Communities at the research-practice interface ("breaking the ivory tower")

I am planning a project to explore the use of (discourse) forums as a way of enhancing communication between researchers (academics) and anyone who might be interested in their field of research. The purpose of this topic is to gather ideas and previous experience potentially relevant for such an endeavour.

To put the idea into perspective: while tech transfer offices are basically a must-have for universities these days, knowledge from the social sciences and humanities (SocHum) is not being “pushed” into society with as much energy. One reason for that is obviously that a lot more money can be made with tech knowledge than with SocHum knowledge (which is why those tech transfer offices often have “commercialization” or something in their name).

But this obviously doesn’t mean that SocHum knowledge is useless or even that it sits idly in the ivory tower. What happens at the research-practice interface in SocHum often depends on the initiative of the individual researcher and their contacts outside academia. So this is where online communities might come in handy as a way of engaging with a broader audience…

Ideally, such communities would manage to level out status hierarchies based on academic vs lay person and acknowledge the expertise from “citizen science” and the experiential/professional knowledge of practitioners.

What do you think?


For clarification – is the plan to launch a community for many researchers all working in the same field of research or one where lots of different subjects are all discussed (and it is the act of research itself that is the commonality)?

It sounds great!

It’ll never work. Academics need pubs. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads them, especially if those reading them aren’t going to cite them. Even in education research, which one might think has immediate practical application in schools, there’s little reason to bother getting anyone to know about your research. There’s just no payoff.

If it were to work, you’d get some senior people (full professors not worried about tenure, or anything else, for that matter) who wanted to champion the project.

One path might be to connect journalists who do work around those fields to participate and/or find people who’d be interested.


That is one of the things I want to experiment with (though resources will be limiting the scope of the exercise). So one variant of your question would be: should each university have one multi-topic forum or should each topic have one multi-university forum? - I am strongly leaning towards the latter, but that’s just me for the time being.

If we go for single topic forums, the question is: how specific should the topic be. And I think the answer will be rather context dependent so that I expect this to be one of my main sites of experimentation. But in concrete terms, I thought I would work with a few larger scale research projects or programs and their potential audiences and see what happens.

While this is certainly true, it is also true that funding agencies are increasingly demanding dissemination strategies beyond academia as part of your funding application, so researchers (and universities) are increasingly looking for ideas and tools to engage with the public.

Another aspect to consider is that even if some academics may not be interested in public engagement, the forum might still be interesting for them as a way of engaging with peers in their field (nobody will force them to talk to the non-academics). With researchers becoming increasingly specialized in tiny sub-sub-fields, most of the colleagues they want to discuss with are likely not at their home institution, possibly not even in their country. The traditional way of organizing these discussions have been academic societies and their conferences. Then email and mailing lists complemented these and now, it seems to me, it is time for online forums.

Yes, this would definitely be a resource for journalists, though I am not too optimistic about most journalists being able to really investigate a topic in much depth. So that I’d expect that they would mainly use it to identify someone they can interview. But that’s just fine.

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I’d say so – yes. If the underlying motivator is access to the topic then it makes no sense the other way around.

Above dialogue aside, have you researched your potential audience? Do they have a need for this?

I am currently working on a project for migrating the forum of a patient organization to Discourse. The patients on the forum in question are very interested in discussing research related to their syndrome. They have even founded and funded their own Foundation, which primarily focuses on basic science research. Even though researchers are not directly participating in the forum discussions, many of them do consult and study the content. Scientists have presented data coming from the forum in presentations and poster sessions at conferences in the past.

Even though this is not exactly the use case you are presenting, it is at least related. Having been involved with other patient organizations in the past, I know that these groups often have similar core interests: They want to learn about the latest medical advances in their field and discuss studies related to their disease.

The main functionality we are currently missing to serve this need is solid citation functionality for academic publications. In the medical world these would typically be from PubMed, in a more general context one would probably be citing DOI. The main requirements would be:

User can insert citations into his post by entering DOI, PMID, etc.

User can insert a references table at the end of his post, which is automatically generated from the references in his post (see above).

A search functionality, either as extension of the existing search functionality and/or something like a tag/references cloud, would allow users to find posts which reference a specific article. This could also be a references overview page, whereby clicking on a reference link would show a search result list of all posts citing this reference.

(Btw, I am aware of the PubMed onebox functionality in Discourse, it is fantastic.)

The point is: The main vehicle of communication in the academic world is publications. A forum/site which supports academic communication, must optimally support dealing with publications.

In the medical context, researches are often very interested in characterizing large patient cohorts. Forums can be a starting point for this (as has been demonstrated on multiple occasions with this patient group). I am currently investigating the feasibility of developing a Discourse plugin which would allow the patient group I am dealing with to maintain and publish Personal Health Records (basically what they are already doing, but in a more structured form). These would include details about their medical conditions and treatments. Lab results could also be added. The standard for this is called FHIR, which basically describes a json / api based interoperability standard for exchanging and storing medical records (Electronic Health Records = EHR’s).


I believe @pfaffman had a plugin for this.


Indeed! It got broken a while back. I keep meaning to dust it off and fix it, but paying work has been in the way.

@allu, in a former life I was an academic ; now a big part of what I do is import data to discourse from other forums. If you have a budget I may be able to help. My contact info is in my profile.


As discussed earlier, publications in the field of interest are helpful to get the discussion going. I just wanted to share a Zap which reads the RSS of a targeted search from PubMed, and publishes new articles to the forum. Here is the core of it:

As pubmed onebox rendering is now part of Discourse core, all one needs to do is to publish the pubmed link. Really sweet.

I got the idea from here:

Super simple but very effective for my needs.

@pfaffman Thanks for your offer. I do work for this patient organization on a purely philanthropic basis, as does everyone else who works together with us. All the money we collect goes into funding research. If, at some time in the future, you would like to donate some time towards helping young people who are suffering from a disabling and presently incurable disease, please contact me. At this point we already have the forum migration covered, we are really just tweaking it now before go-live.