Research Unbound

Self-confessed “research geek” Nina Vaswani ponders her career direction and accessibility/credibility issues as the worlds of social media and academic publishing continue on a collision course…

I have been thinking quite a lot recently about why I am doing research.  Don’t worry, I’m not having a crisis of confidence about my chosen career, but I have been reflecting on what I want to achieve with my research, and what might be the best way to go about doing that.  One of the reasons that I have been focusing my thoughts on this topic has been the launch of Research Unbound.

Research Unbound is an exciting new platform for disseminating and raising awareness about research that has been created by IRISS and was officially launched in Glasgow on February 21.  The launch brought together around 30 researchers, users of research and social media enthusiasts to discuss the opportunities and challenges for the future of research publication and the role of social media.  Ian Watson from IRISS set the context for the launch of Research Unbound in light of the conclusions from the Finch Report that “in the longer term, the future lies with open access publishing”.  Then an input from Brian Kelly, who is the Innovation Advocate at CETIS, provided excellent examples of how social media can help researchers create professional networks and raise awareness of research.  Brian’s use of social media has led to him having the largest number of downloads of any researcher at the University of Bath repository and also has meant that he has developed a keen interest in ensuring his research reaches his target audience before they have even got out of bed!  You can visit Brian’s blog here.

After the break, Professor Fergus McNeil from the University of Glasgow spoke about his experience of using of blogs to raise the profile of criminal justice research, and in particular in ensuring the timeliness of research publication.  As Fergus highlighted, the traditional route to publication is a slow process and it can be years before a researcher gets any feedback (in the form of citations) on their research, yet feedback on research published on social media (such as the Discovering Desistance blog) can appear within less than 24 hours.

So back to the question about why I am doing research?  Brian and Fergus’ experiences really got me thinking.  I, like many others, became involved in research because I really wanted to make a difference to youth justice, ultimately by improving outcomes for children and young people.  But what can I, a self-confessed research geek, do from behind my spreadsheet?  At the end of the day it is not me that will be making the difference, but those practitioners working with young people day in and day out.  In order for me to make a difference I need to produce high quality research that is relevant, useful and, equally importantly, accessible to my audience.  I certainly don’t want my research gathering dust in some far corner of a university library.

Surely then I should eschew the lumbering peer review process and simply make my research available in a timely manner for all to see and use?  Well, it’s just not that straightforward and there is a tension between accessibility and credibility that is of interest to me.  At the moment, reputation building and career progression for academic researchers is very much tied in with peer-reviewed publications in prestigious journals, which gives weight and credibility to the research.  However, at the same time this can also lessen the impact of research by often making it less accessible to the people who have the potential to act upon the research – there aren’t many organisations outside of academia that have a broad range of journal subscriptions.  Yet practitioners also need to know that the research that they use is credible and the peer review process can assist in that respect.  Having the time or the skills to critically review the huge volumes of information available on the internet is a luxury that seems to escape the average busy practitioner!

There are no easy answers to these questions, but as the worlds of social media and academic publishing continue to collide, solutions will undoubtedly be found.   In the meantime, Research Unbound undoubtedly offers a useful and exciting resource for both producers and users of research.  As Brian Kelly said: “If you want to change the world through your research, why would you not use social media?”

On a related note, while the benefits of Research Unbound clearly lie with disseminating and raising awareness of the research product, I am also interested in some of the less immediately obvious benefits of using social media in research.  At the Research Unbound launch I spoke about the potential for blogs to act as a form of reflective journal writing.  Research is a tangled, messy and complicated process and sharing the experience of this journey not only aids reflection and learning for the blogger, but also can help readers learn from the experience too.

There were some valid concerns raised at the launch about the very real anxiety some academics have about the risks to their professionalism and credibility by exposing the research process.  These concerns cannot be dismissed, and as a researcher I certainly don’t want to share every element of my learning (for learning, read ‘mistakes’!) for all to see.  However, I think that documenting at least some elements of the research process provides the opportunity to dispel some myths.   Sssh! Some trade secrets coming up now: Research is not rocket science (unless it IS rocket science…!) and most of our learning comes through trial and error, and reflecting on our experiences.

A question posed by a member of the audience really highlighted for me the importance of sharing that learning with others.  The question was about whether practitioners would be able to publish their own research on Research Unbound and the audience member expressed a concern that practitioners might feel intimidated and excluded, considering the high quality of the academic research already available on the site.  Now we know that practitioners are one of the most important sources of information and evidence that we have, and evidence from practice is as important as using evidence in practice.  Maybe by increasing the transparency of the research process and documenting a realistic account of the journey towards a polished and finished research product, practitioners would realise that we researchers are only human too (honest!) and would have the confidence to generate and share their own evidence.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it is tough and that it will take a brave researcher to bare their research process (and soul!) in this manner, but the benefits for consolidating and sharing learning could be huge.  Now – are there any volunteers…?!

About our blogger

Nina is seconded from Glasgow City Council, where she is a social work researcher. In addition to youth justice, her research interests include bereavement, loss and trauma, the vulnerability of young males and violence.

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