Tara Brabazon: Don’t let the Big Society squeeze out our small but smart organisations

David Cameron’s vision for Britain threatens associations such as the Research Information Network that help boost UK productivity and efficiency, argues Tara Brabazon

August 25, 2010

As David Cameron’s Britain commences a post-quango future, a number of organisations are facing extinction, shrinkage, decline or (justifiable) paranoia about the future. The UK Film Council will be scrapped. Becta (the British Educational and Communications Technology Association), established in 1988 to improve the use of information technology in education, is set to close. As is the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The “Big Society” is leaving little room for small organisations.

The question is how, without such groups, individuals, families, collectives, communities, industries and professions will organise. For the Prime Minister, the networks of obligation and trust are the fuel for action. In a speech before the election, Cameron was clear: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” If social change does not result from these relationships of obligation and trust, then – to paraphrase Monty Python – “society is to blame. We’ll arrest them instead.” It is like watching a Western. We recognise the good society because it wears a white hat. The bad state turns up in so much black that it seems part of a Cure revival.

Organisations that think, plan, co-ordinate, assess and evaluate seem particularly under threat. They wear more black than most. It is starting to feel like the first act of Julius Caesar where the great leader remarked of Cassius: “He has a lean and hungry look/He thinks too much: Such men are dangerous.” Put it into Australian speak, and the personal threat is more obvious: “Bloody hell Brutus, that bloke is too damn fit for his own good. He’s a smart bugger too. Fit and smart? This is not going to end well, mate.”

Thinkers may require some protection in and from the big society. Unfortunately, “hug a smart bugger” does not have the same ring as “hug a hoodie”. But as long as the thinkers are referred to as bureaucrats, managers, administrators and red tape – anything but people – then they become a barrier to efficiencies “at the front line”. Supposedly, thousands of new nurses can be hired if the Big Society can cut through the red tape. Nurses are the barometer of social value. Such a barter system operates like anarcho-syndicalism, but without the anarchists or syndicalists. Kill a quango and nurses will appear in Eastbourne hospital.

Many organisations filled with smart buggers reveal their cleverness through publications. One of these remarkable institutions is the Research Information Network (RIN). It is a policy unit supported by libraries, research councils and UK higher education funding councils. Its reports, available in both print and online form, provide a window of change and a shard of insight into the conditions of research. The RIN not only provides information services for researchers, but also strategies for efficiency, productivity and rigour.

If the Big Society – as opposed to the fat (cat) culture – needed any reminder of the RIN’s value, then two of its recent publications are so profoundly useful that I immediately sent links to all my postdoctoral students and footnoted the results through current articles and books. But there is a larger reason why the RIN is so useful.

Like most humanities researchers, I (mostly) research and write alone, reading in the very early morning when nature is having a lie-in and continuing through the weekends when Manchester City supporters pray for a win, or at least for United to lose. The aim is to use every minute, squeezing out one more reference and one more paragraph. These precious moments of reading, writing and thinking are sliced from the rest of our lives. It is a quiet process. It is also isolated. Any organisation that can contextualise and enhance these patterns and processes is important. Agents and organs of the obese state (those black-hatted Cure fans) are – in reality – the building blocks for the Big (boned) Society.

Two of the RIN’s recent publications demonstrate its wide-ranging and expansive value. In May 2010, it released its Quality Assurance and Assessment of Scholarly Research: a Guide for Researchers, Academic Administrators and Librarians. As the title suggests, the report reveals the cluster of ideas encircling quality assurance and assessment for information professionals and researchers. This is the first document I will send to new PhD students and early career researchers. The document explores the regimes, not of value, but of quality assurance and assessment. There is consideration of how these mechanisms will alter as the volume of research increases, alongside the pressures of cost and the competition between researchers. As an orientation document for new scholars, I can think of few better publications.

Importantly, there is attention to the new kinds of research outputs that emerge through digitisation and the buckling effect such proliferation may cause. The preservation, sharing, curating and dissemination of data, as much as results, remain areas of concern. There is also attention directed towards regimes of assessment, such as bibliometrics and peer review.

I was most fascinated by the clashes between external assessments of research and internal institutional performance-management mechanisms. With the external focus on citation and impact, what is the role of such processes on both recruitment and promotion within a university? As the success rate for grants declines and the competition for space in prestigious publications intensifies, it is important to focus on the difference between processes for research assessment and protocols for quality assurance.

Every research manager, researcher, early career scholar or postgraduate student gains from this publication. It offers a way – in difficult times – to remember why we research, how others assess it and how digitisation transforms scholarship and dissemination. This final topic is taken as the focus for one of the most remarkable reports from the RIN that I have read in years: If You Build It, Will They Come? How Researchers Perceive and Use Web 2.0. Released in July 2010, the literature review, survey and fieldwork were conducted by Rob Procter, from the eResearch Centre at the University of Manchester, and Robin Williams and James Stewart at the University of Edinburgh. They explored the impact of researchers becoming producers and consumers of information through Web 2.0 tools.

This is a great project – robust, controversial and profoundly useful. The researchers not only explore how scholars are making use of these tools to conduct scholarship, but also how they communicate results through wikis and social networking sites. Procter, Williams and Stewart conducted an online survey to gather information about how researchers find data and disseminate scholarship. But they also focused attention on how communication systems are instigated by scholars for both collaboration and sustaining professional relationships.

The study was based on contacting British researchers through 12,000 email addresses harvested from websites with the ac.uk domain name. Their response rate was 10.9 per cent and PhD candidates were per cent of the sample. While the bias was towards the social sciences and economics, all disciplines were represented. They followed up with semi-structured interviews by telephone with 56 respondents and a series of case studies of Web 2.0 services, such as SlideShare, myExperiment and arts-humanities.net.

The headline result from the survey was that the “use by the UK research community of Web 2.0-based services for novel forms of scholarly communication is relatively low”. But even more significantly, they showed that, while Web 2.0 is linked with a “younger Facebook generation”, the results from this study show that “the influence of age and position is more complex, and that the differences are not nearly so marked as some have assumed”. Indeed, they demonstrated that “frequency of use of the kinds of Web 2.0 tools associated with producing, sharing and commenting on scholarly content is positively associated with older age groups, at least up to age 65, and more senior positions.” More men than women deployed the tools and services, and the number of women who have never used the read-write web is higher than for men. Therefore, one response to this study is that institutional intervention is required for the professional development of women, younger and more junior staff.

While noting the lack of systematic or widespread transformation, the writers of this report show that for Web 2.0 services and tools to be adopted, “they must offer both clear advantages to users and near-zero adoption costs.” They reveal that academics will use new web-based practices to communicate with colleagues for collaborative projects, but will also be encouraged by a context where co-workers value these tools and demonstrate their use.

The report recommends publicising examples of good practice to increase academic awareness of how Web 2.0 tools and services are used. It also recommends training and a wider dialogue about how to set the standards for curation and preservation in Web 2.0 outputs. It not only raises challenges for researchers, but also for university managers and researcher funders, asking how – in an environment of “knowledge transfer” and “socio-economic impact” – the multiple modes of dissemination can be evaluated and valued.

There is much work to do in this area. The report shows that Web 2.0 tools are not changing researchers’ behaviour. However there are some examples of shifting patterns, particularly deploying Google Scholar as a user-centred (rather than generated) aggregator of research content. Indeed, there is so little knowledge about the available tools and services that when the researchers conducted their online survey the contributors “were not asked specifically about their use of Web 2.0 since many are unfamiliar with the concept”. The scholars who do use these tools argue that the higher education institutions for which they work support innovation in teaching, but not in research. This means that new and challenging ways of researching and dissemination are not discussed and shared. This is a structural problem. The report shows that scholars will not adopt new strategies until their use is verified by fellow academics.

Organisations such as the RIN are able to fund, promote and organise studies of benefit to the international scholarly community. They provide a flash of insight, a splash of innovation and an opportunity for change. In this demanding era for researchers, where time and funding are scarce, such a service is a boost for productivity and efficiency. Perhaps the state has a role in creating a smart – if not big – society.

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