January 2, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

An indecent proposal

An interesting article in the THE last week, Walls and boundaries, set me thinking. Tweeting at conferences and at talks or lectures on campus is becoming normal. It does have drawbacks, academics present research in progress at conferences and value the feedback, and tweeting may reveal more to the public domain than intended, but there will always be some who ignore Chatham House rules.

But we have to take the rough with the smooth. Research too esoteric to be of public interest? Don’t believe it. With the web research is accessible and the limit is on what is published in what language. School children have a wealth of information at their fingertips, not just for projects, but for thinking about what they’d like to do when they leave school, or just to pursue an interest (yes, I do know which is the most popular subject).

Public engagement is almost obligatory with a research grant and researchers may have to fight to be noticed in the myriad websites, blogs and twitters. How to make yours distinctive, how to get noticed? There are latest IT techniques, but using the old media doesn’t come amiss. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, even a letter to a paper can include your web address.

And then there’s Wikipedia. Yes, the free online encyclopaedia. The source of students’ misinformation. But why not? If I want to know who wrote the libretto for Britten’s Peter Grimes, Wikipedia gives me the information I can start with. Yet if I suggest to an academic that writing a wikipage is good public engagement the reaction is often as though I’ve made an indecent suggestion. I find this incomprehensible. Wikipedia is international, and available in fourteen languages. Yes, it contains inaccuracies, but use a search engine and Wikipedia is on the first page. Research in other media may be inaccurate, biased (drug trials?) or even fraudulent, but that’s no reason not to publish anywhere.

So please don’t discriminate against Wikipedia. Would I rather read wikipages about how to make a dew pond, the Belgium Congo’s independence struggles or is the appendix useful or a tweet about what someone famous had for breakfast?

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