Getting to know early career researchers

There is a good deal of attention paid to so-called early career researchers (ECR) these days. At the recent JISC conference the session I enjoyed most was devoted to them and their information use patterns. The scene is set by a JISC-funded investigation that reported last year: The Lives and Technologies of Early Career Researchers (47 page pdf document). This defines an ECR as

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.

Very tactfully put!
The report has much of interest, some of it not surprising and much of it reinforcing the findings of the Research Information Network’s report on information use. The JISC report characterises the day-to-day work of an ECR as seeking information, gathering data, analysis, reflection and discussion, publishing, with perhaps some teaching thrown in too. Information and communication technologies play a part in all of these activities and the report examines what level of expertise ECRs have in the technologies that they use (answer: it varies). They are interested in exploring new technologies but 72% of early career researchers reported that they did not use Web 2.0 or social media to share their research. I don’t think this is surprising.
The report sums up its findings on use of IT tools thus:

Each early career researcher uses a set of technologies they have chosen, provided by a range of organisations (including their institution, commercial providers, and
other sources), to undertake the many tasks related to research. Early career researchers appreciate the benefits of new technologies, but need to see that the advantages outweigh the effort and costs of adopting them, and the various constraints noted above may block researchers from moving to more efficient and effective working practices supported by new ICT systems.

The JISC report is careful to define its field of study as early career researchers rather than a particular generation (‘Google generation’, ‘digital natives’ and all that). Another study, commissioned by JISC and the British Library, sets out to track the research behaviour of ‘Generation Y’ doctoral students – those born between 1982-1994. It dubs these ‘Researchers of Tomorrow’ (and has even registered that as an internet domain!). It is a three-year study of their information-seeking behaviour:

analysing their habits in online and physical research environments and assessing their usage of library and information sources on and off line. The first iteration of the wider context survey, which drew responses from about 5,500 doctoral students across the UK, was concluded in autumn 2009. One part of the research is a longitudinal study over 2½ years of about 70 full-time UK doctoral students from all subject disciplines, which is tracking these students’ information-seeking behaviour and their changing attitudes to their research.

The first report should be available in a couple of months’ time. It will be interesting to see the final results in a couple of years’ time. They have acknowledged that by participating in the study the 70 students may gain additional knowledge and skills and therefore become less representative of the broad mass of postgraduate students.
The third and final contribution to this slot at the JISC conference was a study (34 page pdf, comprising slides) conducted by OCLC: What are virtual researchers up to? VREs and their users. This study did not focus on ECRs but on researchers more broadly. It reviewed various published reports and also interviewed managers of some repositories and virtual research environments. The study reinforces messages that have been well-rehearsed already, e.g. that there is “difficulty engaging some scholars in VRE chat sessions, blogs, social networks” and repeats some apparently established knowledge: “Users’ age is a factor in adopting new systems and technologies”. Maybe I’m over-sensitive on that last point, but I’m not persuaded of its veracity. I did however like the contrast between disciplines evinced by these two statements:

Twittering during meetings was very popular with computer scientists

Social scientists were reluctant to open their laptops during conference sessions – they left them in their hotel room

My favourite quote was “The technologies enabled the researcher to work faster, not necessarily to work better”, though I think that sometimes the reverse is true too.
Others are also interested in ECRs. The Medical Research Council has recognised the importance of this group, to whom it provides funding in the form of PhD studentships and Career Development Fellowships. MRC is undertaking some research to find out how best to communicate with ECRs that it funds, and how it can provide more help to them. It is looking to provide them with more ways to exchange ideas and discuss issues. This is only just getting off the ground, but I think there may be something at the Cheltenham Science Festival.
I know there are quite a few ECRs on Nature Network. It would be interesting to hear if they recognise themselves in any of these reports.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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One Response to Getting to know early career researchers

  1. Eric-Wubbo Lameijer says:

    Hi Frank,
    thank you for referring me here. At least you taught me a new word (ECR). I do wonder though, reading about twittering and blogging scientists – I think both the ‘specialisation-process’ of science and the secrecy on research prior to publication would diminish the potential readership and writership respectively of, for example, a scientific research blog. Conversely, I do see some value in ways in which you can recommend a particularly interesting paper to some friends in your research community. But we’re still in rather early Web 2.0/semantic web days, we’ll see what comes of it, though Facebook is likely to stay!