The Research Trajectory

I have been talking about the research trajectory with my students for years. I describe my conception of this trajectory, which I call ‘The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research’. I often use this conception to help me explain why it is usually not a good idea, when data analysis is challenging, to decide that all problems will be solved by throwing in a few extra methods – gathering more data, reading a new body of literature, and so on.

It occurred to me that manifesting the image I see in my head might be entertaining for me (it was!) and perhaps useful for others. So I made a graphic. Here it is. Does it resonate with you?

The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research

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!

Why writing is never fixed or final

I am working on the third edition of my first research methods book. Books like this, if they sell enough copies, are regularly updated into new editions. There are a few reasons for this. One is that ideas develop and the world changes, which means updates are needed. Another is that a new book usually has a comparatively small word count to help keep the price down; when it is proven to sell well, there is a business case for an increased word count and a slightly higher price. A third is that authors and readers think of more topics which could usefully be included.

The second edition of this book had 12 chapters; the third will have 16. I only have around 12,000 new words to play with, but fortunately some of the new chapters are chapters which were already rather long and still need new material, so have been split into two. There are only two completely new chapters, and one of those also has a chunk of content which I have moved over from another long chapter in the previous version. So, while there will be around 12,000 words of new content, only one of the four new chapters has to be written from scratch.

I regularly teach creative academic writing (aka academic writing it’s all creative), mostly to doctoral students who are faced with the terrifying task of writing a book. It’s called a thesis or a dissertation, depending on which country you are in, which makes it sound different from writing a book. But it’s not really different. Even a shorter thesis or dissertation of 40–50,000 words is equivalent in length to a Mills & Boon novel. An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation is equivalent to a standard paperback, and 100,000 words would be a larger paperback. Nobody tells doctoral students that they have to write a book – but, in effect, that is exactly what they have to do. Most theses and dissertations have chapters, contents, acknowledgements and other such book-like features. As the saying almost goes, if it looks like a book and quacks like a book it is probably a book.

Students often think writing a book is a similar process to reading: start with ‘Chapter One’ and then it’s one word after another until you get to ‘The End’. Nope. It is always difficult to convey the process of writing a book to someone who hasn’t written one, because describing is not the same as doing, and the only way to really understand how it works is to write one yourself. Which is a really difficult task, even if you have written several already. All I can do is to tell my students, in as many ways as I can, that most of us start in the middle even if we think we are starting at the beginning; it is fine to write fragments, or lists, or mind-maps; all of your work will go through at least three drafts; nothing is fixed, even when it’s published. I watch the level of comprehension on people’s faces vary from ‘utterly bemused’ to ‘penny dropped’. I know it’s pretty much impossible to learn about a process without any relevant experience, and I throw out blobs of wisdom hoping some of them will stick. (Some do. I once had a tweet from a former student, 18 months after I taught their class, saying ‘I just realised what you meant when you said…’ – it was lovely to know one of my blobs had landed after all that time.)

Perhaps the part students have most difficulty with is understanding that writing is never fixed or final. It looks so fixed, when you make a mark on a page; it seems indelible. But it’s not. You can move, change, edit, delete, add… Even published work isn’t fixed or final. This published blog post can be changed if I see a need for change. And, as new editions of books show, even published books are not final.

Once you understand this, it is a useful counter to perfectionism. In fact, it is not surprising that perfectionism is an enemy of writing, because writing can hardly ever be perfect (maybe a few shorter poems). Writers need to put down any perfectionism they may be holding, and simply be willing to do the best they can today. We also need to accept that this day’s ‘best’ is rarely the same as the next day’s ‘best’. When you look again at something you wrote last month or last year or last decade, it can make you cringe and wonder what on earth you were thinking. Which does not mean you are, or were, a bad writer; it means you have learned new things since then.

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!

A simple guide to ethical co-authorship

This post was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog in March 2021.

Ethical co-authorship is rarely discussed by authors and publishers, and even more rarely by research ethics committees. Yet co-authorship is a notorious site for unethical practices such as: plagiarism, citation manipulation, and ghost, guest and gift authors. For authors setting out on a collaborative writing project, two key aspects to ethical co-authorship need consideration: ethical co-writing and ethical co-publishing.

Ethical co-writing

Being invited to write with one or more others can feel flattering and exciting. Hold on, though, because before you co-write a single sentence, it is sensible to figure out whether you can work well together and to ask yourself some simple questions. Do you share enough priorities and values? If so, do you have similar working practices, such as attitudes to timescales and deadlines? While diversity of authorship will bring richness to your co-authored work, you need enough similarity to ensure that you can work well together. There is no shame in finding you can’t collaborate with someone; it doesn’t devalue your scholarship or theirs. But, it is worth ensuring you make that discovery early, rather than after you have already invested considerable time and effort.

Agree on the format for the work, and who will take the lead on each section or chapter. Different people can have very different ideas about format and structure, and again it is worth establishing this at the outset, rather than ending up with sections or chapters of wildly varying lengths and structures. This won’t impress reviewers and will create an unnecessarily large amount of work at the editing stage.

When you decide on deadlines, always build in contingency time. Things go wrong in people’s lives, particularly during a pandemic, and those affected need time to deal with their difficulties. Be willing to compromise or, in a group collaboration, to be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way – write alone – though you will still have to deal with others, reviewers and editors; to adapt a famous saying, the sole-authored paper is dead.

Encourage your co-authors to adopt ethical citation practices. This means avoiding citation manipulation, i.e. excessive self-citation, excessive citation of another’s work, or excessive citation of work from the journal or publisher where you want to place your own work. It also means ensuring a good level of diversity within your citations. Who are the marginalised scholars working in your field: the people of colour, the women, the Indigenous scholars, the scholars from the global South, the LGBT+ scholars, and so on? Make sure you read and cite their work, engaging in co-writing can be an opportunity to reassess what literatures have become central to your research.

When you give feedback to your co-authors, make it constructive: tell them what they are doing well, what needs improvement, and how they can make that improvement. When co-authors give you feedback on your writing, accept it gracefully, even if you don’t feel very graceful. Respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. Maintaining relationships with your co-authors can be more important and may even take precedence over being right.

Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your co-authoring, let your co-author(s) know as soon as possible.

Ethical co-publishing

Academic publishing is troubled by ghost, guest and gift authors, if you are in doubt, COPE provides a useful flowchart detailing these practices. Ghost authors are those who have contributed to a publication but are not named as a co-author, perhaps because they are a doctoral student or early career academic and a senior academic has decided to take the credit for their work. This is a form of plagiarism. Guest authors are those who have not contributed to the writing of a publication, though they may have lent equipment or run the organisation where the research took place. Gift authors are those who have made no contribution at all, but are offered co-author status as a favour. None of these practices are ethical. It doesn’t matter if some co-authors do more work than others, as long as everyone involved is happy with that, but you should be clear about each co-author’s contribution to the work, and outline that in a statement in the final draft.

Another ethical issue in co-publication is the order in which authors are named. This varies between disciplines. In economics, co-authors of journal articles are named in alphabetical order, while in sociology the co-author who has made the largest contribution is named first. Heather Sarsons studied this and found that the system used in economics has an adverse effect on academic women’s career prospects, while the sociology system does not.

However, this does not mean the sociology system is perfect. What if two or three authors have contributed equally? An alternative option could be to write enough articles or chapters for each co-author to have first authorship on one of them, but this isn’t always possible or desirable. Some scholars use pseudonyms to ensure that equal contributions are recognised. Economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson published several books and journal articles under the joint name J.K. Gibson-Graham, some of which were ‘sole’ authored and some with other co-authors. Geographers Caitlin Cahill, Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain and Mike Kesby have published together under the name Mrs C. Kinpaisby-Hill, and Kindon, Pain and Kesby have collectively used the name Mrs Kinpaisby. Professors EJ Renold and Jessica Ringrose work together as EJ Ringold.

This isn’t always an option, though, as publishers are not always happy to take an unconventional route. Book publishers for instance, will usually want as first author the person whose name they consider most likely to help sell copies. And, journal editors are sometimes reluctant to name participants who have co-authored journal articles, even when they evidently want to be named.

Acting ethically while co-writing is easier than acting ethically to co-publish, because authors have more autonomy while writing. Self-publishing may present opportunities for more creative representations of co-authorship practices, but self-published work is not generally valued by academia. Bumping up against the structures and priorities of big business, whether a publisher or a university, can make it more difficult for people to maintain an ethical course. Perhaps the most ethical option is to place work with a journal or publisher that is not for profit, so you are not contributing to shareholders’ dividends but to organisations that invest any surplus back into research dissemination.

To some extent, co-authorship is an academic virtue in itself. Co-authors learn from each other and help each other develop as researchers and scholars. Co-authored work is often stronger than it would have been if sole-authored. If we can also co-author ethically, that will further improve the quality of our collaborations and our outputs.

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!

The Wonder Of #CRMethodsChat

I have been running a creative research methods Twitter chat most months since May 2019. It lasts for an hour, usually on a Tuesday, and the time varies from 8am to 7pm BST/GMT to try to accommodate people in as many time zones as possible. The chat is often very lively, with a mix of regular chatters and new people. I have also heard from a number of people who appreciate the chat but prefer to lurk rather than to join in. A regular chatter recently described it to me as ‘a very special community of people’, and I would agree: a friendly, creative, supportive bunch, all ready to share ideas and learn more about creative research methods.

In recent months I have hosted all the chats from my own office, but before the pandemic I often hosted chats from hotel rooms in various countries and once even from a train in Ireland (Iarnród Éireann have great wi-fi). After each chat I curate the tweets, and any relevant links, into a Wakelet for those who couldn’t attend at the time. Chats to date, with links for any you would like to follow up, are:

14 May 2019 Inaugural Twitter chat about creative research methods

11 June 2019 Creative methods of data analysis

9 July 2019 Creative methods of dissemination

10 September 2019 Visual research methods

8 October 2019 Embodied research methods

12 November 2019 Using social media creatively in research

14 January 2020 The future of research methods over the next 10 years

11 February 2020 Performative research methods

30 June 2020 Participatory textile making as a creative research method with co-hosts @StitchingTgthr and Amy Twigger-Holroyd

21 July 2020 Teaching creative research methods online

15 September 2020 Using online methods in research and teaching

20 October 2020 Remixing research methods with co-host Nikki Pugh

17 November 2020 Research ethics in a pandemic with co-host Christina Silver

8 December 2020 Creative and collaborative research with co-hosts Narelle Lemon and Janet Salmons

28 January 2021 Creative writing for social research with co-host Richard Phillips

24 February 2021 Creative methods of analysing data with co-host Julia Puebla Fortier

27 April 2021 Creative research methods across disciplines with co-host Dawn Mannay

1 June 2021 Creative methods of gathering data with co-host Louisa Lawrie

15 July 2021 Embodied inquiry with co-hosts Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh

5 October 2021 Making participants comfortable when using creative research methods with co-host Suzanne Culshaw

You will notice that for the last year I have always run the chat with a co-host or two. This is because the chat has become increasingly popular and is now really too busy for one person alone to manage. There is a lot to do: responding to tweets; keeping an eye out for tweets intended for the chat where the tweeter forgot to include the hashtag, and retweeting them with the hashtag to bring them into the chat; finding links to share – sometimes even with two or three of us it is absolutely non-stop. So far the quietest chat was the one on performative research methods in February 2020, with just 43 items in the Wakelet (“items” = tweets and links – in Wakelet you can’t click on a link in a tweet, so I track down the link and include it separately). The busiest one to date was embodied inquiry in July 2021 with 288 items. That chat ran at an average of four tweets a minute, or one every 15 seconds. Two other chats had over 250 items each, two more had 200–249 items, six had 150–199, four had 100–149, and the other five had under 100 items (all of those five were in the first year).

People have various reasons for co-hosting. Some have a book or other output to promote which is relevant to creative research methods. Some want to find out more about a topic, or form a special interest group. The main reason I am writing this post is because I would like more co-hosts for the chat. If you’re Twitter-literate and you just fancy helping me out from time to time, that would be fine by me! But whatever your reason, I will be happy to hear from you.

Co-hosting is easy: we agree the date/time for the chat and the questions to be used; in the run-up to the chat I will send out some promo tweets and tag you so you can retweet them if you like; then attend the chat itself and help people to feel welcome and interact. If you want more detailed information before you decide, there are a couple of blog posts on the topic: one from me on the Research Whisperer blog including reflections on the first #CRMethodsChat, and one from Pat Thomson, full of characteristic wisdom, about the #VirtualNotViral chat she runs with Anuja Cabraal. There may well be others, too; if you know of any please comment on this post with a link.

I am aiming to set up chats in advance, so if you have a book coming out any time in the next year or so, or you’re doing – or supervising – doctoral studies and you want to know about some aspect of creative research methods, or you have a project on the horizon that might benefit from increased knowledge of creative methods, please do get in touch via Twitter or my contact form.

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!

Teaching Research Methods And Ethics

My first proper job after my first degree was as a training administrator for a big firm in the City of London. I attended a ‘train the trainer’ course and learned to design and provide training courses myself, which I did for the next four years. That experience has proved invaluable in my research career. Now I talk of the research methods/ethics training I offer as ‘teaching’ because I mostly do it in universities and that is the term they use. But, as I teach short courses as an external expert rather than full modules as a university lecturer, designing and delivering those courses involves more-or-less the same process as the training I used to provide in London.

I have been teaching research methods and ethics for universities and research organisations since 2008. I teach around the UK and overseas: so far in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. I often teach international groups online and am humbled by students who attend my courses in the middle of the night, their time. (I do not teach in the middle of the night, my time. I am too old for that!) In pre-pandemic times I did most of my teaching in person. For the last 18 months it has all been online, but now I am beginning to receive invitations to go back to the classroom, albeit with Covid precautions in place. I suspect in the future it will be part online and part in person. Teaching online has some advantages: nobody has to travel, which reduces stress and cost and environmental impact, and makes it possible for some people to attend who couldn’t if it was in person. However, it has some disadvantages too, primarily (from my point of view) that I won’t know if someone is struggling unless they tell me, whereas in the classroom I can see if a student is puzzled and wander over to get them unstuck. So I will be glad when I can do more in-person teaching again, though I have learned a lot about teaching online and will be happy to offer that too.  

The courses I offer routinely are Creative Research Methods (1 or 2 days), Creative Academic Writing aka Creative and Productive Thesis Writing (1–4 days), Radical Research Ethics (1 day) and Documents as Data (1 day). The first three are based on books I have written or co-written, the fourth is based on books by other people. I can also run courses on other topics, adapt my existing courses, and teach in other ways. In 2018 I ran two of my existing courses for Coventry University’s graduate school, and also courses on qualitative data coding/analysis and qualitative interviewing. Next month I am running my Creative Academic Writing course, adapted to meet the needs of The Anthropocene and More-Than-Human World Writing Workshop Series funded by the British Academy. And I am currently in discussion with Liverpool John Moores University about a data analysis course for postgraduate researchers, and with Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore about facilitating a monthly ‘reading circle’ on autoethnography and arts-based research, with a view to helping participants work towards writing for publication. Both LJMU and NAFA are existing clients. I am glad to say my teaching clients usually book me again; there are a number of universities and other organisations who I teach for every year, sometimes several times in a year.

I don’t do much teaching for less than a day at a time, though that can be split into two half-days if we’re working online. I will do the occasional webinar or shorter seminar, though my minimum charge is my half-day rate (because, as regular readers know, an hour is not an hour even when working online). What my day rate is depends on the country where I will be working, whether in person or virtually. The resources of countries around the world vary greatly, as do those of organisations. So I aim to charge the standard rate for each country and type of institution I am working with. I should also add that if I design a new course for a client, I charge an extra half-day per day of training for design and preparation. This means that I would cost a new one-day course at 1.5 x my day rate.

I am glad to say my teaching is becoming increasingly popular. So much so that I am needing to restrict the number of teaching assignments I take on, because otherwise I don’t have enough time for my client work and writing. I have decided to teach for no more than four days in any one month, or 36 days in any one year. On this basis, I have a couple of teaching days still available in 2021. In 2022, January, February and July are already full, and I have several bookings in other months. So if you’re thinking about asking me to teach at your institution, don’t drag your feet!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitter chat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Creative Data Analysis – Call for Chapter Proposals

I have wanted to make a book on creative methods of analysing data for years. I knew it wasn’t a book I could write on my own unless I did a load of research. I would have loved to do that, but I needed funding, and there are very few funds I can apply to as an independent researcher. I did try Leverhulme but got nowhere. Then I thought about an edited collection, which I probably could have done on my own but I figured it would work better with co-editors. And I wasn’t sure who to ask, so the whole thing stayed on my wishlist.

Then, back in February, I co-hosted a webinar for my publisher Policy Press on creativity in research. My co-hosts were Dawn Mannay from Cardiff University and Alastair Roy from the University of Central Lancashire. We had over 200 attendees on the day, and far more questions than we could answer, including several questions about creative data analysis. This reminded me of my wish to make a book on the subject, so I asked Dawn and Ali if they would co-edit with me. And they both said yes!

Over the summer we have worked with Philippa Grand, my lovely editor at Policy Press, to put together the call for chapter proposals. I am really pleased with what we have produced, not least because we managed to keep it to one page of A4. I can’t wait to see the proposals that come in – though I will have to because the deadline isn’t until 31 December. But I feel so happy about this book because I know researchers in all disciplines around the world are devising and adapting analytic methods in many creative and useful ways, and I am really glad to have an opportunity to help collate some of that information so it can help other researchers in the current and in future generations.

Having said that, there is a whole process to go through. Once we have accepted and organised the chapter proposals, we need to write a proposal for the book, which will be peer-reviewed before Policy Press make a decision on whether or not to publish it. Then we need to work with the chapter authors to help them produce their chapters to a good standard, and write a useful introduction and conclusion. After that the manuscript will be peer reviewed, and then we will need to support chapter authors with their revisions as well as making our own. Then the book will go into production, probably in late 2022 or early 2023, for publication in mid-2023.

After the frenzy of rapid publication last year, this seems almost glacially slow. And I am impatient! But I would rather make a good book than a quick book – I know it is possible to do both, but I also like having a life, so actually this is fine by me.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!


 

Should Academic Writers Create Companion Websites?

I am preparing to write the third edition of my first research methods book, and this has got me thinking about the companion websites that many publishers like authors to create for our books. There is very little information online about companion websites, such as how to create a good one or their pros and cons. I found one article on Google Scholar, but its central thesis was ‘don’t replicate material on companion websites which is also in the book’ which I would have thought was common sense. I searched my go-to resources, starting with the Research Whisperer, and found two mentions in passing, both in posts written by, er, me. Then I searched the Thesis Whisperer and found one mention in passing, in a post written by, guess who? Yep, me again. And Pat Thomson’s blog has no hits at all for “companion website”, but then I have never written a guest post!

It seems that writers don’t write much about companion websites. Though I did find two very helpful posts from the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association blog, one by my friend and colleague Janet Salmons on what to consider when creating a companion website, and the other by the equally excellent Katie Linder on five questions to ask your publisher about their author websites. These posts are both well worth reading. But they don’t answer a question that has started to bug me: should we be producing companion websites in the first place?

One of the reasons for companion websites is to keep the size, and therefore the cost, of books down. In my view some publishers do this to the detriment of the books they produce. I have a great deal of respect for Colin Robson’s book on Real World Researchand have bought every edition. I was astonished when the fourth edition was smaller than the third, and even more astonished when I found that, unlike previous editions, it had no list of references or author index. I emailed the publisher, Wiley, to ask what had happened, and they told me those features were now on the companion website. The link was in the prelims and I had missed it. I find it incredibly frustrating to have to move to a website when I want to chase up a reference in a book. This is odd, as my next move might well be to find it on Google Scholar or an online book retailer, but it is so, and the net result is that I use the book much less these days.

Another reason for companion websites, ostensibly, is to be able to update resources between editions. I will hold my hand up and tell you right now that I have never done this; I’m too busy writing new books. And I often find dead or broken links when I’m looking at other people’s companion websites. According to Twitter, I’m not alone. I tweeted last week to ask for people’s thoughts on companion websites: whether they liked them or ignored them, and for recommendations of good ones. This generated several interesting discussions, but it was notable that many readers ignore or dislike them. Also, around half of respondents shared my experience of dead/broken links in companion websites run by publishers. Lauren Gawne and Dana McFarland both made the very good point that all companion websites should be added to the Internet Archive as soon as they are created, which would help to solve this problem.

Some authors set up and run their own companion websites. Examples include Petra Boynton’s website for The Research Companion, Helen Sword’s website for The Writer’s Diet (thanks to Inger Mewburn for alerting me to this), and Andy Field’s website for his Discovering Statistics books (thanks to Rory Beaton for the info). But this is even more time-consuming than creating a website for a publisher to host.

I asked Policy Press for page view stats for the companion websites I had done for them. Not surprisingly as it’s my best seller, Creative Research Methods scored highest. But to my astonishment, second highest was Creative Writing for Social Research which only came out in January. And Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners, my longest-standing research methods book, was trailing far behind the rest of the field. Which made me realise that if you’re creating a book for busy people, adding a website they have to go to for resources may be counter-productive.

However, there is the whole book size/price problem to consider. And some people love companion websites, especially teachers such as Beth Kelly and Karen Zgoda who like to find reflective or discussion questions, tasks for students, handouts, quiz questions, and even PowerPoints and videos based on the concepts in the text. Sandra Flynn is another fan and encourages her MSc research students to bookmark the companion guide to the core text (HE teachers, be like Sandra!). So evidently there is a place for them. And Mandy Shaw made an excellent point when she said that if they are hosted by a publisher, they need publicising by that publisher.

So, here are four good practice points for companion websites to academic books, and their creators and hosts:

  • Only create a companion website when there is scope to include material which is supplementary to, and cannot fit in, the book you are writing. If there isn’t, don’t bother, even if the publisher pleads; refer them to this post – it’s a waste of time.
  • If you want to be sure of the quality of your companion website, create and update it yourself – but be aware that this is time-consuming unpaid work which may benefit your publisher more than yourself.
  • If you are considering creating content for a publisher-hosted companion website, ask them some searching questions first, including how they promote their companion websites, whether the website will be open access, and how they ensure the websites don’t contain dead or broken links. If you are not happy with the answers, don’t create the content for the publisher; consider making your own website instead, or setting up an alternative resource such as a YouTube channel. (You would probably be well advised to have these conversations when you are negotiating your contract, or you may find yourself signed up for a big job you don’t actually want to do.)
  • If you do create a companion website, add all the pages to the Internet Archive at an early stage.

Steve Wright raised the topic of payment. He wrote some content for the companion website of a book he was not otherwise involved in. Steve argued for payment from the publisher on the basis that if they would pay him to do a proposal or manuscript review (which they would), they should pay him to write content for a book in which he had no commercial interest. He had to really push, but he did get paid in the end. And that got me thinking. Writing companion websites is very time-consuming and a big extra responsibility for a textbook writer. There is no flat rate for payment, so no incentive to create that content. Also, there is no royalty attached to page views, so no incentive for writers to promote their own publisher-hosted companion websites. Many academic writers – me included – seem to have accepted this unpaid extra work as something we have to do, without asking a lot of important questions of our publishers and ourselves. I hope this post will help to redress that balance.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

How To Get The Best From A Busy Person: Ten Top Tips

There are lots of good reasons for getting in touch with someone you know by reputation, or perhaps from a passing contact on social media or (in pre- and, I hope, post-pandemic days) at a conference or other event. Maybe you want that person to come and speak at your institution. You could be researching elites. You might want to ask for specialist advice. These kinds of reasons are entirely legitimate. However, a good reason alone isn’t enough; you also need to handle the interaction effectively. Here are ten top tips to help you get the best out of your encounter.

  1. Be aware that the person you are contacting will be very, very busy. They already work more than full time and they get many requests from people like you.
  2. Do your homework. Do not ask the person a question you could find the answer to by using a search engine or searching the person’s own website or blog. Check out all of the existing resources online, thoroughly, before you make contact.
  3. Find out how the person prefers to be communicated with, then communicate that way. Some people love email; others hate it. Some like private messages on social media; some don’t. You will have your own preferences but, to get the best out of a busy person, use the method they prefer.
  4. Keep communication brief. If this is difficult, write the long version for yourself, then cut it down to the bones before sending.
  5. Don’t expect a speedy reply. If you haven’t heard anything within a week or two, send a short polite enquiry to check they received your initial message. If this is by email, forward the original beneath your new enquiry, to save them hunting.
  6. Be clear about what you want, and make that clear to the person you are contacting.
  7. Be clear about what you can offer. For example, if you want to invite someone to speak at your institution, make sure you clarify the terms of the invitation: who they would be speaking to, in what context, whether a fee is available, whether expenses can be paid, and so on.
  8. Don’t say ‘I see you have written a book on X so I wanted to ask for your help with X’. Read the book first, then get in touch with the author if you have unanswered questions.
  9. Make sure your request is realistic, which usually means short and one-off. A busy person is not going to provide individual mentoring support, spearhead your social justice campaign, or write your thesis or dissertation for you.
  10. Understand that busy people have to say ‘no’ much more often than ‘yes’, because there are limits to everyone’s time and energy – and be prepared to accept the answer ‘no’.

This post was inspired by the increasing number of inappropriate and/or badly handled approaches I receive. However, it is not intended to be entirely off-putting. If you have a reasonable request which you can communicate effectively, I would be happy to hear from you.

[This post struck quite the chord and led to some follow-on posts: one on the art of the “cold-call” email from the Thesis Whisperer, one on asking to share from the Research Whisperer, and one on the care in requests from the Wellbeing Whisperer.]

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons.  It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $86 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more that $86 – you can help!  Ongoing  support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Academic Journal Article Comic

I am delighted to be able to tell you that I have written an academic journal article in comic form. Even better: it is open access until 31 August 2021.

This came about at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF) in 2018. LICAF runs over a weekend in mid-October and during the day on the Friday they hold the Academic Sessions, a day for academics who study, make, and use comics in their work. This is always great fun and very thought-provoking too. (I don’t know whether it will happen this year – there is nothing about it on the website at present, so I asked on Twitter, but they didn’t reply.)

Anyway, two colleagues from Perth, Australia, often come over for LICAF. They are Bruce Mutard, comics maker and doctoral student, and Stuart Medley, arts and design professor at Edith Cowan University. We had met before, then at LICAF 2018 we were all producing conference records: me by live-tweeting, and Bruce and Stuart in comic sketch form. In the bar at the end of the day, where good ideas are often hatched, we were reflecting on the process together, and decided there was scope for a journal article.

The process took a while because of all our other commitments, the pandemic, and the publishing process itself. The article was eventually published on 27 May. It is called Is History Fiction? Conundrums In Graphic Representation. I got an email late that day to tell me I had 50 e-prints to give away, so I tweeted the link that evening, and again the following morning. By lunchtime I heard that they had all gone – within 16 hours of my first tweet, which is fairly amazing in itself. I tweeted about that too, and the lovely Becky Guest from Routledge, who has awesome powers, saw the tweet and decided to make the article open access for the next three months.

One thing Bruce, Stuart and I had been a little apprehensive about was the peer review process, because minor revisions to an article in comic form can mean a major amount of work. This has been discussed quite extensively at the academic sessions. With a text article, if a reviewer points out something the authors have missed, and suggests they add a sentence or two, implementing that is straightforward. With a comic, it might mean adding a new character who would have to be drawn from scratch, or one or more new panels which would affect the layout and page count as well as requiring more time-consuming drawing. So amendments to a comic can be much more complex than amendments to text.

As luck would have it, our reviewers were unanimously positive. Let me share my favourite quote:

“I like how the comic betrays readerly expectations: that is to say that the creators lead you to believe you’re embarking upon a conference review, but then the comic shifts focus and starts reflecting upon the justifications of why comics form is great for capturing/reporting on events (like conferences). The comic has a real sense of fun.”

Regular readers will know I frequently argue for a bigger role for fun in scholarship. It’s lovely to be able to put my money where my mouth is. Not that any actual money was involved in this endeavour – so, as always, thanks to my patrons who support me in producing this kind of work.

Please download, read, and share our article widely.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons.  It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $86 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more that $86 – you can help!  Ongoing  support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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 And The Internet

I have always been quite careful about acting, and interacting, online. Where I have to log into a site, I only ever do that using my email address and a password, I never select options such as ‘log in with Google’ or ‘log in with Facebook’. Twenty years ago I used the same password for everything; now I have a different password for each online account or website. I have never given my phone number to any social media platform. I have very few apps on my phone and have never paid for anything using my phone. I never enable the ‘location’ function on my phone, and I have never installed a QR reader or scanned a QR code. For many years I have used Mozilla products Thunderbird for email and Firefox for web browsing (although I do have Chrome installed for when a site doesn’t work in Firefox) and for a few years now I have used duckduckgo for web browsing, because they don’t track you, rather than Google.

This is because I don’t trust the internet. Or technology more broadly. My friends laugh at my old-fashioned paper maps and printed travel tickets, but I prefer them because they never malfunction and the batteries don’t run out.

Although I don’t trust technology or the internet, I do value them highly. I am writing this on my beloved laptop and will publish it on the internet for you to read. I enjoy social networking online and all the convenience and pleasure the internet offers in modern life. I am also aware that it comes at a higher cost than most of us realise.

This has been studied in depth by Carissa Véliz, whose book Privacy Is Power demystifies the data economy by explaining how much data is collected on each of us through our interactions with and on the internet. It is a lot more than you think. Data being shared about you includes highly personal information about how well you sleep, who you sleep with, how much you weigh, what you like to eat, whether you smoke or drink, what you buy – and more. Much MUCH more. That data is used to inform corporate decisions about whether to give you a job, or a loan, or a tenancy, or insurance. We have no idea which pieces of data about us inform those decisions, and no way to check if the data being used is even accurate.

Véliz says we didn’t realise what was happening, that it crept up on us because it is a new kind of power. We are used to some types of power – economic power, military power – but this was an indirect kind of power. Internet giants such as Google and Facebook sell access to their users and the ability to influence us through advertising. The services they offer are mostly free at the point of use, and they are also enormously exploitative and potentially very harmful. We didn’t have much choice about being drawn in, and even less so during the pandemic. But knowledge is also power, and finding out what is going on means we can make choices about how we use the options available to us.

Some people feel as if they have no choice. And indeed our choices may be constrained by all sorts of factors. But we all have some level of choice about which technological tools we use and how we use them. I haven’t used Facebook, in the conventional way, at all this year. I have logged on now and again, briefly, to find specific pieces of information I can’t find elsewhere. No checking on my ‘friends’, or participating in groups. And mostly I haven’t missed it. I logged on recently to find out about the dates for my local monthly market, and saw that it was the birthday of someone I had forgotten existed. Some of my real friends and colleagues are on Facebook, but a lot of interaction was along the lines of rather dutiful ‘likes’ of things I didn’t like, or wishing a happy birthday to people I don’t know.

I needed a new smartphone recently. I know my smartphone is a spy in my pocket, but at least I can leave it at home or in my hotel room if I choose – and sometimes I make that choice. I do not want any other personal or domestic electronic spies such as a fitness tracker, or an Alexa or equivalent, or a smart car, or home appliances operated by the internet. I can see the point but it feels, to me, like giving up too much control for what I get in return. The smartphone, though, is a different matter. So on my new phone I installed the few apps I like, one of which is Instagram. And I found, to my horror, that Instagram now only allows me to disable push notifications for a maximum of 8 hours. So to keep my phone free of push notifications, I had to interact with Instagram three times a day, or I would get irritating little pop-ups saying ‘Mizzlepoop, who you may know, is now on Instagram’.

I have uninstalled Instagram from my phone. I can still access it on my laptop, though of course I can’t post there. I may put it back on my phone, briefly, to make a final post. Or I may not.

I enjoyed Instagram. I liked it for keeping up with some of my real friends and family, and for learning more about what some marginalised people face. I learned a lot from following Indigenous people, people of colour, and trans people on Instagram, as well as from following people in different countries and continents. But I am not about to let a social network dictate what I can and can’t see on my own phone.

I have also started using Signal, and intend to move over there from WhatsApp at some point – I still want to use WhatsApp for a couple of things, but most of my messaging is now on Signal, and (thank goodness) I have always managed to avoid using WhatsApp for anything professional.

I want to do more. I now log out of Facebook and Instagram when I do check in on my laptop. I want to stop using Google Calendar and Google Docs – there are good alternatives, though I may have to persuade colleagues about the Docs one. I don’t think there is a sensible alternative to Google Scholar (if I’m wrong please tell me in the comments), but I want to reach the point where I can log off from Google and only log on when I need to use Google Scholar.

I may never be in control of all my own data, but I can certainly give less of it away. This helps to protect me against identity theft which can cause enormous problems. I can also use technological tools more safely, such as by using unique passwords and updating them regularly. This again helps to protect me against becoming a victim of crime. An article in the news only last weekend told of how a couple were accused of online child abuse because they hadn’t changed the password on their wi-fi router and someone had committed the crime by using their network. This caused multiple and lasting harms to the couple and probably to others too.

It is hard to educate ourselves about these things because they are both opaque and seductive. I am very grateful to Professor Véliz for her work.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons.  It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $86 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more that $86 – you can help!  Ongoing  support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!