What is research data? Some Examples

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Module 1: Introduction
Book: What is research data? Some Examples
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Date: Saturday, 26 September 2020, 10:14 PM


what is reasearch data?

1. Introduction

What is research data? 

Data is all around us – it is the lifeblood of any researcher and that includes historians.  By data we don’t just mean statistics or the fact that you might have created a database in the process of your research; although both are legitimate types of data.  What we mean is something/anything that you produce in the process of researching any given topic. 

Those notes that you took in the lecture last week – that’s data.  That transcription you made from an old manuscript or that twentieth-century communique – that’s data too.  An interview recorded with a war veteran – that’s data.  A photograph or map – data.    

It is not easy to describe what research data is for an historian as it is so varied. It is easier to show. Therefore, as a means to demonstrate this fact the following pages contain a few case studies where postgraduate students and researchers describe the types of ‘data’ that they are working with. 

2.1 Text

Research data in the form of text is probably the most common type of data that historians use. In this case study Dr Matt Phillpott talks about his PhD research and the types of textual data that he was handling. 

John Foxe's Acts and Monuments had been partially published online when this thesis was being researched (the current full edition can now be found at the John Foxe Online website).

This made it much easier to focus on the text itself and made it easier to manage the research process. As a primary source the Acts and Monuments runs to several thousand pages and four different editions need to be considered (these are the editions published in its authors lifetime). When dealing with large amounts of text like this consideration needs to be made as to how to manage the bulk without losing the detail. In this case a focus on only the first half of the book (and then only  certain parts of that) was made and a choice to only focus on the first two editions was decided as it was here that the major changes in text and content occured.

In this second video Matt tells us how he managed and organised the data files associated with this project.

Text forms a large part of most historians research data and it takes many more forms than this case study shows. Most textual data involves official documents of various kinds as well as handwritten or typed correspondances, diaries, and notes. 

2.2 Statistics/Quantatative

Historians often talk about statistics almost as if it were a different discipline entirely. However, the collection of numbers as a means to quantify or qualify evidence is just one tool of many open to the historian and may form a significant or small part of any given research project.  

In this following video Dr Julian Haseldine (University of Hull) talks about the differences and similarities between quantatative and qualitative questions and research methods. Julian believes that the separation of the two is not necessarily fair or useful, which has an impact on how we consider our data.

Julian uses a database as the primary material for his research into French letter collections from the twelfth century. This is what he has to say about his database.

Using statistics or quantatative data for your research requires the use of a database of some kind. It is one way to order material and to retrieve results. In some cases a simple spreadsheet will do, in other cases you will need a program that can provide more complex relationships between data. For more thoughts about quantatative data there is a case study that completes this section of the course. 

2.3 Images

There are many reasons why historians might base their research around images. The obvious is art history, when an historian focuses on paintings and other 'art' works to understand the past. Another reason might be to catalogue evidence that would otherwise be difficult to analyse together. 

For an example of the latter, listen to this video where Erica McCarthy (University of Hull) talks about her PhD research.

Photographs are the most obvious type of image that a historian might need to store and use, but increasingly technology is allowing us to do even more with imagery. In this next short video Erica notes the potential use of 3D scanning in her research.

If your research data is largely image based how much hard drive space might this take up? Here's what Erica thinks.

All of this requires thought into the data management process and into how research will be conducted. Below are a list of questions that Erica is currently tackling. These are questions that historians using images and other forms of data should certainly consider.

2.4 Video and audio

Video and audio can be two things to the researcher. They can be a tool to record evidence and obtain facts (often as oral history records) or they can be primary evidence in their own right (such as news-reels or historical television or radio programmes). However you might use video and audio, the tools are now available to edit, store, and examine these types of multimedia in a variety of ways that was not possible even a few years ago. 

PhD student, Jo Byrne from the Department of History, University of Hull introduces the focus of her doctorate study using oral interviews as her raw data. Here she considers the pros and cons and the things that need to be considered when embarking on the creation of audio and video files.

Emmanuel Saboro (University of Hull) is using oral interviews to learn about memories of the slave trade in Ghana. This means that he has to record outside of a controlled environment and ensure that what he records is done well, otherwise the data is lost forever. This is what he has to say about his research. 

Using video and audio in these ways is only the tip of the iceburg. Historians of the 20th century are increasingly using radio, television and film as evidence as well as other types of recordings. 

2.5 Architecture

Rebecca Hacutt is a doctorate student at the University of Hull. She is studying graffiti marks on the walls within Beverley Minister (East Yorkshire). In this video Rebecca tells us about her project.

St. John of Beverley built the first structure, the original church in the 7th century AD in what is today known as the town of Beverley. This original church has long since disappeared, but it has formed the foundation of Beverley Minster.

Beverley Minster, currently a serving parish church, is a Mediaeval Gothic Minster. The church has undergone many builds and rebuilds, but the current building was constructed from about 1220 and completed 200 years later. It has formed the inspirational basis of design for structures such as Westminster Abbey, and is one of the finest examples of Perpendicular design in England.

While restorative work has been carried out over the centuries, including the necessary replacement of the collapsing original lantern tower in the 18th century, it remains a magnificent example of Gothic architecture on a grand scale.

Graffiti marks, laid down over the centuries are naturally eroded with time, and often “overwritten” by newer markings. There are obvious difficulties and challenges to extracting ‘data’ when the focus of your research is literally part of the fabric of a building. In this last video, Rebecca admits that accurately dating graffiti markings is not easy, nor is it straightforward collecting the ‘raw’ data.

Using markings on a building require that the ‘raw’ data are extracted and compiled using a combination of photographs, rubbings and first-person impressions. How does all of this transform into a database and into something that is useful as a basis for doctorate research?

Rebecca explains:

My first dilemma was to determine how I would be able to “extract” accurate images and impressions from the weathered stonework of the Minster. I soon realised that I would need more than just photographic techniques. Apart from a large collection of photographs, including various light source techniques such as infra red and ultra violet, I have produced rubbings or tracings of actual embossed areas, made interpretive sketches, and often made written notes of descriptions. Each of these materials is vital for my research and will inform my thesis.

It soon became apparent that I would need to find a means of accurately recording each element of my work in order to have a clear record of the exact location, the type of material, an estimated age, and various descriptive notes. To this end, I have developed a simple database which provides these data, but also generates unique identifiers for each item to assist in the labelling and storage of the items. It is vital that I am able to retrieve items quickly, and to identify similar items, so a database is perfect for my needs.

I am aware that my database can be at risk of becoming corrupted or even lost. More importantly, I am aware that my actual photographs, electronic and paper based, as well as the rubbings, drawings and notes I have generated could also be lost in many different ways. I need to ensure that I have a secure means of maintaining my materials and database, not only in order to complete my thesis, but for later work in my chosen career. I need a data management plan.

2.6 Artefacts

Historians might use artefacts as the actual focus of their research. We have already seen one example of this in the form of photographs taken of ship figureheads by Erica McCarthy. In this example Dr Simon Trafford (Institute of Historical Research) explains how archaeological artefacts can form the backbone of a History research topic.

Simon is focusing on the burial of females in England buried in a Scandanavian manner. The data required are therefore largely reports made from archaeological digs. In this next video Simon talks about how the 'data' can only ever be partial in terms of the evidence it provides and why reliance on older information can be difficult. 

Using artefacts as the basis for historical research requires the creation of data in a usable form. In this final video Simon tells us how he manages the archaeological artefacts and reports digitally.

3. Conclusion

These are just a few examples of the types of research that Historians are carrying out and the type of 'data' that they are producing. For more about the profession of the historian take a look at this short article by Professor Arthur Marwick: History in Focus: What is History?