Tag Archives: social

Storing and archiving data


When I was doing my own PhD, I had a filing cabinet with three or four drawers, and even then I had hundreds of photocopies of academic papers stacked in small piles according to theme and relevance to the section that I was writing about next. My raw research data, however, was compactly contained in electronic format in the form of tables and graphs; row after row of numbers on spreadsheets which could be tabulated and correlated in any format that I desired. When I left the department, the files were archived for a few years, and then I suspect they were all dumped when the department moved to another building on another campus.

Now, when I generate research data, it is almost entirely in electronic format, and it is automatically stored in several places. I have my personal space in the memory banks of the university computing system, and this space is automatically backed-up overnight. I also usually back-up to my own cloud-space, so that I can access the data wherever and whenever I want. Usually, I also store data for individual projects on a separate memory stick or portable hard-drive. The digital age means that after two or three clicks, I can be assured that copies of my data are safely held in four or five independent locations. Research students can simultaneously share data with a colleague or supervisor in a different part of the world without even leaving their own desk.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, because the production of digital data raises almost as many questions as it provides innovative opportunities. There needs to be an early discussion in the supervisory team, for instance, about not simply which data will be stored, but where will it be stored, for how long, and who will have access to it? This is not simply an issue of security, although security, confidentiality, and appropriate use of the data will certainly figure in the discussion. There is a growing awareness that when public money is used to fund research, there needs to be a transparent return on public interest. Initially this has meant that research results, reports, and journal articles, should be made freely available to the public. This is being extended in the next Research Excellence Framework in the UK to insist that if the journal article is not already published as an open resource, it needs to be added as an open source on the digital repository of the relevant institution. But there’s more.

The argument has been extended to include the research data generated by the public funding, so the datasets themselves are trending to become open and shared property. Whether the data is numbers, interviews, audio recordings, photographs, or other recordable results, the likelihood is that the data being gathered by a researcher today, is probably going to be a shared resource tomorrow. It will be possible for other researchers, in subsequent years, to access your raw data, perhaps combine it with other raw data, and re-analyse, re-interpret, and publish their conclusions. It now begins to matter a great deal more seriously exactly who can gain access to your research data, and for what purposes. As the law currently stands, a bona fide researcher can have access to open datasets for up to ten years after they have been deposited. But here is the catch – if a researcher accesses this data after nine years, the open-access clock is automatically re-set for a further ten years. This ensures the certainty that data which is being collected and digitally stored just now, might be still openly available long after the initial researcher has moved on from that research topic, perhaps changed institutions, changed careers, maybe even passed away. The raw data of open access digital resources is now guaranteed a lifetime longer than the career-span of many individual researchers. So think carefully about what you gather, how you organise and store it, and what your legacy of research data will be!


Getting research ethics approval


Teaching research ethics is almost impossible. Teaching someone about ethics is a different matter, but unless a person actually understands why ethical standards are essential, then everything else is fruitless. It is relatively straightforward to present examples of good ethical practice (and what happens when this practice is ignored) but this simply underpins the implementation of the ethical standards, not the need for them. Fortunately, there are lots of detailed guidelines and professional codes describing the expectations of ethical behaviour, many of them readily available on the web. I say “lots” because the ethical standards vary widely in content and detail, dependent on the subject discipline, the research methods employed, the level of study, and several other factors. This might sound vague, but think about it. There will be a different level of scrutiny required if a researcher seeks access to the confidential medical files of patient, rather than simply asking patients to respond to a few verbal questions. There will be different standards again if the researcher plans to work with animals, or children, or vulnerable adults with diminished responsibility. There is also an ethical code for internet-mediated research, although this is new, variable, and highly contextual, so it is an evolving set of guidelines. Despite these differences, the purpose of research ethics is the same in each case – namely to prevent causing harm to the participants, to preserve their dignity (for example their right to anonymity) and to enable them to withdraw from the study without any undue pressure or penalty.

For these reasons, there is a crucial stage between deciding on what research methods are to be adopted for a study, and the commencement of data collection. This crucial stage is where the researcher submits the details of the design, methodology, and any issues relating to the collection and storage of data, for approval by the university ethics committee. Only after ethical clearance has been approved can the student begin to collect data. Failure to obtain approval before data is collected may result in the university deciding that this data is not admissible for inclusion in the study. If there have been any severe breaches of ethical responsibility, the study may be terminated or the student de-registered. For this reason, the ethical approval of a student research project is a gate-keeper stage of every study.

Fortunately, most research projects have fairly straightforward ethical requirements which are easily satisfied in full. A lot of the ethical safeguards might be regarded as “simply common sense” (and so they are) but you might be surprised by the number of times people say “Oh, there are no ethical issues with my research!” This is almost certainly wrong. Even the issue of whether the researcher with half-formed ideas should be “wasting” the time of an interviewee who almost certainly has something better, perhaps crucial, to do, is an ethical issue. For these reasons, seeking ethical approval for research should be a serious matter, but not something to fret unduly about, if the researcher has properly thought through the research design. Once the ethical approval has been obtained, the researcher is able to jump out of the starting blocks to engage with data collection, and this is where the real fun part starts.

Keeping track of articles


One of the key skills in any research project is good organisation. This is especially true for a PhD research project, lasting as they do over three years of full-time study, or up to seven years part-time. Students start off with two or three seminal articles relating to their research topic, but the field of reference will grow dramatically within the first six months, and citations will continue to be added to the reference list right up until the dissertation is submitted. Even then, the external examiner(s) might insist at the viva that the student needs to consider further a certain area of the research which will require further reading. Without a careful system, it does not take long for this growing pile of references to become unmanageable!

Some researchers swear by the old “traditional” system of individual index cards, alphabetically filed for each reference. This has the advantage of being able to add notes, summaries, questions etc., and also it is not dependent on technology, so does not require electricity or a battery. On the other hand, a file of cards is not very portable, can be a bit clumsy to sort, and not being digital, is less flexible to re-purpose. There are number of software packages, both free and commercial, that allow you to store and sort references on a computer. A product called Refworks provides an online database to manage bibliographic data, and this has numerous advantages, including being able to manipulate the data to display in different academic styles, create bibliographies for different publications, and also to access the data from different devices and locations. The university may subscribe to this product or some comparable service. Personally, I use a simple word processed file. This does not have the flexibility of customised bibliographic management software, but it has the advantage of being easy to create and use without specialised training. To create a bibliography for a new article I simply cut-and-paste from my master list (not forgetting to keep back-up copies of the master-list in other locations!)

In addition, Mendeley https://www.mendeley.com/ is a free manager for references and pdf documents which can be used to annotate articles and share online with students and other colleagues. It’s easy to use, see https://youtu.be/qRiAIaqdAOg and allows storage and access to a personalised library collection from any internet location. So, for example, a researcher could import an identified article, store it in a personalised online space, add comments and questions to the file, then share with an online social network which could include a research team, supervisors, or a cohort of students. Whatever filing system for research articles is used by a PhD student, it needs to be able to store, display and allow easy retrieval of anything that has been read over the duration of the study, which is not a simple task when this means five or six hundred individual references.

The new research student

1.1 Ls

1.1 The suitability of the research student

What sort of person makes the best PhD student? What characteristics and attributes should a supervisor look for? Fortunately there is no blueprint. Each and every student is different, but there are some common attributes. Obviously, every supervisor hopes for the perfect student, who will be meticulous, self-motivated, well-disciplined, and a competent all-rounder! The reality is that most students who make it as far as being registered for a research degree will have all of these attributes in some measure. Their levels of competence and performance will vary throughout their period of study, and part of the job of a supervisor is to moderate, encourage, and develop these competencies, and perhaps to add a few more skills as the need occurs. The journey of the PhD research student is essentially and fundamentally a voyage of transformation of the student. The person who successfully completes a PhD is really a different person from the one who began; more confident, more skilled, more competent, with a fundamentally changed outlook on their own professional abilities.

In the old days, it was felt that the only way the student could acquire this change of state was for the student to inhabit the same environment as the professor. Not in the same room, of course, but certainly living within shouting distance. What really intrigues me in contemporary academia, is the ability to utilise a wide range of digital technology to narrow the conceptual distance between a supervisor on campus, and a research student at a distance. We frequently take for granted the diversity and sophistication of the digital technology within our easy reach. From ‘simple’ e-mail and Skype, to more complex social media and file-sharing protocols, there is a range of digital tools that, while they have not been specifically designed for academics, are amply suited, with perhaps minor adaptations, to the intimate world of research student supervision.

Traditionally, one, or perhaps two, academics would get together to think about a burning research question that interested them. They would seek funding to cover the costs of employing a student, meet the need of associated costs such as tuition fees, library and IT resources, possibly field work, and so on. Then they would advertise, interview, and appoint a research student, who would come to work full-time under their instruction, usually for around three years, until the student completed writing up and defending a research thesis that (usually) supported and was an extension of the life-work of the main supervisor.

This is still a common model, but fortunately the flexibility and innovation that has evolved at all levels of progressive education, has resulted in a wide range of new study options. It is increasingly frequent for research students to be self-funded, and studying part-time. These students will normally be working – fees and other bills have to be paid – and they may also have family responsibilities – the care of young children or elderly parents – that would make full-time study impossible. On the other hand, what they lose from the energy and momentum of working full-time on an absorbing research project can be made up for by increased time-span for reading, cogitation, and gathering data.



One of the really good things about being a writer is that there is a written record of your ideas. I was watching a video clip this morning on the Professorial lecture by Linda Creanor at GCU and I was struck in her short review of “Learning and Technology – evolution or revolution” how far we have come. In a book that I co-wrote about ten years ago called “The Connecticon: learning for the connected generation” we explored the enhanced ability of using digital networks to connect with people and share ideas. We called this “hyper-interactivity” and though “social networks” were not really on the radar to the same scale as today – networks certainly were. It’s the inter-activity that stimulates learning. I think there is a fundamental difference between talking about a “networked generation” versus “digital natives”. We are all able to join the “networked generation” (even if we are ‘the older generation’ 🙂 ) but the idea that people are dropping out of the womb with an in-built ability to use digital networks effectively just does not stack up. I liked Linda’s mention of the use of “animateurs” to facilitate connectivity in digital networks (I was a big advocate of animateurs in the early 1990’s and trained many), and I also liked her comments on the changing perceptions of MOOCs and how they might interact with the institution. One of the criticisms sometimes levelled against digital resources is that they have a short shelf-life and the link is liable to vanish – but you know what, the same is true of the “traditional” printed media! Publishers normally run very limited print-runs of books these days, and as a result even some very good books go out of print very quickly. Unlike old library books, which seem to be pulped or sent to second-hand stores, the digital artefact has the ability to be permanently archived and permanently accessible, even if just for historical comparison. Check out Linda’s lecture here

Openness in networks

Openness in networks

I have had several fascinating conversations this week between people who would like to see online social networks used more fully in education and those who emphatically do not. My own view is that such networks can and should be used where appropriate to the learning tasks, but that students (and staff) will need training in order to understand what they are doing and to use the applications responsibly. I have heard some “fundamentalist” arguments that external applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc should never be used for education (despite the well documented advantages for student support and engagement). I have also heard a totally gung-ho “bring-it-on” attitude that rushes to adopt every new technology. In my view, both are wrong! The benefits of the new wave of web 2.0 applications, apart from the networking potential, are the peer-to-peer co-creation of knowledge, and also the unpredictability of the network connections. Not for nothing has it been called “disruptive education”. While I do firmly believe that the ‘established’ educational system does need to be disrupted and encouraged to embrace the online innovation that is hitting every other sector of society, I am not in favour of incautiously experimenting on students. The way that we teach people to deal with new technology, such as online social networks, is not to ban it or smother it in regulations, but to work with students so that they learn the benefits and disadvantages and through this we all understand what constitutes “appropriate behaviour” . I was reminded of a wonderful educational quote that “We learn about democracy by acting democratically” and following on from this I adapted this great image from those social media known as ‘Wikipedia’ and the ‘Creative Commons’ to reflect on another misguided attempt to dictate how people should think and with whom they should network.

e-books again

e-books again

I have been doing some work on e-books recently, so I was delighted to learn that we have just won a contract from JISC to research “the institution as an e-book publisher”. It will entail us producing a couple of e-books as core texts, investigating how these books are used, and documenting the whole process so that we can share this with other institutions that want to create their own e-book service. Ours will be particularly targeted at linking with our online education provision, but enabling students to download the key text for offline access on their kindle, or iPad etc. A key part for me will be the creation of a companion website that will allow us to add and update the e-book, and also to allow the addition of other “layers” of information, such as case studies and examples of how the key concepts in the e-book can be contextualised in various situations. This interactivity with the printed word is a novel aspect of digital texts, and I am looking forward to experimenting with the ideas. We have a good team at the UHI and we will be working with colleagues at Edinburgh Napier University, so keep an eye open for the e-tips project (e-textbooks institutional publication service) it’s coming tour way soon…. 🙂