Thoughts on Accessibility

Office in HaitiIn the past week, I have been collecting thoughts about the accessibility of international development research by those who are designing and implementing development programs. (I thought I would include photo of my office from one of my “field” posts, from where I read absolutely no published research.)

The historic gap between researchers and practitioners is not unique to the development world. An overview of some of the challenges of the gap between research and practice are nicely outlined in this article by Julie E. Ferguson. (Notably, this discourse calls to the surface many questions about power, perspective, privilege – which I am going to let lie for the moment.) Given our global challenges, linking great minds and great activators seems to be of paramount importance, right?

At this point in my pondering, I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how good ideas make it – or don’t – from theory into practice. It seems to me that there are a few issues that are gumming up the system.

The fortress of published research – Peer-reviewed, quality research in international development is the gold standard. And oftentimes, it is locked up in subscription-based journals, accessible to those with funds. While the walls of the fortress (and subscription fees) remain high, things are changing. The World Bank and UK’s DFID recently announced that their funded research would be made freely online through open access. Efforts to increase open access are gaining ground (check out the Institute of Development Studies’s work and open access journal) and research-sharing platforms like academia.edu are also making dents in the fortress.

Even if development practitioners can get their hands on published research, other issues remain. How often is the research readily useful to them? The qualities that set a gold standard in research papers (e.g., literature review and methodology section) seem cumbersome when you’re in the field. Time is in limited quantity and you just want to know what might help you in your daily activities.

One idea I’ve been mulling around is the possibility of adding a section to development research publications – something like How this research relates to the practice of development. The researcher is responsible to translate how his or her work might be useful to practitioners, setting clear guidelines on how to best consider the work and how to avoid abusing it. Moreover, this addition would force the researcher to gain a better notion of the practitioner world, and vice versa.

Other useful ideas, program evaluations, and non-published research – What about all the other good ideas flowing around the halls of academia? What are the mechanisms for getting these ideas into the field?

It seems to me that there are primarily two ways of transmitting quality ideas that don’t make it into literature. First is through word-of-mouth. Conferences, meetings, Skype, and travel help get the word of good practice out, although I wonder how much the practitioners and researchers are talking. Along these lines, I have a keen interest in what I call “evaluation-plus,” the notion of academics conducting evaluation on development programs in collaboration with, sharing their findings and other research with, and providing suggestions to practitioners on how to improve their programs.

The second way that other useful ideas may make it from research to practice is through the mighty Internet. I’m increasingly interested in academics finding ways to more casually and quickly sharing their work. In short, in increasing the accessibility of their ideas.

Countries visited as of Feb 3rd

One thing I love about this blog is the wide reach. Here’s an updated map of the 68 countries whose residents have visited my blog since I started last summer. It’s pretty exciting to see that my own thoughts – far from being peer-reviewed and of traditional published quality – are being seen around the world. I don’t know who is reading the blog and if any of the links are helpful, but I am hopeful that this typifies the future of sharing development research.

Practitioner Needs – The final thought I have on this is how researchers can get a better sense of what would be useful to those who implement programs. What would be most useful? In what format? In what language? How much vetting should be done before sharing ideas? How much interpretation should academics do? What should constitute the “gold standard” for relaying research into practice that will improve the field?

In a quick search of the mighty Internet, I found Knowledge Management 4 Development (KM4DEV), a group of 3,000+ members who are sharing knowledge and good practice about development. Certainly, other groups must exist. I’d be interested to learn more about how to best get ideas for research from the field into the halls of academia.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Nota bene: So, it turns out that graduate school takes up a lot of time. I’m sure this is no surprise of many of you. But the pace of my first semester as a PhD student was a startling to me. I’m even more committed this semester (many cool things going on and I’m teaching for the first time), but I’m also hoping to keep up on the blog as I enjoy grappling with these ideas, sharing them, and hearing from you.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Accessibility

  1. Madryt says:

    Well I definitely enjoyed reading it. This subject offered by you is very effective for accurate planning.

  2. selfscholar says:

    Your map basically mirrors my own. No views from China though (can’t confirm if WordPress is still blocked there).

    Frankly, I think the onus is on researchers to make their work pertinent and accessible to the real world (and publish it accordingly). Once you set out on a career in academia, little incentive exists to extrapolate your research, and apply it to the policy world. Most academic research exists in a closed loop that is not only inaccessible (intellectually and physically), but not even geared towards policy concerns. As you noted, this gap is present in all fields. And largely, it is also because the vast majority of people (many in policy or doing field work), do not take academic research into consideration, or don’t have the penchant for it. I’d say most humans don’t have the penchant for the minutiae of academic research, which makes it all the more important to write in a way which is engaging for all, if your work focuses on broad issues that can affect wellbeing.

    Quality research can help to drive policy, but it needs to be open, pertinent, and divorced from the formalities (citing a bunch of articles just to show you know something and takes up space) that often accompany it.

    With my work focused on the Middle East, my map makes it clear that many more people have access to research on my blog, than would ever have it in an academic journal. Many people come to my blog through Arabic-language searches, which would be impossible if published in a journal. And given that I aim to produce pertinent research that can be applied in real life, that is valuable.

    Moreover, academic journal decorum and format do not always allow the communication of ideas in the best ways. Or, the stating of personal commentary or opinion that can best frame facts. Or, the aesthetic layout most needed for idea dissemination. Or, the ability to cite and translate things from other language (especially those with non-Western alphabets).

    So, you are right, blogs are great (you can also include electronic footnotes, scans, and linking). And I hope to see some of your research here in the future.

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