Information sharing between doctoral students and supervisors: fixed roles and flexible attitudes
Information transfer, reception and exchange is a natural component of any researcher‘s work and lies in the heart of scholarly communication. Therefore, trying to conceptualise information sharing in scholarly communication is a particularly challenging task and we can list a number of interesting works of various kinds in this area (e.g., Haeussler, Jiang, Thursby and Thursby, 2014; Holmberg and Thelwall, 2014).
Research on information sharing between novices and senior researchers is not so abundant in the information behaviour literature, although the information behaviour of doctoral students was a focus in quite many studies (George et al., 2006; Orna, 2009; Vezzossi, 2009; to name a few). The role of supervisors as an important component in the changing information ecology of modern doctoral students was noted by Spezi (2016) and their influence on information choices of doctoral students is recognised in the studies by Catalano (2013) and Orellana, Darder, Pérez, and Salinas (2016).
Interactions between supervisors and doctoral students as novice and senior researchers from the point of view of information sharing are quite rare and mainly occur in the context of more general investigations of these relationships, very often as one-directional information transfer (Franke and Arvidsson, 2011; Kamler and Thompson, 2006; Maxwell and Smith, 2010).
The idea to investigate the process of supervision of doctoral students through the lens of information sharing as a mutually beneficial process has occurred in the discussions about our own supervisory experience. The review of the literature (see below) has confirmed that there is a gap in research. Thus, we decided to do a small scale exploratory project seeking to answer the following questions:
- How do supervisors and doctoral students perceive the roles of each other and their own roles in the supervision process?
- Which areas of information sharing between them can be identified in the process of work on dissertation?
- Which factors do they name as important for information sharing and how they perceive the benefits of their interactions?
Relations between supervisors and doctoral students
For years, researchers have examined the influence of the academic advisor and peers on the doctoral student experience, and this work has served as the foundation for research on doctoral education (Golde, 2005; Green, 1991; Green and Bauer, 1995; Nettles and Millett, 2006). Supervisors and their influence is often a focus of this research.
The role of a supervisor is important in building self-confidence and shaping the experiences of a doctoral student. Murphy, Bain and Conrad (2007) state that a supervisor has a double role including positions of an expert and a guide that depends on the nature of interactions between a doctoral student and a supervisor. On the one hand, a supervisor is personally committed to help a young researcher to reach his or her goals; on the other hand, a senior researcher provides academic expertise during the life-cycle of the research project. The latter also includes information sharing with a young researcher.
A personal supervisor’s obligation during the writing of a dissertation includes such roles as a mentor, guide to self-development, and helper (Kuwahara, 2008; Pearson and Kayrooz, 2004). Gardner (2009) writes that the essential importance of a supervisor of a dissertation is manifested in finding resources and financing for a doctoral research project, motivating and stimulating a student, developing self-control and directing the activities of a doctoral student. Thus, research shows a supervisor as an educator of a personality of a doctoral student. However, in the same research, doctoral students usually perceive a supervisor as an executor of a controlling function (Gardner, 2009).
Another important activity, integrating all the roles of a supervisor, is expert help during the period of writing a dissertation. Sinclair (2004, 26-27) stipulates that a supervisor’s behaviour during this period depends on the stage of writing and can be either interventional (influencing writing directly) or non-interfering (giving freedom to a doctoral student).
Interactions between a research supervisor and a doctoral student while working on the dissertation research is recognised as one of the main factors influencing the progress of research work and the satisfaction of a doctoral student with the studies. However, it is only a part of the academic environment that doctoral students experience in their studies. Pyhältö, Vekkaila and Keskinen (2015) found that the relationship that is formed between a doctoral student and the working environment has an impact on the experience a young researcher is gaining and on the success of a research project. Their data also show that the students reporting greater satisfaction with supervision also place more emphasis on other actors involved in it than those who are less satisfied (Pyhältö et al., 2015, 12). Golde (2005) has suggested that failed expectations of a doctoral student in work on research project, feeling of a distance between perceived and existing norms of research community practice diminishes the faith in the success of the research project. Mainhard, van der Rijst, van Tartwijk and Wubbels (2009) suggest that mutual relations between a supervisor and a doctoral student depend on their expectations that may change over time. The interactions have two aspects – mutual influence and proximity of collaboration. This should also include information sharing, however, this aspect of collaboration remains hidden in previous research.
Information sharing in the academic context
Information sharing in the academic context has drawn attention of information scholars for a long time, as scholarly communication, woven out of complicated interactions and activities, always has been a part of information science. Besides, the academic context is that which information scientists themselves perform; thus it is easy to access and close to the heart. We are not going to present a review of the total research in this area, but just draw attention to some of it that we believe is relevant to our project.
Talja in her study uses the concept of 'information sharing' as "an umbrella concept that covers a wide range of collaboration behaviours from sharing accidentally encountered information to collaborative query formulation and retrieval" (Talja, 2002, p.145). She emphasises that mostly information sharing is researched as a part of information behaviour, but not as a separate research object. Talja has presented "a classification of information sharing types: strategic sharing ... for maximizing efficiency in a research group; paradigmatic sharing… as means of establishing a novel research approach or areas…; directive sharing… between teachers and students; social sharing… as a relationship and community building activity" (Talja, 2002, p. 147). Within the directive sharing Talja has found that "the process is two-way, when senior and junior scholars both benefit from the results of each other's searches" having mutual interests (Talja, 2002, p. 149). The interdependence between junior and senior researchers may be more sophisticated and document retrieval practices more dependent on the norms of a particular research group.
Tabak and Wilson (2012) have constructed a holistic model based on actor network theory and integrating a model of information seeking behaviour created by Foster (2005) with Latour’s circulatory system of scientific facts (Latour, 1999). The information sharing loop comprises core processes of science in this model (Tabak and Wilson, 2012, p. 112). The model helps explaining the reasons of information sharing in academic community and postulates that participants in a research project do not "simply transfer information as intermediaries, but also can act on – translate – information" and "contribute to understanding information sharing practices … from the actors' point of view" (Tabak and Wilson, 2012, p.115).
Pilerot has investigated the concept of information sharing from the perspective of library and information science through an extensive literature review and identified six theoretical models in the literature on information sharing according to different aspects of the concept emphasised in research, different participants of the process of information exchange, different information objects shared and different information contexts (Pilerot, 2012). The author argues that the concepts of information sharing, information transfer, information flow and information exchange can be found in the theoretical contexts of the network analysis (Haythornthwaite, 1996, 2010), common ground (Sonnenwald, 2006), information ground (Fisher, Landry and Naumen, 2007), small world (Huotari and Chatman, 2001), social capital (Widen-Wulff, 2007) and practice theories (Talja and Hansen, 2006; Pilerot and Limberg, 2011).
Some of the researchers have paid more attention to the factors stimulating or inhibiting information sharing. Wilson (2010) has performed a literature review of information sharing literature and has highlighted the roles of trust, risk and reward or benefits, and proximity for information sharing. He also has drawn attention to the fact that "reciprocity in the relationship and hierarchical position" (Wilson, 2010) is of interest for information sharing. Pilerot has further explored the category of trust for information sharing in a scholarly community and has found that "[t]he identification of a person's position in a hierarchical structure with reference to academic merits may also constitute grounds for trust assessment. It is also implied… that trust is dependent on personality; some people simply appear to be more trustworthy than others". (Pilerot, 2013).
Information sharing between the peers is typical for senior researchers who are nodes in larger research networks and have acquired more social capital and less characteristic of junior researchers (Selden, 2001; Haeussler et al., 2014).
In a recent literature review Lee and Murray (2015) have synthesised literature on doctoral student supervision to find out the approaches to the supervision of the writing process. We have used a part of their framework, namely main functions of interaction between a supervisor and a doctoral student to find out what characterises information sharing in each of them. The main concepts in the framework were earlier developed by Lee (Lee, 2008) and applied in the later research. They include:
- Functional interaction pertaining to the control of complying to formal requirements while conducting the project;
- Enculturation, or inclusion of a doctoral student into the activities of research community;
- Development of critical thinking by fostering the ability to raise new research questions and analyse them independently;
- Emancipation or stimulation of self-expression and self-improvement by promoting participation in other research activities;
- Relationship development – inspiring students through inclusion in research networks and their activities and caring for them. (Lee and Murray, 2015, 560-562).
In our interpretation of the results we have also drawn on Talja's information sharing types and Wilson’s factors affecting information sharing behaviour.
To answer the research questions we adopted a qualitative approach and decided to interview pairs of doctoral supervisors and students, as we wanted to extract finer details of the interactions between them. To have a coherent but diversified context we chose to involve respondents from only the social sciences. Thus, by e-mail, we invited doctoral students of various years in the faculties of Law, Philosophy (which also includes psychology and sociology), Economics and the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations at Vilnius University, to participate in the investigation. The decision to start with doctoral students was dictated by the ethical consideration to give them more freedom in accepting or rejecting participation, as the assumption was that it would be more difficult to reject a request coming from a supervisor than from an unknown researcher.
Several doctoral students from all faculties, except the Faculty of Law, agreed to participate in the investigation: we collected the names of their supervisors and contacted them with a request to participate. Not all of them replied and, after a round of time negotiations, we secured interviews with five pairs of participants (see Table 1). The interviewed supervisors were leading the work of the respective doctoral students, but each person was interviewed separately.
Semi-structured interviews of one hour duration were used to collect the data. The interviews were mainly conducted at the working place of the participants within university buildings.
The interview schedule was based on the interaction modes developed by Lee and Murray (2015) and consisted of three parts:
- questions to clarify the roles of a supervisor and a doctoral student in the process of information sharing,
- questions to find out the areas in which information is shared and understand the benefits acquired during the cooperation,
- questions to identify the factors affecting the process of information sharing.
|Doctoral student's supervisor||Doctoral student|
|Research degree||Dissertation subject||Number of PhD students supervised||Study year||Research area|
|Professor||Development of information systems||5||3||Information technology management|
|Professor||Management of tourism projects||4||4|
|Professor||Analysis of social policies||6||4||Higher education policy|
|Political sociology||3||3||Urban sociology|
|Professor||Political science||3||2||Regional policy|
We see that all supervisors (including the Associate Professor) have acquired experience of leading the dissertation work and are not novices in this area. Doctoral students, except the one in the second year, have reached the second half of research education programme (Lithuanian PhD programmes last for 4 years). The sample is very limited, despite the fact that we have conducted ten interviews and felt that the saturation point is reached.
The interviews were analysed using the content analysis method. The following stages in collecting and analysing the data were defined:
- Documentation. The interview was recorded and the notes were taken.
- Transcription. The interviews were transcribed verbatim. The interviews were conducted in the Lithuanian language, thus the translation of the original quotations into English was done by the authors of this paper.
- Coding. Each interview was coded separately using the main thematic categories embedded in open questions to structure the data. An open mind was retained, to include the topics emerging from the interview.
- Categorisation. The coded data were used to inductively identify the main qualitative categories and to match them to the statements of the respondents. These categories related to the modes of interactions and features of information sharing. When necessary, sub-categories were formed.
The roles of the supervisor and the doctoral student
The first task in the interview and analysis sought to identify the interactions between the supervisor and the doctoral student while writing a doctoral dissertation and to highlight the roles that each performed in these interactions.
The following main roles of the research supervisor were visible in the data: personal obligation role of an emotional and psychological supporter during the period of PhD studies, and an expert exchanging information with the doctoral student during the implementation of a research project.
The functional maintenance of the activities of the doctoral student was identified as part of a personal obligation. In relation to this functional role the supervisors indicate:
I try to put a framework in place, to chain a doctoral student by deadlines, I want to know what is happening, but the doctoral students do not like it...;
We plan the studies, decide how to promote them, which conferences to attend, how ambitious a study will be, whether we will do it locally or internationally.
However, there were also contrary cases with the supervisors stating that:
A doctoral student is neither Master's nor Bachelor's student, I am not a kinder garden nurse for any of my doctoral students... many doctoral students work in a freer environment. To become an independent researcher, they have to go all the way independently.
A doctoral student while working on a dissertation also has expectations of his supervisor. The doctoral students responding to our question state that they expect quite diverse help from their supervisor from clearly directing and assessing their performance:
As a directing person, advising you and involving in the specialist environment...;
I expect that my supervisor will talk to me regularly about directions of reading. This is a person who knows the literature field.
Formal requirements (deadlines) are useful as they provide a framework in which you move. Assessments are beneficial. If you do not have deadlines you may forget yourself in playing a freelancer, by promising yourself to start tomorrow…
to satisfying their need for psychological support and independence:
The supervisor of a dissertation provides support, psychological support…;
My supervisor does not take over the initiative and does not dictate how we will do things. We interact in such a way, that my need of independence is satisfied…
However, mainly our respondents tended to emphasise the functional maintenance of the supervisor as a means of helping to focus the effort to a certain goal.
Areas of information sharing between the supervisor and the doctoral student
In addition to the functional help, the supervisors pay attention to the expert interaction when they stimulate the doctoral students' critical thinking, instigating them to pose difficult and controversial questions.
In realising the role of an expert, the supervisor engages in intensive information exchange with the doctoral student and invites the participation in it of other researchers and doctoral students working in the same thematic area.
The data show that there are several information sharing directions: recommendation of authors and literature sources for dissertation writing, referencing of relevant conferences and planned research projects, involving of the doctoral students in the wider research discourse and activities, information exchange among peers (other doctoral students), sharing research ideas and critical commentary.
When sharing research literature the supervisors engage in the following activities:
direct doctoral students towards relevant information resources…;
refer to the library that holds main problem oriented books and databases...;
share the material that I have collected and my own library…;
direct them to the research websites of relevance to the topic…
It is also clear from the data, that the doctoral students coming to this educational level in some cases continue research that they have started earlier and they already know at least partially the main research literature related to their problem. One of the supervisors stated:
They continue their work after the Bachelor's and Master's studies... My main position is that they have to swim to learn swimming.
On the other hand, some supervisors pay special attention to searching the research literature and working with it:
I show how to search for research literature... explain what is important in an article and how to read it, teach about the structure of research articles and their weight, as some are important because of the theoretical part that is developed after thorough analytical work, the others are interesting because of the methodological part and the variety of methods used.
The doctoral students talking about information exchange prefer recommendations to particular authors, the works of which are particularly relevant for constructing of the theoretical framework, but information about information sources or search tips are not so relevant or important:
We live in times when finding information and literature is easy. There is no time to read everything. I do not ask my supervisor for this type of search tips, as I can't cope with what I already have...
I have googled to find out what kind of research field this is. Some of it I knew from my Master's studies and earlier courses. I checked the recommended authors. I was slightly wandering at that point, because there are so many schools of thought and so much written. But then I have focused on the citation index.
However, personal approach and help with socialization is valued by the students:
We exchange textbooks and other [literature]. This is a person who has a library and shares it with as. When I borrowed books from him, the 'thank you' notes of other doctoral students used to fall out of them. This is the evidence that he shares not only with me, but with all other doctoral students.
The supervisor was the one who led me to the research networks that are involved in investigating my topic…
The data also show that information exchange about the development of social networks, i.e., motivating the doctoral students to join the national and international research networks, is not developed by supervisors. Most of them do not put much effort into it. The supervisors have identified the reasons of this situation as the passivity of the students or the difference in interests:
the doctoral students themselves are not active... They participate in everything but only as much as the formal doctoral studies' documents require;
I cannot do this with my doctoral students, as I do not belong to the research networks studying their topics. The networks I belong to are not interesting for them.
The doctoral students who value the participation in research networks also maintain that the individual initiative is the determining factor, but recognise the facilitating role of the supervisor:
all is happening in individualised groups but not on the institutional level
doctoral students participate in the networks because the supervisors are leading the way. They have contacts with universities and research schools and this collaboration is expressed through the conferences and seminars.
The analysis of the interview data also has shown that in the expert information sharing related to the dissertation other researchers take part, not only the supervisor. One of the processes emphasised by the responding supervisors was organization of doctoral seminars, which some identified as a university tradition under formation.
As for the doctoral students, they appreciate interactions with peers (i.e., other doctoral students) and especially the process of sharing ideas even in formal settings:
the colloquium of doctoral students is more important to me than the work with the supervisor...
The colloquium is plain useful, because I can get advice not only from my supervisor, but also from the leader of the doctoral programme.
The interviews disclose that the supervisors do not perceive the expert information sharing as a reciprocal and equal process. They have emphasized:
the absence of equal argument; the supervisor is always higher and discussions just peter out... the academic intimacy and discussions are missing...
This leads to a situation in which the supervisors focus on the functional and emotional support to the doctoral students during the implementation of the project, rather than on the expert interaction, which is unilateral because of the dominating position of the supervisor.
Factors affecting information sharing
Though the supervisors have indicated some reasons why the interaction with doctoral students has a one-way, directive character, further analysis was performed to identify the perceived benefits or threats of information sharing by both types of actors.
We could identify benefits perceived by the supervisors who stated that communication with doctoral students provide new insights for future research:
Research results are intriguing. Then we together think what is their constructive part, what it means, we generalise the findings and leave open further directions. If we have succeeded we plan research perspective.
However, there are also cases of dissatisfaction of the supervisors with the state of affairs:
I sometimes feel sad and hurt when I give away my topics for their analysis and then get disappointed when it fails. I would have done differently, but I can't interfere to that extent. It would be undemocratic, unethical and wrong. Thus, a topic, which may be very relevant and important, dies...
The doctoral students state in the interviews that:
the discussion with the supervisor, joint thinking and insights are of the highest value...
However, the young researchers themselves admit that information sharing on their part is not a systematic or permanent process. Their sharing activities are sporadic and fragmentary and they act as providers of found information and documents to the supervisors only occasionally:
I am not sure that I can help my supervisor in any way… Maybe my omission, but I never thought of this… Yes, but I share with him the materials from the conferences I attend always.
However, the longing for a community, united by common goals, and close interactions is expressed by a doctoral student who has chosen a very specific and new topic:
I envy when a doctoral student comes to a formed research school, where many researchers work, he has colleagues and different projects are happening. So, he is in a special environment, but for my dissertation topic such an environment does not exist in Lithuania.
This is consistent with the findings of Pyhältö et al. (2015).
Discussion and conclusions
Out of all five modes of interactions (Lee and Murray, 2015) between the doctoral students and the supervisors the least problematic from the point of view of information sharing is functional interaction. It seems that the pairs of the supervisors and doctoral students are matched quite well: students who value strict deadlines and control have supervisors who think that this is an important function in supervision, they provide students with instructions on reading materials and teach how to read them. In these cases students also appreciate recommendations of authors and document sharing, and a directed information-giving happens as noted by Talja (2002). The students who tend to be independent and seek freedom have supervisors who think that they are not 'kinder garden nurses'. The students tend to search for information themselves and find their own way to cope with selection (e.g., by focusing on the citation index). As there is a clear division along the lines of faculties it may be an indication of specific disciplinary or organizational cultures at work, but the sample is too small to confirm the guess. It can only be said that many others have marked the differences in norms and values along the disciplinary domains (Talja, 2002; Sinclair, 2004).
Thus it is possible that the acculturation, the transfer of norms and interaction patterns and not only some previous research topics, are formed on earlier educational levels. However, it is not entirely devoid of conflict if we link acculturation to the relationship development mode. This seems to cause tension in information sharing: the supervisors perceive that the students do not act on information received from them and use it only as much as is required officially, while some doctoral students are upset by compartmentalisation of research within the institutions (individualised groups). On the other hand, there are doctoral students who appreciate becoming members of wider research networks and recognise the role of their supervisors in this process. There is another interesting aspect emerging in relation to this interaction mode: there are supervisors whose research networks are far removed from their students’ research interests. This may well be a sign of a small research force in some areas when capable researchers supervise dissertations outside their own research field.
Critical thinking and emancipation seem to be the interaction modes that are rich and rewarding for supervisors when the 'research results are intriguing'. That provides opportunities for more equal dialogue, generation of ideas and critical evaluation of results. However, mostly, the supervisors perceive the doctoral students as failing to demonstrate their critical thinking and self-expression in supervisory sessions, and talk of a unilateral assessment rather than a dialogue of peers. Even the frustration over the ruined prospective research topics is registered in the interviews, though that supervisor seems to persist in offering own research topics to the doctoral students.
Doctoral students, on the other hand, find interactions with other students more rewarding for exchanging critical comments and self-expression.
In Figure 1, following Murphy et al. (2007) we have organized the sharing of different information for different goals under two main roles of a supervisor: the expert and the guide. It shows quite clearly that the guide role includes mainly one-directional information giving, while the expert role builds on more information sharing among a larger number of researchers.
According to Wilson (2010) information sharing is affected by the proximity, the perception of risk and reward, and trust among people sharing information. Proximity can acquire a physical, psychological or social connotation. It seems that in this case the proximity is double edged: the doctoral students are socialised into the academic culture and this seemingly not only decreases the distance with supervisors, but also comes with the hierarchical order that may counteract the perceived closeness of both participants. On the other hand the status in the hierarchy and academic merits also serve as a measure of trust in received information and advice (Pilerot, 2013).
Looking at risk and reward, we may interpret this as follows: that in acquiring information from research networks many students act within the framework of requirements, avoiding risks of penalties, but find discussions with the supervisors and peers rewarding for progress. It seems like a contradiction that disappears, if we also take into account trust. There seem to be varied levels of trust among the participants and it is related to different aspects of work: doctoral students trust their supervisors to be competent in sharing information about authors and sources, discussing methodological issues and outcomes of research, but not for demonstrating their own critical thinking in an open discussion. The supervisors agree by pointing out the lack of such discussions, but trust students to generate interesting results. On the other hand, sharing ‘interesting topics’ might be also a threat when students treat them inadequately. In these cases, it seems the role of an expert of a supervisor is suppressed and the guide’s responsibility takes precedence.
In conclusion we can add to the previously identified roles of supervisors, the roles in which the supervisors cast their doctoral students: as youngsters for whom they are responsible, as capable and independent peers, and to some extent as passive and even frustrating burden. The students are hesitant about their roles as peers of their supervisors but, while admitting the need for direction, do not mention either their own passivity or lack of competence. We can see that in this small sample the roles of the supervisors are relatively stable and correspond with the previous research findings. However, the perceptions of the interactions and attitudes about information sharing vary to a significant degree.
The investigation is conducted in one university and of a small scale; therefore generalisation is not possible even for the university where it was carried out. But the benefit of it was that we could compare the attitudes in the concrete dyads of supervisors and doctoral students. There is no clear connection between the perceptions of both respondents in the pair and with a small sample where personal dynamics may have a high influence we were not even looking for it. Nevertheless, there are some interesting prompts for future research, such as looking into the interaction between novice and senior researchers in just one research area in different universities to identify possible influences of organizational culture on information sharing across generational borders.
We thank our anonymous reviewers for their appreciation and our respondents for their time spent with us and insights into their work.
About the author
Erika Janiūnienė is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Information and Communication, Vilnius University, Sauletekio 9, Vilnius, Lithuania. Her main research interests include collaborative information behaviour and information management in public institutions. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.
Elena Maceviciute is a Professor in the Swedish School of Librarianship and Information Science, University of Borås, Allegatan 1, Borås, Sweden. She is also Professor in the Institute of Book Science and Documentation, Faculty of Communication, Vilnius University, Lithuania. Her research relates to information use in organization, digital libraries and resources, and, currently, the role of e-books modern society. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.