All posts filed under “Fulminate

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.

Bye-bye 9rules

Around ten months ago, this site was accepted into 9rules, a diverse network of blogs which, at the time, had this aim:

9rules is a community of the best weblogs in the world on a variety of topics. We started 9rules to give passionate writers more exposure and to help readers find great blogs on their favorite subjects. It’s difficult to find sites worth returning to, so 9rules brings together the very best of the independent web all under one roof.

It was a great honour to be accepted, given the quality of the other blogs involved and the number that applied during the 24 hour ‘submission window’. I remember sitting in a coffee shop on Lothian Road in Edinburgh having taken my laptop away on holiday purely to do the 9rules submission at the right time: some ‘recognition’ on this level meant a lot to me, and it still does.

And the site’s got a lot of new readers through 9rules: the start of every new post appeared, within a couple of hours, in both the ‘Design‘ and ‘Technology‘ feeds on the 9rules site, and a lot of people clicked through to read the full things, and then (often) stayed to read other posts. Equally, I found some truly amazing new blogs and interesting voices through perusing other members’ feeds: there is a wealth of passionate talent and opinion out there, and 9rules’ members never failed to impress. To a large extent I was a passive consumer of what 9rules brought me; I didn’t get involved with the ‘my.9r‘ social networking feature of the site, nor write any ‘Notes‘ (if I’m going to write something intelligent, I’ll write it on the blog, was my reasoning, but I certainly read a number of interesting discussions in the Notes section, and enjoyed doing so).

Bye bye 9rulesHowever, 9rules is changing its membership policy (compare the current ‘About’ page) and yesterday I received an email from 9rules’ Tyme White indicating that, effectively, any members who don’t participate in the community aspects of the site are no longer welcome:

Members spoke out about their displeasure concerning members that they never interact with and never hear from, yet all member entries carry the same weight on 9rules, which is not fair. After talking it out in Clubhouse, we made participating either in the private member area or my.9rules a requirement, part of the membership agreement… If you feel you are contributing by your entries being shown, 9rules is no longer a good fit for you, decline the agreement (or do not respond), remove the leaf from your site and we will remove your site from displaying on 9rules. If you agree but don’t have the time to interact or don’t feel you should (or don’t want to), the participation will become a chore, something you didn’t want to do in the first place. It just won’t work in the long-term so it would be best to decline now…

Let me be clear — participation in either the new member area or my.9rules is required for all members, requested by members.

I understand what she’s saying, and I’m not going to argue – but it’s a shame: forced participation would certainly “become a chore” and I’m not going to agree to commit to anything along those lines (I wonder how the level of participation will be measured or assessed?), so this site will be leaving 9rules, sadly, in due course.

Taking a broader view, in internet terms, 9rules’ move – to more of a ‘walled garden’, turned in on itself – seems very much at odds with the increased openness which has driven the dramatic growth of, say, Facebook. Perhaps 9rules wants ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’, but defining ‘quality’ as ‘frequency of participation’ seems to be rather arbitrarily quantitative, if that makes sense. I’m not sure there’s actually any correlation between time spent on interactive banter within a closed community, and creating worthwhile blog content that people want to read: it would seem that time spent on one precludes spending time on the other.

I hope some of the readers who originally found this site through 9rules will continue to read it (the RSS/Atom feed links are in the sidebar on the right), and I thank 9rules for the extra exposure it gave this site during my time as a member.

New, more concrete opportunities

Tower A, Brunel University
School of Engineering & Design, Tower A, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex.

After a month of lifting and shifting boxes, frantic cleaning, driving lots of different vehicles, and dealing with bureaucracy, I’ve now moved house and started my PhD at Brunel; with broadband now set up, and enough space to sit with a laptop amid the not-yet-unpacked boxes, I’ll hopefully be able to get back to regular blogging. Many thanks to everyone who’s sent examples and comments in the interim.

I now both live and work in semi-Brutalist structures; it’ll be interesting to see what effect that architectural influence has.

The generally poor performance of this site over the past couple of months (database queries timing out leading to blank pages or internal WordPress error messages) has been frustrating and I will be moving hosts at some point in due course. There may be some redesign or at least restructuring of certain parts of the site too, as already the PhD has made me think somewhat more analytically about how to classify and explain methods of control and ‘design for behaviour change’.

Unscheduled intermission

Dan at Tangerine, LondonI know, I know a third of all blog posts indexed by Technorati are “apologies for the lack of posts recently,” and this is no exception.

I haven’t posted on the blog in the last week, mainly due to being very busy with work – I’ve unexpectedly been back at Tangerine in London (left) helping out with research into future product segmentation in the mobile phone market, alongside work for an important long-standing client, while also being in the midst of moving to a new flat and sorting out everything that goes with that. Oh, and the PhD starts sometime in the next few weeks.

But I’ve had some great e-mails, comments and suggestions from readers (for which many thanks), so I hope within the next few days to get back to blogging and replying.

Please bear with me.

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
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