2 February 2013
Tech Culture

It's All Academic

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 it's behind a paywall. 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 let me know.