digital implications,  digital scholarship,  digscholbook,  Research,  web 2.0,  Web/Tech

The lack of uptake of new technology by researchers

Yesterday I gave a presentation for George and Stephen's open course PLENK. You can see the recording of the session here. The slidedeck is below:

Research, technology & networks

View more presentations from Martin Weller.

I have been writing a chapter on research and how researchers are (or rather aren't) using new technologies for my digital scholarship book. Several good surveys and reviews have been published recently looking at this, and the overall picture is a rather depressing one (see some references in my Mendeley list). While there are islands of innovation, generally researchers are making little use of new technologies and are very cautious and conservative in their adoption.

I talked about why this might be so and suggested the following reasons:

  • The stranglehold of publishing – tenure and reward are still linked to publishing in academic journals, so spending time on other forms of communication is not directly encouraged. This is reinforced through research quality assessment exercises which are closely allied to publishing, such as the REF.
  • Wasting new blood – related to the above, in other sectors new recruits are seen as the people who bring in new ideas. Yet in education because tenure is linked so closely to traditional outputs, new researchers are positively discouraged from spending time on other endeavours. So the very people who might engage in transforming practice are discouraged from doing so. This leaves it to tenured academics to engage in innovation, but these have mostly been successful through more traditional means so their history tells them to carry on this way. The pool of potential adopters then is decreased by the research context we have in place. I suggested this was quite a harmful environment to create.
  • Antithetical to research ethos – I also put forward the suggestion that in science in particular, research is about predicting outcomes, and much of web 2.0 (or whatever you want to call it) is about unpredictability – you don't know what will happen with your outputs, or through a network.
  • Research is the core practice – despite how much academics might say they value teaching, or public engagement, it is still research that is most highly valued. This means it is the area people are least willing to risk their reputation in and want to control most tightly.

I then suggested some themes that I thought were emerging, but that is for another post.

Of course one might argue it doesn't matter. Researchers will adopt new technologies if they are effective, and there is an underlying assumption in my talk that adoption is a good thing, which isn't necessarily true. This may well be the case, but there are three responses to this which at least bear consideration:

  • The impact of the negative context – if research adoption of new technologies (and associated practices eg open publishing) is being impaired by the financial/reward structure we have in place, then we need to address whether that structure is doing research a disservice in the long term
  • Powerful tools – I know through personal experience that even when people have been dismissive, or cautious of a particular tool, when it is demonstrated in the right context, or they appreciate its possibilities, then they will find uses for it in their academic work that I had never anticipated. This isn't true for everyone or for all uses, but it is worth chipping away at misconceptions and demonstrating potential.
  • The role of the researcher – as higher education seeks to demonstrate its value to society, it strikes me that it is potentially dangerous not to be leading on the use and development of new tools, and particularly on what they mean for knowledge construction and sharing, rather than leaving it to others.


  • Amcunningham

    Hello Martin,
    I’m really interested in your point that tools need to be demonstrated in the right context. I’ve just written a post this morning about how my mainstreaming of social bookmarking with medical undergraduates doesn’t seem to have worked. A few students who I showed individually did start using Delicious, although not ‘socially’.
    If I have some success in managing to get principles over to 280 students at one time I’ll let you know!
    My post:
    With regards to research, I think the key problem is a fear of sharing work that is not published. I was very surprised to find that the same concerns even applied to researchers in medical education- and it is hardly as if we are in competition for major pots of research funding. One of our key journals “Medical Education”, is co-owned by the ASME (Association for the Study of Medical Education)- it would be great to see them taking a lead in supporting the use of social media, even though they are a traditional publisher. This could help to remove the ‘fear’ which I don’t think is necessary.
    Here is my post on sharing PhD findings before completion:

  • Penny

    Or what about the technologies researchers use without realising it? Without reflecting on their use, or considering the impact/affordances/constraints etc.? “Nvivo as method” springs to mind, or even using something like EndNote vs Zotero for a literature search. These tools do determine how you work to some extent.
    And then why are some technologies singled out for special mention (especially when writing about methods) and others are not? Interesting things to think about!

  • Sarah Stewart

    As you have said in your post, there is not going to be a whole lot of change until academia and research funding shifts from the mindset of publication in traditional closed journals. If that change does not come from the top end of academia, then we as researchers must drive it from below eg only publish in open journals. But that takes a lot of guts…especially if you are told you will not get promotion unless you publish in certain journals.

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