3 years post-doc – the self-assigned challenge of open research

19 November 2013

This article is part of the series 3 years of freedom — a report on my stay as a post-doctoral researcher at the Media Lab of Aalto Universiy.

A post-doctoral position gives a lot of freedom to try out something new, go an experimental route. I decided to take that opportunity and experiment on variations of research methods.

In the science communities I worked in previously, a widespread habit was to keep research topics and ideas as secret as possible to prevent it from being “stolen” by others. I experienced a lot of anxiety around me about opening up unfinished (i.e. unpublished) research to the public (e.g. by publishing preliminary results and observations on weblogs). On the other hand, I considered it essential to discuss with fellows about the challenges and potential of my work; something that makes it necessary to give away unpolished information and, even more difficult, to admit to have a misconception, or not being the expert in the field yet.

So, in the very beginning of my research stay, I decided to ignore the broadly accepted policy to retain all information until the research is carried out properly at least for one project. Even more, I tried to present all relevant information on both the conceptual and the practical process on my weblog while it was happening.

design sketch for the whispertable project

This first investigation was Storyboard and Whispertable, a collaboration with Juha Kronqvist. We set our task to design and build a table or surface that emits structure-borne sounds, which can be perceived and manipulated by custom-build stethoscope-like artefacts. As an application, we intended to enrich deserted places in our working environment by transferring sound (and therefore content) of more popular places. Our hope was that this will attract people, making the deserted areas more lively. We wrote several blog posts on our observations.

Although this project eventually did not take off (or just because of it), I still took away a lot of new insights; already the intent to publish as soon as possible had several effects on my research practice. First and foremost, it forced me to write down and revise all the work and observations we did. This in turn had the effect I hoped for; colleagues from near and far gave constructive comments and suggestions. A serious issue with this approach was, though, that, in order to meet an acceptable level of quality, a significant amount of time had to be reserved to “just” write those blogpost. Time that would otherwise have been invested into project development. On the long run, though, I understood that this artificial reduction of pace and the serialisation of thought are a good base for qualitatively high work; decisions were undertaken on a much more informed level than before.

To conclude, it is my strong believe that making research public while it happens is highly advantageous and easily levels out the risks of idea stealing that it brings. In fact, I applied it to most of my other projects as well and I never had any issue with anyone properly publishing my ideas before I did.

Looking back at this first project, I also see the lack of knowledge on design thinking I had in those days; specifically knowledge on interaction design, its methods and its approach to embrace research. I am very happy that I was able to gain a significant extent of this knowledge over the past three years by the help of the Media Lab researcher community. Thank you for your support.