How open are you as a researcher?

Autumnal view over Ulswater in Cumbria

Autumnal view over Ulswater in Cumbria

This week I have been on a voyage of discovery around the world via International Open Access Week. Having never heard about this designated week, before but thinking a lot about the principle of open access lately, I started to explore further and thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

Firstly about Open Access Week itself which is now in its 8th year and which aims to, ‘inspire wider academic participation in helping make open access a new norm for scholarship and research’. The week is organised by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. 

If you are new to the concept of open access publishing and would like to find out a bit more about it Wikipedia provides a good introduction. A range of resources about open access publishing can also be accessed via the Open Access Week website including a great animation produced by Nick Shockey and Jonathan Eisen.

If you have ever conducted a preliminary literature search online you will almost certainly have come across open access publishing and, probably like me, given thanks for being able to access full text articles without needing an institutional subscription to a search engine or having pay to download a paper in the hope that the content lives up to the abstract.

There are a number of ways in which open access papers are made available: via open access publishers such as BioMedCentral who publish over 290 peer-reviewed  journals, such as Research Involvement and Engagement and Health and Quality of Life Outcomes; through repositories such as Europe PubMed Central; through the more traditional subscription journals many of whom now provide an open access facility for authors wishing to or needing to make their paper freely available.

If you are wondering about the funding model for open access publishing there are a number of models but I guess the most common is that of an article processing cost which is usually paid by the author or their institution. To give you an example, at the time of writing this post, Biomed Central’s charge for an article submitted to Research Involvement and Engagement is £1565. So this is by no means a free service but a very different model founded on the principle of making the outputs of research freely available to all readers as quickly as possible.

The Wellcome Trust published a blog to coincide with Open Access Week, 10 years of Open Access at the Wellcome Trust in 10 numbers, which gives an interesting insight into open access from the perspective of a major funding body.  One of the ‘numbers’ states that 20% of articles authored by UK researchers and published in the last 2 years were freely accessible upon publication. It will be great to see that figure increase over the coming years.

Whist the focus of the week has been predominantly on open access publishing the concept has been taken further by Vitae who throughout the week have been  promoting the concept of ‘open researchers’ defined by them as individuals with, ‘the knowledge and skills to work effectively in an open research environment…… able to maximise the benefits of open research for their work and the benefits for their careers.’

Some of the skills and expertise associated with open researchers are:

  • Making research data open and accessible
  • Being skilled in finding and using data generated by others
  • Understanding the legal and ethical requirements related to dissemination of research outputs
  • Knowing the requirements of your institution/funder for making research open
  • Being familiar with where and how to publish results openly
  • Being skilled in trawling the expanding pool of publications to find relevant research outputs
  • Exploring opportunities for engaging end users in conducting research
  • Meeting expectations for communicating research through public engagement
  • Building networks of potential collaborators and taking advantage of opportunities to work across disciplinary or sector boundaries
  • Being able to use the appropriate technology and engage with appropriate service providers to make research open
  • Generating an effective online profile as a researcher
  • Understanding how reputation and reward can happen for individuals in an open research environment.

As you can see from the above being an open researcher isn’t just about committing to open access publishing it is so much more.

So a lot to ponder about open access at the end of a week of discovery, some challenges to contemplate and horizons expanded.

Living with your data: the writing is on the wall

DSCN0613For anyone new to qualitative research one of the enduring mysteries of data analysis is how to make sense of the pages and pages of data generated. Those amazing interviews which generated a wealth of information evolve into mountains of mind boggling possibility once they are neatly transcribed. If you print them off they sit enticingly on your desk waiting to be mined for golden gems. If only someone would explain what to do.

The process of managing data by allocating codes, fragmenting it and restructuring it  is fairly well explained by the majority of research methods textbooks and probably for most of us an OK process to learn at the start of our research journey. Once reorganised the ability to describe what is contained within each theme or code may prove a little more challenging but again is generally still manageable but the process of interpretation is the point at which the challenge becomes greater and often the point at which people are tempted to bailout.

Evidence of this untimely exit is there to be seen in numerous posters, presentations and papers which report that x number of themes were identified with y number of sub-headings and then go on to describe what is in each heading. When you come across such work you maybe left asking yourself the, “so what” question, what does it all mean and how are the different aspects of the data related to each other.  This is because the analysis has left you hanging by a thread.

The process and art of interpreting data takes time, requires constant questioning and challenge by yourself and others and, I would suggest, takes you into the realms of thinking creatively. It is a left brain right brain thing and time to engage your right brain.

Palgrave study skills is a good resource to explore which provides an introduction into critical, analytical and creative thinking and also explores a little of the interface between critical and creative thinking. Some of the creative thinking techniques suggested include

  • Brainstorming ideas onto a large piece of paper
  • Drawing or painting a theory on paper.
  • Letting your mind be influenced by new stimuli such as music you do not usually listen to.
  • Being open to new ideas: look for ways of making things work and pushing the idea to its limits.
  • Asking questions such as ‘what if….?’ Or ‘supposing….?’.

I know that many people use computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) such as ATLAS:ti and NVivo to support their analysis and I love the way such software helps me to manage, sort and reorder my data but when it comes to the point of interpretation, especially the early stages, I always revert to pencils, crayons and a very large piece of paper. The act of drawing, doodling and creating somehow makes me feel more connected to the data.

When I undertook my PhD we lived in a victorian terraced house. The kind of house with a long high entrance hall that ran from the front door to the kitchen at the back of the house. When we moved in it had psychedelic 1960s wallpaper which we started to remove and then somehow got distracted and stopped mid task.

So when it came to trying to make sense of my data it became the perfect backdrop for a long length of lining paper, many doodles, diagrams and post-it notes. This not only became my thinking out loud space but it also did a very good job at covering up our failed attempts at decorating.

If I had a massive revelation or eureka moment I didn’t have to fire up the computer I just wrote on the wall or moved something around. I could see a very big picture at one easy glance and make changes with ease. I guess the downside was that I literally lived with my data for a while but then again when you are at the stage of being immersed in your data I think you do anyway.

I know you can generate similar working models using CAQDAS, add notes and reminders, explore connections etc but for me there was something fundamental about physically drawing, doodling and manually rearranging that somehow a software package just couldn’t replace.

Diagrams on a computer screen seem more formal and lines connecting things can take on a more permanent feel before they are meant to. My drawings not only felt like but were a living evolving creation.

We all have our own way of approaching the task of interpreting data but if you are feeling in a stuck place with your analysis and haven’t already tried it why not break out the coloured pencils, find a big piece of paper and just start to doodle and draw. Engage your right brain and it may just give you the stimulus and insights to move your thinking into a different place, to explore different perspectives and challenge some of the assumptions you have made. Is anyone else a doodler?