New online tool for language researchers

IRIS logo23 April 2013

Researchers of second language learning now have access to an online database of instruments that will help them when they are collecting research data. The ESRC-funded Instruments for Research into Second Language Learning (IRIS) database allows any language researcher to upload and download materials free of charge.

The aim is to increase the transparency of research by making researchers' methods more available, making it easier to replicate studies and conduct systematic reviews. Once downloaded, the materials can be adapted to the researcher's own needs. Since its launch there have been over 1,400 downloads and 5,000 visits to the site.

Dr Emma Marsden, the IRIS Project's joint director, established the database because she wanted to make peer-reviewed second language research tools accessible to a much wider audience.

"We learn the hard way how difficult it can be to design materials to collect data in second language research. It's incredibly time consuming, and often we can be re-inventing the wheel. Contacting researchers who have designed data collection tools is hit and miss - academics move, and die; and in fact we aren't very good at curating our own research materials," she explains.

Although researchers are relatively good at sharing data, according to Dr Marsden they have been less effective at sharing how they got hold of that data. "How we collect the data is absolutely critical for knowing how 'good' the research is. Yet published papers often cannot make the entire instrument available, due to their space constraints; and sound files, pictures, and videos are clearly not reproduced in journals or books."

One consequence of this is that when researchers try to draw out generalisations across different studies to see the bigger picture, using systematic review and meta-analysis, they very often find that there aren't enough studies that are similar enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. This inhibits the impact researchers can have on teaching practice and education policy.

"There was a need for more transparency, to help us to evaluate the quality of research," she emphasises.

The new repository include experimental teaching materials, questionnaires, language tests, interview protocols, classroom observation schedules and working memory tests. The database is fully searchable by, for example, author, research area or type of data collection instrument. Each data collection instrument has already been used for a published and peer-reviewed journal article, book chapter or approved PhD thesis.

The IRIS project has received overwhelming support from journal editors and professional research and teaching associations. It is hoped that IRIS will increase hit rates for particular articles and journals, as the database will provide full reference details for the publications for which the instrument has been used.

The creators of IRIS is encouraging researchers to upload material to the repository once work has been accepted for publication. Many of the major journals are also encouraging their authors to upload the instruments they used to collect their data.