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British Ph.D. Students Don't Tweet

June 28, 2012

Few British Ph.D. students explore new technologies in their research or understand the range of information available to them, a report commissioned by the British Library and higher education technology body JISC has found.

"Researchers of Tomorrow," being released today, surveyed more than 17,000 Ph.D. students over three years, following 60 in depth and looking in particular at those born between 1982 and 1994, the so-called Generation Y. It states that despite being technologically savvy, Generation Y doctoral students know little about the range and authenticity of research information available in new formats such as online databases, e-journals and repositories, and few know how to access it.

They also have little understanding of open access and copyright. Many believe supervisors would not approve of citing open-access papers and only 26 percent know that funders are beginning to expect open access to the research they support.

Julie Carpenter, the report's co-author and director of the consulting firm Education for Change, told Times Higher Education that the results suggested a neglect of doctoral students and that they experienced a sense of isolation. Institutional support  in terms of library offerings, information on the research environment, and training was not working, and there needed to be a "paradigm shift" in the way the sector helps and engages with Ph.D. students, she said.

"There's a disconnect between strategic organizations such as JISC, [which are] hell-bent on saying you must use these wonderful tools, promote sharing and move research into the electronic age, and institutions themselves," she added.

This was mirrored by another of the study's findings: that although Generation Y students use some online tools such as bookmarking and RSS web feed alerts, very few employ collaborative technologies such as wikis, blogging and Twitter in their research, despite using such tools in their personal lives.

Debbie McVitty, research and policy officer for postgraduates at the National Union of Students and a member of the study's advisory group, partly attributed this risk aversion to the pressure on Ph.D. students to complete their doctorates rather than create great research. "The people going to adopt [technologies] early are probably people such as professors, who are more established in their position and can afford to be more experimental," she said.

"Access to an academic job could turn on a dime; you don't want to take any risks."

Alongside library staff and university managers, supervisors needed to play a greater role in informing students, with support tailored to their fields, McVitty said.

The report also found a "striking dependence" by Ph.D. students on other people's conclusions rather than original sources. According to the survey, in four out of five cases Ph.D. students sought published books and papers when looking for information to help with their research, rather than "primary" material such as specimens, archives and datasets.

Students must also be collecting data and doing original research in addition to exploring such secondary sources, Carpenter said, but the finding may identify a trend that, if verified, would have "quite serious" implications.

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