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"