Finding Out What Our Researchers Really Want: The Structured Interview

Mary Betts-Gray, Cranfield University


Do we know what our researchers really need from our library service? Are all researchers active social media users? Are our messages about new services and changes to services reaching them? Are there gaps in our service provision? How do information needs and requirements change during the course of a research programme? These were just some of the questions we found ourselves trying to answer two years ago, when we were seeking to enhance our services to improve support for the research community at Cranfield University.

Cranfield is an exclusively postgraduate research intensive University, and a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management. Research is fundamental to everything the University does. A key driver for our research was the University’s new corporate plan which includes a new research strategy.

Prior to raising the questions above, the library service had already developed good links with members of the research community and had established a Research Support Working Group (RSWG). In consultation with some of our researchers, we also developed a Research Infokit, which pulls together resources to support researchers throughout the research life cycle. One of the issues the development of the Research Infokit had raised was that not all researchers have the same information needs. We (and others) have tended to regard them as a homogenous group with common needs; and we realised that we needed to develop a better understanding of how the needs of researchers vary, depending on career stage, experience and subject discipline. The research we conducted was intended to investigate this, and inform the development of our own strategy, which is closely aligned with the University’s strategy.

Discussions followed with regard to the best way to undertake the research. Initially, a survey was considered but then dismissed because: we wanted input from a good cross-section of researchers in terms of gender, age and experience; researchers are extremely busy and e-mails and surveys are often ignored; and the University had concerns about “survey fatigue”. Interviews were our next thought, but this raised questions of how we might ensure that the same questions were asked if the interviews were carried out by different staff, from the three different libraries which form the Library service, and how we would record the answers. Finally, it was decided to opt for a mid-way solution which involved undertaking structured interviews, which would provide us with both quantitative and qualitative data.

The decision was taken to use Qualtrix to construct a questionnaire which would be used to carry out the interviews. There were a number of reasons for this. The software is flexible and allows for different styles of questions. Time is always in short supply, and we wanted a way to collect data that didn’t require us to re-input information. The interviews were to be carried out by staff who all had their own iPads or laptops which they could take along to the interviews. We wanted to be able to analyse the data and produce results with the minimum of effort, and Qualtrix would collate the results for us. Finally, for consistency, we wanted to ensure that all interviewees were asked the same questions and that all key areas were discussed.

An initial set of questions was developed by members of the RSWG, and these were then circulated to the other colleagues who would be undertaking the interviews for comment before being finally agreed. The questions covered three broad areas:

  • An introductory section – demographics about the interviewee, some questions about how they viewed and used the library services, and their awareness of what support was offered.
  • Specific questions relating to trending research issues: Social media; reference management software; Research Infokit; publishing influences; Open Access (compliance, article processing charges, Research Data Management); Cranfield Research Information System (CRIS) and CERES (the institutional repository) and IRUS-UK (Institutional Repository Usage Statistics UK).
  • Training and Communication.

93 structured interviews were carried out by Information Specialists over a three month period. Each Information Specialist had a minimum target of 10 researchers to engage with.   The process provided an unexpected training opportunity for staff who were less involved in research support, as it identified areas where subject or background help and knowledge was needed – CRIS and Open Access compliance were the main two. In cases where the interviewer lacked confidence, there was an offer from members of the RSWG to partner with them to undertake the initial interviews.

In terms of analysis and reporting, Qualtrix did save time and we were able to produce graphs and word clouds easily. We were delighted to receive very positive feedback about the library service and the resources we provide. Although this was a small sample the results confirmed some things we already suspected: Google Scholar was identified as one of the most popular search tools; social media was used by many to promote their research (with Research Gate topping the list of tools), but very few had used social media in conducting their research; and Mendeley was the preferred tool for reference management. It also highlighted areas where we needed to communicate better and provide more help and support, e.g. Open Access compliance, CRIS and CERES. Information about different communication preferences was gleaned and noted for future reference; and gaps in terms of resources, training and support were identified.

Following on from this, we have been mapping typical research information needs and interventions for funded research projects and doctoral research programmes. This has provided an opportunity to compare different subject discipline needs; and we are now sense checking the mappings, by inviting Doctoral students and researchers to come and discuss their research journey with the RSWG. The establishment of close links and collaboration with the Research and Innovation Office and Centre for Andragogy and Academic Skills and others working with researchers has enabled us to work with them to address some of the issues we uncovered.

So would we do it again? Definitely! Having a better understanding of the research process and the needs and behaviours of researchers is fundamental to our strategy and service provision, and we see this as the start of an ongoing dialogue. There are a couple of caveats: carrying out the interviews created work and was very labour intensive; and not all staff engaged with the interviews to the same degree, which had a slightly negative effect on the quality of the results. However, overall the exercise was perceived to be a huge success. It was an excellent relationship building exercise, as we engaged with many new researchers and re-kindled links with well-established researchers, who can often be overlooked, as they are considered to “know everything”. Awareness was raised on both sides – we learned what our researchers would like, and they learned about what we had to offer. Finally, we came away with follow-up questions, requests for help, and a much clearer understanding of what our researchers really want, and where we need to invest our time and effort.

K & IM Refer 33 (1) Spring 2017


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s