Thursday, 1 November 2012

Redefining the Researcher, and the Research

By Zachary Patterson

Tessa Lewin and I wrote an article entitled “Approaches to Development Research Communication” for the recent IDS Bulletin on New Roles for Communication in Development? We looked at the evolution of development research communications alongside the evolution of different development paradigms. The article points to a scattered and shifting communication field, which draws from a diverse range of development paradigms often in a way that is both incoherent and contradictory. Alongside the plurality of communication approaches, innovations in technology have contributed to changes in how researchers and practitioners both access and communicate research. However, despite the growth in platforms that allow open access to information, we remain limited by what many regard as anachronistic power structures.

Slide from Tessa Lewin's presentation at the Institute of Development Studies. The whole presentation can be viewed at:

New technologies are transforming the field of development research communication and this process raises new ethical dilemmas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tensions around intellectual property. There is an inherent tension between the academic system, which relies on sole authorship and a profitable publication model, and the idea of development research serving the communal, public good. Much development research is practice and policy-based, further augmenting these complications. While development research positions itself as a public good that strives to be altruistic and value-free, the power dynamics of capital continue to disrupt the public availability of its findings. The current tug-of-war occurring within the arena of academic publishing can offer a useful lens to unmask and illuminate broader dynamics within the field.

Are new technologies helping Open Access campaigning gather momentum?

A confrontation over the access to academic research has played out in the UK over the past few months, as academics continue to heavily criticize the publishers of scientific journals. Scientific and medical academic journals, that publish work largely funded by taxpayers, have charged UK universities around £200m annually for access in recent years. Supporters of what has become known as the ‘academic spring’ have argued that the findings of publicly-funded research should be made openly available to academic institutions and the general public, for whatever purpose.  Since the initial arguments of those involved in the ‘academic spring’, more than 12,000 academic researchers have signed a boycott of the Dutch publisher Elsevier, in an attempt to broaden the campaign against the pro-market model of academic research and publication. The campaign has since influenced the UK government to approve a plan to make all publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read. Meanwhile, the public availability of many academic publications that could aid the effectiveness and efficiency of development approaches and outcomes remains limited.

Paul Mason, Newsnight's economics editor, has argued that our current political landscape is shaped by a combination of innovations in contemporary communication technologies, shifts in global demographics, and the public realization of the power of networks over hierarchies.  In particular, technological developments have helped to consolidate local citizen awareness and action, while placing researchers in positions where they are doing more than collecting and sharing knowledge. However, while the new age of research communication technology has opened the way for unprecedented availability and distribution of knowledge, and the blurring of divisions  between academic, professional, and amateur researchers, the availability of development research remains varied.  Access to academic and scientific development research through ICTs and informative virtual spaces continues to be surrounded by conflict and tension in terms of ownership (or privatization) and openness.

In article earlier this year for the London Review of Books, Slavoj Žižek suggests that the current communications and virtual space tug-of-war between global citizens and government and private interests began with an attempt by the powerful to ‘privatize general intellect’.  He warns that because the academic research and publication model is rooted in the capitalist market, there is a strong pull to continue the privatization of research – including that which serves the 'public good'. While the academic system struggles to survive in an increasingly market-driven environment, new communications approaches are creating more layered and complex options for accessing and sharing knowledge. Despite the hopes that we may have for information and communication technologies in development research communications, it is not yet clear how this current chapter of opportunities and challenges will play out.

Interested in reading more around this topic? Try..
The Internet and Democratic Citizenship by Stephen Coleman and Jay G. Blulmer
Radical media: rebellious communication and social movements by John D.H. Downing

With many thanks to Tessa Lewin for her support in the writing of this blog post. 

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development? 

  • Challenges in communicating co-constructed knowledge to influence policy (By Fran Seballos)
  • How are the roles of researchers and research communicators changing? (By Tessa Lewin)