Data

blimageLast week I received a #blimage challenge from @debsnet aka the édu flâneuse. When I came to the photo she had posted to inspire her challengees, it only took me a moment to link those overflowing hands with the data we researchers love to gather.

Data is a Latin plural word meaning ‘things that are given’, though it is used in English as plural or singular (e.g. ‘a piece of data’). In English it refers to information of various kinds: numbers, words, facts, opinions, pictures, tweets – the list is long. Social scientists can amuse themselves for hours by arguing about what constitutes data. There is a popular saying that ‘anecdote is not data’ although, when a qualitative researcher collects anecdotes from interview and focus group participants, data is exactly what they become.

Different types of researchers have different ideas about what constitutes data. To an anthropologist, an interview transcript may be only interesting for its textual content, while for a conversation analyst, the length of the pauses may be a fascinating aspect of that data. Some researchers treat focus group data just like interview data, while others see the interactions between people in the focus group as an enriching layer of extra data. For some people, data is collected; for others, it is constructed. I use ‘gathered’ when I want to encompass both perspectives.

Then there is ‘big data’: data generated by national governments, or by technology, which is so copious that it requires whole new methods of analysis and new words to describe its size like exabyte, zettabyte, or snakebyte (I might have made up one of those). Big data challenges the etymological suggestion that data is ‘given’ because big data is often a by-product of other activity, such as using social media or loyalty cards. This is an ethical minefield. For example, people may not realise that their data is of value to the companies running the facilities they use, and it can be difficult to track individuals down to seek consent for their data to be used in research.

You can do all sorts of things with data. For example, you can prepare data, code data, analyse data, synthesise data, visualise data, present data – and, if you’re like me, you can love data. In fact, I adore data! A new dataset to explore is so exciting because I never know what I might discover. I guess it’s the same feeling an archaeologist gets when they’re starting a dig, or an antiques dealer opening a box from a house clearance. There might be treasure in here! And even if there isn’t, even if there are only mundane things, I will still have seen something I hadn’t seen before, and maybe learned something new, or at least increased my experience.

You can also abuse and misuse data, by picking out the parts that support the argument you want to make, rather than preparing, coding, and analysing data as rigorously and honestly as possible. We are all susceptible to biases such as confirmation bias and hindsight bias, and there is only so much any one of us can do to counteract these. This is part of the reason for the scholarly peer review process, where others can scrutinise your work to check for bias. It is also why researchers encourage each other to track the links in our writing from research design, through data collection and analysis, to findings and conclusions, so that our processes and influences are clear to readers and they can make their own mind up about any biases they may perceive in our work.

It’s not only individual researchers, though, who abuse and misuse data. Research commissioners in every sector regularly bury data-based findings that don’t align with their political or organisational aims. And the media is notorious for putting spin on such findings. This has led to the establishment of independent fact-checking organisations such as Fact Check in the US and Full Fact in the UK.

It is easy to develop conspiracy theories about the ways in which governments, corporations, and the media use and misuse data. It is harder to do the tough research work necessary to counteract this, as far as we can, by producing firm findings, based on enough good-quality data, and presenting those findings in clear and understandable ways. To do that, we have to gather our data carefully, with a solid rationale for why we gathered it in the ways we did, so that we can be confident about the status and limitations of our data and about the findings we draw from its analysis. This is not easy – but it is possible, and it is our responsibility as researchers to do this work to the best of our abilities.

best spiderwebsNow, a #blimage challenge for Naomi Barnes: I look forward to seeing what she makes from this picture. And if anyone else would like to use it for inspiration: help yourself!

International work: the glamour and the reality

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

My first international assignment was in Damascus, Syria, in 2008. I went on behalf of Liverpool John Moores University and they made most of the arrangements. I was teaching qualitative research methods to postgraduate doctors. The journey and the first day were terrifying, but overall it was an amazing, worthwhile experience. I’m so glad I was able to experience a little of that beautiful country before it was torn apart by war. And by sheer luck my experience was quite glamorous. The Centre for Strategic Health Studies, where I was teaching, had a flat in Damascus where they accommodated international teachers. There were four single bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen, a bit like student housing. And there was no air-conditioning, just a couple of sleepy fans. But when I arrived, all four bedrooms were full, so they had to put me up in a hotel, which turned out to be the Sheraton. Result! Aircon, swimming pool, room service… I’d never stayed anywhere so posh in my life, and I loved the luxury.

My second international assignment is this coming autumn in Calgary, Canada. Of course Canada is very different from Syria: politics, weather, level of freedom, food – pretty much everything. But this trip is also different because I am making the arrangements myself. I’ll be teaching postgrads at the University of Calgary and at Mount Royal University, and practitioners for the library service, as well as giving a keynote speech at a conference. That’s a whole lot of organising to do. I didn’t factor this in to my costs – a useful learning point for me!

I know another freelance writer and teacher who works internationally and charges £3,000 per day, with no discounts under any circumstances, not even for charity. I’m beginning to understand why. There is a huge amount of preparation, you lose days to jet lag, and there is also, inevitably, follow-up work. If you work independently, and don’t factor this into your costs, it all has to be done in your own time.

For each teaching assignment I need to know a whole bunch of stuff. How many people do you expect? What are their subjects/professions? What level are they? What is the teaching room like? Is this a stand-alone session or e.g. part of a wider module? If the latter, can I have details please?

I need to know these things so I can deliver a session which is appropriately pitched and focused. If I’m doing a half-day on creative research methods, the content may be similar, but the event will look very different if it’s a stand-alone session for 80 mid-career practitioners in a lecture theatre than if it’s part of a research methods module for 10 first-year doctoral students in a classroom.

Then there are all the bookings: flights, internal travel, accommodation, all of which needs to be reasonably priced as I’m being paid from public money. And there are the arrangements to meet up with people. PowerPoint presentations to create. And the emails! Oh, the emails!! Everything from ‘can you provide a reading for the students?’ (I expect so) to ‘can I take you out to dinner while you’re here?’ (yes indeedy!). These emails have been flying back and forth for weeks now, and it’s still three months till I go. And sometimes I need to speak to people; I had a 40-minute call with one woman last week, and I’m sure there will be other calls and Skype chats in the coming months.

I hope you don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m truly not. I’m excited about going to Calgary, it’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m looking forward to the trip. But I didn’t quite realise how much unpaid work I was taking on, alongside the paid work. As a result, I am going to need to rethink my charging structure for next time – though I won’t be charging anywhere near £3,000 per day.

Many people, I know, are envious of my luck in landing this Calgary gig. I feel lucky, and grateful for the opportunity. I’m sure there will be moments of glamour. But honestly, most of it is, and will be, hard graft.

My Next Book

Having got my creative research methods book safely launched, and cleared away most of the smaller writing projects that piled up while I was writing that, I’m slowly starting to get into gear for my next book. I’ve written several books now, including two on research methods, and the process for each book is different. For my first research methods book, essentially I wrote down what I knew about research methods and doing research, worked out where the gaps were in my knowledge, learned what I needed to know to fill those gaps, and wrote that down too. The second one was more of a stretch (at one point I found myself whingeing on Facebook about ‘that difficult second research methods book’) but primarily involved collation, as there was a huge amount of relevant work in journal articles and a few pertinent books. It did involve some hard thinking – in fact, they both did but, like childbirth, the pain is soon forgotten.

Unlike childbirth, I expect the labour for my third research methods book to be more painful than for either of its older siblings. This is because my third book will be on ethics. Writing down what I know about ethics wouldn’t take long, and collating other people’s work on ethics would be fairly pointless. For this next book, I need to read, and think, and take it slow, and learn, and think some more, and come up with some new and different ideas and approaches. My embryonic ideas are that I want to show how research ethics is linked with wider-world ethics, at individual, institutional/organisational, and national/political levels. Also, I’d like to unpack the impact of wider-world ethics on ethical thinking, acting, and decision-making in research. This may be ridiculously ambitious, but it feels compelling; it’s something I want to understand, and would like to communicate in a useful way.

ethics bookshelf

My ethics bookshelf

So far, I’ve collected a load of books and some journal articles. I’ve read about a third of one book and about a quarter of another. I haven’t written a word yet, and have barely thunk a thought. I haven’t blogged the process of writing a book before, so this is new, too. It’s quite difficult to write about a process from such an early stage that I don’t really know what I think yet. Also, publishers tend to advise authors to keep ideas close to their chests, in case someone else steals the idea and writes the book faster and better than the author can. So blogging the process feels a bit weird – but I figure this is hardly a commercial bestseller in progress, and it’ll be more useful all round if I share my ideas rather than keeping them to myself.

I’ve started interviewing some experienced researchers, in academia and in practice, to find out how they get on with trying to do ethical research. I want to learn some stuff about how this works, both in terms of research ethics governance and ethical review, and in people’s actual practice. I am regularly frustrated by the over-emphasis on ethics at the data-gathering stage, and the narrow focus on the welfare of participants, at the expense of ethical considerations at other stages of the research process and the welfare of people other than participants. In my view, there are ethical considerations to take into account at all stages of the research process, and everyone touched by a research project deserves to be thought about and cared for. That includes researchers themselves: research can be a stressful and difficult undertaking, and we do nobody any favours if we don’t look after our own welfare as well as that of others.

Remember when I said writing down what I know about ethics wouldn’t take long? That’s pretty much it. Well, OK, maybe there’s a little more. I could probably pontificate about deontologicalism versus consequentialism for a sentence or two, but I’m not that keen to lose readers. This reminds me of another aim for my book: that it should be readable. I talked to my partner about this recently, and he suggested I have an early chapter called ‘The Academic Verbiage’ (actually he used a rather less polite word than ‘verbiage’), so I could put all the complicated words in one place. Then, he said, I’d be able to write the rest of the book in ordinary language. I’m not sure I’ll go quite that far, but I do intend to try to make it clear and understandable. At least, I hope I can…

Ten Top Tips for Successful Collaboration

collaborationWorking in collaboration with others can be a wonderful experience. Writing a journal article with a colleague, or working in a research team with people from other organisations, can be life-enhancing. Ideas build on ideas; tasks are allocated according to people’s strengths and abilities; the results are loads better than anything you could achieve alone.

Collaborative working can also be a monumental pain in the neck. Misunderstandings, missed deadlines, and poor communication can sabotage a project, morphing it from a promising outset into a morass of time-consuming frustration and annoyance, sometimes with nothing to show for all the grief you’ve gone through. That can be particularly galling when you end up apologising for something that was not at all your fault and entirely outside your control.

And you know the really weird thing about working collaboratively? Nobody ever tells you how to do it; you’re supposed to know. But my experience is that many people don’t know how to collaborate well. So here are ten top tips for successful collaboration.

  1. Set sensible deadlines. If you’re happy to write a book chapter that you think will take you a week, but you don’t have that much spare time till six months from now, say so. And if you think it will take you a week, allow a fortnight. Over-committing doesn’t help you or anyone else.
  1. Manage your time well, from day to day and week to week, and at monthly and yearly levels too. Plan, schedule, re-schedule as necessary. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it – or explain why you can’t at the earliest opportunity.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Problems arise in everyone’s life. If you encounter a problem that will affect your ability to meet your commitments, tell everyone who needs to know as soon as you can, and give them a realistic revised date when you’ll be able to get the work done.
  1. If someone else is causing a delay, you may need to take control, particularly if you have contractual or other inflexible deadlines and the delaying person isn’t communicating well – or at all. In that case, the best approach is to send a polite email with appropriate cc’s so everyone knows where the delay originates. But do word your message carefully: the aim is to protect your own reputation without damaging anyone else’s, so stick to the facts.
  1. Don’t throw good time after bad. If you’re collaborating with people who are missing deadlines and not answering your emails, chase them once or twice then stop. Don’t stress about it, just focus on other work.
  1. Accept feedback gracefully, even if it seems unpalatable at first. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t personal, even if it feels personal, even if it looks personal. It’s an opportunity to learn things you’d be very unlikely to learn any other way, even if they’re not the things you wanted to learn. So thank whoever gave you the feedback and make the best use of it you can.
  1. Reflect on your collaborations – with your collaborators if possible, on your own if not. What went well? Why? What didn’t go so well? Why? What would you do differently another time?
  1. celebrationMake time to celebrate a collaboration that goes well, or even well enough. If you can meet up with your collaborators, so much the better: go for a drink or a meal together and congratulate each other in person. If not, celebrate online, in a private meeting or via email or social media. Or simply send a card to say ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’.
  1. Whether your collaborators are your colleagues, your students, your staff or your friends, be as professional with each of them as you would be with the most senior person in your field or in your organisation.
  1. When you’re planning a new collaboration, share these tips with your potential collaborators at the earliest possible stage and ask whether they’re willing to sign up to them. If they’re not, don’t go ahead with the proposed collaboration.

Of course sometimes life gets in the way and things go wrong. But when you have a strongly functional collaboration, it is much easier to deal with unexpected difficulties. When unforeseen problems occur and your collaboration is floundering, life can be very miserable indeed. If you and your collaborators follow these ten top tips, none of your collaborations will be the ‘pain in the neck’ variety. They should all work smoothly, at the very least, and may well be wonderful and life-enhancing.

The Art Of Asking

theartofasking_imageFollowing on from last week’s blog post, I’ve been reflecting on the art of asking, why it can be so difficult, and how to make it easier.

I used to find it difficult to ask for help. I am naturally independent, and grew up on second-wave feminism which preached self-reliance. Asking can be hard because it’s a risk: you’re making yourself vulnerable, exposing your wishes or your needs, and the person you are asking might say ‘no’. You could experience that ‘no’ as a rejection or a slap in the face, as derogatory to your very being in the world. Alternatively, you could reflect that nothing major has changed, you’re still in the same position you were in before, and you have lost nothing. Or you could land up somewhere in between.

Asking can be easier in professional than personal contexts. Asking a librarian to help you track down a book, or the IT support desk to help you solve a techie problem, should be stress-free. You’re entitled to ask and it’s their job to help. But when you’re an indie researcher, those organisational networks of obligation don’t exist. So asking for things in professional contexts can be weird, even paralysing: why would anyone want to help me? Why would anyone be willing to put themselves out on my behalf?

I found myself on a steep learning curve in asking when I developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple of years ago and needed help with opening jars and bottles, moving furniture, doing DIY etc. The writer Laura James expresses the necessity of this eloquently and, like her, I have become shameless about asking for help. This has probably helped me learn to ask in other areas. Amanda Palmer’s wonderful book also provided a timely shove in the right direction.

I’ve learned other things as a result of learning to ask for help. For example, some people are incredibly helpful. Professor Rosalind Edwards is one of these people. I met Ros at a conference in Leicester in early 2014 (which, incidentally, I got to go to because I asked, on Twitter). The previous week I’d been to a meeting at the British Library, where I’m on an advisory panel for the Social Welfare Portal, and Ros’s name was mentioned as someone we could ask for help with publicity through her role as Co-Director of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). So when I realised she was at the conference, I went to ask her for help on behalf of the Portal, and found out that she’s warm and helpful and funny. We chatted on Twitter in the weeks and months following the conference. Another kind and helpful person, Kandy Woodfield, invited me to be on a panel at the 2014 Research Methods Festival, which Ros helps to organise, so we met again then and had a lovely chat on a bench in the sunshine.

A couple of months ago I decided that I would really like to be a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. I had a look online, but couldn’t find evidence of any opportunities. So I asked Ros. She said NCRM didn’t have visiting fellows, but they’d been thinking about whether to start. I said was there any chance they could start with me? She went away and talked to the other directors, and they said ‘yes’.

They said ‘yes’!

So as from this very day, I am a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. Because I asked. I wouldn’t be one, otherwise.

Another incredibly helpful person, Gemma Noon, is currently Impact Evaluation lead at Calgary Public Library. I met her online in the noughties, we met in person once before she emigrated from the UK, and we’ve kept in touch. She stunned me by inviting me to give a keynote in Canada, all expenses paid – my first international speaking engagement! I didn’t even ask! But I did ask Gemma whether she had any contacts with local universities, and she put me in touch with Carol Shepstone at Mount Royal University, and I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for them while I was in the area, and she said ‘yes’. Then, at the creative research methods conference a couple of months ago, I saw Barbara Schneider present her excellent research. Barbara works at the University of Calgary, so I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for her while I was in the area – and she said ‘yes’. So in late October I’m off to Canada, to work for the library service and two universities in Calgary.

They said ‘yes’!

Some of this, of course, is sheer luck, and being in the right place at the right time. And there is an old saying: ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, and I do work hard, so I figured that was the other influencing factor. I sent Ros a draft of this post, as a courtesy because it features her, and she told me firmly that my analysis was incomplete. She wrote,blush

“Of course, we don’t just give out fellowships because we get asked, and I bet you wouldn’t be invited to Calgary if it wasn’t because people think you are rather good at this research thing. You miss that bit of the story!”

*blush*

Even so, if I hadn’t asked for help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m also finding that the more I practice asking, the easier it becomes. I now regularly ask people for help: old friends and new, professional contacts, random strangers on Twitter. Of course they don’t all say ‘yes’ – but a surprisingly large number of people are able and willing to help.

If the prospect of asking repels you, ask yourself this: how do you respond when someone asks you for help? Are you generally willing to help others? I bet you are; it probably makes you feel good. And if that’s the case, why aren’t you willing to give other people that feel-good sensation by asking them for help in turn? Go on, give it a try – the results can be surprising and delightful.