Up your research game with these unorthodox resources

Original ideas and new avenues of research can be found in some of the more unorthodox locations, on and offline, so here is a guide to some of the more unusual resources available.

Whilst standard resources available in academic libraries are important and should always be the first port of call for any research project, chosen or assigned, there are several less common resources that are worth exploring. They may require extra time and diligence but can pay dividends and find references that might otherwise elude you.


Despite its reputation for dubious accuracy, in recent years Wikipedia has worked harder than most websites to give its entries a much stronger factual basis and each entry has references section which lists the basis for every assertion. Entries may also have a bibliography and external links. Wikipedia’s Reliable Sources guidelines mean that many of these links are to scholarly sources. So, as well as providing an overview of a subject in the main section, underneath will be a readymade list of most likely the standard texts on that subject or at least a starting point for further research using the more usual options. The entry for the Bernoulli differential equation, for example, provides both a reference to the mathematician’s original German publication and a more contemporary text which provides the underlying sources for the Wikipedia entry.

The Internet Archive

Begun in the mid-90s as a private attempt to keep a back-up of the entire world wide web, the Internet Archive has grown to become a massive resource of every kind of media. That includes instant access to rare journals and books, which may otherwise only be available through interlibrary loan, and which can be borrowed with an archive.org account. Keyword searches might also lead to unexpected results, and user uploads mean that long out of print science and computing magazines can be read in their entirety. The archive has an ambiguous approach to copyright, but most of the textual materials have been uploaded by academic and public libraries. The Wayback Machine also allows us to view the web as it has looked over the decades. Here’s how New Scientist looked back in 1997.

Local newspapers

Local Newspapers are usually available through the press databases subscribed to by your university or a public local history library, most likely on microfilm or in bound volumes. Many are also available through the Google News Archive, which features publications from around the world and in numerous languages. Useful as anecdotal colour for case histories, they could also offer historical background on a geographical area at a more localised level than found in more generalised materials.

Local history libraries

Local history libraries are also often a repository for local defunct institutions including factories and science related institutions as well as for major construction projects, which may include maps and blueprints. Most libraries will now have their resources searchable online but it’s often best to approach them by phone or email beforehand because they’re more like to know what’s available in their collection, perhaps something you may not have even considered.

Art UK

Resources which might seem to be a hundred and eighty degrees away from STEM disciplines should never be overlooked. Art UK contains records and photography for every public art collection in the country, which includes universities, hospitals and science museums. Visiting their collection pages and keyword searches reveal a trove of, for example, illustrations and paintings of vehicles, factories and hundreds of historical medical drawings. Perhaps of most use to those studying the history of science, this could also provide seasoning to the background section of an investigation into a more cutting-edge area. The Science Museum’s collection offers a good overview of the kinds of images you can expect to find.

Book Indexes

Of all these ideas, this requires the most time and a methodological approach and should be used only when other avenues have been exhausted. It’s certainly the most labour intensive. Perhaps with the aid of a Wikipedia article, create a list of keywords and then work through the relevant subject area in a library checking for them in the back indexes of each book, volume by volume, shelf by shelf. Depending on the topic, this can lead to items which might not otherwise look like they’d be useful through the synopsis or contents page pointing to a useful anecdote or new area of research.

By Stuart Ian Burns

Stuart Ian Burns is a writer and qualified librarian who works in academia.

Are you an accidental academic parent?

Would you say “no” to a student who “wants a chat” about how their course is going? Could you? Should you? What about the colleague who wants a coffee to get your opinion on how they are being managed? If you can’t say no to these, you may have accidentally become a ‘department parent’.

What is a department parent?

Academia runs on two types of labour: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual labour includes activities like research and supervising graduate students, and is rewarded with promotion and grants. Teaching is increasingly valued as intellectual labour, though still not rewarded sufficiently. Emotional labour – the managing of our own and other’s emotions in order that others are kept safe and happy – comes largely with teaching positions and administrative roles such as programme leader, course director, and personal tutor.

If everyone were taking on emotional labour service roles equally, they could be viewed as necessary citizenship. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women tend to disproportionately take on, or be assigned, emotional labour service roles. In so doing they become the ‘department parent’, taking excessive responsibility for students’ and colleagues’ wellbeing.

The cost of emotional labour

Some women choose to take on these roles either because they enjoy them or think that the extra work will contribute to promotion. But there can also be both conscious and unconscious bias at play on the part of those allocating roles. Certainly, students and colleagues appear to expect more “service” from female academics in both formal service roles and, more perniciously, the informal, unallocated and therefore unseen, pastoral and emotional support tasks.

The immediate price to be paid for doing more than your fair share of emotional labour can be an overwhelming workload, with research squeezed into evenings and weekends – which is unpalatable or indeed impossible for those with other commitments. Longer term, the gendered expectations can result in women getting stuck in these “parenting” roles. Whilst doing these roles well can be a route to promotion, getting stuck there tends not to be.

So, are you an ‘accidental academic parent’?

How much of the ‘stuff’ that you do day-to-day is recognised? Do you find it difficult to get research or teaching tasks done because of constant interruptions? The students in tears over an academic crisis that they “can’t talk to the lecturer about”, the colleagues who have just “had enough”. And it’s not always a crisis – arranging collections for colleagues going on maternity leave, organising birthday drinks or the end of year party often fall to female academics too.

If you are not sure just how much academic parenting you’re doing, keep a record of everything you do on the pastoral side for a week or two. Every email, phone call, and knock at the door. Then colour code the paid work that’s a part of your job and the additional work you either volunteered for or were asked to do by someone else. Which colour dominates?

Reducing academic parenting

If you recognise that you are taking on more than your fair share of emotional labour, here are a few tips for you to think about:

  1. Make sure you know the processes in place for common situations and where/how to refer people sensitively to different services across the University. You don’t have to solve every problem yourself, so make sure you know how to refer people on when appropriate.
  2. Have the phone number of key advisors to hand and use them. Don’t be afraid to have hypothetical conversations with counselling, student services or HR so that you can prepare yourself for specific situations. It will save you a lot of time if those problems come up.
  3. Put information in your email signature and your out of office response about other places people can get support – many students are simply unaware of what else is available.
  4. For allocated roles, insist on a fixed term appointment (up to three years) and a clear role description, including an estimate of the time commitment. This will help define boundaries, reduce creep and allow the roles to be included in workload models and allocation.
  5. Whilst there will be some occasions when people are in real distress that need to be dealt with immediately, practice saying “no” in different ways – for example “I can see that this is important for you, and I’d like to give it my full attention. To do that, I need to finish this piece of work first. Could we meet at time/place?”
  6. Stand up whilst talking if you want to keep the conversation short.
  7. Draw up an inclusive department-wide rota for making the tea and buying the gifts.

By Ellie Highwood

Ellie Highwood was formerly a Head of Department, Professor and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading. She is now a Leadership, Career and Life Coach at sendthemsoaring.co.uk.

Box of delights: Make the best of your .ac.uk email address

People working in a libraryYour academic email address can get you access to all sorts of useful and entertaining services. Here’s how to access some of them.

The value of an ac.uk email address

Few people in academia know quite how handy their online credentials – having ac.uk at the end of their email address – can be. Most university and college libraries and computer services departments have subscribed to numerous useful services that you can benefit from, even if you’re not using them for your study or research. Most are easily accessible once you’ve logged in to your academic account through services like Shibboleth or Athens, where you enter the name of your institution as well as the same username and password you use to log-in to a campus PC, wifi and email, although procedures can vary. Ask at your library’s help desk if you need help with this.

Box of Broadcasts (BOB)

Box of Broadcasts is a massive streaming database containing every television and radio programme broadcast through Freeview since 2006 plus much more besides.  For some new students, that means everything since they were six years old, all the documentaries, drama, comedy, music and films. Here’s a selection of programmes about Ada Lovelace and here’s every episode of the BBC’s Horizon, with some episodes dating from the 1970s. To access BOB, visit Learning on Screen, click Sign In, and once you’ve gone through the institutional log-in procedure, you’ll be asked to register. Your account allows you to keep a watchlist and store playlists for anything you might find on BOB.

Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT)

BOB is a product of the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) and partially built on their Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT) project which collects scheduling information for TV and radio broadcasts since 1923. TRILT is useful if you’re searching for a film or programme which isn’t yet on BOB, but may have been recorded by the BUFVC in the pre-streaming days. If you need to see a program that’s not on BOB, you can ask for it to be uploaded from an actual video tape. There’s also an option to schedule alert emails, sent up to ten days in advance, about a programme you might like based on your search terms. TRILT is accessible using the same academic log-in procedure as BOB.


Kanopy is a streaming service much like the BBC iPlayer or Netflix which is open to users of some public libraries and, luckily for us, academic institutions. Depending on your university or college’s subscription, it offers access to hundreds of films including the Criterion Collection, theatrical documentaries and thousands of documentaries and lectures. You can also use Kanopy to access The Great Courses, US-based lifelong learning content provider. Unlike BOB, Kanopy is also available as an app across numerous devices including Amazon Fire, Roku, Android and iOS. Access is initially through an institutional log-in, then you can create your own account with your own email address.

Scopus, SciVal and Web of Science

Every subject has a key database of academic journals and periodicals and for STEM, this means Scopus and SciVal from Elsevier and Web of Science from Clarivate, although there are plenty of others. The principle for all these websites is the same – access to the latest and historic academic papers on surgically searchable subjects, plus runs of a particular journal if you prefer the methodological approach. Although if you are already aware of the article you’re looking for, perhaps if its mentioned on a reading list, it might be quicker to search in Google Scholar, click through, then log-in directly through the journal’s own website.

Press Reader

If you’re searching for some lighter reading, Press Reader provides digital access to thousands of current newspapers and magazines from a hundred or so countries on every topic imaginable – the science and history section currently has three hundred and two titles. Visiting Press Reader is slightly trickier than some other sites.  Unless you’re on campus (where special ‘hotspot’ access is often available), you may have to find Press Reader in the catalogue or database sections of your institution’s website and click through from there.

Free software

Most universities have free software available to download through the computing/IT services area of their website, some of which is for use only on campus computers, but in plenty of cases you can also use it on your own laptop or home PC. Quite a few universities have licensing deals with Microsoft, so you might be able to access include Windows 10 and/or Office 365 with nothing more than your usual academic email credentials. Such marvels are usually to be found under the ‘software’ menu option on a computing/ IT services website, or you can contact your IT help desk to see what they may have available for you.


Access to these services varies from institution to institution, so if you can’t log-in, contact your library’s enquiry team and let them know that you’re interested in access. Equally, your library may have subscribed to other services we’ve not listed hear, so it’s well worth spending a few hours exploring your library and computing/IT services websites to see what else is available. New avenues of research and learning will all be there waiting to be discovered.

By Stuart Ian Burns

Stuart Ian Burns is a writer and qualified librarian who works in academia.

Has the leaky pipeline really been fixed?

Female plumberThe ‘leaky pipeline’ is a familiar metaphor to those interested in discussions of women in STEM. The pipeline – the process of going from school to undergraduate level and on into academia until reaching professorship – is seen to leak people, particularly women and minorities, at each successive rung of the academic ladder. Despite its ubiquity, there are growing concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harmful and inaccurate.

A recent paper by David Miller and Jonathan Wai suggests that the pipeline is no longer leaking. The paper examined the percentage of students who go from undergraduate level to PhD level using retrospective analyses of data from US citizens. The data itself seems sound, as do the analyses, but I am concerned about the conclusions drawn.  The authors found that while women, in general, used to be awarded PhDs at a lower rate than their male undergraduate counterparts, this is no longer the case: the sexes have converged. This means that male and female undergraduates are equally likely to continue their academic studies. Wonderful news! The pipeline has been fixed!

Well, not so fast. The paper has examined a very particular point in the academic career: the transition from the undergraduate level where a student is really trying to gauge their level of interest in a subject while putting off the whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few years, to the postgraduate level where they feel they may have some real interest and aptitude for their chosen field and would like to pursue it further (and maybe put off that whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few more years!). While obviously it is great to know that women are no longer systematically biased against when it comes to being accepted for PhDs, that step is only one on the long route to becoming a fully fledged academic. And, as the authors point out:

“…the pipeline metaphor may be an apt description of academic transitions after the Ph.D. Academic pathways are considerably more rigid after the Ph.D. degree than before the bachelor’s degree.” [p8]

The paper is cautious and focused in its conclusions, which is as scientific research should be. However, from an online article written by one of the co-authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the leaky pipeline metaphor was now dead:

“…new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering.”

The paper, however, does not say that, and the data doesn’t support such an assertion. It’s bad enough when press officers overhype research due a lack of understanding of the work, but to see an actual author misrepresent their research is extremely disappointing.

So, as much as we might wish it to be true, this paper doesn’t support the idea that the leaky pipeline has been completely sealed. But what about its use as a metaphor? Well, there are two sides to any metaphor: those of accuracy and utility. It appears that despite some areas where cautious optimism may be applied, as shown above, the metaphor is still largely accurate. But is it useful?

The main problem with the metaphor is that it implies that the leak needs to be fixed. Yet the pipeline must leak. In the UK alone there were 98,000 students accepted onto STEM course in 2013. There aren’t enough academic positions for all those students to be employed, and the country would be significantly worse off if all those students decided to work in academia rather than take their skills to other employment sectors where they would make a beneficial contribution.

Specifically in the context of women in STEM, there are concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harming the discussion. That by saying that every woman who leaves academic STEM is a loss, a great deal of internalised pressure is placed on women to pursue careers they are unhappy with and it creates a feeling a failure when they decide to follow a different career path. As Andrew Penner points out, by referring to the leaky pipeline:

“we risk trivializing the contributions of women and men who choose to pursue other endeavors when we define success as becoming a STEM professor at a research university“.

Matthew Cannady and colleagues recently examined the way in which the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor fails. They explain that:

“. . . a metaphor positing that those who “leak out,” presumably into a drain, are lost to STEM fails to recognize that there are careers that may not require a STEM bachelor’s degree but do require STEM knowledge and skills and contribute to the public good. The fact that the pipeline metaphor does little to illuminate the paths of mathematics or science educators, or scientifically literate citizens, further challenges its usefulness.” [pp446]

The metaphor, while sadly accurate, appears to be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to discuss and improve women’s representation in academic science. It may be time to find a new metaphor, one that properly appreciates that there are many career choices that allow women, and men, to make use of their scientific training. However, it remains a fact that women are still being excluded from the higher echelons of academia, and whilst that remains true we will all lose out.

The guest post by Sarah Hearne was originally published in April 2015.