Tag Archives: apps

Recording data


Firstly, I’m aware that I have broken the first ‘rule’ of blogging, which is to keep the posts short, and keep them coming regularly, but I had a bit of a hiatus due to other interests and demands over the summer. Hopefully, now to get back on track

Starting to record the new data which is being gathered as part of a research project, whether a long-term study like a PhD, or a quick toe-in-the-water project, is the most crucial, but perhaps the subtlest stage of the research. If you gather too little data, the project may flounder even before it gets started; too much data, and a metaphoric mountain of results can be generated by cross-correlation and individual analysis, which can paralyse a project almost as quickly as having no data at all. Then there is the question of what is the “right” data? How will I know it when I see it? In reality, it is as likely to be different for every individual project as the diversity of methods of data gathering. The correct procedure, of course, is to recognise that recording the correct data is integrally dependant on selecting the correct research methodology, and in carefully selecting how the data will be collected, coded, and stored in the future.

One of the most impressive records of research data that I can remember, is from a scientist who was studying birds of prey, and his handwriting in an old notebook recorded what seemed to me to be almost every conceivable factor which might influence nesting success, including several factors that I, personally, would never have begun to consider relevant. He was of course correct, for it is often the correlations with hidden, and often apparently spurious, information which leads to the really stunning breakthroughs in research projects. There are many different ways of the recording research data that you might collect, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you are interviewing people, there is a choice between taking notes, audio recording, or video recording; all these methods have their advantages and disbenefits. Taking notes is less obtrusive, but also can be distracting for the researcher. Audio recording can be done easily with a digital recorder, or a suitable app on a smart-phone, but some people may be more guarded in their responses when they are being recorded, and there is also the problematic issue of what to do with all the data you have gathered. Gathering a huge mass of data can be attractive, but it needs to be proportionate to the scale of the project, because there is little point in generating a mountain of data if 80% is left unanalysed and unused. Great care needs to be taken to strike a balance between collecting a good data-set which provides rich possibilities for future analysis, against de-motivating your participants by presenting them with huge questionnaire or over-long interviews. Similar constraints apply when conducting laboratory experiments, fieldwork, or desk-top studies.

Finally, in addition to having to consider your recording requirements in terms of how you propose to codify and analyse the potential results (there is little point in collecting data so randomly that it cannot be interrogated effectively) there are the issues of long-term storage and access to the data. The research supervisor has a crucial role here, not simply in helping to shape what the research students proposes to gather, or how that might be analysed and interpreted, but in providing the continuity which may extend over several decades and overlap with numerous related research student projects. In an increasingly digital and open educational society, not simply the research results, but also the raw research data is also becoming more open and accessible. It is becoming more possible and more likely that scholars coming after you will read not just your conclusions, but also your original data recording notes, so think carefully about what you collect and how you record it!


Description versus critical review


In constructing a literature review of any proposed research topic, especially for new arrivals to research, there is often a tension between giving a straight description of the relevant academic articles rather than providing a critical analysis. This is understandable. The main purpose of the literature review is to provide subsequent readers with an introduction to the subject area of the research, and this is done by constructing a narrative – a story – of the evolution of the subject area to the stage that we understand at present. This description describes the “landscape” of the research subject area – the significant and salient points and the less well-known or contested points. The literature review, however, needs to be more than just a simple description of each significant article, more than a sort of “He said… then she said…” list of opinions.

The literature review, to be really useful, needs to critically evaluate the importance of each article, as well as providing a description of what was said, what methods were used, what degree of reliability the data has, etc. The reader has not only to understand the history of the development of the research topic, but to appreciate the relative merits of previous work. This is relatively easy at the start of the project, but by the end, juggling several hundred citations, it becomes a challenge.

A number of students and colleagues have drawn to my attention an app called RefME which is a really interesting piece of software which enables the compilation of a reference list very quickly. Once a (free) account has been created on the app, entries of citations for books, journal articles, and lots of other artefacts can be added instantly by scanning the bar-code of the publication using a phone with the app. The reference list can be built-up and accessed from any device with a web connection. Reference lists can be divided into lists for particular projects (articles, conferences?) and each list can be exported to various formats, including a simple word document. Each citation can also be annotated, so using a simple set of phrases and tags, a critical reference list can be compiled in minutes. The app also allows citations to be input manually, which is required for older publications and those without a bar code. There are several “easy” referencing systems available at present, but the simplicity, elegance, and flexibility of this app really impresses me.

Whichever method is used to compile the reference list, there are two golden rules to adhere to. Firstly, start early to compile the reference list and keep on top of it. As an article or book is read, and if you know it is going to be referred to in the text of the dissertation, it should be immediately added to the reference list. Secondly, keep a list which is an annotated bibliography, not simply the list of all the references, but copy the file and add short notes on each reference. Do not trust the memory to remember details such as page numbers (for direct quotations) and DOI numbers (for direct web access), or even for the key points of analysis and critique. As the numbers of citations begin to mount, the details begin to blur and disappear. This will act as a memory jog, and also as a useful item to share with a supervisor to discuss the merits and demerits of individual articles. As time progresses, because they are focussed on one specific research topic, the PhD student will discover relevant articles which the supervisor(s) may not have seen, and anyway, there is life after the PhD so you might want some of this material again, years down the line. Don’t trust the memory!