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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Make University Research Relevant: Blog It!

Our man Hunter pines for more applied research from our universities... but he also calls on folks outside academia to pay more attention to the papers our eggheads are currently churning out:

The state of South Dakota has an office whose mission is to help commercialize the research that's going on in state universities. But we believe the responsibility also lies in the rest of us who are working throughout the state to seek out such research.

Here's an example: A Dakota State University biology education student presented research results at a national conference and was a fellowship awardee. The research project was titled "Effects of Plant and Soil Samples on Microorganisms on Corn and Soybeans." Yet we wonder how many people involved in corn and soybeans in South Dakota have read it or taken action knowing the results [Jon Hunter, "The Rest of Us Need to Learn from Higher Education Research," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.11.30].

Hunter makes a reaonable point: I'll bet few if any farmers or elevator managers have spent time reading the academic research journals related to their industry. I'll also bet few if any farmers or elevator managers have spent an enjoyable evening removing hair from their butts with duct tape. The two experiences are roughly similar in pleasure and productivity.

Why on earth would any practitioner in any field want to read an academic journal? Academics publish in the arcane journals of their field to win and keep tenure. They write their articles for a narrow audience of fellow professors who serve on the boards of elite journals. Writing for practitioners is actually viewed as a ding against one's record at some universities. University researchers expect each other write abstract, detached epistles to theory and methodology, devoid of context, specifics, or passion.

My friend Toby and I submitted a paper on this very topic at the MWAIS conference here at SDU last May. Even as we wrote, we struggled against that same urge for fancy academic lingo. We recommended researchers adopt a research methodology called scholarly personal narrative, in which the researcher talks directly about his or her own experience and puts it in the context of actual practice as well as the latest developments in the field.

One excellent way to carry out scholarly personal narrative and produce the sort of relevant, engaging research that Hunter wants is the blog. Researchers (like Lilia Efimova, who researches the Internet) can conduct and write about their research online. They can blog their ideas, their data collection process, their thought processes. They can put rough drafts online, in publicly accessible language. They can even turn on the comments and seek the input of their readers, who may see things in a very different light from the laboratory perspective. They can make their results available to everyone, immediately, with the push of a button, rather than waiting for an academic review process that can take years and results in papers locked away in proprietary journals and databases that folks outside the university can't afford to access.

Some researchers are pursuing something like blog-based research and "open access" publishing. If academics want to fulfill Hunter's desire for more engagement between researchers and practitioners, they should look at the open access model. They should look at breaking away from the insular language and rules of the current journals and speak directly to the general public online.


  1. Cory,

    There’s no question that online and social media have eradicated the way we communicate at all levels. Research and academia will adapt when they understand the value of broadening and deepening their audience online. Some of this is the responsibility of the information offices in the universities who employ people with journalism and marketing degrees and experience and who know how to make news of a research project relevant and attractive to a wide audience through multiple media avenues.

    The future prosperity of South Dakota, more than ever, depends on the kind of research that opens doors of opportunity through our universities. There needs to be a much greater effort through university public relations offices, and maybe the alumni offices, to send these messages.
    I think it will dramatically improve the quality of the relationship between academia and the state’s business sector and break down the wall that keeps the rest of the state unaware (and largely unconcerned) of the great things that happen quite a lot in our state’s university research.

    I think it will change the way legislators and future governors look at making university and public education funding a far greater priority because of the tenfold payback from research and education investments, especially in a new clean energy economy.

    Matt McGovern and I recently visited with a couple researchers (one in bio-fuels and the other in electrical engineering) at S.D. State University and were amazed at the projects under way at State. The bio-fuels innovations at SDSU are really going to shape how we replace fossil fuels for transportation in the next decade. When Congress allows our nation to move more aggressively and deliberately to a clean energy economy, I think our research universities in South Dakota and our state’s economy will be huge winners because the market will demand dramatic “outside the box” innovations.

    In checking online headlines this morning, I came across a story on SDSU assistant professor Qiquan Qiao winning a research award for young scientists for his work with an Israeli research scientist on using new, organic-based conducting polymers which help convert sunlight to electricity. You can read it by going to this link: http://www.brookingsregister.com/v2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=6743&page=79 .

    The story made me think about the effect these innovations will have on solar energy development in southwestern states while wind energy development will transform the economies of central states between North Dakota and Texas.

    Right here in South Dakota, there is an amazing story to tell about how forward-thinking people in our universities are anticipating future energy needs in our nation and how these innovations can enrich our state’s economy and quality of life. Keep up your good deeds with Madville, Cory.

  2. Steve Sibson12/01/2009 7:27 PM


    This is just another way for the taxpayers to fund research that does not pan out and the private sector benefits when the research hits a home run. Just like the the bailours, socialize the losses and privatize the gains. Typically of the fascist path to socialism.

    If clean energy is such a great idea, the private sector will bring it forward on their own accord. The government just needs to get out of the way.

  3. The private sector doesn't always bring the best ideas forward, Steve. The private sector can produce monopolies that block competition, innovation, and freedom. Sometimes government should act to curb the excesses of powerful players in the market and icnrease overall liberty.

  4. Cory,

    How soon you forget the lesson on government farm subsidies creating opportunities for the big guys to gobble up the little guys.


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