Hindsight, Insight, Foresight

By Sarah van Eyndhoven, Researcher in Residence

In this post, Sarah van Eyndhoven, Researcher in Residence, who works closerly with the Research Facilitation team, reflects on her experience from her PhD journey about the value of digital research skills and shares her plans to support the postgraduate research community.

You can contact Sarah at S.J.M.Van-Eyndhoven@sms.ed.ac.uk

What I learnt the hard way from about the value of digital research skills 

This week I joined the Digital Research Services (DRS) team at the University of Edinburgh, as their ‘Researcher in Residence’ for the next three months. I must admit that prior to having joined them, I didn’t know very much about the DRS, though in light of the way my PhD developed, I wish I had known about them much sooner. My recently-completed PhD is based in Historical Linguistics, and looks at the role of political identity on language choices in Scottish correspondence produced during the Union of Parliaments debates (1689-1707). This relied upon locating relevant letters and primary manuscripts in various Scottish archives, and analysing them to identify changes in language use among different writers. What I quickly came to realise was the enormity of the task, and the considerable time investment this called for. Ideally, I needed to digitise these letters so that I could search them again and again for relevant words and spellings, and link these to the author of the correspondence. In addition, I needed to be able to store the documents somewhere, in a format where they could be searched and the relevant data extracted, compiled and analysed using statistical methods. Even once I successfully jumped through these hoops, I had difficulty with the analysis stage, as the scale of the dataset meant my small desktop simply wouldn’t hack it, and I had to use a School-specific server to run the statistical analysis. And once all that was completed, I needed to consider long-term storage and access solutions, so that my work could be open, replicable and secure.

Eventually, through considerable trial and error, the help of various individuals within the University (including groups affiliated with the DRS) and lots of long email chains (!) I managed what I had set out to achieve, and the thesis was completed. It was certainly a learning journey, and a voyage of discovery into the world of digital humanities, but one that probably could have been made significantly smoother, easier and perhaps more accessible if I had been more aware of the wide range of services offered by DRS. This includes everything from storage solutions, such as DataStore and DataVault, server-hosting options like Eleanor, to data-mining and processing tools such as Eddie. At the back of my mind, I felt there was probably some sort of service within the University that could help with digital skills and tools, but I was so immersed in my own, solitary PhD journey, and so convinced that anything available wouldn’t work for a humanities subject like my own anyway, that I never really gave it much thought.

How I’m moving forward in helping the research community 

Now however, as a freshly minted member of the DRS team, I am becoming aware of what is available to the research community, including various possibilities that would have worked well for my subject area and my research project in particular. As these weeks progress, I’m looking forward to working more closely with the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to identify what postgraduate students need in terms of digital support, help the community understand the research lifecycle, and highlight the wealth of resources that are currently and immediately available to them. By providing a good grounding in digital research management and practice, the tools available can not only make the process faster, more efficient and more transparent, but will hopefully spare individuals some of the hair-pulling that accompanied my PhD.* So, with that in mind, let’s see what the summer brings!

*Disclaimer: this does not guarantee zero hair-pulling during the PhD entirely. That I’m afraid is an inevitable component of the thesis for most individuals involved!