Peer-reviewed research for broad audiences: An interview with James Doeser, editor of CultureCase

An Interview with James Doeser, editor of CultureCase:

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CultureCase is a resource that collates peer-reviewed research that responds to the questions and challenges related to the impact of the arts and humanities within the broader cultural sector. Its relevance extends beyond academic researchers to practitioners and advocates in the cultural sector. By translating academic research into a more easily accessible form, CultureCase offers a wider public the ability to use important information on the significance of the arts and humanities. I caught up with James Doeser, an editor for CultureCase, to talk more about it…

Hi James! Tell me about how CultureCase got started.

Hi Ashley! It was in development for a couple of years… and in that time I heard many people say they wanted a portal for relevant and robust academic research on culture. What eventually became CultureCase was the project initiated by Deborah Bull and Katherine Bond at King’s College London. Deborah had just been appointed as Director of a new cross-faculty team at the university with the mission to link the research activity at King’s with the cultural sector. One of the very first things they wanted to do was develop an accessible resource of academic research – something that would be built specifically for an audience of non-researchers.

Your website says that CultureCase bridges a gap between academic research and those who might use and benefit from this information. What is the gap that you see?

The gap is two-fold: firstly there are infrastructural barriers that must be overcome, and then there’s the human side of it. Here in the UK the cultural sector exists in what we called a ‘mixed-economy’: some are independent non-profits, some are commercial enterprises and others are supported by government funding. They are united by their ambition to create and showcase great cultural experiences and they tend not to conduct research or have access to the sorts of expertise that universities have in abundance. Meanwhile, universities tend to operate separately from the cultural sector: they are supported through a different government department, they are incentivized to develop high-profile and high-impact research projects, and attract fee-paying students from around the world. The benefits of arts research to practitioners and advocates in the cultural sector can sometimes be secondary to the main objectives of economists, sociologists, clinicians and others who are producing this research in universities. CultureCase (like many knowledge-transfer projects) sits in between these two worlds: the academic and the cultural. We thought that both sides would benefit from the resource, which neither would independently have the means or motive to generate. In order for CultureCase to really work we had to pitch it right: to recognise that academics might be nervous about their work being misrepresented or ‘dumbed-down’ and that advocates and decision-makers in the cultural sector needed more than simply abstracts from journal articles. We’ve really worked hard to bridge gaps in perception (that academic output is impenetrable or irrelevant) and generally humanizing research output by highlighting the main findings as using accessible language. I realize my answer makes is sounds like we are forcing CultureCase on a resistant world! Actually, another kind of gap to overcome was an unfulfilled demand: people were clamoring for accessible yet high-quality research that might help them ‘make the case’ to funders, politicians and other stakeholders.

What are different ways decision-makers and advocates in the cultural sector who have used CultureCase as a resource (though I realize you probably don’t hear back from everyone who uses the site!).

It’s still early days for us, in terms of tracking use of the site. We’ve seen it often referenced in lists of resources for people to use while ‘making the case’ to funders and politicians. Unsurprisingly, the ‘impact’ section is generating the most noise on social media. My personal ambition is for people to report back to us that they used the ‘what works’ section when designing strategy or programmes of work. I honestly believe that research and data can help organisations be more profitable, more impactful and reach more people. But I appreciate that not everyone is convinced!

Do you have any advice for people who might want to work on bridging the gap between communication between academic researchers and practitioners and advocates in the cultural sector?

Yes – think about demand as much as supply. The web is a graveyard of resources that have attempted the same thing as CultureCase. Those moribund sites tend to simply signpost to other content, or merely aggregate content that is produced by researchers and academics. The key thing is to recognise there needs to be a process of translation. In many ways it’s a journalistic exercise. CultureCase translates material that is published exclusively in peer reviewed academic journals. This is where we think there is the greatest unexploited resource (high-quality research that is inaccessible for a variety of reasons). Arguably, academic publishing tends to benefit authors more than readers. We wanted to build something that people would want to read, with a strong editorial voice that gets straight to the main contribution of the paper (as a non-researcher might think of it).

I read that you have a Ph.D. from University College London! Did you always imagine you’d work for a resource such as CultureCase that bridges the academic sector with wider researchers at larger?

My PhD looked at government policy in relation to archaeology (basically why is some old stuff preserved by law and not other old stuff!). I quickly realized that academics mostly misunderstood the policy process (it’s messy and opaque) and so I ended up getting involved in a lot of non-academic activity to better understand and communicate my research. Essentially, while not doing my PhD I worked in broadcasting and journalism and I developed this ability to turn brain-achingly complex stuff into readable prose. After my PhD I worked at the Arts Council, which broadened my horizons beyond archaeology. In retrospect CultureCase seems an ideal fit for that journalistic instinct I honed early on, and my familiarity with the research needs of the culture sector.

How many people work for CultureCase? Your website shows a number of academic advisors working for the organization. Do these academic advisors and the larger CultureCase team volunteer to work, or is there some pay involved?

Essentially CultureCase is authored and edited by me! I’m contracted on a freelance basis and I’m paid for my work. In the beginning we also appointed some developers to help get a good standard of design and functionality of the site. The academic advisors perform a number of roles for us – they are a genuinely inter-disciplinary bunch. They are our eyes and ears out there in the research community, alerting me to good papers that seem appropriate for inclusion in the site; they act as advocates for CultureCase; and they also perform a ‘critical friend’ role. We want to make sure CultureCase upholds the same standards and ethics as conventional academic work, and our advisory board helps keep us in check. Now that CultureCase is nearly year old we are moving to a multi-author model, in which I’ve retained an editorial role. I’ve been working with a talented team of early career researchers at King’s to develop more content (they have each been authoring summaries of research papers). I’d like to make it clear that we’ll happily accept summaries from anyone, so long as they met the criteria for inclusion we have on our site.

What was the hardest thing about starting CultureCase?

Probably setting the right kind of expectations. We did a lot of consultation at the start, and came away with a pretty good idea of what advocates and decision-makers in the cultural sector would find beneficial. But CultureCase was never going to be a panacea for those suffering from a lack of evidence to support their everyday artistic practice. The strengths and weakness of CultureCase reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the broader literature.

What is the easiest thing about maintaining and building CultureCase?

Although there are some areas where we’ve really struggled to find evidence, the easy thing is that there seems to be an unending flow of papers that document the impact of engagement in arts and culture on education, wellbeing and neighborhood vibrancy. There’s also an active research community looking at audience behavior. So while we’ve started with the core of the literature, we don’t know where the edges of this are going to be, and we’ve no need to worry about a shortage of papers to summarise!

Several of my own students have expressed a desire to work within social justice and the arts but have no idea where to start. Do you have any advice?

My suggestion is to start by understanding the social justice objectives, and then figuring out whether the arts can realistically help achieve them. Sometimes, when people seek to use the arts for instrumental means, they begin by assuming art is the answer, or art is the solution. Maybe there’s a powerful role for art in a particular instance, but equally maybe not.

Thanks so much for talking with me! Looking forward to keeping up with new articles on CultureCase. 

My pleasure! We’re always eager for feedback and more summaries for CultureCase, so I’d encourage your readers to get in touch via the site.

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