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How to... use digital tools for research

Options:     Print Version - How to... use digital tools for research, part 1 Print view

Article Sections

  1. How digital technology has changed the research process
  2. The world of linked data
  3. How researchers analyse linked data
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

By Margaret Adolphus

How digital technology has changed the research process

In 2000, two behavioural accounting researchers urged their colleagues to use the Web for surveys, pointing out the way the practice had taken hold in the marketing discipline, and the effectiveness of the medium for collecting data and gathering subjects (Herron and Young, 2000).

Over ten years on, the use of web-based surveys is well accepted, but e-research has moved considerably beyond the use of a single instrument to capture data. There has been a real explosion of digital tools which can store, search and retrieve information, and analyse and compare data in ways that produce new information at a granular level which would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

Thus we can learn about obscure members of the eighteenth century underworld from parish and criminal records, correct old maps by comparing them with Google, and read up on complaints about litter on a particular street.

Yet other tools help with collaboration and community creation, both in the "official" sense of different research groups working together across institutions, as well as the more informal one of "crowdsourcing", which involves using social networks to find people with similar research interests. (Some of these tools are explored in the guide, "How to... use social software tools for research".)

None of this changes the essence of research – which is to come up with good ideas and questions, and use sound methodology to investigate them. It does, however, change the way research is done, open up new, information and communication technology based methods, and vastly increase the number of questions that can be asked.

"Growing Knowledge: The evolution of research" is an exhibition held from 12 October 2010 to 16 July 2011 at the British Library in London which shows the way innovative projects – selected from a wide range of disciplines – use new technologies in research to reveal new types of knowledge.

The idea is to inspire researchers to cross disciplinary and media boundaries and consider how they can re-purpose the tools used by the projects for their own purposes.

Digital research and the social sciences

Digital technologies are being used in the social sciences to such an extent that the term "e-social science" has been coined. There are also a number of large-scale projects on the subject being undertaken, especially in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The website of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, defines e-social science as:

  • the ability to link databases in different locations across the globe, integrate data sets and perform comparative analyses;
  • to use the Web for surveys and experiments; and
  • have research teams collaborating in virtual laboratories (University of Canterbury, n.d.).

Examples of projects include:

  • The Manchester eResearch Centre which has the twin objectives of creating an e-infrastructure for social science, and social studies of the development of e-science. It builds on the work of the UK's National Centre for e-Social Science, which it coordinated.
  • The Oxford e-Social Science Project, which was set up to study the impact of the new digital approaches and their ethical, legal and institutional implications. The first part of this project (2005-2008) looked at a number of case studies and drew out common themes, while the second phase (2008-2011) is looking at these themes in depth.
  • The development of a hub for e-social science in New Zealand, in the form of an advanced social statistics data service.
  • In India and South Asia, a portal has been set up to offer access to social science journals, as well as to provide scholars with the opportunity to showcase working papers, and discuss policy applications.

How can digital tools help social science researchers?

There are four main ways in which digital technology can help research:

  1. Community and collaboration – new technologies enable the creation of online communities. These are explored in "How to.. use social software tools for research" (particularly the section on virtual research environments). Other tools such as Twitter and social bookmarking can be used to help share information. And whereas previously you would have had to scan the relevant literature to find people of similar interests, you can now do this through crowdsourcing – using social software tools to stimulate interest.
  2. Search and retrieval of information – information retrieval tools such as catalogues and databases have become much more powerful and user friendly, allowing you to refine your results and tag items. Examples include the British Library catalogue and the British Library's own Management and Business Studies Portal. All these resources can also be explored from the comfort of one's own home, without the need to visit the physical library.
  3. The ability to use data in new and creative ways, by overlaying one data set on another. This is one of the most interesting aspects of digital research and is explored more fully in the next section.
  4. The ability to capture paintings, ancient texts, manuscripts, and other objects in digital form. Images of artefacts can also be seen in 3D through Polynomial Texture Mapping, see http://materialobjects.com/ptm/. The main application is to literary and historical subjects, but the ability to view artefacts has a potential application in anthropology.