Visibility and Accessibility

By Sarah van Eyndhoven, Researcher in Residence

In this post, Sarah van Eyndhoven, Researcher in Residence, reflects on her collaboration with the Research Facilitation team and highlights the importance of raising awareness for Digital Research Services.

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


Developing and raising our profile to create a ‘DRS for everyone’

It’s now been three weeks since I joined the Digital Research Services team, and in that time I’ve come to learn quite a bit about the planning that goes on behind the scenes to make the DRS work for everyone. Previously, I hadn’t quite stopped to think about and appreciate the diverse range of subjects, interests, programmes and projects that make up the university, nor how complex it is to create material that is at once applicable to everyone, and at the same time speaks to the individual interests and needs of the researcher. Some people will be more familiar with certain tools available, needing only a small amount of guidance, whereas others may not even have considered using digital techniques or services, and need to be made aware that they exist in the first place. We’ve had some fruitful discussions around putting together a range of different offerings that include both general and tailored content, and it will be exciting to see whether we can get them off the ground. One of the biggest barriers to it all is publicity – if people don’t know that a service exists, they’re unlikely to go looking for it in the first place. I alluded to this problem with my own PhD in my previous blog post, and over the years in conversation with colleagues and fellow researchers, I’ve discovered I am by no means the only one. From what I’ve observed, it is often the case that within certain subject areas, digital skills simply aren’t considered in the data collection and analysis stage. Particularly if you’re based in a field that doesn’t traditionally rely much on digital or automated techniques, the tendency is to opt for the ‘manual’ route in terms of data sharing, storing, analysing and modelling, and this is propagated both by senior researchers or supervisors in the field (who might suggest you take the same approach as they did) and other students around you who similarly don’t use these tools. Yet it only takes a couple of people to break out of that bubble and explore what’s possible to open up a new world of possibilities to other fellow researchers. Once people know something exists, they’re likely to recommend it to others, and within a relatively short amount of time digital skills and techniques can become not just common but the norm within certain subfields.


And how visibility feeds back into digital research developments

This development I just described is something that happened to me during my learning process, and something I hope to pay forward when I attend the key conference for my field next week. To give some context, my thesis was based around photographing primary manuscripts and transcribing these so that I could analyse their language use. For the first two and half years, I simply accepted that I would have to do this all manually. While I’d heard of some kind of software that could automatically transcribe it for me, I assumed it wouldn’t work for historical documents, or for the wide range of different authors in my collection. My supervisors were similarly unaware of alternatives. It was only when someone in my department told me about the software Transkribus, a handwritten text recognition tool specially developed for historical manuscripts, and pointed me towards freely available tutorials on how to use it, that my whole approach changed. Thanks to Transkribus, I was able to digitise a much larger volume of material at a much faster rate than anything I could have achieved manually. Having that one link into a possibility previously unknown to me was so valuable, and now that I’m through to the other side, I’d like to do the same for others. Next week I’m attending the annual Historical Sociolinguistics Conference in Brussels, where I’ll be presenting my final results, but also my methodology. While some members of the historical sociolinguistic community are aware of digital transcription tools, it is only slowly gaining traction and others are still working through material manually. By demonstrating the merits of the software, and the valuable results I obtained from it, I can hopefully inspire others to give it a try and encourage this development to grow and influence future scholars.

In the same vein, but on a larger scale, we hope to keep improving the visibility of the DRS, so that not just one tool for one subfield becomes more widely recognised, but all the tools for all the different faculties, schools and subjects become more widely known within the University. By saving valuable time and effort, as well as enabling research to be large-scale, precise or more robust, we can only improve the culture, climate and strength of our research community.