Clearly, the majority of young researchers do not fully appreciate the benefits and virtues of these resources. We found that students were reticent about using particular social media tools unless they were immediately applicable to their research disciplines or to the focus of their studies.
According to a UK study conducted by JISC and the British Library, research students need more informal and face-to-face support if they are to obtain the maximum benefit from open web technologies and social media. The Researchers of Tomorrow project surveyed 17,000 ‘Generation Y’ doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994, and found that the use of social media applications within a research setting increased only gradually over a three-year period of study.
Whilst online forums were used by 23 per cent of all students, only 13 per cent played an active role in discussions. 23 per cent followed blogs but only nine per cent regularly contributed to their own blog. The team also identified low levels of active uptake in terms of institutionally-provided open web resources.
Louisa Dale, Senior Relations and Support Manager at JISC, spoke to ScienceOmega.com
to explain more about the intentions behind this project. I began by asking Dale why it is so important for today’s students to be well versed in the use of open web technologies and social media.
"Both JISC and the British Library are keen for researchers to exploit all
of the tools and technologies that are available to them, and these tools don’t necessarily have to be web-based," she replied. "We need to make sure that our young researchers are using the resources that are available to support their specific disciplinal needs, and that they are getting the most out of their institutional and academic experiences. Obviously, at JISC, we want to promote the use of technologies, not as ends in themselves, but as tools to support academic practice. It’s about making sure that students are equipped to deliver the best research outputs that they possibly can."
The results of this study will come as a surprise to many. It is easy to assume that all youngsters are supremely tech-savvy, and that web technologies and social media come as second nature to Generation Y. As Dale explains, however, the researchers were careful not to make any assumptions before conducting their investigation.
"We funded this research to establish a benchmark so that we could be informed about our levels of investment and our support for universities," she explained. "Julie Carpenter, the lead researcher of the study, saw this as an opportunity to go directly to the students, rather than the institutions, and to learn through their experiences. We wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. It was important for us to understand current trends and practices, and crucially, not to assume anything about what was used and what was useful."
I asked Dale whether the results that were obtained suggested that Generation Y students were not fully aware of the benefits offered by these resources.
"Clearly, the majority of young researchers do not fully appreciate the benefits and virtues of these resources," she replied. "We found that students were reticent about using particular social media tools unless they were immediately applicable to their research disciplines or to the focus of their studies. They weren’t necessarily adventurous in testing and trialling, partly because they have significant time pressures placed upon them. One would imagine that most are really focused on their studies rather than on experimenting during the course of their PhD.
"We are keen to work further with PhD supervisors in particular, to enhance their understanding of the potential of social media. We are also eager to work with institutions in order to establish peer support networks. Clearly, peer support is very important to PhD students as it is immediately available and allows them to turn to their friends for help. There are opportunities for universities to work closely with peer support networks, and some are already doing this."
Developments within fields such as social media certainly move at a brisk pace. Popularity of a particular tool does not seem to prevent ‘the next big thing’ from quickly taking over the mantle. I asked Dale whether she believed that these technologies were here to stay, and if so, whether their becoming more widely utilised within the research community was inevitable.
"In terms of technologies, we rarely imagine that anything is here to stay. Our development and use of products is constantly evolving. Specific tools will evolve and improve and new products will come into the marketplace. They may be home-grown or institutionally developed. They may be shared services that are available to all universities or commercial products. In any event, we are focused on allowing individuals and universities to understand the available opportunities at any one time, and on helping them to recognise how to utilise or adapt these technologies for their own immediate needs.
"This can be quite challenging – especially if you have pressures on your time or if you are not technologically savvy. We’ll try to address these issues through a number of activities, not least by looking at digital literacy within universities. In a wider context, we need to work with other countries to support infrastructures and research. We are talking to the European Commission about how we can make use of the generic sector tools that are available, and about how best to respond to the real challenges that exist at a discipline level."
I concluded our conversation by asking about the implications that the wider adoption of these technologies by researchers, could have for science.
"That’s a good question, but it’s also a hard one to answer," Dale replied. "I am in Birmingham today to attend a workshop with a US organisation called the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). Here, experts will think about the changing nature of scholarly discourse, and consider the transformative potential of technology. Again, I must emphasise that technology should not be viewed as an end in itself. We need to optimise research without disrupting the process.
"That’s not to say that these technologies don’t have real transformative potential when it comes to science. We are sure that they do, but they are part and parcel of wider developments and improvements within the system of research. They represent just some of the opportunities that are currently available. We want to exploit their potential in a positive sense and not as an end in itself."