As a research student, I regularly attend research training sessions and other such events. A running theme in many of these sessions has been ‘impact’ – more specifically, how can we create impact with our research? Who might benefit from our research? How can we engage with them?
What is impact?
Earlier this year I attended a training session on “Evaluating your Digital Impact”, run by the Scottish Graduate School for Social Science. The aim of this training was to make us aware of how we can evaluate our research impact, and identify ways of disseminating our research. J. Britt Holbrook’s list of 56 Indicators of Impact (featured on the LSE blog) shows that impact is measurable in more ways than counting how many times your work is cited. Furthermore, Holbrook identifies that impact – which is so often talked about as a positive outcome – can also be controversial or negative.
Last week I was in Keele, at the first PG conference held by the AHRC North West Consortium. In his keynote, Professor Charles Forsdick suggested a shift is needed, away from talking about ‘impact’ – which in the REF is encountered as a short-term result rather than the long-term impact more applicable to the arts and humanities – towards a focus on public engagement and knowledge exchange. I find this helpful, particularly as a musician and music PhD student, as it suggests more of a dialogue between research and society.
Understanding Academic Writing:
I struggle with reading journal articles sometimes – my academic vocabulary isn’t great, so I find myself using a dictionary more often than I’d like. While a lot of information is presented in easy-to-read language these days, there is no real consensus on the strict stylistic conventions of academic writing. This is my experience as a research student, so I’ll use the following example to illustrate a problem I’ve observed in music education.
In May this year, the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) and Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland (HITS) co-hosted a conference, “Instrumental Music: A Shared Vision for the future”. While this conference is aimed primarily at practicing teachers and instrumental instructors, research was embedded in the programme as a way to show the benefits of music education. Stephen Broad made a point, though, of highlighting the gap between research and practice. Only a handful of people out of approximately 200 delegates had heard of the top peer-reviewed international music education journal, and they were all academics, not working in schools.
There is an enormous corpus of excellent and valuable academic research in the field of music education and, as academics, the primary way we are pushed to get our research out into the world is via academic, peer-reviewed journals. Yet, we must ask ourselves: How many teachers have access to subscription-only journals? How many teachers have time to trawl the internet looking for the latest research? How many teachers have time to sit in peace and read academic jargon-filled articles? In theory, yes, schools and local authorities might subscribe to journals, and teachers have CPD/preparation time set aside to spend reading research, but in reality there has to be a better way for them to engage with research. I don’t have an answer, but maybe a starting point would be to ask music teachers what they would find helpful?
So, when working in an area as relevant to society as music education, is there a responsibility for researchers to make sure that their work can be read and understood easily? Perhaps. However, one problem with accessible language is that it isn’t always as specific as academic language, and the vagueness and ambiguities can sometimes lead to miscommunication, which can be a risk in getting the correct message across. This issue is compounded by the fact that music also has its own disciplinary discourse(s) and effective communication between educators, researchers, musicians and students can be problematic.
Is there a happy medium? In discussions at a Research Blogging training event run by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities, one solution offered was to write academically as normal for formal research publications, but also use mediums like blogging to write a more public-friendly version. However, this can double the workload, so I’m not convinced it’s a viable solution in the long term. There are risks, however, to completely abandoning academic terminology with its specificity, so maybe we should be careful…
We can change the way research is written about, but there is still an issue in how to access that writing if it is held behind subscriptions. According to this recent article from THE, Open Access journal articles are more likely to be cited on Twitter, than those with subscriptions, with the opposite effect on Mendeley and Wikipedia, suggesting that readership on social media networks is wider, and goes beyond academics.
At another training event I attended, “Developing a Writing and Publication Strategy in the Digital Age”, a PhD peer asked: as researchers funded by public money, do we have a responsibility to publish in Open Access formats so that the public can see what they are paying for? There are options for publishing work online, but using access requests to mediate and measure who is reading it.
Are we moving towards more of this? Should we move towards more of this? I don’t know what the ramifications are from an economic point of view, for subscription-only journals, and the knock on effect for research funding and universities, but it makes sense to me to break down these barriers to accessing research. There is nothing worse than having a Google search breakthrough in a literature search, but finding that your institution doesn’t have a subscription to that particular issue of a journal. Most of the time, we have friends at other institutions to turn to, but occasionally we miss out on that one article that looked so relevant. There is also the issue of breaking rules to access research, summed up well in this recent blog post – what’s more important? Publishers getting their money, or improved research and practice as a result of easier access to literature?
Can we learn from practice-based research?
How do you disseminate your work if it’s not written? Having seen some practice-based PhD research presentations, or rather performances, last week in Keele, I think we could draw on these less traditional ways of sharing research. Perhaps it is less about saying than doing, more about showing. This, I feel, is particularly important in the field of music education
Some questions to ponder:
My conference review, in this month’s Scottish Education Journal, asks some important questions in light of this research dissemination gap – what do practitioners think the best way is to access research? How do practitioners want to hear about research? What do they think is the solution to bridging this research dissemination gap?