Publishing Conservation Research | A recent graduate perspective

13 Sep

Like many, after graduating from a Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne at the end of 2014, I was so tired, that the idea of extracting juice from my minor thesis and producing a pulp free condensed version for publication, or to present research as a conference paper on my topic seemed onerous. This was especially in light of this being an unpaid activity and in a narrow specialty area likely to benefit few conservators, allied professionals and artefacts in their care.

It may therefore be no surprise that despite rigorous training in the process of submitting and peer reviewing papers, a very small percentage of graduates from my year have submitted minor thesis research outcomes for posters and papers at symposia, conferences and peer reviewed publications. Partly this is due to fatigue, but there is also the possibility of lack of incentive. For many, financial reasons can affect decision making around presenting, particularly for those of us who are in geographically remote parts of the globe.

Additionally, institutionally supported researchers, conservation professionals whose tenure is predicated on presentation of papers, researchers seeking professional affiliations which require publications as criteria for membership, and those simply seeking opportunities to share are compelled to make economic and ethical decisions. These are rarely made lightly.

Perhaps this is one way to explain the relative voicelessness of the private sector wading into debates on contemporary conservation issues and contributing to knowledge through formal avenues.  Cultural and linguistic borders added to financial and capacity issues have resulted in established academic western voices from Europe and North America being heard loudest and clearest in the sector.

These factors combined mean that issues in contemporary care of cultural materials from many conservators, their grassroots progress, innovation and valuable research made by students is often not disseminated. This can result in duplication of research efforts, and much valuable and useful knowledge remaining unpublished and inaccessible.

How can this be addressed at an educational level? Does there need to be consensus in the education and training sector to facilitate better dissemination and coordination of resources? There are many problems with few pragmatic solutions which are affordable, sustainable and have sufficient interest, voluntary participation and uptake.

United or maverick, change does happen. Sometimes this occurs naturally through uptake of informally structured open membership platforms – like Conservator-Restorer on LinkedIn (7,226 members, while ICOM as a standalone organisation has 4,668 followers and ICCROM 3,149 followers at 16/8/2015).

To address low participation rates in publishing and dissemination of research, do there need to be more groups, social media sites and blogs? Or is dissemination through existing channels enough and increased participation to be encouraged? How do we encourage participation in voluntary models, and expand conferences and symposia to be more inclusive of economically, geographically and culturally marginalised contributors to the field?

Encouraging students and recent graduates difficult to go that extra step and publish their research is clearly a difficult task. I have spoken with many of my peers who despite best efforts say they just can’t face the exercise, even though their research was well received by reviewers and they understand it is an important step toward professional accreditation. I have also heard a ‘what is the point if I am not to be paid’ argument.

Some possible solutions…
It has been suggested that postgraduate research papers could be loaded (with student permission) onto a central searchable database once graded. As a recent graduate, I feel it would be useful if examiner’s comments were included in the upload- but not the grade, and students could opt for this. Papers and assignments could be even more useful as a resource for both students and teachers if the actual assignment details, grading criteria and assessment matrices were available for each ‘group’ of assessed material.

Such an initiative would potentially benefit staff across different universities in developing educational content without giving up university intellectual property (IP). If staff from universities undertook this task, and removed the reliance on students to perform it, bulk uploads would be possible with little administrative challenge. The real challenge is subscription by universities. Who would hold a central database and who would pay for its upkeep? Are there IP and copyright issues which would need to be addressed? Could INCCA expand to accommodate this? As a relatively small and new profession, can we look to medicine with all of its branches and areas of specialty for models of sharing knowledge? Or is the next generation of conservation professionals to continue frustrated calls for cooperation and dissemination as part of their learning only to be thwarted by proprietary and participatory barriers?

For educators to have a centrally located resource of marked papers, a model of opt-in sharing by students could increase participation in dissemination, thereby sharing innovation, reduce duplication of research topics and plagiarism while encouraging dialogue around pedagogical models. For students, such a resource could provide expanded research opportunities, examples of excellence and innovation to learn from beyond their institutional limitations while fostering an appreciation for the benefits of contributing to voluntary participatory knowledge sharing models.

Your comments are welcome on this topic which is on the ICOM -CC Education and Training working group blog. Please post comments there for the group and moderators to access. We look forward to your responses!

Cash Brown

Not all students who graduate from Masters programs are in their 20’s

Cash Brown MCMC, BFA

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