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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.4  Use of new technologies

An image of equipment inside a laboratory.
Figure 4  Research

Given the potential benefits of new technologies, why might this be so? The environment within which research operates can be seen as contributing to a lack of engagement. For example, in the United Kingdom, there was a Research Assessment Exercise, now superseded by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , which assesses the quality of research in UK universities and then allocates funds on this basis. Similar schemes have been implemented in Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The current proposals for the REF have an aim to ‘support and encourage innovative and curiosity-driven research, including new approaches, new fields and interdisciplinary work’. However, the types of outputs mentioned focus on journal articles, and the exploration of metrics is restricted to a few commercial publishers’ databases. There is no explicit encouragement to engage with new forms of outputs or to forefront an open access approach. As with all such exercises they significantly shape behaviour, and do not simply measure it, so the message researchers may have gained from their institution that the exploration of new approaches is discouraged becomes reinforced at a national level.

Where researchers are using new tools they are doing so in conjunction with existing ones, finding appropriate uses for the tools to make their work more effective. Proctor et al. (2010) summarise it thus:

There is little evidence at present to suggest that web 2.0 will prompt in the short or medium term the kinds of radical changes in scholarly communications advocated by the open research community. Web 2.0 services are currently being used as supplements to established channels, rather than a replacement for them.

This may be an entirely reasonable approach, since research is at the core of what it means to be a scholar, and issues around quality and reliability are essential in maintaining the status and reputation of universities. A cautious approach is therefore not surprising as researchers seek to understand where the potential of these new tools can enhance their practice, while simultaneously maintaining the key characteristics of quality research. I would argue that it is this integrity of research which should frame discussions and experimentation with new technologies, and not the negative influence of promotion criteria and funding frameworks, since a concern about the nature of research is just as likely to accept new methods if they improve its efficacy as reject them if they threaten its reputation.

The research context, in particular funding and publication models, may work against the adoption of new approaches, but that may not be the only reason. There may be intrinsic conflicts with the ingrained practices of the discipline itself. For example, examining ‘Science 2.0’ in Nature, Waldrop (2008) found that while wikis were being used regularly as collaborative research tools, blogging was less popular. The reasons for this may not be simply a reluctance to embrace new technology but rather that the form of communication runs against the training and values scientists have developed over many years:

‘It's so antithetical to the way scientists are trained,’ Duke University geneticist Huntington F. Willard said at the April 2007 North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, one of the first national gatherings devoted to this topic. The whole point of blogging is spontaneity – getting your ideas out there quickly, even at the risk of being wrong or incomplete. ‘But to a scientist, that's a tough jump to make,’ says Willard, head of Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. ‘When we publish things, by and large, we've gone through a very long process of drafting a paper and getting it peer reviewed’.

There may be a dilemma with science in particular and the informal lightweight technologies: scientists are engaged in the business of predicting the future. Given certain variables then these outcomes will ensue with a certain probability (or these outcomes are a result of these input variables). But as we have seen already, the benefits of many ‘Web 2.0’ ways of working are wrapped up in unpredictability. Authors won't know which blog posts will be popular; they can share ideas on Twitter but can't predict who will take them up; they can release research data but won't know what the uses for it will be. It might be the case then that scientists in particular want predictable benefits and outcomes from engaging in this type of activity, and at least at this stage these benefits are less than predictable.

This is the end of the extract from The Digital Scholar.