In this podcast from the LSE Impact Blog’s Social Science in the Public Sphere event, Tim Newburn talks about his involvement in the Reading the Riots project, which involved a collaboration with the Guardian to undertake research into the riots of August 2011 at a pace far beyond that which usually characterises academic social science. I’ve interviewed Tim about this in the past (podcasts here and here) and I find the project fascinating on a number of level. One thing that stood out to me in Tim’s talk, which I hadn’t realised prior to my interview with him 6 months ago despite having been glued to the Guardian’s coverage, is the interesting fact that the project has not produced any traditional academic publications. While, to his credit, Tim recognises the consequence this model of publication might have for junior colleagues who need peer-reviewed publications to build research careers, it nonetheless raises an important question of how publishing of this form compares to traditional forms of scholarly communication in the literal sense of making public.
The short answer is that the project’s findings enjoyed a visibility, generated an ‘impact’* and sparked debate to a degree which would have been impossible for research published through traditional channels. The resources and skills which an organisation such as the Guardian is able to bring to bear on a project of this sort (and likewise the BBC with the Great British Class Survey in the second talk at the LSE event linked to above) give a purchase to public scholarship which ensures that it is genuinely ‘public’ in a way that is radically different from much of what is traditionally seen as falling into this category. Perhaps this fact explains some of the criticism that, in particular, the Great British Class Survey attracted?
Obviously a model such as Reading the Riots isn’t easily scalable but Tim raises the interesting point that organisations like the Guardian see projects of this form as part of exploring their future role within a changing media landscape. The long term changes taking place within academia in many ways parallel those which are playing themselves out within the news media and, as the Reading the Riots project illustrates, journalists and news organisation bring hugely valuable things to potential collaborations. It would be interesting to think about what such collaborations might look like beyond ‘headline’ studies such as Reading the Riots and the Great British Class Survey. Is there a middle ground between individual academics working with individual journalists and the sort of large scale collaborative projects which are discussed in the LSE’s event? It seems obvious to me that media collaboration of this sort are a hugely important part of the likely future direction of public scholarship but I’m far from clear in my own mind about what this would look like in practice.
*Though whether it will count as a demonstrable impact for the REF is a question that is discussed in the second half of the podcast. What limited support I have for the concept of ‘impact’ rests on the extent to which, if at all, it recognises and incentivises public scholarship.