The DREaM (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) Conference  was held at the British Library Conference Centre in London in July 2011. The conference was attended by 86 delegates, and consisted of an overview of the DREaM Project, two keynote papers, a one-minute madness session, and four parallel breakout sessions. I had the opportunity to attend as a sponsored delegate, thanks to Glen Recruitment, Sue Hill Recruitment and TFPL.
The welcome address was given by Professor Hazel Hall. The Library and Information Science (LIS) Research Coalition aims to develop research capacity and capability, build sustainable foundations for long-term collaborations, and to engage practitioners with research activity.
A key theme she highlighted was the importance of collaboration across sectors within the library and information profession, as well as communication across disciplines outside library and information science. Professor Hall highlighted the concept of a ‘cadre’ of individuals working as a group, and how collaborative working can act as a backbone to support change.
As a strand of LIS Research Coalition activity, the DREaM Project is focused on developing research methods, and building up practitioners’ knowledge of different approaches to research. The DREaM Project will involve two conferences (this one and a concluding event in July 2012), and three workshops in between those conferences specifically to cover research methods not traditionally conducted in LIS research. Potential participants are encouraged to attend all three workshops for continuity, and to engage with the DREaM Project via online communities like Spruz . At the concluding event in July 2012, there will be a Practitioner Research Excellence Award of £500 to recognise excellence in a practitioner research project.
The opening keynote from Professor Blaise Cronin gave a lucid and detailed overview of the current library and information research landscape. He began by discussing Pierce Butler’s An Introduction to Library Science (1933) to show the roots of librarianship and information science in scientific knowledge and sociological principles. He illustrated a later shift towards a more humanistic approach in Butler’s thinking (and in the wider development of library science) with examples of direct action, lobbying and public debate over the connection between libraries and democracy. These examples were particularly relevant to recent campaigns to save public libraries from closure or cut-backs (notably the Wirral in the UK).
Professor Cronin went on to discuss limitations of current library and information research, drawing on Bradford’s law of scatter to present a field that sometimes contains research which is too marginal and trivial. One reason for this (particularly in the USA) is that librarians have to publish articles in order to gain tenure in academic libraries. He suggested that a major limitation of library and information research is that it talks to itself a great deal, but sometimes fails fully to communicate and connect with other research disciplines. A good example of this is the failure to engage with significant theoretical frameworks developed by French post-modernists like Foucault and Derrida; a situation which Cronin described as ‘critical chill’. Cronin also drew on evidence indicating that most of the research on information behaviour in library and information research is ignored by other disciplines .
He then outlined the key criticisms of library and information research, particularly weak experimental design and a lack of meta-analysis. He drew attention to the ‘theoretical bricolage’* in library and information science, with its failure fully to accumulate a corpus of research evidence and theories, in a way which other disciplines like Chemistry have managed. An example he offered was the prevalence of ‘cookie cutter’ research studies, which carry out research in a formulaic way to investigate topics whose basic parameters never change; he gave the example of studies on the ‘Information needs of_____’. The focus on the lack of cumulation in library and information research reminded me of Dr Ross Todd’s keynote address at EBLIP (Evidence Based Library and Information Practice) 6 , where he criticised the creation of a vast array of models of information literacy without fully consolidating the findings for practical use.
Professor Cronin provided some background to this, citing a 1986 study by Harris  on the field, and drew on a recent observation by Professor Charles Oppenheim, Loughborough University, to the effect that library and information science research is ‘poorly funded, poorly conducted and poorly recognised’. In this light, he looked back to a so-called ‘golden era’ between 1965-1990, when significant funding was directed towards research and practitioner bodies like Aslib (Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureau), CRUS (Centre for Research on User Studies), PCRC (Primary Communications Research Centre) and CCR (Centre for Communications Research). As a relatively young professional, I found it interesting to hear more about bodies and research centres which existed before CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), because it gives some context to the history and direction of our profession.
Cronin then went on to discuss key areas where the field has the strength and potential to improve, directing our attention to the development of evidence-based librarianship, which attempts to integrate a strong scientific element back into library ‘science’. He pointed out that research can be useful in demonstrating the value of library and information services, referring to a paper on the ‘economic value of elephants’. He then referred to various studies around the issue of ‘value’. These included Professor Don King’s research in the 1970s, current research at the University of Colorado , and research showing that the British Library generates 4.4 times the value of the investment it receives .
In terms of the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of LIS research itself, Cronin highlighted evidence indicating that LIS research is being increasingly cited outside the area, in disciplines as varied as computer science, business management and health research. There was evidence for this in a study by Martyn and Cronin (1983) . An added dimension is that PhD students in LIS are increasingly being supervised by academics whose PhD is from outside LIS . In this light, he drew attention to the i-Schools concept, taken up by many LIS schools in the USA, and increasingly in Britain, with one notable example, the University of Sheffield’s i-School . This can be seen as an opportunity for greater collaboration among disciplines, but could equally be perceived as a threat to library and information science.
He explained that Indiana University is deliberately recruiting academics from outside LIS to ensure an interdisciplinary focus, and called for more library and information schools in the UK to take more risks in recruiting researchers from outside the LIS area. He gave the example of Professor Susan Herring (Indiana University) , who is an expert on discourse analysis, has a PhD in Linguistics and is a Professor in Information Science. The call for interdisciplinary working is supported by evidence that research papers and publications are increasingly being written by multiple authors, with single authors becoming less common. This was shown in a 2010 study by Vincent Larivière, which found that highly cited research is often collaborative and co-authored. Cronin explored the issue of collaborative research in his study on Rob Kling’s work, finding that physical location can be a key factor in determining with whom researchers collaborate .
Professor Cronin concluded with a useful positioning matrix, which gave some indications of decisions over where and how to develop LIS research. This showed for example, that if there was low opportunity and low capability, then researchers should exit the field. In contrast, if there was high opportunity and high capability, greater investment should be made into that particular research area. This perceptive analysis was pertinent to the aim of DREaM to capitalise on opportunities for research, and develop capacity in the area.
A ‘one-minute madness’ session gave delegates the opportunity to talk for one minute about a topic of their choice - this could be a research project, activity or personal reflections. This took place at the 2010 LIS Research Coalition Conference  (of which a report appears in Ariadne Issue 64 ), and at the recent EBLIP6 conference in Salford .
Neatly tying in with the theme of demonstrating ‘value’, Adam Steventon presented his PhD research into the impact of information management, which is developing progress markers and indicators to measure impact . Ella Taylor-Smith (Edinburgh Napier University) presented a summary of the ‘Online Ambition’ Project which is helping job seekers to use the Internet to locate employment . The notion of assisting job seekers through an online environment has some similarities with the CPD23 blog .
The afternoon consisted of four breakout sessions followed by the closing keynote. I attended the session on ‘Raising your research dissemination ambitions’, a really useful and practical session on writing up research, submitting to peer-reviewed journals and considering other dissemination routes.
In small groups, we listed the variety of possible ways in which research could be disseminated. They included: journal papers, conference papers, mainstream media (newspapers and radio), social networks, departmental seminars in universities, submissions to government, institutional repositories, email lists, internal briefing papers, private circulation to experts, reports for funding bodies, blogs, Slideshare, poster sessions, public lectures and toolkits. When we considered how research had been disseminated in the past, the list was far shorter; demonstrating that LIS researchers should be more open to different means of sharing research. A key issue raised was that researchers in the UK feel pressured towards publishing in peer-reviewed journals, as other dissemination routes (such as Open Access journals) do not carry as much weight in research assessment (eg, the Research Excellence Framework).
We then discussed various problems experienced in submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals. An issue which was mentioned by a few delegates was the perception that the submission process could be rather mechanical, with automated emails confirming submission, and minimal contact from the editor whilst a paper was being considered. One delegate felt that the submission process was a ‘black hole’, referring to an instance where he had waited two years for a paper to be reviewed in a particular journal! A general operational issue was in having to change the format of references for each journal, which some delegates found frustrating and time-consuming (given that most journals have a different referencing style). A problem which some researchers had encountered was the conflicting feedback comments that they had received from different reviewers, which made it difficult to effect appropriate amendments to a research paper. The discussion also revealed that some researchers felt that the publishing process involved a certain amount of bias towards well-established researchers, or even suspicion of less experienced researchers.
The session was concluded with a debate over how communication of research in journal papers could be improved. Dr Hills made the useful suggestion of contacting a journal editor two months after submitting a paper to see what stage of review the paper had reached. He added that writers should ensure that the abstract, title and references are clear and distinctive, because these are elements which editors initially use to judge a paper. A useful suggestion in the discussion was to ensure effective metadata and keywords are associated with a paper, so that the research could be easily located in a Web search. In addition, it was suggested that researchers could share an early version of their paper with peers via a social network site, and consider sharing detailed statistics via a web site. Professor Cronin suggested the option of self-publishing (through presses like Bloomington Press), which allows researchers to share their research even if it may involve personal expense.
The main points and outcomes of the other breakout sessions were usefully summarised for the benefit of the whole conference by rapporteurs.
A session on ‘Extending your research methods repertoire’ was facilitated by Professor Julie McLeod and Elizabeth Lomas, Northumbria University. This explored a range of different research techniques, including the Delphi method, cooperative inquiry and community engagement. The Delphi technique is a relatively new method, which uses a panel of experts to answer various questions on a topic, and can be used as a ‘forecasting tool’ for research data. The advantage of this method is that it is an iterative process, developing its data and findings incrementally. Delegates highlighted disadvantages of this approach, including difficulty over how ‘experts’ are defined, and the way that the researchers can choose which key messages are communicated.
Co-operative inquiry is a method derived from action research, and focuses on research as an activity which involves study participants as ‘co-researchers’. The benefits of this approach are that it embraces a diverse range of perspectives, and is a transparent way of investigating a topic. However, there are practical issues associated with participants’ commitment, and how far confidentiality and ethical standards can be maintained. This method seemed particularly interesting in the light of Professor Cronin’s commentary on collaborative research, and on the wider aim of the DREaM Project to involve practitioners in research.
Community engagement and consultation was the final method discussed in this breakout session. The focus of this type of approach is to engage with a local ‘community’ group, who could be library patrons, library user groups or colleagues across an organisation. This approach is interesting in the light of ongoing UK government policy around the area of empowering local communities, particularly the Total Place and Big Society initiatives. The method’s key feature is the vast quantity and depth of data which it can produce, which are simultaneously its major weakness and strength.
On the theme of inter-disciplinary collaboration, Professor Sara Rankin, Imperial College London and Gina Czarnecki, artist, facilitated a session on ‘Stepping out of the comfort zone by collaborating across disciplines’. This drew on the example of their joint work on stem cells in teeth to highlight the opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaborative research .
It also made us aware that there are now incentives from research councils for carrying out inter-disciplinary research. Inter-disciplinary research can support greater creativity, and can be a beneficial learning experience for both parties. A practical way of engaging with other disciplines is to attend conferences and workshops outside the ‘comfort zone’ of your own subject area. There is now an opportunity to ‘stitch’ together research taking place across different disciplines, and provide some kind of ‘meta-analysis’ which could help to consolidate the mass of research findings which constantly emerge in different subjects. The biggest challenge of this type of collaborative approach is that it requires trust among researchers, and requires them to relinquish total control over their work.
The final breakout was on the topic of ‘Cultivating networks’ and was led by Professor Gunilla Widén, Åbo Akademi School of Business and Economics, Finland. This identified a gap between research and practice, with a perception that academia and ‘practice’ are two entirely different career paths. This situation means there is a need for active professional networks (like the LIS Research Coalition) to provide a network and forum for discussion and information sharing. It is also important that there is strong leadership in the area of library and information research, because this can support the cultivation of active and valuable networks.
The closing keynote by Dr Dylan Evans, Lecturer in Behavioural Science  presented a fascinating overview of the speaker’s shift across a variety of research disciplines. Dr Evans had originally studied for a degree in Linguistics and Spanish, before gaining a Masters in Psycho-analysis, then going on to study for a PhD in Philosophy. In keeping with this unusual career trajectory, he has recently worked in the area of robotics engineering, and currently works as an academic in a medical department!
The presentation suggested that most academic researchers tend to stick with their own discipline, and look down on researchers who go across disciplines. In fact, there is a lot to be gained from inter-disciplinary working, particularly as this kind of collaboration can support a positive cross-fertilisation of ideas and produce original research. Dr Evans argued that most disciplines have not yet reached the ‘mature’ stage in their development, to use Thomas Kuhn’s terminology. Increasing specialisation in certain research areas means that academic disciplines can become territorial and anti-competitive, which is a barrier to collaborative and inter-disciplinary research. He illustrated the drawbacks of highly specialised research fields through the example of a medical professional who is unable to treat an illness, responding with the mantra ‘it’s not my organ’.
In contrast to this niche approach to research, Dr Evans gave the example of a collaborative project between robotics engineering and cardiovascular research, with ‘rapid proto-typing’ capable of creating bespoke 3D models of a human heart . He also gave the example of his collaboration with a digital artist .
He did mention that there was a risk of moving between disciplines too much, but argued that sometimes it is worth taking risks to progress in a research career. When asked if he had considered collaborative research with the LIS research area, he highlighted his interest in investigating ‘information silos’ in the mind, and in creating a model of mental structure. This was a very thought-provoking talk, particularly as it made me consider whether the traditional boundaries between research areas can represent a barrier to useful and worthwhile research.
This was a really valuable and thought-provoking conference, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to attend. The mix of theoretical overview (in Professor Cronin’s paper) and practical advice (in the session on research dissemination) made the event highly relevant to the LIS research community. There are clearly challenges attendant on engaging with disciplines outside LIS, and on attempting to consolidate the vast array of research findings in the field. There are also issues surrounding the reform of how we disseminate research, and how to ensure that it reaches practitioners in a relevant form. The key message I took away was the importance of collaboration, both within the LIS area and with other disciplines, to support practical improvements in the quality and sharing of research.
*Editor's note: bricolage: 1. (in art or literature) construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. 2. something created in this way (origin from French). The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 10th edition.
University of Sheffield
Web site: http://www.shef.ac.uk/pgs
Ray Harper works as Planning Assistant at the University of Sheffield in Planning and Governance Services. In this role, he is involved in the submission of statutory returns to funding bodies, internal reporting of student numbers, and the provision of management information across the University. In particular he supports the Faculty of Medicine with business planning, competitor analysis and target setting. His previous posts include a graduate traineeship at Emmanuel College Library (University of Cambridge), a knowledge management role in a research consultancy (CUREE) and a role in taxonomy development in the NHS.