The research Hussites


[This is another from my catalogue of strained metaphors, and my grasp of religious history is rather tenuous, so I'm sure people who are better acquainted with the subtleties of Hussite history can point out lots of flaws with it. But take the surface points as of interest.]

I've been giving a talk recently called "Digital Scholarship: 10 Lessons in 10 Videos". I'll blog these in detail later, but one of my lessons is that we should rethink research. By this I mean we have a certain attitude towards how research is conducted, which was shaped prior to the arrival of digital, networked and open technologies. Some of that attitude still works, but there are also a host of possibilities that remaining wedded solely to that view prohibits.

An aspect of this that interests me is the Do It Yourself (or Do It Ourselves as Tim O'Reilly has it), do it now approach. In my talk I give three examples from my own experience:

But you can think of many other examples: Jim Groom's DS106 mega experiment or the MOOC approach from George Siemens and co can be seen as research and experimentation in the open.

What I find fascinating about these is that they didn't need permission. As Larry Lessig points out in his review of The Social Network, it is this removal of the permission filter that is really significant:

"what’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing."

Back to research then, and our ingrained attitude goes something like this:

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Write a proposal
  3. Get funding
  4. Do research
  5. Publish

Obtaining the funding is often an absolutely necessary step – you can't build a Large Hadron Collider in your back yard after all. But it also performs another function – it validates research as something worthwhile. So ingrained is this approach, that if you don't get funding, it doesn't count as research. We don't question it anymore. 

But with the arrival of new easy to use tools, open data, a network of peers and cheap or free storage, you can do a lot of research now without funding. The video I show for this lesson is this one from Derek Sivers. He's talking about starting a business, but a lot of it could apply to research also:

So what's all this got to do with a 14th Century Czech Priest? Well, Jan Hus argued that we didn't need priests, that everyone formed part of the church and the Papal hierarchy should be undermined. I'm not making any comment on his religious argument here (he says, trying to avoid offending anyone). There is an analogy with this approach to research though. For the Catholic churches read research councils. We are all the research councils, we don't need permission to conduct our practice and we don't need their approved channels to reach the audience. 

My argument is not to overthrow research councils, we still need them, but to propose that often there are low to zero cost alternatives available which might get at some of your research question. We should consider these at least without always defaulting to the funding = research model.

Mind you, poor Jan didn't have a happy ending, so maybe I should stay quiet.


  1. Scott Leslie says:

    a.k.a. “just share already.”
    There are of course obvious barriers to the individual doing some kinds of research “on their own” as you rightly point out – my backyard large hadron collider weekend project got stalled on the drawing board. This is seen by many as a drawback. But flip that on its head – how many one person projects, done with little money and very few people, end up imperiling the planet? Seems like by definition, local, contextual, smaller projects are likely to have far fewer enormous unintended consequences, the history of which modern research seems strewn with.
    People continue to confuse “massive” with “widespread.” The difference, IMO, is the former clings to an illusion of control and will go to no short end to make sure that illusion is then replicated in the organizations and structures that support it.

  2. You are over interpreting the intent of Hussite theology a bit – kind of in the mold of the Marxist interpretation of Hus as a proto-communist – the one I had beaten into me during my Czech education. And, it’s worth remembering that while the Hussites were ultimately successful, their radical wing – the Taborites – got massacred – by the moderate Hussites.
    But the idea of just doing research is a good one. I have been proposing something similar on The problem with the funding councils is that they disburse relatively large chunks of money for inflexible, projects with limited scope. Maybe funding that was a bit more flexible is the solution. How about modeling it on the agile approach to software development. Why not fund “sprints” rather than marathons?
    Obviously, this should not necessarily preclude the traditional approaches when it comes to funding larger infrastructure-dependent projects or longitudinal studies – but so much of research out there is just too long and cumbersome for the outputs it produces.
    I’d propose that Mark Liberman’s “Breakfast Experiment(TM)” should really be the most common type of research by scholars in the humanities:

  3. Martin says:

    Hi Scott – it’s a bit more than just share I think, in that you could frame a potential research project in a lightweight and a ‘heavyweight’ formula. You want funding to do the latter, but could do something with the former. So it’s about framing research and deliberately adopting different approaches. Agree about massive and widespread, and control. My LHC project is humming away quite successfully around South Wales, constructed entirely from old lager cans and elastic bands.
    Hi Dominik – you came to mind when I was writing this! I thought “I bet Dominik will bust me on this”, so thanks for not treating me harshly :) Absolutely agree about a lot of research being long and cumbersome, but also that the two approaches are complementary. We just need to be aware that there isn’t just one model anymore.

  4. Sophie Atkinson says:

    Do you have an email address? I’d like to send you something from Penguin Books.

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