Screens, Research and Hypertext

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The Artifact and the Garden

Digital tools for research privilege outputs over process.

There are two ways of thinking about research. There's the process—the reading of text, collecting of data, and drawing of links between them. Then there's the outcome, the part where we put new information into the world—information that answers questions that people might be asking.

When it comes to policy research, those answers are about ways of making the world more peaceful, prosperous, just, equitable and sustainable. Heady stuff, indeed.

But when it comes to putting research online, our systems privilege outcomes over process. We concentrate on documenting new information. Indeed, in many cases, we take document literally, locking our findings into PDFs that are optimized for printing.

David Hobbs refers to these sorts of research outputs as artifacts. We research comms professionals have a tendency to build our communications practices around the release of those artifacts.

The research process doesn't get much love online. Indeed, very little of it is done in public. It remains a largely analog process—reading and thinking and drawing links happens inside a researcher's office. Pens and notebooks and post-it notes are reliable standards. Where online tools are used, those are largely document-centric. A large-scale survey of around 20,000 researchers around the world found that:

reference management tools like EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero were the most frequently mentioned tools for managing and using literature.

These findings have been corroborated by in-depth qualitative studies which found that researchers rely on reference management tools, along with "general-purpose software like Microsoft Word and Excel for note-taking."

When the sharing finally does begin happening, it's a closed and insular process—brown bag lunch talks, presentations at professional conferences and drafts circulated to friends for comment and peers for review.

A few—like our friends at On Think Tanks—have begun to experiment with taking the process online.

That makes OTT part of a larger movement around public thinking—one with a fundamentally different metaphor: The digital garden.

For more context

Tell me more about the process of research.

What to read next

What is a digital garden, anyway?

Other items of interest

Why do you care so much about metaphors?

What's wrong with posting research outcomes as documents?

Why do you hate PDFs?