LIS research and practice; still opponents?

This post is based on my reflections on a talk I gave last summer at the iFutures 2014 conference at Sheffield University, and on responses to that talk.

Ten years ago, in an editorial in Journal of Documentation, I commented on the gap between research and practice in the information sciences, which has been lamented since the 1980s, being described as flawed, adversarial and disfunctional. I argued that the role of academic journals such as JDoc should be an unapologetic promotion of good research and scholarship, in the belief that this is an effective contribution to good practice. At the same time, I suggested ways in which such journals could seek ways of making their research reports accessible, and valuable, to practitioners.

So, in the intervening ten years, has anything changed?

In one sense, the situation seems to be worsening. A study by Cassidy Sugimoto and colleagues of practitioner articles published in library information journals showed a rather depressing picture. They found that the proportion of articles due to practitioners in falling, as is the extent of research collaboration between academic and practitioners. Furthermore, practitioner articles include fewer references, are cited less, and have a shorter citation half-life, than others; they are, in short, less integrated with the disciplinary knowledge base. In another survey carried out at the same time, Helen Woods and Andrew Booth found a relatively good level of practitioner research and publication, but noted that it was largely in areas divorced from the general research activity of the discipline.

More positively, we might note recent developments including the inclusion of short research reports in practitioner journals, such as the ‘Dissertations into practice’ series in Health Information and Libraries Journal. We might also mention the emergence of blogs written by practitioners and incorporating research reports in a more helpful style than is possible via the norms of journal publication; Lane Wilkinson’s Sense and Reference blog is a good example. Perhaps this suggests that the way forward may not be to try to force practitioner research into the academic journal straightjacket, but rather to let new publication forms emerge. Providing that this leads to a range of communication channels with some linkages between them, this can only be a good thing; what is certainly not needed is another silo of material, with its authors speaking only to themselves.

In any event, we can certainly agree with David McMenemy’s view, put forward in an article in Library Review, that: “Academics need to understand how important the issues of practitioners are and help to design research that helps practitioners inform their own professional knowledge. Practitioners need to understand how important research is to their own practice, and work closely with academia to build a research culture within their organisations.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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