Journal Club: Analyzing Learning Analytics

By Candice Dahl,
Learning Services Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

The topic of October’s C-EBLIP journal club at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) library was learning analytics in libraries based on a blog post by April Hathcock and a YouTube video by Beauchamp and Rawls of Florida State University.  The video by Beauchamp and Rawls defines learning analytics as “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners in their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environment in which it occurs.”  The use of learning analytics in libraries has been the subject of much critical discussion.  While some champion the use of learning analytics, practitioners of critical librarianship and others raise noteworthy criticisms of the learning analytics movement.

One argument made against the use of learning analytics is based on the core library value of privacy.  Beauchamp and Rawls argue that the use of learning analytics breaches student privacy and is therefore unethical. Students are typically not aware of the data being collected about them or how it is being used.  April Hathcock (Hathcock, 2018) opposes learning analytics on the basis that “metrics and assessment are for property and animals, and people considered property and animals,” while Rawls also notes that that our work and value in libraries and universities should not be quantified. At a time when education is being corporatized and library value is tied to measurable metrics, Hathcock proposes that we resist the use of learning analytics by focusing instead on facilitating student agency – by informing students of the practices of their institution, and educating and empowering them to resist or participate in an informed way.

Beauchamp and Rawls also make the argument that learning analytics do not document learning but rather demonstrate students’ procedural compliance: they measure how well students follow our (library) procedures, as a way of proving our value to our institutions rather than measuring what or how well students learn. Closely tied to the issue of compliance is the notion of power. Through surveillance and bureaucracy, learning analytics research functions as an exercise in power, represents a colonial approach to research, and overlooks the humanity of our students by turning them into data points (Rawls).

Our discussion centered on the need to develop clear goals for any investigations into optimizing student learning, and to ensure that we  do not use learning analytics to actually measure ourselves and our performance (as a library) rather than student learning.  We thought of many questions to ask ourselves before getting involved in such an undertaking. What could we learn about students’ interaction with libraries that would be helpful to us? How do we ensure that the data we collect is meaningful? And how committed are we to actually making positive changes in response to meaningful data?

We also wondered about ways to impact student learning in more personalized and human-centric ways. Can our face-to-face interactions with students achieve results similar to interventions based on learning analytics? Could we have a positive impact on the students we don’t see in libraries by using learning analytics? And, based on the work of Rawls, we considered how reliance on learning analytics could impact students from underrepresented and minority groups, who may already be wary of additional surveillance and who may use our spaces and services in very different ways. Will learning analytics help us discover useful interventions for these students, or reinforce inaccurate perceptions?

Overall we concluded that libraries should consider how to define their value in non-corporatized, non-colonial ways, and how to engage students ethically and sensitively in optimizing their learning environments. Ultimately, determining whether or not to employ learning analytics in libraries should be guided by our profession’s values and ethics, not just our desire for information.

References

Beauchamp, Adam, and Mallary Rawls. “In Search of a Just and Responsible Culture of Assessment.” YouTube, uploaded by Beauchamp and Rawls, 31 Aug. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6f_1QvAu_A&feature=youtu.be.

Hathcock, April. “Learning Agency, Not Analytics.” At the Intersection, 24 Jan. 2018, https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/learning-agency-not-analytics/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.

Data Conversations – Indigenous Data and Its Discontents

By Deborah Lee, Kevin Read, Sarah Rutley, Catherine Boden
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Since April of 2020, University of Saskatchewan (USask) librarians have been meeting monthly for “Data Conversations” – a discussion series in which we explore library supports for research data-related activities and envision how they might look in our local context(s). Our second session focused on Indigenous data. We discussed a recording of a panel on Indigenous data sovereignty from the Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) Symposium (University of Melbourne, 2017), and a 2019 Media Indigena podcast entitled “Taking the measure of data on Indigenous peoples”. Below, we recount and expand upon the four central themes from our discussion.

Ownership and control.

In keeping with the centrality of the OCAP principles, we first explored the idea of data ownership. There are complexities around where ownership of a dataset should reside.  We noted that the IDS panel raised questions about who has ownership of a particular dataset or topic area, when communities are diverse (Walter et al., 2017).  Related to this are questions about the roles individuals or communities may have regarding data collected in their communities. Who has an ‘advisory’ role with respect to that data and who might have a decision-making role in how the data is shared (or not shared), made identifiable, and preserved? The data itself must reside somewhere and an academic institution may not be the preferred choice for the researchers and/or the communities participating in the research. It may be preferable for data to be entrusted with the community or with other organizations connected to the community.  Who has possession of the data has implications for findability, accessibility (where data is shared), and long-term preservation. These are important questions that need to be asked for each research project. The particularities depend upon each unique situation.

Trust, barriers, and building relationships.  

A recurring theme in our conversation was the centrality of relationship-building to Indigenous participation in – and benefit from – the research process. A long history of non-Indigenous researchers treating Indigenous communities and their resources as raw material for the advancement of projects and careers has rightfully erected barriers of mistrust by Indigenous peoples in the research process (see Smith,1999). We talked about how respectful and reciprocal relationship-building takes time; not only should researchers expect to invest sustained effort into the process, but norms and expectations in academia must also evolve to support this reality. Finally, it was noted that relationships must not only engage Indigenous communities as consultants or advisors, but as true partners at all stages of research design, implementation, and dissemination. Community ownership of and investment in the research process lays a foundation for researchers to “ask the right questions”. This ensures that data collection is designed to provide insights that are both relevant and beneficial to partner communities.

Centering Indigenous communities and perspectives – What kinds of questions are we asking?  

For this theme, we discussed the idea of centering Indigenous values, communities, worldviews, and perspectives when conducting research with and by Indigenous peoples. Dr. Marie Battiste, Professor Emerita, U of S, has often been quoted with: “Nothing about us without us”.  Following this guideline / motto, it is important for researchers to aim for improvement in the situation of the Indigenous peoples and communities who participate in the research. An example of a good outcome from research is a report sanctioned by the Indigenous community that assists them to apply for funding that supports their well-being. Such a report will have respectfully engaged the community at every stage of the research process, including in the development of the methodology (for example, interview questions if the research is qualitative).

We also talked about how Dr. Maggie Walter (in the IDS panel) provides an excellent example in her longitudinal health study of Indigenous children in Australia when she discusses her primary research question: “What are the factors that help Indigenous children to grow up strong?”  All other research questions were required to align with this primary research question. That way, research results could focus on obtaining positive health outcomes for these children. This is unlike many research investigations where there are myriad statistics about Indigenous people that speak to their deficits. Walter’s key message is to reject research which focuses on a deficit model for Indigenous peoples, especially when there are no explanations of how colonialism has impacted the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Similarly, in the Media Indigena podcast, Dr. Jennifer Walker, an Indigenous researcher located in Ontario, discussed alternative indicators of health and well-being from an Indigenous perspective. Often, a Western researcher may wish to focus their questions on how, as subjects age, their physical health is declining. Yet, the aging research participant may feel that their overall health is satisfactory because they have gained wisdom and more balance in their lives.  What was important for the participant was managing the practicalities of everyday living, for example, that they could still collect and chop wood. Questions generated by community and which utilized an Indigenous worldview would encompass: (a) the nature of participants’ functioning in their daily living, and (b) whether or not they have been able to access family and community supports if required and if available.

Library service development.

When our conversations shifted to how the library could develop services that would support Indigenous data, we returned to the themes of relationship building, collaboration, and ongoing communication. A key part of developing services related to Indigenous practices is to recognize our own assumptions. At USask, the library is in the initial stages of developing research data management (RDM) services, and we see this as an opportunity to center Indigenous data issues. We agreed that our library would need to partner with Indigenous research initiatives on campus to collectively shape how our library can support the management of Indigenous data. Researchers from the Department of Indigenous Studies, Indigenous faculty in the College of Education, Indigenous leaders from the USask-led, CIHR-funded Indigenous Health Network, and other Indigenous researchers across campus were mentioned as potential partners we could look to for guidance on first steps. Finally, we discussed how our library could work together with these partners to advocate for ways non-Indigenous researchers can practice responsible RDM when working with Indigenous data. Those who participated in this conversation felt strongly that to move forward with RDM library services, Indigenous data practices should be considered from the very beginning and this focus on Indigenous perspectives should be sustained as services evolve.

There are many unanswered questions related to the ownership, protection, preservation, interoperability, discovery, and sharing of Indigenous data that should be considered when developing library RDM services. The most important question we can ask ourselves at the beginning of this process is “Will this service benefit the Indigenous communities involved?”.

References.

The First Nations Information Governance Centre (2014). Ownership, Control, Access and Possession (OCAP™): The Path to First Nations Information Governance. Ottawa, Canada: The First Nations Information Governance Centre.

Harp, R. (Producer/host) & Walker, J. (Guest) (2019, Sep 29). Taking the measure of data on Indigenous peoples. (Ep. 179) [Audio podcast episode]. In Media Indigena. https://mediaindigena.libsyn.com/ep-179-taking-the-measure-of-data-on-indigenous-peoples

Smith, L. Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.  London ; New York : Zed Books: Dunedin, N.Z. : University of Otago Press.

Walter, M. & Andersen, C. [2013]. Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology.  Walnut Creek, California, USA: Left Coast Press.

Walter, M., Lovett, R., Thorpe, K., Finlay, S.M., & Al-Yaman, F. (2017). “What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty Panel?” Indigenous Data Sovereignty Symposium, Oct. 2017, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.  Available on Vimeo:  https://vimeo.com/243600584

The Landscape of Mid-Career Research: Where do Librarian Researchers Fit In?

By Katya MacDonald, PhD
Research Facilitator, University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Research identifying that mid-career researchers have particular needs and challenges has been taking place since at least the early 1990s. The mid-career phase is the longest and sometimes most nebulous stage of an academic career, and one that can take many different directions and often moves away from the more focused goals of early career researchers.

Studies looking at the needs of mid-career researchers have identified various themes in researchers’ perspectives, but few studies have focused specifically on mid-career librarians as researchers. Some general research experiences may resonate with librarian researchers, and there may also be others that haven’t yet been articulated.

Some researchers’ observations of their mid-career experiences across universities and disciplines include:

Research community:

  • An interest in stronger community and relationship-building in the research process, among librarian researchers
  • Desire for informal peer support networks to approach with a range of questions and considerations, to help create an organizational culture of supports
  • Time pressures that make it difficult to take an interest in others’ research
  • Conversation about research is valuable, but can also be a site of imposter syndrome

Research practices and communications:

  • A need for supports for exploring new methodologies
  • Additional attention to ways of capitalizing on the unique position of librarians to engage in interdisciplinary research
  • Seeking recognition and support networks for methodologies that may not fit a conventional mold
  • Desire for assistance with communicating the value of librarian research but also experiencing ambivalence about the “prestige economy” of research communication and evaluation of impact

Individual career trajectory:

  • A need for more support for decision-making and reflection within a realm of many research and professional possibilities
  • Workloads, funding, and time as barriers to research
  • Research burnout after the push for tenure, and a desire to seek new collaborations or take research in new directions
  • Seeking support for fluidity and change in the research process

Given all of the above, the diversity and at times fluidity of mid-career researchers’ experiences are clear. But within this diversity, some common themes emerge, especially around community, feedback, and increased recognition and understanding of researchers’ work.

Do any of these experiences sound familiar? Are there others that haven’t been discussed here?

 

References

Cheng, James, and Starr Hoffman. “Librarians and Administrators on Academic Library Impact Research: Characteristics and Perspectives.” College & Research Libraries 81, no. 3 (2020). https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.81.3.538.

Coate, Kelly, and Camille B Kandiko Howson. “Mid-Career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation.” The Leadership Foundation, 2015. https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/62795899/mid_career_academic_women_starategies_choices_and_motivation.pdf

Couture, Juliann, Jennie Gerke, and Jennifer Knievel. “Getting into the Club: Existence and Availability of Mentoring for Tenured Librarians in Academic Libraries,” College and Research Libraries 81, no. 4 (2020). https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.81.4.676.

Lacey, Sajni, and Melanie Parlette-Stewart. “Jumping Into The Deep: Imposter Syndrome, Defining Success and the New Librarian.” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 12, no. 1 (August 23, 2017). https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v12i1.3979.

Lamber, Julia, Tony Ardizzone, Terry Dworkin, Sam Guskin, Deborah Olsen, Phil Parnell, and David Thelen. “A ‘Community of Scholars?’: Conversations Among Mid-Career Faculty at a Public Research University.” To Improve the Academy 12, no. 1 (1993): 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.1993.tb00233.x.

Lyall, Catherine, and Laura R. Meagher. “A Masterclass in Interdisciplinarity: Research into Practice in Training the next Generation of Interdisciplinary Researchers.” Futures, Special Issue: Politics, Democracy and Degrowth, 44, no. 6 (August 1, 2012): 608–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2012.03.011.

Mamiseishvili, Ketevan, Michael T. Miller, and Donghun Lee. “Beyond Teaching and Research: Faculty Perceptions of Service Roles at Research Universities.” Innovative Higher Education 41, no. 4 (August 1, 2016): 273–85. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-015-9354-3.

Martorana, Janet, Eunice Schroeder, and Lucia Snowhill. “A Focus on Mentorship in Career Development.” Library Administration & Management 18, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 198–202.

Sassen, Catherine, and Diane Wahl. “Fostering Research and Publication in Academic Libraries.” College & Research Libraries 75, no. 4 (2014). https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.75.4.458.

Data Conversations: Exploring pathways for data services development at USask

by Sarah Rutley, Kevin Read and Catherine Boden,  University Library, University of Saskatchewan

In the Spring of 2020, University of Saskatchewan (USask) librarians met for the inaugural session of “Data Conversations” – a series of discussions designed to get us thinking about how academic libraries can, do, and should support research data-related activities. We hope to demystify data across disciplinary contexts, build familiarity with key concepts, develop a shared understanding of research data supports, and develop guidance for implementation. The jumping off point for the first meeting was a chapter titled “What is different about data?”.1 Here we share some highlights from our conversation.

Why is research data management (RDM) important?  Topics like RDM, and data sharing, reproducibility, and reuse are becoming increasingly salient for research communities. Funders and publishers are making data sharing a requirement, and the scholarly community is looking to develop methods to solve the problem of transparency and reproducibility in science. Researchers are now required to perform new and potentially unfamiliar tasks/duties related to managing their research data. With this push towards openness in research, librarians have already begun to play a significant role.  At USask, we are considering the types and levels of data services to offer.  We talked about identifying approaches that focus on reducing the researcher burden, identifying collaborations with campus partners, and discussing which services are suitable for specific disciplines. These efforts will be especially important as the Canadian Tri-agency prepares to release new requirements for RDM for grant applications and the newly released Canadian Roadmap for Open Science is implemented incrementally over the next few years.

Speaking the language of the research community. A takeaway from our conversation was the importance of language when engaging with the research community. Using library-centric terminology to engage a research community may hinder a librarian’s ability to establish a connection with a researcher, resulting in a lost opportunity to demonstrate the value of the library’s data-related services.  For instance, terms like “e-science” and “cyberinfrastructure”, while used frequently in library research to report on data-related efforts, are not necessarily used by research communities. Research disciplines think about data in different ways, and librarians need to be aware of these distinctions. A researcher in the humanities might not even think of their research materials (e.g., documents, artistic works, historical texts) as ‘data’. Being able to speak the language of the research community will help increase a librarian’s credibility, helping to establish researcher trust.

Researcher perceptions of applicability/relevance. We discussed how (or if) researchers perceive RDM to be relevant to their own work. Reasons to resist formally integrating RDM into research workflows could include: lack of conceptual familiarity with RDM; being unconvinced of associated personal or communal benefits; or the belief that “data” (as source material or scholarly output) belongs to other disciplines. Academic libraries that intend to successfully support RDM will need to work within each of these realities, and more. It was also noted that even where researchers may see the need to integrate RDM within their research lifecycle, practical responsibility may still be experienced as an unacceptable administrative burden. The challenge here is a significant one – if librarians intend to advocate for improved and intensified RDM practices, they must also be prepared to develop services that help harmonize the process for researchers.

This was a productive first conversation, and we look forward to exploring more topics going forward. Stay tuned for our next post on our conversation about indigenous data.

1 In Rice, R., & Southall, J. (2016). The data librarian’s handbook. Facet publishing.

Conversations with Colleagues: Working with Student RAs, Part II

By Katya MacDonald
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Editors Note: This is part two of a two part series. Catherine Boden, C-EBLIP Director

In part 1, we heard from researchers who spearheaded our conversation by sharing their experiences and learnings from involving students in research. Their experiences sparked questions and commentary from other attendees, focused around a few overlapping discussions:

Funding agencies are increasingly interested in seeing meaningful student research experiences built into grant-funded projects. But who benefits most from having a student involved, and how can researchers maximize the benefit for students and researchers alike?

The amount of support that students need can vary a lot, depending not only on their level of study, but also on their existing general research knowledge and transferable writing and citation skills. Involving a student may not always be a direct time-saver in the research process, but laying out clear guidelines and a plan for frequent communication lay a foundation for successful work with student RAs.

Since the University of Saskatchewan doesn’t have an MLIS program, students who work on librarian research projects are likely to be unfamiliar with at least some of the researcher’s particular needs or approaches. Hiring a student from an analogous discipline can be a starting point for bridging those gaps, but perhaps more importantly, students with good organizational, communication, and other general work skills are likely to be well placed to integrate into the research project and their specific role.

Even once you’ve got a capable and dedicated student on board, it’s still challenging to translate tasks and gauge students’ comprehension before they get too far into the work. Session attendee Carolyn Doi highlighted a method of shadowing your own work alongside the student, to demonstrate and compare what you’re looking for, but also to train yourself how to communicate how you got the result you were aiming for. In other words, the first days and weeks of training a student are a test of students’ and researchers’ communication skills alike, and session attendees noted that they generally had to check in with students more often than they had expected to, and that being available to answer questions early on helped to build efficiency later.

How do you involve students in authorship or other scholarly outputs like conference presentations or co-authored articles?

Some grant funding (notably Tri-Agency grants) encourages meaningful research experiences for students. What can those look like in practice, beyond the day-to-day of the students’ work on the project? Session attendees reported that students experience a warm reception at academic conferences, and that the process of preparing and attending the conference strengthens teamwork as well as students’ sense of agency in the work. On a very practical level, students are also sometimes able to access additional travel funding from the conference, which eases the strain on researchers’ travel and dissemination budgets.

The session attendees noted that visions for student involvement in authorship may evolve over the course of the project. After getting to know a student and their work, expectations may change, or the student’s (or researcher’s) availability and enthusiasm may look different as the project moves forward. In the end, funding availability or the student’s general writing ability may dictate whether co-authorship is an idea to pursue.

There are also avenues that can afford students the experience of publishing, beyond the realm of a co-authored peer-reviewed publication – one option is for students to write a report on their experiences working on a research project and submit it to a journal that makes space for pieces like this.

What do you do if you need to let a student go, or the arrangement just doesn’t work out?

Research evolves, and so do students’ university lives. And in some cases, these changes may mean that a student is no longer a good fit for the research project’s needs. The student’s availability or other commitments, expectations about the work, level of experience, and time management skills may all become part of the evaluation about whether to continue the working relationship. Parting ways with a student doesn’t always need to be an uncomfortable or unilateral decision, however. As part of ongoing communication with the student about the work, you can ask the student to think honestly about their availability to continue the work, and come to a mutual agreement about whether the student will stay on.

What opportunities do you make for check-ins and debriefing, both during the research and as the project concludes?

The importance of clear communication was a theme that permeated our discussion. That communication can help to inform researchers’ future work with other students, too. The session attendees generally agreed that it would be helpful to debrief at the end of a project, to hear from the student about their experiences and what they had learned from the process. In practice, though, that may not always happen within the limitations of availability and comfort level (students’ and researchers’) with having this type of frank conversation. To lay the groundwork, it may be helpful to hold regular conversations with the student throughout the project about their expectations and experiences. But overall it’s challenging to know how to create an environment in which students are comfortable sharing feedback with their supervisor!

Any other considerations that we haven’t talked about yet?

In the context of librarian research, it’s also worth acknowledging that student supervision looks different and has different goals than for researchers in other disciplines. Librarians don’t have their own grad students, so don’t get the same recognition in tenure and promotion contexts for their work with students. Balancing funders’ expectations with researchers’ own value for money and time looks different for librarians than for other academics.

To preserve the anonymity of the students that session attendees had worked with, I’ve summarized the discussion mostly in aggregate, but I hope that within this post, you’ll hear the diverse perspectives and experiences represented, and consider this dialogue an invitation to add additional insights. How has your experience been with student RAs? Were there surprises, insights, and successes along the way? What would you do differently next time?

Conversations with Colleagues: Part I. Working with Student RAs

By Katya MacDonald
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Editors Note: This is part one of a two part series. Catherine Boden, C-EBLIP Director

On April 9th, as part of what was originally meant to be a four-part series of lunch hour conversation sessions at the University of Saskatchewan Library about themes in librarian research, a group of researchers gathered to discuss their experiences of working with student research assistants (RAs).

The original description for the session read:

Hiring student research assistants can be an important support for research projects, and is a growing category of assessment for grant applications. But at times, managing student RAs is a separate experience from the actual research experience. Join librarians as they discuss the ins and outs of working with student RAs, incorporating their work into your research plan, and the strengths and challenges of involving students in this way. Bring your own questions and experiences to this open discussion.

The vision was to bring colleagues together for an opportunity to share, question, and reflect through conversation: conversations that can be hard to come by in the day-to-day of individual research endeavours. When it became clear that the conversation would not be able to proceed in person, the researchers leading off the session with their remarks, Vicky Duncan (Health Sciences Librarian) and Jaclyn McLean (Electronic Resources Librarian), agreed to share their conversation via WebEx instead. All the participants gamely persevered through some technological hindrances to share valuable insights.

Vicky and Jaclyn introduced the session by sharing their processes of learning and experience when involving student research assistants. They shared what are common experiences for faculty members seeking to hire students: that it’s hard to know where to begin and proceed with the hiring process, especially in the context of the library and not a specific department with its own cadre of students to approach. They found, though, that researchers in other disciplines working on complementary projects were happy to recommend students or suggest possible avenues to explore

The next challenge is choosing the right student, and determining an effective training process for that student. There’s often background guidance required, not only in the specific research tasks, but also in complementary skills like citation styles or knowledge of databases. If that initial training has gaps, it can be time-consuming later on to fill in additional knowledge for the student. It’s better to err on the side of giving too much detail and direct instruction than too little.

At the same time, grad students in particular can bring methodological experience and disciplinary knowledge that can complement the research. Regardless of the student’s level of experience or self-sufficiency, holding regular meetings and maintaining an archive of the meeting minutes creates a useful reference and foundation for future work for student and researcher alike.

 

 

Tips for successful grant applications

By Craig Harkema, Karim Tharani, and Helen Power, University of Saskatchewan Library

Editor’s Note. Hello Everyone! I hope you are all well. We had planned a series of research conversations to be held in person at lunch to chat about research through the lifecycle. Times have changed! And we are adapting.  My colleagues Karim Tharani and Craig Harkema were going to lead our conversation about their experiences applying for and getting grants.  Our newest colleague, Helen Power, was to facilitate.  When it became clear that meeting in person wouldn’t be possible, they all agreed to write a blog post. It is written by my colleagues as if we were holding the conversation we planned to have.  Their voices intermingle and sometimes shared opinions are expressed.  I hope you enjoy it and learn from their experiences.  Catherine Boden, Director of C-EBLIP

Every grant has its own application requirements and scope, but there are also some strategies for success that suit any application. At this session, a panel of recent grant recipients within the library will discuss their approaches, challenges, tips, and experiences when applying for research grant funding. You will have the opportunity to ask questions, hear about resources available to librarians applying for grants, and discuss research and grant writing in a collegial setting.

Tip # 1: Think of the grant application process as a project

It may be helpful to think about your grant application as a project. With this mindset, it is easier to focus on the process of grant application rather than the research itself. It can be quite frustrating for applicants who get mixed up in the two. Remember, all that you are doing is presenting a research idea that is well-situated in the literature. The actual research work is expected to follow only if the application is successful.

Tip #2 Identify funding sources options 

Universities encourage and support developing applications for Tri-Agency (refers to three Canadian funding agencies) grants. And our research facilitator does a great job of keeping us up to speed on timelines and what sort of projects the target. While SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR grants are great sources of research funding, keep in mind there are many other grants available to librarian researchers. It’s fine to develop a project based on Tri-Agency grant criteria, but it can also be wise to hold out for funding opportunities that will support the type of research you have been contemplating for some time or have vested interest in. If you haven’t already, check out the Research Guide for Library Faculty libguide where Katya maintains a list of internal and external funding opportunities for librarians.

Tip # 2: Turn your research idea into a jargon-free research question

While it may be unsettling for some to disambiguate the grant application process from the actual research, it may bring comfort to know that there are a few similarities between writing a research paper and a research grant application. The most crucial similarity is a well-defined research question. There is no way around it! It doesn’t matter if you have convinced yourself that as a researcher-practitioner like you doesn’t need a research question. You still need to come up with a research question because your adjudicators will most probably be research faculty who are expecting a research question. Your grant application is not the place to engage in a debate over this.

Tip #2a Collaborations are good/bad

Depending on how early one gets involved, collaborating on a significant grant proposal can mean that the existing research objectives are already firmly established, perhaps with minor changes to accommodate co-applicant interests. Obviously this isn’t as ideal as contributing to the idea generation from the outset, but can still be interesting and exciting work that pushes you outside your normal comfort zone and introduces you to new areas. When discussing roles and responsibilities, it is important to be clear on what you want to do and how that contributes or aligns with your own research program. If the opportunity arises as a pre-tenured librarian, it makes sense to be very selective and prioritize work that gives you the opportunity for research outputs that will count toward tenure and promotion. Sometimes saying no is the best option — something pre-tenured librarians understandably have trouble doing. Whenever you’re approached with a grant collaboration opportunity, it is worth sitting down and prioritizing research obligations and opportunities before committing.  Again, if you’re involved from the outset, this becomes less of an issue as you develop and refine the application and consider deeply the amount of time and energy you are willing and able to put in.

Tip # 3: Make use of your research facilitator

Having a research question ready will also make our University of Saskatchewan library research facilitator Katya extremely happy. There is nothing more soothing to Katya’s ears than the sound of a well-articulated research question! It will also help Katya guide you to the most appropriate internal or external grant options for your research idea. In most cases, you may end up applying for one of the locally administered SSHRC Explore and Exchange grants. These grants are Tri-Agency grants, even though they are adjudicated and awarded by the university. The forms are available on the Office of Vice President Research website, and Katya is also well-versed in getting us all going on this.

Tip # 4: Make use of rhetorical questions and metaphors

Most grant applications have similar sections such as purpose, context, methodology, significance, dissemination, etc. In my opinion, the best chance to convince adjudicators to support your research idea is in the first couple of paragraphs of the application. This is where your research idea must not only make sense but also must be engaging enough for the adjudicators to keep on reading your application. If you convince them to read further, the chances of them experiencing “congeniality bias” are heightened. Congeniality bias occurs when we end up looking for evidence to reinforce our own biases. It happens to us all the time. Say you are in the market for a new car. If you already have a vehicle in mind, then all you will see around you is your favourite car. That’s when you know you’re a victim of congeniality bias!

So how can you engage your adjudicators to be victims of the congeniality bias? Well, one trick that has worked for me is to ask a rhetorical question that conveys the essence and purpose of your research. The idea is to throw a thought-provoking question at your adjudicators that they would like you to answer for them! For example, when I applied for my first Tri-Agency grant, I wanted to develop an open (non-commercial) search engine for the web using Linked Data. The rhetorical question that I came up with was: Have you ever wondered why searching for a book using Google never leads you to a library? Another common tactic is use of metaphors. For instance, I used “ocean” and “magnet” as metaphors to get my research idea across.  “Just as powerful magnets are used to recover metallic objects from the depths of oceans, this research proposes using credible “seed” citations … to attract new and relevant resources from the deep web using Linked Data.”

Tip # 5: Seek a senior decision-maker’s feedback on your application

You can also have your grant application reviewed by other faculty members through Research Services. I cannot stress the importance of using this service. Having constructive feedback from experienced peers made all the difference for me. It profoundly refined my approach to writing about my research idea and its impact. Another opportunity for you to get constructive feedback on our grant applications is when the proposal goes to the Dean for final approval. If you can convey the purpose and impact of your research idea in a way that excites the Dean, you know that your chances of convincing other decision makers (adjudicators) are much higher!

Tip #6 Take advantage of library located DRC support

Because we are library technology folks, we think it’s important to mention the services of the DRC. DRC staff can help with grant writing and provide in-kind support for projects that involve the use of computational methods for research activities. This can include digitization, space for student research assistants, website creation, metadata support, data modelling, digital asset management, etc. The staff can also give estimates on how long work might take and provide some project management support throughout the lifecycle of the project. Jon Bath, Co-Director, has extensive experience with SSHRC funded research and is available to review projects of this nature.

Tip #7 If at first you don’t succeed…

The odds are not in your favour when applying for grants. The most recent successful SSHRC application I was involved in was submitted in various forms 3 years in a row. It can be a grueling and disheartening journey, but one that can yield some pretty significant benefits down the road. In the very least, the application process helps clarify research objectives and develop a good narrative for your work. Or it can simply be an indicator that it is time to move onto something new.

This article gives views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

 

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