Book Review: Supporting Research Students

Supporting Research Students, by Barbara Allan
Review info: 

Supporting Research Students. By Barbara Allan, 2009, Facet Publishing, 208 pages, ISBN 978-1856046855

Brian Whalley reviews a work which helps Library and Information Science Staff at Higher Education Institutions to support their research students.

The purpose of this book is to support Library and Information Science (LIS) professionals at Higher Education institutions (HEIs) who may be involved with doctoral students. Supporting Research Students emanates from Dr Allan's own experience in gaining a PhD and as a Senior Lecturer in Student Learning and Management Learning at the University of Hull. She thus has considerable expertise in seeing postgraduate research from the student point of view and from support provision by LIS staff. I came to this review with interest and I should lay out my own credentials. I have had research students of my own, have been involved with courses for new academic supervisors and, for the last twenty-odd years, have been responsible for a 4-day national residential course for new research students in my research area.

This book is, according to the jacket blurb, 'an essential text for all library and information professionals in higher education institutions globally that cater for the needs of research students. It will also be valuable reading for LIS students'. Allan suggests that, after the Introductory Chapter 1, the remainder can be skimmed and dipped into. Chapter 2 is an introduction to the main terminology to inform LIS staff of research and research methodologies. In Chapters 3 and 4 there are descriptions of the research process from a research students' points of view. Chapter 5 looks at research skills, especially information skills, required by research students. Chapter 6 focuses on the library and information staff who provide the support and examines different ways of doing this. Chapter 7 considers the idea and practice of a 'Virtual Graduate School' and Chapter 8 follows this with an overview of research communities. Chapter 9 looks at professional development for LIS staff.

On its own, the book's title does not suggest that it is intended primarily for LIS staff. However, it could be read with profit by all concerned with supporting research students, especially with the current focus on 'training' following the Roberts report in the UK [1]. New research students themselves would benefit from a number of chapters in the book (especially chapters 2, 3 and 4) although this is presented predominantly from a social science or humanities standpoint. Potential doctoral research students would benefit from chapter 2 which is concerned with the research process itself. Although there is a certain amount on what the new research student should expect, only the basics are here. There are no hints about the complexities there may be in having more than one supervisor (who may see things in rather different ways) or the lack of personal chemistry between student and supervisor, or indeed the project that will not work. The notion of 'differentiation' from the first year to full registration is not discussed and yet this can be a very stressful time for new research students. Unfortunately, scientists and engineers are given short shrift in chapter 2. They would probably wonder why ontology and epistemology were necessary for their research, even if it did not send them scurrying to Wikipedia to find out what they meant. This apparent lack of concern for the scientist and engineer is somewhat disturbing if it reflects the general support given by LIS staff at institutions in general. For example, there is mention of the SPSS statistical package but not of S, or R (or Minitab or Matlab or Maple). Indeed, there is no discussion about open source applications or applications other than of a rather restricted (and Microsoft-centred) nature. This is also evident in Chapter 4, 'Moving forward and completing the research,' which is a general overview but includes specific advice on occasions, for instance bibliographic tools (RefWorks and Endnote are mentioned but not BibTex), MindMaps but not Concept Maps - in my view an important step further, or concept linkage tools such as C-Link and the ability for Google Scholar preferences to produce a citation for EndNote or the use of Zotero. Maybe I am being unduly critical here as there is a level of detail that a book such as this cannot easily cover. Further, to highlight lack of awareness of information technology in research students, I recently met a second year PhD student who kept all thesis references in an Excel file, and a surprising number who did not know about Google Scholar. Chapter 6 suggests a course in MS Project might be taken but a simple review project management process and the use of Gantt charts would be sufficient for most students. Such cases illustrate the importance of the integrated support that HEIs should provide for their students - which is what this book is mainly about. Supervisors may not always be aware of the tools available to help their research students and this is what their training is concerned with and where LIS staff can help greatly.

Chapter 5, 'Research Skills Training' is a useful introduction to the possible needs of research students and where LIS staff would be most interested. It uses a UK Research Council benchmark, again tending towards the social sciences. I would have thought that with computer scientists moving into education support in a variety of ways, research projects would be increasingly science related and thus LIS staff should be aware of scientists' research needs in HEIs. Chapter 6 is perhaps the heart of the book, 'Supporting research students in academic libraries and information services'. The emphasis is on what to provide and how to do it. There is a useful discussion on online course provision and it also covers the targeting of support and provision. The chapter also has a self-assessment table, 'How do you support your research students?' This should be filled out by all responsible for research students in academic departments as well as LIS staff. The chapter has a very good review of some integrated courses and training sessions. The importance of integrated courses, rather than just short, 'one-off' sessions on a topic is well made. However, this is just from the LIS point of view; multimedia services and computing facilities do not really get a look-in. Nor does the increasing importance of GIS (Geographical Information Science (or Systems)). For an integrated approach, these aspects of research student support should be part of the whole. In some HEIs they may well be integrated but, when computing lies at the heart of modern data and information handling, I feel a better case could be made for it here.

Of particular interest is Chapter 7 as it discusses virtual graduate schools (VGSs). This is mainly in the form of case studies and reports on the Hull VGS and Graduate Virtual Research Environment. Although related to a specific institution the overall comments and significance are well made and staff concerned with support provision in HEIs (undergraduate as well as postgraduate) would benefit from reading this chapter. Chapter 8 deals with research communities, an important topic and very relevant to the theme of the book. A few Web 2.0 tools are mentioned along with academic conferences and networking sites and facilities. A note on the implications for library and information workers highlights the enthusiasms research students often have for networking and here computing staff and facilities need to be integrated into support. This is not mentioned, but is important as, for example, WiFi and sophisticated conferencing facilities will need technical expertise. To preserve some sort of sanity, every research student should also be aware of PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper [2]).

Chapter 9 is a wrap-up chapter dealing with professional development. It covers, in brief, items such as professional organisations and engagement with the research community and offers examples of a workshop on supporting research students.

I found the index rather poor, somewhat surprising for a book from publishers specialising in library and information skills. If you dip into it, as suggested, then the indexing is very poor as the reader lacks a guide to what is covered elsewhere. It seems to me that this would be an ideal book to publish electronically (but not just as pdf pages) with appropriate hypertext to help the reader. It would also make additions and updates so much easier to make in a field where advances are rapid and where supplementary notes are needed. Having said that, there is a great deal in this book that would benefit the new, or potential, research student as well as LIS and related information support services.

Although the statement at the start of this review provides the audience, it does not quite fit the bill; insufficient for a new postgraduate, incomplete from a supervisory overview and not wide-ranging or detailed enough for LIS. It is almost two distinct books struggling for somewhat different readerships. Overall however, Barbara Allan's book does live up to the last paragraph of the book by contributing to LIS workers, 'juggling with heavy workloads and competing demands' who certainly will be able to use it to support research students.

References

  1. SET for Success: Final Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review, April 2002
    http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/documents/enterprise_and_productivity/research_and_enterprise/ent_res_roberts.cfm
  2. Piled Higher and Deeper http://www.phdcomics.com/

Author Details

Brian Whalley
Professor of Geomorphology
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology
Queens University
Belfast BT7 1NN

Email: b.whalley@qub.ac.uk
Web site: http://web.gg.qub.ac.uk/people/staff/whalley/

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Date published: 
Friday, 30 April 2010
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