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‘If You’re at a University, You’re Already a Part of Scholarly Discourse’

The Science Republic, which brings together young researchers, was founded at HSE University in March 2019. Andrey Kozhanov, Director of the Centre for Student Academic Development, spoke with the HSE News Service about how to explain your research to your grandma, as well as research fails.

On the Centre for Student Academic Development

Since January 2019, my colleagues and I have been working on implementing ideas to support and develop HSE students' involvement in research in general and in their own academic fields in particular.

Our main task is to help students become more scholarly minded and interested in producing quality research. And from there, to encourage them to be a part of the university’s scholarly community and academic profession—after all, bachelor’s and master's degrees are academic degrees, even if they are conferred in areas that are applied or administrative.

The third level of ‘enlightenment’ is to try to develop within a specific field of research and particular scholarly community—‘the thought collective’, as Ludwik Fleck said.

On What They Plan to Do

We are not going to try to make students inclined to something or force them to love research. That’s probably the most effective way to ruin the whole thing. Rather, we invite students to think about whether life at HSE University can be connected with an academic project.

It's funny to read in student surveys that some of them believe that research is not for them. To use a metaphor from a discussion about the sociology of science, you might say it's like flying in an airplane at an altitude of 10 thousand meters and not acknowledging the laws of aerodynamics. It's too late. If you’re at a university, you’re already a part of scholarly discourse. I’m not saying you’re a scholar of ‘great discoveries’; rather, you are engaged in certain enclaves of academic expertise.

On the Science Republic

While creating the Science Republic, we considered and searched through many options. We rejected the idea of imitating someone’s project when we looked around and didn’t see anything about it that would suit us given our objectives and the specifics of HSE University, with its large number of bachelor’s programmes in many areas.

From the history of science, we knew that there are two basic models – science as a vertical academic hierarchy and science as a horizontal ‘invisible college’. However, we associate any hierarchy and culture of status veneration with nomenclature and bureaucracy, including numerous attempts to organize student research societies at HSE University. Therefore, we invited HSE students of all programmes and levels to participate in the horizontal model of the Science Republic.

The Science Republic Now

The project was launched in March and now has 145 members, who met the strict criteria in order to join.

Now the Science Republic has become a platform for HSE students to hone their academic skills. The following programmes help to develop these skills: funding for student travel to research events, student conference support, the HSE student blogger competition, and the school of wiki editors for research scientists. We still have a lot of ideas, and we intend to develop them next academic year.

How Do You Explain What You Do to Your Grandma?

I find it easy to speak about research or the university. The biggest problem is to explain what sociology is. And If we’re talking about sociology of science and scientific knowledge...then you’ve got a complicated situation on your hands.

You can talk about it in clichés (for example, ‘sociology is the science of society’). However, people get annoyed with these explanations. On the contrary, you can talk about the things you don’t do – for example, you don’t stand with questionnaires at the cash desk in a supermarket.

Now I think I can explain what I do to anyone, but it took years of practicing and coming to understand two important areas for a social scientist – sociolinguistics and the sociology of scholarly communication.

The first one teaches us to translate information from jargon into ordinary language. The second one is to understand how the goals and motives of the audience shift in the transition to different institutional contexts. Talking about research with academics and talking about it with non-academics are two different things.

I would start by saying that there is a social problem that my field of study solves. For example, the sociology of expert knowledge determines how and why people trust expert opinion, on which we so strongly rely.

Even sociologists studying Wittgenstein face real problems: the rules by which a person exists in culture and society have a dual nature of formal prescriptions and a lack of clear instructions for their implementation. This becomes immediately clear when the sociologist applies this to real life: traffic, rules in public transport – any situation of ordered chaos.

On Fails

Failure is an important part in the history of any discipline. It not only exposes areas of weakness, but also helps you to relax and move on, overcoming perfectionism as a neurosis.

The history of science contains many accidents and errors that were presented as the norm. When my colleagues asked me to help develop the concept of a new exposition for the Polytechnic Museum, I supported the establishment of a section on the History of Failure. It is called the ‘confession session’ at conferences, where participants talk about their failures.

Once we conducted an empirical study with a complex experimental plan that included focus groups, online surveys and special online sessions on people's attitudes to global climate change and man’s role in it.

Everything turned out quite well, but we did not achieve statistically significant results. It's like a surgical operation, which was done properly, but the patient still died.

Journals do not publish articles with negative results. People are interested in the connection, the interrelation, the result in terms of the positive expansion of the explained subject. However, failures are now often published as local statistics, which can’t be repeated or verified.

We decided not to send the article for publication in the journal.  

On Crowning Moments of his Academic Career

I don't dream about crowning moments. In terms of what I would like to achieve in academic work, right now I am focused on the development of quality studies of scholarly communication in Russia – i.e., the communicative interaction between academia and the general public—people of all backgrounds.

For a long time Russian sociology of science was dedicated exclusively to internal research of academic profession and scientometrics. I am interested in the perception of scientific knowledge and technology in society, the formation of trust in the institutions of expertise and science and dialogue between academic communities and involved groups of social activists.


June 21, 2019