What is a paper? The future of research output

Authors: Miriam Sturdee
Posted: Thu, February 23, 2023 - 11:01:00

A vivid blue eye at the centre of a sunburst reflects a simple oblong in the white pinpoint within the pupil. We zoom in, the white pinpoint grows, and we see it contains images of a textual research paper, pages piled up. The same pages overlap the right-hand corner of the eye, no words are visible, but a bottle of ink has been spilled across the edge of them and a paintbrush lies discarded atop the abstract. The spilled ink is not a single colour, but contains panels of a comic, in it we see people working, interacting. Surrounding the pages and the larger eye is a landscape, lush and green, a small house and fir trees are in the distance. Above the ink spillage a girl sits and reads a book, next to a fir tree in the foreground. A cursor sits in the sky, as it pauses the alt text has appeared, but instead of containing text it is the image of an ear and a laptop which is communicating via the screen reader. In the top right corner of the image the eye is repeated again, the red and yellow rays of the sun spanning into the corner of the page.
Exploring the relationship between comics and alt-text with the creation of "alt-narrative" [3].

When is a paper not a paper? When it is a comic [1]? When it is an experience [2]? When it sings, speaks [3], or challenges your assumptions of being “academic”? If one is to explore Interactions, why must the written word take precedent? If we embrace the future of publication, what might that look like?

We strive to engage our up-and-coming students and early career academics with alternative enquiry, celebrating “novelty” and work in interdisciplinary spaces—yet we remain bound to existing conventions of what a research output should be, and how one might view what is “publishable” versus what is relevant. The future is not black and white and red all over; the future is in interaction, and our discipline has the tools and the knowledge to bring about this change.

As a community of inspired researchers, we already are exploring alternative futures in publication and, slowly, some of these futures are becoming reality. The acknowledgment and development of human-computer interaction as a designerly discipline has brought us the pictorial [4]. The burgeoning physical nature of computing has brought us demos, the creative side, and art exhibitions—but why stop there? As a Special Interest Group within the ACM, the changes we make to our publishable space are currently incremental, but happily visible. The challenges we face are bureaucratic—in tenure and funding-based biases—but the “archival” publication is already outmoded and outdated. The rise of the visual abstract is testament to the gradual change we want to see in the world of publication.

As part of an Alt.CHI publication—a “Not Paper” at CHI 2021 held in Gather Town [5] on New Year’s Eve, during one of many enforced pandemic lockdowns—I found myself re-exploring the environment we had created. I wandered through a maze of imagery, thinking about the bridge between the Here and the There, “when all at once, I saw a crowd” [6], a co-host and their friends, who were having a guided tour. Minutes later, I then “bumped into” another researcher with whom I engaged in conversation. The Not Paper persisted; it was a hub during the conference, and it is still out there, somewhere… (we invite you to enter the Egg) [2]. As are the questions it raises about how we approach research and knowledge production. What happens when we abandon conventional thoughts about research outputs?

As individual researchers, we can strive to re-genre the formats of what is acceptable and what is useful. By engaging in nontraditional formats, we open up more discursive spaces to reflect and communicate—could we make them more accessible too? Can research be experienced rather than just read [2]? Heard but not seen [3]? Touched, shared, and… tasted [7]? After all, literacy has only become the normal state of things within the past couple of hundred years; prior to that we had the oral tradition of knowledge communication, acting, and song. The barriers to recording nonvisual mark-making have evaporated, leaving us with myriad options to explore. Let us make the most of our rich history and embed it in an even richer future.

The idea of re-genring our research might also open a space to explore more of our process of discovery and the sum of the parts that make research happen—what we do in the shadows. We are the trailblazers, and creatively thinking about what constitutes research and how we communicate its impacts could also lead to new discoveries. 

1. Sturdee, M., Alexander, J., Coulton, P., and Carpendale, S. Sketch & the lizard king: Supporting image inclusion in HCI publishing. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2018, 1–10.

2. Lindley, J., Sturdee, M., Green, D.P., and Alter, H. This is not a paper: Applying a design research lens to video conferencing, publication formats, eggs… and other things. Extended Abstracts of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2021, 1–6. 2021.

3. Lewis, M., Sturdee, M., Miers, J., Davis, J.U., and Hoang, T. Exploring AltNarrative in HCI imagery and comics. CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Extended Abstracts. 2022, 1–13.

4. Blevis, E., Hauser, S., and Odom, W. Sharing the hidden treasure in pictorials. Interactions 22, 3 (2015), 32–43.

5. Gather Town is an online 8-bit style conference platform. It has some accessibility issues but I hope they will be resolved as soon as possible.

6. From I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud William Wordsworth.

7. Obrist, M. et al. Touch, taste, & smell user interfaces: The future of multisensory HCI. In Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2016, 3285–3292.

Posted in: on Thu, February 23, 2023 - 11:01:00

Miriam Sturdee

Miriam Sturdee is a lecturer at Lancaster University, working on intersections of art, design, and computer science. She is a practicing artist and designer and has an MFA in visual communication. Her publications explore areas of futuring, sketching, and drawing, alternative research outputs, and psychology. [email protected]
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