Facilitating collaboration: a doctoral defence in Sweden

An invitation to Borås

Yesterday I served as the opponent at a PhD defence at the University of Borås in Sweden. This was my second Nordic PhD examining experience this year, following my March trip to the Åbo Akademi University in the Finnish city of Turku to examine a thesis on social media and public libraries, as reported here.

Dr Ann-Sophie Axellson, Dr Monica Lassi, and Professor Louise Limberg

Dr Ann-Sophie Axellson, Dr Monica Lassi, and Professor Louise Limberg

The PhD candidate on this occasion was Monica Lassi who, until recently, has been working as a lecturer in the Swedish School of Library and Information Science. Monica’s work was supervised by Professor Louise Limberg and Dr Ann-Sofie Axelsson. The broad theme of Monica’s thesis entitled Facilitating collaboration: exploring a socio-technical approach to the design of a collaboratory for Library and Information Science is collaboration in library and information science (LIS) research. The focus is on the potential of designated online spaces – collaboratories – to facilitate and stimulate collaborative work related to the creating, sharing, use and re-use of data collection instruments such as interview guides, questionnaires and observation protocols.

I was very pleased to be invited to examine this thesis, not least because its main theme ties neatly to aspects of my work with the UK Library and Information Science Research Coalition (2009-2012), e.g. the development of research capacity in LIS, and the promotion LIS practitioner research. The Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project and the two-phased Research in Librarianship Impact Evaluation Study (RiLIES) project, were also designed to improve the support of LIS research in the UK:

The work that Monica undertook in the preparation of her thesis has some parallels with the attempts of these projects to raise the quality of LIS research, encourage more people to engage with LIS research, narrow the gap between practitioners and researchers, and to ensure that research undertaken in the domain is relevant. A further reason for my interest in this work is that some of its themes overlap with those considered in my own doctoral thesis The knowledge trap: an intranet implementation in a corporate environment, particularly the question on how to motivate information sharing in online environments.

My role on the day was to give a half hour talk about the thesis (see the slide presentation and summary of the research below), and to question Monica about the research in detail in front of the audience at the public defence.

After the defence I sat in a meeting with the examination team during which the outcome of Monica’s performance decided. I then witnessed the joy of all when the news of Monica’s success was relayed, accompanied with the popping of corks and cries of “Skål!” The celebrations continued with presents for the new Dr Lassi (including a home-made PhD thesis piñata), speeches, and a Swedish Tex Mex themed dinner.

The contextual trickiness of LIS research

It should be emphasised that LIS is a tricky subject area when it comes to the question of collaborative work focused on research endeavour. (This is in contrast with the work of practising librarians in information services delivery, a profession that is well-known for its collaborative efforts across a range of activities, e.g. long-established co-operative interlibrary loans systems, and consortia building for the purchase of library management systems or the negotiation of contracts with publishers.)

The reasons for the low rates of collaboration in LIS research are many, and can be illustrated by referring to different practice in the hard sciences, where collaboration is much more common. One feature of the subject domain that mitigates against collaborative practice in research is its interdisciplinary nature: LIS involves several academic disciples, e.g. business studies, computer science, information systems, organisational science, psychology, sociology, strategic management. Another issue is that the research problems that LIS tackles do not usually require the concerted effort of a network of researchers that is often necessary in other research work, such as finding a cure for a deadly disease or addressing a global problem such as how to stall climate change. This said, however, there are good reasons why LIS researchers would benefit from closer collaborative relationships, and some of these emerged from the empirical work discussed in Monica’s thesis.

Research questions and theoretical models

book table

An interesting table at the University of Borås

Monica’s work addresses three main research questions:

  1. What do members of the LIS research perceive to be (a) benefits, (b) facilitators, and (c) challenges of an LIS collaboratory?
  2. What are the attitudes amongst members of the LIS community towards practices of creating, sharing, using and re-using data collection instruments?
  3. How can the Social actors model and the Online community life-cycle model contribute to the understanding of perceptions and practices related to (a) data collection instruments and (b) a potential LIS collaboratory?

The Social actors model was identified as a means of understanding collaboratory actors with regards to the context of the organisations in which they work, and their professional roles. The selection of the Online community life-cycle model was considered appropriate to this study because it can give a perspective on design social spaces within a collaboratory. For example, with reference to interaction between actors, it reveals factors that contribute to the success of an online community.

Four studies and their findings

The thesis itself is based around four studies, each of which builds on the one that precedes it, and contributes to the next. A large part of the work of the doctoral study comprised the design and development of a prototype collaboratory. As such, the research process was also a design process. The work takes a socio-technical perspective, i.e. it is based on the premise that technology affects people and people affect technology.

Each of the four studies generated a paper. The structure of the thesis comprises an extended essay and the four papers, two of which are already published with the other two currently in manuscript form.

Copies of Monica's thesis

Copies of Monica’s thesis

The first paper entitled Identifying factors that may impact adoption and use of a social science collaboratory: a synthesis of previous research is a critical evaluation of the literature on scientific collaboration and collaboratories. Its scope goes beyond LIS, and includes material from a range of subject areas including: Communication Studies; Computer Mediated Communication; Computer Science; Computer Supported Cooperative Work; Psychology; Sociology; and Social Studies of Science. The analysis identified six factors important to the adoption and use of a collaboratory:

  • Three individual factors relate to: (1) the impact of collaboratory engagement on career progress (e.g. how it may increase an individual’s citation count); (2) other personal factors unrelated to career progress (e.g. the fun of participation); and (3) the cost of participation.
  • The three group factors relate to the extent to which the collaboratory (1) advances the discipline/science; (2) has an impact on the community that it seeks to serve; and (3) the cost of developing and maintaining the collaboratory represents “good value”.

The second paper “Sharing data collection instruments: perceptions of facilitators and challenges for a Library and Information Science collaboratory” explores factors that may affect a collaboratory’s design, adoption and use, and details existing practices related to data collection instruments. Its findings are based on interview data gathered from a range of actors across the LIS community. This work concludes that a collaboratory would be useful to LIS because the resources held would make it possible to build on previous work. The interviewees also noted that contributors would experience the satisfaction of a rise in personal esteem when their tools are re-used by others. However, two challenges were also identified. First, the interviewees questioned the value of tool re-use, drawing attention to the unique nature of LIS research projects. They also mentioned that when one person adapts the work of another there the risk that this might actually lower the value of the resource in question, rather than improve it.

The third and fourth papers are concerned with the prototype collaboratory that Monica created in the course of her study. An outline of the prototype design built around the discussion of use cases has already been published as The socio-technical design of a library and information science collaboratory. The final paper “Evaluation of a prototype collaboratory for sharing data collection instruments in Library and Information Science”, which is currently under review, presents the results of a practical evaluation of the prototype by a group of Swedish librarians. They encountered difficulties using the system’s interface and discovered that there was a high cost of participation in terms of the intellectual effort of learning the mark-up language, working in English, and becoming familiar with the research methods vocabulary. However, they felt that these could be overcome, and highlighted the value of social aspects of the collaboratory in its facilities for sharing and commenting. They also suggested that such a collaboratory might be of value to their end-user communities.

The research questions addressed

I concluded my presentation by considering the extent to which Monica was able to address her research questions.

RQ1: What do members of the LIS research perceive to be (a) benefits, (b) facilitators, and (c) challenges of an LIS collaboratory?

This work identified the potential value of an LIS collaboratory:

  • Resources held would make it possible to build on previous work
  • The research process would accelerate
  • Contributors would feel a rise in personal esteem when their tools are re-used
  • Researchers from other disciplines could learn from/contribute to LIS
  • New ways of working with LIS data collection tools could be disseminated in teaching

This work also raises a number of challenges and questions related to meeting the needs of a diverse professional audience, ensuring the quality of shared resource content, and means of rewarding participation.

RQ2: What are the attitudes amongst members of the LIS community towards practices of creating, sharing, using and re-using data collection instruments?

From the findings of this study it is evident that there is a willingness to embrace practices to widen the sharing and re-use of data collection instruments. However, an evident tension is individual desire to support the subject domain and the community versus maintaining control over one’s own resources.

RQ3: How can the Social actors model and the Online community life-cycle model contribute to the understanding of perceptions and practices related to (a) data collection instruments and (b) a potential LIS collaboratory?

Monica experienced problems in addressing the third research question on the basis of her empirical work. This was largely due to a factor that the two models identify: the difficulties of dealing with too large or poorly-defined a target group for design. Her empirical material was too diverse and complex to categorise and generalise according to the Social actors model due to the different actor roles and varied organisational contexts of those who participated in the study.

Contributions of the study

PhD thesis piñata

The home-made PhD thesis piñata

Monica’s work makes two main contributions. First it enhances our knowledge of collaboration in general. This is achieved through: the presentation of a literature review on the design, adoption and use of collaboratories; depth of coverage on the theme of collaboration in a social science domain; and a focus on the initial design phase of an online collaborative space (in contrast with other work which tends to focus on what affects and/or stimulates use). Second, by shedding light on LIS in particular, and including practitioners in the study, Monica has generated new knowledge on the sharing of data collection instruments, developed an understanding of the LIS community’s perceptions of the potential of collaboratories, and highlighted specific needs for future work in this area.

What next for Monica?

Monica has recently been appointed as a research librarian at the University of Lund, where I hope that she will be able to draw on her research in the provision of services for the research community that she will be supporting in her new role.

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