Monday, October 03, 2011

"Who's gonna read this ?"

A friend of mine, in the midst of the final rush towards finishing his dissertation, vented his contradictory feelings of dutifulness and despair: "for whom am I doing all this??" I always considered myself lucky to not have suffered from this state of mind, as the answer had been obvious to me. I was also extremely confident that 'they' would want to read it, and my experiences ended up proving me right. For a presentation on post-doc artistic research life, I took the trouble of investigating the matter into some detail. I think it is uplifting and promising.

I started my doctoral research long before an artistic doctorate was an option. In the early 1990's, coming back from the US with lots of inside information from my working with composers that I knew my fellow new music pianists in the EU were lacking in their performance practice, I had decided to write a book. Compelled to reach as many musicians as possible, merely teaching didn't look as if it was going to be satisfying. Even if I got a position at a conservatoire, I'd still be looking at reaching some 200 to 300 students at best during the rest of my teaching career. There were going to be concerts, of course, but passing on the kind of professional performance practice information that I had to spare did not suite the stage: the questions on 'how did you do that?' would still be left unanswered. A book it was going to be. In English, of course: the few dozen Dutch speaking new music pianists would hardly make the effort worthwhile.

In 1996 I heard of a new institute that would support and frame projects that were too big to fit conservatory degrees. It looked perfect for my idea, so I hooked up to the Orpheus Institute. After a few years, Bologna became the name for a process that lead directly to the artistic doctorate and my book became a dissertation without much ado. A burn-out and many pages later, in 2009 the dissertation-book was finished and in March 2010 it was put on the repository of Leiden University, where it can be viewed and downloaded for free.

A nice feature of the repository enables the visitor to see the statistics on how many people view and/or download dissertations, revealing the worldwide interest by country, referrer and month.
Here is the ratio views/downloads for the first year per month:

                         2010/03       13  /    11
                         2010/04       96  /    77
                         2010/05       73  /    67
                         2010/06       28  /    40
                         2010/07       13  /    08
                         2010/08       11  /    10
                         2010/09       23  /    18
                         2010/10       19  /    14
                         2010/11       21  /    14
                         2010/12       54  /    44
                         2011/01       36  /    22
                         2011/02       23  /    34
                         2011/03       39  /    55

                           TOTAL     449  /   414

[ updates: 2011/04-'12/03 :   432  /   234
                2012/04-'13/03 :   442  /   286
                2013/04-'14/03 :   641  /   382
                2014/04-'15/03 :   632  /   271
                2015/04-'16/03 :   596  /   280
                2016/04-'17/03 :   908  /   365
                            TOTAL   : 4150  /  2264 ]

The surge in April is probably due to the fact that I announced the repository on Facebook. I have not made any targeted publicity campaign since then, not even by way of a link on my homepage or in my e-mail signature. There is an increase in September 2010 and March 2011, two months in which prospective doctoral students are in touch with me about their entrance exam and application for our doctoral program. One would expect them to look for examples of artistic research dissertations, but the few such students don't completely explain the differences. I have no idea why there's a peak in December 2010. (The total views/downloads for March 2010-October 2011 are 585/481.)

The happiest remark to be made concerns the realization that one year has been enough to reach more individuals than I would have hoped for in several decades of teaching. Not all of these views and downloads (the numbers don't overlap, by the way) can be assumed to lead to actual knowledge transfer and application, but that isn't guaranteed with teaching either.

It can also not be taken for granted that all the viewers and downloaders are pianists, but search keyword information suggests that most of them are. Through my profile on, where a link to the repository can be found, I can see the keywords that were entered into search engines and that lead the surfer to my profile page. Apparently, views and downloads are not so much generated by any particular interest in me as a person, or in a more general interest in artistic research. Hardly ever do I see my name pop up - mostly, it is 'extended techniques for piano' or some other combination of such words that the search engine then links to the title of my dissertation. I cannot imagine many non-pianists wanted to download a large file with information on piano performance techniques. Together, the search information and the repository statistics show that people find the dissertation because they look for the content: they are in need of the knowledge. The answer to my friends exasperation with the effort to write his dissertation and the fear of it being in vain - "Why would anyone want to read what I have to say?" - is very clear, and very exciting, I think.

Here is the list of 25 dissertations from other departments of Leiden University that were put in the repository at the same time as mine, again with the ration view/download for the 12-month period March 2010-April 2011:

                          48/292    Medicine
                          50/220    Medicine
                          26/94      Law
                          60/139    Biosciences
                          93/261    Social and Behavioral Sciences
                          36/237    Physics
                          60/465    Medicine
                        134/199    Observatory
                        133/125    Humanities
                          89/312    Art History
                          35/205    Medicine
                          51/309    Medicine
                          48/139    Medicine
                          85/416    Biology
                          31/209    Medicine
                        148/217    Environmental sciences
                          55/704    Medicine
                          45/243    Medicine
                          56/141    Medicine
                          33/236    Medicine
                          50/158    Psychology
                        139/465    Institute for Area Studies
                          74/207    Medicine
                          18/110    Psychology
                          66/465    Medicine

I can only wonder at why certain dissertations seem so much more or less sought after than others. Of immediate interest here is the fact that the views are mostly much less than the downloads. Compared to the other disciplines, my dissertation has more views (449) than any of the others (max. 148). In my case, the proximity of view- and download-numbers can be explained by the supposition that a new discipline leads people to have a look at output out of interest more than to have and use the content. I surmise that established disciplines have developed a tradition of interested parties systematically downloading new knowledge to have and read it.

If any of my numbers are a success, it has - again - nothing to do with me or any notion of quality: the numbers for my colleague doctors in the arts with a dissertation at the Leiden University repository are equally impressive. If mine is the 6th in a ranking of most downloads, compare to the other 25 (better are medicine, biology, and 'area studies'), Paul Craenen's 216 downloads in six months and Jed Wentz' 450 in nine months will be as much up there, if not more, when their first post-doc year is over. Paul and Jed's viewing numbers (185, resp. 334) are and will likely remain lower, which may be explained by the novelty wearing off. (My dissertation was the first artistic research output on music in The Netherlands, the country which many of my viewing numbers came from; it was also the only one at the repository for nine months.)

In terms of geographical interest, Paul generated views and downloads from a total of 18 countries, jed 22 and I 59. It is true that automated search engines will get to the repository without a genuine interest in the matter, but these will not result in actual downloads. In all three cases, only two to three countries had had someone viewing while nobody downloaded.

I didn't study the differences in download/viewing behavior according to country: Paul's dissertation is written in Dutch and Jed's and mine in English, the subjects are wildly divergent, etc. Of further interest, however, is the fact that only Jed's dissertation was (twice out of 334 views and 450 downloads) referred to by Google Scholar. This can show how most of the interest is from musicians rather than musicologists: few of the former typically use Google Scholar.

All this is very exhilarating for the artistic research discipline and its researchers: it proves that musicians all over the world are hungry for this type of knowledge to enrich their expertise. And they are willing to go to great lengths for it: I made a limited number of hardcover bound copies of my dissertation to give to family, promotor etc. Some pianists pleaded with me to sell them one (as they didn't like reading from a monitor or printing out a thousand pages), and when they heard from me that the cost to make some more would run up to 80€ per copy, they argued that they would pay much more than that to have it. I can only imagine one bigger incentive for publishers to take artistic research very seriously: there are many more musicians than academics. And they need catering to.


Paul Craenen said...

I am very surprised to see these download numbers for my doctoral thesis in dutch, on a very specialised topic. Moreover, I have a second, improved version of my thesis on a different host (scribd) with a link from my website where I got 2000 reads (!) and 16 downloads until now. The difference between downloads and reads on scribd shows a more coïncidental and superficial search behavior of visitors, many of them finding my writings via specific tags or word searches ('afbakening van het onderzoek', 23 or 'afbakening onderzoek', 71).
Anyway, after thousands of reads, almost 250 downloads and approximately 75 paperback copies, I can only agree that the spread of this kind of research outcome is promising and proving the existence of a growing and research community. A big incentive for publishers indeed...

luk said...

By the way, Paul: the post on this blog concerning your promotion has received the most pageviews of all of them :-)