Digital skills – how do we …

The concept of digital skills is a bit slippery.  The term has changed its meaning as the digital universe has expanded. Jisc is currently doing some work in this area, led by Caroline Ingram.

I attended an interesting workshop recently to look into the challenges of developing researchers’ digital skills. Caroline led the workshop together with Rob Allen and David Hartland, both of whom have long experience in training in HE.

We considered what we meant by research support roles, what digital skills do researchers require, which organisations provide training, and what Jisc’s role should be (if any).


We agreed that it was not helpful to compile a long list of research support roles. These things change quickly and also vary across institutions. For instance, data scientist, data engineer, data librarian can all have distinct meanings, but they also overlap and may or may not each be necessary in a particular environment.

We discussed what we meant by ‘research support’.  Some workshop attendees considered that people in libraries and IT services who work with researchers  are also working in research and scholarship. Talking about ‘support’ has overtones of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ or Downton Abbey.  The term ‘Specialist Research Professional’ was preferred over ‘research support’.

Another helpful observation was that 95% of the time researchers have the skills to do what they need. They draw on their ‘foundational knowledge’ or will be able to figure out how to do something. The other 5% of the time they do need help, with hard problems.

Sometimes a Specialist Research Professional may become a member of a research team. This could be a part-time role as part of the research team or a full-time intra-team support role.


There are different ideas as to what ‘digital skills’ meant.I recall that 20 years ago we thought it meant knowing how to use Microsoft Office and being able to understand a Google search. Some at the workshop see digital skills as something close to information literacy, others see it as all about open access, others again see it mostly in terms of research data management. Most of the discussion focused on research data handling.

Skills training is not the whole story. Sometimes what’s needed is a more general awareness raising, for instance about copyright.

We agreed that the Jisc list of skills is a useful starting point.

Here’s a list of skills that we thought might be needed by researchers: personal information management, discovery (searching for data), appraisal of data, coding and data analysis, information governance, non-technical issues connected with digital skills (ethical, legal and social implications), reproducibility, productivity/workflow tools, managing collaborations. That last one is interesting – we don’t often talk about the skill required to manage digital participation and digital communities, though the AAAS are doing some work in this area.

Some more specific topics that I’d like to find training for include: data visualisation, mash ups (or are these out of fashion now?), text and data mining.

A more fine-grained approach needs to acknowledge that different individuals will have different depths of expertise in different areas. Also, depth of expertise depends on the context.  E.g. even someone knowledgeable about general research consent issues might look to the clinical trials team for more in-depth consent advice.

Who is doing what?

Current training providers include: Vitae,  Jisc, Digital Curation Centre,  ELIXIR,  EBI,  Emedlab, CODATA–DA.

Software Carpentry, Data Carpentry and various camps/unconferences were also enthusiastically endorsed by many at the workshop. MOOCs were mentioned, but it was noted that they were just about learning, not about creating a community.  That is where the carpentry events excel.

Other potential providers might be providers of specialist technical platforms – typically these churn out massive amounts of data and the staff of the platform will have skills in processing the data so would be well-placed to provide training. Software providers such as Matlab also provide training, and perhaps scientific instrument makers might.

Of course many individual institutions also provide training for their own researchers.

Jisc’s role

The following were suggested:

  • Help in accrediting courses
  • Collating a list of skills, that can be taught in 3-hr packages
  • Matching that list to existing providers
  • Identify good local sources of training and help them to go national
  • Adopt the carpentry approach of community-developed open training materials
  • Establish a ‘locum’ system for those who need to find short-term help with a project
  • Help to facilitate unconferences around digital skills
  • Extend the model of specialist data centres to specialist training centres


The results of the workshop will feed into a project report, some time later.

My conclusion was that it is very helpful to bring a disparate group of people together to discuss digital skills, and I think we learnt quite a bit from each other. Equally, it is very hard to say something about digital skills that applies across all areas of research without starting to sound bland. And, finally, it would be helpful if there were some agreed shared terminology about digital skills (but I suspect this is a forlorn hope).

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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