The problems facing a digital research culture amongst PhD students and how universities can solve them

The recent Researchers of Tomorrow study highlights an interesting trend relating to current doctoral students using digital technology as part of their research. Though I haven’t read the full report yet – yes, I do recognise the irony in this given some of the other findings – I wanted to get some thoughts down while they’re fresh my mind. I’m fascinated by the disjuncture between the use made of digital technology by my generation of researchers in their private lives (“in 2009 the majority of Generation Y doctoral students self-identified as being in the category of ‘elite technology users’ in their personal lives”) and  a seeming reticence about using such technology in their public lives as researchers. This isn’t a new finding (though it’s an important empirical contribution to our understanding) and, though it may seem counter-intuitive if you are yourself of this generation and connected with many others online, it’s worth considering the role that confirmation bias might play in creating this impression i.e. it’s easier to notice all the people you know who use these tools as part of their research than the far greater numbers who don’t. This disjuncture demands explanation. If Generation Y researchers are en masse tech savvy and tech positive then how might we explain some of the findings in this report?

  • Take-up of most institutionally-provided and open web technology tools and applications is low among doctoral students overall
  • Generation Y doctoral students are more likely than older doctoral students to use technology to assist them in their research
  • Generation Y doctoral students tend to use technology applications and social media in their research if they augment, and can be easily absorbed into, existing work practices
  • Levels of use of social media and other applications helpful in retrieving and managing research information are steadily rising among Generation Y doctoral students, but those applications most useful for collaboration and scholarly communications remain among the least used
  • Fellow students and peers are the major influence on whether or not Generation Y doctoral students decide to use a technology application and are their main source of hands-on help

I’m particularly interested in the third and the sixth point. The ubiquity of digital tools in personal lives easily gives rise to a pragmatism about their incorporation into working life – their appeal, or lack thereof, will stem from how apparent it is that they can be incorporated into existing practice and either enhance or transform that practice. In essence, the key question is: “what’s in it for me?”. In a world of tablet computers and smart phones – not to mention funding shortfalls, pressures to publish or perish and anxieties about exactly what comes after the PhD – immediate practical utility is central. As the Jisc research shows, vastly more respondents use citation or reference management tools. Although the relative longevity of these tools vis-a-vis others on the list likely plays a part, it’s also the case that this is undoubtedly down to the ease with which the utility of such tools can be immediately apprehended. Due to the opportunity costs (i.e. if I do x I can’t do y) involved in taking what training opportunities are provided, where they are provided (which is another issue), appealing to PhD students necessitates framing the session around clearly definable practical goals i.e. “how to blog about your research” or “how to produce an academic podcast” rather than “technical training for Platform X”. The other aspect which explains the popularity of reference management tools relates to point 6 i.e. there are network effects (which cross different groups within the university) that will condition an environment which is conducive to using the technology in question.

It’s an improvement when research technology is a concern of the library rather than the IT services department but there are still fundamental inadequacies with centralised provision of digital services and training within universities. Firstly, a distance from academic departments unavoidably translates into a distance from the day-to-day practices of people within those departments. Secondly, a distance from academic departments unavoidably translates into a distance from the professional networks within those departments. These are not insurmountable obstacles: it’s possible to frame training in terms of practice reasonably effectively by talking about what researchers in general within professional group X do. Likewise it’s possible to proactively offer assistance to people who are taking up these technologies, putting them to novel uses and support their practice in a way which leads, organically, to the innovation spreading. But nonetheless it seems blindingly obvious to me, as unfashionable as it is to say it in our interdisciplinary era, that the academic department is the natural unit for research technology. This is not to claim that the infrastructure should be organised at that level (the suggestion is patently absurd) or that people doing this work inside departments should be insulated from similar concerns elsewhere in the institution. It just seems increasingly obvious to me that if it’s a strategic priority to encourage adoption of digital tools by researchers, practical initiatives are going to struggle to succeed – for precisely the reasons I’ve discussed – unless resources are allocated to support developmental activity on the part of those already using such tools and embedded in existing networks within academic departments.

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