Research Unbound: Finch, open access and social media

This is a summary of a presentation I gave at an Open University seminar on Social Media and Research in Ageing on 30 October 2015.

The emergence of social media during the last 10 years has endowed the web with ever more powerful, accessible and innovative ways of communicating. Social media is really just the natural evolution of the web and the starting point for my presentation was a look at disruptive power of web-based communication, sharing and collaboration.

Bookselling, newspapers, music and cinema have all been transformed in the last 15 years.  Academic publishing has been relatively unaffected, perhaps surprising given that when Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991 his aim was to support and improve scientific communication and the dissemination of research.

In 2012 the Finch report proposed a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated: by 2014 publicly funded scientific research was to be freely available to all on publication.  Although Finch acknowledged the existence of social media the report’s recommendations focused on adapting the traditional publishing business model to accommodate open access.  Essentially this involves publishers generating their income by charging authors a publication fee rather than levying subscription fees on readers.  For most of the public, however, journals continue to live behind paywalls.

So what about the commitment to make publicly funded research freely available to the public? Well, the major publishers have supported Access to Research, an initiative equipping public libraries with free access to a number of subscription journal articles. According to open access agitator Cameron Neylon it’s an empty political gesture that fails to meet the needs of the UK public (Improving on “Access to Research”: Restrictive access and licensing fail to meet the needs of the 21st century). Under the scheme the public may look at abstracts online but must visit a participating library to read the article. No wonder Neylon calls it ‘an initiative from a 20th Century industry attempting to stave off progress towards the 21st Century by applying a 19th Century infrastructure’.

Neylon has questioned academic journals’ fitness for purpose, noting that researchers don’t consume articles in the form in which they write them: journals focus on text whereas researchers want data. Publishing data in chunks is something Gary Hall advocates in his notion of the Unbound Book. Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts and Director of the wonderfully named Centre for Disruptive Media, at Coventry University. He makes the point that If you talk about what you’re doing on blogs or wikis or share your data on services such as Figshare, by the time you come to publish you have already put quite a lot of your wisdom out there.

Brian Kelly has been blogging for many years as UK Web Focus, advocating the use of social media to get your work disseminated and talked about. He has expressed frustration over the inaccessibility of institutional repositories, which seem to be more of a research audit tool for the institution than a means of dissemination, a view echoed in a research study undertaken by Iriss in 2013 (Improving access to research for the social services – can higher education digital repositories help?). If your stuff is to be findable on the web it needs Google juice (Using social media to build your academic career). In other words your work has to be findable by web search engines.

Research Unbound is Iriss’s contribution to encouraging a more open approach to sharing research. Inspired partly by Gary Hall, it’s both a campaign and a website, built on Wordpress, offering space to blog and take the first steps towards understanding new media and acquiring skills in digitally literacy.  A report from Future Work Skills talks about a new media literacy:

the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.
Knowledge of fonts and layouts was once restricted to a small set of print designers and typesetters, until word processing programs brought this within the reach of everyday office workers. Similarly, user-friendly production editing tools will make video language—concepts such as frame, depth of field etc—part of the common vernacular

The need to present research evidence in more accessible formats was discussed in the Guardian earlier this year (see previous post Embedding knowledge in practice and digital participation).  It was argued that organisations should develop a culture that encourages and values reading, discussing and reflecting. In addition it was suggested we consider different ways of presenting content that might be more accessible for those without an academic background: a short animation or video might be preferred to wading through 60 pages of dry text.

What and how we communicate has been explored by the Research Utilisation Research Unit (RURU). Davies and Powell (Communicating social research findings more effectively: what can we learn from other fields?) stress the importance of dialogue in knowledge interaction and suggest borrowing techniques from other disciplines, such as advertising.

Two years Iriss hired a Creative in Residence to help us think about and improve our communication skills and techniques. For three months Andy, with a background advertising and copywriting in the commercial and the public sector, inspired us to think more thoroughly and creatively about what our projects were trying to achieve. He taught us the WWW of communication: not World Wide Web, but Who? What? What?

  • Who is you audience?
  • What do you want them the hear?
  • What do you want them to do?

This simple approach encourages us to think more carefully about our message. Social media encourages brevity (Twitter: 140 characters).  Brevity and precision are useful skills. Applying techniques from advertising, journalism and visual arts we produced this short animation to explain what person-centred means in practice.


WHO? (are we talking to)

  • All health and social care professionals working with older people: from care at home worker to hospital administrator to consultant GP

WHAT? (do we want them to hear and understand – and agree with!)

  • That all were doing their best and believed they were person-centred, but that’s not how it seemed to older people.
  • That one profession seeing the problem as someone else’s won’t improve things.

WHAT? (action do we hope for)

  • Think about how to make individual efforts amount to more than (not less than) the sum of the parts.
  • Improve communication at all stages.
  • Understand how improving communication can lead to a better focus on the outcomes for the person.
    Believe that this is possible.

Producing this video required a lot of thought, planning and creativity. A useful rule of thumb is that the average speech rate is 150 words per minute. That means that in a two and half minute video the message has to be delivered using around 375 words. Every word has to count and redundant words removed.  Newspaper style guides are helpful (try The Economist’s). Even if you’re not making an animation, this process of refining your message is a valuable exercise. The Conversation (academic rigour, journalistic flair) is an excellent example of how to present complex subjects in clear language.

What does this mean for older people? A previous post reported on Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby lecture in which she argued  ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 or 8, if you’re online once a year or once a minute. Understanding where the internet came from and what it can do will help you make more sense of the world.’  She recounted the story of a woman who is a disabled full-time carer for her disabled husband. She was sinking fast into depression until a local volunteer taught her how to use the internet. She believed it saved her life. She felt her world expanded and that she could experience things she’d never otherwise have been able to do – she was “going on a holiday” when playing around on Google Earth and getting support from new friends she met in online groups.

The web and social media are a fact of life, just like telephone, which was once a novelty (and disruptive of the social conventions of the day). We don’t discuss the telephone and older people. Likewise social media is now mainstream. David Wilcox publishes an excellent blog – Living well in the digital age – which explores all the ways in which digital communication is can reduce social isolation and loneliness.

Digital participation or digital exclusion are of course important concerns, but if social media meets a need people will use it. Social media is experiential – it’s not really something you get trained in. We do need to understand and cope with dangers such as cyberbullying, phishing and identity theft.  But we can’t leave this to others.  Berners-Lee argues strongly that we all have role to play in shaping the web and he has come up with his second WWW: the Web We Want.

The message to academics and researchers, to old people and young people, is don’t stand back and think digital is something other people do. It something you can do.

Finally, where do we find the time to do this?  There is no simple answer but if you’ve put thousands of hours work into doing the research, shouldn’t you factor in the time to make sure people find out what you found out?