Dickens codebreakers recognised at Higher Education ‘Oscars’

A worldwide effort to crack the code that Charles Dickens used to write his notes has won a Times Higher Education Award, one of the most prestigious accolades in UK Higher Education. 

University of Leicester, in collaboration with the University of Foggia took home the Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences trophy at the eighteenth annual THE Awards on 17 November. 

The THE Awards – widely referred to as the ‘Oscars of higher education’ – are the biggest celebration in the HE calendar, attracting hundreds of fantastic entries from individuals, teams and institutions, and from all corners of the UK and Ireland. 

Nearly a thousand people gathered at the Hilton London Metropole hotel to celebrate one of our greatest national success stories: our universities. 

The winner of the award for Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences was the AHRC-funded Dickens Code, led by Dr Claire Wood in the School of Arts in collaboration with Professor Hugo Bowles at the University of Foggia. Charles Dickens is a giant of English literature, yet there are texts in Dickens’s own hand that remain unread, written in an adapted form of shorthand. To solve this 150-year-old mystery, they combined the efforts of the Dickens Decoders - volunteers from across the world with an interest in puzzles and codes - with contextual research by academics to enable crowd-created transcription of two of Dickens’s mysterious shorthand texts.

The judges described the project as an “inspirational development of a small-scale research problem”. They were impressed by its “imaginative deployment of interdisciplinary expertise, the international liaison, the use of ‘crowd-creation’ to find solutions, and the exemplary communication and exploitation of results.

“It is an exciting model of how localised research can be vividly extended into other domains addressing far-sighted objectives.”

Dr Claire Wood of the School of Arts at the University of Leicester said: “I am beyond thrilled to accept this award on behalf of the Dickens Code team. It is testimony, both to the enduring global interest in Dickens’s life and works, and to the efforts of the Dickens Decoders, who approached the challenges of Dickens’s mysterious shorthand with such imagination and tenacity. It also demonstrates the power of international, interdisciplinary collaboration and the use of public engagement to solve complex research questions.

“We’d like to thank everyone who has supported the project, including members of our academic network, our museum and library partners, and our followers around the world!”

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, said: “I’m delighted that the Dickens Code has been recognised with a Times Higher Education Award, and my congratulations to Dr Claire Wood for her leadership of a project that has captured our imaginations. This was a truly international effort, combining academic expertise from a range of disciplines with crowdsourced know-how from around the world to uncover truly unique insights into a towering figure in English literature. It is an inspirational example of how we all have the capacity to be a Citizen of Change and make a transformative impact on our knowledge and understanding.

“To have been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Award is a fantastic achievement in itself, and my congratulations to all our colleagues who were recognised for their exceptional contributions.”

This year, the University was nominated in four categories: 

  • Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community, for work that identified an increased risk of COVID-19 to ethnic minority populations that had local, national and international impact
  • Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, for the Dickens Code project in collaboration with the University of Foggia
  • Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year, for Professor John Goodwin from the Department of Sociology
  • Outstanding Technician of the Year, Gemma Black, for commitment and leadership in bringing together the University’s technical community

THE editor, John Gill, said: 

“Two and a half years after the Covid crisis hit, it is easy to forget or to take for granted the exceptional challenge that it posed to universities.

“Not only was the world looking to our scientists and research teams to find a way out of the pandemic, universities were also being asked to continue to teach and nurture cohorts of students who, like all of us, had seen their lives and plans turned upside down.

“The Times Higher Education Awards have, for almost two decades, tracked the exceptional achievements of our universities – surely these islands' greatest asset.

“This year, the shortlists and winners reflect a particular moment in time, the 2020-21 academic year, when universities were coming to terms with and continuing to respond to the changed circumstances imposed by the pandemic.

“As such, it is inevitable that those heroic efforts related to the Covid crisis are represented, but what is perhaps more striking is how rich and diverse the entries to this year’s awards were, how focused on the core missions of universities to deliver world-changing research, life-changing teaching, and all the other ways in which they engage and support communities, regions and the country.

“There is little sense in this year’s submissions, and particularly among the winners, of universities struggling through such exceptional times.

“Instead, the picture that is painted is of a sector that has risen to the occasion with skill and confidence, and refused to be pushed off course.”

  • Please note that this year’s THE Awards primarily focus on activity during the 2020-21 academic year.
  • You will find more on the THE Awards website, at Times Higher Education and there is in-depth coverage of some of this year’s finalists at THE Campus.