Monday, 7 December 2009

Researching early career researchers

When considering the needs of academics as the users of a service, it's very tempting to divide them up into different groups. We tend to assume that scholars in STEM subjects have different needs to those in the arts and humanities; we imagine that a teaching focus might lead to differing requirements from those concentrating on research. And sometimes we seem to forget one key differentiator: the gulf between the needs of a young and enthusiastic postdoc, still building a network and a profile, and those of a well-known Professor who spends his time dashing between keynote opportunities.

CARET recently produced a report into the lives and technology use of early career researchers, and found their needs are clearly distinct from those of established, senior academics.

The early career researcher is a PhD student or postdoc, who has only been in their field of research for a few years. Early career researchers may be a force for change in research processes and technologies, flexible and willing to experiment with new systems, but this affect may be moderated by the more conservative researchers who work with, and in some cases supervise, them.

The report investigates some of the ways in which "ECRs" use technology, would like to use technology, try to use technology, and how higher education institutions and funding bodies may be able to help them in the future. One key finding is that a great deal of the scholarly activity of an early career researcher involves ICT in some way; but perhaps more interestingly, almost all their technology use involves people in some way.

You can download the full report here, but some of the highlights are included below.

Every early career researcher is uniquely situated in career stage, research area, discipline, networks, and objectives. Nonetheless, their experiences share some common features. Early career researchers (ECR) are attempting to build their professional research profile, whilst often trying to fit in to a new environment, be that a new discipline, institution, group or role. Short degree courses and short term contracts mean that many early career researchers have lives punctuated by change. Throughout, they are aware of complex issues of trust, an example of which is the delicate balance between mutual support from peers, and competition for funding, jobs, and publications.

Day-to-day, early career researchers’ lives have much in common, even across quite different disciplines. Their work involves them in a wide variety of tasks throughout the research lifecycle - seeking new information, gathering data, analysis, reflection and discussion, and publishing - plus teaching and administrative roles. ICT plays a role in almost all these activities, and ECRs choose the tools they use with care, balancing the costs and benefits of each. People and relationships play a key role in the ICT experience of the early career researcher.

Early career researchers are members of multiple networks, frequently overlapping, with subtly graduated relationship types and trust levels. For whatever reason, physically proximate relationships are currently dominant in the lives of many ECRs; particularly strong relationships are characterised by the use of multiple redundant communication channels or technologies. It can be argued that the development of early career researchers would be enhanced by a more distributed network, which is not always possible today due to the often limited travel funding for conference attendance and visits; online scholarly networking could support this instead. Work-life balance is important to early career researchers, who wish to retain their own boundaries between professional and social activities, even if those boundaries are blurred.

The culture and practices of a discipline, or research group, often dominate choices about the ways in which technology is used. Traditional methods - even pen and paper - still play an important role for many early career researchers. Email is also still widely used, although this is often forgotten in discussion of communication technologies today. Early career researchers are happy to repurpose non-academic technology tools for scholarly use, although this practice is not widespread. Awareness of novel ways of using tools spreads generally via networks. Serendipitous discovery of new tools and methods through word of mouth is also very common and appears to be one of the best ways to find out about new systems or practices.

Despite many ECRs being interested in trying out new technologies, 72% of early career researchers reported that they did not even use Web 2.0 or social media to share their research. This may reflect the many and varied constraints which limit ICT take-up amongst early career researchers, perhaps including norms of secrecy in research practice; this study found social, confidence, skills, institutional and participatory constraints on technology use by ECRs.

Any tool used for collaboration or communication requires that all those engaged in the work must have the tool available to them, and be capable of using it, and choose to do so. This can limit the adoption of new technologies, as many groups will include a mixture of more and less technically-savvy researchers (whether early career, or established), and any tool which is to be used across the group must be acceptable to all. Other researchers who may view new technology (particularly ‘social web’ tools) with scepticism, or as frivolous, can discourage early career researchers from using, or promoting, these systems.

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