Organising and searching the literatures

What a lot of books!

What a lot of books!

This week the Graduate School hosted a workshop on “organising and searching the literatures” for new doctoral students. In the past few years I have included this topic, albeit briefly, within the longer workshop “The beginner’s guide to the doctorate”. However, I was reminded not long ago that it can be hard for those of us who are experienced researchers to remember quite how daunting it can be to navigate the literatures.  Pat Thomson’s blog has a number of entries that doctoral researcher should really read about literature reviews.

The initial stages of a research degree are all about becoming familiar with your field, to understand where your proposed research project will fit, to see where the gaps are, to ultimately be able satisfy the claim for originality that you’ll make.

So where to begin? A strategy for searching out references is quite a good place, it can be easy to fall into a trap of aimlessly searching the internet for anything that might be relevant to what you’re doing so our first topic was to take stock and think about how to search effectively for things. This might sound a little bit basic but it’s important to realise that there are different strategies depending on what you are searching. We have become used to using google to find answers to questions but we need to keep in mind how databases operate to search them effectively. Jane Belger, the research and knowledge librarian, gave the following advice to boost our “finding out skills”.

Some key resources that might be helpful in the search of the literatures

Working with literatures #phdknowhow from Professor Pat Thomson

Literature reviews – beware The List from Professor Pat Thomson

Reference Management

We then moved onto how to organise stuff, it is one thing being able to find reference material, to skim read and to feel you’ve achieved something but it is quite another to be able to organise your references in a meaningful way replete with notes about why that reference is relevant, what you thought about etc.

At UWE we have an institutional subscription to a reference management system called Refworks. This is an online reference management system that integrates well with with a number of databases that the UWE Library subscribe to, it has a neat plug in for Microsoft Word called write ‘n’ cite and has loads of different bibliographic referencing styles that can be used.

Here’s the support document form UWE about using Refworks.

On the other hand there are other solutions available to manage your references that are better in other ways, for example for storing and/or annotating PDF files. Here’s a useful comparison of the most popular tools. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what solutions are out there and I think it fair to say that there isn’t a perfect solution for everybody so…

My advice is to use a tool that suits you, to learn how to use it properly earlier rather than later, and then stick to it. Trust me when I say that it will save you time if you develop an efficient system before you get into the depths of writing.

Research Data Management Best Practice

Under lock and key: keeping your data safe

Under lock and key: keeping your data safe

Last updated 12 November 2015

This week UWE put on a workshop on the topic of data management, something that is becoming much more important in contemporary research environments. Indeed JISC have been funding a number of projects on producing best practice in this area.

I was lucky enough to be able to invite the UWE research and knowledge exchange librarians,  Jenni Crossley to facilitate this session. We started out the session with a small quiz asking where the researchers were with their current practice of data management. The slides they used in the workshop are embedded below.

During the session, the researchers were asked to look through the template below to help them think about their data management plans.

There was also a short humourous take on data management…

The remainder of the session was used to explore the excellent resources that the the Library services have

Further resources

UWE guidance for researchers on data management

UWE guidance on secure storage of research data

Guide on Research Data Management from JISC

Informed Researcher booklet (need to register with Vitae)

Getting to grips with your research career

Getting to grips with career

Getting to grips with career

Recently we held our twice-yearly UWE research staff development event, this time on the theme of “getting to grips with your research career.” As the title suggests the event was a space for researchers from across UWE to get together and reflect on where they’re at in their career, where they might want to go, and how to get there.

Since the University is about to review the researcher role grading process, it seemed opportune to get some’ feedback via a short questionnaire, about how researchers themselves perceive the step up from Associate to Fellow – both the difference between these roles, and the application process itself. Pam has kindly collated the feedback (see separate document) for you to look at.

We then heard from three senior researchers, who had been asked to offer advice as if to their younger, less experienced researcher selves. Richard, Glenn and Darren were all very generous and honest with their insights, and you can see their presentations via the UWE Research Support webpages.

After “Dear Less Experienced Self”, it was time for “Dear Future Me”: for this, the group used prompt cards articulated to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to identify a skill or attribute they could do to work on in order to help their career progression – and, because we like to keep things positive, two things they’re already good at and would like do even better.

To help make the RDF feel a bit more concrete and ‘lived’ (and get us up and moving a bit!), each small group stood in a circle and threw a ball to one another: the idea being that when you get the ball, you have to say what card/skill you chose, why, and how good you are at it already – with examples if possible!

While one usually goes away from these events with genuinely good intentions, life – in fact, just the sort of the things w talked about in part 1 – does have a habit of getting in the way. So, to try and keep the good intentions alive, everyone was invited to complete a ‘postcard to self’ listing up to 3 small, practical things to do in the next couple of months to help them move forward on the skills identified in part 2.

Many thanks to all – the presenters, Glenn and the rest of the Planning Group and, most of all, to everyone who came along on the day, for joining in with such enthusiasm – I do hope you found it a worthwhile and fun morning, and we look forward to seeing you again at the next (whole day) event on 1 December 2014.

The creative researcher

Having a light bulb moment?

Having a light bulb moment?

This week at UWE we welcomed Dave Jarman, the Head of Enterprise Education at the University of Bristol to facilitate a session on creativity in research. Here’s some thoughts from Dave about how important creativity is in the business of research.

The Creative Researcher session explores the basic principles of creative and innovative thought and their importance for researchers. As researchers and as products of traditional education programmes we often prize critical and analytical thought very highly – but the ability to suspend critical thought is integral to generating creative thoughts from which truly innovative applications can arise. Too often we seek the ‘right answer’ which usually leads us exactly where everyone else has gone before – if we’re trying to find something original we have to look where others do not.

As a result creativity involves a different approach; partially an internal one – giving yourself permission to make mistakes, to explore the ridiculous, to follow your curiosity down possible dead-ends, and to stretch yourself into ‘uncomfortable’ and unfamiliar territories. But the external environment also has an impact; creativity thrives in resource-rich and diverse networks. You need stimulation, connections, and an environment conducive to exploration to generate creative ideas and experiment with them.

Further links

Research in Contemporary Context #vitae13

Research in definition

Research in definition

Using ‘Research-Based Learning’ to Enhance Doctoral Skills Development

At the recent Vitae Researcher Development International Conference myself and Neil Willey presented a workshop outlining our approach to a new module aimed at doctoral students. The Prezi we used can be found here:

Research in Contemporary Context module prezi.

In October 2012 in the Graduate School at UWE we started running a new module for doctoral students that we hoped might enhance their experience of personal and professional skills development. Perhaps a bit ambitiously, we hoped it might help solve a number of commonly perceived challenges including; the separation of research and skills development activity, the provision of credit for the full range of skills development activities and the delivery of skills development for students who spend most of their time away from the university. The module is called ‘Research in Contemporary Context (RCC)’ and we used ‘Work-Based Learning’ modules at UWE to inspire its design as a ‘Research-Based Learning’ module. The module booklet with details and an introductory ppt are embedded below – what follows are some thoughts of how we designed it and how we run it.

Work-based learning embeds learning in a workplace. It usually involves an interaction between work activity and university-based sessions that results in the development of professional competencies. It’s widely used to deliver professional practice qualifications. We reasoned that there was an analogy with doctoral students developing skills – their research was their work and skills development their university-based sessions, which should interact to develop professional competencies expected in researchers. A potential catch was that we needed a set of professional competencies to provide a framework – which we quickly realized could be Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework.

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

So, here’s what we do. We have six 3 hour Professional Practice workshops dedicated to RCC on topics we have chosen to match some of the descriptors on the RDF. We also ask that students identify 6 workshops from the UWE Skills Development series. The default module run for students on the module is 2 years and 10 months, i.e. from when they register they have this long to do all the workshops. This is so that students can do workshops when they coincide with relevant phases of their research. Before each Professional Practice workshop we use Blackboard to make material available to students. We then run the workshop with both actual and remote attendance, after which students return to their ‘workplace’, i.e. research. Before the end of their run, students must submit a Reflective Portfolio of evidence for each workshop topic in action in their research or research discipline, and an in depth case study of one of them. If these are satisfactory they are then awarded 30 M level professional practice credits. We chose a Reflective Portfolio because we felt that reflection would not only encourage topics to seem alive in student research but also because most of them were best engaged with by doing them or seeing them in action, reflecting on them, and doing again, i.e. they were based in practice. The advice we give is below.

How does this help with skills development? First, we hope that it embeds thinking about professional practice and skills development in student research, breaking down the feeling that students take time out to do these as separate activities. It also involves supervisors in skills development because students talk to them about it and they help with assessment at the end. Second, students get credits for activities that map directly onto the RDF. We think this not only helps with engagement but also provides a concrete, professional development outcome from the time spent. Third, by providing fully interactive remote access to workshops that support research-based learning, and having students submit their Portfolio electronically via Blackboard, a student can complete the module without having to travel to the university. At UWE more than 50% of our students are PT, and FT students are located on a number of campuses and frequently research off campus, so this has met a real need. In addition, we record workshops so that students can watch them at any time, reminding them of topics as they see them in action.

And finally, we have students from across all disciplines taking the module. This has made for very interesting discussions on many topics and enabled students to meet a wider variety of researchers than they do in, for example, their research group or centre. It’s still early days but we feel that our ‘Research In Contemporary Context’ module is an interesting attempt to overcome some of the challenges of delivering skills development to busy, and often disperse, doctoral students.

Social media for researcher developers: what’s in it for me? #vitae12

This week, Emma Gillaspy (Vitae NW Hub Manager) and I presented a workshop at the Vitae International Researcher Development Conference  [#vitae12] on the topic of using social media. This time it was aimed at folks, who like me, are employed to support the development of researchers.

The background to this is that researchers are changing the way they use digital tools in the context of their research. There is lots of work going on as part of the wider JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme including work being carried out by Vitae to better understand the development needs of researchers.

I’m interested in the digital literacy of folks like me for a couple of reasons:

1) It surely makes sense to better understand how researchers using digital tools in the context of research so that we are better able to support them

2) I believe that the very same digital tools can help staff supporting researchers to engage in their own professional development (something that we all want more of!)

The slides I used to support this workshop are below.

In this workshop we had a good number of conference attendees taking part, there was a mix of experience in the room which is what I had expected. One of the first things we asked people to do was to identify their hopes and fears about using digital tools. I predicted that the fears would fall into three broad categories:

  1. Information overload – the fear that engaging in social media would be too much information to keep track of
  2. Digital Identity – concern over what to share about oneself, privacy issues and the blurring of private versus professional
  3. Data/intellectual property concerns – what happens if I share something that someone else exploits/stealing of ideas

Here’s what they said…


During the presentation I showed a couple of youtube videos to illustrate some points, the first was about the revolutionary effect of social media in general – the changing attitudes perhaps

The key points from this are:

Social media is not about technology or tools, it’s about people sharing things

We don’t have a choice about whether we do social media only how well we do it

The second video I used was Zella King talking about how social networks are important – researchers already know this but this video talks about how we can better understand how to makes networks work for us.

The key thing from this video to take is that one needs to understand who is in our network, both close ties and weak links which can be used for different purposes.

Remember that the use of the tools only make interacting with our networks a lot easier.

We used a lot of examples throughout the workshop about how researchers and researcher developers use tools at their disposal to make things easier. I talked a bit about what tools I use to compartmentalise my private versus professional life. I also talked about why I blog – I started a blog for myself, it was to reflect on the skills development events that I have run so that I can get it out of my head. It also serves as a repository of what I have done so I can refer back to it. A pleasing side effect of this is that others have found that useful and have begun to interact, comment and feedback which is fantastic for informing how to do things better – to improve ones professional practice!

I think we touched on something important for the attendees, many expressed an interest in using more digital technologies to improve on what they do which can only be good for all concerned.

Emma and I would be interested in knowing what you think about it, what hopes and fears do you have?

Further resources

Handbook of social media for researchers and supervisors (2012). Open University/Vitae

Social Media: A guide for researchers (2011). Research Information Network

If you build it, will they come? How researchers perceive and use web 2.0 (2010). Research Information Network

A guide to using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities (2011). LSE Impact of social sciences blog

Focus on… The Digital Researcher #drsww

This week Tristram Hooley and I ran a workshop on behalf of the SW & Wales Vitae Hub entitled “Focus on… The Digital researcher and you“. This is one of a series of workshops aimed at those staff in universities who support the devlopment of researchers.

The aim of the day was to take a closer look at the use of social media in the context of research not just from the perspective of the researchers we support but also as a means by which we can improve our own professional practice.

In recent times there have been discussions in the researcher development community about how to improve on what we do; to find different ways of engaging with research students, staff and their supervisors.

Tristram and I worked together on preparing for the day using Prezi, an online presentation platform that makes it easier to collaborate. Here is the presentation that we used:

dig researcherDigital Researcher #drsww on Prezi