Austria.

Robert Villa's introduction to aggregated searches drew attention to yet another development in the world of search engines.   I was interested to learn that click-through rate for images remains the same wherever they are on the page.  This will, I'm sure, be of interest to advertisers and I'm sure it's just a matter of time before sponsored links come with images.

Liz Brewster revealed to us all that she is a Generation Y researcher.  Discussion followed on who used what technologies and why.  There were one or two mutterings of surprise when I revealed that I rarely use bookmarks (and so have no need for Delicious).  Surprise turned to shock when three of the twelve people present revealed that they did not use Facebook. 

Next month's discussion will focus on research methodologies, particularly those used by Father Brown and Dr Hood in G.K. Chesterton's "The Absence of Mr Glass".

Hope to see you on 9 June

Friday, 13 May 2011

Aggregated searches (by Robert Villa)

Modern web search engines retrieve much more than just web pages.  Carrying out a search on Google or Bing will often result in map, image and video results, as well as the ever present adverts. This type of display, in which the results from many different information sources (or verticals) are integrated into a single page, has been called ‘aggregated search’ (or for Google, ‘universal search’). For example, the result list for the Google query “Sheffield Wednesday” includes a news result followed, further down the ranking, by a series of five image results.

A number of issues arise from this type of presentation. For one, there is the issue of how the system chooses which information sources should be displayed for a given query. Some queries may be highly oriented towards a particular information source, e.g. for the query “Caravaggio”, image results may be highly appropriate.

Then there is the issue of result presentation. Google’s universal search uses a “blended” approach, where results from the different sources are (generally) placed within the search result ranking (such as for the “Sheffield Wednesday” query). Alternatively, a “non-blended” approach can be used, where results from each different information source are placed in a separate result list, in a different section in the interface. This was the approach used in Yahoo Alpha. Alternatively, a mixed approach may be used, e.g. Google now places any map result on the right had side of the screen, separate from the ranked list.

Lastly, there is the ever present issue of evaluation. Should currently disparate collections (imageCLEF, TREC, VideoTREC, etc.) be combined together to provide a single large, multi-source collection for evaluation? If so, how should the results from the multiple sources be evaluated?

Shanu Sushmita is a PhD student at Glasgow University who has been investigating many of these issues, especially those concerning result presentation in aggregated interfaces. One of the interesting results of her work is the importance of the “source-orientation” of a query in the presentation of blended search results. It turns out that not all information sources have the same impact on the user. For example, moving image results from the top to the middle of the ranking makes little difference to the click through rate. However, move news results to the middle of the ranking, and the click through rate is likely to fall. This is, perhaps, another complication which search engines should take account of (or advantage of).

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Dribbling or spouting

After our last meeting I made the mistake of asking Angharad (who had organised the discussion on blogs) whether she was a Wilde or a Trollop.  It wasn't until I had finished the question that I realised how impolite it sounded.  However, behind the question were two anecdotes. 

Look up prolific writers online, and you'll find that Anthony Trollope wrote 3000 words a day.  Or 10000.  Or 8000.  As ever, it depends on the website.  The figures vary, but the message is always the same.  Anthony Trollope spouted words.  It was a talent that enabled him to churn out bestselling novels, while keeping down a full time job and inventing the postbox.

Oscar Wilde by contrast, once commented "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

Obviously, writers fall between the two extremes, but given the nature of blogs, I guess that bloggers need to be more Trollopes than Wildes.

Sadly, I'm more of a dribbler than a spouter - hence the limited entries here.  This tendency has been enhanced by an abundance of long weekends recently.

However, at the last researchers' discussion meeting, I asked people to provide links to blogs they thought might be of interest.  Angharad suggested Lorcan Dempsey's blog "On libraries, services and networks".   Liz Chapman provided a link to the Awful Library Books.  “Fill a large earthenware crock with urine…”  Visit the blog to find out what to do with it.  Or to learn more about the contents of the book "Pleasure from Insects"

Friday, 15 April 2011

Blogging and its role in research. Discussion led by Angharad Roberts

To introduce the discussion topic, I spoke briefly about my interest in blogging and about my new research blog. I also mentioned the Research Information Network (2011) Social Media: A Guide for Researchers which I found particularly useful in the early stages of thinking about setting up a blog. The group then discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of blogging and of researcher engagement with social media tools more generally. Some of the issues raised included:
  • The opportunities offered by private (as opposed to public) blogs, which facilitate collaboration between teams of researchers without the same potential degree of exposure as public blogs;
  • The potential ethical issues relating to the use of social media tools, particularly because of the spontaneous and informal style of communication which they encourage;
  • Potential issues relating to self-plagiarism when reusing blog content in more formal writing;
  • The lack of permanence of blog content - posts can be edited or deleted at any time;
  • How a blog can help to raise a researcher's profile;
  • The potential to use blogs as primary data sources - a form of auto-ethnography - in research studies;
  • Challenges in following other people's blogs and managing the large amount of information they provide.
I found Sheila's suggestions about ways to promote a blog particularly useful. These included: providing links to the blog when engaging with discussion lists or commenting on other people's blogs, tweeting about new posts, and including the blog address in email signatures and on presentations.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Warburg Institute (by Liz Chapman)

The Warburg Institute, which is part of the University of London, focuses on research in cultural history, art history and the history of ideas, and its library is world-leading in many areas relating to these disciplines. Recently, the Warburg has greatly increased its online presence: for example, it is on Facebook and Twitter, and it has an ongoing programme of digitisation. However, I want to focus on the way in which hard-copy texts are classified and presented: this has some interesting contrasts and also parallels with some of the more digital-focused projects presented in previous weeks, particularly in terms of what it suggests about the ways in which users locate materials.

The library is divided into four main sections: Image, Word, Orientation (the shift from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy) and Action (social and political behaviour). In all of these sections the focus is on how images, themes, literary forms, beliefs, approaches to scholarship and behaviours show both change and continuity over time (Warburg Institute, 2011). Rather than employing a traditional hierarchical classification system of discrete sub-sections, the Warburg tends to sub-divide general classes into broad sections which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This helps the researcher to find interconnections and, by avoiding hierarchy, also avoids implications of precedence (Minter, 2008).

Within the sections the most important factor is that each book has something in common with the books next to it, a principle known as “the law of the good neighbour” (Friman et al., 1995). This theory holds that the book which will be most useful to you is not the one you think you are looking for, but the one next to it on the shelf. Research on serendipity supports this, as researchers report that the best ideas are often sparked by something only tangentially related to their current thinking. For this reason, the library also has completely open stacks to facilitate serendipitous information finding and to encourage cross-disciplinary research. Rare books are scanned and a copy is printed out for the open stacks, while individual articles are also kept on the shelves alongside related books.

In addition, the library also retains books on open shelving even if they have not been used recently. Professor Ernst Gombrich, formerly the Director of the Warburg Institute, once observed that in arts subjects, it is precisely the books which haven’t been used for many years which will provide interesting information, because they have been overlooked (Cieszkowski, 1991). This is fascinating in its contrast with what one is generally taught in library school, and it also has implications for the development and use of digital technologies in research libraries.
Cieszkowski (1991). “Heresy and the pleasures of the hunt.” Art Libraries Journal, 16 (1), 20-22.
Friman et al. (1995). “Chaos or order? Aby Warburg’s library of cultural history and its classification.” Knowledge Organization, 22 (1), 23-29.
Minter (2008). “ ‘Liberating the responsibility to think for oneself’: the Warburg Institute library classification.” Knowledge Organization, 35 (4), 192-208.
Warburg Institute (2011). Classification Scheme.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Comparing and classifying

Imagine an ignorant northern European, dropped at the edge of a tropical jungle.  He knows only things from his homeland.  In the distance, he sees something as black as a crow.  A gust of wind shakes the nearby trees.  The object sits, solid and unmoving.  It’s obviously not a crow then. 

Against the grey green shade of the trees, the pitch black object stands out.  A nut falls from the canopy.  It hits the object and bounces off.  There is a dull thud.  On a hot day like this, pitch would be soft and sticky.  Whatever sort of black it is, it is not pitch black. 

The man moves closer.  Beside the trees sits a round carved object.  He picks it up.  It looks as black as coal, or as black as jet, but it feels like neither of them. 

The mysterious force that dropped him near the jungle picks him up and whisks him home.  He returns, the proud possessor of an ebony carving and a new source of similes and metaphors.

OK - forgive the somewhat fanciful turn that this blog has taken.  The point that I am labouring to make is that we classify according to what we're familiar with, and that's especially relevant to LIS people.  Thanks to Liz C for not only offering to give a short talk about the classification system of the Warburg Library at the forthcoming researchers' discussion group (Thursday 14/04, 16.30, Rm 324) but also for reminding me of George Lakoff.  His book "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" gave me food for thought when I did the MSc here years ago. 

The main event this Thursday however, is a discussion on blogs and their role in research, to be led by Angharad (who's working overtime, since she also contributed to last month's discussion).