Digital societies research group

Exploring developments in digital data, information and knowledge within socio-cultural and political-economic contexts and their implications for social justice.

Smart City

Our research

We explore critically developments in digital data, information and knowledge, how they are constituted within wider socio-cultural and political economic contexts and the implications for social justice.

As a group, we engage with the production and role of data and information in contemporary issues such as social activism, citizen creativity, scholarly innovation, learning and algorithmic processes. We offer critical reflection on the possibilities and politics of studying society through “big data”, including data from social media, health information systems or self-tracking. We participate in the growing field of Research on Research

We develop theoretically informed and methodologically innovative research on data, information and knowledge in digital societies. We draw on diverse theoretical influences including practice theory, innovation diffusion theory, social informatics, critical political economy and assemblage theory.

We are involved in projects using a range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies including data mining, co-production, (digital) ethnography and visual research methods.

We are an outward-looking group, keen to develop further our high impact collaborations with organisations and practitioners outside academia, as well as to forge creative interdisciplinary connections with other researchers.

Within Sheffield we are part of the Faculty of Social Sciences Digital Society Network.

We are also members as a group of the Association of Internet Researchers.

Key research interests

  • The political economic, social and cultural aspects of ‘big’ and open data, with a current focus on social media, health and research data
  • Socio-material dynamics of data journeys and data friction
  • Crowd labour issues in data annotation
  • Cultures of data science practice, particularly their affective aspects
  • Bias and transparency in algorithmic systems
  • Citizen engagement in smart cities
  • Social activism and citizen creativity in networked publics, historical weather data rescue and web-archiving
  • The changing nature and role of scholarship in contemporary society, particularly discourses, practices and policies around scholarly communication and openness, in the context of research on research
  • The use of social media to crowdsource information during human-made and natural disasters
  • The impact of social media on well-being
  • The use of digital media for the purposes of sousveillance (inverse surveillance) during civil unrest
  • Self tracking citizen cultures and issues around privacy, preservation etc

Projects and research areas

See details of our projects below.

Study of competencies for bibliometrics

Read more

The Lis-Bibliometrics Forum commissioned the development of a set of bibliometric competencies. The work, sponsored by a small research grant from Elsevier Research Intelligence Division, was led by Dr Andrew Cox at the University of Sheffield, and Sabrina Petersohn of the Bergische Universitat Wuppertal. The aim of the competency statements is to ensure that bibliometric practitioners are equipped to do their work responsibly and well. In particular, the competencies should:

  • help individuals to assess their own bibliometric skills and identify training needs to fill the gaps in their knowledge
  • help organisations to develop training programmes and support their staff in developing the necessary bibliometric skills
  • help Information Schools plan programmes of study to ensure tomorrow’s information professionals have the necessary bibliometric skills

Competency statements will be developed at both entry-level and intermediate level and will make reference to international developments in this area. 

Further information can be obtained by contacting:

Andrew Cox – Project Team. The Information School, University of Sheffield, UK (

Sabrina Petersohn – Project Team.  Bergische Universitat Wuppertal, Deutschland (

Elizabeth Gadd – Lis-Bibliometrics. Research Office, Loughborough University, UK (

UKSG 2017 Conference Breakout Presentation: What does it mean to be a competent bibliometrician? Creating a set of bibliometric competency statements - Elizabeth Gadd and Andrew Cox


Read more

This project sets out to identify examples of good practice for public communicatioCascEffn during both natural and human-made crises.

It will focus on how citizen and professional journalists have contributed to the information flows that emerge during such incidents.

A series of European case studies such as the Floods in South-West England (UK), the Project X Haren riot (The Netherlands), and the Pukkelpop Festival disaster (Belgium) will be examined as part of this study.

The Sheffield team will draw on this research to develop a series of bespoke communication strategies for all relevant agencies (including police and fire and rescue services) involved in the management of these incidents.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement No 607665.’

It is part of “CascEff: Modelling of dependencies and cascading effects for emergency management in crisis situations,” which will examine the “cascading” effects of both natural and human disasters – where an initial incident can snowball, potentially threatening lives, property and the environment across large areas.

Find out more at the project's website here.

Monitoring the transition to open access

Read more

This project aimed to monitor the uptake of open access in the UK for research outputs.

It comprised a number of work strand's covering four sets of key issues:

  1. Accessibility of research via open access (the proportion of literature available in an OA form)
  2. Availability of OA options (offered in various forms by publishers)
  3. Usage of OA materials (indicators of levels of usage of OA articles compared with others)
  4. Financial sustainability (for higher education institutions and learned societies in particular).

The project was designed to establish a baseline of OA uptake to inform future work. It was sponsored by Universities UK and includes the following partners: the Research Information Network, Elsevier, Research Consulting and the University of Sheffield Information School (Stephen Pinfield and Peter Bath).

The project initially ran from January to September 2015 and was funded to update its work from April to December 2017.

The final project report was published in December 2017.

A photo a day! Narratives of well-being in 365 projects

Read more

The aim of the project is to explore the potential of taking and sharing a photo every day as a means of improving well-being.

Online communities have always been rich forms of support, helping to give people a strong sense of self-determination and self-efficacy.

New platforms for user-generated content and social media are transforming the way people can help themselves and each other to change their daily lives.

365 projects, where someone commits to taking and sharing a photo every day for a year, provide a rich set of resources for improving well-being, broadly understood.

The project seeks to explore participants’ own definitions of how 365 projects are used as a means of improving well-being.

The research team are an interdisciplinary group from Sheffield and Lancaster University

The project ran in 2015.

Digital Societies Research Group, Information School, The University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 211 Portobello, Sheffield, S1 4DP.

Soureh Latif Shabgahi
Research Associate, Information School, The University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 211 Portobello, Sheffield, S1 4DP

Liz Brewster,
Social Science Applied to Healthcare Improvement Research (SAPPHIRE) group, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, 22-28 Princess Road West, Leicester, LE1 6TP.


Mapping the academic library of the future

Read more

This project is studying the future academic library for the next 10 to 15 years, in the context of the decline in importance of the printed book and its repercussions for use of library space, development of services, and deployment of staff.

Particular areas of concern are:

Will the library remain hybrid and if so, for how long? What are the key drivers and barriers to change, and how do they relate?

Professor Stephen PinfieldDr Andrew Cox and Sophie Rutter from the Information School​ are carrying out the research, which has been commissioned by the Transformation Group of SCONUL.

The project team is working with leading experts in the library and information services field as well those working on learning technologies, HE policy and the wider information environment.

  • How will experience differ across meta-disciplines and disciplines?
  • How will user factors such as age, generation, gender, class, ethnicity and disability impact preference and need?
  • How will issues, such as widening participation, user experience, TEF impact, and internationalisation, affect the situation?
  • Will different types of institution experience the change differently?
  • How will use of library space change?
  • What will the impacts be on library staff, e.g. in terms of embedding of staff and delivery of virtual services?


Read more

RDMRose was a JISC funded project to produce taught and continuing professional development (CPD) learning materials in Research Data Management (RDM) tailored for Information professionals.

RDMRose developed and adapted learning materials about RDM to meet the specific needs of liaison librarians in university libraries, both for practitioners’ CPD and for embedding into the postgraduate taught (PGT) curriculum. Its deliverables included OER materials suitable for learning in multiple modes, including face to face and self-directed learning.

RDMRose brought together the UK’s leading iSchool with a practitioner community based on the White Rose University Consortium’s libraries at the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Development of content and teaching was iterative, based on a highly participative curriculum development process and with a strong strand of student evaluation of learning materials and activities.

Deliverables included: OER on RDM for information professionals which can be reused by other LIS educators and with a version for self-supported Continuing Professional Development.

As of April 2015 a new version of the learning materials is now available - click on RDMRose 2015 tab!

Slides from the 2015 version are also available on slideshare.

The project was funded by JISC for one year from July 2012 to June 2013.

In 2014, we conducted RDMRose's sister project Wicked ways with RDM.

Project director: Andrew Cox; Research associates: Eddy Verbaan and Jen Smith.

Project board

Brian Clifford, Deputy University Librarian (Head of Learning and Research Support), University of Leeds and Project Director, RoaDMaP
Denise Harrison, Head of the Learning and Research Services Team, Library, University of Sheffield
Barbara Sen, Lecturer in Librarianship, Information School, University of Sheffield
Liz Waller, Deputy Director Information and Head of Information Services, University of York
Matthew Zawadzki, Archivist and Records Manager, University of Sheffield
Carmen O’Dell, Faculty Librarian for Science, University of Sheffield

Advisory Panel

Neil Beagrie, expert on digital preservation
D. Scott Brandt, Associate Dean for Research, Purdue University
Sheila Corrall, Professor and Chair of the Library and information science program, School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh
Martin Lewis, Director of Library Services and University Librarian, University of Sheffield
Liz Lyon, Director of UKOLN and Associate Director of Digital Curation Centre
Andrew Thompson, DMSPpsych University of Sheffield
Madeleine de Smaelen, 3TU.Datacentrum

The project is funded by JISC Managing Research Data Programme


About RDM Rose (May2013) (PDF, 567kb)

Results of survey of UK libraries and RDM (PDF, 573kb)

Learning Needs Analysis (PDF, 475kb)

Wicked ways in research data management

Read more

Funder: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Many issues in UK universities have all the hallmarks of being “wicked problems”: complex, hard to solve issues that stakeholders perceive in very different ways. Leadership has to be different in such contexts. A new wicked problem for universities that has emerged in the last few years is what to do about improving research data management (RDM).

The aim of the Wicked ways project is to bring together a network of those involved in tackling the wicked RDM problem in different institutions and through an iterative, reflective and participative process construct an open educational resource about leadership in wicked problem contexts. This resource will be freely available to the wider UK HEI community and help promote the understanding of the wicked problem concept. The process will also itself help to create a supportive community of practice for participants.

The collaborators in creating the learning resource are drawn from the various stakeholders in RDM: researchers, research administrators, IT professionals, librarians and record managers – and facilitated by the Sheffield Information School. They will be drawn largely but not exclusively from the White Rose Consortium partners, the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York (previously partners in RDMRose project). As people currently engaged in addressing this wicked problem space, they will have immediate experiences to reflect on and opportunities to try out ideas in practice.

Wicked ways web site

Project lead: Andrew Cox
Research Associate: Eddy Verbaan
Steering committee: Liz Waller (University of York), Mike Mertens (Research Libraries UK).

Group members

Click any of the names to view their contact details.

Academic staff

Dr Jo Bates (Head of Group)
Tel: 0114 2222652
Room 236

I research the socio-material factors that constitute how data are produced, used and move between different people and organisations, and the actual and potential socio-material consequences of these emergent forms of data practice and governance, with a particular focus on the political economic implications and the unequal impacts on different groups of people.

Current areas of interest include cultures of data science practice, crowdworker labour conditions, and algorithmic bias and transparency.

View Jo's full staff profile

Dr Andrew Cox
Tel: 0114 2226347
Room 222

I research communities of practice as a theoretical construct and the application of practice theory, as well as the evolution of the concepts of virtual community, Web2.0 and social media.

View Andrew's full staff profile

Dr Caitlin Bentley

My research investigates how AI-enabled cyber-physical systems can be safely, ethically, and sustainably scaled. Specifically, how these systems can be designed, managed and regulated inclusively and governed democratically. I also focus on ICTs in developing contexts as well as the impacts of AI-enabled cyber-physical systems on marginalised actors. 

View Caitlin's full staff profile

Dr Susan Oman

I research how data and evidence work in practice, looking at particular policy issues, such as well-being, loneliness, inequality and class. My research is situated in the sociology of knowledge and focuses on the role of knowledge in social change. I seek to develop practice and policy-relevant understanding through methodologically rigorous projects that have practical impact in various ways. I achieve this through working with relevant stakeholders, academics and non-academic research partners across the UK and internationally.

View Susan's full staff profile

Professor Stephen Pinfield
Tel: 0114 2222649
Room 210

I research scholarly communication, digital information resources management, and information-related policies in organisations.

I work at the intersection between technology deployment, organisational policy development, and cultural practices.

View Stephen's full staff profile

Dr Paul Reilly
Tel: 0114 2222647
Room 235

My research focuses on three key areas of online political communication:

  1. the use of social media by citizens to create and share acts of sousveillance (inverse surveillance)
  2. the ways in which digital media can be used to crowdsource crisis information
  3. the use of new media to reduce sectarian tensions and promote better community relations in divided societies such as Northern Ireland

View Paul's full staff profile

PhD researchers

Anas Alsuhaibani

I am investigating the role of social media in supporting international students transition to study in the UK.

View Anas' full staff profile

Phoenix Penny Andrews

I am researching the control of workflows and data flows in institutional repositories and academic social networks, with further interests in internet culture, the quantification of work and digital research methods.

View Phoenix's full staff profile

Bethany Aylward

View Bethany's full staff profile

Alexandra Boutopoulou
I am researching the use of social media images to better understand Food Safety Cultures.

View Alexandra's full staff profile

Xiaoli Chen

I am researching the opportunity and principles for research digital libraries to engage the High Energy Physics community in Open Science practices.

Skina Ehdeed (Sukaina)
Room 318

I am researching the impact of social media on Information dissemination and the influence of social media on shaping Libyans' attitudes towards 17 Feb revolution and its aftermaths.

View Skina's full staff profile

Paul Fenn

View Paul's full staff profile

Jenny Hayes

View Jenny's full staff profile

Rosie Higman

View Rosie's full staff profile

Emily Nunn

I am investigating the impact of open access to medical and educational research outside academia.

View Emily's full staff profile

Itzelle Medina Perea

I am researching the life of patients' personal data in the health care sector.

Lee Pretlove

I am researching the long-term value and preservation of parkrunners' self-tracking fitness data from the perspectives of the parkrunner, self-tracking device manufacturers and archival institutions.

View Lee's full staff profile

Laura Williams

I am researching the information behaviours of ultramarathon runners.

See Laura's full staff profile

Jun Zhang

I am researching an integrated smart transportation system in China.

Engagement and impact

Members of the group have been involved in a number of national and international initiatives including advising policymakers and inputting into expert fora.

Other activities have included consultancy for commercial and public organisations, and media contributions. Recent examples of such activities include working with Parliamentary select committees, involvement in drafting national policy documentation, and working with local authorities.

We have worked with organisations including WEF, UN, Food Standards Agency, the Russell Group, and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

We have also made contributions to wider public engagement including media contributions to BBC radio programmes, TED and The Guardian newspaper, and organising public events as part of Festival of the Mind and the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Impact of our research projects

We are currently involved in two projects which focus on the role of social media in the information flows that emerge in the immediate aftermath of human-made or natural disasters.

Our contribution to CASCEFF focuses on the communication strategies deployed by emergency managers during crisis situations, with a specific focus on how they can disseminate information to members of the public that helps prevent cascading effects from occurring.

IMPROVER will examine how social media can be used to raise awareness about the risks associated with such incidents, as well as exploring the potential use of digital media to create early-warning systems in disaster-affected areas.

The AHRC-funded Open-Access Mega-Journals project has resulted in ongoing interactions with a wide range of stakeholders.

This has included publishers in particular, with Stephen Pinfield invited to report the findings of the project at major publisher conferences in the UK, USA and Germany.

One key part of the project is to capture and analyse the strategic thinking of publishers in this rapidly-changing area in order to inform future innovation. The ongoing work and reporting in this area will form a major focus for the research team in 2017 and 2018.

Work to understand the growth of the uptake of open access by researchers has involved Stephen Pinfield in ongoing discussion with policymakers in the UK and internationally.

He took part in a project to compare UK adoption of open access sponsored by Universities UK in 2015 and again in 2017, resulting in influential reports as well as peer-reviewed publications. Evidence provided by Sheffield Information School was also extensively quoted in the 2014 review of Research Councils UK review of open access and has been used to inform the policy of Jisc in its national negotiations with publishers on behalf of UK higher education institutions.

Stephen Pinfield has also contributed to policy meetings in France, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland as well as contributing the work of the European University Association expert group on open science.

Media appearances

Is the medium more important than the message? Communicating with disaster affected populations in the Information Age, France Forum, December 2016.

Famous British newspaper closured for digital only: Quality is the survival of the media in the digital age, Chinese Social Sciences Today, 19 February 2016.

Pickles, J.S. The far right and false imagery The National Student, 2 February 2016.

Pickles, N (Twitter UK Public Policy Manager) Amplifying voices of respect and tolerance across Northern Ireland, 26 January 2016.

BBC Good Morning Ulster, Northern Ireland Community Relations Council Twitter study mentioned during interview with Twitter UK Public Policy Manager Nick Pickles, 22 January 2016.

Politicians: Share sites are double-edged sword, The Sun (Northern Ireland edition), 5 May 2015.

How Twitter is defusing sectarian tensions, Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2015.

Personal accolades

Paul Reilly was recognised in the JISC 50 most influential UK Higher Education professionals using social media (October 2015), made a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (July 2015) and awarded a University of Leicester Teaching Fellowship (awarded January 2014).

Funders and collaborators

Research carried out within this group is funded by a wide range of organisations

  • European Commission Horizon 2020 and Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC)
  • Universities UK
  • Knowledge Exchange

A world top-100 university

We're a world top-100 university renowned for the excellence, impact and distinctiveness of our research-led learning and teaching.