What’s in a name?

Within both academic and industrial contexts we often find ourselves describing our own jobs, the teams with whom we work, or even our disciplines. When you are a Assistant, Associate or Full Professor in most UK universities you are expected to become a Professor ‘of’ something.
Names of groups, organisations and jobs can be incredibly important in how our expertise or coverage is perceived by our peers, current and future employers, and funders or collaborators. Our research group at Nottingham is currently discussing whether we should or should not modify our group name, and we are also going through a University-wide process of identifying Research Priority Areas to map on to more wide-reaching Global Research Themes.
So what’s in a name? Why do names matter, and why do people like me care so much about how our work is described?
Sometimes a title can act as a ‘stake in the ground’. I think my late colleague and mentor Professor John Wilson achieved this twice – once when he and others founded the Virtual Reality Applications Research Team (VIRART) which was one of the first groups to look at VR from a user-led perspective, and provided the foundation for many long-standing partnerships as part of EU consortia in particular. The team identity probably ended up being more important than the specific words – Virtual Reality as a phrase has a habit of going in and out of fashion – but the reputation of the teams who worked within VIRART became respected.
The second time was through the establishment of the Centre for Rail Human Factors, which John, with me and others, established in 1998. This represented a critical mass of research at the time and formed the basis of many other activities, including the International Conference on Rail Human Factors (the 5th such conference is running this September http://www.rssb.co.uk/railhf2015site).
Sometimes individuals have the opportunity to be the ‘first professor in’ something. A quick search reveals announcements of ‘first professors’ in International Studies, Poetry, User Led research, or networking. Being the ‘first’ something can be something to be proud of (see my #notjustforboys blog which mentions my mum’s ‘female first’ https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/researchexchange/2015/03/06/engineering-not-just-for-boys/). One risk with having a title or group that is ‘first’ is that it might also be quite specific and perhaps not quite so future proof as something more general which maps onto standard disciplinary terms.
Of course, my own tautological discipline of ergonomics/human factors has a particular challenge. Pat Waterson has written a couple of nice papers on the history of the ergonomics society (Ergonomics. 2009 Nov;52(11):1323-41. doi: 10.1080/00140130903229561; and Ergonomics. 2006 Jun 22;49(8):743-99.) and we also discuss some of the issues around the distinction (or not) between ergonomics and human factors in the first chapter of Evaluation of Human Work (https://www.crcpress.com/product/isbn/9781466559615). However, we can probably all agree that the term ‘ergonomics and human factors’ is a mouthful. Also, both terms are prone to misinterpretation. Ergonomics as a discipline encompasses the physical, social, environmental, cognitive, organisational and systems aspects of work, technology and systems design, but the term is still associated with chairs and physical workplace equipment. This aspect of work is of course extremely important, but is only a part of the discipline. The image below, a screenshot of a Google images search for the word ergonomics, demonstrates the prevalence of this interpretation.  

Human factors as a term is also imperfect. The same Google images search reveals that this term maps onto a much broader set of topics and activities. However, often the term ‘human factors’ is victim of a common curse of E/HF terms, in that it has a colloquial meaning that is subtly different from its specific meaning in the context of the discipline. Specifically, it can be interpreted as meaning ‘the human contribution’ in a system, rather than its wider meaning of designing a system taking a range of factors related to and influencing human and system behaviour, state and performance. 

 

A final option when naming a group, team, job role or activity is to ‘follow a trend’. This can be strategically astute. In the UK, our former Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, proposed ‘eight great technologies’ and prioritised investment in research and innovation in these areas (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eight-great-technologies). Perhaps it is therefore sensible to have titles that map onto these priority areas, but such politically influenced priorities are susceptible to change.
So, when naming a role, group, activity, entity or team, we should consider what our goal is. Is it to place a stake in the ground? Do we want to represent a broad range of areas, to avoid restricting our future activities? How permanent is a name (it is possible, but unusual, to change a professorial title, but university and industry team names can change quite frequently). Who cares about a name – the people in a team or taking on a role, those who are reading about a team or group, the organisation in which the team sits, the team’s sponsors or funders? And how closely should team names map on to traditional disciplinary terms? 

What’s in a name?

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