How research students at The Open University conduct research: insights from cognitive mapping

Jenkins, David (2017). How research students at The Open University conduct research: insights from cognitive mapping. SCONUL Focus(69) pp. 18–22.



A small-scale research project was undertaken to inform the development of library services for research students at The Open University. It was design to gain insights into how research students conduct research: the processes they go through, the people they work with, the resources they use and the places they go to.

The method used was cognitive mapping, one of the ethnography-inspired user experience (UX) methods outlined at the first UXLibs conference. Cognitive mapping involves asking people to draw maps from memory and it is particularly suited to giving insights into peoples’ behaviour and perceptions. We found that cognitive mapping was easy to undertake and led to insightful data. Segmentation of data was challenging and coding data was time-consuming but these issues are normal within qualitative research.

We found that: literature reviews were the most mentioned part of the research process; support from supervisors is really important and encompasses numerous areas; there were more instances of negative feedback about the library than positive; library print resources were mentioned almost as much as electronic resources; most participants use Google Scholar as their primary (or one of their primary) means of finding literature; there is some significant use of non-Library Services resources.

As a result of these findings, we communicated the issues to library staff done in order to engage colleagues and to inform discussions about how Library Services as a whole can meet research students’ needs. We also founded a research student forum to build on this project by continuing our support and outreach work.

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