Friday, 18 February 2011

iSchool researchers meetings - What next?

Many thanks to the nine research staff and students who joined me in the Wilf Saunders room last Friday.  I think most of us enjoyed the discussion (and chocolate marshmallows).

Thanks in particular to Mark, Simon and Liz B for their talks.  From my perspective, the most interesting part of the ensuing discussion took place on the intellectual ground between Simon and Liz's research.  Simon (as can be seen from his contribution to this blog) has been researching recommender systems for a digital library catalogue.  Liz's research is in bibliotherapy, and it occurred to me that there might be a role for recommender systems there.  However, according to Liz, use of ICT amongst the people she is researching is very low, regardless of their age group.  I was left wondering whether this is an artefact of the selection process or whether it was more significant.

We also discussed the future of the group.  There was a suggestion (which received general support) that it be moved to a late afternoon spot so that those who wished could adjourn to a still more informal setting. (The Red Deer wasn't specifically named but I got the impression that it was being considered).   With that in mind, I've booked the Wilf Saunders room for 16.30 on Thursday, 10 March.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The User-Centred Design of a Recommender System for a Universal Digital Library Catalogue (by Simon Wakeling)

For this AHRC-funded PhD project, I am working closely with OCLC (the Online Computer Library Centre), a not-for-profit computer service and research organization focusing on library services. Membership of OCLC is open to libraries of all types around the world. One of OCLC's key services is WorldCat - essentially an aggregated catalogue of the holdings of all their member libraries. This currently holds more than a billion individual records. This catalogue is accessible to the public via a web front end (, allowing users to search for titles and locate the nearest available library held copy. Users can also view and add content such as reviews and tags.

The ultimate goal of my research is to produce a prototype recommender system that can be added to the WorldCat web interface. A recommender system is an information filtering system that presents users with suggested information items from within a collection. The most widely known examples are probably Amazon’s “people who like this also like…” and the MovieLens film recommendation service. Key to our approach is the adoption of a user-centred methodology. Much of the growing body of recommender systems research is based around technical developments – particularly the algorithms that power recommendations. Our approach will instead attempt to first identify more precisely how a recommender system can best align itself with the needs and circumstances of users. We hope to integrate current models of Human Recommender Interaction with more general theories of Information Behaviour through a series of qualitative studies and observation experiments to be run later this year. The second year of the project will be more technical, and involve analysis of WorldCat query logs and other feedback generation methods. OCLC have committed to providing a software engineer to assist with the production of a prototype system based on our findings, which can then be fully evaluated through user testing.

PATHS - Personalised Access to cultural Heritage Spaces (by Mark Hall)

The PATHS project aims to provide improved access to digital Cultural Heritage collections. Currently access to the digital offerings provided by archives and museums is primarily built around search-based interfaces. This works well if you are interested in something very specific and know the correct keywords to use when searching. What it does not enable is a more exploratory approach or allow the users to be guided or guide themselves through the digital Cultural Heritage collection. It is this issue that the PATHS project addresses with its aim of providing personalised tour guides through the digital Cultural Heritage collection.

The PATHS system will allow curators, educators, and the general public to create tour guides through the Cultural Heritage collections that other uses can then follow. The research will focus on three aspects:

·         Investigating user interfaces that support both the tour guide creators and consumers;
·         Investigating methods for automatically adapting the consumer's interface to support their cognitive learning styles;
·         Investigating methods for recommending tour guides a consumer might be interested in.

Throughout the project a user-centred approach will be taken to ensure that the results match the potential users' needs and desires. This user-centred approach will include aspects such as interviewing domain experts to gain an understand of the methods used by curation experts when creating a collection, using a range of usability experiments to determine how people interact with digital tour guides, and evaluating the success of the various algorithms and systems that will be developed in the project.

Things I wish I’d known before I started my PhD (by Liz Brewster)

Be utterly systematic
In your file names, keywording, referencing – this means you won’t spend hours later on in your PhD looking for what you need. Also, set up alerts on all your relevant database searches, get the tables of contents of relevant journals emailed to you, and keep up with the field as it continues.

Do things other than your PhD 
Go to conferences, do some teaching, write some journal papers, submit bids to get funding to go to conferences. It’s all part of building your skills and profile, and disseminating your research.

Make contacts
Ask for help – it’s your PhD but you can’t do it in isolation. If you’re working with research participants, you need to talk to the people who might provide access to them – the gatekeepers.

Offer something in return
Reporting on your research to participants is good practice. They might be interested in what you’ve learnt and how it can impact on service provision or innovation

Time management
Everything that you think will take five minutes will take an hour, and everything you think will take an hour will take five minutes. Unless it takes two hours.

Academic journals operate in eons, not weeks
The academic journal peer review process is one of the slowest things in the world. When you’ve finally written a paper, you send it off, and wait… and wait… and wait. A journal have had a paper of mine for three months now, without a word. If there are corrections, it can take even longer to get it through the process. My last paper took nine months to go from finishing the first draft to online publication. And about three months before the end of your PhD, someone will say to you that it’d be a good idea to have a paper out before your viva. Be prepared.

Good supervisors help make the PhD
Mine are excellent. I also like having a team of supervisors – they have different skills and different perspectives, and the PhD is richer for it.

The amount of work you think you can do in three years is totally different to the amount of work you can actually do in three years
When you start, there’s a tendency to be over ambitious. You will almost certainly need to refine your proposal. A lot.

Confusion is normal
You won’t really know what you’re doing for the first year, and that’s OK. You’ll just spend the first year planning and thinking and probably quite confused and that is utterly normal. At the end of your first year, something will click and you’ll know what you’re doing.

So is hatred
At some point, you will be bored by your PhD, or hate it, or both. It’s such a common phenomenon that the counselling service at Sheffield run a workshop entitled ‘On hating your PhD.’ These two phenomenon link with the next…

Keep going
You’ll get through it with perseverance, self-motivation and sheer bloody-mindedness.

No one expects you to change the world
Your PhD is not a paradigm shift – and no one expects it to be. It is a training process, and the most important thing you will learn from it is how to be a researcher

Be realistic
It is not necessary – or possible – to read everything ever written on your subject. You’ll never get anything else done.

Be friendly
Your fellow PhD students will be an important source of support, humour, biscuits, information and may just help to keep you sane throughout the whole process.

Liz Brewster

(with thanks to Liz Chapman, Mark Hall and Juliet Harland for sharing thoughts…)

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Walking sharks and Papuan playmates (by Andrew Madden)

This is a discovery I heard about last year, and even then it was four years old so it's not exactly new.  However, I was intrigued to learn of a "new" species of walking shark off the Bird's Head Peninsula on West Papua.  See Nature (one third of the way down the page, between the jelly rocket and the Komodo dragon.  If you find the world's smallest fish you've gone too far).  You can also see a short clip of the shark "walking" (before the diver switches attention to rays).

As someone with a background in biology, I always like to hear about strange organisms behaving in strange ways.  However, what I found particularly interesting in this case, was the way in which I came to learn about the discovery. 

I was talking to someone from West Papua at the time and mentioned that I was fascinated by the island's wildlife.  He told me that he had just heard about an expedition that had generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community by announcing the discovery of several new species, including the walking shark.  He laughed and told me that this creature, which had created so much interest amongst scientists, was one that he had played with as a child.

I suppose it's fortunate that none of the scientists who announced their exciting discovery was around at the time.  It must be thrilling to feel that you've revealed something to the world, but rather less thrilling to learn that generations of children were playing with your discovery before you were born. 

Mary Midgely, the philosopher of science, once noted that
"The astonishing successes of Western science have not been gained by answering every kind of question, but precisely by refusing to. Science has deliberately set narrow limits to the kinds of questions that belong to it, and further limits to the questions peculiar to each branch. It has practised an austere modesty..."
("Can Science Save its Soul?" New Scientist.  Issue 1832, 24-25).

While it's sad that Nature should use the standard journalistic shorthand of "new species" rather than "species new to science", I was relieved to see that the journal in which the findings were published did display appropriate modesty.  Allen & Erdmann (2009) "Reef fishes of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, West Papua, Indonesia" Check List 5(3): 587–628, 2009 refer to records of species "previously unpublished in the peer-reviewed literature", and discuss the species "endemic status."

In other words, they are modest enough in their claims not to implicitly dismiss the experiences of all the Papuan children who had played with walking sharks on the sea bed.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Sheffield iSchool researchers

It is becoming increasingly common for university departments to establish informal sessions in which researchers are encouraged to gather, consume beverages (hot or cold), and eat biscuits or (in rich departments) cakes.  With the blessing of the iSchool's research committee, I am now trying to instigate monthly meetings.

On Friday 11 February at 11am, researchers are invited to a discussion session to take place in Room 324 (Prof Wilf Saunders Meeting Room).  The aim of the session is to encourage as many people as possible to share their thoughts on the specifics and generalities of research.  Anyone with an involment in the department's research is invited, ranging from 1st year PhDs to Professors Emeritus. 

To frame the discussion, I am suggesting that 4 volunteers speak for c4 minutes each, on one of the following:
  • My research - either a general introduction to the speaker's project, or a brief update.
  • Barriers and hurdles - problems that the speaker has encountered, or has recently overcome.
  • Research in the news - not necessarily related to information sciences.
  • Reflections on experience - "What I know now that I wish I'd known then".
As well as asking the four contributors to speak for c4 minutes, I'll also ask them to send me around 400 words for inclusion in this blog.  That way, anyone unable to attend can still contribute to the discussion.

Thanks for taking the trouble to read this, and I look forward to seeing you on Friday 11th.  Bring a drink.

Andrew Madden