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According to new research, the current crop of doctoral students are increasingly reliant on secondary resources – journal articles and books – rather than seeking the information they need from primary archive material and large data sets.

Researchers of Tomorrow, commissioned by the technology consortium JISC and the British Library, has also discovered that doctoral students cannot make full use of the digital environment because they have insufficient training and information. The students are also confused by open access and copyright.

The study – published earlier this month – looked at a total of 17,000 Generation Y doctoral students – students born between 1982 and 1994 – from 70 universities. It is the longest and most intensive study to date on the research behaviour and information gathering practices of doctoral students.

It concludes that the majority of all doctoral students across all disciplines sought “text-based and secondary pre-published research resources and not primary source material”. For humanities and arts students this means that archives, social data and newspapers were ignored in favour of secondary sources such as books, while few science students opted to use the primary resources of large data sets.

The study says that the implications of this are so significant that there is a case for more in-depth research to discover whether today’s doctoral students rely less on primary sources than their peers did a decade ago.

“If this proves to be the case there may be significant implications for doctoral research quality and other long-term concerns, such as what this might mean for the concept of the doctorate as a ‘research apprenticeship’ if it includes little experience of finding and using non-published and ‘primary’ research sources and materials in research work,” say the study’s authors.

Another finding flagged up by the study is the difficulty many doctoral students have in gaining access to e-journal articles in subscription-based journals. The study has found that almost half of Generation Y doctoral students would “make do with” the abstract if they were unable to get the article. Older students were less inclined to do this, according to the study.

Confusion and misconceptions about open access publishing was also found to be a constraint when it came to the doctoral students disseminating their research. The students tended to prefer peer-reviewed journals, with a general assumption that open access journals were not subject to peer review.

Familiarity with information technology was another cause for concern. The study has found that although in general the doctoral students were highly competent in their use of information technologies, this was not translated into their research. Many web technology tools and applications were used by a relatively small proportion of Generation Y students for research work says the study. The doctoral students mentioned Google Scholar, cloud computing, EndNote and Mendeley as tools they had no knowledge of until it was too late.

The study’s authors say that their findings raise “important questions about research development, training and support within research-led organisations and the openness and sharing of research”.

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