Breaking boundaries

This is the first half of a talk that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event. Thanks to all involved for inviting me, and making me feel so welcome.  It was great! [The second half, Breaking Funding Boundaries, is now published.]

A long high fence that has been built around a big tree branch.
Tree in the fence, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

When we work within organisations, the boundaries of our organisation can become limiting horizons.

More and more, I am finding that it is easier to do things with the whole world than it is to do them within my organisation.

Sometimes, it is easier to get my colleagues’ attention on Twitter than it is face-to-face (even though they work on the same campus  or even in the same building). The conversation can be richer online, too, because they often have more time to talk on the train going home than they do between meetings. And multiple voices can join in with different points of view.

Organisations want to engage with the outside world, but are bound up in their own identities. I’ve talked before about how I’ve failed to get my Twitter handle on my business card. RMIT recognises the Research Whisperer as part of my job, but only lets me put ‘official’ channels on my card.

At a larger level, national funding systems can fall into this trap, too. Even though they recognise that international research teams produce stronger research, they can sometimes find it hard to fund international collaboration. There is much encouragement to publish with international colleagues. Funding agencies love it, but they often find it difficult to fund the work that leads to those publications. I suspect that they don’t want to give ‘tax-payer dollars’ (nation-based funds) to people from other nations, even though that will probably create better research outcomes.

Gathering a crowd: Eventbrite

The idea for this talk came to me because I set up an event on EventBrite. On the same day that I gave this talk, I did my confirmation of candidature. I’m looking at crowdfunding at Australian universities. My confirmation was technically a public talk, so I wanted to tell people when it was on and where to come to. As far as I know, my university doesn’t have a centralized system for advertising events, so I went to an outside system.

EventBrite (and similar systems, like Meetup) let me advertise my confirmation talk to the public. It was free. It was easy. It put my event on the map (literally) and gave me a booking system, so I could tell who might come. It gave me a whole host of useful features – it allowed me to do things that I couldn’t normally do.

This crystallised for me some thinking that had been formulating for a while. Even if my university did have a system like that, it probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy or as useful. I’d have to get approval to put something up there. Or it would only advertise my event to RMIT staff. Or something like that.

Building an audience: Research Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer

The Research Whisperer is a case in point. When we started the Research Whisperer, our bosses didn’t understand why we would want to write posts to the whole world. Our job was to help people in our university, not help people in other universities.

Luckily, we modelled Research Whisperer on Inger Mewburn’s extremely successful Thesis Whisperer. We could draw on her experience. She started with an internal university blog and only got one hit (1!) before she opened it up to the world. She took it outside the organisation, and has never looked back.

It seems to me that the lesson from that is: don’t use a university service when there is a worldwide service that does the same thing.

Building an industry network: LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an example of a worldwide service that I think all academics should be using to get outside the boundaries of academia. At the moment, I’m asking all my teaching academics two questions:

  • Are you on LinkedIn?
    Most say yes, but indicate that they don’t use it for much.
  • Do you invite your students to connect with you?
    Some do, but most say, “That’s a good idea”, as though the thought had never occurred to them.

It turns out that some of the students they teach have gone on to work in the industry that they trained them for.  Imagine that! By building a network with their past students, academics can create their own private alumni group and an industry network all at once. This is a group of people who might be interested in your talks, want you to give a guest lecture, or want to serve on an advisory board. This is a group of people who have a direct connection with you. Your university can’t do this for you, but LinkedIn can.

Besides, if everything goes wrong, and you decide to get out of academia all together, your LinkedIn network might be able to help you to do that, too.

Building support networks: #ECRchat

Sometimes, these worldwide tools don’t replace what your university offers, but they can supplement them nicely. #ECRchat is a good example of that. If you are a university, then they probably have an early career researcher (ECR) group. In most cases, it will be a mailing list with some face-to-face events throughout the year. All well and good.

#ECRchat provides a forum to talk about issues with your peers outside of your university. It has a much more democratic feel to it. Sort of ‘by the ECRs, for the ECRs’. As a result, the range of topics is broader and engagement seems much more active. It shows that these sorts of meetings don’t need to be constructed by the university. You can build them yourselves, online.  It can be as simple as a hashtag and some organisation. The #ECRchat format is disarmingly simple.  All you need is a bit of work and:

  • An agreed hashtag.
  • A regular schedule. #ECRchat is fortnightly.
  • A set of five or so prearranged questions.
    • Use replies and hashtags to thread the conversation together.
    • Storify the results so that participants and others can go back to it.
  • A blog site to advertise the next chat and store a record of previous chats.
  • A couple of dedicated organizers to get things started and keep it rolling.
  • A rotating roster of people who will host the chats over time.

Breaking language barriers: Translations

One of the toughest barriers to breach is the language barrier. If you don’t have a shared language, or a way to transcend languages, then it is difficult to share ideas, to say the least.

Sometimes, however, you don’t need to translate a whole document. You just need to translate a summary. It turns out that tweets can provide excellent little summaries of the pages they link to. We have a couple of people who translate some of our tweets into Arabic and Spanish. The translated tweets act as a tiny abstract to the article, in another language. It tells people enough for them to know if they want to grapple with the article itself.

So, if you are tweeting to promote your ideas, ask people to translate the tweets. It will help to break down the language barrier.

If you are lucky enough to know a second language, you might want to go one further and engage with Global Voices. Global Voices is a community dedicated to translating blog posts from one language to another language.

There is a thirst for knowledge about research. Writing about the research in your field, and translating some of it into another language, would be an excellent way to build an audience in a language other than English.

It seems to me that all of these examples have a couple of things in common.

  • The university environment makes things harder than they need to be.
  • There are ways outside the university that are open and easy to use.

All of these things are new, or radically easier than they were even 5 years ago. None of them sit within your university.

Using these external tools helps you to lift your eyes from your day-to-day desk and look wider. It helps you to set your sights on the whole world, and see past the blinkers of the bureaucracy. Some people call it hacking the academy, but really it’s just common sense.


  1. Great tips Jonathan. I expect most people would be able to identify with some of the frustrations and internal barriers that you have faced. For me, starting a blog to run alongside the research support I do with three universities was fairly easy thankfully as they could see the benefits and it was easier than trying to replicate information on internal websites. It has already enabled connections outside of the institutions and has raised their profile.

    I agree that internal systems can be barriers and that sometimes you have to go outside the universities in order to make things work more efficiently. I will certainly try to use things like Eventbrite in the future as well. And lastly I like the tips about Linkedin. I can see the value in academics being part of the Linkedin community and I do encourage them but the linking to previous students sounds like a very sensible idea.

    Thanks again for the post.


    • Thanks, Lachlan

      Because I only work for one institution, I find myself constantly falling into the trap of thinking within the institution, rather than looking outside it. I think that you probably have a wider view, given that you work across multiple organisations. I imagine that has its own challenges, though.

      Eventbrite works well if you need a ticketing system. If you want to build an on-going community, you might be better off with Meetup. I think that it has more tools for building community over time.


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