Studies of Research: Understanding Graduate Students’ Knowledge About Research Data Management

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.

I hope the researchers whose work I plan to talk about for this series don’t mind that I’ll be applying the “study of research” label to what they do, but in each case I’ll try to make it clear why I’m doing that.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at “Understanding Graduate Students’ Knowledge About Research Data Management: Workflows, Challenges, and the Role of the Library” by Gesina A. Phillips, Rebekah S. Miller, and Cathryn F. Miller.

What it’s about

Research data management is a trending topic in the library and information sciences field. A pilot project involving Duquesne University and five other institutions researched the need for data services in libraries. That study led to interesting questions about the role of graduate students in the RDM process and how they learn about RDM. With this in mind, Phillips, Miller, & Miller conducted follow-up work  to understand more about these questions in the hope of identifying gaps in both students’ knowledge and processes that would present opportunities to offer library services.


Who students ask for help

The answer to the second half of the authors’ question about how students learn about research data management is answered early on: their information-seeking behaviors are located within their disciplines. Meaning, they ask their advisors, other faculty in the department, peers or lab managers.

On the one hand, this means that the students don’t tend to seek help from the library, possibly because (as the authors point out later in the paper), libraries tend to frame this assistance as “research data management” and students may not know what this means, even if they have participated in research data management processes. On the other, this potentially says a lot about the contextual nature of research. When asking for help, students stick to those within their discipline in part because these are the people they know best but also, whether they think about it this way or not, these are the people who are most familiar with the context of the research they are conducting. They know more about the goals, motivations, processes, and expectations of this research than someone outside of the discipline would.

This points to an issue where librarians want to be seen as research experts but our ability both to be disciplinary experts and be recognized as disciplinary experts is somewhat limited, even when we have the needed credentials. As someone who believes strongly in the value of teaching about the contextual nature of research, this poses a problem  because it’s not enough just to teach the concept, you also have to teach the practice and this is hard to do if you don’t have the necessary disciplinary expertise. (But I still think it’s worth doing.)

Differences between disciplines

The contextual nature of research peeks through in a couple of other places in the paper. The first is when the authors find that what counts as data depends on the discipline in question. For science, health science, and social science students and researchers, data is represented by things like instrument output and patient records. For humanities students and researchers, the texts are the data, things like poems and letters. This is an important difference.

Another important and interesting difference has to do with workflow. The authors found that science and health sciences’ students tended to have more regimented processes, usually based on experimental factors. So the rules around how data needed to be handed were more strict. Meanwhile, the social sciences and humanities researchers used processes that were more individual and ad hoc. Basically, there weren’t any rules and they made it up as they went along.

Obviously, data security is a thing no matter what discipline you’re working in, but it’s easy to see how it would be less of a thing in disciplines where the data comes from poetry and other texts than disciplines where it might come from individual human research subjects. But again, this points to more evidence that the processes and expectations of research are different depending on the context in which it is being conducted.


The role of the grad student

One thing I found particularly interesting about the authors’ work is what they discovered about the role of the graduate student in the research process. They found that the graduate students they talked to didn’t seem to have a strong grasp on the project they were involved with as a whole, at least when it comes to the workflow aspect of things. Basically, each grad student had a part to play and when that part was over, as the authors put it here, “that was that.” For the most part, they didn’t know what happened to the data after they were done with it. And I may be reading too much into this, but it also seems like maybe they didn’t have a clear understanding of the larger picture when it came to the projects themselves. Like, what are we collecting this data for? What are we trying to understand? How does this work add to the scholarly conversation in the field?

I’ll admit that I don’t do a lot of the kind of research that requires assistance from grad students (and even if I did, I don’t have the funding to hire one to do it) so I don’t know to what extent grad students are generally informed about the research they’re participating in beyond their specific role. But if grad students are there to actually learn something about how research is done in their field and participate in scholarly conversation rather than just do scut work for the more experienced researchers, it kind of seems like they should know more about what comes next than the subjects in this particular study did.

That said, I’d be interested to know if there’s more research out there about the roles that grad students play in the research process and what it might say about the purpose of involving grade students in research at all.


Relationship to the study of research

The authors are clear here that the purpose of their study is to learn what graduate students know about data management and when, not so much to understand something about research itself but to identify areas where library services could be offered to help fill in the gaps. This happens a lot in LIS literature where librarians study research in order to understand something about the needs and behaviors of a particular population so the library can better serve that population. Because of this, these could probably be considered “indirect” studies of research rather than direct ones. Indirect studies of research aren’t necessarily seeking to understand something about research itself but instead might be informed in some key way by an understanding of how research works. In this case, the authors’ study is informed by an understanding that different disciplines have different practices when it comes to data management and shows what some of those differences are, from the point of view of a grad student. The authors’ research also says something interesting about what, exactly, the role of grad students might be in the research process. All of this both uses what we know about the contextual nature of research and helps add to it, making this paper a great example of an indirect study of research.





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