The art of guerrilla research

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In my presentations on digital scholarship I often make the claim that we have the opportunity to rethink the form that research takes. We are accustomed in academia to thinking of research as being of a certain 'size'. Usually this means it is funded research or something with a traditional output (research paper or book). But digital, networked technologies allow us different ways of approaching research. As I am forever saying, this is not to say they supplant the existing methods, or are superior to them, just that we have a richer mix of options now.

I've started calling the 'just do it' approach 'guerrilla research'. This term has been used in software design, for example Ross Unger and Todd Warfel argue persuasively for it, claiming that "Guerrilla research methods are faster, lower-cost methods that provide sufficient enough insights to make informed strategic decisions." I think there is a lot to be said for this approach to academic research also.

What might guerilla research look like? Well, as I've mentioned before, my PhD student Katy Jordan did some work on MOOC completion rates using open data that has been widely used. Or Tony Hirst likes to play with open data sets (although as he pines, it's not as easy as it was). Or a bunch of research that analyses travel blogs.

Guerrilla research is characterised by the following as I see it:

  1. It can be done by one or two researchers and does not require a team
  2. It relies on existing open data, information and tools
  3. It is fairly quick to realise
  4. It is often disseminated via blogs and social media

Guerrilla research needn't be in competition with formal, funded research. In fact it's a good way to get started on this. For instance, Katy's work has led to funding from the MOOC Research Initiative. If you want to demonstrate to a funder that your project is worth investing in, then being able to show some interesting preliminary findings is useful. And not just to say 'these are interesting' but to be able to demonstrate tangible interest because when you blogged it, the post had X many hits and was retweeted Y many times.

I feel we have a tendency to spend a lot of time trying to build up to a proper bid, when much of that work could be done in the open. And if you are a researcher struggling to get funding, then guerrilla research may offer a route to maintaining a research profile while you are waiting for that REFable grant to be realised.

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