Beyond 2015 – beyond borders

A red tabard with the name and logo of the Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology in Chinese and English.
Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals expire. What comes next? At the moment, the world is engaged in a giant conversation about how to do this again, only better. The Association of Commonwealth Universities are encouraging universities to engage in this conversation. I think that’s a great idea. Universities, through their teaching, research and civic engagement, help to make the world a better place. We need to be engaged in this conversation.

Like many universities, my university sees itself as a global institution. As a global university, I believe that my university should know how it aligns with the Millennium Development Goals. It provides one measure of how global we are, of how much we are helping the world at large.

The Millennium Development Goals are global goals. They recognise that global problems require global solutions. They understand that no one person, organisation or country can do it alone. We need to push beyond boundaries. We need to look outside our bubbles.

In my own research, I look at privacy on the Web. Lately, some of that work has examined how sharing works on social media services. By its very nature, the World Wide Web is a global phenomenon. Social networking services promise that you can share with anyone, anywhere. So you would think that research about them would be global in nature, too. It makes sense, right? I thought so too – until I went to China.

In 2013, I spent seven months in Nanjing. It was different and wonderful and amazing and unsettling and just brilliant! I had a great time. Thank you, Nanjing.

Before I left, I thought, “I wonder what work has been done in my area on the Chinese social networking services.” Not as much as I imagined, as it turned out. The table below shows the number of articles on Google Scholar that mention the names of some popular social networking services.

Social network service Google Scholar articles
Twitter 2,410,000
Facebook 2,200,000
YouTube 601,000
LinkedIn 312,000
Flickr 97,600
MySpace 49,200
Pinterest 5,420
RenRen & ‘social’ 1,130
Douban (excluding author’s names) 1,010
Sina Weibo 950
Tencent QQ 944
Qzone 652
Kaizin001 206
Tencent Weibo 203
WeChat 47
Table 1: Articles mentioning selected social network services measured by approximate count, Google Scholar, 20 March 2013.

I’m sure, if I searched the Chinese literature, the table would be reversed. There would be a lot more articles about RenRen and Tencent than about Facebook and Twitter. There are good reasons for that – the Great Firewall of China being a major one. My point is that research, like everything else, is cultural. It is bounded by language groups and small world circles and all sorts of other cultural nets.

It doesn’t have to be. We have all the tools that we need to build research networks that reach outside our comfort zones. It is hard work and often frustrating, but it can also be hugely rewarding. It takes time and it takes resources. Not doing anything, on the other hand, takes no work at all. However, if you don’t try, you won’t benefit. More to the point, if you are working on a global problem, you can’t do it alone.

It doesn’t have to be impossible. You can start small. To quote those weird ads that pop up on my Facebook feed, here’s ‘one simple trick’ that can help.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. Those guys work on serious stuff like eliminating nuclear weapons and adapting to climate change. While I was there, in conjunction with RMIT’s Climate Change Adaptation Programme, we built AdaptNet, a fortnightly abstracting service for climate change adaptation. I think that AdaptNet provides a simple model for building an international network.

Every fortnight the editor, Saleem Janjua, sends out carefully crafted summaries of five journal articles and one event related to climate change adaptation. Each article is on a specific aspect of climate change adaptation. Each article is described in a very strict way – a heading (up to 10 words); a summary (up to 80 words); a full citation including a link to the original article (varies, but usually not more than 50 words).

Providing an abstracting service about your research topic keeps you up to date with all the issues. Carefully defining the length makes sense for a couple of reasons:

  • It is good discipline for you – it sets clear limits on what you are doing.
  • Your readers know what to expect. They can read the whole thing over a cup of coffee.

Another benefit, which is particularly important when you are thinking about internationalisation, is that you know exactly how much text there is to translate. Which means you know how much it will cost.

At various times over the years, AdaptNet has been published in four different languages:

Almost all the literature that AdaptNet points to is in English. The summaries provide foreign-language subscribers with enough information to know if they should bother to translate the original.

Publishing different language editions open up a world of possibilities for international collaboration. For a start, it is a great activity to do in conjunction with an overseas research group. It provides a locus of activity that can help to build a library of shared understanding. There are different ways that this activity can play out:

  • You might just pay them to translate each issue. Because the maximum length of each edition is known, the cost of translation is fixed. You can budget for it.
  • They can send the translated edition to their own subscribers. This provides a service that they can offer their network. Both networks are now sharing a library of shared understanding.
  • In a perfect world, the translators would also be providing summaries for interesting articles in their own language. Articles that your readers would have missed because they aren’t reading that literature. Now you are actively building bridges between research communities operating in different languages.

Over time, you can build up subscriber communities in different countries that have a shared set of resources. This is great for building international understanding around a particular issue.

As with many communication projects these days, the technology is probably the simplest part of the equation. Each edition is sent out through a public mailing list. That list is archived on the Web. The archive has a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed. If you were really clever, the first 100 or so characters from each summary could be fed into a Twitter feed, along with the link. The Twitter feed can be picked up by a Facebook group. The dissemination tools are there and your subscribers are waiting.

All of this costs money, but it doesn’t cost as much as you might think. Last time I checked, Saleem was working one day per week to find appropriate articles and prepare the summaries. Finding good articles is hard, even when people send you unsolicited suggestions (which happens once you build up some traction).

This work is valuable to the Climate Change Adaptation Programme, regardless of whether it is published to the world. So, in some ways, the time of the editor is a sunk cost. It doesn’t cost that much more to push it out to the world than it does to distribute it to the internal research group.

Translation costs vary depending on what language you are translating it into, who you are working with and how much quality control you want to exercise over the translations. As a general rule of thumb, the cost of translation should be outweighed by the value of the outreach effort. If you can achieve that balance, you should be well on the way to building a sustainable model. It is hare do to, though, as translation costs are measured in real dollars whereas outreach benefits are measured in intangible ‘soft’ ways.

Unfortunately, translation is one of those ‘extra’ costs that can be cut when times get tough. At the moment, cuts to the core program funding mean that AdaptNet isn’t being translated at all. That doesn’t invalidate the strength of the model that I’ve described here. It has proved its durability over eight years, which is good enough for me.

The key thing about this model is that the total cost is fixed, so it can be included as a discrete cost in a funding application. When you do that, feel free to draw on this post for your budget justification. That’s what I wrote it for.

Thanks to the Association of Commonwealth Universities for inviting the Research Whisperer to contribute to their ‘Beyond 2015‘ campaign. Inspiring stuff. Happy to help.


  1. Very interesting topic! Our very young university (Catanduanes State University, 2012) is striving to be a global institution and initially links at enabling level with the ASEAN universities. The data you presented on SNS and Google scholar articles are so important in my meta-theoretical analysis. A very small university in an island is very distinctive and we are challenged with the perils of geographical isolation.
    Best regards,
    Jimmy Masagca


    • Thanks, Jimmy.

      I’m glad that the data was useful to you. It is difficult to make links across language barriers, but I think it is worthwhile. Networks can be very powerful to overcome isolation.

      And thanks to all our readers from the Philippines. The Research Whisperer has more readers from the Philippines than most other countries – more than Canada, India, Malaysia or Germany. Thanks for reading us.


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