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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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2.1  The art of guerrilla research

An image of five people outside wearing protective clothing and helmets.
Figure 5  Guerrilla

We are accustomed in academia to conceptualising research as ­having certain components: it is often externally funded research and it produces a traditional output such as a journal article or book. We think of research as having a certain ‘size’ for something to count. One of the implications of open scholarship, though, is that it ­creates different ways of approaching research. The dominant ­attitude towards how research is conducted was shaped prior to the arrival of digital, networked and open technologies. Some of that attitude is undoubtedly still valid, but there are also a host of possibilities that are prohibited by remaining wedded solely to that view.

One such aspect is what might be termed a Do It Yourself and Do It Now approach. For instance, establishing a journal was an arduous task that needed negotiations with publishers and a sufficient business model to be workable. For some areas, such as interdisciplinary journals, the projected market might be too small to be economically worthwhile. However, the development of open online journal software such as OJS and Google’s Annotum removes many of these considerations. An individual could start a journal in an afternoon. I experimented with creating a Meta EdTech journal (Weller, 2011), which republished open access journal articles I selected from other journals (as an experiment into the possibilities rather than as a serious journal). Such a journal could feature original contributions, be experimental in format or create an interdisciplinary journal by republishing existing articles with a commentary. No permission is required to create it, and it can operate at low cost. Of course, one might argue that the presence of a publisher provides legitimacy, but if the individual (or team) have sufficient networked identities, then that creates its own form of legitimacy.

Another form of research might be to create an app; for instance, when a team at the OU created Facebook apps for students (Weller, 2007), their working assumption was that they would act as if they were external parties and not have access to any privileged information. Although it required specialist software development in the spare time of one of the team, the apps were developed for no cost and with no permission required. Building apps might be a legitimate means to gather research data.

A third example is the interrogation of open data. Tony Hirst’s blog gives many examples of mining data from government sites or social media tools such as Twitter to investigate hypotheses. He investigated how influential spending data was on local council decisions (Hirst, 2013), or who was tweeting links relating to a BBC television programme and how they were connected (Hirst, 2012). Another approach is to use public writing as a textual source; for instance, travel blogs have proved to be a rich seam of research data, producing articles on identity (Kane, 2012), marketing (Schmallegger and Carson, 2008) and methodology (Banyai and Glover, 2012).

I should stress that none of these examples are meant to supplant traditional approaches to research. They are not superior to them, but in addition to them. They are often complementary also. An initial piece of individual ­low-­cost research may form the basis for bidding for funding for more substantial work.

What is common to all of these, and indeed to many of the open education approaches such as the original MOOCs, is that they do not require permission, except maybe some relating to time allocation. In his review of the film The Social Network, Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig (2010) pointed out that it was this removal of permission barriers that was the really significant part of the Facebook story: ‘What’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s genius could be embraced by half a billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing.’

This same freedom applies to scholarly practice also, including how we conduct research, disseminate results, and teach. This ‘just do it’ approach can adopt a term from software development: ‘guerrilla research’. Unger and Warfel (2011) argue persuasively for it, claiming that ‘Guerrilla research methods are faster, ­lower-­cost methods that provide sufficient enough insights to make informed strategic decisions.’

Guerrilla research has the following characteristics:

  • It can be done by one or two researchers and does not require a team.
  • It relies on existing open data, information and tools.
  • It is fairly quick to realise.
  • It is often disseminated via blogs and social media.
  • It doesn’t require permission.

The extract from The Battle for Open ends here.