Research Communication and Communication Networks in Medieval Studies

by Viviane Diederich M.A., University of Bamberg

In the last 15 years, research communication has become increasingly important, as suggested, for example, by two recent publications: one by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research policy (BMBF) in 2019
(https://www.bmbf.de/SharedDocs/Publikationen/de/bmbf/1/24784_Grundsatzpapier_zur_Wissenschaftskommunikation.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=4) and another by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in 2021 (https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/a-p-b/18340.pdf). Both publications argue that there is still a lot that needs to be done for successful research communication. They also suggest that a strong trust in research, continuous transparency, and exchange of good practices are keys to successful research communication.

Reaching wider audiences poses a particular challenge for Medieval Studies. Medievalists are under pressure to justify their field by finding ways to connect medieval research with the needs of contemporary societies. The complexity of medieval research and its methodological diversity are often difficult to make understandable to non-specialists. The interdisciplinary character of Medieval Studies, on the other hand, offers a great potential for a constructive dialogue between medievalists and wider audiences. Such a dialogue could prove mutually beneficial, especially in the framework of topics related to erroneous perceptions of the Middle Ages (Baumgärtner et al. 2021, 79ff).

Three assumptions on research communication:

  1. Research communication involves communication of research work and knowledge, both within and outside institutions, including research production, content, use, and effects (cf. Schäfer et al. 2015, 13).
  2. Transparent research communication and the involvement of citizens in research discussions and policies is becoming increasingly popular (cf. Milde et al. 2021, 7).
  3. Researchers are the primary actors of research communication (cf. Baumgärtner et al. 2021, 70).

Levels of research communication

Research communication is subject to constant change, as it follows social, political, and economic situations and needs that are not stable. As result, research communication has to be undertaken in the framework of three different levels: the macro level, the meso level, and the micro level (cf. Dernbach et al. 2012, 1-15).

1. Research Communication at the Macro Level

At the macro level, research communication addresses societal achievements and functions. Here, the relationship between research in its institutional structure and the public is taken into consideration. Important aspects at this level include the legitimation of the use of research funds and the society-oriented application of research results.

Following the conditions of the so-called knowledge society (Stehr 1994), a certain level of information about research work processes and scientific findings is an important prerequisite for action and decision-making in politics, business, and society (cf. Fähnrich 2021, 13). However, this level of information depends on two communication criteria: a) the researchers’ willingness to share their work and b) a sufficient level of knowledge on the side of the citizens (politicians included) about research processes and results.

Since the nineties, the PUSH principle (Public Understanding of Science and Humanities), which conveys research methods and processes, has proven useful towards fulfilling the two said communication criteria. The increasingly interactive Web 2.0 has been changing research media over the last fifteen years and has thus initiated a new phase of research communication. The post-PUSH phase undertakes to inform the public and establishes a dialogue involving both researchers and the public.

2. Research Communication at the Meso Level

On the meso level, the communication of a specific research institution is considered. Colleges and universities, scientific academies, or research institutes depend on the attention of the public, industry, politics, and the media. These institutions no longer rely exclusively on scientific journalism. They even hire public relations and marketing specialists to communicate their research work to wider audiences (cf. Milde et al. 2021, 8). The internet is also widely used to promote research communication through website announcements, podcasts, videos, and web journalism.

The aims of research communication at the meso level are manifold, including:

  • Increasement of the research institution’s visibility
  • Establishment and maintenance of an (inter)national (research) network
  • Promotion of trust in research activities and results
  • Involvement of children and young people (to generate young scientists)
  • Engagement of policy makers
  • Acquisition of research funding.

To be successful, research communication must be user-oriented, deliver strong and creative approaches to different questions and problems, and consider the diversity of end-users. Concerning research communication in the field of Medieval Studies, the dialogue between researchers and local communities often starts just before the performance of research. Archaeologists, for example, cannot undertake fieldwork without taking permission from local authorities to whom they have to explain and communicate their research and methodologies.

3. Research Communication on the Micro Level

At this level, research communication takes place on a project-by-project basis. According to Dernbach et al. (2021, 8), researchers have a variety of reasons to share their research and expertise:

  • Promotion of social awareness for the development of research questions
  • Training for everyday research work processes
  • Visibility of research discourse
  • Reflections on the relevance and the possible applications of one’s own research
  • Exchange of concepts, methodologies, and solutions
  • Networking, coordination, and exploitation of creative potentials
  • Gaining the trust of politicians, policy makers, companies, and the general public
  • Easy access to research sources (e.g. by means of open sources and open data)
  • Promotion of young talent.

Furthermore, the participation of citizens in research projects is one of the most important goals of research communication at the micro level. Overall, there is a need for more transparency regarding research work and more process-accompanying and addressee-oriented participation (cf. FES 2021, 1-15). Through the use of different platforms (e.g. science blogs and social media), researchers reach large audiences and their research acquires a greater visibility. Furthermore, social media, such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, offer the opportunity of entering into dialogue with the general public.

As for platforms sharing Medieval Studies content, these include the following:

  • Publication plattform AMAD (https://www.amad.org/jspui/)
  • Mittelalterblog (https://mittelalter.hypotheses.org/)
  • Tolga Degelier on Instagram @medievalartincyprus about art history
  • Center for Middelalder- og Renæssancestudier @middelalderrenaessancesdu
  • Max Grund about medieval urban economy @stadtwirtschaft on Instagram und Twitter
  • NetMAR on Facebook, Twitter, netmar.cy
  • Small town Archaeology in Bärnau @ArchaeoLogue auf Instagram und TikTok

Although web applications offer an initially simple way of communicating research, participation in social media does not necessarily mean that a constructive dialogue between researchers and non-researchers is established. Likes, shares, bookmarks and reactions are part of social media communication, expressing in their quantity the presence of interest, but they do not promote dialogue. Comments and personal text messages might initiate a dialogue but its effectivity depends on the quality of comments.

To reach the public, personal and spatial proximity are of great importance. Location-dependent medieval topics arouse curiosity in local communities, as they establish a connection to their daily environment. In this way, research findings have formative effects on local identities and promote interest in the (medieval) past and present of a given region. A current case in point is the community of Bärnau, a small town in the Upper Palatinate in Germany. In 2018, the town’s inhabitants initiated the repairs of a cultural heritage building located in the town centre. This initiative established a cooperation with the city authorities and the University of Bamberg that proved mutually beneficial. The special opportunity to investigate findings on the medieval past of the town and its building history leading to an exchange of knowledge about life on the Bavarian-Bohemian border from the Middle Ages to modern times was appreciated by both researchers and locals. To see the findings, visit https://www.ackerbuergerhaus-baernau.de/.

In a way of conclusion, it needs to be said that the popularization of research findings is often equated with simplifying a content that is complex even for specialists. Of course, simplification should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a way to present a complex notion in a comprehensive way, without compromising research quality. This is a point in which research communication turns into an art. Effective research communication requires openness, social and communication skills, and a passion for sharing one’s knowledge with others (cf. Milde et al. 2021, 8).

Communication Network and Radius of Action of Scientists

The communication network of researchers is difficult to present due to personal priorities and preferences. In the following diagram, I try, however, to illustrate some existing interaction possibilities. This diagram may serve as a blueprint for visualizing one’s own research communication.

Conclusion

According to Baumgärtner et al., research communication should be an integral part of a medievalist’s work (Baumgärtner et al. 2021). Depending on discipline, the demands on researchers to reflect on and widely communicate their work vary. Obviously, research results are inevitably transformed as soon as they are used outside the context in which they are produced. However, effective research communication might be able to shape more accurate transformations of research results. Of course, successful research communication is not an easy task. It largely depends on the researchers’ individual strengths and abilities. Early-stage researchers particularly are encouraged to test their skills by trying out different formats and by using different forms of feedback to build up their own research profile and develop a kind of what I would call a ‘research communication philosophy’. The international network NetMAR offers young researchers in the field of Medieval Studies an excellent platform for promoting research communication in various formats, boosting their individual research and communication skills.

References:

Baumgärtner, Ingrid et. al., ‘Mittelalter erschließen: Wissenschaftskommunikation und Wissenschaftstransfer’, Das Mittelalter 26 (2021), 68–86.

Dernbach, Beatrice et al., ‘Einleitung: Die drei Ebenen von Wissenschaftskommunikation’, Handbuch Wissenschaftskommunikation, ed. by Beatrice Dernbach et al. (Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2012), 1–19.

Enke, Nadja and Cornelia Wolf, ‘Wie partizipativ ist Wissenschaftskommunikation im Social Web’, Intention und Rezeption von Wissenschaftskommunikation, ed. by Jutta Milde et. al (Köln: Halem, 2021), 36–64.

Fähnrich, Birte, ‘Digging Deeper? Mudding through? Informationsgenerierung und Bedeutungskonstitution von wissenschaftlichen Informationen durch kanadische Umweltaktivisten’, Intention und Rezeption von Wissenschaftskommunikation, ed. by Jutta Milde et al. (Köln: Halem, 2021), 13–35.

Oswald, Kristin, ‘Hand in Hand. Forschung und Vermittlung in der digitalen Archäologie’, Archäologische Information 39 (2016), 77–85.

Schäfer, Mike et al., ‘Wissenschaftskommunikation im Wandel: Relevanz, Entwicklung und Herausforderungen des Forschungsfeldes’, Wissenschaftskommunikation im Wandel, ed. by Mike Schäfer et al. (Köln: Halem, 2015), 10–44.

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