6 March 2013

Researching research

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Although I was a research student many, many years ago (before online journals, that's how long...) I don't have much spare time for research at the moment. Part of my job is to support our researchers - how can I do that if I don't do any myself? It's not about subject knowledge, it's about understanding the process and using the systems and tools. So when little jobs come up that require a bit of digging around I'm always grateful for these.

So I have been looking at the literature on whether providing lecture notes in advance affects student attendance (short answer = it doesn't). This didn't need to be a full-on literature review but I wanted to round up the best that was out there. As it's an "Education" topic, I used ERIC plus our resource discovery system (iFind Research). I spent a little time on Scopus and Web of Knowledge. It was actually Google Scholar which really turned up the goods with least amount of effort and maximum amount of results.

1. Access to Full Text
I ended up with 12 good papers that were most relevant. Of these 12....
3 = no full text available to me
3 = full text only via our university subscriptions
4 = full text freely available on the web via Google Scholar but not via iFind Research
2 = full text freely available AND we have access via our university subscriptions
The Google Scholar PDFs seemed to come from reputable sources (institutional repositories, the HEA) yet I would not have found them if I had stuck to our official university systems. They also required me to click a link - no login hurdles. This ratio of availability may vary per subject perhaps but, for me, a combination of iFind Research and Google Scholar worked best.

2. Working with my results
I have been using Mendeley to collect my results. This works well for me because it is accessible over the web, plus has a full desktop program and a good iPad app. I can store my PDFs in Mendeley and in the full desktop version I can work really well with them - highlight text, cut and paste quotes, make notes both alongside the PDF and also general notes about each one. I found it a really effective way of reading without having to print out everything. I'm generally not one for reading things on a screen but this worked for me.

I didn't find it the easiest thing to get my references into Mendeley without a fair bit of tweaking. I used the web importer button but this was patchy. I also didn't make a note of the full text URL so had to go back and do that. You can import PDFs and it will try to work out the details but, again, I found this patchy. Google Scholar results can only be imported one-by-one (download file, upload file) so that didn't work so well for me either. I suspect our institutional tool, EndNote, may work better for this.

3. Sharing my results
I can make a set of results public on Mendeley but it's a bit more fiddly than I would like as you have a create a Group. It's also a fairly easy business to cut and paste my set of references and I can choose the style (APA 6th) but it still needs a fair bit of tweaking to get it looking presentable. To share my references I therefore put them in a Word Document / PDF and shared it via our Blackboard Content Collection. Google Docs would have been the best option perhaps.

Trying all this out has raised more questions for me on methodology and tools for the job. I get the feeling there isn't one tool that will do all the things I want. At the moment, Mendeley wins out but I wish they'd develop better sharing functionality - I'd like to embed a list of references for example.

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