The Impact of Doctoral Research in Information Science and Librarianship

The Problem of Information-Gathering, and its Relation to Impact

Almost from the start it became clear that this project would be severely affected by lack of information.

The first indication of the problem was the inability of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) to produce the names of the award-holders. This was so despite the fact that the studentships had been awarded and handled by the Department, and each of the recipients had undoubtedly written to the Department on at least one occasion, probably more, to submit records of expenses allowable under the terms of the stipend. The most that was received from the Department, in response to requests by phone and mail, was a published (unreferenced) table citing the numbers of "full-time postgraduates by subject group of study" (including Librarianship and Information science) for the years 1985 to 1992.

Turning then to the British Library Research and Innovation Centre, funder of the present project, it was possible to obtain in due course (after painstaking searches by British Library staff through the minutes of fifteen years of meetings) a list of the award-holders by year from 1981 through 1991. Along with each name the list included the UK university and department in which the studentship was held, and the title of the award-holder's doctoral thesis. Needless to say, this information was very helpful.

According to the list supplied by the British Library, a total of 54 students received DfE research awards during the years in question. Although the majority took up their studies in various departments of information studies and/or librarianship, other departments in universities or then-polytechnics were represented including computer science, education, law, music, physics and sociology.

The institutions and departments represented on the British Library's list, by year from 1981 through 1991, are as follows:

1981 (four studentships)

1982 (four studentships)

1983 (four studentships)

1984 (five studentships)

1985 (four studentships)

1986 (three studentships)

1987 (six studentships)

1988 (five studentships)

1989 (four studentships)

1990 (seven studentships)

1991 (eight studentships)

Once the names of the award-holders had been ascertained, the next step was to try to establish contact with each of them. Although finding the names had been difficult, it was nothing compared to the difficulties encountered with finding their addresses. In fact the inability to obtain addresses or indeed any information leading to the current whereabouts of award-holders was the most frustrating and crippling aspect of the project. Despite information-seeking efforts of which Sherlock Holmes might have been proud, the trails of many of the award-holders had been allowed to grow cold for lack of record-keeping -- even though these were research students, mostly at the Ph.D. level, whose work may well have had impacts upon their departments or their supervisors at least.

Each of the university departments was contacted in the first instance, often more than once, to try to reach someone there with knowledge of the award-holder. Several calls and e-mail messages were re-routed, not often with success. Former supervisors were contacted directly, throughout the UK and in the US; only one of these contacts yielded a possible current address which turned out to be accurate. Other former supervisors, although they could recollect the student and usually the student's research, had no idea what had become of him or her upon completion of the Ph.D.

Attitudes to the request varied considerably in the institutions contacted, from extremely cooperative to the unhelpful message received from the Registrar's Department in one institution to which we were directed after calling various departments, as instructed:

"Further to your enquiry of this morning, I am sorry to advise you that I am unable to trace the registration papers for the individuals you mentioned. I understand that you have also spoken to several of my colleagues regarding this matter and they have passed your message on to me.

Unfortunately the University of --------- will not be able to help you with your enquiries.

In one institution the Alumni Office had recently closed. Most others had no Alumni Office to begin with. Three departments which did have records informed me that the mailing addresses of former students were private and confidential; in these cases an alternative arrangement was made whereby all correspondence was sent to a member of staff for forwarding.

The most frequent responses to enquiries in award-holders' departments were along the lines: "Goodness, we don't keep records that far back! Please hold the line a moment while I go down the hall to see if there is anyone here who might recall...."

In addition to the award-holders' institutions, other sources checked for possible current information were the mailing lists of organisations, such as the Institute of Information Scientists in London, and the online BT directory. These searches yielded no useful information.

Of the fifty-four award-holders listed by the British Library, it turned out that five had obtained a M.Phil. degree rather than a Ph.D., another five had either not taken up the award or withdrawn prior to completion of study. This reduced the population by ten, to forty-four. Another five had not completed the Ph.D. degree by the end of 1996; these were subsequently sent questionnaires anyway in an effort to swell the numbers.

In the end, a total of fifteen out of the forty-four award-holders fitting the dimensions of the project could not be contacted because no records were kept and no other means of locating them were successful. This was the single greatest factor in the reduction of the sample population, by a considerable margin. In addition, most of the others were located only after a great deal of time and persistence. It could be argued that this lack of record-keeping, far from affecting this project only, has considerable implications for the impact of doctoral study in the UK generally. How does one measure impact upon the researcher's department, for example, when no records are kept upon graduation and the researcher him/herself is unknown in the department within ten years or less?

Nor does it speak well of the possible "nurturing" role the departments might well be expected to play in the ongoing career advancement, continuing education, etc., of the students upon whom their institutions have conferred the highest research degree -- the Ph.D. Is the research impact of Ph.D. graduates in the UK negatively affected by this lack of nurture? It would seem that this is a question that should be taken very seriously. Comparisons of research impact should be made with the Ph.D.'s in other countries, Canada and the United States for example, where efforts to keep in contact with alumni is a very high priority - for their monetary contributions, to be sure, but also for the very great benefits of "networking" and continuing career assistance.

Eventually thirty-two questionnaires were sent out, three to award-holders whose responses indicated M.Phil. completion only (in other words, some departments able to supply current addresses did not supply the correct degree information). One was returned by a neighbour indicating the addressee had not lived there for fifteen years. Although most of the award-holders would seem to have remained in the UK, one is known to hold a post currently in Hong Kong and another in the United States. Nineteen of the thirty-two questionnaires were returned, of which fifteen were relevant and usable.

Mary Dykstra Lynch and T.D. Wilson©British Library Board 1997