The future of academic exposure?

Too many papers
A lot of research is published each year.

Now that I’m a student again, I’ve got access (via Athens) to a vastly increased amount of academic journals, papers and so on. Far more than I could have done ‘legitimately’ without that Athens login, aside from travelling from library to library to library. And while it’s good for me to have that login, right at this moment, the necessity for such a login is hardly good for society as a whole. As an independent researcher, I simply could not keep on top of my subject properly.

I think it’s fairly clear that open access is the way to go, and certainly where research has enjoyed any degree of public funding there should be no case otherwise. But even where research is freely or easily available, its impact, as a result of limited exposure, is often also very limited or nonexistent, even within academia.

This is surely an omnipresent worry/headache/frustration for many researchers, and the issue was brought home to me the other day. I was reading a (fairly academic) book, published in the UK in 2005, written by a design professor at a university about 50 miles from here, and found a comment, within a discussion of a particular issue, along the lines of “no research has been done on the issue of to what extent A relates to B in the field of C, but it is safe to assume D” and yet, in front of me on the desk, was a PhD thesis completed in 2003, at my university, addressing not only the exact issue specified, but also showing D to be incorrect. Now, a paper was written based on this thesis, and published in an engineering journal, and also presented at a conference, but it clearly escaped the notice of the author of the book.

Now, of course, this probably happens a thousand times a day in academia. It’s not an especially interesting example, and there may be many possible explanations, the book maybe having taken a long period to go from being researched to publication being somewhat likely. But assuming it didn’t, and assuming the book’s author, despite being, by all accounts, an ‘expert’ in his field, really was unaware of research going on not too far away, then there is a failure of communication. (In this case, there might also be the often self-imposed disconnect between the ‘design’ community, and the ‘engineering’ community: the assumption that research done in a different field is irrelevant or likely not to be understandable. That, perhaps, is another problem again.)

This type of communication failure is not necessarily entirely the fault of either side, but it is a problem, across all fields of knowledge and endeavour. So what’s the answer?

I don’t know, from that kind of distance, but closer up, I have a hunch that broad subject blog families, such as Scienceblogs, ‘research digest’ blogs such as the British Psychological Society‘s, and individual blogs with a fairly wide scope, such as Mind Hacks (these latter two both examples from the same field) are going to become increasingly important mechanisms for disseminating research advances to both an academic and a wider audience. Whether the actual awareness of a particular new piece of research comes directly by a researcher reading the site, or by a colleague or friend-of-a-friend referring the researcher, the path from ignorance to awareness is (potentially) shorter and easier than before. It’s (potentially) less likely that anyone reasonably well-informed about a field will not have had an opportunity to learn about other research in the field, at least that which is either newly published or which somehow comes to the attention of the bloggers (so the bloggers’ filtering and discriminatory abilities are very important, in this sense).

Something I’m planning to do, on this blog, from now on, is to review useful or interesting academic papers or journal articles (or books, of course) I come across, from a variety of academic areas, which are relevant to the field of architectures of control, and design for behaviour change in general – shot through the lens of my PhD research focus, extracting pertinent arguments, quotes, following up references, and so on. I hope, in some small way, this will also bring particular areas of research to the attention of researchers from other disciplines, in the same way (for example) that Lawrence Lessig’s “code is law” concept made me think more about constraints and behaviour-shaping in product design in the first place.

From a practical point of view, this approach also seems like it might be a very useful way to document the process of getting to grips with the literature on a subject – helping immensely when it comes to putting together my actual literature review for the PhD – and allowing input (commentary, recommendations, suggestions) from a very diverse set of readers worldwide, in a way which the traditional ivory tower or even open-plan research office doesn’t, or can’t, at least during this stage of the research. While I’m sure there are plenty of other people who’ve had a similar idea (any links would be very interesting: I love seeing how other people structure their research), this approach seems quite excitingly fresh to me, imbuing the literature review process with a vibrancy and immediacy that simply wouldn’t have been as easy to do in the past.


  1. You’ve also gotta love the stupid euphemisms they use:

    “Athens was initially deployed in the higher education sector in 1996 and has firmly established itself as the de facto standard for secure access management to web-based services for the UK education and health sectors.”

    Heh. “Secure access management” when what they mean is “gratuitously blocking access by the vast majority of the world, even though granting them access would cost next to nothing” 😛

    There’s really no excuse for ANY scientific research to be hidden away behind paywalls or only findable in dusty tomes. The former is pure greed and the latter is pure Luddism. It should all be put on Web pages; Google can (and will) then do the heavy lifting of indexing it all. And then any researcher who does a few salient Google searches should find everything relevant in a literature search. It’s high time literature searches, and simply learning in general, was done like nigh everything else these days, by starting with Google. 😛

  2. I like the notion of things like ScienceBlogs being a hub for disseminating research, but in practice ScienceBlogs is a bit more mainstream than that. It still serves a vital role — and I suspect that many of its readers are experts anyway — but having no formal mission other than the personal gratification of its writers and the enrichment of Seed Media Group, it’s a bit like herding cats.

    What all fields other than physics still lack is something like ArXiv. Maybe that will be one of the PLoS journals. Or mabye someone neeeds to set up a research-focused blog network. Hmmm.

  3. I think we’re going to see more and more libraries purchasing more and more online journals. This would in part resolve the open access issue. I myself, after graduating, miss access to JStor and LexisNexis and all the rest I had thru Sarah Lawrence’s wonderful library, but the library I work for now, Baltimore County Public Library in Maryland, purchases subscriptions to a vast array of databases, and this ameliorates the problem somewhat. Anyone with a library card (which is free) can access these sites. Check your public library if you’re not in school, they probably have database access. . . and if they don’t, rub elbows with someone from a local college and get their password to their school’s academic library. Instead of lobbying with the Athens or JStor people to provide open access to their journals (they’re just in it to make a buck, obviously) you might have more luck lobbying your local public library to get them to purchase access to these journals. It could work. Think about it.


  4. Pingback: Designers, literature, abstracts and Concretes | Architectures | Dan Lockton

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