Niklas Elmqvist, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, College of Information Studies
Director, Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction
Affiliate Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science
Member, Institute for Advanced Computer Studies
University of Maryland, College Park
Funded as an exploratory high-risk grant in 2012, the HASTAC-EAGER project yielded corresponding high-payoff results on topics surrounding the use of the online academic network HASTAC. At its core, the project was conducted by two separate postdoctoral fellows that were funded under the grant and who managed to day-to-day research, management, and communication activities for the project. The findings, detailed in a journal paper and three strictly peer-reviewed conference papers, indicate the importance of online academic networks such as HASTAC for improving productivity, collaboration, and interdisciplinary across multiple institutions across the nation. Significant features of the project include its data-driven approach using state-of-the-art data science, its leveraging of advanced visualization to convey the findings, and its use of blog posts as intermediate progress reports.
Web-based cyberinfrastructures for academic communities are becoming commonplace, and multiple such systems now exist for specific disciplines. Furthermore, many general-purpose social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are routinely used for academic communities as well. Taken together, all of these platforms constitute “competitors” of sorts to the HASTAC community and website. However, it is important to realize that at the time the HASTAC project was founded in 2002, the concept of social media was still nascent and the online social network platforms that are ubiquitous today simply did not exist. The table below is by no means exhaustive—an exhaustive survey is outside the scope of this external evaluation, as is an in-depth review of the HASTAC project itself—but includes several representative social media platforms to put the importance of the HASTAC project in context.
For this reason, the mission of the HASTAC-EAGER project—e.g., to study six years of HASTAC collaboration data, including posts, comments, and blog entries—is an important and unique opportunity to gain insight into the formative stages of the use of the Internet as a communication and collaboration medium for academic discourse and learning. The results gained from it are thus of particular interest.
The traditional model for scientific projects funded by the NSF is to focus on academic publications as the sole metric of success. While the HASTAC-EAGER project certainly has pursued such publications in a significant way—one journal paper and three conference papers are listed as being derived from the project—the project has also pursued an alternative to scientific publication by publishing a total of 25 blog posts to its existing HASTAC website. While this idea certainly is not unique to the HASTAC-EAGER project, it is intriguing in that it challenges the traditional academic publishing model, and it would be interesting to learn what the project team thinks of the practice. On the positive side, this approach would presumably increase the visibility of the project, facilitate engagement with the audience, and thus ultimately lead to higher impact in the community. However, in terms of negatives, blog posts are difficult to quantify when assessing someone’s academic qualifications, lead to important results being disseminated before they are appropriately published in an archival venue, and require additional effort to create.
EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) grants22 are awarded by the National Science Foundation to projects in their early stages that are untested but potentially transformative, representing what the NSF calls “high-risk high-payoff” research. The nature of the HASTAC-EAGER project clearly falls within this category, and the numerous findings, reports, and publications arising from it is a testament to the high payoff. Given this success, it would be customary (even if by no means necessary) for the project to continue, possibly by applying for larger-scale, core program funding from the NSF. Areas of possible future funding include (1) exploring the collaboration hub method pioneered by the HASTAC project and evaluating its institutional impact, (2) applying the HASTAC model to other field such as social studies, data sciences, and computation and information science, and (3) investigating the use of the HASTAC model and system for online hybrid learning communities and pedagogical applications.