Tips on the research process for new academic librarians

On April 27 2012, Concordia University Libraries hosted its 10th annual Librarian’s Forum. I like to think of this venue as an opportunity for colleagues to expose their ongoing research projects to get feedback or pointers before the completion of their research cycle. At least, that is how I approach this event with regards to my participation.

The keynote address this year was given by Gwendolyn Ebbett, the Dean of the Library, University of Windsor. Amongst other topics, she presented the forthcoming Librarians’ Research Institute, hosted by her institution and sponsored by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). Broadly speaking, this three day event (June 11-14 2012) aims to build research capacity amongst academic librarians.

In light of these two very related events, as well as conversations with colleagues now entering the field of academic librarianship, I’ve given the issue of research some thought – incomplete and off the cuff – which I would still like to share with you.

In general, here is a simplification of the research process :
1. (Questions) Think about a problem in our field. To do this, you will have to read, think and exchange.

AKA – the literature review, participating in conferences, engaging with colleagues to identify partners. Try to work on a big issue that is bugging everyone. Think big, start small, scale fast. Don’t be afraid to change the world – you are asked to look for tension or something that is amiss

2. (Hypothesis) Make a bet about why the problem exists or try to fix it. To do this, you will have to structure, express, plan.

This is the most critical step – you have to get it right. You will also have to figure out the methodology of your project.

3. (Experiment) Measure some things. To do this, you will have to execute, document, review.

This is where the bulk of the activity occurs in your project

4. (Conclude) Rethink the problem. To do this, you will have to write, share and repeat step 1.

Project documentation is essential – without it, you cannot publish and have an impact in your field. You will also have to publish your results

Now, these generic steps provide some guidance about what needs to be done, but it makes a lot of sense to try to build a project plan articulating these points. It should fit on two pages maximum.

In the first page, you should be describe the project in a few paragraphs. This refers to point (1) above. Then, the main objectives or hypothesis should be spelled out in a few bullet points or paragraphs (see (2) above). Then, any partners or networks should be identified. All this should fit on a single page, understandable by a smart person that is not an expert in your domain.

For the second page, your project plan should address the main steps. For each step, you should determine a deadline or milestone (when the step will be completed – a date), the step’s objectives, the parameters or constraints (things to keep in mind) and the resources. Here are some generic phases to a project:

1. “Grain of sand” phase: this is the pre-conceptualization phase. You’re not sure what you want to do, still exploring without much of a goal. This phase should not last more than 2% of the overall project timeline
2. Hourglass: you are zoning in on the topic you want, you are preparing a draft project plan. This lasts about 3% of the total project resources (time/money).
3. Sandbox: You are building your research questions, working on your hypothesis and selecting your methodology. 10% of the total project resources (time/money).
4. Sand quarry: You are executing the project. 65% of the total project resources (time/money).
5. Beach: Document and write results. 20% of the total project resources (time/money).

This could happen over many years, and involve many collaborators and funding sources. Or, it could involve only you. It doesn’t matter – only the fact that you plan out your activities so you can keep an eye on the overall goal: the satisfactory completion of your research project.

You can also plan for research outputs throughout the project, for example, highlighting gaps in the literature during your lit review to feed into the hypothesis formulation or providing insight on how you have operationalized a particular methodological approach on a problem. This keeps feeding the publish-or-perish monster.

Now, I have explained this process – in French – on my other blog a few years ago. See: Étapes de la recherche, cadre conceptuel, hypothèse, cadre opératoire on I’ve fixed up a quick Google translate but it really does not do justice to my original French text – sorry if it sounds convoluted. I was trying to summarize the doctoral thesis writing process to a friend, but it applies to a general research protocol:

The research project (or thesis) begins with a theme and grows through the initial phases of the project, as specified Mace and Petry. The development phase consists of two steps: conceptualization (thinking about a problem to solve arising from a discrepancy between observed reality and an objective) and operationalization (the “realization” of research ). In fact, the problem is articulated through a theory or a “theoretical framework” that relates to a possible hypothesis and objectives that seek the solution (or the outcome of the research).

In the initial phases, it is essential to make (and respect!) choices in order to reach the end of our project. Indeed, we must (1) select a problem and articulate it with precision, (2) formulate the problem and most importantly, general and specific research questions, (3) define research objectives, (4) position the project in the current state of knowledge, (5) clarify the conceptual language (conceptual framework) and (6) clarify the ambitions and the limits of the project.

Moreover, “a thesis, it is not an essay.” An essay is an amalgam of theories, thoughts and opinions, proposed by an author to explore a topic in a manner of his own. An essay can be original (as a thesis for that matter), but the academic rigor is not necessarily at par (not be excluded that the rigor of the test, but there is more latitude). Often, an essay is tinged with a political choice or a moral stance on an issue. You should avoid this perspective in the thesis. Consistency and discipline are the foundation of the thesis. This is why there are many references or footnotes in a page thesis.

To present some examples of conceptual frameworks, Professor Rolland [referring to the prof in charge of a doctoral seminar I took in the Winter of 2010 at Université de Montréal Law Faculty] presents some entries the Encyclopedic Dictionary of theory and sociology of law, especially the concepts of “interpretation” by Arnaud and that of “Validity” by Ost / de Kerchove (p. 243 and following of the first volume of the collection). About validity, the authors offer the hypothesis that the validity has three aspects, the formal validity (which offers the concept of legality), the empirical validity (for effectiveness) and axiological validity (ie, legitimacy). It is often very relevant to represent the conceptual framework presented in our readings in graphic form (“topic / concept map”).

Then, it is essential to state an hypothesis and / or research goals. The hypothesis, which is a classical approach, is a “small” (hypo) thesis, that is established upfront. This is a tentative explanation, an anticipated response or predicting phenomena of reality resulting from our analytical framework, which is still plausible. It is proposed as an affirmative expression that employs the concepts of your conceptual framework. In the hypothetical-deductive context, the thesis is the sum of the hypothesis and evidence.

The research objectives are the formulation of our research intention, to describe or compare.

Moreover, the hypothesis can establish a relationship between two facts, between two concepts or between a fact and a concept that should be validated. The relationship between the two could be a causal one, an associative one (correlation, involvement, cause-effect), dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). We must delve into our hypothesis (based on the conceptual framework) to establish the operational framework on which we will base our proof.

The concepts are abstractions of reality based on a precise language. They must include all essential attributes for object classes with common properties. It is by drawing up the conceptual framework that can articulate our hypothesis into variables. These variables are then analyzed and used by our operational framework (which contains, among other things, the analytical framework).

The operational framework becomes a deepening of the conceptual framework, in line with the variables to be studied.


MACE Gordon and Francois Petry, A Guide to Developing a research project, 3rd ed., Quebec, PUL, 2000

Visually, what I describe in the long quote would look something like this:

Research Project = conceptualization + operationalization
Conceptualization (Theoretical framework):
– Problem statement (general & specific research questions)
– Conceptual Framework
– Hypothesis (or objectives)
Operationalization (Operational Framework)
– Variables (derived from hypothesis)
– Methodology

Hope this helps 😉


One comment

  1. Pingback: 75 academic librarian conferences | *

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