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Getting Started in Digital Research

From the big ideas to the practicalities of digital research

Digital methods can enhance your research by allowing you to analyze types and scales of data that would be hard to do in other ways. Digital tools can also help you organize data you collect, visualize your processes and outcomes for presentation, and share the products of your work with the wider world. Here are a few important guidelines to consider as you get started:

 

  • Start with your research question and source material: Make sure that the digital method/s or tool/s match your research goals and are appropriate for analyzing the kind of data you have. For instance, you may be interested in digital mapping, but have material and research questions that lend themselves better to network analysis. Or you may find that two different methods combined might be the best fit.
     
  • Plan in stages: You may have a well-developed idea about the end product of your project, but you'll likely need to break down the steps it will take to get there. Initial steps may involve learning necessary technical skills, cleaning and structuring your data, and working toward a small and intellectually cohesive prototype of the larger project. From there you can strategies how larger portions of the will get done, what final product/s you wish to have, and how you will preserve and share them.
     
  • Document your process: As you make decisions—even seemingly prosaic ones—document what you chose to do and whyWhy did you structure you data in that way? Why did you choose to map those points individually and aggregate others? Why did you choose this software to conduct your analysis and not another? Not only will thinking so explicitly about your decisions result in a more robust final product, it will also allow you to speak and write about the technical and methodological bases that underlay your work.
     
  • Think carefully about how the technical work will actually be done: Are you planning to do the technical work yourself? If so, have you accounted for the time and resources it might take to acquire the necessary skills, software, or hardware? Or, are you able to hire another researcher or assistant to do some of the technical tasks you don't have time to learn or do?
     
  • Think from the start about how you will credit your collaborators: Depending on the type and scale of the project, digital research is often highly collaborative. Make sure you, or the project lead, are aware of all the work being contributed and take the necessary steps to credit everyone involved.