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Research for All

How a fresh take on academic journals can pave the way for more informed and active public engagement.

Researchers and public engagement

16 May 2019

By Jason Ilagan

“As academics, you tend to believe the smartest people are in academia”, German scientist Sebastian Thrun once suggested. This notion has led to many an assertion that those in higher education occupy a space, loftily placed above the publics their knowledge and research is intended to reach. You probably know them better as “ivory towers”.

Not for want of trying, institutions the world over carry out concerted public engagement efforts through dedicated units working with researchers to inform discourse and enhance societal impact.

“After decades of experience of engagement (or ‘involvement’ as it’s more often called in health research), I still felt a complete novice when I encountered engagement with the arts and humanities,” says Professor Sandy Oliver of the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) adds, “Public engagement was not recognised or valued as a key part of the research landscape, and sites of great practice were situated within disciplinary spaces with little connection and learning across them.”

Public engagement? What's that?

According to the NCCPE, it is “the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”

Oliver says that the struggles “Became obvious when I saw how academics who shared strong principles about involving non-academic partners in their research tried to discuss their ideas about engagement across disciplinary boundaries.”

A lot of really interesting engagement work was taking place, says Duncan, “But it was often regarded as an added extra rather than a rigorous part of the research, worthy of the same standards of practice. It engendered a clear desire for more critical reflection on what the processes of engaged research could or should look like, and a wish to see a stronger evidence base for it.”

This led Oliver and Duncan, in collaboration with UCL IOE Press (now merged with UCL Press), to co-found Research for All in 2017: a free, open-access, peer-reviewed journal focusing on collaborative research, allowing for the exploration of a textured landscape in which engagement with research goes so much further than participation in it. Institutional support came from both IOE and the NCCPE. 

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Published twice a year, Research for All gives voice to those who often go unheard in academia – such as those in NGOs, theatre, local TV, commercial enterprises, NHS, museum and government, teachers in schools or further education, students, and freelance participation practitioners.
 
Why a journal? Duncan explains that barriers currently exist in enabling a wider group of people to have access, influence, participate and use research. “Many reside in the cultures of academic research. In order to encourage and support researchers to participate in engaged research we need to use a currency that means something to them.
 
“In addition, we want to raise the profile of other communities in contributing to the knowledge base.”
 
Realising the potential active engagement has to offer is the order of the day, to foster robust academic study, the development of involved communities and research impact. The theoretical and empirical analysis one expects from a journal is meshed with informed commentary to explore engagement with a diverse range of groups and cultures.

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“As an open-access journal that is free to write for and free to read, it’s making the conversation about research and its impact available to anyone, regardless of whether they are based in a university,” says Pat Gordon-Smith, a Commissioning Editor at UCL Press and Managing Editor of Research for All.
 
Contributions to the journal are welcomed at any time, from anyone, and in almost any form. Such a flexible approach puts authors with varied experiences at ease, at the same time all submissions are peer-reviewed and those unsuccessful are given constructive feedback.
 
Research for All’s editors note that there is a particular appetite for:
  • Investigating the relationship between theory and practice
  • Analysis of the thinking around an aspect of engaged research
  • Commentary offering views about thinking, practices and debates in engaged research
  • Personal reflections on key features of a book, paper or person, and how they influenced their thought and practice
  • Reviews of publications, events and resources relevant to engaged research
In order to encourage and support researchers to participate in engaged research we need to use a currency that means something to them.

Since 2017, over 70 articles have been published in Research for All and downloaded over 11,000 times. The editors are also receiving a steady stream of unsolicited contributions, and according to Gordon-Smith, “It’s grabbed this sceptical publishing professional and forced me to work on the practicalities of how to address so many possible readerships in one place.”

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“Research for All gave me the opportunity as a community researcher and Black academic to submit my article, and that has encouraged me to keep writing,” says Zanib Rasool MBE, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield and Development and Partnership Manager at Rotherham United Community Sports Trust.
 
Further afield in Australia, “The journal publishes the kind of papers that we need [in order] to take the next big leap for engagement with patients and the public,” adds Sophie Hill, of La Trobe University’s Centre for Health Communication and Participation.
 
Within UCL, the journal has been recognised for its enhancing of cultural understanding and fostering justice and equality through transdisciplinary research, winning the 2019 UCL Provost’s Public Engagement Awards for institutional leadership.
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The team naturally believe that the journal is making a meaningful contribution to a change in academic culture. According to Oliver, the journal is “Bringing greater legitimacy to investing academic effort in engaged research.”
 
As a public engagement project in its own right, Research for All also promises to be a tower of strength for many.
 
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