prioritizing ethics

Thinking about research ethics this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a comment that stuck with me from a class last year (I think it was from one of the final lectures in INF1001) – something along the lines of it’s ironic that everyone always says ethics are so important, yet we tack discussions about ethics onto the end of courses like an afterthought. In this course, the ethics discussion hasn’t been left until the very end, but pretty close. Yet the readings and guest lecture this week reiterated just how crucial ethics review is to the research process. At UofT, you can’t conduct any human-based research activities without getting clearance, even if it’s for a class project. I used to think of ethics clearance as just a bureaucratic hurdle to clear and forms to sign, but I am beginning to see that the entire research design hinges on consideration of ethical issues. Some of the questions asked at the end of yesterday’s lecture related to exactly that point: what ethical implications might result from the choice of method(s)? This might be a chicken and egg scenario, because you can’t really understand the implications of a method you don’t know anything about, but I wonder whether it makes more sense to talk about ethics earlier in a course like this. 
– Cynthia

Mini online research activity (option 1)

Pinterest is a great example of a website (also an app) that is tailored towards emotional information seeking. Pinterest is an online bulletin board where users can “pin” items that they find online and link back to the original source. Users can search for items that have already been pinned on the site or bring in other items that they find online. Users can organize their pins into customized categories that are meaningful to them.

The overall tone of the site is emotional, lending itself well to this project. The default boards (which users can modify or delete) are “Products I Love,” “Favorite Spaces and Places,” “Books Worth Reading,” “My Style,” and “For the Home” – all evoking personal feelings and emotions about the items placed into these categories. Although the target group is not explicitly defined, a large proportion of its users are female and it is often used to organize ideas for wedding planning, recipes, home decor, fashion, and crafts/DIY.

It would result in a rich case study because it can be analyzed for both its information seeking and classification aspects. Additionally, Pinterest is increasingly being used for commercial purposes – companies are pinning their own products to promote them. As with many online projects, the key challenge would be defining the boundaries of the project, because Pinterest has such a large number of users and endless possibilities for how it is used.

– Cynthia

boundaries and relationships

In this week’s readings, I particularly enjoyed Hine’s (2009) discussion of the boundaries of research projects. The image that often comes to mind when I hear the term “ethnographic,” especially before taking this course, is that of a researcher being immersed in an isolated society to conduct a study of people in that one location. That type of project is bounded quite clearly by the borders of the community in which it takes place. But ethnography is done in so many different ways and in so many different locations that the boundaries are not always that evident, especially when research is conducted online, and that is the main focus of Hine’s chapter. Hine deconstructs the notion of the bounded project to say that it is the project that determines the boundaries, not the other way around:

“The approaches that I described in this chapter rely on the idea of the construction of project boundaries as a social process…The decision about when to start and when to stop, and where to go in between, is for ethnographers not made independently of the field, but is an intrinsic part of the relationship to it. A set of fieldwork boundaries is the outcome of a project, rather than its precursor.” (p. 18)

I found a connection between this argument and Star’s (1999) relational definition of infrastructure, particularly the quote from Bateson – “What can be studied is always a relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing.'” (p. 379). Both quotes suggest that ethnographers should not try to contain their project within a pre-set definition of what the project should be, but rather let the project define itself as it unfolds. And, of course, this is very reminiscent of Luker’s (2010) salsa dancing method, which asks us to embark on “a voyage of discovery, not verification” (p. 46).

– Cynthia

content and culture

I wasn’t too familiar with the method of content analysis in the context of social research before this week. However, as I read Thomas’s (1994) article, I found that I could relate to this concept easily enough because it has links to the kind of close reading and textual analysis done in the discipline of English literature. Content analysis takes that close reading one step further by looking for patterns and “truths” about the culture in which the artifacts being studied are situated (Thomas, 1994).

Despite the criticisms against content analysis, I think it is particularly valid and relevant today when the volume of cultural productions is increasing. Anyone can produce and distribute content publicly on the internet (whether it’s as simple as tweeting a few words or as complex as self-publishing an ebook or making a film and posting it to YouTube), and this content is all potential material for a study. And, as Knight (2002) points out, this type of research is relatively easy and inexpensive to conduct because the subject matter is available to anyone with internet access. I came across an interesting article today in the Globe and Mail that reported the results of a content-based study of news coverage and social media responses to the U.S. election campaign. I don’t know enough about content analysis yet to really critique the method used in this study, but it is just one example of many that show how content analysis is relevant and worthwhile in the context of instantaneous content production and distribution.
– Cynthia

Pondering surveys

Over the weekend, I has a chance to take a survey for the first time since starting this class, and I found myself analyzing it along the way. The timing was great because I’m planning to do my peer review assignment on the podcasting article with a survey methodology. I used this experience as kind of a trial run at evaluating survey methods.

I took the survey  to help out a friend who is doing a project as part of an MBA program. I think the survey was designed to gather market research; the students’ project involves evaluating a new business idea. The survey was brief (10 questions) and collected demographic information as well as reactions to the business idea. Here are a few of my observations about the survey:

  • The survey design was descriptive – it gathered information about the respondents and their attitudes toward the business idea.
  • The sampling method was based on convenience, not probability. I received an invitation to take the survey in an email blast (presumably, sent to everyone my friend knew who might be coerced into taking it!) and the link was also posted on Facebook.
  • The multiple choice options for responses to some of the questions were very specific, to the point where I felt that anonymity could be compromised – especially because the researchers sought out people they know to take the survey rather than a random sample. For example, some of the age ranges only cover 4 years:

  • In contrast, the wording of the questions was at times vague and could have been made more specific, particularly considering the possible responses to some questions. For example, one of the question asked about marital status and specifically allowed for responses that corresponded with cohabitation, but the question regarding salary only asked to “indicate your income level” but did not specify whether this should individual or household income. As a student, I (individually) fall into the lowest income bracket on the survey, but that skews the results because my household income is actually in a higher bracket due to my spouse’s income. Considering that the proposed business venture is an after-hours spa, and the intended market would likely include mothers who do not work but still come from higher-income households, I think the survey would have benefited from more specific wording in this question.

All in all, this was an interesting experience at a convenient time! It definitely helped me start thinking about issues of sampling, reliability, and much more…

– Cynthia

salsa dancing into a SSHRC proposal

The process of landing on a broad topic, let alone a more focused research question, for my (fake) SSHRC proposal was tough. I’ve come across many topics in various classes that have sparked my interest, but because I’m not doing a thesis and I haven’t had to write a major research paper for any of my courses yet (on a topic of my choice…ahem INF1001 and 1002), I hadn’t had the chance to think about them enough to formulate a clear question – until now. All I knew at the beginning was that I wanted to use this assignment to explore in detail an area that is relevant to the LIS profession, preferably a hot topic that I should have a current awareness of once I’m out there in the field. So I sifted through my notes and my thoughts and library-related blogs and journal articles and other assorted things until I had the “aha” moment when I stumbled across the words “open access” again. Then I recalled something one of my professors said recently in class about the debate over whether open access is good or bad, and I think it’s a fascinating issue, and ohyeahthiswouldmakeaperfecttopic.

Next I started working through Luker’s exercises to narrow down my focus. These steps were really helpful in establishing some direction for my SSHRC proposal. Here are the results…

1/2. Research question (rough outline): There has been a great deal of debate over the open-access model among researchers, librarians, publishers, and other stakeholders. It tends to be perceived as either good or bad, depending on the stakeholder. But the voice of one group is not typically heard in this debate: that of students, particularly undergraduates, in higher-education institutions. The discussion is usually centred on the benefits/drawbacks for scholars who publish in these journals, for publishers who have a lot at stake financially, and how libraries do/should treat OA materials, etc. I want to know what students think about all this and how it affects them, whether they plan to be academics or move on to a different profession. How are open-access resources perceived and used by students? What, if any, value do students attach to OA versus traditional publications? Are they aware that they exist? Are academic libraries promoting OA resources to them? Does the great debate over OA affect them as a whole, or is it only relevant to aspiring professional scholars who want to publish?

Obviously I still have some narrowing down to do.

3. How a canonical social scientist would design this question, and why that way is inadequate: I’m not sure I completely understand all the characteristics of canonical social science yet, but I’ll take a stab at this. I think a canonical approach would design a survey that measures students’ responses to very specific questions about their use and perception of OA materials compared to traditional publications, in order to provide a measurable result. In order to prevent bias and all that, the respondents would be very carefully selected to be representative of students everywhere. The results would look something like this: x % of students prefer open-access digital resources; they prefer them because of a, b, and c; this subset of students thinks OA is good because they have no vested interest in academic careers, while this other subset thinks the traditional model is best because it is seen as ideal for the scholarly profession.

This approach would not be sufficient because I’m not trying to test a hypothesis. My question is open-ended and exploratory; I’m trying to define the variables as a result of the research rather than compare a predefined set of variables.

4. Frame: I think this question fits well into the existing conversation about open access that is happening in the literature. The conversation touches on the debate over OA pros and cons, the current state of OA in academic institutions, how libraries are working with it, etc. I can “slide right in” to the conversation with the hook that my research explores a perspective that has previously been little or not at all discussed.

5. My bedraggled daisy:

example SSHRC proposal

Last week my group discussed a SSHRC proposal written by a doctoral student whose research focused on the characterization of judgment and imagination in the works of Hannah Arendt, and its implications for education, professional identity, and social responsibility. This proposal does not follow any of the sample templates that were discussed in the lecture, but I think it is well-structured and presents the information in a logical, clear manner.

It is easy to identify the structure and design a template based on this proposal because the author uses section headings:

  • Aims
  • Research questions
  • Rationale
  • Conceptual framework
  • Methodology
  • Contribution
  • Preparation & background

This structure follows a logical order of events for a research project (at least in my mind) and loosely follow the steps that Luker outlines. First, you have to come up with a broad goal of what it is you want to study (aims). Then shape that into specific research questions. To justify why you should carry out this project, you have to know why these questions are important (rationale). Then decide what perspective you will approach the project form and how you will carry out the research (conceptual framework and methodology). The contribution is a projected outcome describing the impact you think this research will have on that field.

My only criticism of this structure is that the preparation and background seem to be tacked on at the end very briefly. My group discussed the possibility (as Meghan mentions in her blog) that the author doesn’t need to go into too much detail because she or he received SSHRC funding for previous research and therefore has already established her/his competence and is known to the committee. Leaving this information for the end certainly places the emphasis on the research itself, and this is done successfully because the structure of the proposal is so clear and effective. But for a Master’s proposal, where the applicant won’t have this prior experience to speak for itself, I think it would be necessary to place a higher percentage of emphasis on the applicant’s qualifications. Overall, this is a clearly written proposal that demonstrates a great deal of confidence and competence. Now I need to get serious about developing a topic so that I can pull together something half as good as this!