Ethics Codes and Guidelines

Last month I was involved in the final review meeting for the PRO-RES project. This is a project funded by the European Commission to create an ethics framework for all non-medical researchers. I worked on this project from 2018–2021: I have written about the experience here, and about some of the resources we created and curated here.

One key resource is a collection of research ethics codes and guidelines. We also conducted five case studies of very different approaches to developing and implementing codes and guidelines. These were from:

The International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)

The United Kingdom Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in the UK (ARMA)

The Social Research Association (SRA)

The Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

The Croatian Agency for Personal Data Protection

INGSA has around 6000 members from more than 100 countries, and they are not just government science advisors (as the name suggests) but a much wider group. INGSA acts as an informal network of key actors who help to build evidence and provide advice for policy-makers. It works to ensure that the evidence used by its members is scientifically robust and ethically sound. Its global and transdisciplinary work is too complex and multi-faceted to be managed through a written ethics code or guideline. Instead, it focuses on training advisors to identify robust and ethical evidence.

UKRIO and ARMA worked together to create a common framework for ethics support and review for UK universities and other research organisations. The aim was to support best practice and common standards, and the framework was co-produced by ethicists, research ethics committee chairs, and representatives of universities, research funders and learned societies. The framework was published in 2020, is explicit and detailed, and is freely available online. It is now being used by many universities and research organisations.

The SRA has recently updated its ethical guidelines, which are widely used by researchers from a range of sectors. The SRA is a small charity run by volunteers, and the update was also done by volunteers, which meant it took quite a long time. The pandemic slowed the process even more. In retrospect, they would have benefited from paying someone to do the initial drafting with input from a group of volunteers. They considered looking for another organisation’s guidelines to adopt, but decided that could be just as difficult and might prove impossible. So they pressed on and finished the job. The guidelines were published in early 2021 and are freely available online.

The Estonian case study researched the process leading to, and following, the signing of the national Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2017. The process of developing and signing the code took 18 months and involved universities and research organisations, plus consultations with partners from research and development institutions and with the wider public. After the code was signed, the process of implementation began, with debates around committees for research integrity and different universities applying the code in different ways. The Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science are reorganising relevant legislation to align with the code, and monitoring its implementation.

The Croatian case study focused on personal data protection in academic and research institutions throughout the country, before and after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. The number of reported personal data breaches in Croatia increased dramatically after the implementation of GDPR, but very few of these related to research. Hundreds of data protection officers across Croatia were found to have little knowledge of personal data protection or its relationship with ethics. Ethical issues around personal data protection were also found to be problematic at EU level. Each of these aspects of the case study were written up in open access journal articles.

These case studies may seem quite disparate but, collectively, they offer some useful lessons. First, when creating frameworks for ethics and integrity in research, there is a clear need to balance ethical ideals with what is possible in practice. Second, being prescriptive is not possible because of the constant changes to research contexts and wider society. Third, delegating responsibility for ethics to a specialised team such as a research ethics committee leads to compliance, not engagement. (I have written more about this elsewhere.) Fourth, sanctions and incentives can help to deepen commitment, but are only appropriate for some discrete elements of research ethics such as GDPR.

I also found it interesting to observe the discussions during the PRO-RES project. I learned that a number of ethicists yearn for a common ethics guide or code: ‘one code to rule them all, one code to bind them,’ as I sometimes enjoyed misquoting. I also learned that institutions, organisations, nations and other groups feel a strong need to develop their own code, with nuances and emphases that reflect their own ethos and vision. The PRO-RES project initially aimed to create a common framework for all non-medical researchers. And indeed it has done so, though how widely the framework will be taken up and used remains to be seen.

A central part of the framework is the PRO-RES Accord, a concise statement of ethical principles which was widely consulted on during the PRO-RES project. Over 1000 people, across Europe and beyond, gave feedback on draft versions before the accord was finalised. Signing the accord means you agree to abide by its principles; endorsing the accord means you commend its principles and will strive to promote them. Anyone can download, sign, and/or endorse the accord, either as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Perhaps you would like to do so yourself.

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!

Asset-Based Research

For me, one of the greatest developments in research methods so far this century is the genesis and expansion of asset-based research.

Up to the end of the last century, research was almost entirely based on deficits. What we studied were problems, lacks, difficulties, deficiencies, gaps. This is understandable: people generally do research to try to improve matters, so starting with something that needs improvement makes sense. However, we were missing a big trick.

Around the turn of the century, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi founded the positive psychology movement. Before then psychologists had exclusively studied topics such as memory loss, criminal and deviant behaviour, attachment disorders, psychopathology and the like. The positive psychology movement chose to study topics such as happiness, resilience, well-being and so on, to find out what we can learn from people who are flourishing and how we might be able to extend some of that to others.

Organisational researchers David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva were taking a similar approach. They developed the method of Appreciative Inquiry which begins by looking at what an organisation does well and is proud of, and then considers how it can improve in the light of its successes. And researchers from various disciplines around the world have been drawing on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to consider what Indigenous and other marginalised people can and do contribute to their communities.

Asset-based research is also beginning to be used in other fields, including Autism research. I am proud to have made a small contribution to this process myself, through a journal article Aimee Grant and I wrote which was published in Contemporary Social Science last month. The article is called Considering the Autistic advantage in qualitative research: the strengths of Autistic researchers. Much Autism-related research has been conducted by neurotypical people based on a view of Autistic people as deficient. By contrast, in our article, Aimee and I demonstrate that Autistic people like us have a lot to offer to qualitative research teams. We have also formulated some guidance, for teams with a mix of neurotypical and neurodiverse people, to facilitate effective inclusive working.

I am delighted to say the article is open access so you can all read it! I am also delighted that it has generated a lot of interest, with over 2,500 views in its first three weeks. And I feel proud to have been able to make this contribution within nine months of my own Autism diagnosis. Though I should acknowledge that I couldn’t have done it without Aimee, who was an excellent collaborator. Also, we had fantastic support from the journal editors and the anonymous reviewers. If you are looking for a home for an article on researcher experiences and research methods, or would like to propose a special issue, I would encourage you to consider Contemporary Social Science. It is the journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, of which I am a Fellow, but you don’t need any links to the Academy to submit work to the journal. They publish four issues a year, of which only one is open access at present, but that may change in time.

Anyway, if you find our article helpful or interesting – or disagree with the points we make, because all reasoned debate is useful – then please let us know, either here in the comments or over on Twitter.

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 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!

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!

Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #4

I have written three previous posts on ‘getting creative with your thesis or dissertation’. Today I am featuring a doctoral dissertation from the US focusing on hip-hop which is presented in rap, a European geography doctoral thesis on how to live ethically in cities, and a Canadian education masters’ thesis presented as a comic.

A.D.Carson is a rap artist and a scholar of hip-hop who did his PhD at Clemson University in South Carolina, US. Clemson has an innovative cross-cultural, transdisciplinary PhD program in rhetorics, communication and information design. Carson joined the program to investigate whether certain voices are treated differently, such as whether an identifiably black voice might be regarded as authentic, or ignored, or accepted as scholarly. It didn’t make sense to Carson to write about this when he could present an actual voice. So he created his PhD dissertation as 34 rap songs and called it Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions. Carson is respectful of hip-hop scholars who listen to and write about hip-hop, rather than creating music. He also thinks there should be a place for scholars who want to rap their scholarship, to present their work through the medium of hip-hop. This is, if you will excuse the pun, music to my ears. Carson has put a short introduction to his doctoral work on YouTube and it is well worth viewing if you are interested – or you can listen to his entire thesis. He is now Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop at the University of Virginia.

Elona Hoover did her PhD at the University of Brighton in the UK. Brighton has a Centre for Research in Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, which offers interdisciplinary research for environmentally and socially just societies. She investigated ways of living ethically in hard concrete urban environments. Hoover produced a written and audio thesis with a variety of creative elements. She makes use of several different fonts, such as a hand-writing style font for text taken directly from her field notes, and a typewriter font to distinguish notes for the reader. The written thesis has a companion soundtrack composed from her 143 field recordings. Some tracks are to be listened to with full attention, others are to accompany the reading of parts of the written thesis. She uses poetic writing, improvisation, and music-making as both practices and themes in her thesis, and also uses photographs to illustrate her work. Overall, Hoover aims to ‘take seriously the different kinds of knowledges that might be generated through diverse creative practices and sensory engagements’ (p.114).

I think it is interesting that Carson and Hoover both did their PhDs in transdisciplinary spaces. The boundaries and overlaps between disciplines often promote creativity. There is also, though, considerable scope for creativity within disciplines, as our third example shows. And at different levels, too – for the first time in this series of blog posts, I am including a masters’ thesis (as they are called in the US and Canada).

Meghan Parker studied art at masters’ level at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. As she is a high school art teacher, it made sense for her to focus on the teaching of art in her masters’ thesis. An accomplished visual artist herself, Parker chose to draw some of her assignments, and ended up producing a 236-page graphic novel called Art Teacher in Process: An Illustrated Exploration of Art, Education and What Matters. She told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that it is ‘about why visual literacy is important, why art education is important, why the arts are important’, and it also has a strong ethnographic element. Like Carson, she questioned why a thesis has to be written in words on paper. Evidently, it doesn’t!

All three of these scholars have produced research outputs which are enjoyable and accessible to people outside their academic fields. Meghan Parker has now turned her masters’ thesis into a book, Teaching Artfully, which was published this month and which I would recommend. There is much to learn from these examples, not only for people who might want to take similarly big strides, but also for others who may want to take lower-level, but just as creative, approaches in their 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!

The Personal Is Empirical

Human beings are natural researchers: exploring, seeking and comparing data, testing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. We do this all our lives. One of our first research methods, when we are only a few months old, is to put everything in our mouths. By the time we are a few years old we are asking incessant questions. We are programmed to investigate. As we get older, our methods get more sophisticated – and if we train as a professional researcher, they become more systematic, too.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

Autoethnographers know this already. For a generation now autoethnographers have been ‘utilizing personal stories for scholarly purposes’ (Chang 2008:10). Some have put too much emphasis on the personal stories and not enough on the scholarly purposes, leading to accusations of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, and irrelevance. More, though, have worked to link their personal experience with other data and wider narratives, theory, evidence, policy, and practice, in a systematic and rigorous way.

Embodied researchers also know that the personal is empirical. They focus on the physical, sensory dimensions of experience, as part of the data they collect. This subverts the conventional view of scholarly work as entirely cerebral – or, as the embodied researchers would have it, ‘disembodied research’. Embodied research is also open to accusations of self-interest and irrelevance. Yet embodied researchers point out that no research can in fact be disembodied. Even sitting still and thinking is a physical activity; the brain with which you think forms part of your body.

Other researchers draw on the personal in other ways. In my work on creative research methods, I have been astonished by the number of people who combine their artistic skills, or their writing talents, or their aptitude for making, or their technological savvy, or some other personal attribute with their research. This usually results in enrichment and often innovation, yet even now working in these ways can feel like swimming against the tide. The way we try to contain knowledge in silos, and reify specialisation, is not the norm in human history. It is not long since nobody thought it strange for someone to be both weaver and astronomer, doctor and poet, musician and engineer. Why have we forgotten that ‘the more diverse someone’s knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to identify and implement creative solutions to problems’? (Kara 2020:11).

Musing on all of this, I came up with the phrase ‘the personal is empirical’. I tried it out on a group of students last month and it went down well. Then, like a good scholar, I checked to see whether anyone else had used the phrase already. It was used by one US academic, most recently around 15 years ago. She was a feminist too and I guess for her, as for me, the generation of this phrase was influenced by the old feminist mantra that ‘the personal is political’. Nobody owned that phrase, and nobody owns this one either – you’re free to use it if you wish.

In fact, it would be great if you did. Because we need more people to understand that ‘knowledge is worth having, no matter where it originates’ (Kara 2020:11) – whether that is in the body, or someone’s wider life experience, or in a test tube, or an encounter with a book, or a conversation, or an animated film. As a species, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we have a plethora of problems to solve. We cannot afford to reject knowledge, or create hierarchies of knowledge; we need to value everyone’s expertise. And their experience. And experiments, and evidence, and theories – the whole lot. In fact, it is all empirical, but nobody will argue if you talk about empirical experiments or empirical evidence. The personal is empirical? That’s more provocative. So take this toy I have given you, my dear ones; take it and play!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – 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!

Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher

independence.jpgPeople often ask me how to become an independent researcher. Then they ask me how I became an independent researcher, which is a different question. The answer to the latter is no help to anyone as I became an independent researcher by accident. Here’s the short version of that story. In January 1999 I was asked to do a piece of research as a one-off. I agreed, did a reasonably good job, people got to hear about it and I was asked to do more. I realised I enjoyed the work, signed up for an MSc in Social Research Methods in September 1999, got my PhD in 2006, and never looked back.

For the first 10 years or so, almost all my clients were local and national governments, charities, and public sector partnerships. Then we had the change of government in 2010, swiftly followed by a recession, in which most of the people in my networks took early retirement or redundancy or were demoted back from management to direct service delivery roles. My company’s financial year runs from August to July, and 2011-12 was the worst; the company’s turnover was less than £11,000. I had to get a part-time job for two years from September 2011, but – with a huge amount of support from my partner – managed to keep my business afloat.

Over the last five years I have reinvented myself as someone who works with academia. I still work with clients from other sectors, but these days the bulk of my work comes from universities. This reinvention has involved a lot of writing – two books, several journal articles, a bunch of e-books, this blog, tens of thousands of tweets, more of all those in the pipeline – and a lot of networking. Luckily I’m good at, and enjoy, both networking and writing.

So that’s my story, but it’s mostly made up of accidents, and so is not a route anyone else can follow. However, I do have ten top tips for people who want to adopt the indie lifestyle.

  1. Be able and willing to live on less money than your employed contemporaries. The day rates can be high but you won’t get paid work for every day, and some weeks or months you will have no paid work at all. There are none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sickness pay, so you need to earn enough to cover those. Some years you will make more money than others, but the surplus from any good years needs to be put away to cushion you in the bad years, or you risk needing to give up being independent altogether. So if you crave luxury – perhaps even if you want, or have, children – the indie lifestyle is not for you.
  1. Be highly motivated. Some days you’ll have meetings, but much of the time there’s nothing to make you get out of bed but your own free will. Some people think that’s all there is to independent work: highly paid jobs for clients and a lot of time off. Thw6 is far from the case. You have to run your own business, which means doing your accounts (or earning enough to pay an accountant to do them for you, which still requires you to prepare a considerable amount of paperwork), marketing your services to help you gain further work, sorting out your own continuing professional development, and so on.
  1. Be very well organised. Sometimes you will have several client projects running at the same time, and you’ll need to keep on top of each of those, plus the needs of your own business. Even when you’re really busy with paid work, you should spend at least 10% of your time working on your business, making sure you keep up with your administration and marketing as a minimum.
  1. Networking is essential. You won’t have colleagues down the corridor who you can wander along to see for a chat when there’s something on your mind. At times you’ll need help and without a network you may have nobody to ask. Also, networking should be part of your marketing strategy, as it will help to bring you work. Network online as well as offline. Twitter is currently a very useful networking tool for researchers. I’ve had work from several sources that has come directly through Twitter, from people who have never met me in person.
  1. Keep up to date with developments in your field. When you’re employed this happens almost imperceptibly: you hear about new initiatives and legislation in meetings, relevant newsletters arrive in your inbox, organisational briefings ensure that nothing vital is missed. As an indie, you have to sign up for as much relevant free information as you can, decide what of the rest is worth paying for, and make time to read it all.
  1. Use your time productively. When work is thin on the ground it’s easy to fritter away hours, even days, surfing the internet or doing housework. When you’re busy it’s tempting to spend long hours at your computer, but it makes more sense to ‘work smart, not hard’. I have learned from experience that I can get more done working six to eight focused hours in a day than putting in 10-12 hour days. The workload is lumpy, though, and there are times when there is nothing for it but to work long hours. Try to keep those times to a minimum, and when necessary, organise your tasks so that you can do the easier, more routine work when you’re tired.
  1. Look after your health. This is a huge priority for those of us with no sick pay. Eat sensibly, get enough rest, take exercise. Make yourself have regular short breaks away from your desk even when you’re really busy. And be prepared to drag yourself out to work in physical, and emotional, states that would have an employed person reaching for the self-certification form. I have gone out to work for clients with sweat running down my back from a fever, immediately after hearing news of a bereavement, with a badly injured foot.
  1. Take proper breaks. I have at least one holiday a year, though the nature of those holidays depends on my finances: in the lean years, I might simply stay in the house of a family member or friend, while they’re away on holiday themselves, for a change of scene.
  1. Think at least twice before accepting unpaid work. Sometimes there are good reasons for volunteering. It might be a way of gaining valuable experience, or something you can give in exchange for something you want such as a conference place, or it may offer excellent networking opportunities. But when you are an indie researcher, time is your most valuable asset. People will ask you to do all sorts of things for free – even governments will – and you need to be sure that whatever you do will also benefit you in some way, and won’t take up too much of your precious time.
  1. Write for publication, even if you don’t plan to work with academia. Published writing looks great on your CV and is a marketing asset. What you write, and for whom, and where you publish your work, is for you to decide. But make it professionally relevant and write it well. Once you’ve got a piece in a newspaper, or produced a zine, or had an academic journal article accepted, shout about it all over social media and anywhere else that might help to increase your audience and networks.

If you’ve read all that and the prospect of becoming an indie researcher still excites you, then go for it, and good luck!

Travel Broadens The Mind

view from front door

View from the front door of the villa where we’re staying

I’m on holiday right now in Al Ain, the second city of Abu Dhabi, on the border with Oman. I have travelled in the Middle East before but I’ve never been to the Emirates. It’s a fascinating place, only officially defined as a country in 1971; before that it was populated mainly by nomadic Bedouin tribespeople.

The landscape is desert, arid and very hot – currently around 45 degrees at midday, dropping to 28 or 30 at night. It’s beautiful and deadly: few people could survive for long unaided unless they had learned the necessary skills. But then few people would have to survive unaided, because the people of this country, like most people in the Middle East, have a tremendous ethos of hospitality and care for visitors and strangers.

The culture here is very different from my own. There are three differences which have impressed themselves on my mind as having something to teach me about my professional life. These are they.

First, coffee. Coffee here is enormously symbolic. If you enter someone’s house, they are obliged to offer you coffee; if they don’t, it’s a serious insult. Equally, if you don’t accept the coffee offered by your host, that is a serious insult. However, there is a form of wording you can use to refuse their offer of coffee, which means, ‘We have a problem and we need to talk about it.’ Once that discussion has taken place, you can say you will accept their offer of coffee, which signifies that you regard the problem as resolved.

This made me think about the way coffee has become symbolic in academia. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve “been for a coffee with”, as a euphemism for chatting about anything from our respective projects to a potential or actual collaboration. I love going for coffee with clever, interesting people. And I don’t even drink coffee! Coffee gives me migraines – the antithesis of intelligent thought – but it’s still something I suggest to actual or potential colleagues. ‘Shall we meet for coffee?’ is so much easier to say than ‘Shall we meet for a, er, well, probably peppermint tea in my case, but most people have coffee, and there might be cake, anyway, it would give us time to chat about, er, well, what do you think?’

Second, gender. Abu Dhabi is a thoroughly patriarchal society. I am travelling with my male partner, and staying with our old friend, also male. In restaurants or cafes, they are always served first. In malls, I get funny looks – from women and from men – for walking with two men. I’m not surprised as all adults who are out in public are alone or in same-sex pairs or groups – and they’re mostly male. However, the concept of equality is not completely absent. For example, if a man takes two or more wives, he must treat them all equally, which in practice means building each of them a house that is identical in every respect to his other wives’ houses. So the concept is of equality within, rather than between, the genders. (And yes, I know gender isn’t binary – but they really haven’t caught on to that here, at all.) Part of me minds about this and part of me doesn’t. The first part is the Western feminist, the second part is the part that thinks it’s important to honour and respect different cultures. These two parts argue with each other, the first questioning the merit of honouring and respecting discriminatory cultures, the second standing up for the importance of honouring and respecting other cultures even if their priorities are different from my own. I doubt I will ever reconcile these opposing views within myself. Yet this experience is, I think, useful for my research work because it reflects many of the ethical dilemmas we meet as researchers, where there is more than one way to be ‘right’ and there is no easy answer.

Third, ethnicity. While I am experiencing daily micro-aggressions related to gender, I have not experienced a single one related to my ethnicity. (Yes, I know it’s not always possible to separate the two, so I may be mis-reading this. But I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve been here, and I’m fairly sure of my ground.) Beyond the gender-related discrimination described above, local people here, and migrant workers, all treat me as a human being who is worthy of respect. Even the men are unfailingly polite and welcoming. I grew up in a society that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity, and I know that affects my interactions with people. UAE society may also discriminate: the migrant workers here from countries such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, India and Pakistan, might tell those stories. But as a white Westerner, I feel safe here in this country of friendly hospitable people.

The UAE is full of Muslims, so many Brits would regard it as highly dangerous. But it is very peaceful. I have walked in streets, and mosques, and malls, and on beaches, populated mostly by Muslim people, and I have never once felt threatened or in danger. I feel safer here than I feel in London, my own capital city. And the UAE is friendly to migrant workers. Indeed, it needs to be: for example, in Dubai, only 15% of the population is indigenous, and most of the other 85% are migrant workers. There is acceptance, here, that non-indigenous people have a place in the social economy: to do the jobs that locals don’t have the skills for, or don’t wish to take on.

This experience makes me feel ashamed of my own country. The UK is depressingly hostile to people of different ethnicities and to economic migrants. Many of us can’t see how much our society could and does benefit from their input, or how much, in fact, we need their support. I have felt this for a long time, but my experience here in Abu Dhabi has reinforced my belief that it is possible for society to work with a much higher proportion of economic and other migrants than we have at present in the UK. This makes me think about how the research I do is culturally constructed. Growing up with the scientific tradition as a backdrop can lead us to conclude that our methods of investigation are neutral – but they’re not, they spring from our culture. We think findings produced by our favoured methods inform our decisions, while in fact these findings may be created, albeit unconsciously, to reinforce our ways of thinking. We need to bring this new understanding into our consciousness and use it to help us move from policy-based evidence (‘migrants and refugees will swamp us’ etc) towards evidence-based policy (‘migrants and refugees can help us economically, though there may be social costs’).

I have long believed that we need to make good decisions based on evidence rather than hearsay or fear, and my experience here in the Gulf has reinforced that belief.

Anyway, the three of us are off to Oman tomorrow, on a road trip for the next few days. So I won’t be around online much this week. I’ve never been to Oman, either. I look forward to having my mind broadened further.

Four weeks to go!

I am already very excited about the 8th of May 2015. Because, on that day, I will be at a conference on Creative Research Methods, run by the Social Research Association, at the British Library. And my next book will be launched there!

So why am I saying ‘four weeks to go’ when it’s clearly six months away? Because there is just one month to go to get your abstracts in, if you want to present your work at this conference and earn yourself a hefty discount on the cost in the process.

I’ll let you know when we’re open for registration – should be in the next week or two.

#Vitaehangout

I took part in a live online “hangout” on 23 October, for Vitae, an international programme dedicated to the professional development of postgraduate and early career researchers. I was part of a panel of doctoral researchers and PhD graduates discussing things we wish we’d known when we started out. It was great fun, with questions pouring in about how to be original, when to start writing, how to manage relationships with supervisors, how much data to collect – all the kinds of preoccupations of early-stage doctoral students. The panel had loads of ideas for ways to address these topics, and the time seemed to go past in a flash. We weren’t able to deal with all the questions during the panel, so the nice people at Vitae put the rest into a document and we’ve made some more suggestions there.

Find out more on the Vitae website, or just watch the video below: