Words Will Never Hurt Me?

blog word cloud 7.10.15Last week I was privy to an interesting discussion in a Facebook group. The discussion was on quite a contentious topic, and one person (P1) left a comment saying they hoped those involved would acknowledge that we all have blind spots. A second person (P2) responded saying they wanted to call out the term ‘blind spots’ because it is ableist and comes with negative connotations in implying that people with visual impairment lack wisdom. P1 then disclosed that they themselves had a significant visual impairment, yet had no problem with the use of the term ‘blind spots’, and regarded it as a metaphor from driving rather than a discriminatory term. P1 asked P2 what language P2 would prefer to use, and P2 said ‘ignorance’.

Ignorance denotes a ‘lack of knowledge, education, or awareness’. For sure everyone lacks knowledge, education, or awareness, so in one sense it’s a statement of fact. However, it is also a term I have often heard used as an insult. As ‘blind spot’ is a metaphor, a little distance is introduced which in theory removes heat from the discourse – though evidently not always in practice.

Someone else (P3), who I know quite well in real life, has worked for years in senior roles in two charities for people with visual impairment. I asked P3 about this. P3 said that the beneficiaries of those two charities would have no problem with the term ‘blind spot’. In fact it is a term in common use among those beneficiaries, as it is for others. P3 told me their beneficiaries often use visual terms in speech even if they have no sight at all, saying to each other, for example, ‘Let me show you my new bag,’ or, ‘Have you seen Mary today?’ I have another good friend who has a physical disability such that their legs don’t function and so they use a wheelchair. This friend will cheerfully say to me, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ or, ‘Shall we wander round to the pub?’ Of course these are not terms with negative connotations, but even so it seems to me that they could be construed as ‘ableist’ by someone with particular sensitivities.

The thing is, we all have sensitivities. Including me. I have grown to hate the current vogue for praising something by saying that whatever-it-is ‘never gets old’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, so I much prefer the valuing of maturity. (Especially when it refers to cheese, or wine, or ideally both together.) I also hate the casual ‘hope you’re well’ that seems to be the requisite opening for emails these days, as I live with two disabilities, rarely feel well, and am never going to be fully well again unless medical science really gets its act together. I get really fed up with people using the term ‘manning’ (the stall, the phones, the fort) when there are perfectly good gender-neutral alternatives (staffing, answering, holding). I have tried calling people out about these terms, but learned that it wasn’t worth the effort, and on reflection I think there are more important causes on which to expend my limited energies.

It is quite evident that there is no set of terms that meet with everyone’s approval. When we are able, it makes sense to find out which terms people prefer, and to use those terms where possible. It seems to me that it also makes sense for us to cut each other some slack at times. I am a wordsmith, I care about language, and I try for as much precision and fairness as I can muster from the imprecise raw materials of my craft. I know that the language we use in speech and writing affects the ways in which we and others think. So I do believe it is necessary to be as careful as we can with our words. Yet I also recognise that there are a lot of fights to be fought in this world, and the most important battle is not always over words and phrases.

Write For Your Readers

rules-1752406__480This is the third of three posts inspired by an exchange on Twitter with @leenie48 and @DrNomyn. The first two posts were (1) about why I hadn’t included theory in a previous post about how to choose a research method, and (2) about the relationship between methodology, method, and theory.

To recap briefly, @leenie48’s view is that we should not discuss research questions and methods without also considering theory. In an ideal world, I would agree with her. However, my view is that the time and skills required to work with theory are not always available to every researcher. For example, some people studying for pre-doctoral degrees, or conducting commissioned research, may not be able to include a theoretical component in their work.

The post I wrote about how to choose a research method was aimed at Masters’ students and novice practitioner-researchers. When I began explaining this to @leenie48, she said, ‘Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!’

This was a really useful piece of feedback for me. In my experience, people don’t often give this kind of feedback online. There seems to be a kind of convention among scholars that if you read something you don’t like/understand/agree with, you simply click on to something else. This feedback told me two really useful things. First, if @leenie48 is a bit sick of having to make such explanations, then other people will be too. Second, and more importantly, I have broken a very important writer’s rule.

When I’m teaching writing to doctoral students and early career academics, I tell them over and over again to think of their readers. Figure out who your audience is, I say, and make life easy for them. That gives great value to your work. Whether you’re writing for supervisors and examiners, or journal editors and reviewers, or commissioners and service users, or commissioning editors and the general public, the same rule applies. The easier you can make your readers’ lives, the more they will value and use your work.

I have broken this rule in my own blog. I’ve done so by writing posts for people at different levels without making that clear in any way. I haven’t used appropriate tags or spelled out my intended readership in my introductions to posts.

I responded to @leenie48 saying ‘You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.’

I wish I could tell you I’ve done that already, but I haven’t yet had time. Writing and posting on this blog every week is always a scramble, and just now I am drowning in deadlines. But it is on my to-do list, and I’ll also tag all posts from now on as either: doctoral, masters, early career, or general.

Of course there are overlaps between the categories. My first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, is primarily written for masters’ level and practitioner researchers. However, I have had positive feedback from third-year undergraduate students and early-stage doctoral students, particularly those who are unfamiliar with research methods. My second book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, is intended for doctoral students and early career researchers. Again, though, I’ve had good feedback from masters’ level students and even some Professors on this book. So ultimately you need to decide for yourself whether to read only the posts with one tag, or also investigate other posts.

Nevertheless, this does not absolve me from the responsibility of giving you that choice. So I will get on to the re-tagging as soon as I have time, and I thank @leenie48 for a much-needed kick up the bum. Also, if you’re writing anything, don’t do as I do, do as I say! Think of your readers and work to meet their needs.

How To Chair An Event

chair 2You may be asked to chair an event such as a meeting, conference presentations, panel seminar, or even a whole conference. If you haven’t done this before, the prospect may fill you with dread. You’ve seen other people who have made it look easy. But nobody has ever told you how to chair an event; it’s as though you’re supposed to have learned it psychically or by osmosis or magic.

There is a difference between chairing different types of events, but there are also similarities. As a chairperson, your job is to help the event run smoothly; to encourage participation; and to be self-effacing. You are not on show, to impress or even to be noticed; you are there to serve. Your greatest achievement, as a chairperson, is to be the forgotten facilitator of an incredibly memorable event.

Helping an event run smoothly involves good preparation and timekeeping. Find out as much as you can, ahead of time, about the purpose of the event, who will be involved, the venue, and so on. For a meeting, make sure the agenda is timed and that all the papers are sent out far enough in advance to enable everyone to read them before the meeting. One potential booby-trap is the Any Other Business agenda item. There are two good ways I know to deal with this. You can ban it altogether because, as the chairperson, You Have The Power! Or, at the start of the meeting, you can ask who wants to raise what under A.O.B. This should be very quick items such as announcements or corrections. If someone mentions a topic that you think is likely to generate discussion, you can suggest that it should be an agenda item for the next meeting. Or – if it is urgent – rearrange the agenda for the current meeting to accommodate it, perhaps by deferring another item to the next meeting.

While you are chairing a meeting, you need to keep one eye on the clock and the other on your colleagues. It is your responsibility to keep everyone to time which is not always easy. It is also your role to help the shy and quiet people to speak, and encourage the verbal gerbils to give space to others.

At conferences and seminars, you need to introduce the event or the session, and again this involves good preparation. Get hold of speakers’ biographies in advance, and prepare your introductions: to yourself (briefly), to the event or session, and to the speakers. Find out how to pronounce any unfamiliar names. Make sure you and the speakers understand the format and the time allocations. Ideally sort this out by email ahead of the event or session; failing that, meet with the speakers ahead of the start time. Arrange a signal you can use to let speakers know that they have, say, five minutes left. If speakers want to use slides, make sure you see them in advance, in case they have prepared, for example, 38 slides for a 10-minute talk. In such cases, you need to be firm. One slide every two minutes is a good rule of thumb. Make sure slides are loaded and audio-visual equipment is working properly.

When you are introducing an event, it can be helpful to set some ground rules for the audience. I often say that I will welcome questions as long as they are actual questions, but if people in the audience have lengthy speeches to make, perhaps they could save those for the refreshment break. That usually gets a laugh as well as making the point. It is also worth saying that you will keep speakers punctual to ensure everyone gets their fair share of the available time.

When the event is underway, listen to the speakers and come up with a couple of questions to ask. You can do this beforehand if you are knowledgeable enough about the topic, but even then it’s worth listening to make sure your questions will fit. Make sure they are open questions, e.g. ‘Can you explain why you decided to do X?’, to encourage speakers to talk.

Be firm if a speaker over-runs. It really is unfair to the others, or – if the last speaker – to audience members who want to ask questions. When the last speaker has finished, thank the speakers for their interesting and thought-provoking talks, and then invite questions from the audience. You may see hands going up straight away, or there may be a pause, in which case let it run a little way past your comfort zone before you ask a question of your own. Your question is likely to get the audience going. Don’t allow any audience member to get into a discussion with a speaker; two exchanges is enough. If they look set to go on, suggest they meet for further discussion at the end of the session. If lots of hands go up, try for a good balance of gender, ethnicity, age and so on.

Another option, after you have thanked the speakers, is to ask the audience to have a quick chat with their neighbours about what they took from the presentation, what they would like to know more about, anything they disagreed with, questions and thoughts they may have. Give people a few minutes of discussion, then ask for questions. This can be very stimulating and lead to richer interactions with speakers.

Ask questioners to state their name and affiliation before they pose their question. Conversely, if there really are no questions, facilitate a discussion between the speakers. Engage with their themes, draw them out, and encourage speakers to interact with each other. If all else fails, go to the break early; nobody ever minds that.

If you’re chairing a whole conference you will have some extra responsibilities. There will be people to thank, such as the conference hosts, and perhaps sponsors, or volunteers who are helping on the day. You will have to cover ‘housekeeping’, i.e. where toilets and fire exits can be found, whether any fire drills are expected, and where the gathering point is in the event of an evacuation. There may be a hashtag to mention and social media reporting to encourage. You will be introducing, and timekeeping for, plenary speakers; it will be necessary to set ground rules and devise questions, as above. At the end of each session you may need to signpost the audience to what will happen next.

When time is up, thank the speakers again – and, if appropriate, the organisers – and lead a round of applause. Then you can have a big drink. You’ve earned it!

Chairing isn’t particularly difficult. However, it is tiring, because you have to pay attention all the time. There is no option to daydream, play on your phone, or whisper to your neighbour. It is, in some ways, a fairly thankless task. But it is also an essential role which helps to make meetings, sessions, and events run smoothly.

Free Online Research Ethics Resources

freeAre you grappling with research ethics? If so, fear not, for there are numerous free resources online to help you. Here are some examples.

Ethical codes and guidelines

There are loads of ethical codes and guidelines online. For example, some countries have national codes of research ethics, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, or the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. This was developed in partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

There are also codes of research ethics produced by Indigenous peoples who wish their own ethical principles to be followed by any researchers who wish to work with them. Examples of these include Te Ara Tika, Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics, from New Zealand, and the San Code of Research Ethics from South Africa.

Then there are professional and disciplinary codes of research ethics. Examples include the UK-based Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

There must be a huge number of these kinds of codes and guidelines worldwide. They are not all the same, and the careful reader can find places where one code or guideline may contradict another. This is because of cultural (in its widest sense) differences in ideas of what is ethical. Nevertheless, they can be useful to read for learning, ideas, or of course specific contextual information.

Applying to a research ethics committee

If you have to apply to a research ethics committee for formal ethical approval, you might find it useful to see some other researchers’ successful application forms. You can find examples of these on The Research Ethics Application Database (TREAD), originally set up by Martin Tolich at Otago University in New Zealand and now hosted by The Global Health Network and the Social Research Association. This database holds copies of successful ethics applications from around the world which you can search and use for inspiration and learning. Applications are anonymised, though the researcher(s) must be named. Researchers often submit accompanying documents, such as consent forms and participant information sheets, which can be very useful to look through for ideas. The database managers are keen to add more applications, to help make formal ethical approval processes more accessible and less onerous. If you have an application you could submit, there is information on the website about how to share it via the database.

General guidance

The Research Ethics Guidebook is intended to provide general guidance for social scientists, but may also be useful for people from other fields. The Guidebook is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, with the Researcher Development Initiative of the National Centre for Research Methods, and London University’s Institute of Education. Like TREAD, the Research Ethics Guidebook holds useful information about applying for formal ethical approval. However, it also covers other areas such as ethics in research design, conducting research, reporting, and dissemination. The Guidebook is ideal for reference at the start of a project, and also during research as unforeseen ethical dilemmas occur.

Ethics training

There are two free online courses in research ethics which are primarily geared towards health researchers and so focus heavily on participant wellbeing. Both have been through peer review and other quality assurance processes, and both offer certificates to students who complete the course successfully with a score of 80% or more. One is called Research Ethics Online Training and is adapted from an e-learning course and resource package designed and produced by the World Health Organisation. It contains 14 individual modules, plus resources in the form of a glossary, a “resource library” (aka bibliography), some case studies, examples of ethics guidelines, videos on research ethics, and links to other ethics websites. The second is Essential Elements of Ethics, adapted from an ethics tool kit created to support researchers at Harvard University in America. This course contains 11 modules, plus resources including a workbook and checklist of points to consider, and a discussion forum though this is not very active.

Free research ethics modules with a wider perspective are offered by Duke University in America. These cover topics such as cultural awareness and humility, ethical photography, power and privilege, and working with children. They are delivered through videos with transcripts also available.

Online research

For internet-based research, the Association of Internet Researchers has some useful resources free for download. The British Psychological Society offers Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media has produced Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.

Visual research

The International Visual Sociology Association has produced a Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines covering visual research.

Ethics of research publication

The Committee on Publication Ethics has a whole range of downloadable resources covering how to detect, prevent and handle misconduct, responsible publication standards for editors and authors, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, and much more.

This list of resources is by no means exhaustive. There are loads more out there. It would be a huge task to identify them all. These are the ones I have found particularly useful. If there are any you like to use, which aren’t in this post, please add them in the comments below.

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia #2

comics with catsMy last post on this topic argued that this is more of a movement than a moment. In fact it was even more than I knew (no doubt still is) as I’ve found out about a number of other resources and activities on the topic since then.

In my last post I mentioned the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, which is published by Taylor & Francis which is part of the multinational Informa plc, and so is paywalled, although there are a couple of open access articles. I have also found another paywalled journal, Studies in Comics, which has an open access issue from its archive. Ernesto Priego kindly reminded me, via Twitter, of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship which is open access and well worth exploring.

In September, The Annals of the Entomological Society of America published an open access article called Sequential Science: A Guide to Communication Through Comics by Carly Melissa Tribull. This is both interesting and useful, as it contains information and resources on how to make comics and use them in educational settings. I thank Jonathan O’Donnell from RMIT in Melbourne for bringing this to my attention.

Also, as well as the BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts offered by Staffordshire University, the UK also offers a Comics and Graphic Novel Masters degree at the University of Dundee. This is overseen by Professor Chris Murray whose main research area is comics.

The pocket-sized Graphic Guides have been around for a long time. They describe themselves as ‘comic book style’, but this isn’t really accurate in my view; they’re more like short guides illustrated with cartoons. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve never got on with them particularly well, though I know a lot of people love them. However, I’ve discovered an exception in Queer: A Graphic History. I’ve had a copy of this book for some time, and I think it’s terrific, but I only discovered last Friday that it’s part of the Graphic Guides series. This isn’t obvious because it’s in a larger format with a different type of cover. Queer is written by Meg-John Barker (aka MJ), who spoke about their book at an event I went to in London recently (see below for more on this). It is always interesting to hear from other authors about their processes, and about the delights and sadnesses, triumphs and pitfalls they have experienced along the way. I have a great deal of respect for MJ because they are able to make difficult concepts accessible in a way I admire and long to emulate. People at the event were talking about how much their students love Queer and how useful it is for teaching. I can see why; I would have loved it as an undergraduate maybe even more than I love it now.

If you’re into graphic medicine, there’s a tasty-looking conference coming up in Cambridge on 16-17 February 2018. It’s called Comic Epidemic: Cartoons, Caricatures and Graphic Novels, and the call for papers is out now for anyone from the social sciences or the medical humanities; deadline 15 December. Successful applicants will be offered two nights’ accommodation in Cambridge and up to £100 for travel costs.

The seminar series Look Who’s Talking: Eliciting the Voices of Children from Birth to Seven, funded by the University of Strathclyde and held earlier this year, produced visual minutes of the sessions. Some of the people involved with this series have also used cartoon storyboards in research, to investigate the perceptions of students aged 4-15 about learning something new. Both of these projects were led by Professor Kate Wall from the University of Strathclyde, who kindly alerted me to them via Twitter.

Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend the event An Agenda for Graphic Social Science at the Open University in Camden. This is where Meg-John Barker presented their work, along with several other interesting and interested people including a journal editor and a publisher as well as several scholars. This account of the event identifies five areas of activity – blog posts, networking event, curation of resources, academic event, and sharing/recording expertise – and calls for volunteers to help take them forward. If you want to play with the cool kids, get in touch and get involved. We’d love to have you.

I’m sure that’s not all… but it’s all for now. And enough, I think, to argue that these media are moving from the fringes towards the mainstream in research and academia. Even so, if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments.


Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia

Cartoons, comics, and graphic novels in research and academia are having a moment. Actually it’s a bit more than a moment, but before I go into that, let’s start with some definitions. In terms of the visual arts, as I understand it, a cartoon is generally understood to be a single drawing; a cartoon strip or a comic strip is a series of a few sequential cartoons. Comics and graphic novels are more interchangeable terms for longer works, though people tend to use ‘comics’ to refer to the more lightweight end of the spectrum or reading matter for children. Conversely, ‘graphic novels’ are viewed as more serious and adult. In fact, though, they’re essentially the same thing: a graphic art medium for storytelling.

Academics from a range of disciplines are beginning to realise that this form has a great deal to offer for research communication and teaching. It is taught in some universities, though usually bundled in with other arts techniques such as illustration or animation. Few universities are offering sequential graphic art as a stand-alone or interdisciplinary subject at present, though there are some exceptions at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the UK and the US. For example, in the UK, Staffordshire University’s BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts has been running for some years now. In the US, the University of Oregon offers an interdisciplinary Comics and Cartoon Studies minor, and Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a Comic Arts major option on their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Savannah College of Art and Design offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sequential art, which are also available in Hong Kong and online. California College of the Arts offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in comics, as does the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. No doubt there are others too, though I haven’t found any outside the US/UK. For example, there are no such courses in Australia at present, though the Sydney Comics Guild suggests keeping an eye on MIT in Melbourne, presumably because they may run one in time to come.

Although the UK has few courses, it does have other initiatives. For example, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics is based in the UK. This journal focuses on the production and consumption of comics in their cultural, institutional, and creative contexts. An international Research, Outreach and Pedagogy Network (ReOPeN) for graphic novels and comics is based at Lancaster University. A mini-conference on comics and graphic novels in academia was held in Kendal in October, part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was lucky enough to go to this and meet academics working with comics and graphic novels from as far afield as Perth, Australia, as well as closer to home. Then there’s this free event in London tomorrow (tickets still available!) on graphic social science, which I will also be attending. Next year in London the historians are holding a two-day conference on the pre-modern world in comics. And it’s not only the academics who are using comics: this video demonstrates the use of graphic art, animation, and puppets in health evaluation research.

Comics are also being used for communicating science and medicine. As these links suggest, there is also a wider international focus on graphic art in academia and research. For example, the PathoGraphics conference in Berlin last month looked at the use of comics to communicate about illness and disability, and a recent Twitterchat via the #MethodsMatter hashtag focused on work in this area from various African countries.

I’m sure there are many more examples. I was teaching writing for publication to staff at the University of Derby yesterday and I mentioned graphic novels. One staff member said she didn’t like them as a reader, but she thought she should take steps to overcome her dislike, because she understood they were gaining traction. Another staff member, Dr Katy Vigurs, had been involved in producing a comic about student debt with students in her previous role at Staffordshire University. There’s a lot of this about, and it’s growing. So I think comics and graphic novels in research and academia are not so much having a moment as becoming a movement.

The Ethics of Research Evidence

Like so many of the terms used in research, ‘evidence’ has no single agreed meaning. Nor does there seem to be much consensus about what constitutes good or reliable evidence. The differing approaches of other professions may confuse the picture. For example, evidence that would convince a judge to hand down a life sentence would be dismissed by many researchers as anecdote.

evidenceGiven that evidence is such a slippery, contentious topic, how can researchers begin to address its ethical aspects? A working definition might help: evidence is ‘information or data that people select to help them answer questions’ (Knight 2004:1). Using that definition, we can look at the ethical aspects of our relationship with evidence: how we choose, use, and apply the evidence we gather and construct.

Evidence is often talked and written about as though it is something neutral that simply exists, like a brick or a table, to be used by researchers at will. Knight’s definition is helpful because it highlights the fact that researchers select the evidence they use. Evidence, in the form of facts or artefacts, is neither ethical nor unethical. But in the process of selection, there is always room for bias, and that is where ethical considerations come into play.

To choose evidence ethically, I would argue that first you need to recognise the role of choice in the process, and the associated potential for bias. Then you need to consider some key questions, such as:

  • What is the question you want to answer?
  • What are your existing thoughts and feelings about that topic?
  • How might they affect your choices about evidence?
  • What can you do to make those choices open and defensible?

The aim is to be able to demonstrate that you have chosen the information or data you intend to define as ‘evidence’ in as ethical a way as possible.

Once you have chosen your evidence, you need to use it ethically within the research process. This means subjecting all your evidence to rigorous analysis, interpreting your findings accurately, and reporting in ways that will communicate effectively with your audiences. These are some of the key responsibilities of ethical researchers.

Research is a process that converts evidence into research evidence. It starts with the information or data that researchers choose to use as evidence, which may be anything from statistics to artworks. Then, through the process of (one would hope) diligent research, that evidence becomes research evidence. Whether and how research evidence is applied in the wider world is the third ethical aspect.

Sadly, there is a great deal of evidence that evidence is not applied well, or not applied at all. Most professional researchers have tales to tell of evidence being buried by research funders or commissioners. This seems particularly likely where findings conflict with political or money-making ambitions. In some sectors, such as third sector evaluation, this is widespread (Fiennes 2014). How can anyone make an evidence-based decision if the evidence collected by researchers has not been converted into evidence they can use?

The use of research evidence is often beyond the control of researchers. One practical action a researcher can take is to suggest a dissemination plan at the outset. This can be regarded as ethical, because such a plan should increase the likelihood of research evidence being used. But it could also be regarded as manipulative: using the initial excitement around a new project to persuade people to sign up to a plan they might later regret.

It seems that ethics and evidence are uneasy bedfellows. Again, Knight tries to help us here, by suggesting that research evidence should be used by people with expertise. This raises a further, pertinent question: what is the ethics of expertise? I will address that next week.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:


The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.

Crowdfunding For Academia

crowded-390840__340Crowdfunding is a way of raising money, from anyone you can persuade to give you money, for anything you like. You can crowdfund for personal needs, projects, charities, disaster appeals, creative endeavours – anything from pet food to space travel. Some projects that have been successfully funded through Kickstarter alone include combat cookware, amusing rap songs about the iconic television character Doctor Who, and bacon-scented soap.

There are quite a few crowdfunding sites now and they have different USPs. For example, Teespring was set up specifically for crowdfunding unique t-shirt designs, though it now also enables the design and creation of other products such as beach towels, phone cases, and mugs. Unbound is for publishing books (though not academic ones, sadly). GoFundMe is mostly used for medical, memorial, and charitable fundraising, though it is also used by a lot of doctoral students around the world to help fund part or all of their studies.

Kickstarter is for creative projects, including those related to academia. Indiegogo is for innovations in technology and design; its links with academia seem more tenuous, but nevertheless exist. However, unlike GoFundMe and Kickstarter, it does include quite a few research projects. All of these websites take a small percentage of any funds raised, to cover their costs.

Although people doing academic work are free to use any crowdfunding website, there one that seems particularly applicable is Patreon. This is for ‘creators’ who can crowdfund per ‘thing’ they create (song, podcast, etc), or per month (which is more predictable for donors). Patreon is increasingly being used by researchers, such as Brian Danielak who creates free open source software for research; Asia Murphy who researches wildlife in remote forests (with great photos and videos!); and Kylie Budge who is researching creativity in cities.

Crowdfunding is not a soft option. Yes, you can slap together a web page, sit back, and wait for the donations to roll in. But if you do that, they won’t. For any chance of success, you need an appealing offer, a well-made fundraising page, healthy personal and professional networks, and no shame at all about asking people for money, over and over again. On Patreon, your offer is made up of goals and rewards. Goals need to be intriguing and credible, and rewards need to be enticing (to potential fundraisers), achievable (for you), and ongoing rather than one-offs, with at least one reward per year even for people who fund you at the lowest level. This all takes a lot of thought and research. Then, once you have your page up, you need to promote, promote, promote.

Talking of which: I am launching my own Patreon page this very day! I am lucky to have a great mentor for this project, Jonathan O’Donnell of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently doing a PhD in academic crowdfunding, and will be producing a guide to this in due course. If you appreciate my blog, please consider supporting me for one dollar per month – or more, if you wish. Whether or not you think you might want to support me, I’d be grateful if you could take a look at my page. All feedback welcome, either here or there. Thank you.