Authors: Emma Gilby, Matthias Ammon, Rachel Leow and Sam Moore
This is the fifth of a series of blog posts, presenting the reflections of the Working Group on Open Research in the Humanities. Read the opening post here. The working group aimed to reframe open research in a way that was more meaningful to humanities disciplines, and their work will inform the University of Cambridge approach to open research. This post public engagement in a humanities perspective.
The open access movement is fundamentally about public engagement in its broadest sense. It also allows for reflection on a differentiated notion of ‘public’, where publics can be specific as well as general (‘the general public’) and valued irrespective of size or situation.
The LERU pillars refer to a number of ‘citizen science’ projects where members of the public are actively involved in scientific research through collection and analysis of data. The A&H are also open to this model of public stakeholders co-producing research.
Evidently, many colleagues do outstanding work on social media spaces such as Twitter or Instagram, which are interactive by their very nature. These coexist alongside a more ‘traditional’ model of public engagement that involves the dissemination of research-level content in a ‘festival of ideas’ or other format. Such events tend to be well supported by HE institutions, and in the UK are influenced by the demands of the Research Excellence Framework, as regards the necessity of demonstrating ‘impact’ and producing ‘impact case studies’ (with the downside that the latter often generate spiralling bureaucracy, as the meta-work of proving one’s own impact takes far longer than the impactful activity itself).
Anecdotally, A&H academics are often proudest of the outreach and engagement activities that take place in the modest setting of the school classroom or local library, which embeds them in their communities, although rarely with an audience of more than, say, 25. They would like this work to be valued more than it seems to be currently.
A&H research, like any academic research, can sometimes seem given over to abstruse theoretical language, and it is worth reiterating this larger goal: ‘Scholars in the humanities and social sciences should strive to publish in ways that will make academic research understandable for larger audiences: that is, spell out clearly and concisely its societal relevance and the ethical soundness of its methodology, reduce the use of jargon, use non-textual and other experimental formats.’
Although there is good support institutionally in Cambridge from e.g. the Public Engagement team and the REF Impact team, some consolidation could be undertaken, as these are seemingly discrete entities. Indeed, Cambridge in particular seems very complex in its training infrastructure, comprising e.g. the Researcher Development team, the Postdoc Academy, the OSC team, the Data Champions, the Digital Humanities team, and so on… This makes it difficult for colleagues to advise each other, and particularly their untenured colleagues.
We also recommend more institutional reflection on how to value and recognize work that engages smaller, local publics as well as work of international renown and import.