It’s All Academic | February 2, 2013

Considering the World Wide Web was created to facilitate the sharing of academic research, I’ve always been surprised by how little of this I see online. In the early days of the Web, most of the sharing seemed to be done by amateurs and hobbyists. However as businesses discovered the value of the Web, these amateurs turned professional and the discipline of Web Design was born.

In most other industries, people tend to keep their information secret, for fear of giving away their competitive advantage. On the Web I’ve always been amazed by how willing people are to help others on Blogs, Mailing Lists and sites like Stack Overflow. It’s this willingness to share that led me into this career and is something I’ll always be thankful for.

When I first discovered the Web I was excited by all the new things I’d learned and wanted to share these with others. I quickly found likeminded souls and assembled them first into a Blogroll and later into a NewsReader List. When I declared RSS bankruptcy around 2007—shortly after joining Twitter as it happens—I was following around 600 websites. Out of these, only three could be considered from academic sources.

How was it that despite working in a medium designed for the dissemination of academic research, I was only following three people? I wasn’t being deliberately selective and only following practitioners. In fact I’d spent quite lot of time looking for relevant and interesting academic Bloggers and had failed every time.

With the exception of people like Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, there was a distinct lack of academics speaking at conferences, publishing books or writing articles—at least ones that the industry was acutely aware of.

On occasion I’d meet a lone academic at a conference or BarCamp and quiz them on the subject. The conversation would usually go something like this.

Andy: “So how come we don’t see more academics speaking or attending at conferences like this?”
Academic: “My University expects me to publish a certain number of papers and I don’t get any credit from speaking at events like this.”
Andy: “Oh, OK. But why not speak anyway? Most of the folks here aren’t getting anything for speaking. They’re just doing it because they want to share.”
Academic: Blank Silence
Andy: “So what are you researching at the moment? Is there somewhere I can read about it?”
Academic: “I had a paper published in a few years back, but you need access to . You’re not a student are you? If so your University Library will have a subscription.”
Andy: “No, I’m not. Sorry. Do you have a Blog?”
Academic: “It’s difficult for us as we need to publish original work or it won’t get accepted. So it’s not really possible to Blog.”
Andy: “How about once it’s been published?”
Academic: “Er…”
Andy: “I just discovered this great Blog by Dan Lockton about his research, do you know any others?”
Academic: “Yes, that Blog is great isn’t it. Let me think. Er, no I can’t think of any others.”

For a long time I’ve felt that I’ve been missing out on a wealth of academic information. Research I could use to demonstrate to people the value of usability testing, prototyping or some other design technique. Not to make more money but to help improve the Web experience for everybody. After one such conversation I actually looked into signing up to one of these academic journals but the cost was prohibitive. Unlike industry, it would seem that academia believe there is money to be made from sharing their knowledge, even if it has been created using public money.

This is a theme that was born out in a recent conversation I had with a lecturer. He explained that he was coming under increasing pressure from his administration to undertake original research because teaching just wasn’t paying the bills anymore.

I can definitely see this approach working in some disciplines like physics, biochemistry and engineering (Graphene anybody?) but I find it hard to imagine there’s a lot of money to be made from interaction design. So while I understand why private organisations may feel the need to hoard their discoveries, I believe that publically funded bodies have a duty to publish their findings for free and for the betterment of society.

This is starting to happen and I believe there are small but increasing number of free online platforms that provide academics with the credit they desire. However as academic publishing is big business, it is a trend that the traditional publishers are keen to resist, and as long as academic publishing is based on reputation, the well-known journals will continue to dominate.

I think industry has a lot to benefit from academia, but penetrating the academic world can be difficult. The London chapter of the UX Bookclub has been doing a great job of surfacing interesting papers for its members to discuss. However these kinds of bridges are few and far between.

In some small way I’ve also been trying to learn more about the academic world in an attempt to discover new speakers. I went to my first academic conference this year, but to be honest it was a bit of a struggle. I guess my expectations were two high as I was expecting to come away with some cutting edge research that was years ahead of current industry thinking. Instead I was shocked and dismayed by how out of date the talks were and had to sit through research that was presented as novel but was considered old news by industry. When discussing this with an academic friend of mine I was told that this was because the majority of sessions were from Masters Research and that I really needed to attend a conference based on PHD research to get the good stuff. So I’ve decided to attend CHI this year to see if I faire any better.

Thankfully more and more academics and researchers are speaking at industry conferences and publishing their thoughts on Blogs these days. So while I may have only been aware of three people back in 2007, I’m now following eight or nine and am keen to discover more. So if you happen to know any really interesting and well-written academic Blogs, please add them to the comments section of this post.

You could also pop over to Dan Lockton’s Blog and fill in his survey on How Designers use academic literature. I think the result will make interesting reading.

Posted at February 2, 2013 8:21 PM

Comments

Vicky Teinaki said on February 2, 2013 8:47 PM

As someone who is a PhD student in a design school, I have to point out that it all comes down to funding. Some academics get books out, but have to do this off their own bat (and in their own time). And unfortunately industry conferences (or even books!) don’t count as appropriate research outputs to keep the powers that be paying their salary. (Though at least industry conferences pay their speakers—in academic ones, once you get accepted you still have to pay, though usually your uni covers it). And often people are so overwhelmed with teaching and marking that they’re not even involved in local meetups for sharing information, let alone more national one.

Andy Budd said on February 3, 2013 12:11 AM

I’m sorry Vicky, but I don’t buy your arguments.

Most of the people I know who have written books have done so on their own time, during evenings and weekends. So I don’t see being an academic offers any form of disadvantage. In fact it offers a distinct advantage thanks to academic holidays.

Despite what many people think, most professional conferences don’t pay their speakers, although it is true that most do cover expenses. Furthermore a lot of companies won’t pay for their staff to attend conferences so many end up paying for tickets out of their own pockets and taking time off work. They do this not for any credit their companies may give them, but because they want to participate in the discussion, learn and share.

And while I’m sure academics work very hard, I’d contest whether they put in significantly more hours than those in industry. (In fact this recent Forbes articles lists University Lecturer as the least stressful job of 2013 out of a list of 200 possible professions - http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/01/03/the-least-stressful-jobs-of-2013/). I tend to do a 60-75 hour week and still find time to go to conferences, talks and networking events.

Sebastian Deterding said on February 3, 2013 3:57 AM

Hi Andy,

One: a lot of this comes down to the specific cultures of specific academic disciplines. For instance, in internet research and game studies (two of my own disciplinary affiliations), almost everyone graduate student and up is more or less expected to blog and tweet: danah boyd, Alice Marwick, Nancy Baym, David Weinberger, PJ Rey, Nathan Jurgenson, Axel Bruns, Henry Jenkins, Jonathan Zittrain, the MSR Social Media Collective, THE WHOLE EFF*NG BERKMAN CENTER FOR INTERNET AND SOCIETY, etc. etc. Publicly archived mailing lists, open access journals, and conferences with public archives are central to their communication: AoIR, Internet Research, DiGRA digital library, Game Studies, etc. etc. They operate group blogs like Cyborgology http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology, Ethnography Matters http://ethnographymatters.net/, or Culture Digitally http://culturedigitally.org/. They share their whole courses through MIT OpenCourseware or Coursera. Speaking at industry events like SxSW or GDC is acknowledged, not derided. Folks like Ian Bogost or Evan Selinger regularly publish in venues like The Atlantic, Slate, or The Huffington post. So if you don’t find academics relevant to your interests blogging or making their research otherwise publicly available, that is because of the specific cultures of design research and HCI. (Even there I could point you to Marc Hassenzahl http://hassenzahl.wordpress.com/, the International Journal of Design http://www.ijdesign.org/ojs/index.php/IJDesign/, The Mobile Life Centre http://www.mobilelifecentre.org/, the Pervasive Media Studio http://www.pmstudio.co.uk/, the researchers contributing to interaction-design.org - though admittedly it’s not as ubiquituous as in Internet Research and Game Studies.)

One and a half: Part of those academic cultures is to speak in a way that is recognised in that culture and formed in a way supposedly optimised to solve its own problems. Interaction designers have the professional task of communicating clearly across vastly different external audiences and internal stakeholders. That’s an excellent training for making yourself understood in plain English. Academics unlearn the ability to make themselves understood in plan English in graduate school. That is not an excuse – it’s a sorry state of affairs.

Two: Being both a researcher and a UX designer, I just don’t buy the stark difference you paint. (a) Academics share knowledge out of their intrinsic passion for sharing knowledge all the time, and they do so like interaction designers in their respective community of practice, which for researchers happens to be other researchers. They regularly attend academic conferences out of their own pocket (I do and know many others), they regularly accept invitations to give workshops and lectures on their topic of passion without accepting nor demanding remuneration, and write articles because they are passionate for the topic and despite their tenure promotion criteria telling them not to (the whole book I’m currently editing relies on this strange kindness), they mentor other young researchers even though it will never show up anywhere on their CV, and like any good nerd, they willingly snap from chitchat to a detailed hour long debate of their topic of passion over way too many pints until 3 a.m. in the morning. (b) Interaction designers have all kinds of extrinsic incentives for freely sharing their knowledge with their community beyond the mere willingness to share as well: Raising their visibility for potential clients and employers. Gathering reputation and social status among their peers. Implicitly marketing their agency to potential employees. Self-branding and publicity to sell books and workshops. I don’t deny that intrinsic motivations and shared values of openness play a big, big role as well, and like you, I am thankful for that. But it strikes me a fair comparison of researchers and industry interaction designers would not ask “Why don’t the researchers publicise as much in our industry venues as we do?”, unless you are also willing to ask “Why don’t the industry interaction designers don’t publicise as much in academic venues as the researchers do?”

Three: You implied this, but I wanted to make it 100% explicit: It is not the researchers themselves who are opposed to have their research freely available to the public in an open access format. It is the economic interest of the commercial journal publishers seeking criminal monopoly rents, and the path dependencies and network effects of a system of gaining credit by publishing in the top journals of your field (rather than in newcomer open access journals that haven’t yet built a reputation), and universities not (yet) willing to pay the double costs of traditional journal publisher subscriptions and author fees for open access publications that sustain it (read http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/2013/01/29/why-open-access-is-better-for-scholarly-societies, http://thecostofknowledge.com/). Luckily, there is more and more governmental, institutional and individual momentum building, with public research funding bodies demanding that all research they fund is to be made publicly accessible in open access format (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access#Research_funders_and_universities). True, a lot of that stuff lives in the online repositories of universities – a classic (and though) findability problem if you’re not a domain expert ;).

Four: As to the lecturer you had a conversation with: The point is not that his or her university wants to make any money with any kind of patents or inventions. The point is that often misguided research policies from governments and/or internal profile neuroses of university administrations demand that everyone engage in large-scale, third-party-funded original research, and funding acquired and journal article published are the KPIs by which your salary and the existence of your department are decided, no matter how nonsensical those metrics are in your specific case.

Five: As for that Forbes article - come on. That article raised a hell of shirt storm in academic circles, and rightfully so, because the survey it drew on was so crappily researched, (a) describing the life of tenured professors (the upper 1%), and (b) following the same false logic that teachers must be living i splendid leisure because they get to have the kids’ school holidays and are done teaching in the afternoon, full ignoring having to prepare classes, having to review dozens upon dozens of student papers for each class, having to partake in university self-administration and constant reviewing for conferences and journals and writing of grant applications (read: project acquisition), such that the only time to do your own original research (which you’re supposed to do in addition to teaching, and which ultimately decides upon your job future) happens to be the weekends and those academic ‘holidays’ – with a pay and job security that compared to interaction designers with a similar amount of job experience years under their belt is plainly abysmal. For instance, just before Christmas last year, I received an email from a good colleague of mine who had just started as assistant professor at a prestigious US university, apologising dearly that he was late with a chapter he had promised, but had since he started his position in August worked thirteen hour days seven days a week straight and would for the love of god not do anything but rest and see family over the holidays and therefore not be able to deliver his chapter on time. THIS IS NOT UNCOMMON, read http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/07/claim-college-professor-least-stressful-job-infuriates-faculty, http://factsandotherfairytales.com/2013/01/04/the-least-stressful-job-for-2013-a-real-look-at-being-a-professor-in-the-us/, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/08/2012820102749246453.html

Should CHI and design researchers catch up to Internet Research or Game Studies folks when it comes to blogging, tweeting, getting active around open access (the ACM and CHI of all academic societies are not exactly at the forefront here http://windowsontheory.org/2012/12/26/occupy-acm-we-are-the-99/), engaging in civil disobedience with the copyright strictures of journal publishers and otherwise freely sharing their thinking? Absolutely. Could academia be more interested in the practical application of its knowledge? You betcha. Do they put in more hours than industry folks on average? Depends on what academics and what industry folks, as always. Do they put in significantly less hours? I doubt it. Are they any less driven by a willingness to share their knowledge? In no way.