Reflections on Academia 2.0: Challenges of impact, communication and relevance

This is the first of a series of posts related to a recent event I attended at the University of Manchester, Academia 2.0 challenges of impact, communication and relevance. The event organised by Dr Gale Raj-Reichert and was supported by the British Academy and the Hallsworth Endowment at the University of Manchester. The event covered issues related to:

  • Communication: how academics can reach different audiences
  • Challenges of impact
  • The relevance of academic research

Academia 2.0 event flyerThe programme had a mix of academics from across the social sciences but also from different career stages and it was extremely useful to hear about their experiences. The event was a great opportunity to meet with other early career researchers and explore these issues which are now so crucial to a successful career in academia. Rather than work through the discussions of each presentation this post identifies some of the key issues and ideas that I drew from across the event.

One if the introductory speakers  highlighted that the British Academy in addition to their post-doctoral fellowships they also have the opportunities to apply for small grants, and that these are a good way to get a bit of funding to extend a research project (for example continue with issues brought up in your PhD research). A successful application for a small research grant would also provide good leverage if you then applied for a larger grant in the future (if you can use the small grant efficiently and show you are worth funding).

You can find out more about the British Academy Small Research Grants (and their other funding opportunities here.

Something that was highlighted, and was reiterated on several occasions was that the landscape for new academics has changed, and that there is a need to think beyond journal publications, or a monograph – but to the wider relevance and impact agenda of research.  While this might seem challenging I actually think it presents a lot of different and interesting opportunities.

Engagement

It is something that some academics have shied away from but also something that has been embraced wholeheartedly by others. It was mentioned that engagement, while is seen by many as just an outlet for research, can actually be a stimulus for research, it can be used as a two way interactive process. I’m really keen to engage with other audiences. I’m particularly keen in trying to help bridge the gap between secondary and higher education (and I will write about the specific ways I’m trying to do this in a future post). I’m  currently in the process of setting up a website to explore different aspects of economic geography in a more accessible manner – and to highlight that it is interesting! It’s currently under construction but can be found at: http://exploringeconomicgeography.wordpress.com/

However, there are a couple of good examples from physical geography websites which have sought to bridge the gap between academic research and the public:

Websites, are just one way of engaging with a wider audience, but there are also a whole host of opportunities to engage with other groups in face to face situations. I am diverging a little from the purpose of this post so return to the main focus, the key messages I have taken away from the event:

  • It is important to think about alternative ways of disseminating your research to a wider audience.
  • It’s important to think about alternative formats of presenting research findings.
  • It’s important to think about the impact of your research – who could this research reach beyond the academic sphere.
  • That it’s really important to evidence your activities and which piece of research they relate to.

Impact

Academics are often being asked to show their ‘impact’. The underlying reason for this is that researchers are often using public money and therefore need to justify the use of it. However, as was highlighted at the Academia 2.0 event it should be seen as a chance to demonstrate what research does for those not engaged in the research community. While there may be concerns that the effect of increasing pressure to take into account impact from the very beginning will have an impact on funding decisions, it should be remembered that most social science disciplines are founded in the expectation of research that will drive change in society – so identifying potential impact shouldn’t be too difficult.

Some of the other key points raised about impact were:

  • Impact is a long term factor to be considered – it is not a ‘quick fix’.
  • Impact will be greater if you take a consistent approach.
  • It is possible to combine impact with research and use the impact agenda to add diversity to your research.
  • It is important to use the impact agenda creatively – it’s not just another box to tick – it provides an option to expand and reinvigorate the role of academics in public life.
  • It is important to build impact into your CV as an academic – essentially it is about building a corpus of evidence.
  • It is important to consider engagement with different groups and stakeholder communities not as an add on to research but as a potential source of ideas and insights, even if you do not directly use this as a source of data. Present your findings in a non-academic area to interested parties (such as practitioner forums ), and use social and traditional media to try and spread your key ideas. Along with this it is a good idea to monitor your presence in social media.

As a consequence of the discussion at this event I am now in the process of setting up a database template to record my research activities and anything related to them. This means I will be able to search for activities related to different projects as and when necessary. There will be another blog post about the details of this in the near future.

A new publication from sage, explores many of these issues in more depth:
The Impact of the Social Sciences: How academics and their research make a difference.

Communicating Research

Moving on, several of the sessions talked about how to communicate your research (beyond the traditional peer-reviewed journal platform). The importance of effective use of social media was highlighted on many occasions. An online presence is important in today’s academic world. However, there are a whole host of ways you can develop your online presence, and for some this can seem quite daunting. Some of the key ways to start creating your online presence were discussed at the event:

Twitter: I have been a user of twitter (@jennywrenwatts) for a long time (or at least what is a long time in terms of social media), and while initially I started it as just another social media that was more for personal use, I soon began to see the benefits of using it as a tool to develop my own Personal Learning Network and generally interacting with a much wider spectrum of people. I have used twitter in a number of ways:

  • To interact with other educators (and later other academics)
  • To interact with other people at events I attended. The use of the hashtag (#Acad2point0 for the Manchester event, but most conferences will now have one – #aag2014 #gaconf14 for example).
  • To share interesting news with others (it also acts as a way for me to record articles that I may want to go back to later)
  • To share aspects of my work, either links to written articles, to my blogs.

There is a strong academic community on twitter. Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega started a hashtag #ScholarSunday to try and help people identify the interesting and relevant people that are now using twitter. You can find out a bit more about this one of his blog posts here.

Blogging (either via your own blog or guest blogging): When I first started blogging in 2009 I mainly used my blog as a way to write about things that interested me – often related to travel, or geography teaching that I was doing at the time. It was more of a personal writing portal than a tool to raise the profile of what I was doing. However, blogging in academia is now quite common and it is a good way to disseminate what you are doing to a wider audience, and provides good practice in writing for different audiences too. My blog at present still hosts a lot of ‘non-academic’ related posts, but the new ‘exploring economic geography’ blog that will be launched properly soon should hopefully be more research focused. In terms of how to go about producing blog posts, first you might want to think about whether you want to host your own (it’s easy to set one up on wordpress) or if it’s possible to write a post on another blog (often there are departmental or research group blogs). Then there are alternatives such as guest blogging on places like Huffington Post, or writing a post for The Conversation (a kind of news platform that uses academic research).

Research Gate and Academia.Edu: Social networking platforms where you have a profile displaying all your academic credentials, publications etc, and you can connect with other academics, take part in discussion forums. In some ways, they are a bit like facebook for academics.

Google Scholar citations: If you register for this you will be able to monitor your citations over time. It’s another way of boosting your rankings in google too. In terms of monitoring where your publications are being cited, this could be very useful.

Mendeley: A reference manager (much like endnote) but it also allows you to collaborate with others and has the benefit of online accessibility – http://www.mendeley.com/

There are a couple of really useful publications that are useful to read as a starting point for those wishing to engage with more social media.

These are just some of the interesting ideas that were discussed at the Academia 2.0 event (I have more to write up but this blog post already far longer than I had originally intended – there will be another one soon). I would at this point like to thank the organisers and presenters for such a thought-provoking event which no doubt will have a long lasting impact on my research in the future.

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