Friday, 17 April 2015

What is "academic engagement"? – Apparently this isn't!

The other day I had a very interesting conversation with a senior member of a University (no names  -I'll leave you to guess which one) about the nature of "academic engagement", specifically what constitutes "academic engagement"?

What I found particularly interesting was that "academic engagement" is still considered by a number of UK universities, and also a number of senior university staff, as still the "classic" engagement – that is, production of scientific papers, grants, printed books, etc. and that online activities such as this blog, Twitter, FaceBook, Google+, and YouTube, all of which I am active on, are in fact NOT true academic engagement.

Personally I would argue that online activity is the highest form of "academic engagement" currently available for most academics.  If I look at the stats for my online activities they are not stellar, but they are OK:

  • YouTube: 11,000 views, 27 subscribers, 47 videos (~230 views per video; top video over 2,000 views)
  • Twitter: 650 followers, 3,400 posts
  • Teaching blog (the one you are reading): 43,000 page views, 53 posts (~800 views per post)
  • Nature Blog: Not allowed to say….
All of the above has been over a 3 - 4 year period, and I haven't actually done anything to really promote my online activities. I just keep blogging and posting, mainly for my students and for some fellow academics that may be interested.

If I look at my "academic engagement" from traditional scientific publications (these can be viewed on Google Scholar) I have 30 published paper, which have generated 827 citations over roughly 25 years. But, how many people have read the papers?  Fellow scientists may be reading the papers, but not citing them, I doubt students or the intellectually curious will have looked at them.  I think I can assume that besides the authors that least 827 other people have read my work, but I seriously doubt it is many more than that. In turns out that getting a handle on how many people read a scientific paper is difficult.

A recent article - Academics Write Papers Arguing Over How Many People Read (And Cite) Their Papers - suggested the number is low, as does a blog post by John Cook, which is repeating a tweet, which suggests the number may be as low as 5 (although no one seems to know the source of that number).  If I look at my data on academia.edu it would suggest my papers have a low number of readers, and ImpactStory paints a similar picture.

 Just taking the stats for this blog. My first post was in 2009 so it has been going 6 years. 43,000 page views is 7,100 page views per year. Over a 25 year period (the period I have been publishing scientific articles) that would be 177,500 page views. I doubt that my scientific papers have been read 177,500 times...

The argument could be made that my scientific papers could make a greater contribution, and therefore show greater "engagement", if they lead to a break through discovery - but how often does that happen?  Alternatively, it could be argued that one of my blog posts or videos helps a student pass a course and that one day that student goes on to make the break through discovery....

So, what shows greater engagement? This blog, or the papers I have published? Tough call.

Mind you, there is the question of why am I bothering to write this post, or run this blog, or use Twitter, FaceBook, Google+, or YouTube, if it doesn't count as "academic engagement"?