Digital practices of engaged researchers

These pages are intended to help researchers consider the challenges of engaged research in order to review and adapt their own digital practices. We'll start with the following definition:

"Engaged research encompasses the different ways that researchers meaningfully interact with various stakeholders over any or all stages of a research process, from issue formulation, the production or co-creation of new knowledge, to knowledge evaluation and dissemination."

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement have developed the EDGE tool - a self-assessment tool for universities to review and develop their strategy to embed engaged practices. The EDGE tool uses the categories of people, purposes and processes. We'll use the same categories here to help structure these resources. For each of the challenges identified here we provide questions to consider, a brief discussion of the issues involved, actions to think about and sources of further information.

If you have not previously been involved in engaged research you might want to start by identifying groups of people that have complementary expertise to yours and consider how your work addresses the issues that are of interest to them. If you can identify some mutual benefits you'll have a firm basis for approaching them and developing a productive partnership.

People: "Involve staff, students and representatives of the public and utilise their energy, expertise and feedback to shape the [engagement] strategy and its delivery" NCCPE EDGE tool

A researcher’s multiple roles and their corresponding identities.
  • What are your roles and identities as a researcher?
  • How does your sense of personal efficacy affect your research?
  • In what ways does digital engagement express and shape your identity?
As researchers we have multiple roles, which we undertake within distinct communities where we present different aspects of our identity. These include, for example, the roles of investigator, designer, developer, presenter, author, reviewer, editor and consultant. Through our roles we develop and demonstrate our competencies as researchers. Digital engagement offers a range of communication channels through which we undertake these roles and reinforce our identities.

Your online profile is the result of the digital traces of your activities. These might be created by you directly, such as your web pages, blog posts and tweets, or maybe by others as a result of your work, such as your participation at conferences, on editorial boards and in interviews with the media. Searching for yourself online gives you an insight into how others might see you. If there are activities you are engaged in that you value, but which are not reflected in your online profile, you may want to adapt your profile to better reflect the activities that are important to you and your career.

Actions to think about

How would you like to be seen as a researcher? Academic research is generally associated with a level of autonomy, competence (or expertise) and community belonging. In differentiating yourself as a researcher, how would you answer the following questions:

  • Which roles do you most enjoy and why?
  • Who have you enjoyed working with recently and why?
  • Which research activities have you found most rewarding recently and why?

How do you express yourself? Your working preferences and strengths shape your interactions with others. Considering the personal roles, attributes and activities you identified, think about the following questions:

  • How well does your online profile convey your preferred roles and identities?
  • How do you (or could you) use digital forms of engagement to better convey your interests?
  • How does engaging with others online influence your research?
Further information

Who do you think you are? Developing your identity as a researcher. Laura Graham-Matheson.

What’s in a name? Academic identity in the metadata age. Melissa Terras.

Mewburn, I. and Thomson, P. (2013) Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 38, Issues 8, 2013, pp. 1105-1119.

Bolden, R. et al. (2012) Academic Leadership: Changing Conceptions, Identities and Experiences in UK Higher Education. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education Report, March 2012, Series 3, Number 4, pp. 60.

"To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad ... what has meaning and importance to you and what is trivial and secondary." Taylor, C. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. 1989, pp. 28, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stakeholders may include user communities, and members of the public or groups that come into existence or develop an identity in relationship to a research process.
  • As a researcher, what are your assumptions about the needs, capacities and interests of contemporary publics?
  • What possible roles can you imagine publics taking up in your on-going research?
  • How might an engagement initiative be used to shape, as well as communicate, your research?
  • How might the effects of engaged research be most effectively tracked, reported on and evaluated?
The role of the public in contemporary societies is the focus of increasingly lively debate. There has been a proliferation of innovation in the area of public engagement in recent years, both within higher education and across other domains. Taken together, these developments require us to take a step beyond the common place idea that the public is an entity that is already out there waiting to be engaged, and develop more sophisticated ways of understanding and approaching contemporary publics.

It will always be important for researchers to consider the pre-existing needs, motivations and issues of specific groups (or ‘segments’ of the public). However, at a time when meanings and ways of being public are in flux this is not enough. Researchers must actively consider the public roles and relationships that they do (and do not) wish to support and the types of engagement they wish to explore as part of their on-going research.

  • What, for example, are the big public issues or problems that your research sets out to address?
  • How could publics interact to produce new ways of engaging with these issues? What would your ideal public be?
  • Depending on the resources that are available and the context you are working in, what steps could you take to resource and support the emergence of such a public?

By negotiating these and other such questions, engaged research not only has the potential to be more effective but also to play an active role in the wide-ranging process of re-imagining and supporting the emergence of contemporary publics.

Actions to think about

  1. Consider the aims of your research and the possible ways people might be involved as a public to help realise these aims.
  2. Is there a single public problem or issue that your research addresses? Does it address more than one issue? Can you imagine different publics being engaged with particular aspects of your research process?
  3. Could the interactions that take place, as part of your engagement initiative, usefully feedback into the on-going development of your research?
  4. How could you track and measure what happens as a result of your engagement initiative? And how can you build these ways of assessing the effects of engagement into the design of your project?
  5. How will you narrate, account for and possibly evaluate the impacts of your engagement, including any unanticipated effects that it might have had?
Further information

Mahony, N. (2015) Designing Public-Centric Forms of Public Engagement with Research. The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Participation Now – an OpenLearn web resource to help you explore contemporary innovations in the area of participatory public engagement.

Mohr, A., Raman, S. and Gibbs, B. (2013) Which Publics? When?: Exploring the policy potential of involving different publics in dialogue around science and technology. Sciencewise-ERC.

Barnett, C. and Mahony, N. (2011) 'Segmenting publics'. ESRC and NCCPE.

Warner, M. (2002) Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Dewey, J. (1927) The public and its problems. New York: Holt.

"[A public] is an engine for (not necessarily progressive) social mutation." Michael Warner in 'Publics and Counterpublics' 2002, pp.113.
Personal motivations for public engagement with research
  • What motivates you to do your research?
  • What is your motive for engaging with publics?
  • What would motivate people to engage with your research?
Understanding your personal motivation for undertaking research and for engaging with publics can help you reflect on what is important to you in these processes. Furthermore, understanding other people's motivations for engaging with you and your research can help you manage and meet their expectations. When collaborations are going well, or not so well, reflecting on the motivations of the groups involved can help identify constructive partnerships or the potential sources of disconnections.

Competence, autonomy and relatedness (i.e. a sense of relating) are core psychological needs that have been used to explain motivation 1. Activities that satisfy these needs enhance self-motivation and well-being (while activities that thwart them diminish motivation and well-being). Sources of motivation range along a continuum from intrinsic (i.e. internally or self-motivated) to extrinsic (i.e. externally motivated). Intrinsic motivations are driven by interest, enjoyment and inherent satisfaction, whereas, extrinsic motivations are regulated by external processes such as rewards and punishments, personal importance, or conscious values.

Identifying and engaging with publics involves understanding what it is in your research that could support or develop their sense of competency, autonomy and relatedness. Where there is a lack of participation, it may be that these needs are not being served through the current form of engagement. Similarly, reflecting on your own sources of motivation and of others can provide a clear basis for establishing and communicating expectations.

Footnotes

1. Ryan R.M. and Deci E.L. (2000) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist 55(1), pp. 68-78.

Actions to think about

  • What is the source of your motivations for doing a specific piece of research? How does your research support your sense of competency, autonomy and relatedness?
  • Which groups might share or complement your motivations and needs and how could you communicate the research to them in order to set realistic expectations?
  • When working with others what could you do to monitor their expectations and support their sense of achievement?
Further information

Bandura A., Barbaranelli C., Caprara G.V., and Pastorelli C. (1996) Multifaceted impact of self-efficacy beliefs on academic functioning. Child Development, 67(3), June 1996 pp. 1206-1222.

Ryan R.M. and Deci E.L. (2000) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist 55(1), January 2000, pp. 68-78.

"The major goal of formal education should be to equip students with the intellectual tools, efficacy beliefs, and intrinsic interests needed to educate themselves in a variety of pursuits throughout their lifetime." Albert Bandura (1997, pp. 212) Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Purposes: "Embed a commitment to public engagement in your institutional mission and strategy, and champion that commitment at all levels" NCCPE EDGE tool

Creating better informed research
  • What does 'high-quality' engagement mean for you, in the context of your research?
  • How could you use digital engagement to improve the rigour of your research?
  • Where can you engage with stakeholders to enhance the quality of your research?
As researchers, rigour and robustness underpin what we do. From developing research questions, designing research tools or studies and gathering data, to formulating conclusions, we seek to produce high-quality evidence that advances knowledge. Done effectively, engaged research can help you improve the rigour and robustness of your research by enabling others to question, critique and inform the work.

Engaging with stakeholders from the very beginning of the research process introduces a broad range of insights that can enhance and deepen your work. In such cases, it is important that stakeholders feel they are engaging in dialogue, that they talk with us rather than being talked at by us. Digital tools offer new routes for engaged research. However, to be truly effective, stakeholders will need to agree how, when and by whom these tools should be used, and recognise the value of spending time and resources on digital engagement.

Stakeholders and researchers bring their respective backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, ideas and values to a project 1. Engaging in dialogue, whether face-to-face or via digital tools, offers researchers and stakeholders alike the means to share their expertise and improve the research process by enabling research that does not exclude stakeholders from participation and decision-making processes 2.

Footnotes:

1. McCallie, E., et al. (2009) Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report. Washington DC. Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

2. Ottinger, G., (2010) Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science. Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 35, p. 244.

Actions to think about

  • Identify the stakeholders for your research: What communities do they come from? What expertise can they offer?
  • When in the process might stakeholders be most valuable – creating the research question, gathering data, reflecting on findings?
  • How will you work towards mutual understanding and consensus? What tools might support this?
  • What rewards or recognition can you offer stakeholders to support engagement?
Further information

Sciencewise website: Dialogue project case studies.

Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute Report: Understanding your stakeholders - A best practice guide for the public sector. November 2009.

Arts Council England: Advice and guidance toolkits.

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website: Who are the public?

Government Communication Service: Working with stakeholders.

[Engagement] "ought to be integral to any good piece of research". Natalia Kucirkova, in Engaging Research blog post 'Engaging research and the Our Story app'.
Openness and open-mindedness.
  • Could openness increase the value of research?
  • What perspectives can a community bring to research?
  • Who owns the research data from engaged research?
  • How are stakeholders represented when you present and publish engaged research?
For centuries, researchers have maintained the accepted structures of research and have passed on their customs from one generation to the next. In the twenty-first century, researchers face increased requests from citizens, civic groups and non-governmental organisations for access to the evidence that will enable them to review conclusions and engage with research 1. When research is funded by public money, the case for making the processes and outputs of research is 'compelling and fundamentally unanswerable' 2. In recognition of this, the requirement for researchers to offer unrestricted access to the outputs of research (publications and data) is increasingly mandated by funders and governments 3.

Open knowledge is distributed knowledge; no longer only the domain of accredited experts, because research carried out in the 'open' is open to anyone – to members of the public, colleagues, competitors and other researchers 4. Openness has the potential to blur the professional / amateur divide within research. Knowledge is continually in a state of flux as it is created, annotated, reviewed, re-used and represented in new ways. To meet the demands of the open agenda, professional researchers may find they need to change and develop their established practices.

Footnotes:

1. Royal Society (2012). Science as an open enterprise. Royal Society, London, 2012.

2. Finch Group (2012) Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Research Information Network, London, 2012, p. 5.

3. RCUK, (n.d.). Policy on Open Access.

4. Esposito, A. (2013). Neither digital or open. Just researchers: Views on digital/open scholarship practices in an Italian university. First Monday, Vol 18, No. 1, 9th January 2013.

Actions to think about

  • Take actions that promote openness as part of your working day.
  • Ensure your data is accessible by others – is it in a common format; do the data tables have meaningful column headings?
  • Make your project blog open for comments by readers.
  • Check your information has an appropriate licence.
  • Make sure your work is set in context so that it is accessible to people from outside your immediate academic community.
  • ensure you give credit when you use other people's open knowledge/data.
Further information

Grand, A., Wilkinson, C., Bultitude, K. & Winfield, A. (2012) Open Science: a new 'trust technology'? Science Communication, 34(5), p. 679.

If you build it, will they come? How researchers perceive and use Web 2.0. Research Information Network.

Science in the digital age. Nature, 467(7317), p. S216.

The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice. Martin Weller.

The Open Data Handbook.

"... data and tools from publicly-funded research should flow into an open infrastructure that supports and encourages reconfiguration and integration and use by both professional researchers and the taxpaying public." (Research Information Network, 2010, p. 30).
Collaborating with communities beyond academia
  • What competencies are needed for your research that stakeholders could offer?
  • What pathways do you use to reach different stakeholders?
  • What will engage people outside your academic community?
Information from informal sources, professional expertise or personal experience can be vital to gain a fuller understanding of complex situations. Many researchers now seek to build on the expertise of stakeholders from professional and non-professional communities earlier in the research process. For example, the UK Alzheimer's Society formed the Quality Research in Dementia (QRD) Network through which volunteers with lived experience of dementia help shape research priorities, review proposals and monitor outcomes.

Engaging with different stakeholders can be a necessary means to access the skills and expertise needed to address complex issues. However, collaborations may also require you to be flexible and responsive; people come and go, and changes in other organisations that are not within your control can nonetheless affect your collaboration. The challenges and risks of engaging with others need to be considered and mitigated when developing your engagement strategy. For example, a loss of individual control can be mitigated through open and transparent group decision-making processes that improve the overall outcome.

Investing in partnerships involves the development of trust and respect. Insincere engagement is detrimental to research. Tokenism, involving collaborators for appearance's sake, or for reasons other than improving the quality of research, can result in collaborators feeling undervalued when their skills and experience are unused. If the research design does not respect and value the stakeholders’ expertise the collaboration will be ineffective and unsustainable.

Actions to think about

  • Build time for engagement into your research plans.
  • Go upstream - involve stakeholders when designing research questions.
  • Consider what digital tools or platforms might be most effective for communicating with different stakeholders.
Further information

Willsdon, J. and Willis, R., (2004) See-through science: why public engagement needs to move upstream. London: Demos.

Kerr, A., Cunningham-Burley, S. and Tutton, R., (2007) Shifting Subject Positions: Experts and Lay People in Public Dialogue. Social Studies of Science, 37(3), p. 385.

McCallie, E. et al., (2009) Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report, Washington DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

"As a one-time cynical scientist, I’m now signed up to the QRD idea .... It’s not tokenistic. It’s real, good quality help" James Warner, quoted in (Wilsden, Wynne and Stilgoe 2005 p.32).

Processes: "Invest in systems and processes that facilitate involvement, maximise impact and help to ensure quality and value for money" NCCPE EDGE tool

Understanding other people’s perspectives and questioning your research
  • How do other people view your research?
  • Whose perspectives on the research would help inform your work?
  • What activities could help you interact with and understand other people’s perspectives?
Actively listening to other people to develop an understanding of their point of view, enables you to extend your own perspective and reflect on any assumptions you made or expectations you have. Developing an understanding of the relevance of your research for others can help identify those who might take-up and use your research, and can offer not only 'pathways to impact', but also potentially fruitful collaborations.

One of the benefits of working with other people is that they bring a range experiences that complement or challenge your own perspective. These differences can be evident in variations in approach and terminology, which can make it difficult for you to understand one another. Seeing other people’s perspectives involves not just listening to what they are saying, but understanding where they are coming from and what is important to them. What is important and obvious to you may not be viewed as equally important or clear to others.

Engaged research is a potentially disruptive process through which your own ideas and opinions will be questioned and challenged. Listening actively refers to taking the necessary actions to understand other people's perspectives and being open and willing to change.

Actions to think about

  • What examples or analogies can you use that would help other people understand your research? How can you build on what other people already understand in order to explain your work?
  • When explaining your research to someone, asking questions to clarify that they have understood helps develop your understanding of their point of view, and generates a dialogue that creates a shared understanding.
  • The think-pair-and-share pattern can be useful for exposing alternate views and approaches. This involves asking people individually to take a minute to think of an answer to a question (e.g. to identify a set of key terms), then to form a pair with the person sitting next to them, and share their answers noting the similarities and differences in their responses.
  • Whiteboard or flipchart drawings and notes can be another effective tool for externalising and sharing your ideas within a group, focusing people’s attention, and providing a means for reviewing people's understanding.
Further information

Star S.L. and Griesemer J.R. (1989) Boundary objects Institutional ecology, 'translations' and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Social Studies of Science 19(3), August 1989, pp. 387-420.

Seely Brown J. and Duguid P. (2000) Mysteries of the Region: Knowledge Dynamics in Silicon Valley. In The Silicon Valley Edge: A Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, edited by Chong-Moon Lee, 16-39. Stanford University Press, November 2000.

Meyer J. and Land R. (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines. Enhancing Teaching and Learning project report. Occasional Report 4, May 2003.

"Listening is being able to be changed by the other person." Alan Alda
Working in partnership
  • What are your expectations for working with partners?
  • Do you see partnerships as one-off collaborations or longer-term relationships?
  • Do your partnerships offer mutual benefits?
Partnerships, at their simplest, are agreements between two or more organisations to work together towards a mutual aim. As a researcher, you might work in partnerships with schools, local or national government, businesses or charitable trusts. You might commit time, funds or skills to your partnerships. But whoever your partners are and whatever partners bring to the relationship, working in partnership can enhance research, increase its rigour and relevance, and meet community needs 1.

Working in partnership may mean working outside your institution, in organisations with different working cultures and timescales, but in return, partners enrich your research, offering extended opportunities for peer review, and to develop and test your ideas in a range of environments and contexts.Partnerships flourish when all the partners share a common aim and ethos, and where there is dialogue, engagement and mutual learning, these can help to create a 'community of practice' 2.

In face-to-face relationships, this sense of community and shared values is supported by physical togetherness but in today’s research environment, partnerships are often international affairs. Digital tools can be used to sustain a sense of collaboration among distant partners. Interactive websites, blogs, social networking tools (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), shared documents (e.g. DropBox, EverNote and Google Drive), and communication tools (e.g. Skype and FaceTime) enable users to 'mix and match' their personal and professional communications, and can be a valuable means for facilitating the involvement of non-professional partners in research projects.

Footnotes:

1. Kinser, K. and Green, M. (2009) The Power of Partnerships: A Transatlantic Dialogue. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2009.

2. Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2000, p. 255.

Actions to think about

  • How might you choose partners whose interests complement your own?
  • What types of digital tools will be the best suited for sustaining the collaboration among your partners?
  • Will partners need to develop new skills and competencies to use the tools that will sustain committed collaborations?
Further information

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website: Working in partnership.

Scanlon et al., (2014). Beyond prototypes: enabling innovation in technology-enhanced learning. Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme Report.

Wooden, R. (2006) The principles of public engagement at the nexus of science: public policy, influence, and education. Social Research, Vol. 73, No. 3, 2006, p. 1057.

Blog post: Effective partnership working – getting the basics right.

[Through the Internet] "scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds." Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (1996) The social life of documents. First Monday, Vol 1, No 1-5, May 1996.

 

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