Experienced researchers in any field, whether chemistry, business management or medieval history, would testify that nothing beats getting your hands dirty by handling raw data and primary materials.
All the more eye-catching, then, are the findings of a study last year which reveal that today’s generation of doctoral students are working in a research environment increasingly dominated by online journal articles and other published research materials, rather than primary resources such as newspapers, data sets, archives and manuscripts.
The consequences for these students are serious and far reaching.
Primary sources offer a range of perspectives and are essential in broadening the intellectual reach of doctoral research and creating new ideas. Wholly relying on published sources and failing to consult primary resources closes these avenues of exploration. If this trend continues, the researchers of tomorrow will have a weakened ability to analyse, interrogate or interpret a wide range of material and a narrower knowledge of their discipline.
The research behaviour of 17,000 doctoral students was analysed by the British Library and the independent charity Jisc. Their study, Researchers of Tomorrow, found that while students are more competent users of technology than ever before, the comparative ease with which they can access online journals and other similar resources means that many fail to make the most of primary resources available in libraries, archives and other collections.
More than 70 per cent turned to electronic journal articles in their most recent search for information, but only about 10 per cent turned to a digitised manuscript and fewer than 5 per cent used raw data.
The use of primary sources, whether physical or digital, is an essential foundation for innovative research. They offer the richest basis for conventional thinking to be challenged and new connections made. While published resources form the pivot of scholarly communications, a student who reviews only the published literature will miss out on the immediacy and insight that an oral history recording, a piece of data or an editorial cartoon can generate in an instant.
As well as limiting their analytical abilities and in-depth knowledge of their discipline, by overlooking primary sources researchers run the risk of entrenching this behaviour as current doctorate researchers go on to publish academic work and to supervise the next generation of students.
The study also revealed an over-reliance on search engines, with 30 per cent of researchers across all disciplines using Google as their first port of call when searching for information. While this is inevitable in an age when most information is found online, we need to guard against a slackening in the pace of change and originality in the next generation’s research, as Google continues to lead researchers into a convenience store of instantly available published resources.
Technology is not a threat to primary resources. Digital advances are transforming access to research materials. A digital archive can be stretched, amended, geo-referenced and mined in ways that would not be possible with a traditional item. Maps, newspapers, manuscripts and sound recordings are being digitised and can be manipulated and reinterpreted in ways unimaginable to a researcher even 10 years ago.
Today’s doctoral students, as the first generation to have grown up with ubiquitous digital technology, have the opportunity to generate more innovative and creative research than ever, with a wealth of new digital tools in their hands that can be combined with more traditional resources.
While technology should not be blamed for the decline in the use of primary resources, a probable cause is that researchers do not know how to find the resources. The study suggests that many students lack training and awareness, with as many as 35 per cent saying that they did not receive any face-to-face training in information-seeking skills in the previous academic year despite 65 per cent ranking it as their most important training need. Responsibility for reversing this trend lies with the whole sector.
Subject librarians in universities, doctoral supervisors and other key support staff among business schools and research institutions need to ensure that researchers are properly trained how to find resources and to impress upon them the importance of primary resources. Without such training there is a danger that research will become homogenised and that the UK’s higher education landscape could be affected as research becomes less innovative and increasingly conservative.
We need to empower the researchers of tomorrow to harness all the research opportunities at their fingertips. The British Library is already addressing this by working with the next generation of researchers who are starting their doctorates this year. Today’s students are tomorrow’s academics, business leaders and educators. By inspiring them to draw on primary materials, as well as the published materials available to them, we can help them emerge as a fully-rounded and confident generation of thinkers whose talents will fuel the creativity and new business ideas of the future.
Roly Keating is chief executive of the British Library.