Creating and sustaining an online research presence
As part of a small team of researchers working within the OU’s Public Engagement with Research Catalyst team, Trevor Collins and I have been exploring how researchers across the OU are using digital tools as part of their public engagement with research activities to develop an online presence that sustains public engagement with their research. Here’s an update on the work we’ve been doing…
Research staff surveys
The first step was to include four questions in the Vitae CROS and PIRLS research staff surveys in 2013. In one, we asked respondents to give us an example of a public engagement activity they had undertaken; only 3.5% (six people) identified some form of digital engagement (e.g. blogging, citizen science, podcasting, etc.). This suggests either that respondents are unaware of the potential of digital tools as an engagement technology or do not think of digital technologies as a means for engagement.
Research project interviews
A further strand of data came from a series of interviews with 15 researchers across the OU. Among other findings, the interview data show that, with regard to digital tools, researchers tend to support one another informally, working together to share skills, experience and practice to sustain their project’s online presence. While this is a practical way to sustain day-to-day activity, it can mean responsibilities are diffuse and not associated with a specific role, so that maintaining an online presence can fall into the gaps between people. Also, where project members felt that they had no skills to share, they were sometimes unwilling to take on the responsibility for digital engagement.
Engaging Research blog
To raise awareness of the tools and support available to researchers, this blog has been developed to bring together sources of support and experience from across the university. The site is a WordPress blog, hosted by the university and uses an OU-branded template that includes a web tracking code that enables the university to monitor the use of the site and generate analytics reports.
As well as making use of the university’s technical infrastructure, the project team is very mindful of the role played by shared social practices in establishing the site and promoting its use. Given the essential role of organisational culture in supporting researchers in sharing practice, the team takes an editorial role, commissioning, encouraging and publishing high-quality posts from a range of Open University and external researchers. Posts include reflective pieces written by the invited speakers of the monthly Engaging Research seminars, (within which the recording of the seminar is embedded), announcements, news stories, internal funding calls and university awards. Posts can include text, videos, images, web links, sound recordings, presentation slides and other documents, and offers opportunities for (moderated) comment and discussion.
The WordPress hosting service for OU staff that the Engaging Research blog uses was established informally in 2007. However, as nobody was officially responsible for the service it has not been maintained for the last few years. As a result, although many staff members use the service, the functionality provided is not up-to-date and therefore, some have chosen to use freely-hosted services from commercial providers (such as blogger.com, wordpress.com and tumblr.com). University-branded themes and web analytics tracking codes cannot easily be incorporated into these commercially-hosted free blogging services. As a result, the university may be missing an opportunity to reinforce its brand identify and research profile and automate the collection of analytic data regarding online public engagement across the researchers and research groups associated with each unit of assessment for research impact.
If no university unit takes responsibility for funding it, the OU-hosted WordPress service will not be maintained and will become unsustainable. Therefore, the Engaging Research team is working with the University’s Research Scholarship and Quality office, IT Services and Communications team to develop a business case for a sustainable OU-hosted blogging service for university researchers.
Digital engagement case study
It may be decided by the appropriate university committee, that the cost of managing a university-hosted service is not justified by the perceived benefits to the OU brand identity and the potential savings of the automated collation of data concerning online public engagement and research impact. In either event, we’ll produce a case study describing OU practices and infrastructure that will provide a useful example for other institutions facing similar issues. The university will decide whether to host its own services for researchers or to promote the use of third-party services within the next few months. In either case, we will continue to identify active researchers who participate in online forms of digital engagement, showcase their successes and promote their practices.
The goals of the final stage of the case study will be to:
- distribute the editorial work done on the Engaging Research blog beyond the project team;
- establish a sustainable institutional policy and valued set of practices for online forms of public engagement with OU research; and
- ensure that there is clear institutional guidance and support to enable researchers’ to effectively manage their online presence (using either the university’s or externally-hosted services).