Research Ethics For Your PhD

REFYPhD_purple_compasses_LC_RGB.jpgWhile I’ve been away on holiday (yes, lovely, thank you!) a lot has been happening on the writing front. To begin with, the fifth e-book in my PhD Knowledge series is out. For my new followers (hello, new followers!) this is a series of six short e-books, each around 10,000 words, for potential and actual doctoral students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Although the titles mention PhDs, the books are also relevant for those doing professional doctorates such as EdDs, DBAs and so on. These e-books are designed to be readable by anyone with internet access – you don’t need a separate e-reader, you can download free software such as the Kindle App for your laptop, tablet, or phone. The first e-book in the series, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is free to download, and the others are each around the same price as a take-away coffee. They are: Gathering Data For Your PhD, Analysing Data For Your PhD, and Writing Your PhD. I have produced them separately to keep them affordable, and so that doctoral students can have the information and advice they need, when they need it, rather than having to buy a whole big expensive book all at once.

The fifth in the series is Research Ethics For Your PhD: An Introduction. Whether or not you have to go through a formal process of ethical review, your examiners are likely to want to see evidence that you have at least considered ethical issues during your doctoral research. Research ethics is a large and complex topic. This e-book offers a straightforward introduction that will help you decide how far you want and need to engage with ethics during your doctoral study.

Some people think ethics is a dry, boring subject. I find it endlessly fascinating because, for me, it’s about people and the choices they make. I’m working on a full-length book about ethics and I’m determined that it won’t be dull and turgid; I want it to be lively and readable, even – if I can manage it – compelling. I lead on ethics for the UK and Ireland Social Research Association and, due to my interest in ethics, Dr Katy Vigurs asked me to collaborate on a journal article. Which has just been published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology! It’s called Participants’ productive disruption of a community photo-elicitation project: improvised methodologies in practice; there are some free downloads available and you might get one if you’re quick.

I have other writing news, as well, but that will have to wait for the next post. I hope you, too, have had a pleasant and productive summer, and I wish you all the best for the new academic year.

Research Ethics – Can You Help?

telephoneDear Internet

I wonder whether you can help me. I need people, from outside the UK, to talk to about research ethics. They can be academics or practitioners, from any discipline or field, and they need to have some interest in research ethics. If they fit that specification, and they’re based outside the UK, I’d like to talk to them.

This is for my next book which will be on research ethics. I’ve done a bunch of interviews with people from the UK, but I want to take a more global look at the topic. I’ve asked everyone in my networks but I’m getting nowhere, so I’m throwing this out to you in the hope that you may know one or more people who might be willing to talk.

Interviews are taking about an hour and can be done by phone or Skype. The interviews will be kept confidential, and I’m happy to email over my questions for someone to look at before they decide whether or not they want to take part. I won’t use anyone’s name in connection with the book. I am compiling a list of the roles and countries of origin of the people I’ve spoken to, to give my readers some idea of the breadth of contributions, with interviewees choosing their own designation e.g. ‘senior lecturer in social work, British university’ or ‘independent researcher, UK’, but if someone doesn’t even want to go that far, that’s OK with me. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have held several roles in connection with research ethics but have chosen to speak to me from just one of their roles, which is fine. Some have chosen not to answer all my questions, or to answer several in one; that’s fine too.

I would be particularly interested in talking to people doing, or who have done, research in countries with authoritarian rather than democratic governments – though I’d also love to talk to Australians, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on. In fact I’d like to talk to people from pretty much anywhere outside the UK, though I only speak English.There’s no big rush; I’m hoping to get the interviews done some time in the next 3-4 months.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect you to give me someone’s contact details, but if you know people you think might be willing and able to help, perhaps you could draw their attention to this post and then, if they want to get in touch, they could email me through the contact form.

Here’s hoping…

Are You An Ethical Writer?

word cloud of this blog, to date

Professional writers and speakers know that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write or speak. We may not understand so clearly that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others.

A generation ago, women lobbied for changes to terminology which gave the impression that men were dominant – as indeed they were in Western society at that time. Up to 1978, for example, a woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant, and up to 1982 UK pubs could refuse to serve women. But at the same time, women were beginning to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served as well. There were fierce arguments between those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo, and those who thought it made no difference.

Some people went further than I thought was sensible, replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that in some circumstances, but the etymology of the word suggests that it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world over recent decades.

However, there is some new terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. I read an interesting article in the Guardian last week in which the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a very thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. The article is worth reading if you have time. He shows how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (which is itself an unfashionable term these days), enables people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone.

Also last week, on social media, I questioned someone’s use of the American phrase ‘wife beater’ to describe a sleeveless t-shirt. I’m not naming the person here because they didn’t welcome my questioning and I don’t want them to think I’m trying to start some kind of online war. The person I questioned is someone I follow because, in my view, they do valuable work online to highlight social inequality. Their casual use of the phrase ‘wife beater’, with its implication that domestic violence can be acceptable, seemed to sit oddly with their pro-equality stance. I am sure this was unintentional on their part; I can think of a number of other words and phrases that I’m sure they wouldn’t use at all because of the discriminatory implications.

Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as in some way poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by the older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations.

These examples have become stock phrases, akin to cliches. And cliches are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes academic writing. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes are permeated with creativity. Academics, altacs and researchers, earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy cliche and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that could support discriminatory actions or practices.


blimageLast week I received a #blimage challenge from @debsnet aka the édu flâneuse. When I came to the photo she had posted to inspire her challengees, it only took me a moment to link those overflowing hands with the data we researchers love to gather.

Data is a Latin plural word meaning ‘things that are given’, though it is used in English as plural or singular (e.g. ‘a piece of data’). In English it refers to information of various kinds: numbers, words, facts, opinions, pictures, tweets – the list is long. Social scientists can amuse themselves for hours by arguing about what constitutes data. There is a popular saying that ‘anecdote is not data’ although, when a qualitative researcher collects anecdotes from interview and focus group participants, data is exactly what they become.

Different types of researchers have different ideas about what constitutes data. To an anthropologist, an interview transcript may be only interesting for its textual content, while for a conversation analyst, the length of the pauses may be a fascinating aspect of that data. Some researchers treat focus group data just like interview data, while others see the interactions between people in the focus group as an enriching layer of extra data. For some people, data is collected; for others, it is constructed. I use ‘gathered’ when I want to encompass both perspectives.

Then there is ‘big data’: data generated by national governments, or by technology, which is so copious that it requires whole new methods of analysis and new words to describe its size like exabyte, zettabyte, or snakebyte (I might have made up one of those). Big data challenges the etymological suggestion that data is ‘given’ because big data is often a by-product of other activity, such as using social media or loyalty cards. This is an ethical minefield. For example, people may not realise that their data is of value to the companies running the facilities they use, and it can be difficult to track individuals down to seek consent for their data to be used in research.

You can do all sorts of things with data. For example, you can prepare data, code data, analyse data, synthesise data, visualise data, present data – and, if you’re like me, you can love data. In fact, I adore data! A new dataset to explore is so exciting because I never know what I might discover. I guess it’s the same feeling an archaeologist gets when they’re starting a dig, or an antiques dealer opening a box from a house clearance. There might be treasure in here! And even if there isn’t, even if there are only mundane things, I will still have seen something I hadn’t seen before, and maybe learned something new, or at least increased my experience.

You can also abuse and misuse data, by picking out the parts that support the argument you want to make, rather than preparing, coding, and analysing data as rigorously and honestly as possible. We are all susceptible to biases such as confirmation bias and hindsight bias, and there is only so much any one of us can do to counteract these. This is part of the reason for the scholarly peer review process, where others can scrutinise your work to check for bias. It is also why researchers encourage each other to track the links in our writing from research design, through data collection and analysis, to findings and conclusions, so that our processes and influences are clear to readers and they can make their own mind up about any biases they may perceive in our work.

It’s not only individual researchers, though, who abuse and misuse data. Research commissioners in every sector regularly bury data-based findings that don’t align with their political or organisational aims. And the media is notorious for putting spin on such findings. This has led to the establishment of independent fact-checking organisations such as Fact Check in the US and Full Fact in the UK.

It is easy to develop conspiracy theories about the ways in which governments, corporations, and the media use and misuse data. It is harder to do the tough research work necessary to counteract this, as far as we can, by producing firm findings, based on enough good-quality data, and presenting those findings in clear and understandable ways. To do that, we have to gather our data carefully, with a solid rationale for why we gathered it in the ways we did, so that we can be confident about the status and limitations of our data and about the findings we draw from its analysis. This is not easy – but it is possible, and it is our responsibility as researchers to do this work to the best of our abilities.

best spiderwebsNow, a #blimage challenge for Naomi Barnes: I look forward to seeing what she makes from this picture. And if anyone else would like to use it for inspiration: help yourself!

How to get into conferences for free

burglarI picked up a blog post from Twitter yesterday that left me very cross. I decided not to retweet it, mainly because I couldn’t fit all my crossness into a one-word comment on the original tweet, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was condoning the views expressed by the blogger.

The post was published anonymously by someone calling themselves ‘Weasely’, who complains about the cost of a recent four-day conference priced at £120 for early birds or £150 for late bookers (£100/£130 for postgraduates), plus a year’s membership of the British International Studies Association (BISA) if you’re not already a member (£30). Weasely thinks that if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you should simply gatecrash – he or she suggests that forging a badge would be helpful – and take everything you can while you’re there, including food and drink for later. Carry tupperware and flasks for this purpose, advises Weasely, and help yourself to a bottle of wine from the wine reception. Get your tenured friends, or those with permanent posts, to help you gain illicit entry. The blog post is titled ‘Steal This Conference’.

The conference Weasely complains about was run by BISA which, like the Social Research Association (SRA) on whose Board I sit, is a learned society and a registered charity. The Boards of these organisations are made up of volunteers who work hard in their own time, alongside a small number of paid staff to put on events like these – who, because they are very dedicated people, also work in their own time as well as their paid time. BISA has one full-time member of staff, the SRA has the equivalent of approx 1.5 full-time staff, and these people are not highly paid. Also, learned societies, being registered charities, are not for profit. If we’re lucky, we do make a surplus from our events, which is used to support our other activities for public benefit, and to build up reserves against the times when we’re not so lucky and we make a loss.

Attending a conference without paying either reduces the surplus or increases the loss. This practice would push up costs. Even Weasely’s suggestions are likely to have that effect, as learned societies will now have to consider buying more expensive badges, perhaps with bar codes or holograms and the equipment to read them.  They will also have to consider paying people to monitor entry to individual sessions as well as to the conference as a whole.

I don’t know why Weasely thinks it’s OK to steal a conference place, food and drink etc. His or her commenters are more measured. One uses shoplifting as an analogy, which seems quite reasonable in the circumstances, and Weasely responds rudely with the view that ‘shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you’. I don’t agree with the tone or the content of that comment. Debate is vital; rudeness is neither necessary nor collegial. Conference attendance is not essential for survival, even in career terms. Asking for help can be essential for survival; shoplifting is stealing. Stealing is rarely defensible, and stealing from volunteer-led charities is despicable.

I think BISA did really well to keep the price of their conference so low. Postgraduate members were being charged £25 per day, which has to be a loss leader as that wouldn’t cover the cost of venue hire, food and drink, let alone the delegate pack, admin support, and all the other costs. I suspect there was a great deal of work behind the scenes, e.g. to attract support from sponsors, persuade suppliers to offer discounts, and find funding for speakers. But I do realise that even such low costs are out of reach for some people – because I am one of those people. As an indie researcher, I would have to pay at least £150 (early bird booking fee plus a year’s membership) plus travel and accommodation, which hikes the cost dramatically, and be prepared to spend four days not earning any money. That is often the clincher.

But sometimes there are conferences I really want to go to. So I’ve found out how to go to conferences for nothing, and do so ethically: offer to volunteer. Conference organisers often need people to do all sorts of things: staff reception desks, babysit important speakers, run around at plenary sessions with roving microphones. If you have the skills, you can convene or chair a panel or two. And, as with festivals, helping for some of the time gets you free entry the rest of the time, often with travel and accommodation thrown in. Plus you get to meet the organisers who are often influential people. So all I have to contribute is my unpaid time, and that feels like a fair exchange to me.

This isn’t widely advertised, and may not be available at all conferences, but it isn’t hard to ask. For me, asking would be easier than stealing. So if you want to go to a conference, but the cost is more than you can afford, give the organisers a call or drop them an email. Explain your predicament, tell them about your skills and abilities, and ask whether you can offer your services in exchange for a conference place (and, if necessary, travel/accommodation). Do this as far in advance as you can – though it’s always worth a try, even if you only find out about a particular conference at the last minute. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t receive a sympathetic hearing at the very least, and you might well find yourself with a good deal and some new friends into the bargain.

Cross-Cultural Research Ethics

cross-culturalLast week I presented at a seminar at the University of Nottingham hosted by BAICE, aka the British Association for International and Comparative Education. Like the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), on whose Board I sit, BAICE is a learned society and an organisational member of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS). I was presenting, in my SRA role, on behalf of the AcSS. This always makes me slightly uncomfortable as I’m not a Fellow of the AcSS and don’t really feel qualified to speak for the Academy. Luckily another of my SRA colleagues, who is a Fellow, was at the seminar and was able to help me out.

The seminar was on ‘cross-cultural research ethics in international and comparative education’. Presenting for the AcSS on this topic was an interesting exercise, as the Academy is not a very cross-cultural organisation: the Fellows are 93% professors, 69% male, and my contacts with them suggest that the white middle classes are in a massive majority. My presentation focused on the five generic ethical principles the AcSS has developed for its member societies to use. I’ve been working on a redraft of the SRA’s ethical guidelines based around these principles, and had already registered that they are focused around concepts which are not culturally neutral, such as democracy and inclusivity. There are cultures that despise democracy, seeing it as a discredited belief system, and others that either do not practise inclusivity or practise a very different version from that which the UK educational and social research culture espouses.

Perhaps because BAICE is focused on international matters, ‘culture’ was in danger of being conflated with ‘nationality’, so I argued that it is a much wider issue. The previous day I had been in a workshop for a piece of evaluation research that had included service users, volunteers, staff, partners, and evaluators. That’s five different cultures, right there. Then of course those professionally defined cultures intersect with people’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc, to create a whole world of cultural complexity.

The other presentations covered a wide range of related questions. How should we manage cultural conflicts within and beyond academic departments? How ethical is it to use RCTs in educational or social research when you know that members of control groups will be disadvantaged? How can we be inclusive as researchers in situations where including marginalised people, or those living in difficult circumstances, may put them at risk? How can we support researchers and teachers who are operating in a global environment, whether physical or virtual, to work in ethical ways?

Then we were asked to discuss whether we thought it would be possible to formulate generic ethical principles for cross-cultural research. We didn’t reach firm conclusions, but we did agree that if such principles were to be devised, the fundamental value should be respect, and the key process would be dialogue. Any generic principles would need to be broad, neither prescriptive nor vacuous, and should be tested in a variety of locations. Generic principles will always be open to interpretation, and may in some contexts conflict with each other, so they would need to be constantly negotiated. But generic principles could be useful in overturning the current myth of cultural neutrality in some academic mechanisms such as anonymous peer review.

We also agreed that ethical research is not, and should not be, only or predominantly about data collection; it is relevant to all stages of the research process. And we agreed that it is not only students, researchers, and teachers who need educating in ethics, but also funders and members of ethical review committees.

As researchers and educators, we have an ethical duty to keep educating ourselves, because ethical approaches to research change as the world changes. It is essential to take a reflexive approach to this, including locating ourselves culturally. It helps to realise that the same ethical issues arise in lots of different types of work in different disciplines and locations, so if you look beyond your professional and geographic boundaries, you can often learn from others rather than re-inventing the ethical wheel.

We concluded that, from an ethical perspective, the quality of human interactions should be fundamental to the quality of research and teaching. This is especially the case in cross-cultural work, where people may be operating with very different assumptions. However, this is not considered relevant by the current arbitrators of quality in research or teaching. Our view, though, is that it would be more ethical all round to shift the focus away from regulations and bureaucracy and towards human well-being.

While I am, generally speaking, irrepressibly optimistic, I do wonder whether that will happen in my lifetime.

Putting Research Ethics Into Practice

ethicsDoing research ethically is not about finding a set of rules to follow or ticking boxes on a form. It’s about learning to think and act in an ethical way. How ethical an action is, or is not, usually depends on its context. Therefore, everything must be thought through as far as possible, because even standard ‘ethical’ actions may not always be right. For example, many researchers regard anonymity as a basic right for participants. However, if your participants have lived under a repressive regime where their voices were silenced, they may feel very upset at the thought of being anonymised, and want any information they provide to be attributed to them using their real names. In such a context, claiming that they must be anonymised because of research ethics would in fact be unethical, because it would cause unnecessary stress to your participants.

In my role as ethics lead for the UK’s Social Research Association, I’ve been helping a group of people from the Academy of Social Sciences who have been developing some common ethical principles for social science. This has involved a long and multi-faceted consultation process, during which a number of people spoke in favour of ‘virtue ethics’, or the idea that a good person will be an ethical person.

I fundamentally disagree with this position. As demonstrated in my last post, we are all subject to cultural conditioning which is bound to influence us as researchers. We are also all vulnerable to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias (giving more weight to views or phenomena that support what we already believe) and hindsight bias (seeing events as having been predictable when they happened). Given this, it doesn’t matter how virtuous we are, we’re not going to be as ethical as we could be if we put some simple steps in place.

The first step is to acknowledge, and try to identify, your own cultural conditioning, and to learn about the cognitive biases that may affect you. Although we’re notoriously bad at identifying our own cognitive biases, we are better at spotting other people’s, so if you’re working with others it can be helpful to look out for each other’s biases.

Then articulate the value base for your research. If you’re working alone, you need to devise this for yourself; if in a team, produce it collectively. And don’t just write a list of words; think through the meanings of the values you choose. For example, if you want your research to be ‘honest’, what does that mean in practice? We all tell lies all the time, even to ourselves, and research is no different. For example, researchers think it’s perfectly OK to lie in the interests of maintaining participant confidentiality. So if you want your research to be honest, you need to consider how honest you think it can actually be.

Try to identify your own assumptions. While it’s important to try not to make assumptions about other people, research is usually based on some assumptions, and it helps to act ethically if you know what these are. For example, are you assuming that your research is not intrusive? Or that it will be as high a priority for others as it is for you? Are you assuming that your sample is representative? Or that your data is accurate? Why are you making each assumption? What are the implications of your assumptions for your research?

Grounded theorists Strauss and Corbin suggested watching out for absolutes as a useful way to guard against biases and unhelpful assumptions. So if you find yourself, or a participant, using words like ‘never’ or ‘always’, or phrases like ‘couldn’t possibly’ or ‘everyone knows’, take time to work out what is behind the statement. You may well discover an obstructive bias or assumption, and then you can begin to search for a way to counteract that bias or assumption.

As social scientists, we try to include a wide range of people as research participants, but we can forget to take the same approach to literature. So another step is, when you’re reading, try to find relevant work by people with different backgrounds and perspectives from yours. This could include people from different nationalities, disciplines, genders, professions, and so on. Then, when you’re writing, try to draw on the work of a wide range of people too – though only if that work is relevant and worth citing, otherwise you are being tokenistic which is not ethical.

It is of course impossible to write a full set of ethical guidelines in a blog post. However, following these suggestions will lead you to a wider, more fully ethical approach to your research. If you want to delve further into the whys and wherefores of ethical research, there is plenty of material online. Here are some useful links:

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics – the ESRC is one of the UK’s biggest research funders, and this Framework was updated in January 2015.

The Research Ethics Guidebook – actually a website with a wealth of information, linked to the ESRC principles.

Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guide – a wiki containing useful pointers for doing ethical research online.

Interpretation and Bias in Research

As researchers, a key part of our work is translation and interpretation. We translate data into findings, and add interpretation to make our work more understandable for its readers and users. Translation and interpretation are very vulnerable to bias, particularly bias caused by prevailing cultural norms.

I come from the indigenous white culture which is dominant in England, where I was bbiasorn and where I have always lived. I grew up in a highly racist culture. For example, I can remember, as a child, people using the phrase ‘nigger brown’ to describe a colour, or saying someone was ‘Jewy’ to mean he or she was careful with their money. These were matter-of-fact phrases used descriptively among white people in the entirely white town where I lived, rather than phrases used as direct abuse to people of other ethnicities. Yet it was nonetheless abusive terminology, and must inevitably have influenced my mindset. On the other hand, my parents bought me a black doll, wouldn’t buy me a golliwog (or buy Robertson’s jam), gave me books to read that were by and about black people, and banned Enid Blyton – and explained why they made these choices. That, too, no doubt influenced the way I think.

My culture is still racist, though I believe to a lesser extent than it was 40 years ago. This is a good thing but not an excuse for complacency. We have a very long way to go before racism is eradicated – if it ever is, given the human tendency to compare ourselves against others and decide who is in ‘our group’ and who is ‘the other’. As a researcher, I need to be aware of my biases, and to do all I can to guard against them. If you think you don’t have any yourself, or you’re unsure, I recommend you check out Project Implicit, a fascinating piece of international research into people’s unconscious thoughts and feelings which has been running since 1998. You can check out your own levels of bias around topics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The results are very likely to surprise you.

Talking of which, while I come from the side of the oppressor where race is concerned, I am on the other side as a disabled bisexual woman. You might think that would mean I don’t have to worry about bias in those areas. I wouldn’t agree. Oppression can be internalised – though it isn’t always, but if it is, it’s unconscious, so I wouldn’t know about my own internalised oppression. Which means I still need to consider the biases I may hold in these areas, and in the areas of age, body weight, nationality, and other human attributes we use to distinguish between ourselves and others.

In practice, this means I have to be very, very careful when I’m translating data into findings and interpreting those findings for my audiences. Essentially, the key is to never assume anything. In particular, don’t assume that because someone is X they will be/think/feel Y. Recognise the key principle of intersectionality: that nobody is ever ‘only’ male, black, fat, German, young, whatever. Everyone has a race AND a gender AND a sexual orientation and so on and so on. The intersection of these attributes within the individual is called intersectionality.

Never assume’ is easy to say, but very, very hard to do. I try, and fail; try again, and fail again. Trying is important, and so is noticing when you fail. I’ve noticed some of the micro-aggressions I have committed against others. No doubt I’ve missed some too. Here’s a recent one I didn’t miss. I met a younger woman, a friend of a friend, who wanted to talk to me about her PhD. We were in a cafe, having a great chat, and she made reference to her partner. In reply, I stupidly, thoughtlessly, used the pronoun ‘he’. I saw her stiffen and pause. I was horrified at myself, immediately apologised, did what I could by way of repair. But I couldn’t unsay my word, couldn’t unassume my assumption. At least I did us both the favour of not promptly coming out as bisexual to try to make myself seem somehow more acceptable. I would have tried that at one time.

Here’s another. Recently I was coming out of Sainsbury’s at New Cross Gate in London, on my way to stay with a friend, pushing a small trolley holding two bags of groceries and my rucksack containing my laptop and valuables. As I reached the entrance doors, a group of half a dozen young men burst through them, bouncing on the balls of their feet, poking and high-fiving each other, exchanging loud exclamations. They startled me and, in reaction, I grabbed my rucksack from the trolley and clutched it to my chest. As the group divided to pass me by, I realised they were exclaiming joyfully not aggressively, and one of them met my gaze. A young black man with hurt written on his face as vividly as a name in lights. My fear, the assumption that he saw I’d made, had hurt him. He was no threat. He would have helped me if I’d needed it. I expect he saw me as racist. And indeed perhaps I was – though I think I was afraid because they were male rather than because they were black.

I have been physically and sexually assaulted by men – only white men – in private and public spaces. I will not let this define me. I will not let it define men for me. Yet I think sometimes, in some ways, it does, without my permission, against my will.

I must bring all this knowledge into my research, and I must carry on noticing, reflecting, learning. As I work, I must stay aware of the possibility, even in the most careful interpretation, of mis-interpretation. It would be so easy to add a little emphasis, or take a little away; to misuse my power to include or omit.

That’s some of what I think I ought to do as a researcher. Next week I’ll talk about how I go about trying to do these things as I conduct and write research.

New Year’s resolution

moneyI think the time has come to declare that I will not do any more unpaid work for rich organisations.

This can be hard to call when you’re self-employed. Some unpaid work is necessary to gain paid work. Unpaid work can have real benefits, whether it’s working on a bid for a contract, making useful contacts through networking, or someone I’ve chatted with on Twitter deciding to buy my book. Every self-employed person needs to work on their business as well as in their business, and at times it can be difficult to separate ‘unpaid work’ from ‘essential marketing’.

Also, I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things which interest me. That’s where I need to improve.

‘Pay’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘money’. For example, I will swap some of my time and skills for, say, a free place at a conference I want to go to (though that would need to be a fully free place, i.e. including travel and accommodation). I do some unpaid work for the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham in exchange for access to paywalled academic literature. And I will still collaborate on bids for contracts without expecting payment for my work on the bid, as long as the contract includes some paid work for me if the bid is successful.

I have been inspired in this respect, recently, by Charlotte Cooper. I knew of her work, then I heard her speak at the launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December. Charlotte is also an indie researcher, and an activist, and a terrific speaker. And she is uncompromising about not working for rich organisations without pay. This made me realise that I’m a bit feeble. ‘Oh but they’re nice people… maybe it’ll help my career… anyway it would be fun…’ and there goes another day, week, or month of my life, spent giving away my skills and expertise to organisations that could well afford to pay.

Part of the problem is that I’m doing more academic-type work now. Academic employees are paid comfortable salaries and have the freedom to do things like work on the boards of academic journals as part of their academic role. Academic journals don’t expect to pay their board members, because they’re already academic employees earning comfortable salaries. Except now academic journals are reaching out to indie researchers – which is great; we have a lot to offer – but it’s an odd experience, being the only volunteer in a group of well-paid professionals, treated as a peer in all respects but the rather important one of remuneration. I also recognise that this is not the fault of any individual, or in any individual’s gift to fix. It’s a structural imbalance with historical roots. But I’m coming to realise that this won’t get rebalanced unless people like me start saying ‘no’.rock and hard place

Yet is there a rock and a hard place here? Do I need to demonstrate my value first? This is the question I keep coming up against – but Charlotte Cooper’s example is helping me a lot. And, as I’m a researcher, I decided to do some research.

The journal on whose board I currently sit is published by Taylor & Francis, which is part of the Informa Group, a very wealthy company which is listed on the Stock Exchange. In 2012 the Informa Group made operating profits of £350 million; in 2013 they paid out £114 million in dividends to shareholders. And I am working, for this phenomenally rich organisation, for no pay. Finding this out has helped to focus my mind. I plan to finish my term on the Board – I don’t pull out of commitments I’ve made – and, on the same basis, I will finish a couple of other pieces of work I’m currently doing, unpaid, for wealthy organisations. But after that I’ll stick to doing unpaid work for charities. Such as the UK’s Social Research Association (SRA), a registered charity, not for profit, on whose Board I sit. According to its annual accounts, the net income of the SRA in 2012-13 was £24,379. It’s organisations like this where I should be, and will be, giving my unpaid time and skills from now on.

The importance of self-care

2014-12-08_1418066953Very unusually for me, I don’t feel like working. I have a list of my current projects, all of which are interesting, and usually I’d look at the list and decide what to focus on next: either the most urgent, or the most appealing. But right now – and this hardly EVER happens – none of them are urgent. And, oddly, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to work on any of the non-urgent ones either. Even though they do need doing, and will become urgent if I don’t do them at some point.

I love my work and am usually highly motivated. Also, I don’t work well under deadline pressure, so prefer to finish tasks with time to spare. I’m not ill, and I don’t have any difficult personal stuff going on. So I’ve been asking myself: why this unusual lack of interest in, or motivation to do, my work?

I think the answer is simply that I need a few days’ break. I’ve had such a busy year, without much downtime: a ten-day holiday in France in June, a handful of long weekends, and a week in Wales in October when I was finishing the second draft of my book. Talking of which, the book has taken up a huge amount of time this year, and I’ve also been working on several papers and a couple of book chapters, with one of each accepted for publication. I spend quite a bit of time, most weeks, on Board work for the UK’s Social Research Association, and editorial board work for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology also takes up time. Then of course there’s my paid work: I’ve had two big and demanding national research projects to work on with clients, and several smaller projects. As a result of all this, I rarely work fewer than six days a week, though I do try hard to have one full rest day each week.

I find it hard to take more time off, partly because I love my work, and partly because I find the gear changes difficult to manage. It’s not easy to wind down, and equally problematic to rev up again. Sometimes it feels simpler just to keep going. But that’s not sensible, is it?

If anyone else was telling me this story, I’d be saying: for goodness’ sake, you fool, take a break! For once I’m telling myself that – and I’m listening. My plan is to have complete rest and recreation for the rest of this week, when I’m at home with no big commitments. I hope then I’ll be ready to rev up the following week, and get some of the tasks on my list done before they become urgent.

There seems to be a lot of it about this year. Hugely productive researchers and writers like Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega are advocating self-care in general and taking time off in particular. I know this can be particularly difficult for PhD students – several of the doctoral students I interviewed for my last book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, spoke about the difficulty of taking time off when your head is full of your thesis. Other forms of writing can also have this effect; it’s hard to pick up a piece of work if you put it down for too long, whereas writing ‘little and often’ can help you to maintain the essential flow of ideas. But even if you’re doing a PhD, or have publishers’ deadlines – try to have at least the occasional rest day here and there, and ideally a proper break. Really, this is I an ethical requirement: certainly for researchers, who won’t produce good quality research if they’re exhausted and stressed. And I believe it’s important for writers too. If you’re working seven days a week, try reducing it to six, and having a proper rest day on the seventh. I bet you’ll get as much work done and be less exhausted. But whatever you decide, I wish you a happy holiday, and I’ll be back in 2015.