The Unbearable Lightness of Communication

One of the strange things in universities is that there is a general expectation that we – as groups and individuals – are expected to communicate what we do. This is a somewhat unique and rare requirement. Bus drivers don’t publish their CVs and tell everything about their bus routes. Hospitals don’t expect doctors and nurses to update their personal web pages. How about ordinary employees and managers in companies – e.g. marketing, accounting professionals? Are they expected to publish something about their work? No. Probably most employers forbid their employees to use company name to write something in public.

Why is it then, that universities have this expectation? I don’t go to details, but … we teach adults, we use public money, we collaborate with companies and public sector in an open manner, true science is based on international research contacts, we apply money from foundations, etc. All our stakeholder groups would feel more confident working with us, if they could read somewhere who we are, what we know and what we do. As a result of this, every research group, including its individual members, would benefit from publishing what it studies, publishes, teaches etc.

Despite this expectation, scientists never communicate what they do. You can go to any university web page to verify this – information is broad, not really useful, and written largely by communications department, student office, and other administrative functions in the university.  It is not written by the scientists themselves. The best universities offer professors’ CVs, including their publications. If there are sections that are in the responsibility of scientists, they are typically at least 5 years old, outdated, incomplete, etc.  And yet, if compared to the time needed to write a dissertation, to write an article, to teach a course, or to conduct a research project, writing a few lined on web doesn’t sound like a lot of work.

Why is this? From my own experience, the most typical explanations are as follows: (1) I have too much/too important work and I really don’t have time for this, (2) I’m a nice person and I could do it but nobody else is going to write, (3) someone else, like an assistant, should do it, (4) the IT platform is not user friendly (5) management of our web page project is a joke, (6) management of our department is a really bad joke, (6) nobody reads the pages anyhow, (7) and I don’t see  “what is in this for me”.

Hmm… can’t really argue against these. All these explanations are approximately true for most universities. But I would still like to raise one issue, which rarely comes up and is easy to omit. Writing about own work (about own research, describing own research group, own courses writing educational programs, projects with companies etc.) is a unique requirement. It is very difficult and emotionally stressful. Because of this, it requires more time and more skills than what we are willing to admit. It is definitely not in our comfort zone. Perhaps admitting all this might make it easier to start of – or perhaps it is just yet another reason not to do it 🙂

I don’t have a solution this problem. It is a broader issue than just web pages, but web is definitely making it very explicit. This problem has many facets – feel free to share your views!



2 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Communication

  1. One can also think about, why is it that Finnish newspapers do publish some research news and others not? What makes a study so interesting that journalists pick them up? Not all those research news are something odd or funny, also ”real” and relevant studies sometimes appear in the news. Have the researchers called journalists, do they know each other… These are some reasons that come to mind, but they might just be excuses.

    But nowadays, if a company does not have web pages, it does not exist. The same applies to universities!

  2. Great blog post. Also have the felling that it is expected that researchers maintain a good website with their research, teaching and CV information updated on the web, etc. On other hand, it seams that it is also expected that researchers to be web programmers/developers since facilitators from university are very limited (you need to know ftp, ssh, html, css and javascript).

    By understanding how Google and Google Scholar works … and similar ones … it is more valuable for a researcher in a long run to keep its academic website outside of the university i.e. than within the university i.e. … it’s website will appear first (higher page rank) in case he changes or adds an affiliation. So the institutional website should be a mirror that link the personal one for higher visibility.

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