I don’t think I’ve ever written anything before about getting my PhD, but I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day, plus I had a dream about Murchison House, where I used to to work.
Back in 1966 I was working in West Lothian, in public libraries. I’d got my library qualifications but, frankly, I didn’t really fancy staying in public libraries for the rest of my career. I had a hankering to move into a scientific library, but I didn’t have a degree. Then, thanks to the wonderful Jenny Lee, Education Minister in the then Labour government, the Open University started in 1971. I was one of its first students (I still remember my old student number). I crammed it, and got a degree in maths and science, with a distinction in Geology and Geochemistry. After all, who really needs more than three hours sleep a night? I started work in the then Institute of Geological Sciences (which much later became the British Geological Survey), as their Edinburgh librarian. I loved the job.
By the 1980’s I’d started to compile annual lists of theses in Scottish geology, which were published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. At some point I started to wonder what became of the research written up in these theses. How did it become incorporated into the corpus of geological knowledge? And how did it reflect the prevailing background theories of geology. This was at the time when plate tectonics was revolutionising our views of the Earth and its history.
So I wrote to the Professor of Information Science at Strathclyde, outlining my ideas, and wondering if research along these lines was feasible. He wrote back immediately, inviting me for an interview. After it, he offered me the chance to do an M.Sc by research, and I agreed to embark on the work, having developed my own ideas on the research methodology I would follow, and fitting that into the time I would have left over from my paid work as a librarian, and my life as a family man with a wife and two sons. But the Open University had taught me how to be self-motivating and self-reliant.
At the six month report stage, Professor Cronin said I was uncovering so much new information that he wanted to convert my course to an M.Phil, and after the first year it was further extended to a study for a PhD.
I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the research, but I looked into how many of the theses on the subject had been consulted in University libraries and borrowed from the British Library, how many had been cited by other authors, and other measures of use. I developed a model of co-citation analysis to see which words, used in thesis titles, reflected the underlying paradigms of the science, so it became to some extent an epistemological study. I learned statistical techniques and cluster analysis, I learned how to use a FORTRAN program to map the localities of geological research, I read voraciously, and I became fascinated by the process of scientific communication. It’s not linear, that’s the main thing, and there are a few specific centres of excellence where the most influential work comes from.
Halfway through the process I left BGS to become Chief Librarian of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, with all the challenges that involved, but I continued with the research, working on at nights after the library closed, thanks to the presence of overnight security guards, and at weekends.
Finally, after six years of part-time research and study, it was finished, and I graduated from the Department of Information Science, University of Strathclyde, in November 1991. It was at the time one of the greatest achievements of my life, and it changed the course of it, as the Open University had done earlier.
It gave me a lot of confidence, in knowing that I had the capacity and stamina to undertake something difficult, something long-term, with no certainty at the outset that I would succeed, but that I would find a way. That stood me in good stead later when my boss asked me to take on the role of Garden Secretary, responsible for finance, personnel and administration. Then later when the Chairman of the Board of Trustees asked me to take on temporary responsibility for managing the whole organisation.
On the use of the research thesis in scientific communication, with particular reference to theses in Scottish geology is my magnum opus. I was 49. Nothing wrong with being a late developer.
The blog post title? Oh, after my graduation, my youngest son gave me a T-shirt with the words Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on the front. I wore it quite often, until one day, at a Courtyard Reading in the Scottish Poetry Library, a young member of the audience passed out. Medical attention was called for, and I found myself hiding my chest when the paramedics arrived. I didn’t think his problem could be solved by someone with a background in information management.