Keeping research locked away

Bank safeA colleague (let’s call him/her ‘P’) gave a research presentation the other day at the University. The subject was interesting, the research was a result of more than a year of work, and it was P’s first research seminar at this University. For all these reasons I was keen to attend and support P. Unfortunately a meeting over-ran and I couldn’t make it. Of course I sent P my apologies over email, and I learned that actually the presentation wasn’t very well attended because other interested colleagues had teaching commitments at that time.

Undaunted, I asked P if I could see some of the research outputs – a paper or other documentation of this work. Nothing was available – the work had been presented ‘live’ on that day, and had taken the form of a verbal lecture. I suggested that P could put some documentation of the work online and send out a link to interested colleagues – at our University and elsewhere in the subject, perhaps to network with those working in a similar research area, and build future projects. P asked me a question I’ve been asked many times about Web 2.0 skills – “Can I get some staff training to do that?”.

Let’s investigate this perfectly reasonable question. What would this staff training involve and what skills does someone need to put their work online? P already has standard/typical web browser skills, can type text onto screen, can cut and paste between MS Word and a browser, and can save/upload images and documents, i.e. all the necessary skills to get started with a blog. So I suppose we could run a simple demo of, say, Blogger – this would probably take less than an hour, then P would be ready to go. So we’d hire a ‘trainer’, book a room and ask the trainer to put some teaching materials together. They’d probably create something like this – i.e. a YouTube ‘How To’ video for Blogger. But these materials are already out there – and anyone who Googled the term ‘how do I start blogging?‘ would find it pretty easily. So P already has the skills, not only to create a blog, but to self-learn by using a search engine. No training necessary – only the will on the part of the trainee to investigate a new method of communication. Shouldn’t every academic exhibit this hunger to communicate as effectively as possible?

Now look at P’s work itself – it’s the result of more than a year of endeavour, excellent in its field, and ground-breaking in many ways. And no-one knows about it – the chosen method of research dissemination (a face-to-face seminar) has vanished into history, and anyone who wasn’t there has missed out. This research is effectively locked away in the memories of those who attended P’s seminar. The information has ‘died’ – all that work, down the drain.

Locked gateIn the ‘old’ (i.e. pre-Internet) research landscape, P could perhaps have published a paper or spoken at a conference. As we know, much of this culture still pervades in HE, perhaps because many academics remain Digital Immigrants (or even take obtuse pride in being ‘Digital Foreigners’ – personally I find this noble-savage approach irresponsible and even arrogant, given our pedagogical duty to our students). Papers are submitted to peer-reviewed/edited journals, printed, dutifully mailed by academic publishers and equally dutifully filed by libraries, and any suitably tenacious academic or student can discover them (though we know anecdotally that many students don’t do this in practice, preferring simply to use Wikipedia as the fount of all knowledge – it’s not hard to find a grumpy academic who will bemoan this trait). A lot of research content – actually, MOST research content – is still fairly difficult to discover through a simple web search, for a variety of reasons relating to copyright/IPR, but also, I suggest, through a lack of understanding by individual researchers of how to put their work online. Of course, many academic journals are available online, but just try posting an interesting Athens or JSTOR link on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog – and see how far the recipient gets without a login. Another locked gate.

LectureColleagues who present at conferences effectively ‘broadcast’ their work using the ancient Greek model of one-to-many speaking. Almost every academic has the skills to communicate using this method; the job title is ‘lecturer’ after all. But with the academic conferences, you’re left with the same problem as P’s seminar – if you weren’t there on the day, you’ve missed the boat. And realistically how many people can we reach in this way? A few hundred at most.

So, for the last ten years or so we have had a new and revolutionary method of communication available to us as professional sharers of knowledge. During this period it has been easier to publish content online without ‘tech skills’ i.e. HTML coding etc; this is what the world (and this blog) refers to as ‘Web 2.0’. Tim Berners-Lee, by the way, argues that the phrase is meaningless, and that there is really no difference between the two generations of the web.

“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” ( interview, 2006)

In practice, though, Web 2.0 (i.e. the world of blogs, free urls and wikis) is substantially different for us as teachers, because it’s possible for academics who are self-defined as ‘not very techy’ to publish material online using skills they already have. 20 years ago anyone who wanted to publish research on the Internet would, at the least, have had to learn about FTP and HTML. Now that’s just not necessary – anyone who can use a web browser can show their work to the world.

The gates are unlocked. All we need to do is push.


  1. issuelabluise says:

    Hi there, Joe!

    Very interesting article. I think that the growing need for transparency/accountability and, frankly, the interest among researchers in sharing their work has put many of us readers in the same situation: Where can we find this work? Which leads us to your question: How can you make this work available?

    We’ve begun tackling this issue by first creating a space where all that work can be pooled and disseminated to a broader audience (that’s what we do as a nonprofit organization). I would say that about half of our registered users are academic researchers, and we’ve actually got a good number of university-based research centers contributing their work. This might be of interest to your readers! You can find us at

    Another resource that you might find of value is a research repository about Open Educational Resource – a partnership by the Hewlett Foundation and IssueLab. You’ll find that incredible body of work here:

    Hope this is helpful!

  2. Paul Davies says:

    Joe, I share many of your sentiments in this entry. It seems to me that the use of this (web 2.0) kind of free technology is the way forward. As I understand it it is fairly easy to design these things with some ‘open’ areas and some ‘closed’, rather than just have the either/or option. Of course, there are all sorts of problems of posting research outputs where IP has already been signed away (eg to publishers, which is the norm in my subject areas) but it is easy enough to make PPT or other summary articles etc. available to showcase and promote research. As someone who didn’t have a clue what web 2.0 was 2 days ago (but used to be au fait with creating web pages on an intranet) this is actually far easier and far more interactive.

  3. Paul Davies says:

    Following on from my earlier post another aspect of research dissemination that needs address is the reliance of part of the UK funding system (RAE or QR funding) that gives preference to ‘traditional’ outputs. Internet publications could be entered in the last exercise (2008) but I suspect that these got short shrift unless they were in the e-equivalent of refereed journals in many discipline areas. As a researcher one has to begin to question which is the more useful; a traditional journal output which may be read by a couple of hundred people and perhaps be cited in the future by a dozen or so, or a freely available online output which may be read, used and linked by thousands…In terms of contributing to an RAE exercise the former keeps ‘the gates locked’ to a large degree.

    • It’s the equivalent of what has happened with the music industry and myspace. In the pre-Internet age (what some musicologists call the ‘phonographic era’ approx 1910-2000) the production/publication of music was expensive. So ‘gatekeepers’ (publishers/record companies) arrived naturally – if it cost money to disseminate the product, the product had to be good enough to justify itself in the marketplace. Ergo, music fans knew that any music available to purchase had already been through a necessary quality filter. When myspace came along, every Tom, Dick and Harry could upload their material to the web, regardless of quality/skill, and you had no way of knowing whether the music would be any good until you heard it – and there were huge truckloads of dreadfulness from (now millions) of unsigned bands. But quality still occasionally shone through – the JCB Song (Xmas #2 single 2005) was a hit purely as a result of a great online video (and a great song).
      In the old print-publishing research model, there was a gatekeeper in the form of an editor, usually themselves an eminent academic. Similarly with conferences – ‘calls for papers’ acted as filters. With self-published materials on the web, there are no filters – I’m writing this without even reading it back for typos!
      So although I am a big advocate of web-based dissemination of research, there is the inherent problem of quality indicators. We don’t yet have the filters in place. But this should be easy to solve – the web is very good at achieving consensus (Wikipedia shouldn’t be accurate when you know how it’s created, but it is).

  4. I agree with much of your post and the debate in the comments but I think the quality question is a very important one. One of the key characteristics of academia is that it has developed mechanisms (from essays to dissertations to peer-reviewed journals to funding councils) specifically to measure and filter quality. Consequently, for many academics, the concept of a ‘gate-keeper’ (a term I have heard senior scholars use with reference to PhDs) is integral to the development of academic scholarship. Of course, there are inherent biases in any such peer-controlled system but at least it attempts to claim a kind of objective or principled approach. (This, of course, is much more explicit in science and medicine, where shoddy research can be actively dangerous, but the same point applies to arts-based research too.) Relying on consensus is a possible solution provided that the consensus is, in an important sense, delimited: in a sense, endeavours such as the Oxford DNB (10,000 contributors, dozens and dozens of editors in various hierarchies) was for a humanties project remarkably consensual but, at every point, that consensus was based on clear project principles and appropriate academic views. (Think about what the entry on Shakespeare or Jack the Ripper or Diana would have looked like had DNB been fully consensual.)

    It’s sad when a journal article may have only been read by a handful of people (although probably more readers than most PhDs) but the fact that an article appears in a journal gives it a legitimacy that publishing it on one’s blog does not. It can be the same research, the same exact essay, but the context supplies an authority. Hence the RAE benchmarks. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t find alternative ways of doing this–there are a couple of academic publishers who are reconsidering the traditional model here and here–but whatever way we do it, wheat and chaff must be separated…

    I remember several years ago talking with a physicist who said that, because of the speed of research discovery, there was effectively one grand research physics intranet (for his particular topic) where findings were shared with other physicists across the world before they were published. In a sense, this is simply a version of web 2.0.

    This might be of related interest.

  5. Great article, Ian!

    If anyone didn’t spot his rather subtle link to the NY Times article, here it is in full.

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