New Year’s resolution

moneyI think the time has come to declare that I will not do any more unpaid work for rich organisations.

This can be hard to call when you’re self-employed. Some unpaid work is necessary to gain paid work. Unpaid work can have real benefits, whether it’s working on a bid for a contract, making useful contacts through networking, or someone I’ve chatted with on Twitter deciding to buy my book. Every self-employed person needs to work on their business as well as in their business, and at times it can be difficult to separate ‘unpaid work’ from ‘essential marketing’.

Also, I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things which interest me. That’s where I need to improve.

‘Pay’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘money’. For example, I will swap some of my time and skills for, say, a free place at a conference I want to go to (though that would need to be a fully free place, i.e. including travel and accommodation). I do some unpaid work for the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham in exchange for access to paywalled academic literature. And I will still collaborate on bids for contracts without expecting payment for my work on the bid, as long as the contract includes some paid work for me if the bid is successful.

I have been inspired in this respect, recently, by Charlotte Cooper. I knew of her work, then I heard her speak at the launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December. Charlotte is also an indie researcher, and an activist, and a terrific speaker. And she is uncompromising about not working for rich organisations without pay. This made me realise that I’m a bit feeble. ‘Oh but they’re nice people… maybe it’ll help my career… anyway it would be fun…’ and there goes another day, week, or month of my life, spent giving away my skills and expertise to organisations that could well afford to pay.

Part of the problem is that I’m doing more academic-type work now. Academic employees are paid comfortable salaries and have the freedom to do things like work on the boards of academic journals as part of their academic role. Academic journals don’t expect to pay their board members, because they’re already academic employees earning comfortable salaries. Except now academic journals are reaching out to indie researchers – which is great; we have a lot to offer – but it’s an odd experience, being the only volunteer in a group of well-paid professionals, treated as a peer in all respects but the rather important one of remuneration. I also recognise that this is not the fault of any individual, or in any individual’s gift to fix. It’s a structural imbalance with historical roots. But I’m coming to realise that this won’t get rebalanced unless people like me start saying ‘no’.rock and hard place

Yet is there a rock and a hard place here? Do I need to demonstrate my value first? This is the question I keep coming up against – but Charlotte Cooper’s example is helping me a lot. And, as I’m a researcher, I decided to do some research.

The journal on whose board I currently sit is published by Taylor & Francis, which is part of the Informa Group, a very wealthy company which is listed on the Stock Exchange. In 2012 the Informa Group made operating profits of £350 million; in 2013 they paid out £114 million in dividends to shareholders. And I am working, for this phenomenally rich organisation, for no pay. Finding this out has helped to focus my mind. I plan to finish my term on the Board – I don’t pull out of commitments I’ve made – and, on the same basis, I will finish a couple of other pieces of work I’m currently doing, unpaid, for wealthy organisations. But after that I’ll stick to doing unpaid work for charities. Such as the UK’s Social Research Association (SRA), a registered charity, not for profit, on whose Board I sit. According to its annual accounts, the net income of the SRA in 2012-13 was £24,379. It’s organisations like this where I should be, and will be, giving my unpaid time and skills from now on.

The importance of self-care

2014-12-08_1418066953Very unusually for me, I don’t feel like working. I have a list of my current projects, all of which are interesting, and usually I’d look at the list and decide what to focus on next: either the most urgent, or the most appealing. But right now – and this hardly EVER happens – none of them are urgent. And, oddly, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to work on any of the non-urgent ones either. Even though they do need doing, and will become urgent if I don’t do them at some point.

I love my work and am usually highly motivated. Also, I don’t work well under deadline pressure, so prefer to finish tasks with time to spare. I’m not ill, and I don’t have any difficult personal stuff going on. So I’ve been asking myself: why this unusual lack of interest in, or motivation to do, my work?

I think the answer is simply that I need a few days’ break. I’ve had such a busy year, without much downtime: a ten-day holiday in France in June, a handful of long weekends, and a week in Wales in October when I was finishing the second draft of my book. Talking of which, the book has taken up a huge amount of time this year, and I’ve also been working on several papers and a couple of book chapters, with one of each accepted for publication. I spend quite a bit of time, most weeks, on Board work for the UK’s Social Research Association, and editorial board work for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology also takes up time. Then of course there’s my paid work: I’ve had two big and demanding national research projects to work on with clients, and several smaller projects. As a result of all this, I rarely work fewer than six days a week, though I do try hard to have one full rest day each week.

I find it hard to take more time off, partly because I love my work, and partly because I find the gear changes difficult to manage. It’s not easy to wind down, and equally problematic to rev up again. Sometimes it feels simpler just to keep going. But that’s not sensible, is it?

If anyone else was telling me this story, I’d be saying: for goodness’ sake, you fool, take a break! For once I’m telling myself that – and I’m listening. My plan is to have complete rest and recreation for the rest of this week, when I’m at home with no big commitments. I hope then I’ll be ready to rev up the following week, and get some of the tasks on my list done before they become urgent.

There seems to be a lot of it about this year. Hugely productive researchers and writers like Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega are advocating self-care in general and taking time off in particular. I know this can be particularly difficult for PhD students – several of the doctoral students I interviewed for my last book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, spoke about the difficulty of taking time off when your head is full of your thesis. Other forms of writing can also have this effect; it’s hard to pick up a piece of work if you put it down for too long, whereas writing ‘little and often’ can help you to maintain the essential flow of ideas. But even if you’re doing a PhD, or have publishers’ deadlines – try to have at least the occasional rest day here and there, and ideally a proper break. Really, this is I an ethical requirement: certainly for researchers, who won’t produce good quality research if they’re exhausted and stressed. And I believe it’s important for writers too. If you’re working seven days a week, try reducing it to six, and having a proper rest day on the seventh. I bet you’ll get as much work done and be less exhausted. But whatever you decide, I wish you a happy holiday, and I’ll be back in 2015.

Creative Research Methods Conference – Great News!

I blogged about this conference when we opened for bookings, fireworksand now I have some fantastic news to share. Last week was the deadline for the call for papers. This is always a bit nerve-racking in a ‘is anyone coming to our party?’ kind of way. We’d had quite a few abstracts in before the deadline – almost enough to start feeling confident – but on the deadline day the abstracts were piling in and the conference email inbox was red hot.

We’ve counted them now. There are 90 abstracts! NINETY!! To fill 24 presentation slots. I understand this has smashed all previous records for a conference organised by the Social Research Association. And people were still emailing this week to ask if they could make late submissions. (Sorry, no; we have more than enough.)

This means several things. First, we’re going to have to disappoint a lot of people. I feel really bad about that; it’s not what I would choose. Second, it’s going to be a helluva job deciding which to include and which to leave out. People often say ‘it’s a really difficult decision’ even when it isn’t: to be tactful, or to make people think their conference (or recruitment, or whatever) is in demand. But these decisions actually are going to be really difficult, and I’m very glad to have the help and support of experienced volunteers from the SRA’s events group. Third, the event will be popular; we may well run it again in future years. Fourth, this conference is going to be EXCELLENT.

Talking of which, it’s at the British Library Conference Centre, on Friday 8 May 2015, and booking is open now with early bird discounts available until 31 January 2015. In the circumstances, I suspect it will sell out fast, so do book soon if you want a place.

I am so looking forward to this conference!! And not just because my next book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, will be launched there – although of course that is a part of it, for me. But I think it’s going to be a fantastic day, with loads of opportunities for learning and networking. I can’t wait!

First Peer Review – And Pizza

I’ve just done my first ever proper grown-up peer review of an article which had been submitted to a research methods journal. It was an interesting intellectual and emotional experience.

The article’s title was enticing and promised new insight into an aspect of research methods. I looked bad pizzaforward to reading it and learning about a point I hadn’t previously considered. And the content did deliver new insight – but it delivered it really, really badly. It was such a disappointment, like getting the pizza you ordered an hour late, cold, and with your favourite ingredient missing.

I felt such empathy for the author. He or she had obviously put in a fair amount of effort, and was going to be bitterly disappointed by my review. I could feel that pain. But it wasn’t a borderline decision; the article needed a lot more work. Key references had been left out – imagine an article on psychoanalysis that doesn’t cite Freud or Jung, and you’ll get the picture. Also, the argument made was woefully under-theorised, and with very little interpretive analytic work either.

I had prepared carefully, reading the journal’s guidelines for reviewers, the COPE guidelines for reviewers, and Pat Thomson’s posts on reviewing journal articles, while reflecting on my own experience of receiving reviews. So I wrote as constructively as I could, giving praise where I thought it was merited, specific references to help the author build the context, and suggesting some questions they might consider at the interpretive stage. I was quite relieved to find I was up to the job. But I still felt bad for the poor author.

I also felt bad for the entire research profession, because the argument being made was a really important one which needed to be heard. So much so that I thought I might have difficulty keeping it confidential. It was one of those points which, once stated, seemed blindingly obvious. And we all read so much. I was determined to maintain my professional standards and protect the author’s intellectual property – yet I could imagine, a few months on, absent-mindedly saying, ‘Oh yes, I read something somewhere, can’t quite remember where, but it made this really good point…’ I wonder how often that happens.

Then I had an idea. I hopped onto the web and did a quick search – and lo and behold, an article was published just a couple of months ago, making the same point. Whoopee! I could talk about it after all! But oh no… my poor, poor author…

Actually, it’s not a disaster, because there is more than enough room for two articles making this point in smiley pizzadifferent journals. So I added that reference, too, to my review, and ended with some words of encouragement. I truly think this is an important article in the making, and with a little more work, the author could deliver his or her argument in an article which is more like a warm, fragrant, appetising pizza, made from good ingredients in the right proportions.