Dance Your PhD

street-dancer-1756944_960_720The 11th annual Dance Your PhD contest is now open – closing date 14 January 2019. So if you’re studying for (or already have) a PhD in social science, chemistry, physics or biology, and you’re short of ideas for things to do over the holidays, why not dance your thesis?

I mention this contest in my creative research methods workshops and I’m always surprised by how many people haven’t heard about it. I rather enjoy watching their faces as I say “We’ll be doing interpretive dance this afternoon.” I’m joking, of course, but dance evidently does have a place in communicating science. Like many creative research methods, dance can engage your emotions and so aid retention of the messages conveyed. This also means dance is good for communicating across disciplinary and other boundaries. On the other hand, dance can only convey fairly simple messages, and usually needs to be contextualised through other modes of communication such as speech. Also, it is difficult to render in writing, though there have been valiant attempts such as by the autoethnographer and dancer Karen Barbour who used photographs alongside text to try to convey her experience. But then again, dance is dramatic, visual, entertaining, and memorable. These qualities make it an excellent vehicle for communication in some contexts, as the longevity of the Dance Your PhD contest suggests.

The contest was founded in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. In the first year there were 12 contestants; last year there were over 60. The first winner was Brian Stewart, a doctoral student of archaeology at Oxford University in the UK. You can see his winning dance here, and his prize was a one-year subscription to Science magazine. Today the contest is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Science magazine, and the next winner will receive $1,000 in cash (maybe more if the organisers can find extra sponsorship in time).

John Bohannon has given a TED talk about dance and science in which he says that dance really can make science easier to understand. And this is not a 21st century phenomenon. In 1971, the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University in the US used dance to convey the concept of protein synthesis. This can still be viewed on YouTube (the dance part starts at 3:10 if you want to go straight there) and it’s an interesting glimpse into a bygone era as well as being a quite impressive production.

Dances from the Dance Your PhD contest can also be viewed online: pre-2015 dances on Vimeo and more recent dances on YouTube. If you fancy having a go, you don’t need any dance experience or qualifications; there are tips available to help you. And if you do, please let me know so I can watch your dance!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $11 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons 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 Give Feedback On Academic Writing – Twelve Top Tips

feedback peopleA recent discussion on Facebook reminded me that I’ve written about how to deal with feedback from reviewers, but I haven’t written about how to give feedback to peers and colleagues. There is an art to this which I have learned, paradoxically, from receiving feedback, which taught me what helps and what does not help.

Feedback is a fairly neutral word but what we’re actually dealing with is criticism. Some people call it ‘critique’ to make it sound better but it’s still criticism. Criticism is not neutral and so it has lots of emotion attached.

In the last decade I joined a closed online short story writing group of around a dozen fiction writers. We all knew each other online through blogging and wanted to improve our writing. The idea was that we would each write and share a story once a fortnight. The stories were posted anonymously by one of the group – we took turns – and the others would give feedback. To begin with we only gave positive feedback until one of us pointed out that we weren’t going to get very far that way. We were a bit scared about being more critical, but gradually our feedback became more robust, with honesty about the elements of each story that didn’t work for us and why, as well as praise for the parts that did and suggestions for how to overcome weaknesses. We built up a lot of trust in that group and it helped us to give better feedback and so become better writers.

This experience taught me that trust is important to effective feedback. In the group we built trust over time. If you’re writing an anonymous peer review, you need to create trust all at once.

Another thing that is important is blending praise where possible, or at least advice, with your criticism. I had a review for the typescript of my last book which was entirely critical. Essentially, it said the book was rubbish and should never be published. The reviewer is entitled to their opinion, and I have been a writer for far too long to be upset by critical feedback, but the problem was that the review gave me no help at all. There was nothing in it which I could use to improve my writing. (Luckily I had two other reviewers at that stage who took a more balanced approach and did give me constructive criticism, advice, and some praise.)

So, from all my years of experience of receiving and giving feedback on writing in several genres, here are my twelve top tips for giving good quality feedback that others will trust.

  1. Be honest in all the feedback you give.
  2. Read the piece you’re giving feedback on carefully, thoroughly, at least twice.
  3. While you read, make notes of thoughts that occur to you. As a minimum, these should include: aspects of the work you think are good; where you think there is room for improvement; anything you don’t understand; references the author might find helpful.
  4. Be sure to praise the good points in the author’s work. This helps to build trust and also lets the author know what they can relax about.
  5. Be open about anything you don’t understand. Doing this worries some people because they think they may look stupid, particularly if they’re giving feedback to a peer or colleague rather than writing an anonymous review. But it’s really helpful feedback for writers because it may be that they haven’t written clearly enough.
  6. Give a straightforward assessment of areas where you think there is room for improvement.
  7. Tell the author how you think they can improve their work. This is crucial. If you’re only saying where improvement is needed, you’re only doing half the job.
  8. Where relevant, suggest references the author has missed.
  9. If you think extra references would be helpful but nothing specific springs to mind, have a quick look on a website such as Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals and see if you can find something to point the author towards.
  10. Don’t worry if you can only offer a certain amount of help because of the limits to your own knowledge. It’s fine to say, for example, that a quick online search suggests there is more relevant literature in the area of X; you’re not certain because X lies outside your own areas of interest but you think it would be worth the author taking a look.
  11. Acknowledge the author’s emotions. For example, after giving quite critical feedback, you might say something like, “I realise that implementing my suggestions will involve a fair amount of extra work and this may seem discouraging. I hope you won’t be put off because I do think you have a solid basis here and you are evidently capable of producing an excellent piece of writing.” (Though remember #1 above and don’t say this if it’s not true.)
  12. Be polite throughout, even if your review is anonymous. Anonymity is not an excuse for rudeness.

If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add it in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think four of my blog posts are worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to give financial support at this time, 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!

Independent Research, Writing, and Financial Reality

money twenty pound notesEvery so often I post about how much money I make. As I’m just finishing my 2017-18 accounts, it seems a good time to update this.

I have written before about the difficulties the recession caused to my business and the bumpy road back to reasonable prosperity. In 2017-18 I invoiced for £34,338.54 of business, a bit down on the 2016-17 figure of £39,939 though that was partly because I took on a sizeable contract in the spring of 2018 but didn’t receive my first payment instalment until after my year end on 31.7.18.

The amount I invoice for is representative of the amount of work I do, not the amount of money I have in my pockets. In 2016-17 my post-tax profit was £14,057 – and I was able to pay myself a bit more than that because I’d had an even better year in 2015-16, as reported in my earlier post. In fact, 2015-16 was by far the best year of the last 8 years.

So it’s still bumpy, but the bumps are evening out, and I’m beginning to feel that I’m back on my financial feet (except when I think about my pension plans, eek, must do something about that). It helps that my mortgage is paid off, I’m happily child-free, and I don’t have expensive tastes. Also, I have plenty of work scheduled in for early 2018. For the first time in eight years, I don’t feel as if I should spend every spare moment trying to generate work.

Also, my research business doesn’t represent the whole of my income. There is also the income I derive from writing, which in 2017-18 was royalties of £1,663.70 from my trade published books and £306.25 from my self-published books, plus £268.64 from the wonderful ALCS. That’s a total of £2,238.59 for the year – though again there were outgoings to set against that: memberships of the Society of Authors and the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, royalties to Nathan Ryder who co-authored Self-Publishing for Academics, and all the books I bought. Altogether that comes to £593.48 and brings down my writing-related income to £1,645.11. Which is enough to pay for a month of writing time. I have to look at it that way, and not think in terms of an hourly rate, or I’d never write another word… if I wasn’t a writing addict.

Writing income is bumpy too. As my trade royalties arrive annually in October, I already know that they are lower in 2018-19 (£947.46) and I don’t really understand why. But I have a new book out this month, and I’ll have two short books out next month in the new series I’m working on for SAGE, plus two more next July, and I’m also co-editing and writing for a new series for Routledge, and have three other book proposals in the pipeline. The SAGE and Routledge books come with small advances totalling £1,250 so far, so in this financial year I’ve already made more from those than from the royalties on my published books. I’m hopeful that perhaps by 2021 I’ll make enough to buy myself out for two months of writing time. At that rate it should only take another 30 years of work to be able to write full-time, so it doesn’t look as though I’ll achieve that dream, as I’ll be 87 in 2051!

Sometimes people think that because my day rates are comparatively high, I must be rich. In fact, my day rates don’t only cover a day’s work, they also cover holidays, sickness and bereavement leave, time spent on unpaid but essential work such as admin and accounts, travelling time, business expenses such as heat and light and IT equipment and accountants’ fees and so on, and of course tax to be paid.

There are independent researchers who make more money than me – I know of one who is registered for VAT, which suggests they turn over more than £85,000 per year, but they work very hard for that, travelling all around the world for most of the year. That may sound delightful and glamorous but I can assure you that travelling for work, while it does have lovely moments, is mostly about trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms and classrooms or meeting rooms. I like to work overseas, and could probably make more money if I did more of it, but once or twice a year is about right for me.

I think it is important to be open about how much money I make overall, not least because so many people ask me what it’s like to be an independent researcher. For me, it’s a terrific lifestyle, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. I’d say it’s probably as difficult as being an academic or practice-based researcher but the difficulties are in different places. If it’s an option you’re considering, you need to be as realistic as possible about the financial side.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think four or five of my blog posts are worth more than $11 in total – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons 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!

Engage Your Audience Beyond the Slides: 4 Ways to Add Creativity to Your Presentation Package

I’m delighted to offer you a guest post this week, by Echo Rivera, an expert on research presentation. She has some terrifically creative ideas and resources to share with you (and me!). My post this week is on Echo’s blog, and is about creativity and ethics in presentation. Here’s what Echo has to say:

Echo-Blog_thumbnailI’m so excited to be a guest contributor to Helen’s blog. I’ve learned a lot by reading her posts and love that she is helping folks be more creative in their research methods. I thought this would be a perfect place for me to talk about how to engage your audience beyond the use of your slides, so you can maximize your potential presentation impact. Specifically, I’ll be talking about how to add more creative elements to your presentation package.

1. Ask your audience questions

Ask yourself: during your last presentation, for how many minutes in a row did you talk at people? If your answer is longer than 7-10 minutes, then chances are they disengaged. We humans don’t really like to be talked to for too long because it can be overwhelming for the brain.

I’m sure there are gadgets and apps that are designed to get your audience engaged. Personally, however, I prefer no-tech or low-tech engagement approaches so that the tech doesn’t get in the way.

The easiest way to get your audience interacting with your presentation is to ask them questions every few minutes or so. They don’t even need to respond out loud–you could just ask them to think about their answer or write it down in their notes. It doesn’t add a lot of time to your presentations, and it keeps people interested.

You could also take this to the next step by having them respond in some way. A really effective way of your audience to engage is have then guess an answer before it’s revealed. For example, I’ll (a) pose a question should you use a default slide template?”, (b) ask them write down their guess on their handout and/or to share their answer (e.g., raising their hands, answering in the chat, shouting out loud), (c) add a dramatic pause, then (d) reveal the answer, no”. For those who are surprised by the answer, it will now be more memorable. For those who already knew the answer, it will validate and reinforce that knowledge.

2. Use engaging visuals

Okay so this is technically about your slides, so I’m kind of cheating here. But, a lot of the visuals I see in my clients’ or students’ presentations could use an extra boost of creativity.

BadSlide-Gears

Let me ask you this: When you need a photo for your slides, how often do you go to Unsplash (because you already know to not use Google Images, right?) and then type in the description of what you’re looking for–with terms like “STEM” or “Surveys” or “Researcher.”

If you’re like most academics, evaluators, or researchers then chances are that’s exactly what you do. And that’s exactly how you end up with Clip Art or really clichéd images that won’t resonate. I’m talking about those puzzle pieces, shaking hands, word clouds, and over-the-top cheesy smiles of business people. Your audience is not going to engage with those types of images.

So, another easy way to add more creativity is to start moving towards more modern, non-cheesy, photos and away from outdated Clip Art. Build up your visual database. Maybe even consider finding creative ways to make your own visuals, like what Ann K. Emery did with play-doh.

good-slide-gears

3. Create interactive or “gamified” handouts

I mentioned earlier that your handouts should not just be a printout of your slides. Instead, you should be creating custom handouts for your presentations. Don’t worry–it takes less time than you think because it’s very easy to copy slides or your speaker notes and paste them into Word.

When creating your handout, don’t hesitate to be creative! Add fill-in-blank sections so your audience needs to engage with your presentation by taking notes. To reduce anxiety and improve real-time cognitive processing, I often tell them I’ll provide the answer key after the presentation.

If you want to take the next step, then you could “gamifiy” the handout. Turn your presentation material into a crossword puzzle, word matching, or other types of games. This is a great way to formalize what I suggested earlier for asking your audience questions. Imagine if you created a handout where your audience had to guess the answers.

4. Create a data placemat

A data placement is an interactive handout times ten. The purpose is to engage your audience in interpreting and understanding the data, so it works for qualitative and quantitative projects.

“Data placemats display thematically grouped data designed to encourage stakeholder interaction with collected data and to promote the cocreation of meaning under the facilitative guidance of the evaluator.” (Pankaj & Emery, 2016, p. 81)

I encourage you to read the 2016 article by Veena Pankaj and Ann K. Emery which provides a helpful blueprint for how to create one and host a successful data placemat meeting. Then, be sure to check out this PDF which actually shows you their data placemat (and, as a bonus, beautiful data visualization examples). Finally, there is also a useful blog post about data placements, with some lessons learned and examples, on the American Evaluation Association 365 blog.  

Your Action Plan

These are all great ways to add more audience engagement and creativity into your presentations. Take a moment to review your last (or next) presentation and conduct an “engagement audit.” Start by adding some form of audience engagement at least every 10 minutes and updating your visuals to be more engaging and creative. Then, revise your handouts so they’re more engaging and memorable.

Just remember that it’s all part of a “presentation package,” which is my fancy way of reminding people that their presentation always involves multiple components: what you say (your speaker notes), what people see (your slides), and what people read or interact with (your handout). As a bonus tip, those three things should never be identical: your slides should not just be your speaker notes and your handout should not just be all your slides printed out.

EchoRivera-StarterKit-Mockup

If you’d like some bonus resources to help make your slides better, then check out my free Stellar Slides Starter Kit instant download. It includes my top 10 favorite presentation tips (illustrated by me), a presentation design workflow, and more!

About Echo

EchoRivera-Teal-CircleHi! I’m Dr. Echo Rivera, founder and owner of Creative Research Communications, LLC. I’m here to help you communicate your research and educational information more effectively and creatively. I have a PhD in Community Psychology and over a decade of research and evaluation experience. I moved on from my research & evaluation career to focus solely on helping others share their work more effectively. I’d love to connect with you on TwitterYouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

Professional Modes of Contact

DebrettsWhen I first learned about the world of work, around 35 years ago, professional etiquette was part of the curriculum. For example, if you directed a letter to a specific person, such as ‘Dear Professor Malik’, you ended the body of the letter with ‘yours sincerely’. If you used a generic direction – in those days almost always ‘Dear Sir(s)’ – you ended with ‘yours faithfully’. You could use an underlined subject line after the direction to indicate the topic, as we do now with emails. If you needed to write to a bishop, or an equerry, or the Queen, you could look in Debrett’s for the proper way to address them. There was a rule for everything.

Our ways of communicating for work are developing so fast that etiquette can’t catch up. I’ve seen earnest discussions online about email etiquette: when to sign off with ‘best wishes’ and when to use ‘kind regards’; whether it’s ever acceptable to use ‘wbw’ (short for ‘with best wishes’) or, even more daringly, nothing at all. Opinions always vary. Nobody knows whether it’s OK to address an email to someone using their given name if you haven’t met them face-to-face. Similar questions of etiquette arise for WhatsApp groups (can you leave if it’s a work-based group?), Skype conversations (when is it OK to use the instant messaging feature?), and so on.

Then there’s the question of when it is, or isn’t, OK to make contact at all – which is rarely asked. Given that everyone seems to be suffering from inbox bloat, as well as having to juggle private messages on a range of social media platforms, I think this is an important conversation to have. One of the downsides of being perceived as a successful independent researcher is that I receive an increasing number of inappropriate initial contacts, often from students who want me to do their work for them. It’s reaching the point where I struggle to respond to them all – and I’m a compulsive communicator who types at over 90 wpm, so if I’m having trouble, I guess others may be even more so.

This problem is exacerbated by the sheer number of ways in which people can make contact with each other online. It seems every social media platform enables messaging. I get personal messages via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Google Hangouts… maybe I also get them on Pinterest and Medium and Tumblr and other platforms I joined but rarely use. Then clients often want me to use specific platforms such as the loathsome SharePoint, or Slack, or b2drop, or they give me an email address at their organisation, and I’m supposed to check all of these several times a day in case a message has arrived. It’s a nightmare!

Facebook is a particular problem because I’m not signed up to Messenger. I was a bit suspicious of Facebook from the start. I gave it minimal information about me and I never used it to play games, or for apps, or to sign in to other websites. I don’t click on ads (though I know they’re the reason I can use the platform for free) and the reason I didn’t sign up to Messenger is because I had to give my phone number, which I wasn’t willing to do. As a result I don’t get the junk messages people complain about, or the historical reminders (which I would really hate), or any of the other FB-related hassle. But there are downsides too. One academic colleague was quite put out with me recently because I hadn’t replied to a private message she’d sent me on Facebook; of course she didn’t know I wouldn’t have seen it, because Messenger doesn’t give users that information. I know other academics who seem to prefer to communicate about work via direct messages on Twitter. I HATE THIS. Surely email is best for professional communication? It’s searchable, you can back it up… I lose messages on other platforms. I don’t mind them for a quick question or comment, but for anything involving actual arrangements, I need to use email because I make so many arrangements with so many different people that it’s really easy to lose track.

It seems we’ve reached a point where everyone prefers different modes of communication – and there are so many available that there is no longer a professional norm or standard. Perhaps it’s OK to contact anyone, at any time, through any medium, to ask for anything we want. In one way that’s a kind of freedom. But when you’re on the receiving end, it can feel like another kind of shackle. Is this really how we want our professional lives to be?

 

Book Launch And Reviews

Research ethics in the real world [FC]My book launch was yesterday afternoon, and it was a peak experience – I’ve written about these before; they don’t come along often. I gave a free seminar on research ethics at City University in London, which was well received, and my lovely publisher kindly put on a wine reception afterwards. It was an amazing night with friends old and new making up an attentive audience who asked insightful questions. I had so much fun I forgot to take any photos!

I am absolutely amazed that, just a week after publication, this book already has two five-star reviews online. That is unprecedented in my experience. And no, they’re not by people I’ve paid to write them, or by my Mum – they’re by genuine readers. One review is on Amazon and says ‘New researchers and seasoned academics can learn much’ from the book, and also describes it as ‘an enjoyable read’ (that was my favourite part!). The other is on Goodreads and describes the book as ‘an invaluable resource for the researcher’.

Of course these are very pleasing reviews, but that’s not all they are. The time between publication and first reviews is always quite nerve-racking for an author. I know that aspects of this book are controversial. Some of the typescript reviews were very negative, and I’m not expecting all of the book reviews to be positive either. So it is a huge relief to me that the first reviews, at least, are favourable.

My book is properly out in the world now and I’ll stop banging on about it after this – but honestly it has dominated my life for the last couple of weeks and I really haven’t had anything else to write about! Normal service, as they say, will be resumed next week.

 

Ethics, ethics, ethics

Research ethics in the real world [FC]So it’s publication this week, launch next week – places still available if you want to come, it’s free and there will be WINE. This is always a very busy time and the everyday work doesn’t stop to make space. I’m currently working on the next book for Sage and on one I’m co-authoring for Routledge – more about that later. I am also preparing for a busy November: teaching in Birmingham and Southampton, helping to facilitate events in Brussels and Sheffield, attending an event in Leeds, and two trips to London as well. And I have preparation to do for my book launch a week tomorrow.

This means I have no time to write posts for this blog! Luckily I’ve written several for other people. The Research Whisperer published the first of them yesterday, on The Ethics of Conference Speakers. I’d encourage you to head over there and read it, and while you’re there why not have a look around and give them a follow? The scholars who run the blog publish lots of useful posts, and they’re lovely people, too.

Little Quick Fixes for Research

Little Quick Fix logoBack in May, I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by a research methods editor from SAGE Publishing, Mila Steele, who asked me to write books for their new Little Quick Fix series on research methods. I had met Mila several times at conferences and other events, and we’d had some good chats, but her email came quite out of the blue.

The series is a new departure for SAGE. It’s also a new departure for me, as the books are intended for undergraduates and I’ve only written for postgraduates before (though some enterprising third-year undergraduates have used, and kindly given me good feedback on, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide). There are two other authors currently writing for the series: Zina O’Leary, who is covering the project management side of things, and John MacInnes, who is writing on statistics. Mila wanted me to focus on data, and we agreed that I would start with two books: Do Your Interviews and Write A Questionnaire.

The books are short, pocket-sized, colourful, and interactive. They have a template for consistency, but there is also scope for varying that template as needed. There is no peer review; instead, authors work closely with their editor. In one way this is a joy, though in another way it has caused me problems because I don’t work with undergraduates myself. Luckily I have a colleague/friend who teaches interviewing to undergraduates and was willing to let me pick her brains over lunch. Twitter helped me find another contact who teaches questionnaires to undergraduates and, as she was in Australia, Skype allowed us to speak. I was grateful to both people for alerting me to important points I might otherwise have missed.

Before these, the last book I wrote was Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives which took three-and-a-quarter years to complete. So it was a joy to find that I could write a Little Quick Fix book in just a few weeks. They’re not easy, though, because – as anyone who has written for an academic journal knows – ‘easy’ and ‘short’ are not the same thing. Each of these little books is like a puzzle. The text has to be both distilled and accessible; there are strict word counts for different sections; you need to cover the same ground three ways – in under 25, 130 and 600 words – without being repetitive. And then you have to devise interactive exercises to reinforce and embed the points you’ve made. Plus, with the first two, the timescales were tight. SAGE approached me in May, I signed a contract in June, delivered Do Your Interviews in July, Write A Questionnaire in August, they went into production in September and will be published in December. That is a blisteringly fast schedule by traditional publishing standards.

The really good news, from my point of view, is that SAGE has a design team who are doing a proper professional job on the books’ covers and contents. Look at my covers! Aren’t they lovely?

Do Your Interviews coverWrite A Questionnaire cover

I can’t wait to see the contents.

While I was writing, I made some design suggestions, and it will be interesting to see which the team take up and which they ignore or change. Design is not my strong point, to say the least. I can’t bear to show you the flow chart I cobbled together in Word which I could only be proud of if I was five years old. But I have seen these designers’ outputs and I know they are going to make my work look good.

I am also pleased that the books will be very accessibly priced at £6.99, US$9.50, and equivalent prices around the world. Perhaps the best news of all is that I have now contracted to write two more books in the series: Use Your Interview Data and Use Your Questionnaire Data. Plus these have much more relaxed timescales; the first is due by 1 December and the second by 25 February, for publication next July. I love my life!

Researching Research Ethics

Research ethics in the real world [FC]I have written on this blog before about my book launch which is now only four weeks away (or less, if you’re reading this after 11 October). It’s a free event and you’re welcome to come along if you’re in London that day; details here. Copies of the book itself should arrive in the next 2-3 weeks. Exciting times!

I’ve written this week’s blog post on SAGE MethodSpace, talking about the research I did into research ethics around the world as background for writing the book. Head on over and have a read, and please feel free to leave a comment there or here.

Ethical Principles for Independent Researchers – Part Two

ethicsLast week I posted the first five principles of independent research work. This post contains principles 6-10.

  1. Behave professionally at all times

Be polite, turn up on time, maintain confidentiality. Don’t drink alcohol on clients’ time or have affairs with clients. This should really go without saying, but clients can sometimes treat you quite informally, arrange meetings in cafes or pubs, and then boundaries can easily become blurred. If you behave professionally at all times, you can’t go wrong.

  1. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it

This is the core of ethical practice as an independent researcher. Don’t make promises you can’t keep; always keep your promises unless the circumstances are exceptional.

  1. Communicate effectively

Find out how your client prefers to communicate and communicate that way. Most people like to use email but there are a lot of other options. If they want to use some kind of software platform you’ve never heard of, be upfront about that (as per (1) above) and give it a try if you can. If it’s going to cost you money and you wouldn’t be using it otherwise, it is legitimate to ask the client to cover the cost. If they prefer to work by phone or VOIP (Skype, Google Hangout etc), then work that way with them even if you hate it. You can always follow up with the key points in an email, to avoid misunderstanding and provide a record – in fact, I would suggest you do.

The most important times to communicate effectively are when you can’t manage (7) above due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness or bereavement. A couple of years ago I experienced the sudden death of a family member in their 40s. The news came in the early evening, and my only appointment for the next day was a mid-morning phone call with a client. I texted him to explain what had happened and said I was very sorry but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make the call as I didn’t know quite how the next day would pan out, but I would be available if I could. He texted back straight away with such a kind message, saying firmly that we would not speak the next day, I should let him know in a few days if I had time to talk, and in the meantime he would handle everything with our project and I should not worry about it at all. In retrospect his message was rather more professional than mine, but then I was in deep shock. Yet it’s evident that even at such times, managing my client work was a top priority for me.

  1. Know your place

Your role is a support role. Yes, you are the expert in some areas; yes, you may be asked to lead a project. But you are and will always be peripheral to the organisations and the people you work with. You are dispensable. Commissioners of research are fickle for some very good reasons: their roles, circumstances, budgets etc can and do change frequently, and so, accordingly, do their priorities. A client may truly love you for a while, but don’t expect that to last. When necessary, bow out gracefully, with appreciation for the benefits you have received from the relationship rather than resentment of something you feel you should have received. Your ego does not belong in this work.

  1. Remember that everyone’s an expert

Your expertise is valuable, but it is no more valuable than the expertise of others, including research participants. For example, if your participants are homeless people, they are experts in lived homelessness, and probably in other things too – they may have professional backgrounds themselves. And the professionals you deal with may have useful personal expertise to bring to the research. I recommend treating people as whole human beings, rather than solely in the role they initially present to you. You will learn more that way and the people you encounter will have a better time too.

Now you know all ten ethical principles of independent research work. At least, the ones I’ve come up with. There is probably something I’ve missed. If you know what it is, please contribute in the comments below.