Recognizing Research Realities Across Technical Communication -- guest post by Kirk St. Amant
Practitioners and academics are often presented as two camps within technical communication. Yet the two groups have a great deal in common. Both are interested in the same area: Communication. Both also focus their actions on a shared objective: Effectively conveying technical information to different audiences. The two groups also value research in improving technical communication practices. In fact, shared value of research should be an area where industry and academia can find common ground.1
So why don’t they?
The answer involves how both groups view research. Understanding such dynamics can help practitioners and academics find opportunities to collaborate through research ventures.2 If nothing else, increased understanding allows both sides to discuss how to work together to research topics of interest to both.
While such differences can be complex, they generally involve five (5) areas that shape research-related attitudes and activities. These 5S Factors do not represent insurmountable differences. Rather, they reflect how each group answers key research-related questions. By recognizing such differences, both groups can begin exploring prospective collaborations and sharing ideas across industry and academia.
Factor 1 - Scope: How specific or general should the focus of a research project be?
Individuals in industry often focus on finding answers to specific questions (e.g., what’s the best program to use for X) or addressing specific situations (e.g., identifying the cause of a usability issue with an interface). Academics tend to focus on answering broader questions (e.g., how do humans communicate in relation to X) or more theoretical foci (e.g. how can theory X help us better understand user expectations of interface design). Each perspective is of value to the other. Differences in scope, however, can lead to ideas that academic research cannot be applied to industry contexts or that industry research is too focused or restricted in nature.
Factor 2 - Scale: How many individuals should one study when researching something?
A range of things from production timelines to development cycles can affect how many individuals technical communicators in industry can study, survey, or interview when doing research. Such pragmatic factors limit the scale of the research done and the applicability of related findings (e.g., four out of five subjects indicated they could use the interface to do X, so the design seems to work in terms of X).
Because academics have more time (relatively speaking) to engage in research, they often emphasize research focusing on larger groups of individuals as sources for data. Moreover, the academic focus on greater behavioral patterns (see “Scale”) creates the research need and disciplinary expectation that larger groups will be used as data sources.
Factor 3 - Speed: How quickly are results needed?
As noted, technical communicators in industry regularly face pressures to complete projects relatively quickly (see “Scale”). Moreover, these individuals are increasingly tasked with balancing projects across different product lines and development teams. This reduces the time they can dedicate to researching specific topics.
Academics face different time factors. Specifically, they need to gain tenure (i.e., securing long-term employment). This generally means publishing a certain number of research articles within the first 6 years of the individual’s career. The academic publishing process, however, can take a relatively long time (from one to two years from time of manuscript submission — if at all). Early career academics, therefore, often focus on research they can publish in a given timeline and focus on projects they can develop into multiple publications in that time. (See “Scope”.)
While continued research is often essential for the next stage of promotion (known as “Full Professor” in the U.S.), there is no set timeline. And for individuals who do make “Full,” there is no exigency to do research on a particular schedule. Such factors reinforce perspectives of research as long-term processes vs. driven by immediate needs.
Factor 4 - Strategy: What methods should one use to collect data and do research?
Technical communicators in industry often favor research where one collects data from the individuals who will use their products.3 While many academics might agree with this focus, certain institutional features can affect the methods the use to research topics. Academics in the U.S., for example, often cannot do research involving humans without the approval of an institutional review board (IRB). This board (often comprised of faculty members and administrators) must review the academic’s proposed research plan. The objective is to determine if such research might cause physical or emotional harm to the individuals involved in the proposed project.
Only after receiving IRB approval can research involving humans begin (known as “human subjects research”) begin. In some cases, the academic must revise the proposed project to gain this approval. A lack of such IRB approval, moreover, can result in everything from sanctions to the loss of one’s job. When combined with the pressures of the tenure clock (see “Speed”), certain things can happen that affect academic research. Academics, for example, might gravitate toward research that does not involve collecting data from humans (e.g., doing analyses of inanimate things like texts or websites).
When IRB approval is granted, the ability to collect data from humans still creates challenges that can affect tenure prospects. This is because, for pre-tenure academics, producing a number of publications relatively quickly is essential. As a result, it is often easier to focus on a population to which academics have ready access — their students. For this reason, academic research often focuses on students or on the dynamics of the researcher’s classroom. And even after tenure, the complexities of doing human subject research can cause many academics to focus on other approaches (e.g., analyzing texts) or certain populations (i.e., students) — things individuals in industry have noted as “problematic.”4
Factor 5 - Situatedness: How does one need to contextualize the research being done?
Industry practitioners who read academic research articles often notice
- They usually start with long reviews of prior work before reporting research
- They often include a discussion of theoretical aspects associated with the project
- They generally contain complex prose and polysyllabic terms
Why is that? It has to do with situatedness — or the context in which one needs to present research results.
For many technical communicators in industry, their research needs to be connected to — or placed in the context of — an immediate objective, problem, or situation (see “Scope”). As such, presenting research in industry contexts often involves summarizing the problem to address, overviewing the approach taken to resolve it, and presenting a research-based solution. So, the tendency is to present research within the context of the immediate situation (i.e., contextualize it that way).
The objectives of academic research tend to be different. Generally, for academic research to be published — key for tenure, promotion, merit raises, etc. — it needs to be contextualized in terms of
- How it connects to or builds off of prior research in the field
- How it can serve as a foundation others can use to conduct future research in that area
This need to “connect to” prior research is why most academic articles contain literature review sections that summarize prior research done on a topic. Additionally, the need to contextualize academic research often means discussing it in terms of theories academics associate with the topic and the academic language used to discuss ideas. These factors provide other academics with the foundation needed to build upon that work later — further contextualizing within academia.
Unfortunately, these differences can create barriers. The need to survey the prior literature on a topic takes time. This and the focus on contextualizing research within theoretical frames can seem to limit the applicability of research academic to industry practitioners. For academics, the lack of these contextualization factors create challenges. If industry-related projects cannot be connected to or contextualized in prior research, the ability to publish such work in academic journals is limited.
While perhaps simplistic, these five areas tend to cause the greatest disconnects between how technical communicators in industry and in academia approach research. If members of both areas begin to understand such differences, they can take steps to address these factors and foster interaction across the field. And while addressing these difference is not easy, doing so can benefit all members of the field. After all, discussing our differences can lead us to better understand our common connections.
About Kirk St. Amant
Kirk St. Amant is a Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University (USA). He is also an Adjunct Professor of International Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick (Ireland). His main research interests are international communication and information design for global audiences with a particular focus on the globalization of online education and health and medical communication for international audiences.
For more information about Kirk, see the following:
Your Reactions and Input
Here are a few survey questions to gather your input and reactions from the article. Most of these questions are geared towards practitioners, probing their attitudes and level of agreement with the various topics. You can view the ongoing results here.
 See the November 2016 issue (vol 63 no. 4) of the journal Technical Communication — an issue dedicated to the topic of "Exchanging Research among Academics and Practitioners."
 See the December 2017 issue of Intercom magazine — an issue dedicated to "Re-thinking Research in Technical Communication."
 See the entry "Reflections on Research: Examining Practitioner Perspectives on the State of Research in Technical Communication" in the November 2016 issue (vol 63 no. 4) of the journal Technical Communication.