Thursday, March 5, 2009

(e)Research monkey on my back

Many years ago I was studying an MTeach/MEd, having dropped out of full-time coding and into full-time study. I lived in a share house and owned a vintage Dell laptop. Having done my BIT I admit that I never used the Library and did almost no written assignments. Studying education called on me to access articles, read them and try to turn them into a paper. Sometimes I even had to undertake observations. Most of the "research" was qualitative.

So, armed with a stack of highlighted papers I drew up (paper) concept maps and started to flesh out a piece. I used emacs and LaTeX with BibTeX in that first year - it was fun but really relied heavily on my technical background to keep it afloat. For my MEd I had a newer PC so gave EndNote a go. By the time I'd set it up to understand that APA should mention that the article was on the web, I'd left that product.

Now, I don't pretend that my heady coursework days can match your 5 year research effort - nuh-uh. But what I can say is that, if I nearly threw my laptop across the room just trying to create 5000 words, I can only imagine how a doctorate feels.

There has to be a better way. Really.

It also has to be made better for people not hitting the whoa-o-meter with their project. That's people like educators and historians. In fact anyone whose research requires them to collate data that amounts to something less than a large European dodgem circuit. It really seems that, if you're not munching PetaBytes, no-one wants to share your lunch. University ICT teams give you just enough storage to hold a picture of your cat and many eResearch data people are looking for that bigger bang.

So you store all your data on your laptop and a few disks and roll the dice.
Investigating Data Management Practices in Australian Universities and The Next Generation of Academics really showed me some truths:
  • Researchers don't have time to play with their computers and eResearch tools: they just want them to work
  • Researchers aren't catalogers: they don't want to create comprehensive metadata for everything they're reading/watching/creating.
  • Researchers don't run data centres: they want institutional storage and backup so that they don't have to think about it.
  • Researchers (often) work in teams: let them share
  • If your eResearch idea will create more administrative work for researchers, go back to the drawing board. I hope repository admins are listening.
  • It's not about the software - it's about the research getting done.
So, whilst at QUT we worked really hard to integrate our ePrints data collection into the Research Master (HERDC) data collection. This essentially sought to stop doubled-up administrivia. Putting your data into ePrints actually also meant you were largely killing two birds. I really hope this work has been effective. I also really hope that the stand-alone job of submitting to an IR will become as forgotten as the night cart.

So there's a lot of work to be done to create software that helps rather than hinders and workflows that flow, rather than fail.

Leaving the ramble here - ready to hone these ideas into the Desktop eResearch Revolution

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