Meeting a need for clear and accessible reporting of population research
From an academic’s perspective, the topic of population change is somewhat prone to popular misconception. The media representation of issues such as immigration, birth rates and population ageing can come across to an expert in the field as over-simplified, anachronistic and sometimes misleading.
There are two reasons for this state of affairs. Firstly, for a long time access to research on population change has been largely limited to academics with institutional subscriptions to scholarly journals. Secondly, because one needs an understanding of statistics in order to grasp the subject, it can be difficult for the media, policy makers and public at large to make sense of the data published in academic papers.
To address the problem, researchers at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and the Department of Sociology sought a way to translate cutting-edge research to a broad audience in order in order to deepen their understanding of major population issues. Building on the successful model of collaborative blogs used at the London School of Economics, they set out to create a global resource that would engage population researchers across the world. In particular they wanted to emphasise the translation of quantitative research into a more accessible format.
Having secured a grant from HEIF, the project team employed a research assistant to scope examples of ‘best practice’ through online searches of other collaborative blogs and interviews with relevant designers. These findings then informed the final design, name and domain of the blog: openpop.org.
Management and editorial process
The openpop.org team comprises two editors (Dr Stuart Gietel-Basten and Prof Francesco Bilari) a managing editor (a DPhil student) and a group of graduate editors (who are paid a stipend). The blog is overseen by an editorial board which includes some of the most senior demographers in the world. The diagram below presents the way in which material is collected, edited and published.
Graduate editors are encouraged to solicit submissions through networking opportunities at academic conferences. To complement this activity, the managing editor has alerts set up for the key journals and approaches authors directly. In addition, the project has established special agreements with the editors of the Demographic Research and Population journals, through which the openpop.org team contacts the authors of accepted papers to encourage them to write a related blog post which links to their paper (and vice versa).
The aim is to publish one post a week and simultaneously update the social media channels associated with the blog on Facebook and Twitter (@openpopblog). The team also engages in outreach activities, including presentations at major population conferences and the Ashmolean Museum’s Social Science Live Friday in May 2015.
A far-reaching success
In its first two years (2013-15), the openpop.org blog had over 38,880 views (a daily average of 150-200) and received highly positive feedback from users, contributors, organisations and publishers. It was also named as a ‘key partner’ by the two largest demographic research centres in Europe (INED in Paris and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock), both of which publish widely cited journals.
Openpop.org has been used as a teaching resource, and its open licence (CC BY SA) means that teachers can adapt the material, subject to the terms of the licence. The blog also provides its contributors with a first step in writing for a broader audience.
As the list of contributors shows, openpop.org has reached out to a global network of researchers, with articles submitted from Australia, Japan, the USA and several European countries.
Based on openpop.org’s experiences, Dr Stuart Gietel-Basten offers the following advice to others looking to embark on a similar initiative:
- Don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel: build upon successful models which already exist.
- Be prepared for a slow start as you grow an audience base and make connections with suitable contributors.
- Aim to become as self-sufficient as possible; funding in later years may not be available.
- The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers courses on building a blog and writing for an online audience.