Research supervisors and information literacy

Added by Stephane Goldstein on 06 October 2010 18:08

The ability of researchers to handle information is of vital importance. Many individuals have become adept at developing approaches and using innovative technologies to make most of the information environment, but others rather less so. Questions about how researchers develop appropriate skills, the support they receive, the training opportunities provided for them, and the take-up of such opportunities are thus highly pertinent.

Research supervisors can play a crucial role in the effective imparting of relevant skills, knowledge and understanding. But in reality, they often are not able, well-equipped or even predisposed to play such a role. RIN’s Mind the Skills Gap report pointed to the “the widespread perception that some research supervisors do not recognise the need for the types of training on offer to ‘their’ postgraduate students. Some supervisors are viewed by library and information specialists as a ‘lost generation’, overtaken by advances in research information, and not fully aware of the implications of some of these changes” . In the context of the necessary development of enabling improved information literacy, the place of research supervisors is one that is thus worthy of investigation.

In this vein, the RIN has published below the results of a study, undertaken between January and July 2011, investigating the place and role of PhD supervisors in the drive to ensure that research students possess the necessary level of information literacy to pursue their careers successfully in academia and beyond. The work was undertaken on behalf of RIN and the Working Group on Information Handling by a partnership between Curtis+Cartwright Consulting and Cardiff University.

The key findings in the report include:

  • Research supervisors’ practice, and research student satisfaction, varies enormously between different supervisors, research groups, departments and institutions. There is also great variation across different elements of information literacy.
  • Research students are consistent in looking to their supervisor as a source of information and guidance.
  • There is a minority of supervisors who are not engaged in developing their research students’ information literacy.
  • Many supervisors have confidence in their ability to advise their research students on information literacy, though this does vary across the different elements.
  • Developing their research students’ academic writing ability is a key activity that supervisors undertake.
  • Supervisors are not always aware of departmental, school or institutional training and support available for their students, and sometimes find it difficult to identify what training and support is available.
  • Supervisors are not necessarily completely up to date themselves with information literacy skills and knowledge.
  • Training for supervisors is a polarising issue; many supervisors highlight overlong, overly generic or not useful training as a disincentive to attend further courses.
  • differences in students’ perceptions of their supervisor(s) role and success in providing support across university mission groups, subjects and mode of study are relatively minor. Instead there are major differences at the individual, research group and departmental level.

The report sets out four broad recommendations:

  • Making it easy for supervisors to keep up to date on what training, support and resources are available for both themselves and research students; for this purpose, providing supervisors with clear information, specific to their needs, on the range of appropriate offerings and development.
  • Improving development opportunities for supervisors, in particular by encouraging peer support between supervisors, notably through seminars and mentoring
  • Encouraging supervisors to support and discuss their research students’ skills assessments, for instance through mechanisms, jointly considered by supervisors and students, that could be used as a basis of planning development opportunities.
  • Finally, the evidence and findings lead to questions about the usefulness of the term ‘information literacy’ for supervisors, and how it is conceived within researcher development. In light of the understanding of the supervisors’ role and their attitudes offered by this report, institutional stakeholders can review their approach and ensure that a clear institutional position on the use of the term and concept is agreed.

Attached below are the ouputs from the project:

  • The main report, including an executive summary
  • The summary of the questionnaire-based surveys, incorporating complete responses from 382 supervisors and 907 research students
  • The summary of the five institutional case studies, founded on work undertaken in focus groups

In addition, we also attach the reflections of participants at a workshop, organised during LILAC2012 in April 2012, which examined the conclusions of the report to discuss good practice for research supervisors.

For further information, please contact

If you would like a hard copy of the report, please email

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