The Ethics of Working with Literature

literatureAn earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA). The SRA now has a blog with topical peer-reviewed articles by and for researchers. They are also interested in contributions from readers so, if you fancy writing a guest post, you could give them a try. They even have a ‘secret researcher’ option for posting anonymously if you have something really controversial to say.

Researchers often use existing literature to set their research in context. ‘Literature’ is the academic term, referring to peer-reviewed scholarly work such as journal articles. Practice-based researchers may also contextualise their research, though more often with policy and project documents, in part because they are openly available. However, these distinctions are not so hard-and-fast these days. Academics increasingly recognise the value of ‘grey literature’, as they call relevant information that has not been through the peer review process. Practice-based researchers can read more and more academic literature, with the growth of open access, and through schemes such as the SRA’s member benefit of access to around 6,000 social science journals through EBSCO. Also, the definition of ‘literature’ has grown to include written phenomena and artefacts such as ephemera (leaflets, zines, etc), creative writing (novels, poems, and so on), and online writings such as blog posts and tweets.

When I ask people about the ethical issues of working with literature, they tend to look blank. So here are some pointers. First, define what you are using as literature, or background documents, and explain why you have chosen those types of material. This is important now that there is such a range of available literature: as with all decisions about research, you should be making well-informed choices for good reasons. Then make sure you know how well you can search that body of literature. For example, if you are searching online – as many people do these days – you need to understand the scope and limitations of the electronic tools you use. Google Scholar is many people’s go-to website for academic literature, but it doesn’t index everything, and its search function is far from neutral. The Directory of Open Access Journals indexes work from developing countries that does not find its way into Google Scholar. Even more work from developing countries can be found through the Journals Online project run by international research development charity INASP, which currently covers work from Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Even if your work focuses on a single country or locality, you may find relevant literature from far afield. You are not obliged to search everything; you simply need a clear rationale for your search.

You should record your search strategy – where you searched, terms you used to search on, dates of searches – so your readers can assess the effectiveness of your approach. Sadly, these days you will also need to check whether material you plan to cite is bona fide, as directories and repositories may still index and hold literature that has been retracted, or is a spoof that may not be instantly recognisable as such. This means researchers need to be on their guard, and make use of services such as Retraction Watch where possible.

Many search strategies will yield far more literature than any researcher, or team, can read. There are ethical dimensions to choosing what to focus on. Bias can creep in here: it is important to read literature representing a good spread of views and opinions, not only those you agree with. Then, when you have chosen what to read, it is ethically necessary to read that work carefully. Take the time to understand the arguments being presented and what they are based on. If you skim-read or cherry-pick, you risk misunderstanding the author’s argument, because you won’t understand their reasoning. Also, superficial reading doesn’t enable you to assess the quality of someone else’s work, so you won’t know how much weight to give it within your own research.

Then of course you need to cite others’ work correctly and not plagiarise or self-plagiarise. Having said that, self-plagiarism isn’t so much of a problem if you plan to self-publish, whether as an online pdf, e-book, or zine. However, if you plan to publish formally, self-plagiarism is unethical as publishers expect to publish original material.

Taking this kind of an ethical approach to working with literature shows respect to authors of the work on which our own work is based. Also, this approach helps to avoid the replication of errors, which in turn helps to raise standards in research.

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 $25 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $25 – 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!

Knowing When To Stop

stopSometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. That could be when you’re still having fun and you don’t want to stop even though it’s after midnight and you’ve got to be in work at 9. In my early 20s I could get away with that. In my mid-50s? No chance. The dark sides of not knowing when to stop are dependency and addiction. Then there are the mental ‘ought’s and ‘should’s. I ought to finish reading this book, that I’m not enjoying at all, because the author took so much trouble in its writing. I should keep working on this collaborative piece even though my collaborator hasn’t answered my emails in months.

There’s an art to knowing when to stop. My mother, who is prone to outbreaks of wisdom, explained to me the point of stopping while you’re still having fun. Because what’s the alternative? Keep going till you’re not having fun any more? If you do that, you’re unlikely to want to do whatever-it-was again. Whereas if you stop while you’re still having fun, you keep the magic.

The ‘ought’s and ‘should’s can bog off. There are so many books (and journal articles, and – ahem – blog posts, and so on) that if you’re not enjoying one, why take the time to read it to the end? You won’t have time in your whole life to read all the books (journal articles, blog posts etc) that you do enjoy. So blow it out. Read the last page/paragraph if you need to satisfy your curiosity, then toss it and find something that suits you better.

And as for collaborations that have gone belly-up… that can be hard, when you’ve put in a lot of work and you’re not far from the finish line. But recognising when you need to quit is an important survival skill because it protects you from throwing good time after bad.

There’s another way this can work, too, which is not so much knowing when to stop as recognising that you have stopped. This has happened to me with my New Year’s resolution (I know! July! Not bad, eh?). My resolution was to review a book a week; i.e. an academic book, and to publicise this and encourage others to join in. I said from the start that it didn’t actually have to be a book a week, and I followed my own guidance; I reviewed 14 books between 1 January and 7 June, 12 on Wordery/Amazon and two for the LSE blogs. I haven’t reviewed an academic book in the last couple of months, though I’ve read quite a few. I will continue to review academic and other books but I’m not going to plug it as a ‘thing’ any more.

This is partly because hardly anyone joined in. A few people said it was a great idea, and one or two did write reviews, but it was evidently an idea whose time has not come, or has passed, or will never exist. Conversely, the monthly creative methods chat that I started in June has taken off rather well. And of course the point of all these things is not only to be the thing in itself, but also to raise my profile. Sounds cynical, in a way – yet I’m running a business and I have books and skills to sell. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to sell them to everyone all the time; that would clearly be unrealistic. I aim to create initiatives which will be of value to people in themselves, because I think that’s the best way to do marketing. Not to shout GIVE ME WORK AND BUY MY BOOKS AND BE MY PATRON but to generate resources and opportunities for people, which may lead to some of those people choosing to put some work or money my way. Or not – there’s no obligation and I like it that way. But the return on investment for these initiatives is low. For example, there have been over 5,000 downloads of Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know and around 25 reviews worldwide, or one review for every 200 downloads. So evidently it’s sensible to invest time in the initiatives that increase my visibility rather than those that don’t, no matter how close they may be to my heart.

So bye bye, review a book a week. It was nice knowing you. And hello, #CRMethodsChat. You’re ace, and you happen on the second Tuesday of every month. Long may that continue.

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 $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – 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 Ways To Unstick Your Writing

stuckRegular readers know I have little time for the concept of writer’s block, where people allegedly find themselves unable to write for days, weeks, months, even years. However, I do understand that writers sometimes get stuck. This is a temporary affliction, but an annoying one, which can cost us valuable minutes or hours. So I thought it might be helpful to share ten strategies I have adopted and/or developed over the years to keep my writing flowing.

  1. Freewriting

This is a great technique that I always teach on doctoral writing courses. It has been around for a long time; for example, it was advocated by the American writer Dorothea Brande in the 1930s. There are several different approaches to freewriting. The method I find most useful is to formulate a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘I want to say…’ Then set a timer for five minutes, begin with the prompt and write without stopping. Don’t edit or revise. If you falter in your writing, write the prompt again – several times, if necessary – till your flow returns. At the end of five minutes you will probably find that you can write whatever you were stuck on, and you may also find that there is a useful nugget or two within the words you produced while freewriting. Even if you only have half an hour to write, it can be helpful to spend the first five minutes freewriting.

  1. Think-walk

Go for a walk, for at least 20 minutes if you can – longer if you prefer. Don’t listen to a podcast on this walk, use the time to think about your writing and your work. This think-walk can help you problem-solve.

  1. Do something repetitive

If the weather isn’t conducive to walking, or you need to stay home for a delivery or in your office for some other reason, find something repetitive to do. This could be tidying or cleaning or filing. Again, use the time to think about your writing and your work, to help you problem-solve.

  1. Use placeholders

My early drafts are full of phrases like WRITE MORE HERE and EXPLAIN THIS, usually in capitals and highlighted so I can find them easily. These placeholders show where I’ve got stuck – and they help me get unstuck, because they mean I can move on, knowing I’ll come back later and fix whatever needs fixing. I don’t know how it happens but when I do come back, I can almost always write whatever I was stuck on before.

  1. Start somewhere else

Sometimes people think that because reading is often linear, writing must be the same. Far from it. You can start writing anywhere you like. In fact, the easiest way to write is to write the easy parts first, the parts you feel like writing. And again, I don’t know how this happens, but once you’ve written those parts, the harder parts become easier. Novice writers usually don’t know this and may not believe it but honestly, I promise, try it and you’ll see.

  1. Permission to write rubbish

Perfectionism is a major cause of writers getting stuck. The highly successful novelist Elmore Leonard said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’ (Don’t @ me, I’m quoting!) Nobody writes well when they start work on a piece, but you need the rubbish as raw material to craft into good writing as you edit and polish later on. So give yourself permission to write rubbish – and then get on with it!

  1. Read

Reading in and around your topic is a great way to get unstuck. Other people’s work will help you generate ideas of your own. You may only need to read for a short time, or you may find you want to switch back and forth between reading and writing for a while.

  1. Change your writing method

If you usually write longhand, try writing on screen, or vice versa. If you always write longhand, try using a different pen or a different type or colour of paper. If you always write on screen, change the font size or colour and/or the background colour.

  1. Change your location

Generally for writers it is helpful to have a ‘writing place’ – or perhaps two or three – a particular space at home, a favoured café, a library desk. Some people can write pretty much anywhere, but most people have a location they prefer. If you’re stuck, though, it can be helpful to go somewhere else. You may not have to go far. If you like to work at home, you may be able to try a different room or an outdoor space. If you prefer café writing, try a different café. Or you may want a bigger change, in which case find somewhere you’ve never been before: perhaps a pub, or a community centre, or a park bench.

  1. Get creative

Try writing what you want to say as a poem, or a short story, or a scene from a play or a film. You don’t have to spend hours on this – you could set a time limit if you like. And it doesn’t have to be ‘good’ (whatever that is!). Nobody else ever needs to see what you write creatively, so allow yourself to be playful and see what happens.

I hope that if you are – or become – stuck with your writing, one or more of these strategies will be helpful for you. If you have any other strategies to share, please put them 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 $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – 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!

Collaborative Writing: Ten Top Tips

collaborative writingI last wrote about collaborative writing in February 2016 when I was having a crazy year of writing – much like this year. Since you ask, this year’s output is scheduled to be six books and five journal articles. Most of the books and journal articles are collaborations, and I’m also co-editing a book series. I love the variety: this year I’m collaborating with forensic scientists, education researchers, an anthropologist working in a sociology department, geographers, and comics professors. This enriches my professional life, as well as enabling me to produce far more work than I could do alone. (Though it is a bit hectic. I’m definitely planning to do less writing next year. But then I said that in 2016, too…)

I thought it might be useful to share some of the key things I’ve learned from collaborating across different disciplines and in different ways.

  1. You don’t need to be co-located to collaborate. I’m located in the UK. I’ve co-written a book with my good friend Janet Salmons who is based in the US, and the comics professors I’m working with are in Australia. Email and VOIP (Skype, Google Hangouts etc) make collaboration possible across distances and time zones.
  2. Collaborations of two are easier to manage than group collaborations – but group collaborations can result in richer outcomes.
  3. Regardless of how many people are in a collaboration, time spent figuring out how to work together is never wasted. If you don’t do this, you can end up in conflict, which is best avoided.
  4. In a group collaboration, such as to write a book or a professional document, it is sensible to agree on a format for each chapter or section before you start drafting. Different people may have very different ideas about structure. If you don’t agree on a format you risk ending up with chapters of very different lengths and structures which will leave you with a lot of work to do at the editing stage.
  5. To decide on hard deadlines such as publishing contracts, think about how long you’re likely to need then add some time for contingencies. With a collaboration there are more people in whose lives things can go wrong – and they do, and those people who are affected need time to deal with their difficulties.
  6. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your collaborative work, let your collaborator(s) know at the earliest opportunity.
  7. If you’re in several collaborations, find a way to keep track so you don’t inadvertently miss deadlines or otherwise fail to meet your obligations.
  8. Be willing to compromise and/or be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way, work alone.
  9. When your collaborators give you feedback on your work, accept it gracefully even if you don’t feel at all thankful. Always respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. In collaborative work your relationships are more important than being right.
  10. When you’ve finished: celebrate!

Do you have any tips to add? If so, please share them 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 $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – 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!

Don’t Get Off At Cliché Central

clicheI went to a meeting recently with some clients, lovely people doing really worthwhile work, and boy did they love a cliché. They were forever touching base, working across the piece, and moving the dial. There were any number of deep dives and light touches, and they were either sold on something or not feeling it. Learning had to be captured (poor thing) and change had to be embedded (though they never said into what).

By the end I was ready to prepare a bingo card for the next meeting. More seriously, though, I was getting a sense that these clichés had a couple of effects. One was positive and one was sinister. On the positive side, the common use of language was serving to create and build group identity. On the sinister side, clichés were so prevalent that they seemed to be reducing the space available for creative thought and discussion.

A cliché is initially a creative, original, sometimes even funny way of saying (or writing) something. It is so effective that it gets repeated a lot, and that is what turns it into a cliché. It stops being creative and original and starts being habitual, almost reflex, and can be stultifying in its effect on speech and prose.

Using clichés is lazy writing. Avoiding clichés requires more effort, more thought and care. Whatever you’re writing – job application, journal article, funding bid, doctoral thesis – aim for the specific. The initial impact of a cliché is lost through overuse, so it can seem quite vague, while particular details often seem interesting and fresh.

Take this short paragraph from a draft research proposal:

We will leave no stone unturned to ensure we get as many questionnaire responses as possible. Then it will be just a matter of time before we analyse the data and write the report. At the end of the day the research report will be fit for purpose.

Compare it with this version:

We will make every effort to maximise questionnaire responses. Our strategies will include: circulating the link by email and by social media; monitoring respondents’ locations regularly and targeting any identified geographical gaps; and offering a prize draw as an incentive. The questionnaire will be live online for one month, and it will take us another two weeks to analyse the data and write the draft report. We will write in plain English and the draft will be submitted for feedback which we will use to produce the final version.

The first version is stuffed with clichés and assertions and tells the reader nothing of substance. The second gives specific details, explaining how the researchers propose to achieve their aims.

It is really sensible to avoid clichés in your writing. Whatever you’re writing. What would you write in a condolence card? “I’m sorry for your loss”? “You are in my thoughts/prayers”? Don’t do that. Take a little time to think about the person who has died. Is there a memory you treasure that you could share in a few words? Perhaps an impact the person had on you that you could describe briefly and which will form part of their legacy? Whoever you are sending the card to will have dozens of others bearing standard clichés. Make the effort to send them something personal, real, authentic. It doesn’t have to be long, or take long, and it will mean a great deal more than platitudes.

One place you can get away with clichés is in titles, as with the title of this piece (which I could equally have called Colour Me Clichéd, or The Cliché At The End Of The Universe, or… you get the idea). But that’s about the only place you can use them in academic writing. So don’t!

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 $35 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $35 – 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 Check An Index

index checkingIn August 2012 I was eagerly awaiting publication of my first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (now in its second edition). I received an email asking me to check and give feedback on the attached draft index. I had absolutely no clue how to check an index. It looked like a credible index to me so I sent an email back saying thanks, it looks great, and hoped that would pass muster.

In May 2014 I was delighted to receive another email telling me that the book had been positively reviewed in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology. Although the review was indeed predominantly positive, the reviewer – as reviewers will – offered some criticism too. For example, she stated that, in contradiction to the book’s title, evaluation had only been mentioned once in its pages. Almost two years had passed since I’d worked on the manuscript and I began to doubt myself so I turned to my copy to check. I was reassured to find evaluation mentioned on many pages. But then I wondered, how could the reviewer have made such an error? The rest of her review suggested that she had read the book quite carefully. I turned to the index – and found that there was only one page number given for ‘evaluation’.

I could argue here that the reviewer should have been more careful, or that the indexer should have been more thorough. But actually I think it’s my fault because I didn’t know how to check an index. On the plus side, this is a useful cautionary tale which demonstrates that indexes are used by many people in many ways. This is something that indexers understand, though they are not infallible and will never know a book as well as its author – which is why authors are asked to check indexes. But nobody ever explains how to check an index. So I’m going to try to do just that. I’m still no expert, but I have learned some points I can share.

There are three key points to consider: what the index does for the book, what the index does for the book’s readers, and whether the index is a good index by the standards of other indexes. These can be converted into three questions:

  1. Does the index accurately reflect the content of the book?
  2. Does it do so in a way that will make sense to your readers?
  3. Is the index, in itself, a good quality index?

To answer the first question, begin by making a list of key words from your title, chapter headings, and sub-headings. Ensure all of those words are properly and fully represented in the index. If they’re not, don’t try to fix it yourself or even make suggestions about how to fix the problem. Simply explain to the indexer which words need more prominence and why. Then let them sort it out because they will be able to do so far more quickly and effectively than you.

Once you’ve done that, read through the index with your book’s readers in mind. Is the language of the index closely aligned with the language of the book? Are the headings and sub-headings concise and useful? Is the index logically organised and easy to read? Are there double postings when necessary, e.g. ‘data: quantitative’ and ‘quantitative data’? Is the punctuation clear and consistent?

Then consider the more detailed indicators of index quality, usefully set out by the American Society for Indexing. For example:

  • Do main headings or sub-headings have more than 5-7 page numbers attached? If so, they may need to be broken down further.
  • Are there a reasonable number of sub-headings for each main heading? If there are more than a column’s worth then some may need to be combined.
  • Are sub-headings at a sensible level? If not, revision may be needed.
  • Are the page numbers accurate? Spot-check some to make sure.

If you want to know more, the ASI have also produced a book on the subject: Indexing for Editors and Authors: A Practical Guide to Understanding Indexes. I haven’t read it myself yet but it looks comprehensive and useful. (Thanks to Nicola King aka @icemaiden1964 for pointing me to these resources on Twitter.)

When my second edition index arrived and evaluation still didn’t have a high profile, I asked the indexer to make appropriate amendments. Which she did, quickly and cheerfully.

These days I feel more confident when I receive an index to check. I hope you will too.

If you have any good index-related stories to tell, please share them 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 $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – 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 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 Publishers and Production Values

pile of booksLast week a book review I wrote was published on the LSE Review of Books blog. (This review is part of the ‘review a book a week’ series I’m running through 2019.) The book I reviewed was The Lost Ethnographies, edited by Robin James and Sara Delamont, and it is an excellent collection with only one problem: poor production values.

In publishing, “production values” is a term that covers the technical parts of the process. These include such things as: paper quality; page layout and cover design; font types and sizes; proof-reading, copy editing and indexing; print quality – essentially all the different factors that go into making a physical or digital book. A publisher with high production values is one that aims for good quality in these factors; a publisher with low production values is the opposite.

The Lost Ethnographies was published by Emerald and I’m sorry to say the production values weren’t great. As a reviewer, this was handy because it gave me something to criticise, but as a reader it was intensely irritating. There were typos on most pages, the print quality was poor, and the index was inadequate. I’m seeing more and more of this with academic books and it’s beginning to annoy me.

I understand from people who work in publishing that some academic publishing, particularly of monographs, is uneconomic. Therefore they have to outsource proof-reading, omit indexes, keep paper costs to a minimum, and so on. I hear from academics that they are really fed up with having to spend time, sometimes a lot of time, on correcting the errors of incompetent copy editors and proof-readers. At times these people are even introducing errors into books and articles. Here are some examples from the last week’s conversations:

“I had a difficult relationship with the people [publisher] outsourced editing to in [overseas country] – big issues were introduced the first time I got the proofs (bits missing, new wrong spelling) and it took a lot of pushing from me to get them changed.”

“I did an article on Jewish [redacted] whose editor changed every mention of midrash to mid-rash. It makes it sound as if I were writing about the aetiology and progression of measles.”

“When I first started writing and publishing I didn’t know how awful it was and consequently I didn’t proof read as carefully. Any newer academics who trust the process will find things are being published with typos, added words and other random deletions and insertions that ruin their papers. It is definitely getting worse and taking hours of my time to undo the damage at proofing stage.”

Worse still, academic publishers with low production values have the gall to charge three-figure sums for their books. From what I hear, Springer, Emerald, Palgrave and Routledge have bad reputations in these areas, while smaller academic publishers, such as Policy Press and Jessica Kingsley have much better production values and pricing policies.

In theory, the trade-off with the bigger publishers is that they’re better at distribution, marketing, and selling translation rights, but in practice this may not be the case. I am also hearing that even getting commitments about things like marketing and pricing into contracts with large publishers may not mean they are met. I heard one sad tale last week about pricing, where the author fought hard to have their book reasonably priced as per their contract, but didn’t have much success. I heard another about a publisher who had made clear commitments on marketing in a publishing contract but then didn’t see them through. The author concerned did what they could to put pressure on the publisher, but couldn’t afford to hire lawyers and in the end had to put up with broken promises and shattered dreams.

It seems it’s no longer the case that authors simply write books and publishers do the rest. It also seems that we have reached a point where academic monographs are being published badly because they are uneconomic. There is a simple solution to this: self-publishing. Perhaps it is time for academic researchers to build self-publishing costs into their funding bids. Authors could commission their own copy editors, proof-readers, indexers, page layout specialists and cover designers. That way they could have full control of the process and ensure that their book’s production values are high. Copy editors and proof-readers can be found via the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and indexers via the Society of Indexers. Page layout specialists and cover designers don’t yet have professional associations, so look for people with experience of academic work and testimonials that you can check such as Blot Publishing, or ask around for a recommendation.

Of course self-publishing isn’t valued by the REF, so some UK-based academic authors will have to continue working with commercial publishers. But I think that might change in time. Also, there are no paywalls for self-published books and articles. Digital self-published materials such as e-books and pdfs can be made available to readers for free, and hard copies can be produced as print-on-demand for small sums to cover costs. So there is a strong argument for self-publishing being the ethical option. (And blogging is self-publishing too!)

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 $34 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $34 – 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 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!

In Praise Of Academic Re-Reading

Fields Of Play coverI read novels for pleasure, and I often re-read novels for pleasure too. I’ve read all Terry Pratchett’s books, and if I’m a bit down or feeling overwhelmed, a re-read of one of those will always cheer me up. I sometimes revert to the comfort of children’s books when I’m poorly: Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series is a great favourite. Then there are books I re-read because they’re simply too good to read only once, such as Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which I re-read every few years.

Right now, though, I’m doing something I don’t usually do: I’m re-reading an academic book. It’s Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life by Laurel Richardson. Richardson is an American feminist sociologist and her book came out in 1997, two years before I started my MSc in Social Research Methods. I read it first for that course, admired and loved it, and have referred to it often since then. But it never occurred to me to re-read the book until now.

I chose to re-read it because I’m embarking on a new writing project focused on creative writing in academia. I knew I wanted to draw on Richardson’s work, and I thought to myself that I should re-read her book. You know what? This is the very first time it has ever occurred to me to re-read an academic book. I have occasionally re-read an academic journal article, but I don’t do that often either. Yet I regularly re-read novels. So why is this?

I think there are a few reasons. First, novels are stories, and stories are essential. They’re important for my wellbeing in a very different way from academic literature. I could live without academic literature much more easily than I could live without stories. Second, let’s face it, some academic books aren’t particularly enjoyable or interesting to read. Third, not all academic books need reading from cover to cover in the first place. For example, some are reference books to dip into, others are edited collections where not all chapters are equally relevant to each reader.

But then there are the other books: the ones that are engaging and inspirational, exciting and even at times hard to put down. Fields of Play is one of those. It’s a fabulous book. When I first read it, it was radical, inspiring, full of feminist rage and joy which spoke to me as clearly as the concepts and arguments set out by the author. Richardson dismantles the rationale for conventional academic writing with its passive voice and authorial authority. Then she creates a rationale for using fiction techniques, poetry, drama and other creative approaches in academic writing. And she practises what she preaches within the text, to excellent effect.

Reading this book again after almost 20 years, I find there is very little that has dated. Richardson’s experiences of discrimination at the hands of male colleagues are similar to those I hear of regularly from women in academia today. I’m also aware that the fight against conventional academic writing continues, as I frequently hear from doctoral students in despair because their supervisors won’t let them write in the first person. These are disheartening messages. But they also mean that this angry, loving book is still highly relevant.

I’m really happy to be re-reading this book. I’m learning new things because of course I have a very different context for Richardson’s work than I did two decades ago. So when I’ve finished this one, I’ll be thinking about other academic books I’ve loved and might be glad to re-read. But in the meantime, I wonder if there are any academic books that you re-read, as opposed to dipping in and out for reference. Maybe everyone is a re-reader except me! If you do re-read, I’d love to know which books you return to, if you could take the time to leave a comment.

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 $32 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $32 – 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 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 Managing Your Own Research

crossroads-1580168__340When someone mentions research methods, what do you think of? Questionnaires? Interviews? Focus groups? Ways of doing research online? Do you only think of data gathering, or do you think of methods of planning research, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings?

Research methods is a huge and growing field with many books and innumerable journal articles offering useful information. But nobody talks about methods for managing your own research. Perhaps you’re doing postgraduate research in academia or workplace research such as an evaluation. Even if you’re a fully funded full-time doctoral student, research is not all you do. Research has to fit in with the rest of your life and all its domestic work, family needs, other paid or voluntary work, hobbies, exercise, and so on.

Nobody talks about the methods for doing this kind of personal research management. Or, at least, not many people. I said quite a lot about it in my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners. Petra Boynton also addresses it in her book The Research Companion. But I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else (if you have, please let us know in the comments). So here are ten top tips:

  1. Plan everything. Lots of books will tell you how to plan your research project. What they don’t say is that you also need to plan for the changes to your life and work which will result from you taking on the research. How will your research affect your other commitments? What do you need to do to minimise the impact of your research on your other commitments and vice versa? Build in contingency time for unforeseen events.
  2. Manage your time carefully. Use your plan to help you. Break down the main tasks into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists. Review these regularly.
  3. Learn to work productively in short bursts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people get more done this way than by setting aside whole days to work on a project.
  4. Use time when your mind is under-occupied, e.g. when you’re waiting in a queue or doing repetitive household tasks, to think about and solve problems related to your research.
  5. Seek support from your family. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance to you.
  6. Seek support from colleagues, managers, tutors etc, whether your work is paid or unpaid. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance in your life.
  7. Don’t cut corners in ways that could damage your health. Eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
  8. Take breaks. At least three short breaks in each day, one day off in each week, and four weeks off in each year.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself and learn what you can from the experience. Then re-group, re-plan, and set off again.
  10. Reward yourself appropriately for milestones reached and successes achieved.

In my view, these are as much research methods as questionnaires and interviews. Learning to use them involves acquiring tacit knowledge. I’ve been on a mission to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge ever since I started writing for professionals. This blog post is part of that process. If you have other tips, please add them 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 4-5 of my blog posts is 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 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!