Synthesising and Summarising workshop

On Wednesday, I attended a workshop for NHS library staff, led by Tim Buckley Owen, on synthesising and summarising information. The workshop involved a mixture of presentations by Tim, and hands-on, practical exercises, centred on transforming a large number of literature search results into a coherent, manageable, well-presented summary. NHS librarians are frequently required to conduct literature searches of medical databases on behalf of doctors, nurses or other NHS staff on topics related to their day-to-day work, and general practice (at least anecdotally) seems to be to export the results of such searches as emails, PDF attachments, or other similarly unstructured sets of references. Certainly this is normally what I would do. Tim made the point that email exports can look quite incoherent to the end user, as well as being difficult to navigate and giving no indication about the individual results’ relevance (beyond the fact that they were found using a certain combination of search terms). I must admit that this wasn’t something that had occurred to me previously, as usually when I do literature searches I’m more concerned with simply finding results that are useful to the requester, rather than with how the results are presented to them. However, Tim taught attendees a few simple changes that we could make to our final sets of literature search results to make them more structured, manageable and coherent to the requester. He argued that this was an important way to demonstrate the value of the NHS library service, as well as highlighting the skills of NHS librarians and making sure other NHS staff saw that librarians have their own set of important, specialist skills necessary for good patient care and the other aims of the NHS as a whole.


The first task of the day involved moving from an unstructured set of search results that looked like the digital equivalent of the above pile of papers to a neatly-organised table of references that summarised each one succinctly, and organised them according to relevance and priority, based on the aims and information needs of the individual or team requesting a literature search. We were given a list of roughly sixty literature search results, with abstracts included, and, based on the information provided, required to rank them according to a set of criteria as ‘must know’, ‘should know’, or ‘could know’. In the session, we did this in a table embedded in a Word document. However, my own preference when undertaking similar tasks would be to use reference management software such as Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley or Refworks. These all allow users to import references, move them into various folders (which could replace the ‘must know’, ‘could know’, or ‘should know’ rankings), tag the references in certain ways, and share or export the references to other users. Reference managers are slightly less flexible than a Word table, but the time saved, minimal typing required, and future benefits (such as being able to insert references from the reference manager into any later write-up and format them according to the citation style of your choice) surely outweigh this. Of course, using a reference manager requires the end user to also use one, and they may not always be prepared to do so, so this exercise conducted in the workshop was definitely not a waste of time. It was also a marvellous confidence booster in terms of encouraging attendees to get outside their comfort zones, moving from merely finding information to actually understanding the information found, summarising it, and making judgements about its relevance. Given that a lot of attendees expressed anxiety about fully comprehending the (sometimes highly technical) medical literature that they were often asked to find, this aspect of the task was especially welcome.

We moved in the later half of the day from sythesising information to writing informative summaries. In the first of two exercises, we were given an article (with title and abstract visible), and asked to summarise it in a single paragraph, including a sentence or two indicating its relative relevance to a hypothetical literature search requester’s topic of research. The final exercise involved doing something similar, but drawing on nine articles, rather than a single one, summarising each in one or two sentences so that this summary formed a coherent narrative leading the reader through the available literature so that they could prioritise the articles that would be most relevant to them. I’m someone who really enjoys writing, and has never found it difficult, whatever the context. I’m a lifelong journaller, on paper as a child and online on blogs later on, I spent many years as a journalist, and I also did a PhD, so I’ve had a lot of practice at writing in a variety of registers and for a wide range of purposes. However, I have always struggled to write succinctly, and tend to write as if upper word limits are just a suggestion. (You can probably tell just by reading this blog!) For this reason, although I had little difficulty writing summaries of the assigned articles using the information provided, cutting it down to a single paragraph or a single sentence was like pulling teeth! I found this aspect of the workshop absolutely valuable, because it forced me to reflect on the actual information needs of the (hypothetical) user and put myself in their shoes. There would have been no point in writing a long, waffly summary that made their task harder: its purpose was to guide them through the available literature so that they could prioritise articles that were most relevant to their research and make the best use of their limited time. What was the crucial information they needed about each article? What could be left out? What did they really need to know? Keeping all those questions in find helped me focus and write a simple, readable, and, most importantly, brief summary.

Tim’s final presentation focused on other ways we could improve our literature search results and make them easier to navigate for the requester. These were mostly cosmetic changes, such as making the typeface readable (rather than sticking with Word’s default), adding NHS letterhead and/or that of your library, and writing a clear, concise covering email summarising the work done on the search, the results found, and any categorising/organising we may have done with them. These were all intended to highlight our specialist skills as NHS librarians, the important role of the library within the NHS, and the library’s identity as an integral part of the NHS. While I’m not sure I’ll be implementing all of his suggestions, all were welcome, and I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up session happening slightly later in the month.

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Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017

Yesterday, I spent the day over at the Engineering Faculty enjoying the excellent keynote speeches, panel presentations, and lightning talks, as well as meeting up with colleagues from within Cambridge libraries and from further afield, at the annual Cambridge Libraries Conference. This year’s theme was Library Superheroes, and as you can see, involved a pretty packed programme. This year also sparked some heroism of my own, as I bit the bullet and applied to present a lightning talk at what would be my first ever library conference (although I had presented many times at academic conferences during my years as a PhD student). I was fortunate enough to be accepted, and was very grateful to be a part of proceedings yesterday (although I must admit that when I looked up into the vast lecture theatre in which I would be presenting, I had a moment of thinking, what have I done?). But I thought of all the superheroes (both on the screen and page, and walking around all the libraries in Cambridge) who had gone before me, and gave my presentation happily.


Events kicked off in the morning with an address by Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, giving us an overview on the current political climate with regard to higher education and academic libraries within the UK.

This was followed by the first keynote address, Dr Jeremy Knox of the University of Edinburgh on ‘Digital Heroics for Openness and Excellence’. This talk ranged from MOOCs to analytics, and the various ways in which automation is affecting teaching in higher education institutions.

I was very interested in Jeremy’s frank assessment of the benefits (making education more accessible to everyone, teaching experience outside a non-traditional academic context) and costs (less engagement with students and fewer opportunities for students to learn from one another) of MOOCs, as well as ways in which he and his colleagues at Edinburgh set out to make their own MOOCs more interactive and collaborative. For example, they generated ‘report cards’ for participants describing their engagement with the course (how often they logged on, posted and interacted with other attendees), but some participants rightly pointed out that this did not take passive engagement (thinking about their dissertations, reading non-assigned but related resources) into account.

Jeremy mentioned Turnitin (the plagiarism detection software) as one example of automation being incorporated into academic teaching, but he had a more novel example from his MOOC at Edinburgh: a Twitter bot he and his colleagues created, designed to respond to certain keywords tweeted by students on the course. This could have sometimes comical results, but the bot seems to have become a valued part of the students’ experience. It can be found here, for those who are interested. As conference attendees pointed out, these kinds of bots are quickly becoming a normal part of everyday life for current undergraduates.

This keynote talk was followed by the first parallel session of the day. I chose to attend a panel on failure presented by Martin French, Claire Sewell and Marta Teperek, with a guest appearance by Emma Coonan. Each participant spoke briefly on an area of professional failure, and how they were able to draw positives from it. Claire spoke about being rejected for jobs, but using this as a way to learn about the sorts of skills she would need for the jobs she wanted, and taking every opportunity to gain those skills. Given that Cambridge provides so much free training to its library staff, on everything from cataloguing to project management, it seems absurd not to make use of it (although of course this requires support for your professional development from your management, which is not always forthcoming).

Marta spoke about moving from academic research into a job outside academia, and how this is often perceived as a failure by members of the research community. As someone who moved from academic research into another field, this really resonated with me. After an anecdote from Emma about failing her driving test (which she said meant she did a lot better in her second test because she was alert to potential areas of weakness), the panel opened up to questions from the floor. What followed was a lively discussion about the best ways to elicit feedback from an interviewing panel that had rejected you for a job, the need to make the peer review process in academic publications open rather than anonymous (because research has shown this leads to more productive and helpful suggestions for improvement), and the need to be sensitive when students struggle to use the library and come to us for help. This was a thoroughly enjoyable session, and the panel did a great job in creating a relaxed setting in which attendees were comfortable talking freely about past failures and fears of failing in the future.

I opted to spend the second parallel session listening to Masud Khokhar, head of digital innovation at Lancaster University, talk about innovation in his library. Some such developments included a period of student consultation (which led to technological changes such as ‘smart cushions’ which help the user manage their time), bookable study spaces which could be configured according to the specifications of the user (so if they wanted a relaxed environment for a small-group teaching session, the room could be set up with that in mind; likewise a focused environment for intense individual study), and investigating better discovery tools that didn’t overwhelm the user with a deluge of irrelevant information. Masud also touched on projects that grew out of external partnerships, such as getting local secondary school students to design an online university campus on Minecraft. The benefit of this? Potential students could tour the university online in advance of attending.

After lunch, we reconvened for the second keynote speech, Emma Coonan, Information Skills Librarian at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Her talk was on imposter syndrome, and coping with failure. It tied in very well with the panel I attended earlier in the day, and was a big hit with conference attendees, if Twitter is anything to go by. (Check out the conference hashtag for tweets about Emma’s talk, along with other events of the day.) Emma’s talk was frank, personal, and insightful. She reminded us that expertise isn’t innate – it requires effort, learning, failure and difficulty. If we elide the path that took us from novice to expert when teaching or helping others, it distances us from our students and impedes their learning.

She talked about students’ entry to university being a time of transition, and a time in which they need to unlearn everything they thought they knew about the learning process. It’s our job as librarians to be mindful of that and do all we can to help in this process.

We have to help students move from a rigid fixation on one goal to a more flexible understanding of learning which allows for tangents, digressions, constant redefinition of goals, and the idea that learning and research is a process, not a finite journey.

This is important not only in teaching others, but in our own daily work and professional development: there is no comfortable plateau at which we stop learning and know everything we need to know for our jobs. Rather, we should aim to always keep trying new things, developing, and setting new goals. As always, institutional support is crucial in this.

I left Emma’s keynote feeling inspired and ready to roll up my sleeves and keep learning, and ready to confront things that scare me professionally. This was just as well, as one of those scary things was waiting just around the corner: my own lightning talk! I was one of seven lightning speakers, and I have to admit that I stopped livetweeting during this session, as I was trying to focus on my own speech. However, I did take in the contents of my fellow speakers’ presentations, which were as follows:

  • Ange Fitzpatrick, talking about imposter syndrome (which seems to have been something of a theme of the conference);
  • Meg Westbury, talking about her research into collaborative research processes;
  • My colleague Jo Milton, talking about the development of a book-fetching service in the wake of renovations in our library which meant users couldn’t access most of our collection of books;
  • Emma Etteridge, talking about learning to use Moodle and training others in its use;
  • Jenni Skinner, along with two volunteers from the African Studies Library, talking about the heroic role volunteers have played in that library in getting to grips with its vast archive of uncatalogued material;
  • Jenny Sargent, talking about increasing the visibility and remit of her library and demonstrating its value; and
  • Me, talking about training without a training room – developing a roving training service, and the unexpected expansion of training provision during our library renovations.

As well as the panels, keynotes and lightning talks, a number of Cambridge library staff produced posters. I’ve been unable to find photos of most of these, but no doubt they will make their way online at some point. The interactive poster made by one of my colleagues certainly proved a hit! This poster asked viewers to provide their own thoughts as to what makes a library superhero, and people were happy to share.

This year’s conference was particularly inspiring. I left it feeling a part of a great and supportive library community, bursting with ideas for both my everyday work, and my own ongoing professional development. Well done to the organising committee and volunteers for their hard work both prior to, and on the day of, the conference. I look forward to seeing everyone back again for 2018!

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23 Research Things – Thing 23

Today marks the end of the #23researchcam programme. The last Thing involves the ultimate research tool – the library! As a lifelong library user, and a librarian, I thoroughly approve of framing libraries as such, and I feel very strongly about the importance and centrality of a good library to the research process. I take my responsibility as a supporter and facilitator of learning and research very seriously, and I’m likewise always incredibly impressed by the knowledge, dedication and passion of my fellow librarians, within and outside Cambridge, in academic and non-academic library sectors.

This is really crucial: a library is not just the shelves of books or collections of electronic resources made available to its users. A library is made by the people who work in it – their expertise, deep experience, and enthusiasm and support are vital for the creation and continuation of a flourishing research community. I frequently have conversations with users who are surprised by the services offered by my library, the areas of responsibility of its staff, and our knowledge of obscure resources. I’m sure my fellow librarians can all recall a number of conversations that begin, ‘I didn’t know the library did this!’ To give you the idea of a typical library assistant’s week, this week my work has ranged from typical enquiry-desk duties (answering users’ questions, issuing and returning books and so on) to meeting fellow ‘Data Champions’ (bioinformaticians, psychiatry PhD students, and other researchers) as the start of a programme teaching and advising researchers in our department about research data management, and from developing a search strategy for a systematic review to meeting library users for a series of one-to-one literature search support training sessions. I’ve also been tweeting about resources, editing our library website, and teaching myself how to use a new project management tool.

I have also had the good fortune to experience fantastic libraries from the other side of the enquiry desk, as a user of public libraries and school libraries throughout my childhood and beyond, and of academic libraries as an undergrad, MPhil and PhD student. I still have very fond memories of the librarians who ran my local public library (especially their Saturday morning children’s programme, and their extensive nonfiction collection which formed the basis of many school assignments in those years before the ubiquity of the internet). I spent long hours in the excellent Fisher Library at the University of Sydney during my undergrad years, poring over its various medieval language dictionaries, and borrowing books and journals for which I seemed to have been the sole borrower since the early twentieth century. During my MPhil and PhD, I was privileged to be a user of the English Faculty Library here in Cambridge, which remains my standard for academic libraries, and the example of whose staff I always try to emulate in my daily work. I am incredibly grateful for the existence of those – and other – libraries, and in particular for their staff, without whose support I would not be where I am today.

This post is getting pretty long and rhapsodic, so I’ll try and wrap things up with a couple of reflections on the 23 Research Things programme as a whole. I’ve found it to be a positive experience overall. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my own practice and knowledge, and my increased awareness of resources and spaces likely to be used by the students and researchers I support. In some cases, this has led to me making changes to practice, while in others it has affirmed my belief in my current approaches to certain resources and platforms. It’s also been great to see so many participants from different backgrounds taking part in the programme and learning from their experiences. If I had one issue with the programme, it’s a fairly minor quibble, but I think it’s worth raising: some Things required signing up with specific resources, including some that I was not interested in using (Linkedin springs immediately to mind) and was unlikely to be persuaded to use. I think if a similar programme were to run in the future, it might be better to focus on activities and resources that can be used without requiring a login. Of course users would be free to create accounts with those resources if they appealed, but removing the requirement to sign up on specific platforms would certainly be preferable to me. I understand that, at bare minimum, participants would still need a Twitter account and a blog on a platform of their choice, but I feel that a login on other platforms is unnecessary (or could be avoided by creating a set of guest accounts, which is what I provide for participants in certain training courses I run).

Overall, I’ve enjoyed participating in 23 Research Things. I’m really happy that Georgina and the team at the Moore Library took the effort to put something like this together – so thanks very much for all your hard work! I’m keen to hear what my fellow participants thought of the programme, and look forward to hearing what they do with their newfound knowledge of resources and research skills in the future.

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23 Research Things – Thing 22

We’ve reached our penultimate post, which is going to be about altmetrics – tracking the reach of your research through non-traditional channels. I’ve chosen to focus on the tools that analyse the reach of Twitter accounts, rather than publications, because although I do have published articles, the bulk of my work involves training, support, and communication, so I feel Twitter is a more useful medium on which to focus.

For today’s exercise I used both Twitter’s own analytics tool, and the external tool Twitter Reach Report. What I found through both did not surprise me much – my personal Twitter account is a textbook example of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I’m a bit of a Twitter lurker, and when I do tweet, it tends to be short, broadcast-like announcements of blog posts and the like, rather than any active engagement with my followers, the people I follow, or the wider scholarly and librarian community. The only exception is conferences and workshops, when I livetweet furiously and get into lengthy conversations, and I suspect if I’d taken stats shortly after a conference, my analytics would look very different. As it stands, my tweets of the past twenty-eight days do not have much reach, have inspired little engagement, and only occasionally got retweeted or liked. As I say, this doesn’t surprise me, although I know that I take a very different approach to Twitter when using my library’s (rather than my own) Twitter account, replying to, and getting involved with, other tweets and conversations, and generally sparking a much greater level of engagement. I guess these uninspiring analytics figures demonstrate my ambivalence about using social media in a personal/professional hybrid: namely, representing myself alone, but in a professional context. I’m much more comfortable using tools like Twitter when they are solely professional (i.e. my library’s official account), or solely personal (i.e. an account in which I talk about hobbies, my personal life, politics and so on, among a group of followers who are friends from outside my professional sphere). When faced with a confluence of the personal and professional, my response seems to be to refrain from posting at all. And as a result, outside of conference livetweeting, my Twitter analytics are pretty poor.

I’m not sure I necessarily want to change things, however. This 23 Research Things programme has certainly caused me to reflect a lot on my own habits and practices, but in many cases it’s reaffirmed my sense that I’m using resources in a way that makes sense to me, even if it’s not necessarily the way that will make the biggest splash or generate the most recognition. In many ways, I’m content to be a quiet lurker, and let my work speak for me.

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23 Research Things – Thing 21

We’re in the final week of this programme, and today’s Thing deals with managing citations. This is a topic about which I know a fair bit, as I run regular group training sessions on reference management software, as well as providing one-to-one support for library users with problems involving referencing.

Thing 21 focuses on a single reference manager, Zotero, while I also use and teach Endnote and Mendeley, but all do roughly the same thing: provide a single place to gather references from disparate sources, organise these references according to a user’s preferences, share the references with collaborators, and use the references when adding citations and a bibliography to a written document. I did not use a reference manager while writing my undergrad dissertation, M.Phil dissertation, PhD thesis, or numerous essays, talks or publications, and I regret this a lot. I regretted it most during the week I spent painstakingly copying and pasting more than five hundred footnotes in my PhD into a bibliography and making sure they were following a consistent citation style! Now, I always tell this anecdote to my students to ensure they don’t make my mistakes!

Zotero is an extremely straightforward reference manager to use because it is entirely web-based, and the method of importing references from databases, library catalogues, Google Scholar and elsewhere is the same, no matter the source or the type of reference. Other reference managers require multiple steps between selecting references to import and actually importing them, and are thus less user-friendly at the import stage. Zotero also allows the user to import webpages as references, which is not possible in Endnote or Mendeley.

Today’s Thing also mentions setting up a profile with ORCiD. Luckily, I already did this some time ago, and now have a profile populated with education and employment history, as well as all my publications. For someone like me, who has published in two wildly different fields (the obscure area of the humanities in which I did my PhD, and the much less obscure science subject in which I now provide training and research support), ORCiD is extremely welcome, as it provides a way to link all my divergent research together. Otherwise, most people looking at my list of publications would think that they were the work of two different researchers. I highly recommend that all researchers get an account with ORCiD, especially as it is not tied to your institution, meaning that it provides a permanent platform on which to list and promote your research. If your institution doesn’t provide you with a good Web presence (for example, some universities don’t provide webpages for PhD students), or if you have moved between several institutions, or if you are researching from outside academia as an independent scholar, ORCiD provides a stable, professional-looking platform for your online presence. And unlike for-profit social media sites such as or Researchgate, you will not run into issues with copyright of your listed articles, since the norm on ORCiD is to provide DOIs and links to databases/repositories, rather than PDFs of publications, meaning that only those who have the correct institutional logins will be able to access your publications.

I strongly encourage all researchers who are writing and publishing their research outputs to start using a reference manager (it doesn’t have to be Zotero), and set up an account with ORCiD, as I believe both will make the writing, publishing, and promotion of their work a whole lot easier.

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23 Research Things – Thing 20

Today is all about data visualisation, which I have to admit is not a subject I’ve given a huge amount of thought in the past. This programme has been great in this way, getting me to consider aspects of research (and research support) that I’d previously avoided or ignored. Given that I typically deal with data that’s fairly simple, I’ve mostly been able to present it in a very simple format (usually Venn diagrams or brief tables).

I can see that the resources described in today’s presentation would be tremendously helpful for researchers wanting to jazz up their data and present it in a visually meaningful and memorable way, but I’m going to talk here about another data visualisation tool that I’ve used, TurningPoint polling software. Today’s Thing is very timely, as I arrived at work to find that I would need to conduct an impromptu TurningPoint training session for a user, which was a great opportunity to brush up on my knowledge of this software.

TurningPoint is used not to present a researcher’s own data, but rather to gather data from attendees at presentations, seminars, or other group events. The way it works is simple: a user installs the TurningPoint software, and then creates PowerPoint presentations through it. These presentations typically will include a number of slides with options for the audience to answer multiple choice, true or false, or other types of questions in which multiple potential answers are displayed on the slide. Attendees register their answers using special ‘clickers’, and the live presentation will keep a tally of how many answers have been provided (but not who gave which answer, which remains anonymous). Once all have answered the question on a slide, the presenter is able to display the resulting answers (usually through a bar graph), and also, if they wish, indicate the correct answer on the slide. The software can also be used in situations where there is no correct answer to gauge the knowledge or background of attendees in the room (e.g. how strongly they agree or disagree with a particular statement, how much experience they have with a particular resource, and so on). I have used TurningPoint in presentations to check that students understood certain concepts (giving them multiple choice questions on boolean operators, for example) in an anonymous way, which can be useful in situations where they might feel uncomfortable revealing their lack of understanding publicly to the group.

I really like using TurningPoint, but I should mention that it is not cheap. It may be that free apps (such as Poll Everywhere) would be more useful to you as a researcher or trainer. Apps also have the advantage of not requiring the presenter/trainer to lug around a large quantity of TurningPoint clickers, although of course they do require every attendee to have a smart device, and to have installed the app prior to the presentation or training session.

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23 Research Things – Thing 19

Today I’ll be talking very briefly about text and data mining. My post will be short because this is not a technique I’ve used myself and I have no experience of it, although some of the researchers I’ve supported it have made use of data mining themselves. I think it has the potential to be a very useful research tool, but its limitations, covered in the presentation/transcript for today’s portion of the Research Things programme, may represent a significant hindrance. If text and data mining techniques cannot be used in the majority of key databases (those used by a majority of researchers in various fields), this is a severe drawback. Until this copyright issue is resolved, text and data mining should be used with care. As suggested in the presentation, it’s probably worth getting in touch with the team at ContentMine to check that you are applying text and data mining techniques correctly and complying with copyright.

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