Thursday, 22 November 2012

Libraries and Information Society research group meeting

This is another post about a recent meeting of the Libraries and Information Society research group (last Wednesday). Angharad Roberts talked about her visit to the University of Pittsburgh iSchool, USA (which she also blogged about in the last post here). She explained some of the differences in structure and approach of the PhD programmes in Pittsburgh and at Sheffield (for example, there is a much larger taught element in the Pittsburgh programme) and we discussed a few of the pros and cons of each. As part of her visit Angharad had participated in a session about academic writing. One of the texts for this was:
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.
This led on to an interesting discussion about our own experience of academic writing and in particular our use of the first person ("I"): when we felt we could use it and what the alternatives were. We also talked a little about journal editor's expectations and our experiences in submitting articles.
The next meeting of the whole group (staff and research students) is on 12th December at 3.30pm.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Using blogs for research - a discussion in Pittsburgh

On Monday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion at the University of Pittsburgh iSchool about using blogs for research. This is a topic I have spoken about before at one of our monthly informal researcher discussion sessions in Sheffield and I hope this is a subject we can return to in another meeting later this year. In Pittsburgh, I began the session with a brief presentation, highlighting two UK reports which I think are relevant to this topic: Research Information Network (2011) Social Media: A Guide for Researchers and JISC (2012) Researchers of Tomorrow: The Research Behaviour of Generation Y Doctoral Students. I followed this by discussing three blogs created and maintained by members of the University of Sheffield iSchool:
  • This blog - Sheffield iSchool researchers - which I think is a good example of a group blog, providing an opportunity for a number of people to author posts relating to their research or about methodological issues. I also think this is a good example of how a virtual community, based around the blog, can grow and reinforce a real world community, based around the monthly informal researchers' discussion sessions.
  • Sheila Webber's Information Literacy Weblog - a really good example of an expert blog, which is a very valuable current awareness source for both academics and practitioners working in the information literacy field. Relatively short posts and lots of photos make the blog very accessible, whilst the integration of other social media tools, such as a Twitter feed and a Flickr stream, potentially broadens the blog's audience.
  • My research blog, which gives a personal perspective on my experiences as a PhD student and my research activities - especially about the events I've attended.
I summarised some of my own reflections about the benefits, limitations and challenges of blogging and we then moved into a really interesting and lively group discussion about blogging for research. Now I'd like to ask you a few questions, as a reader of this blog, whether you're in Sheffield, Pittsburgh or anywhere else - perhaps we can continue the discussion here:
  • If you're a new visitor to this blog, what do you think about it?
  • If you've been viewing or contributing this blog for a while, what has kept you coming back?
  • Have you ever referred anyone to posts on this blog? If so, which ones?
  • What could we do to improve our blog?
  • What are your views about blogging about research in general? Have you used a blog, or would you like to share a good example of a blog which has been useful for your research?
Finally, I'd like to offer a very warm thank you to everyone at the University of Pittsburgh iSchool who made me feel so welcome earlier this week and to everyone who took part in our discussion.

Friday, 2 November 2012

What would Goffman think about furries? Persona adoption and identity masking in blogs and Second Life (by Liam Bullingham)



Concerning online identity, this research investigated persona adoption in blogs and Second Life (SL), aiming to discover how, why, and to what extent this occurs. The theories of early scholars Erving Goffman and Marcel Mauss were considered and applied to interaction in these emerging online environments.

The research sample included four bloggers, four SL users and two users of both media, and participants were interviewed using a semi-structured format. Data was then analysed and categorised using grounded theory.  The literature review yielded some fascinating examples of persona adoption and masking identity, such as Baker's 'blended identity' and Nakamura's 'identity tourism'; and it considered what online identity means within the wider concept of 'the self'. Goffman's claim that we wear a number of different masks in public was applied to SL & blogging, and users were seen to employ anonymity or psudonymity in order minimise the impressions they inadvertently 'give off', in Goffmanian terms. The practice of 'gender swapping' in online interaction and the concept of the avatar were also explored.
Interview data was discussed and categorised as follows:

·         Expressions given,
·         'Fitting in' - a key motivation for persona adoption,
·         Recreating the offline self online,
·         Dividing the self,
·         Anonymity,
·         Minor persona adoption through embellishment,
·         Information evaluation techniques are not always needed.

Following this, data was interwoven with scholarly research to test research findings. 'Recreating the offline self online', whereby participants were keen to re-create
their offline self online was an additional finding, in that it was not informed by the literature.

In comparing blogging and SL, it was found that there is significantly more pressure to conform in SL, meaning more persona adoption occurs through the use of the avatar. Persona adoption in blogging however, occurs in different ways, and perhaps
because there is less social pressure, there is also less persona adoption.

When concluding, I noted that the major limitation of the research was the small research sample, as identifying participants was difficult. However, research questions were well informed in that participants exhibited behaviours such as anonymity or 'embellishing the self' and explained their reasons for doing this.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Libraries and Information Society (LIS) Research Group meeting

The LIS Research Group had a meeting yesterday, with research students and staff in attendance. Elizabeth Chapman, Halima Egberongbe, Joseph Essel, Stephen Pinfield, Angharad Roberts, Barbara Sen, Kondwani Wella and I each talked briefly about the aims and methods of our current research. Some interesting questions arose e.g. to do with sample selection and the meaning of "pragmatic" in a research context. The next meeting of staff and students on November 14 will also focus on exchange of information on current research, and the following one, on 12 December takes as its theme "How do you select a theoretical framework and research approach?"

Friday, 12 October 2012

Designing an e-procurement decision support system (by Mohamed Adil)

My proposed research focuses on the design of decision support systems (DSS) using Multi-criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA).  The study uses published mathematical models to study and design a suitable model for a public sector e-procurement DSS. The research will also develop a prototype, thereby providing a new tool for practitioners and researchers in the area of MCDA.

The research focuses on the public sector in the Maldives: in particular, the education sector.

Public sector procurement has a rigid structure enforced by law and regulations. The features and characteristics of public sector procurement are based on major public sector principles such as non-discrimination, equality, transparency and proportionality. This results in an organised step-by-step procedure for public sector procurement. However, this research focuses only on decisions that are based on the performances of the suppliers against a preset list of criteria.  These criteria allow public sector institutions to state differentiated priorities when they announce for bids or tenders. This situation creates a context in which MCDA techniques can be applied to the evaluation. 

There are multiple MCDA methods. However, the applicability of these methods to the problem context is not known due to the multiple constrains and expectations of the public sector. This research will study the applicability of a set of published MCDA methods to the problem context. The MCDA methods used in this research involve linear weighting methods, single synthesising criterion (or utility theory), outranking methods, fuzzy methods and mixed methods.

The process steps of the methodology involve an awareness of the problem at first, followed by suggestion and development of an artefact, and finally evaluation and conclusion of it.  The methodology used here follows a set of specific guidelines provided by information systems (IS) research scholars for such IS research projects.

To support the process steps of the research project, a literature review was done, field research was carried out, and some selected documented data on procurement evaluations were collected. For the field research, focus groups were conducted to enhance awareness of the problem, to help to make more specific suggestions, and to support the development of the artefact.

The literature review of literature concerning MCDA models literature helped made it possible to compare the public sector requirements and constraints against the characteristics of MCDA methods. This approach helped filtering and suggesting alternative methods to that might be appliedy.

The collected data sets are to be used to apply the artefact to evaluations, The results of this exercise are to be statistically and mathematically evaluated in order to determine the usefulness of the artefact.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Evaluation (again) - some thoughts around school exams as indicators of success

Following our last researchers' discussion, the pub conversation again turned to evaluation.  We talked about the problems caused by applying simple measures to public bodies, and I rashly suggested a solution - that  a second simple measure should be introduced, that is 'orthogonal' to the first.

For the purposes of analysis, I had recently been revisiting an interview with a school teacher.  She (like many of my interviewees) was reflecting sadly on the extent to which educational values are skewed by the need to "teach to the exam". In other words, students are taught to anticipate exam questions and to frame their efforts with a view to producing a high scoring answer.  Any school activity not related to exams is marginalized.

Other examples of evaluation-induced skewing were discussed (including the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework) and there was some head-shaking about the damage such an exercise will do to Higher Education.

The problem is common where simple measures are applied to complex systems.  Simple measures are often simply met; and if meeting the measure is all that counts then other important criteria get neglected.  I heard a macabre example of such skewness recently (27 August) on BBC Radio 4.   Amanda Vickery, in a programme about sailors,  interviewed  Dr David Turner of Swansea University about disability in the British navy in the 18th Century. He observed that, back then, there were concerns "...that surgeons might be a little too willing to amputate limbs in cases where this wasn't altogether necessary. There are some complaints that naval and military surgeons cut off limbs because they are paid by the number of limbs that they amputated..." (12min 15sec).

Orthogonality
Any second measure should be as different as possible from the first, but should be given equal importance.  In the case of schools for example, exam success is an obvious criterion for assessment; but a second criterion could be based on the response of school leavers to a survey designed to assess the school's success in promoting involvement and inclusion.  The survey could include statements such as the following:
  • If my school held a reunion next year, I would want to come back for it. 
  • My school allowed me to take part in at least one sport that I enjoyed.
  • If something bad happened to me, there were people I could talk to at school.
  • My teachers were interested in what I had to say.
  • While I was at school, I took part in performances (eg, concerts or plays).
  • I never felt threatened by the behaviour of other students.
[1=Strongly agree / 6=Strongly disagree].

School funding and reputation are currently strongly linked to exam performance.  If they were as strongly linked to positive responses to statements such as those above, decisions about a school's priorities would be based on a far more nuanced view of success.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Turning research into practice

This month's discussion (09 August 2012) was led by Dr Hideo Joho of Tsukuba University in Japan.  He described Information Science as a discipline with a hole in the middle.  On one side of the hole are computer scientists studying the impacts and applications of the latest developments in information retrieval (IR).  On the other side are social scientists looking at the behaviour of people seeking and using information.  Hideo explained that he felt close to the hole (on the IR side), but that he often had difficulties interpreting research from the other side in ways that would help him to apply it to IR.  What, he wondered, could (and should) be done to help bridge the hole.

Discussion touched on the relative merits of research intended to test hypotheses and research intended to explore situations and phenomena.  Hideo wondered whether the 'explorers' could be encouraged to include suggestions that would be designed to help to frame hypotheses.


Monday, 13 August 2012

Wikipedians in residence


Whenever academics gather to talk about the issue of trust and online evaluation, discussion seems to shift to Wikipedia.  I was surprised to learn that increasingly, illustrious bodies such as the British Museum and the British Library are appointing Wikipedians in residence.  The British Museum adopted the practice after realizing that the Wikipedia article on the Rosetta Stone attracted five times as many visitors in one month than the official site (Hitchcock, 2011).  Such a policy is presumably a pragmatic response to concerns over the reliability of Wikipedia.



Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Online evaluations and how to interpret them (Assessment of the people by the people for the people)

Getting a bad press
The first time I was ever subjected to any kind of online review was when I bought something on eBay.  The only time I have had feedback that wasn't positive was following my 8th transaction.

The item, when it arrived, looked tacky.  Since I had only paid £5 for it, I couldn't complain much.  What got me was the cost of  postage.  The stamp cost around £1.60 and the packaging didn't look that expensive.  Since I was charged £15 I figured that the company were paying themselves around £13 for the onerous task of packing and posting.  A pretty good hourly rate.

I gave the vendors a 'neutral' rating.  They weren't happy.  Their feedback score of 99 and a bit percent positive (based on thousands of transactions) was reduced to 99 and a slightly smaller bit positive. They responded by giving me a neutral.  Since I only had 8 feedback scores, this one stuck out.  Accompanying it was the message: "There was no need for neutral feedback as we provided a great service."

I, naively, had assumed that it was my job to judge the quality of the service.  I took a look at their feedback history and found that they always responded to neutral or bad scores by giving a similar score.  Customers with few transactions therefore appeared to be a bad risk. Since then, I've always been cautious about interpreting online feedback, so I raised it as a topic for discussion in the Researchers' Group last month.

Everyone at the meeting had learned to exercise similar caution, but in the recent past, not all academics have been so clued up.  In 2010, on Amazon, a reviewer nicknamed 'Historian' posted some excellent reviews of recent work by Orlando Figes, whilst dismissing books by rival historians as "dense", "pretentious", "rubbish" and "awful".  It later emerged that 'Historian' was none other than Orlando Figes (Itzkoff, 2010).

Meta-evaluations
In the course of our discussion, it was agreed that, where possible, the provenance of a reviewer should be taken into account (not something that can always be done with anonymous peer reviews!).  It was also noted however, that comments are often more useful than ratings.

The emergent evaluation of evaluations can be summarised as
1) Is the reviewer trying to be helpful or is s/he (i) just a persistent complainer, or (ii) working to an obvious agenda (eg, historians reviewing their own books and those of rivals)?
2) Are the grounds for complaint relevant to me? (Eg - a restaurant that I'm visiting by bus is heavily criticised for offering inadequate parking).



Wednesday, 16 May 2012

"So what's Information Science then?": Do people outside the department know what we do, and if not, does it matter? (by Simon Wakeling)


A couple of weeks ago I was booked to juggle at a small event in Sheffield, along with a couple of other jugglers whom I'd not met before. As I chatted to one of them before we started manipulating our balls, the following exchange occurred:

Him: So what do you do?
Me: I'm a student at Sheffield.
Him: Oh right, I'm a student at Sheffield too. What subject do you do?
Me: Well broadly speaking it's Information Science.
Him: Information Science? What's that then?
Me: [Some stuff about Information Science]
Him (looking suspicious / confused): Oh, OK. I'm a third year computer scientist.
Me: Ah well we're in the same building then.
Him: Really??

So here is someone who works in the same building as our department every day, in a related subject, but who has never heard of Information Science as a discipline, and has no idea what its students and researchers do. Is this representative of a wider lack of awareness and understanding of our discipline? I suspect it is.

Why then this ignorance? Is it a problem of terminology (Information Studies vs Information Science vs Informatics vs Library and Information Science vs Information Schools), or the lack of any such department in most UK universities (or for that matter the lack of an Information Science GCSE)? Is it the inter-disciplinary nature of our field, which defies simple summary? Does the often practical or vocational focus of our research and teaching dilute our standing in academia?

And whatever the reasons, should we be worried about it? Knowing broadly what a Mathematics department "is" hardly gives the non-mathematician any meaningful understanding of modern mathematical research. Similarly it seems unlikely that my juggling friend would have any keener appreciation of Chemoinfomatics for me having introduced him to the concept of Information Science. In a sense then general ignorance of the IS field is merely an annoyance, something that requires an extra sentence or two of explanation during small-talk. But is it also possible that this anecdotal evidence points to a more fundamental challenge for our field? It might perhaps imply that we need do a better job of unifying and presenting the disparate strands of our work within a grander (theoretical?) framework. It's either that or ask Bill Bryson to write a book about us...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Creativity and research: Ideas don't follow timetables.


Liz's recent entry on work-life balance touched on the difficulties of fitting creative activities into the regular pattern of a working week.  It was a theme picked up in Angharad's comment.  Her observation that "casual conversations can also often provide key insights into particular research problems" is one of the reasons why the researchers' discussion group was started, and the freewheeling discussions (especially in the pub) can prove quite liberating.  Topics range from the obscure (eg, the offside rule in Subbuteo) to the surreal (in one discussion on the relative merits of search engines, it was suggested that the only way in which Bing is better than Google is that its name sounds better when read backwards).  Often though, chats in the pub, or in the informal brunches organized by Mark Hall, are the source of ideas for future discussion meetings.
Relaxed conversation is, of course, only one factor that leads to the generation of ideas.   A day dream is said to have played a part in August KekulĂ©'s comprehension of the structure of benzene: he claimed to have been inspired by the image of a snake eating its own tail.  
Most famous though, is the story of the original Eureka moment.  King Hieron (or Hiero) II of Syracuse commissioned a crown and provided the gold for it.  When it was delivered, he suspected the goldsmith of retaining some of the gold and replacing it with silver.  He had no idea how to confirm his suspicion, so he asked the resident court genius (Archimedes).  Archimedes also had no idea how to confirm the king's suspicion and took a bath to help de-stress.  As he climbed in, he noticed the water that spilled over the top of his over-full bath.  He realized that the volume of water displaced was equivalent to his own volume.  Appropriately used, a full tub of water could help to measure the volume of the suspect crown.  That, together with a measurement of the crown's weight, was sufficient to determine its density and thus its purity.

Archimedes was so excited by his realization that he leapt out of the bath and ran down the street yelling "Eureka" (or "I've found it").  Perhaps, therefore, if universities intstalled spas and hot tubs in their common rooms, they would have a similar effect and encourage creative streaks amongst the staff.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Work-life balance: is it possible?

At the April meeting of the researchers' group, Ana Rosa (who has blogged on her thesis topic here) led a discussion on the important and perennially problematic issue of work-life balance in academia.  As the meeting took place during the Easter vacation, attendance was somewhat lower than usual, leading me to suspect that many colleagues were busy having a work-life balance elsewhere - although whether they were working or living remains an unanswered question.

The issue had come to the fore when seeking to discover what was considered an 'appropriate' amount of holiday for research students to take.  No guidelines were available from the university or in the research students' handbook; instead, the term 'work-life balance' was used, which some students felt to be a vague and unhelpful term. 

The group felt that 'holidays' and 'work-life balance' were actually quite separate concepts, and that guidelines on the former would be helpful, but that the latter was impossible to legislate for.  Indeed, academic staff in the UK often have a notoriously poor work-life balance, despite having set amounts of annual leave.  Moreover, the issue is complicated by the difficulty of defining what constitutes 'work' in academia.  While some activities are obviously 'work', such as research, teaching and administration, what about checking email, social media, Second Life, or reading a relevant novel?  Am I 'working' while writing this blog?  It could further be argued that the primary role of academics engaged in research is (or should be) to think - an activity which is not measurable, and which cannot be switched on or off at will.  If I sit in the department all day struggling with a thorny research problem, and then the solution comes to me later on in the pub, was I working a) while in the department; b) while in the pub; or c) both?

The group concluded that guidelines on an appropriate amount of holiday would be useful, and that supervisors should talk about this - and about work-life balance more generally - with their research students.  This issue is important to well-being, and the university provides a helpful publication and training days for academics who need to signpost students to appropriate support services.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Quality management in academic libraries in Nigeria (by Halima St Egberongbe)


I am investigating approaches to quality management and quality service delivery in academic libraries in Nigeria.  The Nigerian universities operate an established system of quality assurance which is mainly applied for the purpose of programme accreditation, under the supervision of the National Universities commission (NUC).  The NUC, as an agency of government has an overarching responsibility for ensuring quality assurance in all universities in the country.  This it does through periodic constitution of teams or panels comprising academics in relevant disciplines to visit universities and assess available facilities and resources for programmes seeking accreditation.

One of the parameters for assessment during accreditation is the library and this has to do with facilities and information resources for programmes to be accredited.  The only element of NUC quality assurance for the library is tied around programme accreditation.  That is, the focus is only on information resources for programmes to be accredited. 

The specific aspect of this investigation will be to assess quality management approaches in academic libraries in Nigeria.  The overall aim of the study is to identify how service quality practices in academic libraries affect institutional outcomes in various institutions.  This is with a view to subsequently recommending a quality management model to enhance improvement and sustainability in both managerial and service quality of academic libraries in Nigeria. 

The study is intended as a cross-sectional case study that uses of mixed methods techniques to achieve and address the objectives and research questions of the study.
The project is intended to be in two phases:
     Phase 1 – Involves a Quantitative online pilot comparative survey of a representative sample of academic libraries in Nigeria.  The methodology to be used in Nigeria will first be piloted with a similar population in the United Kingdom.
    Phase 2 – Involves a multi-site case study using semi -structured interviews and documentary evidence. 

Population of study – This will comprise library directors/ university librarians and managers in six university libraries in Nigeria.

The Model
The European Frameworkfor Quality Management (EFQM) Business Excellence Model (BEM) is the model I intend to use.  It is a holistic framework that gives an insight into an organisation and is based on nine criteria:
performance, customers, people and society, leadership, policy, strategy, partnerships, resources, and processes. 

The BEM, being a self assessment model, has been proved to be relatively fast, easy and inexpensive to conduct.  It improves performance, team building, and enhances individual and organisational innovation and learning. It is now the most widely used organisational framework, especially in Europe.  

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

More on academic writing - Restoration bloggers?

Two recent conversations inspired this entry.  In one, Liz Chapman (who's previously blogged here on the nature of facts and the Warburg Institute) referred to an article which dealt with the problem of assessing the impact of academic literature by considering citations in a range of documents, including blogs.  In the other, I was discussing Paula Goodale's recent blog entry with her and she commented on the value of blogs to research. It's something that's been touched on previously in one of Angharad's contributions to this blog. 

One of the things that was not mentioned in Angharad's entry on blogs was the informality of the language.  The relative freedom afforded by blogs allows ideas and thoughts to be presented without having to frame them according to the strictures associated with academic literature.  However, I often wonder just when, how and why academic literature became subject to so much restraint.  One of the many delights of the Internet is that it provides the opportunity to read documents that, a few years ago, would have been accesible only to hard-core archive addicts.  Amongst these documents are early copies of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

I've reproduced two entries from the first issue.  Apart from showing the breadth of interest of Robert Boyle (best known to GCSE students for his laws relating to pressure of gasses), they are also notable for the nature of their writing.  They read far more like 17th Century blog entries than modern academic articles.


An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf, by Robert Boyle Phil. Trans. 1665 1:10
By the same Noble person was lately communicated to the Royal Society an Account of a very Odd Monstrous Birth, produced at Limmington in Hampshire, where a Butcher, having caused a Cow (which cast her Calf the year before) to be covered, that she might the sooner be fatted, killed her when fat, and opening the Womb, which he found heavy to admiration, saw in it a Calf, which had begun to have hair, whose hinder Leggs had no Joynts, and whose Tongue was, Cerberus-like, triple, to each side of his Mouth one, and one in the midst Between the Fore-leggs and the Hinder-leggs was a great Stone, on which the Calf rid: The Sternum, or that part of the Breast, where the Ribs lye, was also perfect Stone; and the outside of the Stone was of Grenish colour, but some small parts being broken off, it appeared a perfect Free-stone  The Stone, according to the Letter of Mr. David Thomas, who sent this Account to Mr. Boyle, is with Doctore Haughteyn of Salisbury, to whom he also referreth for further Information.

Upon the strictest inquiry, I find by one, that saw the Monstrous Calf and stone, within four hours after it was cut out of the Cows belly, that the Breast of the Calf was not stoney (as I wrote) but that the skin of the Breast and between the Legs and of the Neck (which parts lay on the smaller end of the stone) was very much thicker, then on any other part, and that the Feet of the Calf were so parted as to be like the Claws of a Dog.  The stone I have since seen; it is bigger at one end then the other; of no plain Superficies, but full of little cavities.  The stone, when broken, is full of small pebble stones of an Ovall figure: its colour is gray like free-stone, but intermixt with veins of yellow nad black.  A part of it I have begg’d of Dr. Haughten for you, which I have sent to Oxford, whither a more exact account will be conveyed by the same person.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Narrative as an element of communication in cultural heritage organisations (by Paula Goodale)

After attending a few of the Information School’s monthly discussion group sessions, and generally being impressed by the talks given by fellow PhD researchers, I foolishly offered to talk about my own less well-developed PhD ideas. I hoped there might only be a small audience, it being the second Thursday in January (just after the Christmas break).  I was wrong, and there were staff too, including the head of my research group. I hoped that I would present my ideas with clarity and conviction and that questions would be benign – not a chance! I hoped I might get the killer insight or advice that has eluded me - instead I came away with more questions than answers, and confirmation (of what I already knew) that there is much work to do, ruthless focusing needed and that it will definitely NOT be easy. With these caveats in mind, I will now describe my fledgling PhD research project and try to summarise some of the points raised.

My core idea is related to the fact that narrative has long been a key element of communication in cultural heritage organisations, as a means of providing access to and interaction with collections, a device for sense-making and informal learning, and a way of approaching social policy goals such as community and inclusion. However, in digital projects (whether they are social media, web sites or libraries) this element of narrative is most often missing or under-developed, thereby missing a key opportunity to engage users. My goal is to look at why this element of narrative is missing online, and to explore ways of addressing this, firstly through the use of the PATHS system (that constitutes my day job), and other online media as appropriate. My research objectives (probably too broad) and methods are to:
  • Find out more about general users’ information behavior, using survey and observational methods.
  • Establish the current state of play on the use of narrative, using desk research and interviews with museum personnel.
  • Explore which are the most promising opportunities for incorporating narrative into user engagement, using open-ended and creative tasks in different systems (including PATHS and one or more social media sites), both individually and collaboratively.
  • Evaluate the outcomes of the task-based activities giving consideration to qualitative measures such as satisfaction with the results, perceived outcomes, quality of the user experience, etc.
  • Analyze the content of the narratives produced via task-based activities to understand more about the nature of narratives produced by general end users compared with those produced by experts.
What is very clear from the comments that followed is that ‘narrative’ is a confusing and multi-faceted construct, and that a tight definition of my interpretation is needed. I’d been challenged on this previously by one of my supervisors and another staff member, so this was no surprise. Aligned with this is whether narrative is data or method – my current thinking is that it might well be both, in that I am analysing the content of narratives, I’m interested in it is a phenomenon and I’m also investigating ‘narrative inquiry’ as a research method.

Further discussions with fellow researchers last week at the second LIS DREaM (Developing Research Excellence & Methods) workshop in London (which I’ve blogged about here) provided greater clarity and perhaps a degree of focus. One angle that I am interested in following is the development of narrative use for engagement in cultural heritage over time, particularly the changes in ownership (and content) of narrative from experts to end-users, and onto more collaborative approaches to interpretation. I recognise that this is still a mammoth task, but hope to make it more PhD-sized following plenty of grilling by my supervisors, extensive deep thought (perhaps supported via rich pictures or some other mind-mapping technique), and occasional more serendipitous tangential conversational encounters.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Surveying online survey tools (by Angharad Roberts)

Following on from Andrew's blogpost about online surveys, yesterday's session provided an excellent opportunity to discuss people's experiences of different online survey tools. I presented a document (which can be viewed below or here) describing a range of online tools, evaluated according to four criteria which seemed important to me: compliance, compatibility, clarity and cost.

Compliance relates in part to the important issue of data protection, raised at the end of last month's meeting. EU Data Protection laws say data shouldn't be transferred to countries outside the European Economic Area, unless the country it is transferred to has equivalent laws. US laws are not regarded as providing the same level of protection (9 countries which do are listed here) but it does have some of the biggest data storing servers, including Google and SurveyMonkey. There is something called the US-EU safe harbor framework, which enables US-based companies to show that their data protection procedures meet EU standards. Google complies with this, as do many big online survey companies. Another compliance issue is to do with the accessibility of the survey - for example, does it work with screen reader technology which may be used by people with visual impairments?
Compatibility relates to the options a survey tool provides for how data can be exported - can it be downloaded directly into SPSS, or would it be available as an Excel spreadsheet?
Clarity - for me, this mostly relates to question types and particularly so-called skip logic questions. I have a number of different potential target audiences and although I want to ask most of them the same questions, there are some questions I only want to ask one particular group. Skip logic allows for different pathways through the same survey, depending on answers to particular questions.
Cost - there lots of free versions of survey tools but these often have very limited functionality. I've set these out in the limitations column of my document. For example, SurveyMonkey just allows 10 questions and 100 responses in each free survey. Export options may be limited in some free tools as well. So I may need a paid for survey tool, which means it's helpful to know what the range of potential costs could be, including potential discounts for academic / research use (SurveyGizmo offers a free student account, but badges these surveys with a SurveyGizmo student research logo - which may not be the image I want to project). It also raises the question: are there survey tools in use within the department which it might be useful to know about?

This was followed by a very valuable group discussion about some of these issues. In response to a question from Alex Schauer, I clarified that most of these survey tools allowed for surveys in "all languages" or 40+ languages. I'm not sure whether these terms are used interchangably, with no survey tool appearing to list more than 59 supported languages - these figures seem to be related to the Unicode standards for supported language character sets. Bristol Online Surveys only supports 10 languages in addition to English (at extra cost); the free version of QuestionPro has no multi-language support (a point omitted from the version of the document I presented yesterday, but included in the copy linked to from this post). Barbara described problematic experiences with attempting to export data from survey tools, and suggested experimenting with the export process before choosing a tool to run the actual survey. Liz Chapman described the different approach to data protection displayed in one recent US survey ("we can't promise anything about your data...") and some of the limitations of SurveyMonkey, which may be addressed in one of the more expensive subscription versions. Mark Hall talked about his experiences of using Lime Survey, and the exciting prospect of an in-house survey tool, developed in the iSchool, which would potentially give iSchool researchers complete control of their survey data. Paula also described some of the more powerful features offered by QuestionPro.

You can view, download and print the summary document here or view this on Scribd:

Online Survey Tools - summary sheet

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Surveying Universities: A Modest Proposal

Apologies to anyone looking for biting Swiftian satire, but this genuinely is a modest proposal - though on the subject of surveying universities rather than on the merits of babies as a food source.

The background
I am drawing near to the end of a project to look at the information behaviour of students at various stages of education; beginning with Key Stage 3 (11 to 14 year olds), and going all the way up to postgraduates.

A key part of the project involved surveying universities in the Midlands and the North of England.  Between us, my colleague (Mary Crowder) and I approached 12 universities with a view to asking them to circulate our survey amongst students and staff.  Responses to our request varied.  All too often however, we got one of two answers.
1) We were told that there was nobody in particular responsible for posting surveys and that we could try Computing Services, Students' Union, Marketing, Student Administration, or various local equivalents; or
2) They already had numerous questionnaires generated by their own staff and students and were concerned that people would get survey fatigue. 

In the end, we got responses from students and staff at five universities.  As an inducement, we offered to enter respondents into a prize draw, with the opportunity to win a £50 Amazon voucher.  At each university, two vouchers were offered to students, and one to lecturers.  The project therefore paid £750 in prizes.  Since the response rate at one university was very low, some students and staff had an extremely high chance of winning.

The modest proposal
I presume that we are not alone in wishing to learn about the views of university staff and students across the UK.  We are also not the only project to offer the inducement of a prize draw.  I suggest therefore, that UK research councils with an interest in educational research should consider setting up a central site on which RCUK-funded researchers can post surveys.  Completion of a survey would qualify a student to enter a draw with prizes provided from Research Council funds.  To enter the site, it would be necessary to log on with an .ac.uk email address.

So far (according to the blogger statistics) this blog has been viewed 3000 times by readers in 16 countries.  If anyone has knowledge of such a scheme within their country, or can suggest ways to elicit opinions of students and staff across Higher Education, I would very much appreciate receiving their comments on this subject.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Not unfriendly, just unsociable" - Making the iSchool more sociable

Last month's discussion took place, appropriately, during Christmas party season.  At the request of Professor Phil Levy (the iSchool's Head of Department), we discussed the question: "What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place for research students/staff, and to reap the benefits of that for our research?"


Doyle (2000) notes that "Survey after survey shows that employees value having a friendly working atmosphere...The Harvard Business Review reports that Sears found that a 5 per cent rise in staff satisfaction leads to a 0.5 rise [sic] in productivity."

As evidence of the fact that people value work for reasons other than income, Doyle cites an article from the Guardian (2000), which reported the case of Mr Fullerton-Ballantyne, who won £1.89 million in the National Lottery.  He initially quit work, but then returned to buy the company that had employed him so that he could carry on working there.  Presumably he missed his colleagues.  Certainly that was the case for Nicky Cusack, who in 2011, returned to her job in Asda after winning £2.49 million


Not only are sociable workplaces more desirable and possibly more productive, there is also the fact that, despite all the advances in information technology, much exchange of information still takes place face to face; and if people work in a setting where face never meets face, it has negative effects on the exchange of information and ideas.

When Professor Levy's question was put to the assembled researchers however, their initial response was to ask "Do we want to be more sociable?"  Some voiced the concern that, in an effort to encourage sociability, events might be organized which would lead to embarrassing gatherings, where people stood talking to their usual associates, while looking around covertly, trying not to catch the eyes of people to whom they thought they should be speaking.

The iSchool, it was felt, is a reasonably friendly place - just not a sociable one.  When forced into social situations, we don't always know what to say to each other.  What was needed, people thought, were activities appropriate to the aims and objectives of the iSchool, but which provided scope for social interaction.

An example of such an activity was given by some of the newer PhD students.  They had enjoyed their induction, and had created an email list enabling them to maintain contact with others from their cohort.  Some of the more established PhD students expressed regret that they had not been given similar treatment when they first arrived at the iSchool.

A second example discussed had been provided earlier in the day by Alex Schauer.  At lunch time he gave a seminar about the findings of his PhD project to date.  At the end he announced that, to mark the festive season, he had brought a stollen.  People gathered round the cake.  Some stayed and chatted; others grabbed a piece and departed.  Ana Guedes Rosa recalled that, according to a marketing course she had once attended, people linger longer if there are drinks available.  "Ah!" exclaimed the gathering, "Give us wine and we'll socialize!".  Ana countered by noting that hot drinks are better because hotter drinks lead to longer lingering.

Applying analysis and synthesis to the discussion therefore, it becomes clear that an answer to the question:
"What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place?" is
"Ones in which mulled wine is served".

Doyle, J., 2000.  New community or new slavery.  The Industrial Society
Rucci, A. J., Kirn, S.P., Quinn, R.T.  (1998), “The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain atSears,” Harvard Business Review, 76 (January-February), 82-97
Spence, R., 2000.  "How would you handle being rich?"  Guardian, 03/06/2000