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Do Researchers Care About All This New Technology?

21st April 2015
 | Phill Jones
The Luddites didn't much care for technology. Image is Public Domain
The Luddites didn’t much care for technology.
Image is Public Domain

Last week, I was invited to participate in the opening panel of the Research and Scholarly Publishing Forum along with Tahir Mansoori (@tmansoori) of ColWiz and Fred Fentner (@ffenter) of Frontiers. The live Twitter feed for the seminar can be found here: #rspf15. The event was part of the London Book Fair.

It was my first time attending the fair and I found the event to be very informative and a lot of fun (although, as a father, I was a bit disappointed that there were no free samples in the children’s publishing section, at least when I was looking around). The focus of the panel was digital innovation and we were asked to address one of my favourite questions: how can publishers evolve and adapt to support the new, technically enabled global scholarly community?

I won’t give a detailed description of my talk or the arguments that I gave, suffice to say that I, along with many of my colleagues at Digital Science, believe that publishers have enormous opportunities to support the flow of information at every step of the research cycle, either by becoming technology companies themselves, or partnering with technology companies to provide information solutions.

During the Q+A, Peter Ashman (@peter_ashman) of BMJ asked a question, or rather made an assertion that I’ve heard alluded to by a lot by publishers, but never phrased quite so succinctly and honestly. Ashman observed that aside from a vocal minority of science communication advocates, the majority of researchers don’t really care about the technologies that we were discussing. When it comes down to doing their jobs, they just want to publish their work and read PDFs written by other researchers. Much as it pains me as a Digital Science employee, I agree.

Actually, I’d go further than that.

What researchers really care about on a daily basis is getting grants, finding a permanent job and achieving tenure. In the long term, they care about earning the respect of their peers and making a lasting contribution to human knowledge and welfare. The ways in which they communicate their work, the technologies used and the ways in which their performance is measured is not of any intrinsic significance to most of them. So it’s essentially true, in the short-term, the majority of academic researchers don’t care about data sharing, open access policies online communities or any of that stuff. Just like high impact articles and traditional citation metrics, all these things are ultimately a means to an end.

So why do we bother?

The reason why people like me are interested in technology as a means to improve the flow of information is we believe that it’s good for research itself. We can accelerate the advancement of human knowledge by improving the information infrastructure that supports researchers. The reason why this is an opportunity now, as opposed to five or ten years ago is because we’re not the only ones who think this. Institutions are increasingly thinking along these lines and most crucially funders and governments are looking to change the way that research is communicated.

High impact scientific communication
High impact scientific communication

Researchers are being asked to communicate their work in a much broader variety of ways and to a wider audience than ever before. To give an example, Tara Spires-Jones (@TSpiresJones) is a Reader at Edinburgh University. She also happens to be my wife and a former guest blogger here. The week before I was giving my talk to publishers about how we need to support the changing communication needs of researchers, as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival, she was touring members of the public around her lab, letting them touch the expensive microscopes and showing them bits of pig brain to explain basic neuroanatomy. Ten years ago, a researcher at a similar career stage would not be able to justify the time away from the bench. Why was she able to justify spending a week doing all this rather than performing experiments and writing articles? The answer is simple; it’s because her institution and her funder value public engagement. They view giving public tours as a high impact activity.

While Ashman is right that researchers themselves don’t always directly care about new ideas in scholarly communication as much as publishers, librarians and certainly technologists do, what has changed (or more precisely expanded) are the methods of communication that researchers are encouraged to engage in. Institutions and funders are attaching increasing weight to open data, public accessibility, and broader impact measures. The ways in which academic performance is measured has already shifted and will continue to evolve. As that landscape changes for researchers, so do their communication needs, which leads to new opportunities to cater to those needs.