Looking at the primary research process – an interview with Denise Carter researcher and author of the BIR Annual Survey

Below is an interview with Denise Carter reflecting on the primary research process that she goes through to gather the information needed for our annual research report into the information and knowledge sector.
Tell us about the research process you go through, how has it developed and changed from when you first started?

Usually based on the previous year’s discussions and then conversations with different information colleagues and peers during the year I try to pick on a couple of themes that I believe are of current interest to information professionals. In between surveys, over the course of the year, I try to pick up articles and news items that relate to those themes, as well as anything else I see in both general and professional literature. Evernote is my great “friend” here and I upload everything to a “BIR” notebook, so I can go through when I have time to then do my further reading and see what really is useful and what not so much.

That reading gives me the building blocks for the questions I want to ask, particularly of the telephone interviewees but also to include in the e-survey.
The first year I did the survey I followed much more closely the methodology as described by Allan Foster (BIR’s previous long term author, researcher and writer of the BIR annual survey). In the next couple I have moved to having the e-survey because it handles some of the more routine questions that Allan asked everyone at the beginning of the telephone interviews about the general business climate, budgets, team sizes and so on. Widening this out to an e-survey gives the potential to get more feedback from different people and hopefully make those answers a little more statistically significant.
The process now is that I select a very general theme, collect reading on that over the year. Then I will construct the e-survey, repeating some questions (I hope that in a couple of years we can then include some comparative data), and asking some new questions that are relevant to the theme or to any other issues I see on the horizon. This year I also included a couple more open questions which gave some very insightful comment and I will certainly do that again. I try to collate and do a basic write up of the e-survey results before commencing on the primary interviews. That way I can use any feedback gleaned there to inform the questions and discussion.
What challenges have you encountered?

The biggest challenge is definitely finding telephone interviewees. I have a list of people who are regulars who have been very helpful and loyal to the process. Finding new candidates is not easy and every year it seems that some people retire or go to work in a completely different area and are no longer able to take part. Between July and December this year I plan to make a much more directed effort to finding some new interviewees.

Time is always an issue. Working backwards from the submission deadline of mid-June, then ideally the e-survey would go out second half of January and telephone interviews would take place in February, March, April. Having more time to spread them out would be useful. That would give May to get the article written. Normally I try to add the interview notes immediately following the interview that way everything is still fresh in my mind. This year there was an unexpected event and that threw the timings right out, so this year in particular timing was very tight as the interviews got pushed into May/June. Hopefully next year will be more tranquil and I can stick to my plan.

How have you overcome them?

To be brutally honest I haven’t overcome the issues of time and finding interviewees yet. They are challenges that remain for 2019. As mentioned though I hope in the second half of the year to get my network going and reach out to some new potential interviewees. Hopefully I will be able to stick to the timetable next year and break the process down into chunks.

Can you list your top 5 best practice points for others completing a similar research process/methodology?

1. The more background reading and information you can pull together outside of the primary interviews and e-surveys the better.

2. Get a structure together earlier rather than later. That helps you think of the questions you want to ask interviewees and in the e-survey and build a framework for the final article.
3. But don’t be tied into your intial structure, when you start to get information from your interviewees there may well be a different story that is emerging, you need to be flexible.
4. Don’t make references and figures and tables a chore, try to get these done in the correct format as you go along. Leaving them until the end creates a tedious task.
5. Try to have a break of at least a week, if not longer, after completing the article, and then re-read with relatively fresh eyes (I’m hoping 4th time will be a charm on that one!). Athough you always need someone else to do a proof-read, you simply cannot see all your own errors.
Overall doing a large piece of research like this can be daunting, and every year I wonder why I put myself forward, but it has also been very interesting and enlightening to speak to other information professionals and to understand what they do day-to-day. It also forces you to read, and we all know that we often have great intentions but finding the time to read up on a topic is hard, so this gives me a great opportunity and I appreciate that. This year reading about AI has been particularly fascinating, and even though I’ve submitted the article I’m still collecting more information on that topic.

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