Understanding tomorrow's needs

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Charles Hutchings of JISC and Joanna Newman of the British Library explain what a new study is revealing about the way young researchers work and how they can be supported

Last year, research that JISC and the British Library commissioned overturned the assumption that the ‘Google Generation’ – made up of people born after 1993 – is the most web-literate. Now a new study aims to delve into how young researchers do their work, and how they can best be supported.

The three-year longitudinal project Researchers of Tomorrow is being conducted by Education for Change, in association with the Research Partnership. Supported by a number of surveys to establish the wider context of the doctoral research landscape, the organisations are following 70 full-time doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994, dubbed generation Y. Over the three years it will investigate their research habits in digital and physical environments, as well as their use of resources both on and off-line.

The earlier Google Generation study revealed, perhaps surprisingly, that information literacy among young people had not improved in line with wider technology. Researchers of Tomorrow was therefore commissioned to establish a benchmark by which future generations can be measured and inform future strategy decisions and new policy.

It is clear that quite a lot is known about the ‘What? and ‘Where?’ of these students’ work. The Researchers of Tomorrow study is focusing instead on why and how researchers are working in certain ways, and is gathering more general data that will validate or challenge existing evidence about the impact that new research tools and environments have on the wider research community’s research behaviour.

This study gives a valuable snapshot at a particular time of how younger researchers are working and it also provides an insight into how their practices might influence behaviours in the future. It’s the biggest analysis of its kind in the UK.

We are nearly half way through and already some interesting findings and areas of debate are emerging. For example, as the first-year report demonstrates, take up of Web 2.0 tools has been slower than expected. This could be down to how the same tools are adopted by supervisors and libraries. Other issues raised in the report include the changing role of supervisors, disciplinary differences in take up of e-resources, use of the academic library network and open access.

Both organisations are planning to use the results to inform their strategies. The British Library is looking to gain further insights into how it, and organisations like it, should remodel its services in the future.

The information age demands evolving new skill sets in order to carry out the best research and in this spirit of progression we need to be clear about how organisations like JISC and the British Library support this. We need to genuinely listen to researchers to find out where their research is going and what they need and not just tell them what the organisation has to offer.

For example, most respondents complained that time was a significant constraint for them, whether they were full or part-time. Also, researchers don’t like having to leave their desks to do their research. Now JISC can look at how to make the process of finding resources quicker and identify subject disciplines needing further digitised resources online. We also anticipate that the results of this study will give vice chancellors and senior managers a real insight into the students and researchers filling their institutions.

Sparking comment on these areas is as crucial as finding the answers – so over the next two years the results will be debated and discussed in more detail. The work is to conclude in a published report in 2012 – as the oldest of the researchers turn 30. The findings so far show that young doctoral students are heavily dependent on their supervisors for inspiration and digital literacy – so as Generation Y themselves take on leadership responsibilities, their behaviour will shape the future of research for years to come.

Charles Hutchings is market research manager at JISC; Joanna Newman is head of higher education at the British Library

Further information


The British Library is launching an exhibition in October 2010 that will showcase some of the latest research tools, content and spaces in a fully interactive future-research environment. Growing Knowledge demonstrates the evolution of research, promising to stimulate and inspire visitors – as well as consult with them on the research services they want to experience from the library of the future. www.bl.uk/growingknowledge

JISC’s Future of Research conference on 19 October aims to provide ‘here and now’ advice and guidance for vice chancellors, pro vice chancellors and senior managers looking to find out how strategic use of technology can support research in their universities. www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2010/10/futureofresearch