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Communication and Preservation in Academic Research: Current Practices and Future Needs

by Filip Kruse and Annette Balle Sørensen

Today’s researchers work in hybrid environments that require, in addition to traditional, analogue methods of working, the use of an increasing amount of digital material and communication tools. This is forcing us to change our understanding of how researchers communicate, how they are connected in networks, and which parts of their research activities need to be preserved. But how should we rethink these issues? Researchers’ current practice and requirements are analysed and future consequences reflected upon in a questionnaire-based survey from Aarhus University in Denmark.

According to most researchers, intermediate research results such as drafts, preliminary findings or datasets are important to preserve. Likewise, access to such results should not be restricted to the actual researchers involved. Previous research activities and professional networks are also essential to the majority of researchers, for the generation of new ideas as well as for the research process in general. Finally, communication with the network is of central importance for the entire research process including generation of new ideas as well as initiation and completion of projects.

Almost all the researchers’ networks are cross-institutional and international. E-mail is the preferred form of communication with the network. Researchers generally prefer information or data in digital form rather than printed, but researchers from the arts and humanities are split down the middle on this question.

The findings of the survey highlight the importance of e-mail communication, both as a medium in itself and as an element in maintaining researchers’ professional networks. The issue of preservation thus carries a double meaning, i.e. both preservation of the communication of research results from the initial idea to the final results, and preservation of the network. The first stresses the influence of preservation and dissemination on the creative flow of thoughts and ideas. The second focuses on social interactions and their role in the formative processes of the network.

Though the importance of e-mail communication is obvious, researchers from the arts and humanities and the social sciences rate its importance slightly lower than those from the health and natural sciences. The importance of e-mail communication does not imply that all e-mails should be preserved. On the other hand most researchers state that they do need to preserve more research data or information. The message from the research community is quite clear: e-mail is important, but not every e-mail related to research should be preserved; they are already critically sorted. Facilities are needed to preserve more research data and information, as well as to ensure that data remains accessible: more than two thirds of the researchers, mostly from the natural and health sciences, have experienced problems in accessing old digital data.

In the 'good old days', one might expect that research was mainly an individual activity with the final results of the research being the only item worthy of preservation. In contrast, our findings clearly indicate that both professional networks and previous research activities are very important for the majority of researchers. The importance of networks lies in communication: networks act as forums for the exchange of ideas, and for reflection and discussion. In this context the importance of preserving intermediate research results and making them accessible to other interested parties becomes clear. Research thus seems to be developing into a more collaborative and cooperative activity in which the networks play an important role. Almost all the researchers’ networks are cross-national and cross-organizational. Communication is digital – via e-mail – but is frequently supplemented by face-to-face communication.

The Planets DT/7 Work Package group, from left: Filip Kruse, Annette Balle Sørensen, Jørn Thøgersen, Bart Ballaux, and John W. Pattenden-Fail.
The Planets DT/7 Work Package group, from left: Filip Kruse, Annette Balle Sørensen, Jørn Thøgersen, Bart Ballaux, and John W. Pattenden-Fail.

The planning of future preservation activities must take into account the obvious need to preserve intermediate research results as well as final publications. At the same time, the consequences of the changed social organization of research activities must be considered. This points to a greater focus on researchers’ networks as spheres of communication, and thus to new items for future preservation.

This survey was carried out in November/December 2008 as part of the Planets (Preservation and Long-term Access via NETworked Services) DT/7 work package. The Web-based questionnaire was mailed individually to all researchers at Aarhus University. The survey population included 2722 researchers from the five faculties: theology, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and health sciences, and the questionnaire was completed by 404 researchers corresponding to a total average response rate of 14.8%.The survey was preceded by a series of qualitative analyses (interviews and data probes) carried out by HATII, University of Glasgow, UK, The Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, The Hague, NL, and State and University Library, Aarhus, DK.

The survey was carried out by the authors and Jørn Thøgersen, also of the State and University Library. The questionnaire was prepared jointly by the authors, John W. Pattenden-Fail of HATII, University of Glasgow, UK, Bart Ballaux of The Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, The Hague, NL , and Jørn Thøgersen.

The full report with appendices and the questionnaire deployed:

Please contact:
Filip Kruse
State and University Library, Denmark
Tel: +45 8946 2241

Annette Balle Sørensen
State and University Library, Denmark
Tel: +45 8946 2154
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.