Monday, May 27, 2013

Australian academia beginning to learn to crawl in 2.0 social channels

I've long lamented the speed at which academia was embracing the internet, social channels and 2.0 approaches - with limited courses available on modern online techniques for under and post graduates, old fashioned-approaches to research and publication.

There's been hints of brilliance overseas - with US universities placing courses online and UK universities embracing social in a major way - however Australia has largely remained a backwater for higher education in a 2.0 world, with individual exceptions at specific universities, such as Dr Axel Bruns and Julie Posetti.

To demonstrate some of the impact of this Australian academic drought, a few months ago I was approached by a European professor about identifying an Australian academic working in the Gov 2.0 field to write a chapter in an upcoming book on Government 2.0. 

This professor, who I had previously worked with on a major report on global Gov 2.0 for the European Parliament (unfortunately not publicly available), had failed to identify anyone in Australia working in the Gov 2.0 space through her academic channels.

I made initial enquiries through a number of my Gov 2.0 contacts in government, as well as to a range of academics and universities, however was unsuccessful at finding anyone through their systems. In the end I was very lucky to encounter an academic in South Australia with relevant expertise at an event I was speaking at in Adelaide. This academic is now working on the book project and I'm very interested in how it turns out.

We have seen some recent stirring towards greater acknowledgement of 2.0 approaches in the recent ARC (Australian Research Council) moves towards open access publishing of public-funded research, however this is still a very small step.

We have also seen some good debates on the role of the public in science, and some pilots such as the Peer-to-Patent, which strike at the commercial end of the spectrum, and the Atlas of Living Australia, which involves citizens in mapping Australia's biodiversity.

We're also now seeing some steps to move beyond the traditional peer review process to consider new ways of measuring the reach and impact of academic research, with the 'altmetric' movement gaining steam.

What are altmetrics? I admit I hadn't heard about them until recently and when I first encountered the turn found the name little more than marketing buzz. 

Essentially the term describes the use of online social metrics to assist in measuring academic success - mentions on Facebook and Twitter, the level of reuse of raw research datasets via APIs, 'semantic publication' of specific passages and references to academic articles in blogs and forums, and more.

The term altmetrics was developed by the founders of one of the first companies that is spruiking altmetrics solutions to academics, and the biggest supporters of the term are other companies seeking to profit from the same rush to web statistics. Therefore I am still inclined to regard the term itself as marketing buzz for the types of social metrics commercial and public sector organisations have been using for years (see the chart below on the growth of use of the term in Google searches).

However it does signify an important and major change in how academic research is measured and valued.

If academics begin measuring their success in how well discussed and commented on their work is in the public sphere, they will likewise begin talking more about their research publicly in order to grow their buzz and their recognised academic prowess.

This will encourage academics to get out from their lecture theatres into the community, become more proficient at communicating their thoughts and work to a broader layman audience and making research more accessible, interesting and influential in public debates and policy work.

I also hope more publicly available research will also lead to more people interested in pursuing these careers, greater commercialisation of research work, improved scrutiny of findings and better social outcomes.

However I hope that at some point academics will realise that 'altmetrics' are simply no more than metrics - ones that are already becoming business-as-usual in commercial and public sector spheres - and focus more on involving people in and sharing their research than on the marketing buzz.

For more information on altmetrics, see:

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