Aftercare in Social Research

aftercareWhen does a research project end? When a report has been written? When a budget has been spent? When the last discussion of a project has taken place? It’s not clear, is it?

Neither is it clear when a researcher’s responsibility ends. This is rarely spoken of in the context of social research, which is an unfortunate omission. A few Euro-Western researchers recognise the need for aftercare, but they are a tiny minority of individuals. There seems to be no collective or institutional support for aftercare. In the Indigenous paradigm, by contrast, aftercare is part of people’s existing commitment to community-based life and work. Euro-Western researchers could learn much from Indigenous researchers about aftercare: for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves.

The standard Euro-Western aftercare for participants is to tell them they can withdraw their data if they wish. However, it is rare for researchers to explain the limits to this, which can cause problems as it did for Roland Bannister from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Bannister did research with an Australian army band, Kapooka, which could not be anonymised as it was unique. Band members consented to take part in Bannister’s research. He offered participants the opportunity to comment on drafts of his academic publications, but they weren’t interested. Yet when one of these was published in the Australian Defence Force Journal, which was read by band members, their peers, and superiors, participants became unhappy with how they were represented. Bannister had to undertake some fairly onerous aftercare in responding to their telephone calls and letters. Of course it was far too late for participants to withdraw their data, as this would have meant retracting several publications, which is in any case limited in its effectiveness. However, particularly in these days of ‘long tail’ online publications, we need to be aware that participants may want to review research outputs years, even decades, after the substantive work on the project is done. We have a responsibility to respond as ethically as we can although, as yet, there are no guidelines to follow.

Data also needs aftercare, particularly now that we’re beginning to understand the value of reusing data. Reuse increases the worth of participants’ contributions, and helps to reduce ‘research fatigue’. However, for data to be reusable, it needs to be adequately stored and easy to find. Data can be uploaded to a website, but it also needs to be carefully preserved to withstand technological changes. Also, it needs a ‘global persistent identifier’ such as a DOI (digital object identifier) or Handle. These can be obtained on application to organisations such as DataCite (DOIs) or The Dataverse Project (DOIs and Handles). As well as enabling reuse, a global persistent identifier also means you can put links to your data in other outputs, such as research reports, so that readers can see your data for themselves if they wish. This too is an ethical approach, being based in openness and transparency.

Then there are the findings we draw from our data. Aftercare here involves doing all we can to ensure that our findings are shared and used. Of course this may be beyond our power at times, such as when working for governments who require complete control of research they commission. In other contexts, it is unlikely that researchers can have much say in how our findings are used. But we should do all we can to ensure that they are used, whether to support future research or to inform practice or policy.

Researchers too need aftercare. In theory the aftermath of a research project is a warm and fuzzy place containing a pay cheque, favourably reviewed publications, and an enhanced CV. While this is no doubt some people’s experience, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a number of documented cases of researchers developing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their research work. In between these two extremes, researchers may experience a wide range of minor or major difficulties that can leave them needing aftercare beyond the lifetime of the project. For that, at present, there is no provision.

Not much has yet been written on aftercare in research. If it interests you, there is a chapter on aftercare in my book on research ethics. I expect aftercare to be taken increasingly seriously by researchers and funders over the coming years.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

 

The Gear Changes of Independent Research

gear changeI have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, yet I still find the gear changes difficult.

All of last week I was in top gear. On Sunday night I arrived in a reasonable chain hotel in a city centre. The hotel was as these hotels are: clean, reasonably spacious, comfortable, soulless. I asked for a quiet room and got one, plus the bathroom had an actual bath of a decent size. These things can take on enormous importance when you’re working away from home.

I spent the week zooming around the city in taxis and holding meetings with people during which I typed copious notes. I was facilitating the meetings too so I had to pay a lot of attention to what was going on. There was no scope for doing other things on my phone under the table or staring out of the window. Luckily most of the people I met with were lovely and what they had to say was interesting – that isn’t always the case.

I managed one brief meeting for a different project, one bus journey, and one long walk (it wasn’t supposed to be that long but I got lost, ahem). Other than that it was wall-to-wall meetings then back to my hotel room to work on the report for my client while dining al desko on snacks grabbed from a local supermarket. I could have gone out to eat but didn’t want to take the time. Also I didn’t want a restaurant meal after a full hotel breakfast and a working lunch which was generally quite copious too.

I got home on Thursday night. On Friday I had another meeting for a different project and spent the rest of the day writing the report. And all of Saturday and all of Sunday too, holed up in my office, nose to keyboard, while the rest of the world lazed around in the sunshine. I finished the report around 6 pm on Sunday and emailed it off to the client with a deep sigh of deadline-met relief.

In top gear I run smoothly and at high speed. I’m comfortable there, but of course it’s not sustainable long-term. Sometimes I have to drop to a lower gear for a while. And that’s where this whole analogy breaks down because, in a vehicle, changing gear is generally quick and fairly uncomplicated. For this independent researcher, it takes at least 24 bumpy hours, sometimes several days.

Monday was a weird day. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself; how to prioritise the jobs on my to-do list; whether to take some time off. I felt unsettled, out of sorts. I know this feeling so well and yet it always takes me by surprise. It can be almost as discombobulating when I’ve been in low gear and need to rev up, though at least then I can deploy my personal carrot-and-stick self-discipline techniques. But I haven’t found equivalent methods for managing the change-down days. Stopping altogether, that’s easy. It’s when I still need to work, but don’t have to go at steam heat, that I find the adjustment hard.

I’ve heard similar tales from people with jobs as diverse as journalists and heating engineers, so evidently this isn’t unique to independent research. But it’s an odd phenomenon and, in my experience, rarely discussed. Perhaps this comes in that well-known category of ‘more research needed’.

Academic taboos #4: what cannot be published

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be publishedWe are all familiar with the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around attributes such as age, ethnicity, and gender. These faultlines act, and sometimes interact, to create barriers to academic publication. For example, Michael Eisen, a US biologist, found in 2016 that, in US-funded health research, less than 30% of senior academic authors are women. He also found that male authors write with fewer female co-writers (35%) than female authors do (45%). Leaving aside the whole ethical problem with treating gender as binary, this demonstrates an interaction between gender and publishing that disadvantages women.

So far, so straightforward. While of course institutionalised sexism needs to be addressed, it is hardly news these days, and there are legislative and policy structures designed to assist. A more unusual take is to look at the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around institutions and managerial practices, which are not currently addressed by equalities legislation or policy. These faultlines, too, act and interact to prevent people from publishing academic work. And by ‘people’ I mean academics, independent scholars, and Indigenous researchers.

Many academics of my acquaintance want their research to change minds and hearts and lives. They long for wide exposure, which often means publishing in open access (OA) journals. However, in many fields, the impact factors of OA journals are not high enough to satisfy audit requirements. So academics have to settle for publication in paywalled journals, read primarily by other academics.

With the growth of OA publishing, some OA journals are now reaching the dizzy heights of audit-worthy impact factors. But then there is another barrier. Access to these journals is open to all readers, but only to those writers with enough money – or an institutional budget – to pay the article processing charges (APCs). This can exclude many junior academics, whose senior colleagues get first dibs on the budget, and most independent scholars (though, to be fair, some OA journals do waive part or all of their APCs for indies).

Being outside an institution can cause barriers to publication in unexpected places. Take the reputable online publication The Conversation, whose strapline is ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. The Conversation covers virtually all disciplines and has a lofty ‘charter‘ which claims to ‘support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.’ The charter speaks of freedom from bias, and operation for the public good. Yet the author information states that ‘you must be a member of an academic or research institution to write for The Conversation’. So academics who are between jobs, or independent scholars who prefer to work free from institutional biases and constraints, or retired scholars who have plenty more to say, have no voice within this so-called ‘academic freedom’.

Perhaps the biggest exclusion affects Indigenous researchers and those from the global South. In her 2012 book Indigenous Research Methods, Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana noted that Indigenous researchers find it almost impossible to publish their work through Euro-Western publishing systems (p. 55). Some organisations are working to counteract this, such as the international research development charity INASP, whose Journals Online Project currently covers work from Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. (More info here.)

However, it is notable that most of the action to increase authors’ access to scholarly publishing comes from outside academia. The much-vaunted ‘public engagement agenda’ doesn’t seem to consider that some of the public might like to engage, not only as passive consumers of lectures, but also as active authors of scholarly work. Until all of these inequalities are systematically and effectively tackled, academic publishing will continue to represent privileged voices alone.

Academic taboos #3: what cannot be written

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be writtenAcademic writing has powerful conventions that lecturers, doctoral supervisors, and published academics work to uphold. Proper academic writing should be correct in every detail of grammar, punctuation, spelling and structure. It should use the third person, for neutrality, and to remove any sign of personal bias. The author should be as specific and precise as possible, and careful not to over-claim.

All this leads to some interesting linguistic contortions. ‘Two categories were studied to assess… the results highlight… the article will show…’ These kinds of constructions are commonplace in academic writing like nowhere else. Nothing is studied in a vacuum, and it is not ‘results’ that highlight or an ‘article’ that will show. Research is carried out by human beings, who decide what will be highlighted or shown in the reports of their research. Whose interests does it serve to conceal these truths?

In some disciplines, it is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge the researcher’s and authors’ roles in writing; to use the first person, and to accept the inevitability of bias while looking for ways to reduce it as far as possible. Yet moving away from attempted precision and correct use of English is still taboo. This causes problems, for example when the author needs to represent spoken English, such as in quotes from participants. Academics, research participants, and readers disagree about whether quotes should be rendered exactly, with their ‘incorrect’ grammar, or tidied up. If quotes are collected online, entering them into a search engine can identify participants. Quotes including swear words may alienate some readers. Exact quotes rendered in writing, with all their ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and half-formed sentences, can make participants seem uneducated or unintelligent. Generally, academia prefers sanitised quotes. However, this can be viewed as an abuse of authorial power, as it removes authenticity from participants’ words.

In fact academic writing conventions are all about power. The apparently laudable aims of precise, unbiased writing conceal the power dynamics at play. Academic writing conventions – themselves allegedly neutral – in fact operate to exclude those who cannot or will not abide by them.

The good news is that there is now a tiny but growing movement to break down these conventions, led by some brave doctoral students, supervisors, and universities. For example:

  • Nick Sousanis, now Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University in the US, presented his doctoral dissertation as a graphic novel at Columbia University in 2014. The following year it was published by Harvard University Press, entitled Unflattening.
  • Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect in Canada, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia in 2015. Entitled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, it has almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English academic writing conventions.
  • Piper Harron is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. She was awarded her PhD from Princeton University in the US in 2016. Her dissertation included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’, as well as a whole lot of jokes.
  • Ashleigh Watson, a doctoral candidate at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, founded So Fi, a sociological zine publishing creative sociological writing including fiction and poetry, in 2017.

Academia needs to take these kinds of alternative formats seriously. They enable more voices to be heard, more fully, than the conventional style of writing. Some universities have developed helpful alternative format policies to support this movement, such as this one from the University of Exeter in the UK. Implementing these kinds of policies will enrich academia.

Academic taboos #2: what cannot be paid for

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be paid forThe external examiner for my viva was not the person I wanted, who was seminal in my field, but someone more peripheral to my topic but who owed my supervisor a favour. For that reason alone, she thought he would agree to examine my thesis – and he did. Alongside core work for their own institutions, academics give guest lectures, seminars, and keynote speeches at other universities, act as external examiners for vivas and courses, review journal articles and write testimonials for books. No money changes hands (apart from perhaps travel expenses, or sometimes a small honorarium) and nor does it need to, because everyone involved is drawing an academic salary.

Favours are the currency of academia. However, an increasing number of people who do scholarly work are not drawing salaries. Some, like me, are independent researchers or scholars. Others are early or mid-career academics who find themselves without a contract. Others still are ‘stakeholders’ or ‘the public’.

A combination of the increasing casualisation of academia, the increasing accessibility of academic work through open access publishing, and the public engagement agenda, is creating an environment where institutional boundaries are more and more permeable. This is creating a problem. Salaried academics are expecting non-salaried people contributing to scholarly work to be content with the academic currency of favours. However, non-salaried people tend to prefer the real-world currency of money, as it’s much more use when you need to eat and pay bills.

This isn’t so much the elephant in the room as the blue whale in the bath. An article was published last year on the LSE Impact Blog, by three academics from the University of Exeter, encouraging the involvement of ‘non-academic partners at all relevant stages of the research process’. They argue for ‘a more collaborative approach to research’ in which ‘partners and publics’ will ‘contribute to the value of academic research’. They assert that ‘genuine partnership relies on respect and will produce mutual benefit’ without saying anything about what that mutual benefit might look like or how they propose to ensure the benefit is truly mutual. And nowhere, in the entire article, do they mention money. The journal article on which the blog post is based, which is entitled ‘The value of experts, the importance of partners, and the worth of the people in between’ also makes no mention of any of their financial value or worth.

In the Western world, a university education costs tens of thousands and senior university staff earn hundreds of thousands. Universities are wealthy organisations; most make annual surpluses in the millions. In my view, as someone external to academia who contributes to the value of academic research, genuine partnership relies on adequate sharing of resources. Refusal to pay a sensible market rate to non-salaried collaborators for their skills and input is, quite simply, exploitation.

Academics need to be clear about the employment status of those they wish to work with, and understand who they can and can’t ask for favours. I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, an independent scholar for eight years, and continually vocal about my needs as a self-employed person. Yet I still get requests from salaried academics to teach, examine, or speak, for expenses only, or for a derisory sum that equates to less than minimum wage. It is very boring having to keep banging on about money, especially when people’s enthusiasm for your involvement dwindles rapidly as soon as you mention a fee. When a university’s water pipes leak, everyone understands that a plumber will have to be paid. In exactly the same way, academics need to understand that when they want to engage a self-employed researcher or scholar, or involve a member of the public, that person must be paid a market rate for their work.

Academic taboos #1: what cannot be said

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be saidAcademia is a community with conventions, customs, and no-go areas. These vary, to some extent, between disciplines. For example, in most STEM subjects it is taboo for research authors to refer to themselves in writing in the first person. This leads to some astonishing linguistic contortions. Conversely, in arts disciplines, and increasingly in the humanities and social sciences, it is permissible to use more natural language.

It seems, though, that some conventions exist across all disciplines. For example, conference “provocations” are rarely provocative, though they may stretch the discussion’s comfort zone by a millimetre or two. Then conference “questions” are rarely questions that will draw more interesting and useful material from the speaker. Instead, they are taken as opportunities for academic grandstanding. Someone will seize the floor, and spend as long as they can get away with, effectively saying: “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” I have found, through personal experiment, that asking an actual question at a conference can cause consternation. I confess it amuses me to do this.

Perhaps the most interesting conventions are those around what cannot be said. Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University of London, UK, has noted the taboo around admitting how difficult, even impossible, it can be to cope with the pressures of life as an academic (2010:229). The airy tone when a colleague is heard to say: “I’m so shattered. The jobs on my to-do list seem to be multiplying. Haha, you know how it is.” Such statements can be a smokescreen for serious mental health problems.

A journal article published in 2017 by the theoretical physicist Oliver Rosten made a heartfelt statement about this in its acknowledgements, dedicating the article to the memory of a late colleague, and referring to “the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system”. Several journals accepted the article for its scientific quality but refused to publish the acknowledgements in full; it took Rosten years to find a journal that would publish what he wrote. He has left academia and now works as a Senior Software Developer at Future Facilities Ltd in Brighton, UK.

Another thing that cannot be said, identified by Tseen Khoo, a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, is that some academic research doesn’t need funding, it just needs time. This is anathema because everyone accepts that external funding makes the academic world go round. But what if it didn’t? What if student fees, other income (e.g. from hiring out university premises in the holidays), and careful stewardship was enough? What if all the time academics spent on funding applications, and making their research fit funders’ priorities, was actually spent on independent scholarship? It seems this is not only unsayable but also unthinkable. One of Khoo’s interlocutors described this as “a failure of the imagination”.

Another unspeakable truth I’m aware of is for someone to say that the system of research ethics governance is itself unethical. Ethics governance is something to comply with, not to question. That has led us to the situation where most research training contains little or no time spent on research ethics itself. Instead, young researchers learn that working ethically equates to filling in an audit form about participant welfare and data storage. They don’t receive the detailed reflective instruction necessary to equip them to manage the manifold ethical difficulties any researcher will encounter in the field.

I wonder what role the lack of research ethics education plays in the increasing number of journal articles that are retracted each year? I would argue that we need to separate ethical audit from ethical research, because they have different aims. The former exists to protect institutions, the latter to promote the quality of research and ensure the well-being of all concerned.

These areas of silence are particularly interesting given that academia exists to enable and develop conversations. However, I think that as well as acknowledging what academia enables, we also need to take a long hard look at what academia silences.

The Undisciplined Interdisciplinary Researcher

undisciplinedLast week there was an interesting conference called Undisciplining that I enjoyed following on social media. The conference subtitle was ‘Conversations From The Edges’ and its stated aim included ‘to foster collaborations and dialogues across disciplines and beyond academia’. There was live blogging, a workshop on making sociological board games, a feminist walk, and all manner of other creative ways to promote reflection and discussion at the conference and elsewhere. But although it talked about working across disciplines and beyond academia, the stated purpose of that was ‘to shape the nature and scope of the sociological’.

From what I read about this conference, its participants were keen to consider how sociology might be changed, extended, morphed into anything at all that could be useful in some way – but would still, in the end, be sociology. As the conference was sponsored by The Sociological Review this is perhaps unsurprising. Yet, despite its aspirations to interdisciplinarity – ‘undisciplining’ – it seemed like a disciplinary conference.

While I was pondering on this, my attention was drawn to a blog post by Ayona Datta about why she supports early career researchers. This sentence resonated with me: “Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work.”

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, few psychologists were experimenting with qualitative research, so my degree was entirely quantitative. What I learned in my first degree influences me today, yet I’m neither a psychologist nor a quantitative researcher. I studied social research methods for my masters’ degree which was mostly taught by sociologists and anthropologists. My PhD was cross-disciplinary, with one supervisor from social policy and the other from the business school. Today, I think I am a researcher without a discipline. Perhaps I am an undisciplined researcher.

But research is a topic, not a discipline. So does this mean my work is interdisciplinary? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, my main topics of interest, i.e. research methods and ethics, are interdisciplinary. A geographer might invent a new method, which is then adapted by an anthropologist, reshaped by a poet and used by a lawyer. Research ethics don’t vary much across disciplines either. Second, I read across disciplines, like a magpie, searching by topic, picking out the texts that look shiny and passing over the dull ones. I don’t have a disciplinary imperative to keep up with this journal or that blog. I began to read like this as an undergraduate, pre-internet, finding that tracking trails of interest through bibliographies in the library was far more interesting than trudging through the prescribed reading list (though sadly it was less use when it came to writing assignments).

I’m not anti-disciplines, though, as such. I think perhaps there is merit in learning and thinking within particular fields for some purposes. But I am anti-disciplines when they constrain thought and action. To help avoid this, I think discipline-based researchers and scholars should make regular visits to other disciplines, such as through reading, collaborating, or attending conferences. During my undergraduate degree, every student was expected to take a module outside their core subject. I learned a lot from studying anthropology, sociology, and literature, which enhanced my learning of psychology. (I was amused to find that this approach has been introduced as an ‘innovation’ by another London HE setting recently. My cackling splutter of “LSE did that in the early 80s” received a frosty reception.)

Academics often tell me they can’t work in this kind of way because of constraints which, to be fair, often seem more institutional than disciplinary. So is the problem here that disciplines serve the needs of the institution? Was the Sociological Review able to sponsor a conference more radical than some because it is a publication, not an institution? Is it, as many have suggested and I myself suspect, because I work outside an institution that I can do truly interdisciplinary work?

Being a researcher, I generally have more questions than answers. I wonder, though, whether interdisciplinary work holds dangers for those in power. I wonder whether this is why independent researchers are not able to write for The Conversation or apply for funding from research councils. I suspect my forthcoming book, Research Ethics in the Real World, which certainly is interdisciplinary, is going to annoy some people. More than one academic has told me they wouldn’t have been able to write it from within academia.

I would have loved to go to the Undisciplining conference, but I couldn’t afford the cost plus the unpaid time to attend, so I’m glad they did so much on social media. I will try to do my part on that front at the Research Methods Festival in Bath next week. That’s a truly interdisciplinary conference, with geographers, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, health researchers, artists, economists, and many others too. I’m running a workshop on writing creatively in academia, which means I get a sizeable discount plus my travel paid, which means I can attend the rest of the conference. I can’t wait!

Rowan the Rigorous Research Rabbit

Middle poster-minI have more exciting news! But first: why is this blog like a bus stop? Because you wait ages for posts with exciting news, then two come along in quick succession!

Further to last week’s comics extravaganza, this week I would like to present an animation I wrote, which has been animated by clever and diligent students at Staffordshire University. The idea for this came from Alke Gröppel-Wegener. She and I were chatting over lunch late last year and I told her about the comic I was writing. “Why don’t you write an animation, too?” she asked. “Because I don’t know how to write an animation and I don’t know any animators,” I said, thinking that was a fairly conclusive argument. But Alke brushed away my objections with a flick of her hand, explained there were student animators at the University, and proclaimed her conviction that of course I could write an animation if I tried.

So I went home and asked the internet how to write an animation and whaddaya know, it knew. I was also very lucky to work with Laura Weston, a knowledgeable and gifted tutor who downloaded segments of her brain into mine on demand. And as for the animators – well!

Laura told me I’d be working with third-years. She helped me to put together a brief, mainly by reining me in when I got all enthusiastic about over-complicating things, and then she publicised the brief. To begin with we asked for character sketches and received several submissions. It was so hard to choose between them that I ended up asking two people to work together – and then discovered that (a) Kalina Kolchevska and Kiefer Bray were first-years and (b) they were already good friends and happy to collaborate. They did a great job creating our hero Rowan and his evil nemesis Cavil the Carrot Fly.

Then I went to meet with a group of third-years, had a chat with them about the freelance lifestyle, and explained that I wanted to put a team together to create the animation. I am so pleased that Carolann Dalziel, aka Caz, volunteered to be the producer, because she did an amazing job. I am also very pleased that Aimee Carter volunteered to direct. I would have been happy with whoever wanted to work on the project, but I am honestly delighted to have had two women working with me as the animation industry is so male-dominated. (I’m also delighted that my comic was illustrated by a woman because that industry is too.)

The rest of the team included artistic director and lead animator Janine Perkins, sound technician and background artist Cameron Jones, Aneesa Malik and David Trotter who drew the storyboards, and Kiefer Bray and Ash Michaelson who worked as junior animators. They have all done such a terrific job that the animation looks very professional. I went to the end-of-year degree show at Staffordshire University earlier this month, where the animation was first shown to the public, and it got excellent feedback.

It is of course about research methods: in particular, how to choose a research question. This is something that troubles students year after year, all around the world. Caz and Aimee, Kalina and Kiefer, Aneesa and David, Janice and Cameron and Ash and I all hope that the animation we have made will help students through this knotty problem. Check it out and see what you think. It’s only one minute long.

Conversation With A Purpose

covertest2I have exciting news! This has been a long time in the planning and making, and has come to fruition in part thanks to the support of my beloved patrons. The inspiration came almost two years ago, at one of the pedagogy sessions of the 2016 Research Methods Festival. Research colleagues from the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods, where I am a Visiting Fellow, talked about the difficulty in bridging the gap between classroom and practice when teaching research methods. It occurred to me then that comics and graphic novels could have a useful role to play here, and I vowed to do what I could to make that happen.

Today, I am glad to launch my first research methods comic online. It’s called Conversation With A Purpose and it tells the story of a student’s first real-life interview. I wrote the words, but I couldn’t have made a comic without a collaborator, because I can draw the curtains but that’s about all. My colleague and friend Dr Katy Vigurs put me in touch with Gareth Cowlin who teaches on the Cartoon and Comic Arts degree course at Staffordshire University. I presented his students with a brief, and was lucky enough to recruit the very talented Sophie Jackson to create the artwork for the comic. Sophie is not only a highly skilled artist, she is also a joy to work with, so the entire project was a delight from start to finish.

The in-person launch happened last Friday night at Show and Tell, Staffordshire University’s 2018 art and design degree show. I also launched another creative teaching aid at the show, but you’ll have to wait till next week to find out about that! People’s feedback on the comic was very positive, though I wasn’t surprised because we had already received terrific testimonials from a couple of eminent scholars.

And you know the best part of all? You can download the comic, Conversation With A Purpose, and you will find instructions for printing it here. It will look best if you have a colour printer, though it should also work in monochrome. The comic includes discussion questions for use in the classroom.

Please enjoy, use, and share our comic. And if you would like to help me create more resources like this, please consider joining my patrons. I love producing free stuff to help students and teachers but, as an independent researcher with no guaranteed salary, my resources are very limited. This is where every single supporter makes a real difference.

How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

editing textYour first set of reviewers’ comments lands in your inbox. Your heart begins to race. Will your work be accepted or rejected? Will they love it or hate it? Can you bear to open the email?

These may be reviews for a journal article, book proposal, or book typescript. In each case the process is the same. First you need to read the comments and give yourself time to react. Whether it’s the exultation of an acceptance, the despair of a rejection, or the mixed feelings that come with requests for revisions, you need time to process your emotional response before you do anything else. Whoop, cry, eat chocolate, do whatever you need to do.

Because of negativity bias, negative comments – even when constructively phrased – have more impact on most people than positive comments. We need to work to counteract this bias. So, unless you’ve received very favourable comments and you want to revel in their glory, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before you read the comments again. This can help you to take a more balanced view, which is useful because if it’s a rejection or revisions, you’ll need to see how your work can benefit from the reviewers’ input before you send it off again. This can be quite a challenge, especially if the reviewers have different views of your work and how it can be improved. Your journal or commissioning editor may offer some guidance and if so you should take that into account. But sometimes they leave it all to you.

My solution to this is to treat the reviewers’ comments as data and go into analysis mode. I create a table with one column for the comments and another for each reviewer. Then I enter each substantive comment into the first column and put a mark in the other columns for each reviewer who has made a similar point. This helps me to pick up the instances where reviewers are effectively saying the same thing, though perhaps in very different ways. It also helps me to see at a glance which comments have been made by all or some reviewers, and which only by one of the reviewers.

I have said before on this blog that reviewers’ comments come in three categories: the no-brainer (act on this), the no-thanks (don’t act on this), and the oh-wait (probably act on this, though not necessarily in the way the reviewer suggests). So my next job is to sort comments into these categories.

If a comment has been made by more than one reviewer I will take it more seriously. That doesn’t mean I’ll definitely implement it, but I am more likely to do so. If a comment has been made by all reviewers I would need a very, very good reason not to implement it. If a comment has only been made by one reviewer, that in itself might be one reason I could decide not to implement it, though I would also expect to give at least one other reason.

Once I have sorted the comments into their categories, I will list them by category in the first column of another table with two further columns: a brief note of what I plan to do in response to each of the no-brainers and the oh-waits, and a brief note of what I plan to write in the cover letter against each comment from all three categories. This is useful because I can dip into it when I have a spare half-hour or so, and find a job or two to do to get me closer to the finish line.

It is important to be polite in your response to reviewers’ comments, even if you think they’re the biggest load of old rubbish you’ve seen since your last visit to the municipal tip. Some reviewers’ suggestions seem to be based more on what they would have written than on what you actually have written and this can be quite annoying at times. When you come across a suggestion you really don’t want to implement, there are some tactful ways to say so, such as:

“This is an excellent suggestion though unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular project.”

“I can see how this suggestion would improve my work but sadly I am unable to incorporate it within the allocated word count.”

“This is a really interesting idea. I have considered it carefully and concluded that it doesn’t quite fit with the thrust of my current article/book, but it will influence my thinking for future projects.”

Remember you are the author and, as such, you have authority. While authors do need reviewers’ input (at least, when it’s constructive), and your work should benefit from intelligent use of their feedback, you don’t have to do everything a reviewer says. Also, a rejection is only a rejection from this journal or publisher. It doesn’t mean your work is worthless; sometimes it’s only because they already have plans to publish something that is similar in some way. This post should help you make the best use you can of reviewers’ comments. That will produce the greatest benefit to your work and career, and is also a way to respect and honour the time and care (most) people put into writing reviews.