“Take control of your PhD journey”

Last week I took my first PhD course here at UiT, called “Take control of your PhD journey: From (p)reflection to publishing.” The course is offered by the University library, and covers:

  • academic integrity and the transparency of science
  • literature search
  • open access publishing
  • research data management
  • EndNote (basic and advanced)

This course is for PhD students in any field, and there were ca. 30 students. Right now I’m working on a paper  (as you can plainly see!), that needs to be turned in before April 12th.

I enjoyed the course and the reading, and commend the library for their good work!

Collecting data

One of the sources of data for my research is a survey which attempts to measure students’ levels of information literacy. A pilot study should always be done before finalizing a survey in order to find and eliminate questions that are unclear or don’t serve their purpose. This is one way of validating a survey – checking that the survey questions actually address the research question, and that the respondents understand the answer alternatives.

After working on the survey for several weeks I started collecting data yesterday. The survey is made in Qualtrics, an online survey tool that makes distributing and collecting data relatively easy. I presented my research and the survey for a class here at UiT and encouraged them to participate. I’ll be doing the same for several different classes over the next weeks. My goal is to get 250 responses, which is 5 times the number of questions in the survey – a good rule-of-thumb. So far I’ve gotten 29.

When I get enough responses I’ll analyze the results to see which questions work well, and then eliminate the least useful questions, perhaps halving the total amount. It’s not a good idea to have a survey that’s too long because that discourages participation.

The survey is only one of three tools that I’ll be using to measure information literacy. The other two tools will measure what students actually do – in this case how they critically evaluate information sources and how they cite their sources in their writing.

And otherwise – I will start my first PhD course today! It’s called “Take control of your PhD journey – from (p)reflection to publishing.” It will be 3 days of seminars/instruction, some reading, and a final paper. The course is given by senior academic librarians, so I’m sure it’ll be great.

And today is my son Daniel’s 23rd birthday! (I know that this blog is about becoming a researcher, but some exceptions must be made. 😉 )


Data Management Plan

Together with Torstein, I’ve now made a “Data Management Plan” (DMP) for my study. It’s highly recommended, but not mandatory, to make a DMP within the first 6 months of a study. (The trick is then to remember to do what the plan prescribes!)

For the DMP, I used the Norwegian Centre for Research Data’s (NSD) template – the same organization which I notified about how I’m going to process personal data in my study. These are some of the questions which are addressed in the DMP:

  • brief description of my project , with an explanation of how data can help to answer my research questions
  • whether I’ll collect the data myself or use already existing data in a research archive
  • how my data could be useful for other researchers, and keywords to make it searchable by others
  • technical questions about the data itself, and methods and programs used to collect, store and analyze the data (here I got to use cool words like R-script and SPSS-syntax)
  • ethical and legal issues about personal data (where individuals can be identified)
  • security in the handling and storage of the data
  • systematic naming of data files so they can be interpreted by others
  • anonymization of personal data (when I’m done with all analyses)
  • long-term storage and sharing of data (which I’ll do in UiT Open Research Data)

Research is much different now than 10-20 years ago. Many institutions now require scientists to publish both their articles AND THEIR DATA open access, in archives like UiT’s, making them accessible to others.

This is actually a REVOLUTION in the world of science! Scientists now have access to each others’ data, making it possible for them to check results for scientific misconduct such as falsification or fabrication of data, calculation errors, plagiarism, etc. This leads to the retraction of several hundred articles every year, also in prestigious journals (see Retraction Watch). But unfortunately, before they get retracted, many of these articles are cited by others. This is bad science.

My new mug

Word cloud mug

This mug was given to me by my supervisors, to celebrate the acceptance of my research proposal. They made a word cloud from the text of the proposal! (IL = information literacy) Isn’t it great? 🙂

After sending in the last of the forms, I’m now properly enrolled in the Faculty of Health Sciences. This means that I can (finally) enroll in PhD courses, so I’ll be taking these two courses this semester:

  • Take control of your PhD journey: From (p)reflection to publishing
  • Quantitative research methods

I also got feedback from NSD (Norway’s Data Protection Services), approving of my plan for the processing of personal data in my project. Another small milestone.

Next week’s project is to write a Data Management Plan (DMP).

My proposal was accepted!

I started this blog the day I sent my research proposal, and today I found out that my proposal was accepted! Yay! The proposal was a 10-page, detailed description of the research that I plan to do for the next four years here in Tromsø, which I prepared together with my supervisors. Now I can (safely) continue with my research and sign up for PhD courses. Although it won’t exactly be smooth sailing from here, I’m quite relieved and happy about this progress.

So this is a day to celebrate! It feels totally the opposite of yesterday, when I was in doubt of everything I’ve done up to this point. (See my previous post.) I knew when I started that doing a PhD would be a roller-coaster, but that it could change from down to up so quickly,  is truly amazing.

I had a short meeting with two of my (wonderful) supervisors today, Tove and Torstein. After “celebrating” the accepted proposal we discussed our progress with pilot surveys (Tove’s interest questions and my IL questions), and the next steps I have to take:

  • notifying NSD about my research (which has to be done because it will contain personal data)
  • recruiting students for the pilot survey and for a think-aloud protocol
  • informing the vice deans of education about my research
  • finding IL experts to evaluate my survey in terms of content validity
  • preregistering my research
  • signing up for courses, etc.

No twiddling thumbs around here! But at least I feel today like I’m moving forwards, and not backwards. 🙂

Otherwise – last night was the kick-off meeting of the committee organizing the next Creating Knowledge Conference, of which I’m a member. It looks like the conference, which will be in Tromsø, will take place on June 4-5, 2020, which is like having a huge party (+ a ton of responsibility) for my 60th (on the 4th)!

Am I on the wrong path with my research?

Some days, like today, are really hard. I’m starting to wonder if I’m going down the wrong path with my research. The survey is just about ready to pilot, yet I’m not sure that the survey questions are appropriate, or that information literacy (IL) can or should be assessed using multiple choice questions.

Survey questions are loosely based on the ANZIL framework, which is in turn based on the ACRL general standards from 2000. These are now “sunsetted” –  removed from the ACRL’s webpages, and replaced with their IL Framework.

So is it wise to use “outdated” standards and learning outcomes to measure IL today? If not, how else can students’ IL be assessed? The Framework, unlike the Standards, doesn’t include learning outcomes, which were relatively easy to measure. It’s much harder to measure using the “threshold concepts” that the Framework prescribes.

This mini-crisis exploded last night, when I read an e-mail from the director of the ACRL, answering my questions about the replacement of the Standards with the Framework, and confirming my fear that even their discipline-specific standards also soon will be sunsetted.

I feel like the foundation of my project has been knocked out from under me. Have the past four months of work been wasted? Do I have to start over with a new research question? Is it normal to have days like this??Bilderesultat for wonder icon

Just now, my co-supervisor, Torstein, came by to discuss this dilemma, which has been bothering us both. He suggested that we reframe the way we’re thinking about the problem. My study, after all, is not solely based on the standards themselves, but rather on the assumption that IL can (at least to some extent) be measured with a survey. And that I think I can defend. Besides – I’ll also use other methods of assessing the students’ IL, not just the survey. And the measuring of IL is only part of my study.

So I feel a little better now, but still as though I’ve been through a whirlpool. Do other researchers also have doubts like this  occasionally?

PhD pitch

Three PhD students, including me, presented our research to the Department of Psychology last week. We had 10 minutes each, with 5 minutes for questions, to describe our research plans and goal – a “PhD pitch”.

My PhD pitch

It’s always good practice to do short presentations, where you have to stick to the most important aspects of the research and explain the topic to people who don’t necessarily know anything about it.

The others had topics related to psychology, whereas my research, in Library and Information Science, was unfamiliar to most there.

I’m lucky to have English as my native language, so presenting at conferences or meetings such as this isn’t such a hurdle.


Preparing for doing research

I had a meeting with my 3 supervisors today to discuss how to proceed with my research while waiting for my protocol to be approved.

One of the first steps is to notify NSD, the Norwegian Centre for Research Data. Anyone who collects personal data (information about individuals) has to fill out an electronic form and send it to NSD for approval. It sounds easy, right? Well…

It actually takes longer than you’d think, so be sure to set aside several hours to this task when you start your research. NSD asks difficult questions, like how your respondents will be able to remove their data if they suddenly decide to no longer take part in the study. I’ll also have to upload the survey I’ll be using (which I haven’t made yet!), as well as the letter I’ll be sending to my respondents informing them about how their personal data will be stored (safely) and deleted (when the data is analyzed).

It’s a great system and a necessary part of any research project involving personal data, assuring participants that there’s no risk for them in being part of the study.

The next steps will be:

  • to create a Data Management Plan
  • to develop (and validate) a survey to measure the students’ abilities to critically evaluate and properly document information sources. (This is the fun part!)

To be continued…

(BTW – today is “sun day” in Tromsø, the day the sun reappears after being below the horizon for two months – a day that makes me feel like anything is possible. 🙂 )

So, what exactly is information literacy anyway?

When I tell people that I’m doing a PhD in information literacy, they stare at me with their heads tipped to the side and their eyebrows scrunched – the universal sign for “huh?

Let me explain. Information literacy (IL) has several different definitions, which makes things a little confusing at times. The definition in my job announcement was “IL encompasses the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to be able to make expedient and appropriate use of information sources in order to answer questions, solve problems and learn.”

So, what kind of skills and knowledge are we actually talking about here? In higher education, we librarians  try to teach our students  how to search for and find reliable sources of information, and to use these sources in the correct way when they write. An information literate person, in other words, has the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use information.

Locating information doesn’t mean just Googling everything. We teach our students to search in quality-controlled databases, but if you don’t have access to those, try Google Scholar – there you’ll find more reliable sources than in regular Google.

Evaluating information is important, especially now, when it can be hard to see the difference between what’s  real and what’s fake. Look for sources that are based on sound research. There are lots of guides explaining how to critically evaluate sources, like this one from UC Santa Cruz. Think critically, and don’t believe everything you read, or everything that your friends link to on FaceBook. (And don’t share dubious FaceBook-posts – fake stories spread much faster than the truth!)

Using sources correctly when writing is also an important skill. Students who forget to cite their sources can be accused of plagiarism. We teach students how to cite sources in the text and how to write reference lists in their papers. It’s a good rule for everyone – if you quote someone, or use someone’s ideas, photos, music, etc., give them credit for it!

So, I’m going to do research which can inform our teaching of IL in order to ensure the best possible learning outcomes. More to follow…

Why did I have to apply now?

Many have asked me why I had to apply for admission to a faculty when I’d already been hired as a research fellow. Why couldn’t I just start my research when I began here in October?

UiT has realized that the former 10-page project descriptions, which previously were the formal application to PhD programs, often had to be significantly changed after the research fellow began. One reason for this is because the project also has to be something that the supervisors are interested in. They’ve now changed the system so that they accept the most qualified candidate, and then the research project is planned together with supervisors, as a team.

This planning has been quite a process, and the past three months have been challenging. Trying to create a feasible research project, based on the description in the job announcement, was hard! I felt like I didn’t know enough about the research process, and all the tests that need to be done in order to just make and conduct a survey, e.g.

Luckily I got great help from my supervisors, and together we worked out a plan that everyone is satisfied with. 🙂 It’s going to be a lot of hard work the next four years, so wish me luck!