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Digital Scholarship: Conducting Digital Research

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Social Media Icons, Illustration, www.youthofest.com,Web, Accessed 6 May 2014

Our world, both within and outside of academia, continues to change dramatically due to significant advances in technology and its use in education. To retain relevance in our professions, communities and with society as a whole, it is important to understand, adopt and make use of these advances. Greenwich Connect, a project initiated by the University of Greenwich, is an effort to foster a culture of learning innovation. Incorporating the use of technology as a part of teaching and learning best practice is a key component of this project. Three of the strategic objectives of Greenwich Connect are:

 

  • Social interaction and social construction of knowledge
  • Digital literacy
  • Inter and trans-disciplinary research and content

These objectives are intended to transform the approach to education and the working environment of both staff and students alike. Today’s academic not only needs to be aware of the latest happenings in the specialism, produce new work, assist the university in advancing its position, but also needs to translate the work in such a way that makes sense to today’s learner. If you are familiar with the Greenwich Graduate, the University’s vision for the institution and its students, then you may know that “mak[ing] use of familiar and emerging information & communication technologies” is one of the attributes. So, when we incorporate new technologies into our personal way of working, it becomes second nature to pass these skills onto students. This post is an introduction to the tools available for conducting digital research and is the first in a series on digital scholarship.

Using Technology in Digital Research

 Let’s take a look back in time. Experienced researchers were once well acquainted with various libraries, archives, prestigious journals and other places where obscure pieces of information could be found. At any given time you could find them hidden behind stacks of books and surrounded by notepads, photocopies, and a litter of pens, pencils and highlighters. Notes scribbled in margins amidst long blocks of highlighted text, photocopied pages, and trusted notebooks were once visible indications that research was in progress. Close relationships with librarians and archivists were to be cultivated and treasured. Today, however, this is a less common scene. In today’s libraries, there are more patrons clamouring for the WiFi in an effort to connect their laptop, tablet, or mobile phone rather than clogging the shelf aisles looking for books.

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Instead of going to the card catalog, patrons go to Google or to the library’s electronic catalog. While many libraries today are leaning towards a mostly digitised collection, many still offer a blended service of traditional and digital objects. So, today’s librarians focus less on helping patrons find books and journals from the shelves and more on helping patrons find their way around the Internet and its myriad of information. Digital literacy and information management courses are finding their way into libraries and classrooms because though the information is widely available, knowing how to get started and what to do with search results can be daunting.

The advent of the types of resources that follow has ushered us into a new era of research:

  • Google Scholar – provides a search of scholarly literature across many disciplines and sources, including theses, books, abstracts and articles.
  • Google Blog Search – provides a search of published blogs on any subject
  • Bamboo DiRT – a registry of digital research tools for scholarly use.
  • Educator’s Technology – provides a list of ten tools for academic research.

“Now, as often as not, we help users ignore the ‘white noise’ of information to choose the best source… As sources become more numerous, thoughtful answers to questions become harder to find. The free Internet so often just parrots the same quotation or opinion a myriad of places.”

— Lee Sorensen, Librarian, Duke University

Further, instead of being overwhelmed by the mounting pile of books, today’s researcher can feel overwhelmed with the number of open windows on the computer screen. Luckily, many software programs have been and are continuously being developed to make this a smoother process.

  • Zotero – a free, easy-to-use tool to help collect, organise, cite, and share research sources.
  • Qiqqa – is free software to help academics manage their research PDFs and ideas. Full-text search all documents, sync the library between all devices, tag and annotate documents, built-in browser for easy downloading and search.
  • CiteULike – is a well-established free service to help store, organise and share scholarly papers. Interesting papers on the web, can be added to a personal library in one click. CiteULike automatically extracts the citation details. The library can be shared with others and identifies who is reading the same papers as you. In turn, this can help to discover literature which is relevant to a particular field.

The Effects of Social Media on Academic Research

“Prior to me blogging and tweeting about the paper, it was downloaded twice (not by me). The day I tweeted and blogged it, it immediately got 140 downloads. This was on a Friday; on the Saturday and Sunday it got downloaded, but by fewer people. On Monday it was retweeted and the paper received a further 140 or so downloads. I have no idea what happened on the 24th of October — someone must have linked to it? Posted it on a blog? Then there were a further 80 downloads. Then the traditional long tail, then it all goes quiet.”

–Melissa Terras, The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment

Social media are websites and applications that allow people to create and share information and ideas and engage in social networking. For some, social media is simply an avenue for the younger generations to expose unnecessary and inappropriate details about their lives. This causes many academics to stay away from these platforms without understanding their benefits. However, from an academic perspective, there are two main benefits of engaging with social media: almost instantaneous interaction with a larger community without travel and an increased awareness of who you are and what you do. Many academics use these tools as a way to engage with other scholars, stay abreast of what is happening in the field, share their own research, and collaborate on projects. For example, by creating profiles on sites like LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Blogger, and Twitter, academics begin to develop digital profiles revolved around their research which results in an increase in downloads and citations of their works. Social media also provides a quick way to get informal feedback on work without being hindered by the process of publishing in journals or peer review.

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Not only can being active on social media benefit your own pursuits, but it can have a positive impact on students and the university as a whole. According to Sarah Langmead, Assistant Editor of eCampus News, “[m]ost administrators agree that safe communities created within social media—how professors can link students to course materials via monitored virtual environments—is a positive movement. Social media also encourages collaboration among students and professors, and it gives them opportunities to produce good content and further market a university’s unique fingerprint and identity.”

As an example, Adam Arenson, a former PhD student from the University of Texas briefly discusses his experience of going from an absence of technology in his research process to not being able to imagine conducting research any other way.

Following are popular social media sites to aid with building a digital presence. For those new to social media, putting information online can be intimidating. However, there is guidance on creating a positive digital identity.

  • Mendeley – a free reference manager and academic social network that can help organise research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research.
  • Academia.edu – a place to share and follow research.
  • LinkedIn – a place to build a professional profile, connect with and collaborate with others online.
  • Twitter – a microblogging site that allows you to connect with people, express yourself and discover what is happening.

To read how other professors are using social media, check out these case studies from the Jisc Research Information Network.

The Way Forward

While the Digital Age and its culture of openness and big data have had positive implications on gathering and sharing research and networking, it has created murky waters for other areas. For example, big data is a topic of discussion in almost every sector and openness has made more data available to researchers than ever before.  However, this creates challenges with understanding how to use new data, linking datasets together, and data curation. Further, openness has also created a division in the world of academic publishing with one group preferring to maintain the traditional process of peer review and the prestige of certain journals while others prefer to only publish in journals that are freely accessible to all.

“But with the advent of the Internet and easy-to-use content management systems like WordPress and Blogger, the power to publish is now in anyone’s hands. How then should the process for deciding quality be redefined for the digital age? …DHThis.org – [is an] experiment a new platform where a community instead of a small group of editors select the most valuable content within the digital humanities. DHThis is a news aggregator which “publishes” what the community votes to be the best or most relevant work.”

-Adaline Koh, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 September 2013

Only time will tell if this is the way forward, but for now, it’s important for us to at least be aware of the changes that are happening. Our current focus must be on creating and cultivating a digital awareness of our work and connecting not just with the wider community but also with the local university community and the students. The end goal is to produce students who not only understand the subject matter, but who are also equipped with the best tools to produce the best work and communicate that on a variety of platforms beyond the typical academic setting.

Further reading  –  This brief guide serves to highlight the ways in which academics and librarians are using social media to find and create communities surrounding research and also to guide students’ use of digital tools for research and life beyond university.

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