How To Choose A Research Method

chooseBecause you do things in a sensible order, you have your research question, right? Good. It’s very important to have that first. The method (or methods) you choose should be the one (or ones) most likely to help you answer your question. You can’t figure out which methods are most likely to help if you don’t yet know what your question is. So if you’re actually not sure of your question, stop reading this RIGHT NOW and go settle your question, then come back and carry on reading.

OK, now you definitely have a question. You’ll probably have an idea of what kind of research method may be most help. (If you don’t, I recommend you get into the research methods literature, such as this book.) Let’s say you think your question could be answered most usefully by doing a bunch of interviews. Your next step is to think through the pros and cons of interviews as thoroughly as you can. You may find it helps to read relevant excerpts from the research methods literature. For example, here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of interviewing, taken from page 143 of my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (2nd edn; Policy Press, 2017).

Pros Cons
Interviews yield rich data Interviews are time-consuming for researchers and participants
Face-to-face interviews let the interviewer include observational elements, e.g. from the participant’s appearance or body language, that are not available with other methods The researcher’s interpretation of the data from a face-to-face interview may be affected by the quality of the rapport they developed with their participant
Interviews can be conducted by telephone, which saves time and costs and increases anonymity Not everyone is comfortable using the telephone, and it can be harder to create a rapport over the phone than in person
An interview equivalent can be conducted by email, which avoids transcription and so saves time and money; this also helps in reaching some groups of people e.g. those with severe hearing impairment Conducting an ‘interview’ by email can make it more difficult to follow up interesting answers with supplementary questions
Interviewers can follow up interesting answers with supplementary questions Interviewers’ input can influence participants’ answers
Unstructured interviews can be particularly useful at the exploratory stage of a research project Unstructured interviews run the risks of missing important issues or degenerating into a general chat
Semi-structured interviews allow participants to participate in setting the research agenda, which may be more politically acceptable, lead to more useful data, or both Semi-structured interviews make it harder to compare data from different individuals or groups
Structured interviews enable clearer comparison of data from different individuals or groups Structured interviews require the question designer to be able to consider all the issues that are relevant to the participants
Recording data enables exact reproduction of someone’s words and pauses Transcribing interview data is time-consuming and expensive

This kind of thinking will help you to decide on your research method. Also, you will need to be pragmatic. For example, if you have a very tight deadline and no time or budget for transcription, then interviewing is not a good idea however much it might fit the research question. In such a case you would need to consider other methods. My book contains similar ‘pros and cons’ tables for using secondary data, questionnaires, focus groups, documents as data, observational data, visual data, and collecting data online. Of course this is not an exhaustive list, and if you’re considering using, say, mobile methods, soundscapes, or ethnography, you might need to construct a ‘pros and cons’ list of your own. To do this, you would need to read, watch videos, and talk to people with more knowledge about the method of interest.

Once you have established the pros and cons of the method, these need to be weighed against pragmatic considerations of available time, money, and other resources. This assessment will be different for each research project, in its own context; there are no hard-and-fast rules. But however you do an assessment like this, your results will always be better than those of someone who uses the method that first springs to mind. For sure you may end up using the method you first thought of, in which case you might say to me, Helen, what is the point of doing all that thinking? The point is you’ll be making a considered and informed decision to use the method. That means you’ll be able to justify your decision to readers, reviewers, tutors, supervisors, managers, examiners, or whoever else has an interest in your work.

How To Chair An Event

chair 2You may be asked to chair an event such as a meeting, conference presentations, panel seminar, or even a whole conference. If you haven’t done this before, the prospect may fill you with dread. You’ve seen other people who have made it look easy. But nobody has ever told you how to chair an event; it’s as though you’re supposed to have learned it psychically or by osmosis or magic.

There is a difference between chairing different types of events, but there are also similarities. As a chairperson, your job is to help the event run smoothly; to encourage participation; and to be self-effacing. You are not on show, to impress or even to be noticed; you are there to serve. Your greatest achievement, as a chairperson, is to be the forgotten facilitator of an incredibly memorable event.

Helping an event run smoothly involves good preparation and timekeeping. Find out as much as you can, ahead of time, about the purpose of the event, who will be involved, the venue, and so on. For a meeting, make sure the agenda is timed and that all the papers are sent out far enough in advance to enable everyone to read them before the meeting. One potential booby-trap is the Any Other Business agenda item. There are two good ways I know to deal with this. You can ban it altogether because, as the chairperson, You Have The Power! Or, at the start of the meeting, you can ask who wants to raise what under A.O.B. This should be very quick items such as announcements or corrections. If someone mentions a topic that you think is likely to generate discussion, you can suggest that it should be an agenda item for the next meeting. Or – if it is urgent – rearrange the agenda for the current meeting to accommodate it, perhaps by deferring another item to the next meeting.

While you are chairing a meeting, you need to keep one eye on the clock and the other on your colleagues. It is your responsibility to keep everyone to time which is not always easy. It is also your role to help the shy and quiet people to speak, and encourage the verbal gerbils to give space to others.

At conferences and seminars, you need to introduce the event or the session, and again this involves good preparation. Get hold of speakers’ biographies in advance, and prepare your introductions: to yourself (briefly), to the event or session, and to the speakers. Find out how to pronounce any unfamiliar names. Make sure you and the speakers understand the format and the time allocations. Ideally sort this out by email ahead of the event or session; failing that, meet with the speakers ahead of the start time. Arrange a signal you can use to let speakers know that they have, say, five minutes left. If speakers want to use slides, make sure you see them in advance, in case they have prepared, for example, 38 slides for a 10-minute talk. In such cases, you need to be firm. One slide every two minutes is a good rule of thumb. Make sure slides are loaded and audio-visual equipment is working properly.

When you are introducing an event, it can be helpful to set some ground rules for the audience. I often say that I will welcome questions as long as they are actual questions, but if people in the audience have lengthy speeches to make, perhaps they could save those for the refreshment break. That usually gets a laugh as well as making the point. It is also worth saying that you will keep speakers punctual to ensure everyone gets their fair share of the available time.

When the event is underway, listen to the speakers and come up with a couple of questions to ask. You can do this beforehand if you are knowledgeable enough about the topic, but even then it’s worth listening to make sure your questions will fit. Make sure they are open questions, e.g. ‘Can you explain why you decided to do X?’, to encourage speakers to talk.

Be firm if a speaker over-runs. It really is unfair to the others, or – if the last speaker – to audience members who want to ask questions. When the last speaker has finished, thank the speakers for their interesting and thought-provoking talks, and then invite questions from the audience. You may see hands going up straight away, or there may be a pause, in which case let it run a little way past your comfort zone before you ask a question of your own. Your question is likely to get the audience going. Don’t allow any audience member to get into a discussion with a speaker; two exchanges is enough. If they look set to go on, suggest they meet for further discussion at the end of the session. If lots of hands go up, try for a good balance of gender, ethnicity, age and so on.

Another option, after you have thanked the speakers, is to ask the audience to have a quick chat with their neighbours about what they took from the presentation, what they would like to know more about, anything they disagreed with, questions and thoughts they may have. Give people a few minutes of discussion, then ask for questions. This can be very stimulating and lead to richer interactions with speakers.

Ask questioners to state their name and affiliation before they pose their question. Conversely, if there really are no questions, facilitate a discussion between the speakers. Engage with their themes, draw them out, and encourage speakers to interact with each other. If all else fails, go to the break early; nobody ever minds that.

If you’re chairing a whole conference you will have some extra responsibilities. There will be people to thank, such as the conference hosts, and perhaps sponsors, or volunteers who are helping on the day. You will have to cover ‘housekeeping’, i.e. where toilets and fire exits can be found, whether any fire drills are expected, and where the gathering point is in the event of an evacuation. There may be a hashtag to mention and social media reporting to encourage. You will be introducing, and timekeeping for, plenary speakers; it will be necessary to set ground rules and devise questions, as above. At the end of each session you may need to signpost the audience to what will happen next.

When time is up, thank the speakers again – and, if appropriate, the organisers – and lead a round of applause. Then you can have a big drink. You’ve earned it!

Chairing isn’t particularly difficult. However, it is tiring, because you have to pay attention all the time. There is no option to daydream, play on your phone, or whisper to your neighbour. It is, in some ways, a fairly thankless task. But it is also an essential role which helps to make meetings, sessions, and events run smoothly.

Free Online Research Ethics Resources

freeAre you grappling with research ethics? If so, fear not, for there are numerous free resources online to help you. Here are some examples.

Ethical codes and guidelines

There are loads of ethical codes and guidelines online. For example, some countries have national codes of research ethics, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, or the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. This was developed in partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

There are also codes of research ethics produced by Indigenous peoples who wish their own ethical principles to be followed by any researchers who wish to work with them. Examples of these include Te Ara Tika, Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics, from New Zealand, and the San Code of Research Ethics from South Africa.

Then there are professional and disciplinary codes of research ethics. Examples include the UK-based Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

There must be a huge number of these kinds of codes and guidelines worldwide. They are not all the same, and the careful reader can find places where one code or guideline may contradict another. This is because of cultural (in its widest sense) differences in ideas of what is ethical. Nevertheless, they can be useful to read for learning, ideas, or of course specific contextual information.

Applying to a research ethics committee

If you have to apply to a research ethics committee for formal ethical approval, you might find it useful to see some other researchers’ successful application forms. You can find examples of these on The Research Ethics Application Database (TREAD), originally set up by Martin Tolich at Otago University in New Zealand and now hosted by The Global Health Network and the Social Research Association. This database holds copies of successful ethics applications from around the world which you can search and use for inspiration and learning. Applications are anonymised, though the researcher(s) must be named. Researchers often submit accompanying documents, such as consent forms and participant information sheets, which can be very useful to look through for ideas. The database managers are keen to add more applications, to help make formal ethical approval processes more accessible and less onerous. If you have an application you could submit, there is information on the website about how to share it via the database.

General guidance

The Research Ethics Guidebook is intended to provide general guidance for social scientists, but may also be useful for people from other fields. The Guidebook is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, with the Researcher Development Initiative of the National Centre for Research Methods, and London University’s Institute of Education. Like TREAD, the Research Ethics Guidebook holds useful information about applying for formal ethical approval. However, it also covers other areas such as ethics in research design, conducting research, reporting, and dissemination. The Guidebook is ideal for reference at the start of a project, and also during research as unforeseen ethical dilemmas occur.

Ethics training

There are two free online courses in research ethics which are primarily geared towards health researchers and so focus heavily on participant wellbeing. Both have been through peer review and other quality assurance processes, and both offer certificates to students who complete the course successfully with a score of 80% or more. One is called Research Ethics Online Training and is adapted from an e-learning course and resource package designed and produced by the World Health Organisation. It contains 14 individual modules, plus resources in the form of a glossary, a “resource library” (aka bibliography), some case studies, examples of ethics guidelines, videos on research ethics, and links to other ethics websites. The second is Essential Elements of Ethics, adapted from an ethics tool kit created to support researchers at Harvard University in America. This course contains 11 modules, plus resources including a workbook and checklist of points to consider, and a discussion forum though this is not very active.

Free research ethics modules with a wider perspective are offered by Duke University in America. These cover topics such as cultural awareness and humility, ethical photography, power and privilege, and working with children. They are delivered through videos with transcripts also available.

Online research

For internet-based research, the Association of Internet Researchers has some useful resources free for download. The British Psychological Society offers Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media has produced Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.

Visual research

The International Visual Sociology Association has produced a Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines covering visual research.

Ethics of research publication

The Committee on Publication Ethics has a whole range of downloadable resources covering how to detect, prevent and handle misconduct, responsible publication standards for editors and authors, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, and much more.

This list of resources is by no means exhaustive. There are loads more out there. It would be a huge task to identify them all. These are the ones I have found particularly useful. If there are any you like to use, which aren’t in this post, please add them in the comments below.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap Among Academic Authors?

Kara and DorlingThe gender pay gap is much in the news at present. The BBC is under scrutiny following the resignation of its senior editor Carrie Gracie on the grounds of unequal pay; large companies in the UK pay women less than men; Iceland has just become the first country in the world to pass a law making it illegal to pay men more than women. I could cite plenty more instances. And this got me thinking: what is the situation for academic authors?

I belong to several Facebook groups for people in or connected with academia. In one group recently, a doctoral student in some financial difficulty – as so many doctoral students are – bemoaned the need to read a chapter from a book costing US$52. “Is this how academics make their money?” the student asked.

The idea that all people who write books are rich is a complete misperception. A few writers are rich, and some of them are women: JK Rowling and Jodi Picoult, to name just two. But they are not academic writers. Some academics who are writers are rich, but that’s mostly because they receive generous academic salaries. (NB: I’m not saying all academic salaries are generous. I’m saying rich academics are the ones on generous salaries, and some of them are also writers.)

In America writers are treated with more respect than in most countries. The Textbook & Academic Authors’ Association is open to members from any country but it is based in America and 80% of its members are American. In 2015 the T&AAA conducted a survey of 403 textbook authors which showed that average royalties were in the band of 9%–18%. So it seems there may be a geographic pay gap for academic writers, because this range is higher than academic royalties I have heard about from the UK. But there was no breakdown of the survey findings by gender.

My publishing contracts contain confidentiality clauses which make it illegal for me to tell you, or anyone else, what my own royalty rates are. This is standard practice in the publishing industry. I can tell you that one young British academic of my acquaintance recently told me, pre-contract, that they had been offered royalties of 7.5% on sales. If that person’s book retailed at US$52, you might think they would therefore earn US$3.90 per sale. Not so. Royalties are paid on the amount the bookseller pays to the publisher, not the amount the customer pays the bookseller. A book with a retail price of US$52 would probably sell to the retailer at around US$36, so the author’s royalty per sale would be US$2.70.

Many academic books retail for less than US$52. Mine are currently listed on amazon.com at $39.93 for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners (2nd edn) and $33.66 for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Some retail for much more, though they are often edited collections. For example, the Sage Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods is an eye-watering $490.48. I have never heard of anyone earning anything for contributing a chapter to an edited collection. It seems likely that books at these prices are only bought by the libraries of rich institutions. (At least that means students and staff at those institutions can use the books, and a few other libraries provide wider access. For example, the British Library in the UK holds copies of every book published in the UK, and anyone can register to read those books for free. The snag is that you have to go to London, which isn’t easy or possible even for every UK resident, let alone people based further afield. Some other countries have national and regional libraries which are publicly accessible, but again they are bricks-and-mortar institutions and you have to go to them.)

Some publishing contracts offer no royalties at all on the first 250 or 500 (or some other figure) of books sold. Given that some academic books only sell a few hundred copies, these kinds of contracts could result in authors earning no royalties at all. I can’t find any reliable statistics about sales of academic books, which is a finding in itself.

I can tell you how much I earned in total royalties last year, on the two books I have in print, one of which is a second edition. For 2016-17 I earned £1,236.70 in royalties. Earlier this decade, Queen Mary University of London reported on the earnings of almost 2,500 professional writers in the UK. Academic writers had the lowest average annual income, at £3,826, behind travel writers, non-fiction writers, children’s fiction writers and adult fiction writers, respectively. I aspire to become average one day.

So publishing is not how academics make their money; it’s how academic publishers make their money. But is there a gender pay gap in academic authors’ royalties? With the current secrecy around royalty rates, there is no way of knowing. But given the prevailing interest in the gender pay gap, I hope that next time the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, or the Society of Authors, or a similar body conducts a survey, they will ask about, and report on, gender parity or disparity.