Priming the pump: an experiment enabling HASS research students to become digital research practitioners

Mr Marco Fahmi1

1University Of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia,



Adopting digital tools in research opens up new and exciting domains of enquiry. However, the very wide variety of research disciplines, research practices and levels of digital literacy makes attempts to adequately support digital researchers non-trivial and labour-intensive.

One particular challenge is supporting communities that have traditionally been underserved by eResearch and that lack the opportunity and capability to support themselves. One such community is research higher degree students in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS.)

Although HASS disciplines represent more than 40% of Australia’s research output [1], they often do not have a commensurate level of digital research support. In 2018, for example, HASS’s share of federal funding for digital research infrastructure was less than 1% [2].

Among HASS researchers, higher degree research students are the most likely beneficiaries of digital tools as they investigate new research directions and methods. Yet, they encounter informational, technical and cultural barriers that make it difficult for them to engage in digital scholarship.

A 2017 report [3] by the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences program at The University of Queensland highlights the challenges that research students face when pursuing digital research: lack of awareness of how technology is being used in their research disciplines, limited technical know-how, lack of exposure of research supervisor to digital research, focus on degree completion on time and lack of recognition of digital research and of non-traditional theses as legitimate and prestigious research.

Meeting the Challenge

The main suggestion of the 2017 report is to not only create a multitude of points of engagement with research students (through the delivery of training and education programs, provision of advisory services, connecting research students to digital research specialists etc.) but also create the social environment and intellectual context that addresses existing barriers, encourages research students to engage in digital research and increases the likelihood of success of digital research projects.

The Graduate Digital Research Fellowship set up by the The University of Queensland is one such opportunity. Based on Stanford University’s CESTA Fellowships [4], it is a one-year fellowship for confirmed PhD students to gain the skills and experience necessary to carry out digital research in their disciplines.

The fellowships have two main objectives: for the fellows to gain a well-rounded understanding of digital research practice in their discipline as well as practical, hands-on experience working with digital research specialists and building scholarly digital artefacts. Working together as a cohort, and with the support of specialist staff, the fellows are likely to save time and effort they would have otherwise wasted searching for information, experimenting with inadequate tools and reinventing wheels.

The second objective of the fellowships is focused on the research community. Recognising digital research by the university normalises and raises the profile of digital research to the level of legitimate scholarship. It also allows traditional researchers to observe digital research as carried out by fellows up close and to demystify digital skills and practices.


In 2018, the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences program at the University of Queensland partnered with the Graduate School, to offer a one-year Graduate Digital Research Fellowship starting in July 2018. The fellowship was open to all confirmed PhD students who had the support of their PhD advisors and who self-identified as researchers in the Humanities, Arts or Social Sciences.

Fellows must nominate the digital research proposal they will be working on and are required to give a non-technical public seminar to present their digital research area and demonstrate its scholarly merit.

Fellows meet weekly with a multi-disciplinary support team composed of librarians, technology specialists and eResearch analysts. The purpose of the meetings is to manage the fellowships as digital research projects –with clear deliverables, timelines and planned activities; and an opportunity for the fellows to work together as a cohort and exchange ideas and experiences with their peers.

While the fellowships do not offer a stipend, there is a budget allocation to support conference attendance. In addition, fellows have priority one-on-one consultations with technical staff, and participate in digital research workshops and technical seminars on offer at the university.

The Graduate School received ten applications for the 2018 round of the Graduate Digital Research Fellowship. Six fellows were selected across Literature, Political Science, Psychology, Cultural Studies, History, and Communication. The presentation will provide an update to on the Graduate Digital Research Fellowship including preliminary findings for the first three months of its operation and insights into how it can be applied in other environments.


  1. Turner, G. and K. Brass. Mapping the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia. October 2014. p.2. Available from: accessed 22 June 2018
  2. DASSH response to the Australian Government Research Infrastructure Investment Plan. 16 May 2018. Available from: accessed 22 June 2018
  3. Fahmi M. Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland: A report to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences on digital research activities. 2 May 2017.
  4. Graduate Digital Humanities Fellows. Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. Stanford University. Available from: accessed 22 June 2018


Marco’s expertise is in technology- and data-driven research with experience in humanities, social sciences and ecological disciplines.

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