This was the rather unlikely connection suggested in Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian article yesterday. I have massive respect for Wolff, who taught me as an undergraduate and is the only lecturer who has ever consistently held my attention, which left me taking this article more seriously than I otherwise might have. To be fair, he’s not talking about the ‘impact agenda’ as such but rather a broader tendency of which the ‘impact agenda’ can be taken to a bureaucratic and unlikable leading edge. His point is that there is a change taking place in the criteria by which ‘success’ is measured in academic careers. Furthermore, it is a change which is bringing activities motivated by private commitments, often done in private time without recognition, into the sphere of public assessment. In doing so, ‘academic success’ comes closer to life success. Or perhaps life success is being collapsed into career success. I’ll be pondering this for a while:

The final category is a recent innovation, by which I mean that it has crept in over the last 20 years. It goes by various names: knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, public engagement or impact. Specialists will shudder at my ignorance in lumping all of these together. To transfer knowledge is to take your research and apply it outside an academic context. Knowledge exchange is a less imperialistic version of the same thing, recognising that one might actually learn something oneself in the process. Public engagement can be roughly the same thing yet again, but perhaps with other people’s research rather than your own. As for “impact”, it seems to be whatever the research councils have decided it is this month.

This final category, however, reflects a quiet revolution in the way in which universities conceive of themselves and their contribution. Not so long ago, if you were a school governor, or edited a community newsletter, you kept quiet about it. Either it was regarded as entirely your own affair or, even worse, a distraction from the real business of research and teaching. Now it is public engagement. We seek it out, promote you for it, and crow about it on the university’s website. Cynics might think that it is the invention of web pages, and the need to fill them with something, that has made the difference. Or that it is encouraged only because universities are continually under pressure to demonstrate their “relevance”. But whatever the explanation, it is encouraging that a successful university career is now somewhat closer to a successful life than it once was.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/20/what-makes-university-career-success-academia?CMP=new_1194

Part 2 of this post. I had to stop writing because the battery on my phone was dying. Though the fact that I can write part 1 of the post (on my phone in a coffee shop in Manchester while waiting for a train) and write part 2 of the post (from a desktop computer in Coventry later that evening) and this constitutes my preparation for a talk the following day is a practical example of what I’m driving at with the continuous publishing notion.


  • At the level of the individual, continuous publishing doesn’t in principle represent any additional workload. One of the most frequent questions I’ve encountered when running social media workshop is “how do you find the time?”. Increasingly all my research related blogging and tweeting is part of the research process itself, rather than something external to it. I use blog posts in particular as a notebook within which to record and develop thoughts. I have a large collection of notebooks from the first half of my PhD filled with often illegible notes and an iPad filled with mindmaps. The only difference with how I now use my blog is that the entries are indexed, easier to read and available to the wider world.
  • Two important consequences flow from this. Firstly I take more care about articulating ideas because others can read them and, furthermore, it’s easier to do this because my typing keeps up with my thoughts whereas my handwriting often doesn’t (at least not if I’m trying to ensure their legibility later). Secondly categorising and tagging my posts inculcates reflexivity about the research process. It helps elaborate a sense of research agendas, as well their different sub strands, which is useful in a purely intellectual sense, as well as being helpful for forming practical publishing projects that can flow from them. It also inculcates reflexivity about your work flow: prior to consciously embracing continuous publishing, my experience of research involved a cycle between an (overly) chaotic process of putting together raw materials & threading them together and an (overly) structured process of fitting these into the formal requirements of journals, publishers, the PhD etc. Now it feels much more unified. I understand the different things I do more, the conditions amenable to them and how this all fits into a coherent sector of my life ‘research’ as distinct from other sectors. It helps put research in a box, though not in a way that feels restrictive. It also helps you work from anywhere and fit the fragments together in a unified way at a time that’s convenient for you.
  • I think there’s a general and often quite vague fear about sharing on the internet which I”ve encountered a lot when running workshops. I don’t share it. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive but, in my mind, if you share your work in some venues, why not share it in others? I don’t think the internet is filled with nefarious academic predators waiting to steal your ideas as soon as you let your guard down. I do however think it’s filled with an enormous range of academics, far more diverse than any network you can encounter in face-to-face settings, who are just as eager to find direct and indirect interlocutors as I assume you are. Even if there are risks I think they’re manifestly outweighed by the benefits which accrue from open research. I passionately believe sharing can and should be a default option. It’s an impulse implicit in the act of publishing and, in so far as we are hesitant about it, I’d suggest that’s a consequence of social structures relating to academic careers, auditing and scholarly publishing perverting the practice of intellectual craftsmanship: making cultural products and sharing them.
  • In technical terms I think all you need to do continuous publishing is a blog and a twitter account. Link the two together and you posses an incredibly potent publishing platform which is free and entirely within your own control. Use twitter to follow people whose work you find interesting and who, perhaps, will find your work interesting. Once you post twitter updates for your new blog posts and discuss them with others, an audience will quickly begin to develop.
  • In doing so I think you maximise your online footprint and impact flows quite naturally from this. People know what work you’re doing, will often refer others to you, it helps publicise your books & papers and you become known for working in your area. It also helps bridge the gap with the world outside the academy. The greater your social media footprint, the easier it is for journalists (and anyone else for that matter) to find your work and to make contact with you. In turn the greater your social media footprint is, the easier it is for those who encounter the ensuing media coverage to find you online by searching for your name and/or your research topic. It’s an incredibly potent form of disintermediation which, I suspect, has yet to really effect the academy in the work it is likely to with time.

Some initial thoughts for a talk i’m doing tomorrow:

– what goes into producing a chapter or a paper? Lots of ideas, conversations, extracts from texts, chunks of writing etc. some of these have a social existence, in so far as they emerge out of formal or informal academic conversations, however most are private and few, if any, are meaningfully public?

– why is this status as public largely restricted to such ‘formal’ outputs? Is it some intrinsic characteristic of the activities which go into producing a paper or a chapter? Inevitably some significant cross-disciplinary variation here which I don’t feel qualified to make a conclusive statement about because it is an empirical question. However
I would contend that at least SOME of this largely private production can be ascribed to the restrictions of the communications infrastructure traditionally available to academics with these restrictions ossifying over time into seemingly ‘obvious’ norms of academic practice.

– these norms tend to restrict dialogue to the post-publication stage which, given the opportunity costs involved in engaging seriously with a paper, inevitably restricts the dialogues that emerge

– so why not try and seek dialogue at the pre publication stage? This would lead to a much broader array of dialogues because of the much lower opportunity costs attached to engaging with, say, a blog post rather than a paper

In the rest of the talk I will discuss:

– technical infrastructure required to do it
– benefits and costs to individuals
– its significance for impact
– my own experiences of trying this