The wisdom of non-experts



Nowadays, most academic disciplines are pretty closed shops. Sure, they might have the odd study that involves another discipline and there might be the odd paper calling for greater collaboration but the limits of collaboration are firmly set.

We all know the rules. If you need help with research, you are expected to go talk to another researcher. If your research crosses disciplinary boundaries, you are expected to find a researcher in those other disciplines and go to them with a list of tightly worded questions. It is very rare for any academic to ever bother involving non-academics in their work. We are the experts. Why would we need anybody else?

What if we started working not just with fellow academics but with ordinary people too? What might change? I know where you’re going, I hear you cry. You’re one of those “public engagement” people (some people call it “community engagement”); you want us all to go put on workshops for school kids and write for local newspapers.

Maybe not.

What if we made a more fundamental change to the way we do research? One of my supervisors is a guy called Graham Turner. Along with a colleague called Frank Harrington, he once wrote a paper called “Issues of Power and Method in Interpreting Research” (not yet available online, sadly).

His basic thesis was that the reason many researchers are finding it difficult to get research subjects is that they are failing to engage with what their “subjects” actually want. His answer to this was and is to rethink research completely and work with non-academics from the start, finding out what they want to know and what interests them.

The logic is really simple. People are more likely to help you get what you want (a PhD, a paper, some useful data) when you are helping them get what they want (empirical support for policy campaigns, answers to their questions). For those of us working in the social sciences, support from non-academics can often be a necessity. Graham’s approach shows us one way of getting it.

There are, of course, real problems with this way of doing research. For a start, it poses some really tough questions for the academics using it. What do you do if the results of your research are not the ones your non-academic collaborators wanted? Is it possible to stay scientifically-neutral when a lot of people involved in your work might be hoping for a very specific outcome? What if you want to research something that is controversial and unpopular?

None of these questions have easy answers, yet they are issues that have hung around all kinds of research for years. Arguably, anyone who takes money from a funder faces similar ethical pressures.

Government funding often comes in the hope of supporting the political position du jour; private funding often requires a commercialisable invention or future patent. There is almost always some kind of an agenda behind support for research. What early public engagement does is make this obvious and force the researcher to admit it and openly discuss it.

On the other hand, there is a price to be paid for avoiding engagement. Even the most high altitude blue skies research can require the help of outsiders. There might be equipment to be designed and commissioned, books to be sourced or software to be engineered. At some point, all research meets reality.

Without the help of non-experts, there is the potential for embarrassing errors. Every field has its fair share of theories that look perfect in books or papers only to fall to pieces when compared with data. How often have academics seen years of work wasted because they forgot to do a sanity check with a few intelligent outsiders?

How you engage and who you engage with will depend on the work you are doing. Social scientists might want to spend some precious research time really getting to know their “subjects” and talking to them as people before they interview them as data sources. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) researchers might want to chat to whoever might be using what they are working on, the equipment manufacturers, the funders who are paying them or even some intelligent section of the public. Humanities researchers might want to spend time explaining the themes and outcomes of their research to someone outside of their field.

Almost every piece of research has the potential to be helped by some non-expert
. The fact that modern technology has made engagement much easier simply makes the case for it more compelling. Perhaps the top academics of the future won’t just be those who can write the most respected journal papers or those who invent the most terms but those who manage to engage intelligently with the world outside the ivory tower as well.

What do you think? Do you know how (or if) your research will be used outside of the academy? How might you go about learning what problems need investigation?

Author Bio: Jonathan Downie is a PhD student, conference interpreter, public speaker and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits LifeinLINCS the unofficial blog of the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University. He is married with two children. His newest blog Rock Your Talk aims to help people keep on improving in their public speaking. In this post Jonathan gives some thought to an important topic – should we work harder to non academic others in our research?