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Parsing Process

How do you create effective non-traditional outputs for your research? This set of questions is crafted to aid scholars focus on the process of their knowledge production.
Published onApr 05, 2023
Parsing Process

Researchers often focus on the end goals of knowledge production. The tenure-track professor writes the book for their tenure review; the presenter drafts a presentation for a conference; the student completes a final paper at the end of the semester; grantees submit the white paper and prototype at the end of the grant cycle. It’s an assumption by many that research and scholarly output finds its value only in the end result. I understand where this perception is coming from: those final, recognized outputs are often the more-valued and consistently-rewarded aspects of one’s career. But the research lifecycle is so much bigger than publication. Being intentional about each of these steps that make research and publication possible makes for more rewarding and informed scholarship. 

Getting scholars to think about their process pre-publication can be challenging. Writing a paper isn’t easy, but there is a known structure, method, and evaluation involved. As such, the process of writing a paper is more familiar in scholarly communication. When experimenting with other modes of scholarship—podcasts, exhibits, visualizations, multimedia essays, and digital projects, to name a few—things can look a little different. The use of methodologies, argumentation, and archival practices vary greatly, and so it takes an involved approach to create a plan of action. 

Over the last decade, I have worked in public digital scholarship as a student, project manager, and consultant. Having served on many sides of project management, I’ve learned a great deal about the exciting opportunities experimental scholarship offers, as well as the many challenges that come up in undertaking these initiatives. Most recently, I advised students, faculty, staff, and independent scholars to support a wide range of digital scholarship projects. When I facilitated consultations for “alternative” modes of scholarship, I used a set of questions that targeted thinking about process. I wanted consultees to walk away from these conversations with a rough outline of a project proposal: some goals and objectives, some questions to think about, and a better understanding of the work ahead to make things happen. I also want them to feel empowered as a project manager to communicate effectively what shape their research may take, and what occurs in design and development. These questions help craft responses that highlight all the things gained from pursuing non-traditional research outputs—the skills, the people, and the research questions that drive our work. 

Why this format? 

Most scholars come prepared with a research question and a purpose for their work—those are the easy questions. After getting a sense of how a scholar talks about their research, I like to have this question towards the beginning of a consultation to get a sense of how I should talk about my work with them. Usually, the format they want to publish that research in isn’t always as clearly defined. Sometimes people are really attached to particular tools or formats (I quickly learn in scholarship that it’s a term they heard about from recent scholarship, but haven’t fully explored themselves). Not all scholarly outputs match the research question, timeframe, or objectives that a researcher has in mind. Scholarly outputs involve different lines of work, questions to pursue, tasks or milestones; moreover, they have their own strengths and weaknesses. 

For example, I once had someone who was insistent on building a custom database for their collection of images. What do you want from a database? The consultee wanted something searchable, something that they could include links to related resources, display images and files, and something they could use with students. After some back and forth about sample projects, their collection, and the needs they had, the scholar agreed that building a database from scratch wasn’t what they wanted, but an organized spreadsheet and content management system for digital collections could address all their needs. 

Naming a format and unpacking its meaning is a helpful reference point for making sure we have shared terms for how we describe particular types of scholarly work. Terms like database, archive, tool, and visualization are used so frequently, with different meanings depending on the person. What I aim for in a consultation is get a researcher’s understanding of a particular format, and guide them towards the tools, platforms, and resources that align with what they appreciated about that particular format. Teasing out a strong answer here is really helpful for scholars as well. They will have to justify a particular output as part of evaluating their work—this helps craft a narrative for why they came to this conclusion, this tool, this format. 

What do you want to learn in pursuing this project? 

Particularly when incorporating different modes of teaching, research, and scholarship, researchers have the opportunity to acquire skills for producing and publishing in various formats. Instructors are really good about applying this question pedagogically. When consulting on class projects, I heard something along the lines of “I want students to be prepared with important tech skills! I want them to learn what’s out there! I want them to have fun!” I like to turn that question back onto instructors coming to me for assistance: what did they want to understand in pursuing non-traditional scholarship? 

Some want to publish their research for tenure or promotion, but are unsure of how to assess things that don’t look like a print publication. Others want to engage a specific audience or community, and this project offers a way to introduce a relationship. And still others want to try something new like spending a summer experimenting with a new tool and skill-build. 

When asking with a specific format in mind, this question is also helpful for tailoring a research and creation process that highlights particular learning objectives. If someone is really excited about creating a podcast, are they equally as excited about diving into the challenges of audio mixing? Or are they more interested in how to communicate with the public? Scholarship can be a place to identify personal as well as professional growth. It’s important to identify those learning opportunities in both areas when undertaking a project. 

This helps identify a striving and positive-feeling goal for researchers (and their teams) to achieve in pursuing this form of publication. Even if the end product isn’t successful in the intended way (we’ll get to that in a minute), the consultee and I can identify other sources of growth. We can develop a project proposal that contains individual goal markers and connects the researcher and project to a larger community of practice. When things get stressful in the technical or practical elements of a project, scholars can return to these objectives as sources of encouragement and enjoyment. 

What resources do you already have? What resources do you need? 

Scholarly communication is not a solo endeavor. Collaboration and process go hand-in-hand. In a library consultation, I’m there in part to share the resources that are available to help get the project needs to be. Resources might refer to things like

  • project content (text, images, audio, video, files), 

  • people (partners, assistants, campus departments), 

  • tools (platforms, software, scripts, applications) 

  • or readings (best practices, guidelines, learning and teaching materials).

I don’t ask these questions outright—resources is not an intuitive word. Usually, I frame them based on the format and goals we’ve discussed, often with a lot of prompting. For example, if a scholar wants to build a data visualization, they will need to collect and structure that data before we even know if we have something interesting to explore. So I might ask, is all project content ready now? Is it stored somewhere on your computer, in the cloud, or on paper? If it’s not ready, when might it be? And based on those answers, I can point them towards data cleaning tools and storage solutions for preparing data, or visualization tools for diving into the bigger picture. People-related resources were some of my favorites. Have you spoken to so-and-so about this? If scholars want to put on a physical exhibit, they might need a space to do so - have they spoken to the exhibits director? For big projects, are there students, staff, and other researchers they might need? Do they have funding to support them? In a university setting, most patrons need some assistance in navigating organizational charts, and finding the right person for help. (Maybe they need it to find me in the first place!) 

Asking about resources gives me a sense of where people are at in their research process. These responses tell me as a consultant what the researcher has already considered, who they’ve talked to, what they’re bringing into the project already, and what other outputs and priorities are contributing to making this project happen. It’s important to note that resources are mostly suggestions in a consultation. Ultimately, these projects are not mine and I’m not yet a formal collaborator. (If this was a project that my team or I were committing to, some of these resources—like data management plans, accessibility standards, and project documentation—would be requirements in order to work together and collaborate effectively.) Instead, I’m prompting them to get into the flow of questioning, reflecting, and analyzing their project status. Even if they don’t follow through or decide they don’t need some resources, they’ve been made aware of best practices and been given leads to follow up on as a project plan develops. For the most part, consultees are usually open to assistance—they’re looking for starting points. In a follow-up consultation, we can discuss what things were helpful, what things weren’t, and what resources informed the next draft of the project proposal.  

If you had to end your project six months from now, what would you hope to accomplish? 

People often have really big, exciting dreams about what their scholarship could look like, and projects can take them in wild directions. I love hearing the excitement from a consultee about the potential futures for their research! Most researchers also know, however, that not every project is a successful one. People move onto other projects, priorities change, software or research need significant updates, funding runs out… the reasons for a project ending are numerous. I don't want to crush dreams—I want to make them possible. This question helps consultees to start thinking small, consider the scholarly resources produced, and how to prioritize some of the grand ideas they have. 

Identifying an ending for a project is helpful for scoping on a few key fronts: 

  • Sustainability: Does six months sound like a long or short time, given all that we’ve previously discussed about the project? I want to know if the consultee has thought about sustainability at all, and how this project lasts beyond a given time. Do they have ideas about the ways this project and its various components can contribute to the scholarly record outside of the final project? Do they know often this project would need to be updated and maintained? If the consultee has imagined a big, exciting, labor-intensive research initiative, are they as committed to investing the time and resources for continuing its success indefinitely? Do they know how they want to preserve the technical, social, and data components of a project? These more detailed questions might bog down an initial consultation. Instead, thinking about what the consultee wants to accomplish lays groundwork for future conversations for creating accessible, stable, and long-lasting resources when possible. 

  • Finality: All projects need an ending—otherwise, we can’t start new ones! How can we build something that can accommodate future additions or installments, but feels like a complete project to the team in a given timeframe? Often, digital publications can grow unwieldy with potential features or functionalities—putting an arbitrary deadline like six months onto a project proposal encourages consultees to identify and scope key components important to the success of a project. This gives structure for perfectionists who never quite think something will be done and collaborators who need to allot time to other responsibilities. Ultimately, it’s about structuring a deliverable that fits with some of these other questions and establishes a baseline with which everyone can be satisfied. 

  • Progress: Which things have to be done first? In earlier questions, a consultee has identified learning goals, formats, and some resources to get started. How can we turn those into action items that connect to a deadline and deliverable? From there, project teams can work backwards to have smaller tasks and milestones that align in a project proposal. 

I’m occasionally surprised by the direction scholars take with this question. I once worked with a consultee who was thinking about a grand, multi-collaborator initiative: we dreamed of datasets, translations, open educational resources, publications, and more. All of it sounded really exciting and important to me, but the project hadn’t even started yet—talking to me was the consultee’s first step. Based on our conversation so far, I couldn’t suss out what was the most important element of this for the scholar: the creation of uniform data structure across collaborators’ collaborations? the 3-D models and visualizations of the collection objects? publicizing the collection for future research and scholarship? 

I was expecting this question to stump them, something we had to work through together. But they had an answer right away—they wanted to prioritize open educational resources so that they could teach about this collection in a classroom setting. If nothing else could happen with the project, putting together educational resources about the existing collections would support teaching and learning with these artifacts. With that answer in mind, I could scope the project into those other ideas: 

  • smaller tasks (organizing materials, quality considerations, assessments)

  • talk about key features (having translated materials, multiple ways of engagement, some questions and images)

  • take elements of these other pieces (scaling back from multiple institutional collections to one collection to serve as an example) 

And that shaped this project idea into something structured to serve as both an end for us to work toward and foundation for us to build on in the future. Approaching a project end helps to build projects that have active stewardship, maintain and support the project team, and thoughtfully consider the short- and long-term futures of successes. 


I’ve handled consultations at every step of the life cycle, from sunsetting major initiatives to brainstorming with colleagues who came up with this idea yesterday. Consultees need varying levels of support, but these questions are broad enough that they can be tailored to various steps in project development. If this project is being designed as an end-goal for upcoming or ongoing research, are there ways that we can align the process to get there? On the other hand, if the consultee is at the end of a project, how can we highlight the choices made and labor done throughout the process to reflect on the valuable insights of pursuing experimental scholarship? 

Both of those questions, in tandem, help me think about addressing consultees’ biggest question: how to evaluate projects. Regardless of where they are in the research lifecycle, many scholars (particularly early-career researchers or those in disciplines that lean conventional) express concern about this work “not counting.” Despite regular conversations across institutions, organizations, and amongst scholars over the last decade, neither scholars nor the scholarly community at-large have agreed on how to explain their outcomes and methods when things don’t look “traditional.” Especially in taking on differing forms of authorship, collaboration, publication, peer review, and project management, being able to answer some of these questions for ourselves and others makes us better prepared to approach a new idea. 

These questions start a conversation for scholars to identify what elements of their projects count, and how better to discuss them with those unfamiliar with these methodologies:  

  • The format is part of the intellectual contribution to a project in how it presents and packages the content.

  • The learning goals of a project note a guideline  by which to assess changes in professional growth. 

  • Discussing resources sets wider context for where this project relies on existing work, methodologies, and best practices.

  • Identifying anticipated or actual deliverables and the project trajectory explains the work involved in the scholarship, the contributors involved, and documents the various steps of iteration and output.

Furthermore, finding opportunities to incorporate those answers into creation, development, management and maintenance of the project helps communicate its value. Building documentation around process, resources, and project choices, as well as the impact of those projects across different applications in research, teaching, learning, and service, is imperative for the sustainability and success of a project—and for one’s own success in knowing how this fits into one’s scholarly practice. For process-centered scholarship, those are integral parts of this project—expressed through project curriculum vitae, methodology pages, code repositories, and project charters. 

There’s a great quote from Mark Sample on what constitutes scholarship: “My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.” By focusing on process —not only the final project form, the documentation, design, collaborators, and resources—we can recognize how all of these pieces come together to contribute significantly and intellectually to the research project and a community of peers invested in that work. Regardless of platform, discipline, or end goal, process-centered thinking forces scholars to think about research in a holistic, value-based, sustainable, and evaluative way. 

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