Friday 4 September 2009

Taking Communication Seriously

Today, the BBC News website put a nice research story on its front page: "Quantum computer slips onto chips" . I followed it up because it is intrinsically interesting to me (quantum computing) but I am mentioning it here because it is an example of how the academic community fails to tell its story and how the many contributor's to an institution's web presence can fail to produce a coherent information resource.

The BBC Web page is based on a Brief article in the current Science magazine, written by a person at Bristol University. The BBC page links to the front pages of Science and Bristol University, and it mentions in the full text the name of the author. It doesn't link to the researcher's home page or mention the department or research group where this work happened, or mention any of the other authors.

The Science homepage doesn't mention this article, so an interested person (potential benefactor) has to click on the link to "Current Issue" and then search through the rather long table of contents to look for the author's name.

The Bristol homepage has a rather prominent link to its press release about the work (hoorah for the Bristol Marketing Unit!). It also links to the Science homepage, rather than directly to the article, but it also links to the department where the work was undertaken. Unfortunately, this page doesn't mention the research directly, and strangely spends the majority of its contents talking about the new buildings that it occupies rather than the research that it performs. Hmm.

Returning to the Bristol home page, clicking on the "Contacting people" link allows me to search for the author's surname. This takes me (indirectly, through two further links) to the author's home page which lists his contact details, some currently funded projects (unlinked) and a metalist of "Selected publications" ie query links to 4 external digital libraries. There is a prominent link to his research group page, which totally fails to mention the research which took me there in the first place.

So I haven't found out any more about the research and the work that the research team is undertaking. I am going to have to take the old fashioned route and email or even phone the corresponding author and ask him my questions.

BTW, the author has no publications deposited in the Bristol Repository, but he is a physicist depositing in arxiv, so I shall be alright if my questions are entirely academic and answerable from the literature. What I am exercised about is the enquirers who aren't academics - potential students, funders, benefactors, industrial contacts, journalists - all of those whom we are looking to impact with our work.

BTW (2) I am not looking to bash Bristol about this. Exactly the same is true of Southampton and of my own department. It's difficult to get right, unless everyone involved (especially the academics) are aware of the problem.