New Online Space For Researchers

I am sure you are aware of the chaos and uproar around Twitter, following Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform. I have been very sad about this because I love Twitter and, in common with many neurodivergent people, I find this kind of change very difficult. I couldn’t cope with Facebook’s new format which they introduced in late 2020, and used that as a lever to get myself off Facebook (and effectively also Instagram, though I haven’t actually closed my account there yet). I needed to stop using Meta products because the company is so ethically questionable. Now Twitter is becoming increasingly ethically questionable, so I guess I will need to move from there, too.

A lot of researchers I know have already moved to Mastodon. I checked out Mastodon myself, and had a serious conversation with my techie partner about whether we could set up a server on there for the research community. We decided against it because it would involve a lot of unpaid work (I mean a LOT – it’s not just the set-up, but also the ongoing moderation) and we already have more unpaid work than is entirely sensible. I considered signing up for Mastodon as an individual, but have decided not to because the volunteers running Mastodon servers are already swamped and I don’t want to add to their burdens.

Digital sociologist Mark Carrigan has been thinking and writing about this and related topics for a long time. He wrote a post a few weeks ago, for the LSE Impact Blog, in which he posed Musk’s takeover of Twitter as a potential opportunity. I found this interesting and helpful because up to that point I had mostly been thinking it was a disaster. Mark said: “A more varied landscape of online community (ranging across blogs, podcasts, collaboration servers and social networks) is possible and could support richer interactions than the strange amalgam that Twitter has become after over a decade of use within higher education.”

Inspired by Mark’s post, I began to imagine a different online space. A space less cluttered with trivia and irrelevant updates. A space specifically for research and researchers. And I have created a space which may become that space, if enough other people like the idea.

After some exploration of various platforms, I chose Discord. This was for several reasons. First, I had a little knowledge of it as a user, have found it easy to use, and it is free to join and interact on the platform. Also there were no existing research methods/ethics-focused resources on the platform. And it is a for-profit platform which runs on a subscription model. Of course that comes with its own ethical difficulties, but at least I am not expecting something for nothing, or burdening already over-burdened volunteers. Another reason was that I really like their guidelines for individuals and communities, which are written in plain English and make a lot of sense.

I have set up a community called Research Methods and Research Ethics (aka RMARE) to which you are all invited. There are various text channels there for us to chat, share resources, ask and answer questions, learn, hang out – whatever works for you. I have set it to text only for now to keep things simple as we all learn how it works and decide, together, how we want it to develop.

This community needs a moderation team. Would you like to join? If so, please email me via my contact form. Bonus points if you have online moderation experience, though this is not essential. What you will need is good teamworking and communication skills, and the ability to offer some time for the work. The role is quite simple and should not be onerous.

Discord is not perfect. If you want to create a hyperlink in text, you have to use a ‘webhook’ which involves going to a different web page and filling in a form. (There is a useful guide here.) This is way more convoluted even than Blogger was when I joined in 2004 (almost 20 years ago!). I only had to learn a smidgen of HTML to create a hyperlink in Blogger, which took a couple of minutes. Creating my first hyperlink in Discord took about 90 minutes, which included a lot of searching for help online and several incorrect attempts. Also, Discord help pages have lots of exclamation marks everywhere! Because Discord was originally created for gamers! So I guess they try to make support look like fun! Spoiler alert: doesn’t work.

Having said all that, since the start of the pandemic, Discord has made great efforts to become more accessible to more people. I have found it to be much more user-friendly than not, and the support is responsive and helpful.

The space I have set up is very much a work in progress. I have not administered an online space before, and I am well aware that few people may be interested and the whole thing may fall on its, er, posterior. But, y’know, nothing ventured…

See you over there?

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why Peer Reviewing Is More Difficult These Days

I have been a peer reviewer of journal articles for the last eight years. I documented my first peer review, in late 2014, on this blog. Peer reviewing has never seemed easy to me – and I don’t think it should. Reviewing original work by other scholars is bound to be intellectually and emotionally demanding. But I feel as if peer reviewing has become more difficult, even over the comparatively short time I have been involved. There are several reasons for this, and I will focus on three of them here: hoaxes, malpractice and complexity.

Academic hoaxes pre-date my reviewing experience. In 2005, three US-based doctoral students in computer science, Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn and Dan Aguayo, created SCIgen. SCIgen is a computer program which can generate whole computer science journal articles including graphs, figures and citations, that look credible but are in fact nonsensical. A lot of articles generated by SCIgen have been accepted by, and published in, academic journals, despite the use of peer reviewers.

And such hoaxes are not limited to computer science. In 2017–18, three UK-based scholars, James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, wrote 20 fake articles using social science jargon. They were able to get several of these articles published in academic journals, even though some of them promoted morally questionable acts. The aim of these three scholars was apparently to highlight what they saw as poor quality work in some areas of the social sciences. However, I am not sure this intended end justifies the questionable means of duping reviewers and editors into publishing bogus research.

Sadly, though, it seems that academic journals are regularly duped into publishing bogus research by researchers themselves. Retraction Watch, based in the US, has been keeping track of retracted journal articles for the last 12 years. Some articles are retracted because their authors made honest mistakes. But the Retraction Watch database lists a lot of other reasons for retraction, including falsification or fabrication of data, and falsification, fabrication or manipulation of images or results. And the numbers are staggering. At the time of writing, there are over 1,500 articles listed on the database as retracted due to the falsification and/or fabrication of data, and over 1,000 due to the manipulation of images. Also, the database only includes those articles in which fabrication, falsification or manipulation have been detected and reported. By its own admission, Retraction Watch is biased towards the life sciences, so problematic journal articles in other sectors will be even less visible.

A bunch of people make it their business to find and publicise these problematic articles. One even does it under her own name: Elisabeth Bik. Others use pseudonyms such as Clare Francis, Smut Clyde, Cheshire, and TigerBB8.

Bik specialises in identifying manipulated images, and has found through empirical research that their prevalence is increasing. However, Bik has a particular talent for pattern recognition. Of course it is useful to know that images may be manipulated, and Bik regularly shares examples on social media and elsewhere which can help others understand what to look for. But even so, spotting manipulated images can be difficult for the average, harassed, unpaid peer reviewer. And catching fabricated or falsified images, data or results may be almost impossible without inside information. Most journal articles have strict word limits which can work against them here. These restrictions mean researchers are used to some aspects of their processes receiving a cursory mention at best, and this can enable cheating to pass undetected.

When reviewing goes wrong, consequences can be disastrous. The link is to a recent controversy about a published article promoting a morally questionable act. I am not using any of its keywords in this article. I think there are some particularly interesting aspects of this case. It is not the first article to be published that features morally questionable acts. I have read the article; it is well written, and I can see how a peer reviewer could regard it as worthy of publication – as its own peer reviewers did. The problem, for me, lay in the background of the author who promotes morally questionable acts outside of academia. He may have written this article in the hope that publication would lend legitimacy to his actions. Even if he did not, publication might be perceived to confer such legitimacy, which could cause reputational damage to the publisher and the university concerned.

So, the article you are reviewing may be a hoax, and/or may contain data, images, and/or results that have been manipulated, fabricated or falsified, in ways that are difficult or impossible to detect, and/or may have been written by someone with a dodgy agenda. But that’s not all. Academic work – and, indeed, the world around us – is becoming more complex. More research is transdisciplinary, pushes methodological boundaries, is multi-lingual, and so on. The process of peer review was devised when people worked in neat, tidy, single disciplines and fields. In that landscape people could act as experts on other people’s work in its entirety. These days that is not so easy. Topics such as sustainability, the climate crisis, and food security transcend disciplines and methods. This means that nobody, really, is an expert any more, so peer review is effectively obsolete. Yet it is still being used.

This means we need not only peer review before publication, but also after publication. Luckily there is a tool for this: PubPeer, a website where you can comment on published journal articles, anonymously if you wish. This enables researchers with inside information to whistleblow without risking the loss of their jobs. Also, you can use PubPeer to check articles you are intending to cite, to make sure nobody has raised any concerns about the work you want to use. At the moment PubPeer focuses mostly on laboratory and clinical research, but there is also (not surprisingly) some computer science. In fact PubPeer can be used for any published journal article as long as the article has a recognisable ID such as a DOI. Also, there is a PubPeer browser plugin which enables PubPeer comments to be visible on other websites besides PubPeer itself.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Travelling For Work Again

I have been working entirely from home since mid-March 2020. It was a sudden transition. In the week beginning Monday 10 March 2020, I was zooming all over the place, and this was normal. On the Monday morning I set off from my home in the English Midlands to travel to Southampton by train. The train was delayed, so I missed two meetings I had planned for the afternoon, but arrived in time to have dinner with a colleague who had flown from South Africa for my workshop the next day. On the Tuesday I taught creative research methods all day, then caught a train to Gatwick and an evening plane to Stavanger in Norway. On the Wednesday morning I gave a keynote speech at a conference in Stavanger. The plan had been for me to teach at the conference in Stavanger on the Thursday and return home on Friday, but the pandemic was taking hold in Europe and there was talk of airports closing. My clients were understandably worried, and conference delegates were leaving, so they booked me onto a flight home on Thursday afternoon, and into the Premier Inn at Heathrow for the night as I arrived too late to get back to my home in the Midlands. On the Friday I travelled home by tube and train. I remember seeing a man on the tube with a big black bin bag which was obviously full of toilet rolls, and thinking, wow, this is different.

In the first couple of months of 2020 I worked in Brussels, Manchester, Sheffield, Brussels again, Cork, Dublin, Belfast, and Glasgow, as well as Southampton and Stavanger. It was rare for a week to go by without a trip; in fact, I would block out a ‘no travelling week’ in my calendar every few months so I could catch my breath. Since mid-March 2020 I have not travelled for work, and I have not used public transport at all apart from one short off-peak return train journey in London, in summer 2022, to travel to the wedding reception of some good friends. Next week, though, I am going back to Ireland, to teach in Dublin and Belfast. Before the pandemic I was working in Ireland two or three times a year. I love Ireland, and I am really looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and friends in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.

Booking travel and accommodation again was weird. I had forgotten how I used to do that, and so many things have changed. Not least the trains: I used to take the train to and from the airport, but I live on a branch line where there is now one train every two hours instead of two trains an hour outside peak times. Also we are experiencing frequent train strikes at present here in the UK. So I will be driving and parking at the airport instead, which is much more expensive and much less environmentally friendly, but with the trains in such a bad way I don’t think there is another option.

On the plus side, now I know I’m autistic, I am allowing myself to pay for airport lounges – as long as they are not too expensive – because avoiding the noise and bustle of the main airport will mean I arrive at my destination in much better shape. Also, I often need a meal at the airport, and that is included in the lounge cost, so it’s not as expensive as it looks.

I can tell you one thing, though. I won’t be travelling most weeks again, ever. It was exhausting – I really have no idea how I managed. I am glad we can do more online, because it’s better for the environment, and better for our lives. I would rather spend more time at home and less time on stations and trains, in airports and planes. Even so, I am glad to be able to travel more freely in general, and I’m looking forward to going back to Ireland in particular. If you are one of my Irish colleagues or friends – I’ll see you soon!

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Resources for Creative Academic Writing

I am delighted to say that creative academic writing is gaining in popularity and acceptance, at least in some parts of the world. I have been teaching creative thesis writing and creative academic writing at universities around the world since 2015, and I know many postgraduate students and early career researchers are keen to learn and to apply their learning. I know they also, sometimes, meet resistance from their supervisors or managers. The best way to overcome this resistance is to formulate an academic argument based on academic resources. I am happy to say there are now a range of resources people can cite as they outline the rationale for writing creatively in academia.

The main reason for writing creatively is that it makes your writing more interesting and memorable for your readers. I’m sure most of us want other people to be interested in our work and remember the points we make. However, the thought of writing creatively can be daunting for those of us who have learned to report as factually as possible. The good news is we don’t have to use creativity at a macro level, such as by producing graphic novels, epic poems or full-length screenplays – though for those of us with the talent and dedication, macro creativity is certainly an option. But we can all use micro creativity: sensory language, imagery, metaphor and so on. And if we’re not sure how, these resources will help.

The first is a book edited by Pamela Burnard, Elizabeth Mackinlay, David Rousell and Tatjana Dragovic: Doing Rebellious Research In and Beyond the Academy, and in particular, Part 2, which focuses on ‘rebellious writings’. I am not highlighting this book because Pam has kindly agreed to give the first keynote at the International Conference on Creative Research Methods next year. I am highlighting it because it is a wonderful, transgressive, boundary-bulldozing book. It was published in 2022 and uses colour and theory, poems and images, concepts and diagrams, prose and music, and a bunch of other devices to get its points across. This book is a real tour de force and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The next book is edited by Cecile Badenhorst, Brittany Amell and James Burford: Re-imagining Doctoral Writing. This one was published in 2021 and is also available as an open access ebook. While it is evidently aimed at doctoral students, I think it could be useful to any academic writer wanting to work more creatively. I found it interesting, informative and thought-provoking, and I have been doing academic writing at postgraduate level and beyond since 1999.

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In 2022 a book was published focusing on creative academic writing in a single discipline. When that happens, you know an approach is taking hold. Edited by Francesca Cavallerio, it is Creative Nonfiction in Sport and Exercise Research. There is no paperback at present, only a very expensive hardback or a quite expensive ebook, so it is best to use if you have access to an academic library. Again, I think it would be helpful for people in any discipline wanting to write more creatively.

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So far, these are all edited collections. In 2021 a book was published written by Richard Phillips and, er, me, called Creative Writing for Social Research: A Practical Guide. We included 14 creative contributions from 17 researcher-writers to show how this can work in practice. I’m pleased to say we’ve had excellent feedback on the book so far. It even generated an online book club in the year of its publication.

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There are a couple of potentially useful open access journals, too, each founded in 2020. Both are aimed at the humanities, but again people working in other sectors may well find articles that are of use to them. One is from the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US, and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. The other is from the UK National Association of Writers in Education (aka NAWE), and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Research.

I am quite sure this is not an exhaustive list, though I hope it will be a useful one. If you have other resources to add, please share them in the comments.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

International Creative Research Methods Conference

This may be the most exciting blog post I have ever written. I am founding a conference! This is an audacious move for an independent researcher, and there are several reasons why I have decided to make the leap.

First, I want to go to a conference on creative research methods! I helped to organise one in May 2015, with the Social Research Association and the British Library. It was a one-day conference and it was a great success. We had around 100 submissions for presentations, from four continents – and the creative research methods field has expanded massively since then. But, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been another one since.

Second, I have tried to persuade various organisations and institutions to host a conference on creative research methods, but none of them have been willing and able to do so.

Third, I am confident that there will be enough interest in this conference. There is no conference on creative research methods anywhere in the world. There are a couple of conferences on visual methods, and a few conferences on qualitative methods that will include creative methods. But that’s all. And I know a lot of people are working in this area now.

Fourth, I have saved enough money to take the financial risk of signing a contract with the venue. And this is a risk – it’s a five-figure sum – I do not want to lose that much money, but I could. Yet this is how confident I am that this conference will succeed: I am literally betting on it with my very own cash.

I have spent the summer picking people’s brains and making plans. I have organised events before, so I have some useful experience, but I am also grateful for the input of a whole bunch of people whose advice and support has been invaluable.

It will be a two-day conference at The Studio in Manchester, starting mid-morning on Monday 11 September 2023, finishing mid-afternoon on Tuesday 12 September 2023. Save the dates! And it will be a hybrid conference, so people can attend in person or online.

I am delighted that my first choices of speakers have agreed to give the keynote each day: highly experienced and creative experts Pam Burnard for Day 1, and Caroline Lenette for Day 2.

If you are interested in contributing to the conference, you can download the call for contributions here. The deadline for proposals is 1 December 2022, and all the details you need should be on the call, including an email address for any queries you may have.

I am so excited about this project! It has been such a struggle to keep it secret; I am delighted I can tell the world at last. Please help me pass the word around – and I hope you can join us in September of next year.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Rapport or Respect?

Trainee qualitative researchers, learning the most popular research method of interviewing, are routinely taught to use their interpersonal skills to create rapport with participants. This has been questioned for the last 20 years by Jean Duncombe and Julie Jessop. They ask, how ethical it is for researchers to fake friendship as a means to the end of gathering data?

On the one hand, it is common for people to use interpersonal skills to help us get what we want from others in our day-to-day lives. This applies whether we want a loan from a credit agency, a prescription from the doctor, a response to a complaint – in a multitude of situations, presenting our most polite and friendly selves can help to get the results we want. So it is arguable that it makes sense also to use these everyday methods in research.

On the other hand, research encounters are rather different from everyday encounters. This applies particularly to qualitative research where a researcher may spend a considerable period of time giving a participant their undivided attention. This is an unusual and often a welcome experience for participants, who often describe it in positive terms such as ‘therapeutic’, ‘cathartic’ or ‘a treat’.

Many of the people we want things from in day-to-day life are either providing us with goods and services, so that a transactional element is built into the encounter, or are already in a personal relationship with us through kinship, friendship or community membership. So the rapport we build in those situations already has a clear basis which is mutually understood. This does not apply within the research encounter, where we are usually asking participants to give us their time and information in exchange for a potential benefit to an imagined future population. (I considered the extent to which this is ethical in my recent post on the LSE Impact Blog.) Also, despite all the efforts to secure informed consent, we know that people generally agree to participate in research for their own reasons rather than ours. And where that reason is to get a little human company and kindness, which is lacking from their own lives, the practice of building rapport begins to appear even more suspect.

Imagine you are, let us say, living on minimal welfare benefits with a chronic condition which makes it difficult for you to leave the house. You have lost touch with the friends you used to have when you could go out to work, and your family live far away. You suffer from anxiety and you are very lonely. The carers who come in three times a day are brisk and professional; they don’t have time to chat, and you don’t want to hold them up because you know they are always under pressure. Then a researcher calls, saying she is doing an evaluation of the care you receive, and asking if she can visit you to ask a few questions. You are delighted because it’s been years since you had a visitor and she sounds so kind and friendly on the phone. When she visits, you tell her all sorts of things about yourself and your life. She seems really interested, and laughs at your jokes, and tells you a few things about her own life in return. You haven’t felt this good in years. When she has asked all her questions, you ask one of your own: please will she visit you again? She looks at the floor and says she would like to, but she can’t promise, because between work and her children she doesn’t have much free time. You would like to suggest she brings her children with her, but you know a ‘no’ when you hear one, so you let her go, wait for the front door to close, and listen to the emptiness of your home and your life.

Duncombe and Jessop point out that these problems are multiplied in longitudinal research, where the boundaries between real and faked friendship can become much more blurred. They share experiences of participants beginning to treat them as friends, and the discomfort that arises when they don’t reciprocate. I have had similar experiences, and I’m sure many other qualitative and mixed-methods researchers have too. It is interesting to consider this Euro-Western approach in the light of the very different Indigenous approach, in which research is deemed to be ethical when it serves to maintain and develop existing relationships. Looked at in this way, our Euro-Western approach of creating and then dropping relationships to further our research purposes seems potentially abusive.

The EU-funded TRUST project developed a Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings. It was based on four values elicited from research they did with a wide variety of people around the world: respect, fairness, honesty and care. The aim was to combat ‘ethics dumping’, where research deemed unethical in a higher-income country is conducted, instead, in a lower-income country where research is not governed by a regulatory system. I would argue that these values should also apply where research is done by a researcher with more social capital than some or all of their participants. In the vignette above, the researcher was not entirely honest and did not show care in response to the participant’s request, e.g. by signposting them to a local befriending service. This could be described as ‘friendship dumping’.

When you think about it, researchers using their interpersonal skills to create rapport with a participant as a means to an end is actually quite manipulative. This might be more defensible when we are ‘studying sideways’ or ‘studying up’, but even then it seems questionable. Showing respect for participants would be a more creditable aim, especially if it was combined with fairness, honesty and care.

The next post on this blog will be in September. You can follow the blog, above, to get my posts in your inbox.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Value and Limitations of Lived Experience

At times I have been hired for my ‘lived experience’, either as a carer for people with mental health problems or as a disabled person myself. I have also worked in research teams with people who have other kinds of ‘lived experience’, such as parenting children under five or living with addiction. I am not particularly keen on the phrase ‘lived experience’, because as far as I can tell all human experience is lived experience. I prefer ‘experts by experience’.

However, I also think the concept is flawed. Being an expert by experience is not like being an expert in domestic plumbing, or millinery or research ethics. For a start, the categories provided for experts by experience are incredibly broad. ‘Disability’ is a huge category. I am Autistic and I live with fibromyalgia and asthma. That qualifies me as an expert by experience – but I am no expert in the experiences of Deaf people, or stroke survivors, or people with Tourette’s syndrome, or many, many others. ‘Addiction’ is another huge category, covering street and pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex and so on. Someone who is addicted to alcohol will not be an expert in the experiences of someone who is addicted to heroin or gambling. I could give you equivalent examples for mental health carers, the parents of young children, and any other category of ‘expert by experience’ you care to name.

Also, I often observe – and have experienced – experts by experience being required to subordinate their experience-based expertise to expertise conferred in other ways, such as through education or employment, and/or to organisational constraints. I have heard of situations where research ethics committees discounted expertise based on experience (which was no fun at all for the researchers concerned). And I have other forms of expertise myself, developed through education and employment; my experience shows that these are valued more highly than my expertise by experience. I earn more with them, for one thing. This all leads me to understand that expertise by experience is worth less than other forms of expertise.

I should also acknowledge that I have witnessed several situations where third sector organisations passed over a capable and qualified candidate to recruit an employee with lived experience. This might look like organisations valuing expertise from lived experience more highly than other forms of expertise, but in each case the story did not end well. Recruitment is one thing, retention is quite another. Recruiting someone who is not able to do the job, and then not providing the adaptations and support they need to become able to do the job, is a costly form of box-ticking. And I don’t mean only financial costs; failed employment leads to enormous emotional and mental health costs too.

Another thing I have observed – and not only post-recruitment – is much less support and development being available for experts by experience than for other kinds of experts. I have mentioned payment, which may be in the form of a voucher, or travel expenses and a sandwich lunch; once in a while a reasonable amount of actual money. Sometimes there is a helpful booklet or a little bit of training. I have never seen any sign of experts by experience being permitted, let alone encouraged, to develop other forms of expertise.

This is just one example of the ‘us and them’ aspect of experts by experience. In the early 2000s I did a lot of work with Sure Start, a New Labour initiative involving partnership working in areas of deprivation to provide multi-agency one-stop-shop support for parents and children under the age of five. My role was to support partnerships in their early stages so I spent a lot of time sitting around tables with groups including nursery educators, midwives, health visitors, Home-Start managers, and other such professionals. They would talk about ‘the parents’, meaning the people who would be using the services once they were set up. It felt very much as though they were othering their potential service users. I would ask, ‘How many of the people round this table are parents?’ Inevitably some were; often most. Then I would facilitate a discussion about how the lived experience of the parent-professionals could inform the work of the partnership. This made some of the professionals uncomfortable at times. I’m not sorry.

As a researcher, part of my job is to separate and categorise information to help me find useful links and patterns. But this separation and categorising work is temporary, for the purpose of discovery. Separating and categorising people is inevitable, at least for people using English because of how the language works – but this always carries the potential for othering. In my lived experience, experts by experience are often on the receiving end. It is not a pleasant place to be, when you are allowed to be involved so far and no further, when others always have the final say.

Everyone is an expert on something, whether that is cleaning a house or conducting an orchestra, plastering a wall or piloting a battleship. I wish experience-based expertise was valued as highly as education-based or employment-based expertise. I think it has every bit as much value and I hope, one day, this will be fully recognised.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ethics Is Expensive

A while ago I turned down some potentially lucrative work on ethical grounds. I was approached by a global company I will call SubSidTech because it is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of one of the Big Five (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft). SubSidTech wanted help with creative research methods, and I was tempted, because I could have charged them a high fee and they might well have flown me to interesting places. But we didn’t get that far.

I turned down the work because I know that SubSidTech’s parent company works in some ways I consider to be unethical. I explained this to SubSidTech, politely; they sent a cordial email back thanking me for my candour and assuring me that they respected my views. I would have been very glad of the money. But I know turning the work down was, for me, the right thing to do.

It got me thinking, though, about the costs of acting ethically. Let’s start with consumption. I try to shop as ethically as I can: wherever possible I buy from companies with good policies and practices; I try to buy fairly traded and environmentally friendly products; I do what I can to avoid perpetuating cruelty to humans or animals. But living this way is often more expensive. For example, my phone is a Fairphone 3. The people who make this phone are paid a living wage, it is partly made from recycled plastic, and I can repair it myself with component parts available online at reasonable prices. It doesn’t have the built-in obsolescence of many mobile phones. But it was not cheap.

Sometimes being ethical can save money. I often buy second-hand clothes from online marketplaces or charity shops. But usually there is a premium to be paid for ethical consumption. And with costs rising as steeply as they are at present, I find myself rethinking a lot of my previously automatic choices. I love organic butter. It tastes like the butter of my country childhood, it’s not full of hormones, and it’s good for the planet – but its price has risen by 17% in recent weeks, and non-organic butter is cheaper. I don’t know how long I can maintain my ethical shopping preferences because, although I am not on a low income, my income is not rising. (It does go up and down a bit, but the average profit from my business over the last five years has been £24,964 per year; I can pay myself most of that.) And people who live on low incomes or welfare benefits have much more limited options for shopping ethically. The impact of the global financial squeeze on ethical consumption practices is already being recognised.

There is also a cost to doing research ethically. Taking the time to do proper participatory or other inequality-tackling research; paying or otherwise recompensing participants; providing suitable aftercare – these all cost more money, time and commitment than funders are used to funding or researchers are used to providing. Completing an ethics application form has a sizeable time cost, though some of the work done will save time later on. But there is still a time overhead, unless you are the kind of researcher who, having received their formal ethical approval, declares that they have ‘done ethics’ and will now get on with their research. And if you’re not that kind of researcher, if you aim to think and act ethically throughout your research work, then that also comes with a time cost and in some cases a financial cost too.

Because of the costs of acting ethically, we end up having to make compromises. Due to the rising cost of living I am consuming less of the ethically produced goods I like to eat and wear and use. My current choice is to consume less, rather than to buy unethically produced goods; this is a mark of privilege, and may have to change again in time. Perhaps there will also come a point where I cannot choose to turn down work from companies whose practices I regard as unethical. I hope not – but I know that, as for most people, if I need the money badly enough I will take any work I can get. But when it comes to research ethics, I plan to stand my ground. This is easier because someone else is paying the bill, most of the people I work for and with understand the purpose and value of research ethics, and often I can influence the ethical aspects of the research I conduct or support. That doesn’t mean research ethics is compromise-free – there are often compromises to be made where ethics is concerned. But I am happy to work in a profession where ethics, albeit expensive, is taken as seriously as I take it in my personal life.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Methods for Lived Experience Research

Note: This post was first published on the SRA blog in November 2021 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and SRA.

In this blog post, Kimberley Neve, researcher at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London outlines different methods for capturing ‘lived experience’. Lived experience is the actual, specific ways in which people experience something, in this case food – access to food, food poverty, food quality, food allergies and many others. Kimberley and other researchers at the Centre for Food Policy specialising in qualitative methods have produced a Brief to give an overview of the range of methods you can use when researching people’s lived experience of ‘food environments’. Food environments are the space in which we make all our decisions about food – what to eat, where to buy it, when and with whom to eat it.

Using qualitative methods to influence policy

As researchers we want our work to have impact. We also want to know that it resonates with people and reflects not only the experiences of the research participants, but also of the general population in some way. For our research to have a positive impact, effective communication with policy-makers, both locally and nationally, is vital. Despite the potential of qualitative methods to inform policy that is effective and equitable for the people it is designed to help, the number of qualitative studies used as evidence for policy remains modest compared to quantitative studies.

We wanted to raise the profile of qualitative research methods among both policy-makers and food environment researchers by demonstrating the range of potential methods and their benefits (and drawbacks), with a focus on how using them can help inform policy. These methods can be utilised in a wide range of research areas – for example local transport, access to outdoor space or crime in local areas – providing in-depth insights into people’s lived experiences and practices that can explain how or why people act the way they do.

In our Centre for Food Policy Research Brief (the ‘Brief’) we initially mapped existing studies capturing the lived experience of food environments, categorising methods and relevant case studies. Following this, we consulted with members of our Community of Practice – experts in qualitative research and food environments – for feedback prior to final edits.

What are the qualitative methods you can use?

The Brief is not an exhaustive list of the qualitative methods available; however, we’ve tried to capture the main methods you can use. For the scope of the Brief, we didn’t include quantitative methods but of course recognise their vital role.

Often, combining quantitative and qualitative methods can yield the most valuable insights.

To make the overview as useful as possible, we categorised the methods in the following way:

  • Group 1 – Exploring experiences, perceptions, beliefs, practices and social networks;
  • Group 2 – Observing practices in situ;
  • Group 3 – Designing policy and interventions drawing on the lived experience of participants.
overview illustration

Which method should you use for your research?

Typically, you’ll be likely to benefit from combining methods to suit your research context. For example, visual methods and observation tend to be accompanied by individual or group interviews to provide a more in-depth exploration. In the full Brief you’ll find an overview of qualitative methods with the key benefits and potential limitations of each. Assuming you know all about individual interviews and focus group discussions already, here are a selection of other methods less frequently used in research projects.

Group 1: Visual methods

This includes photo elicitation, creative arts (where participants create artwork such as drawings, videos or theatre), concept mapping (pile sorting, ranking, mental mapping) and timelines. One study in the US used photo elicitation in urban neighbourhoods to identify community-level actions to improve urban environments in relation to health. The study allowed the researchers to identify that not all food outlets affected health in the same way, and that contextual factors such as crime and safety influence how people accessed food, which had implications for community-level policy.

  • PROS – Group 1 methods work particularly well with young participants or where there are language barriers, as views can be expressed more directly and simply. Participants may also be more willing to share information visually and images can provide insights that may not have been accessible via specific questioning.
  • CONS – Visual data can be difficult to interpret in a way that fully represents the participant perspective, and there is a potential for photographs to be seen as reflections of reality, rather than subjective perceptions that provide insights into reality. Participants could also misunderstand the objective and take photos that do not help to answer the research question.

Group 1: Geospatial methods

Geospatial methods often combine mapping with photography and/ or GPS to create visual data that can then be discussed in one-to-one interviews or focus group discussions for more insights. Methods include spatial mapping, geonarratives and geotagged photography. These methods are relatively new to the food environment literature; however they have been used very effectively to explore how people engage with their environment in general, for example in their green space encounters.

  • PROS – Similar to visual methods, geospatial methods can work well to engage participants in a way that is more creative and encourage them to share information more openly. They also allow for participants to share their knowledge as experts of their own food environments. These methods provide insightful data into the connections between space and place, particularly if combined with interviews or focus groups.
  • CONS – Geotagging requires specific technology that may be expensive and difficult to operate. There are also ethical considerations with mapping someone’s location – when and how this data is collected, stored and used are important factors to specify during the research design.

Group 2: Observation

This involves observing participant behaviour with methods such as go-along tours, transect walks and community group observation. Unlike with non-participant observation (below), the researcher talks to the participants during the activity about what their actions and interactions mean to them. For instance, during a go-along tour in a supermarket (shop-along), the researcher might ask for the thought process behind the decision to purchase a product. Transect walks are go-along tours with the addition of creating a map of the local food environment resources, constraints and opportunities.

In a UK study, go-along interviews were used to explore which changes to supermarket environments would support healthier food practices. A key insight from this research was that varied individual responses to the supermarket environment in low-income neighbourhoods are mediated by differing levels of individual agency. Interventions should include an emphasis on factors that increase agency in order to change how people buy food.

  • PROS – Insights into the practical aspects of daily life and routines can be captured interactively with the participant and explored in more detail with further questioning. Power imbalances in research are addressed as participants take more control of the research process.
  • CONS – The researcher’s presence may impact how participants behave or move around spaces, for instance by influencing what they buy in a shop-along tour. It is also quite time-intensive to organise and participate in.
couple shopping photo

Group 2: Non-participant observation

This is where participants are watched from a distance, for instance by video, with little or no interaction with the researcher. This method was used as part of a focused ethnographic study in Kenya along with interviews and cognitive mapping. The aim of the study was to inform policies for improving infant and young children’s nutrition practices. Among other insights, a key finding for policy was that future interventions must consider various aspects of food insecurity to improve conditions in practice.

  • PROS – You can get insights into ‘real’ individual actions, such as shopping or eating practices, without the researcher’s presence influencing the actions. Features of everyday life that may otherwise not be mentioned can be recorded and explored with further questioning. The researcher can also complete a log to provide contextual insights that can explain practices from a more objective viewpoint.
  • CONS – Observation alone, without a follow-up interview or discussion, means the researcher is unable to dig into the reasons underpinning the actions, so the interpretation of the situation can be subjective.

Group 3: Photovoice, co-design, co-creation, systems mapping, group model building

The third group of methods were particularly difficult to classify, as terminology and meanings often overlapped (for instance with co-creation and co-design). These methods place the participant at the centre of the research process and actively engage communities affected by policy decisions (at a neighbourhood, city, county, country level) in the research process. Participants are encouraged to draw on their own experiences, expertise and knowledge of their food environments to think about and propose change, so that policies resulting from the research are relevant and context-specific, and as a result have the potential to be more sustainable.

An example of effective group model building can be seen in a study in the US, where community-based workshops took place with a diverse group of chain and local food outlet owners, residents, neighbourhood organisations, and city agencies.Action ideas were discussed for interventions to promote healthy food access, including funding new stores that stock healthy food options and building the capacity for sourcing local produce in stores.

  • PROS – For all of the methods in Group 3, the ‘hands-on’ nature of research enables participants to generate information and share knowledge on their own terms. Outputs, such as policy recommendations, are created together with the participants to be effective in their local context following an in-depth research process.
  • CONS – These methods all run the risk of being perceived as tokenistic by participants if engagement is not meaningful and genuine.

In brief

Decisions about which methods to select to study live experience depend on the purpose of the study (i.e. guided by a specific research question), the local context, time and resources available, and the benefits and limitations of each method.Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the possibilities of using digital tools and technology as key facilitators for remote research.

As researchers, we not only need to engage participants and design research projects that will yield useful insights; we also have to translate our findings so that these insights can inform the design of effective and equitable policy. By using a range of methods, a more comprehensive and detailed overview can be communicated. Visual materials and stories are particularly effective ways for qualitative researchers to communicate their findings to policy-makers and make a refreshing addition to the more common interviews and focus groups.

Acknowledgements

This blog was written based on the work produced by all authors credited in the full Brief: Understanding Lived Experience of Food Environments to Inform Policy: An Overview of Research Methods

Author biography

Kimberley Neve is a Researcher at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London. She works as part of the Obesity Policy Research Unit, investigating people’s lived experiences of food environments to inform policy in areas such as infant feeding and weight management. Kimberley is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Masters in Global Public Health Nutrition.

Rethinking Vulnerability and Sensitivity

Research ethics committees are very concerned with the potential vulnerability and sensitivity of research participants. So far, so laudable – but I don’t think they show their concern in particularly useful ways. Gaining formal approval from a research ethics committee is a hoop many researchers have to jump through, but then the real work of ethics begins.

For most research ethics committees, vulnerability is an attribute of some groups and not others. Groups who may be deemed to be vulnerable include children, older people, or adults with learning disabilities. These categories are specified by UKRI who oversee government-funded research in the UK. But if you look at this in more detail, it doesn’t stand up. Take children. Say a competent 14-year-old is a young carer for their single parent who lives with severe and enduring mental health problems and drinks alcohol all day. Which of those two people might be better able to give informed consent to the child taking part in research? Conversely, people are not necessarily vulnerable because they are older. President Biden is 79 and I can’t imagine him being seen as vulnerable. Learning disabilities don’t necessarily make people vulnerable either, as some of my dyslexic friends would no doubt agree.

Vulnerability is not an attribute, it is a state we all move into and out of in different ways. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. Quite suddenly we were all vulnerable to illness, perhaps death; to increased anxiety; to fear for loved ones who fell sick; to bereavement. Heads of state were no safer than ordinary people living in apartments or suburbs, and researchers were every bit as vulnerable as their participants. Perhaps one small positive side-effect of the pandemic is this: we can see more clearly that we are all vulnerable to changing circumstances resulting in trouble or trauma. Which does not mean we are all vulnerable all the time – but that any of us may be, or may become, vulnerable at any time. As researchers, I think it is essential for us to be aware of this, and ready to face and manage it when it occurs.

Vulnerability and sensitivity have something in common. Just as it is not possible to predict from group membership who is and is not vulnerable, so it is not possible to predict who will and will not be upset by a topic. Of course some topics are likely to be upsetting: female genital mutilation, suicide, sex work, and so on. And we need to put whatever precautions we can in place if we are investigating topics like these, that are evidently sensitive: to make the experience as safe as possible for our participants, and for ourselves. But we cannot be sure that everyone will find these topics equally sensitive; there are people who can take such topics in their stride.

Conversely, some people may be upset by apparently innocuous topics. Suppose a market researcher is investigating people’s perceptions of homewares. In one interview, the researcher asks their question about teapots, and realises their participant is struggling to hold back tears. The participant explains that the last gift ever given to them by their beloved mother, who died exactly one year ago, was a teapot. Perfectly plausible; impossible to foresee.

So, we can’t always predict everything everyone will be sensitive about, and we shouldn’t pretend we can. But, again, we need to equip ourselves with the mental and emotional intelligence and dexterity to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because if there is one thing we can predict, it is that at times we will face the unpredictable.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!