Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ideas for my proto-dissertation

As I'm in my last, or next to last semester of coursework in the Ph.D. program, lacking maybe only 1 methods course, which I'll take in the fall, I can start to think seriously about a proposal. I find that I need to talk to people about it. Almost everyone I try to explain it to offers me some insight into what I'm trying to say. It's really an interesting process.

At the moment, here's how it sounds: I want to design a new way to present research results in the social sciences. I think that a Press/Library collaborative is a good place to get ideas about what the design should be, as well as a place to try out what I conclude might work. I will base the design on what I can learn about how people use research reports right now, the different ways they use them at different times, how they read them, refer to them, mark them up, share them with colleagues, and talk about them with colleagues. My research about the new form of report will be in the new form of report. This seems to work with one of the ACRL research agenda items (Theme 4: Authorship and Scholarly Publishing: Research and develop authoring tools, publishing templates and open source software packages for scholarly discourse, teaching and publishing. Examine the feasibility and characteristics of registries of such tools.)

So, I want to think about what's possible in terms of technology, but also what people really do already (how they interact with physical and digital artifacts that contain research results). Based on those things, I should be able to predict that some kind of format, or rather, many facets of a report form, would improve the experience of acquiring and using research reports. For example, I read Andrew Dillon's, Designing Readable Digital Text and in the final chapters he summarizes many ways that people handle and process journal articles. Based on his findings, one can conclude that a format or interface should have certain features to be of greater utility to readers, to improve their experience. So, if I designed such an interface and a report to utilize it, its usefulness could be tested. Then the results of that test could also be written up in the new format. It's like two papers really. The proposal for the design and the story of that exploration, then the testing of the design in real life.

I have an ethnography class this semester and, as background for the proto-dissertation, I plan to take that opportunity to learn more about UT Press' internal operations. I need to know more about what Press' current concerns are to better understand how a new form of research report will fit into their practice. I have a feeling it won't, and that's where the collaborative with the Libraries becomes essential. There may have to be a partner that's not inside the box in order to facilitate thinking outside it. But the Press has so much experience and perspective on scholarly communication, that to try to fly without all that would likely be a waste.

Finally, there is in the background the whole issue of copyright and business model. It is my hypothesis that if inexpensive authoring tools can be provided to academics, they will prefer to distribute their works as widely as possible without erecting toll access. In other words, the cost to produce and distribute should be kept as low as possible, to eliminate the need to charge either authors or readers. If the peer review process and Press imprimatur can remain a vital part of the process, copyright may be able to slide into the background, assuring attribution only, and perhaps even disappearing after a short period of time (like the Founder's copyright).

I learned from last semester that the whole thing won't make sense immediately, but I nonetheless need to get started. Only with grappling with real on-the-ground issues will I eventually turn over the rock that has a good idea under it.


Danielle Cunniff Plumer said...


I'm sure you've seen the Modern Language Association's Task Force report on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. There were some interesting responses to it in MLA's Profession 2007, and you might want to look at that publication as well. UT has both physical and electronic copies.

Good luck as you develop your proposal!

Danielle Cunniff Plumer

Georgia Harper said...

Thanks for reminding me of this study, Danielle, and the discussion in MLA's Profession 2007. I'll have a look at both.