Sad Professors

As a web accessibility researcher and consultant, a significant part of my job involves finding out what’s going on in the field.

In order to do this, I should spend most of my time reading journal papers and attending academic conferences. These publications are peer-reviewed, and should be rigorous and high quality accounts of relevant investigations into how technology can be used to improve the experiences of disabled people. They’re usually the results of major funded research projects, lasting one or more years, and are indeed generally of high quality.

In academia, this is how the quality of our work is measured – the number of publications we achieve, and more importantly, the quality of the place we publish.

The catch is that I can’t afford to travel to every (most!) conference I’d like to (W4A of course an exception), and accessing conference proceedings and journals can cost money too. This shouldn’t be a major problem – we know this is the score, and we have to deal with it. But it makes me think twice if access to a paper isn’t immediate, and I have to pay. (So let’s see more high quality – and free – online journals such as JMIR.)

And given the slow process of peer reviewing, there are occasions where journal publications report on a situation of 18 months ago, which may not reflect current reality, especially in a fast moving (socially as well as technologically) field like the Web. There is also the chance we might be receiving research results by drip-feed – presenting 50% of results in journal X and 50% in journal Y gives researchers two publications, but doubles the efforts required of people who want to learn about the work.

OK, I’m 100% sure these frustrations have been expressed before, and are not original to me. But if I find accessing the research I need can be challenging, what about the people who are making day to day decisions that might affect the accessibility of the resources they produce, and who could benefit from the results of research? It’s why I find, to adapt a phrase from Jakob Nielsen (and Julian Rickards) guerrilla accessibility research so valuable. This is the work typically done in a short period of time, to answer a very specific question, or target a very particular group of web users and published online in a (usually) easy to find place, such as a blog.

So, it’s always wonderful to find and read pieces of work like WebAIM’s screenreader user survey, or Joe Clark’s WordPress ATAG review, or the various screenreader support investigations of TPG’s Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner, or Alastair Campbell on accessible PDF creation– to name just four examples. This work is current when it is published, and directly focused on questions for which people need answers.

As a bonus, (reflecting the web in general?) research written for the web is generally easier to read than an academic paper, and easy to extract the key points. It will be peer-reviewed, but after publication. If the work is good, people talk about it; if it’s of poor quality, reaction in the blogosphere will be swift. And more and more often, the results of this work are referenced in academic literature, yet I’ll bet is of more direct impact to the people it aims to inform – web designers and developers, assistive technologists, policy makers and anyone else who needs accessibility information quickly.

The paper I wrote on the gulf between the web standards community and researchers working in the field of gerontechnology – supporting access to and use of technology by older people was, perhaps, the first time I really began to look into this problem.

So, where does academic research fit in? Bigger, more complex projects. Personally, I’m not a developer, and I could never call myself a geek – the sort of research I described above can in some cases require a level of technical nosiness I still haven’t acquired yet! I think my best role is figuring out how the impact of research and development such as the examples I gave above can be most effectively conveyed to the harder-to-reach groups: users and web content creators who are not actively looking for (or are likely to happen upon) web accessibility information and innovations. This sort of work does take longer to produce, so is perhaps most suited to an academic research project where a team of people can attack a problem over a decent period of time, and have access to a larger group of people as participant end-users.

Our pledge as academic researchers, though, needs to be to do our best engage with everyone else working towards promoting web accessibility, by making what we discover easier to find. This blog is one attempt to help bridge the gap.

(NB I should say, of course, that academia can contribute technical innovation in the area of web accessibility – of course it can, and has done; many innovations do emerge into the public domain before being published in relevant academic literature. It’s also important not to underplay the work of major tech companies such as IBM, who produce and publish their work in journals and conferences alongside university researchers. In this post I’m addressing the shortcomings of the research publication culture, rather than the people involved in doing research. )


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