The value of academic research

by | Feb 12, 2018 | Collaboration, Digital workplace, Information Management, Search

At a time when maintaining a technology-employee balance is becoming increasing difficult it is important to be able to take advantage of the substantial amount of academic research that is being undertaken on topics that include information retrieval, digital assistants, enterprise social networks, information systems adoption and collaboration effectiveness. I should say here that there is virtually no research on intranets. Academic research is certainly not being carried out only within universities; many excellent case studies have been published over the last few years. I have a collection of over 2000 research papers across the topics I’ve mentioned above, but I do have the benefit of access to the extensive digital resources of the University of Sheffield.

There are three challenges in using this research in practice. The first is finding the research papers. Google Scholar is my first choice because it offers date range search and also lists open source versions of published papers where they are available. Microsoft Academic and BASE (Bielefeld Academic Search Engine also have their merits. The ACM Digital Library provides access to ACM journals and conference proceedings and IEEE Xplore does the same for the IEEE. Elsevier offers the Scopus database service for its own journals and books and there is also Web of Science from Clarivate.  However, that leads on to the access problem. The ACM and IEEE databases are only available to members and Elsevier journals are behind a subscription paywall. That is where Google Scholar is so useful in providing open source versions. If there appears not to be an open source equivalent putting the title of the research paper into Google as a search query sometimes highlights options that are not listed in Google Scholar.

The third challenge is in working out how to read an academic paper. My advice is to read the introduction and then jump to the bibliography at the end. The main purpose in doing this is to see what the date is of the most recently cited paper. If this is more than around three years old the chances are that the paper is the published version of a PhD thesis. Then move backwards to the section that gives an assessment of the extent to which the research scales, and the factors that might have influenced the outcomes of the research. This is usually a very honest assessment. One of the hot topics in academic research at present is ‘replicability’. Too many papers publish results that other teams cannot emulate. Still working backwards you will come to the conclusions and a discussion of the research results. It can be helpful to read these final sections before reading all the experimental methodology and outcomes. Without having a sense of the outcomes it is easy to become lost. The final step in the evaluation of the paper is to check on the authors to see how much previous work they have undertaken in the subject area of the paper.

In my experience people who see little value in academic research often do so on the basis of anecdotal evidence and not from personal experience. It is not easy to access this information (though it is usually possible to buy an individual paper) but the benefits can be quite considerable. Academic research may not provide definitive answers to very difficult issues but it can provide a vendor-independent framework for discussion and inspiration.

Martin White