Andrew Shenton considers how the level of interaction between
academics and information professionals can be improved to
better inform the research and practice of both.
THE December 2017/January 2018 edition of Information Professional included a penetrating and helpful article by Rita Marcella on the importance of a close relationship between research and practice (available at https://bit.ly/2rOYxAm).
Rita’s starting point was that of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in operation within Higher Education. I would like to consider the matter from the perspective of the solo researcher in information science. The result should, I hope, complement, rather than duplicate, Rita’s ideas.
In 2011, I began assembling a portfolio with the aim of gaining a higher doctorate in information science. The submission took the form of a collection of all my publications and a detailed statement in which I argued my case for being awarded a degree of this type. The university’s regulations demanded I show that my research-based published material made “a substantial, sustained and original contribution to investigation, knowledge and/or scholarship and… established the candidate’s authoritative standing”. There are, of course, many ways in which “authority” can be demonstrated but it occurred to me that one of the most convincing was to examine how my output had affected thinking in my field. The higher doctorate regulations of some universities specifically require evidence of such influence.
Exploring how my papers had been of value to other academics was not difficult since search tools such as Google and more specialist citation indexing services enabled me to track down a range of material in which I had been referenced. Investigating how my pieces had informed LIS practice was more challenging, however, largely because professionals in our area do not, for the most part, write items citing scholarly work. I found a few reports on initiatives within particular libraries that had drawn on my papers but, generally, instances where my ideas had been used in the world at large, away from research-specific situations, tended to be isolated cases.
No doubt many academics are keen to know about the impact that their papers have had in the full range of spheres in which their influence has been felt. Scholars may wish to highlight such insights as part of their efforts to acquire further qualifications or secure promotion in their careers. In addition, knowledge of where one’s research outputs have been helpful to others is an ideal starting point for the development of new projects, especially if the research to come will be genuinely concerned with ensuring that any outcomes are of practical utility.
The researcher’s role
Improving the level of interaction between academics and information professionals is a two-way process in which considerable efforts are needed by each party. Let us first consider what steps may be taken by scholars that would assist practitioners.
So what can information professionals do?
- On the broadest level, it is incumbent on researchers to maintain an awareness of the issues and problems faced by practitioners in their field. Background reading for any LIS academic with an interest in the “real world”, as opposed to pure theory, may begin with the browsing of relevant professional periodicals. After all, whether our focus lies with scholarship or the actuality of doing the job, virtually all of us involved in the discipline are concerned in some way with the organisation or use of materials – two activities that are inherently practical. Traditionally, these have been the essential territories of LIS.
- Even in today’s electronically-connected world, there remains no real substitute for direct, face-to-face contact between scholars and information professionals. This may be via formal systems set up by, for example, universities or softer, more socially-oriented means, as well as the long established methods of research/practice conferences, training events and seminars. Academics would
be well advised to exploit any such
opportunities that arise.
- In terms of written communication, the need for researchers to promote their findings and, in particular, their implications through appropriate channels, such as our own journal and other publications produced by professional associations, cannot be stressed too highly. This is a key strand within the process of “differentiated dissemination”. Many practitioners lament that academics do not write for professional periodicals. There are various reasons for this apparent neglect but a key problem is that if their study is qualitative and the results are specific to the small group of people who have been approached for data, the researcher may feel uncomfortable in making broader recommendations for practice. There is also the complication that the writer will be unaware of the particular contexts in which other professionals operate.
- High levels of proactivity are needed on the part of scholars in order to seek out instances where their work has been used. Tools such as Google can be invaluable in directing attention to documents that lie beyond the typical academic channels of peer reviewed journals and scholarly conferences. The kinds of materials that the searcher is able to access through Google are diverse and may even include student assignments and blog entries. On occasion, the inexperience of LIS students can be invaluable in providing a fresh pair of eyes.
- Making oneself accessible to interested parties, such as readers of any professional periodicals in which one’s work appears, can be crucial in establishing personal dialogues between individual researchers and practitioners. Information Professional invites contributors to share email and Twitter particulars with their article. Details of the author’s job title and the organisation in which they are based also help to render that writer traceable.
- The reactive dimension is another aspect that is not to be overlooked. Researchers should welcome direct inquiries and feedback from practitioners who are in some way affected by their work. Some may even feel flattered.
Notwithstanding the opportunities presented in recent years by the Access to Research initiative, one of the most fundamental hurdles faced by a practitioner who is keen to find out about the latest research relevant to their work is that they are likely to have limited access to scholarly journals, unless they work in a Higher Education library. This challenge emphasises the need for differentiated dissemination, which was highlighted above. In addition, professionals should be aware of the importance of writing about particular initiatives in which they are involved in their own organisations and ensure that, whenever practicable, their reports are made available, via the web, to a readership that will include at least some academics.
If they have drawn inspiration from the work of researchers, it is helpful that information professionals indicate this, as academics benefit from knowing which of their papers have been most relevant to practice and where it would be advantageous to extend their efforts in the future.
Just as the scholar must look to network with information professionals, the practitioner should seek to network with scholars. Given that researchers tend to be largely ignorant of how their work is being used by information professionals, many would no doubt welcome practitioners taking the first steps in terms of establishing contact with them, especially in situations where the academic’s ideas resonate with the professional’s attitudes and situation.
In sum, the hope must be that the efforts described above lead to the creation and maintenance of the kind of virtuous circle which is depicted below.
Top image (cropped) CC by 3.0