Thursday, February 19, 2009

Online Dissemination of Research Findings

So I recently applied for a job as a Research Associate on the ESRC/AHRC funded Religion and Society Programme, based at Lancaster (Linda is the Director). There were 61 applicants shortlisted and 5 of us that were interviewed, so I was chuffed to get to the interview stage. It was a great experience - a real confidence boost - and its good to know that when I have submitted my thesis I'll be a good candidate for other RA positions / lectureships / research funding.

Part of the interview day involves giving a presentation on how I would disseminate the findings from the large number of diverse projects funded by the Programme. I thought I'd blog about it a bit here, as it was a very interesting exercise. Here you can view the PowerPoint presentation I did.

I used research about online reading behaviour to suggest tips for successful online dissemination that informed my suggestion for how the Programme could thematically present project findings. Important factors included the use of subject headings and subheadings, and reports summarising and synthesising findings for different website audiences.

Much of the knowledge about how users read online comes from studies by Jakob Nielsen (of, an expert in web usability. Of particular interest are his conclusions that users seek immediate gratification, scan pages rather than read them, don't scroll down to read longer pages, and want to exercise agency in navigation.

These findings suggest that successful online dissemination of research

  • scans easily (meaning paragraphs are short, key words are highlighted, and further information is bullet-pointed),
  • is concise (online text should be half the word count of print text),
  • and is journalistic (written in an inverted pyramid starting with conclusions, then key information, and finally background information so the user can determine how much detail to go into).

Successful online dissemination also

  • helps users determine the value of a page immediately (i.e. whether or not the contents will be of use to them)
  • is user-driven (so that users exercise agency in how the site is navigated and information is approached and accessed)
  • and breaks down information by subject (so that there are no excessively long pages). [I obviously haven't mastered this last point in my blog!!!]

All these devices are geared towards attracting users and convincing them of the value of printing off longer documents.

Based on these insights, I developed a
strategy for the thematic disseminations of findings from the projects commissioned by the Programme.

I suggested that, firstly, there should be an easily scan-able list of
hyperlinked primary headings which enable users to choose how to approach the data. For this particular brief I chose 12 primary headings, which were:

  • the 7 Programme research themes (meaning, defining, being; identity, community, welfare and prosperity; religion, violence and conflict resolution; religion, media and the arts; texts, spaces, rituals and objects; education and socialisation; and law, politics and the state),
  • religious traditions (so users could go straight to findings related to particular religions),
  • social factors (so users could access data on factors such as age, ethnicity, or class),
  • policy impact (so users could go to those findings with implications for public policy),
  • methodological concerns (because the Programme aims included not only advancing knowledge about religion and society but also promoting interdisciplinarity, developing productive working relationships between researchers and research subjects, and encouraging reflexivity within the study of religion and society),
  • and individual research projects (so users could go straught to a summary of a particular project - written by the Research Associate).

Under each of these headings I wrote a brief summary to enable users to determinate the value of following the link further into the data. After following a particular link, the user moves through to a new page where the cluster of themes is broken down further into a table of contents that is also hyperlinked.

I drew up some prospective thematic divisions (for this particular brief) using the suggestions made in the descriptions of the Programme's research themes as well as the available titles and proposals of projects commisioned to date. Clicking on, for example, "law, politics and the state" would take the user through to a contents page where the primary heading is split into subheadings (in this case, religion and law; religion and politics; religion and state; and contested concepts) which then divided again into further categories and subcategories.

Each (sub)title in the contents list takes the user to a report (written by the Research Assistant), which synthesises findings from commissioned projects according to subject, under such titles as "Freedom of speech and blasphemy," "Religion and British identity," "Religious visions of society," or "Tolerance."

Each report synthesising findings is structured using

  • the cross-cutting theme heading,
  • a summary statement to enable users to determine page-value
  • a thematic "non-specialist" presentation of findings (with quick links to sections of the report, again to indicate page-value to users)
  • and hyperlinks within the text to more specialist content so users can choose to access more information.

I suggested that these links might enable users to

  • read individual project summaries
  • download project documents (e.g. tables of data, graphs, questionnaires, bibliographies, or the full text research findings provided by principal investigators)
  • visit project / research partner websites
  • buy Programme / individual project publications
  • read journal abstracts and online articles
  • read other online output
  • locate other output and related bodies (including newspaper and magazine articles; policy documents; organisations; communities; similar regional, national and transnational research programmes and projects, e.g. Disasporas, Migration and Identities or NORFACE).

Clearly, both the contents pages and the reports drawn up from Phase 1 research findings would be further refined and augmented as and when findings come in from the other two phases of projects. Also, this is a strategy for dissemination via the Internet, where findings are broken down into accessible and manageable "chunks"; other forms of dissemination would require other (probably much broader) subject headings.

I argued that this strategy simplifies the dissemination of research to different website audiences. While the ESRC website, for example, asks readers what type of user they are (general public, academic, public sector, third sector) and then provides differentiated content for different sets of users, this approach multiplies the work load and ends up repeating information.

The strategy I suggested, however, provides a) user-driven "links in" to the data thereby catering to any and all audiences,and b) "links out" to more specialist content for especially interested users. For example, an academic interested in theories of sacralization can follow links to that thematic report, or, if already aware of and interested in a particular project within the Programme, can go straight to the project summary and download full text documents from the PI. Someone from the public sector who is interested in the research that bears on particular polices can access that information through the "Policy Impact" pathway, and someone from the third sector who wants to know about the interrelations between religion and social deprivation or strategies for successful faith organisations, for example, can like choose their own user-specific path into the data. Finally, a member of the general public interested in Islam can access all the findings whihc relate to that religious tradition.

So, my presentation used insights from research on web usability to reflect on successful online dissemination strategies and to suggest that the Religion and Society Programme website should

  • allow users to navigate through 12 primary headings
  • provide brief summaries of findings clusters to enable users to determine page value
  • display easily scan-able contents pages under each primary heading
  • enable users to choose "links in" to concise, non-specialist, thematic reports (by RA)
  • include links within the reports to allow specialist users to access further content
  • make it easy for users to confirm the value of findings
  • convince users to print off full text documents (from PI) or buy publications.

I made it clear that this was not to preclude other methods of dissemination via the website (e.g. page listing all Programme or project-specific output) but rather to present the strategy I would implement to disseminate findings thematically.

I didn't get the job because I haven't yet finished or submitted my thesis (the other four candidates had) and because the successful candidate already had a wider knowledge of religion and society through working on previous projects, so it wasn't because my strategy for online dissemination sucked - therefore I thought it would be of interest to other researchers who are thinking about setting up websites to disseminate their findings to a broader audience.

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