Research Ethics for Independent Researchers

Research Ethics in the Real WorldThis post was requested by people in the Facebook group of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS – actually an international organisation despite its name). You don’t have to be an NCIS member to join the Facebook group, and if you’re an indie researcher or scholar I would recommend joining one or the other, both if you can. NCIS offers a range of benefits to members including an open access peer reviewed journal, networking opportunities, and grants.

Independent researchers often don’t have access to research ethics committees (aka institutional review boards in the US). These committees and boards are set up by institutions such as universities and health authorities. I studied this as background for my book on research ethics, and found that a minority do try to help researchers work more ethically, but the majority are focused on institutional protection. This post is not about the rights and wrongs of institutional protectionism, so I will just say that I think committees or boards that focus on institutional protection should be called ‘institutional protection committee/board’ not ‘research ethics committee’ or ‘institutional review board’.

I am interested to see that some communities and some organisations are setting up their own systems of ethical review, such that researchers who want to work with them have to satisfy the community or organisation’s ethical requirements. Indeed, I’m delighted to be advising some organisations on how to do this in a way that meets their needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to research ethics, and each community and organisation is best placed to figure out what constitutes ethical research practice for them.

There is also, interestingly, an independent research ethics committee: the New Zealand Ethics Committee (NZEC), set up in 2014. NZEC is run by volunteers to provide expert ethical advice for community-based researchers and others without access to an institutional ethics committee or board. Initially it offered its services free of charge, but it proved unexpectedly popular, so it is now charging a negotiable rate while it seeks sustainable funding.

Many professional bodies have their own codes of ethics that independent researchers can follow. I belong to the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), and my clients often feel reassured when I tell them I follow the SRA’s ethical guidelines. In fact there are loads of free open access research ethics resources online and new ones appear from time to time. I’ve been working on the EU’s PRO-RES project, to create an ethics resource for all non-medical researchers. This is still in development but the website already contains a lot of useful information.

If you’re an independent researcher, you already know your work involves a lot of thinking for yourself. If you want policies and procedures to follow, you either have to find ones you like or write some of your own. The same applies with research ethics. OK, we rarely get the chance to spend days filling in a massive form to be challenged or approved by a committee. It might be showing by now that I’m not fond of the current research governance system, and I think its absence offers an important opportunity for independent researchers: we can do research that is more ethical than research done by institutions. If we choose, we can attend to the ethical aspects of research that research ethics committees rarely consider. These begin with the generation of a potential research question. Is it ethical to ask that question? Can the research to investigate be done ethically? And they span right through to aftercare for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves. Of course being independent also means we can operate scams, cheat, defraud people and be as unethical as we like. Which means it is vital for every independent researcher to think and act as ethically as possible, to uphold and improve our collective reputation.

There are no absolutes with research ethics. In fact there isn’t even an agreed definition; research ethics is a collection of diverse theories and practices. This is partly because context is a factor: what is ethical in one context may not be ethical in another. Slicing open someone’s belly with a knife? Definitely not ethical – unless you’re an accredited surgeon in an operating theatre, in which case it may be life-saving and therefore highly ethical. Context is crucial, and that is why we all need to learn to think and act ethically throughout our research practice. And that learning is never finished, because every research project is different and the world is always changing. So independent researchers need to be ethical ninjas: knowledgeable, skilled, responsive, and good at solving ethical problems.

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 $54 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $54 – 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!

Taking a Break in Lockdown

reading on holidayA friend asked me a while ago if I was going to have a break this summer. I couldn’t really see the point when I would only be where I’ve already been for months. But then I realised I was getting tired and, actually, a break from work, at least, would be a good idea.

I realise that even having the option to take a break is a sign of considerable privilege. But I do have that privilege, and that option, so the next questions were: where, and how?

It doesn’t feel safe or sensible to try to go to a hotel in the current climate, or to a restaurant or pub, or to anywhere really. (I made an experimental trip to a café last weekend, but I had to write down my contact details even though I was sitting outside, and when I thought about what a pain it would be if I had to self-isolate for another 14 days, I decided not to repeat the experiment.)

So that’s the where: at home. However, I didn’t just want to sit around in my house all day. I don’t have a helpful hobby; I like to cook for friends, and socialise, and travel, none of which I can do at the moment. I felt a little envious of one of my Instagram friends who is taking a break with a very clear mission: to knit and read crime novels, both of which she loves. I used to knit and crochet but my hands went wonky which put paid to that, and I don’t have an equivalent passion. Writing is my hobby now, but it’s also my work.

An old friend who lives alone, and needed a week’s break from her intense job, had a genius idea. “I’m packing my suitcase,” she told me, grinning from the screen. “What – but – hang on – eh?” I spluttered. She explained that she had her suitcase out on the floor, as usual when packing for a break, and she was putting in lots of lovely things for her holiday: books she’d like to read, DVDs to watch, art and craft supplies, special holiday snacks, and so on. Then during her holiday, when she began to wonder what to do next, she would go to her case and choose from the available resources. For my friend, this created the joyful anticipation of a much-needed break, and helped her week off feel really different from the weeks when she was working at home. “I enjoyed that more than I thought I would,” she told me afterwards. “I’m going to do it again!”

I love her idea – but it didn’t feel right for me, and for a while I couldn’t figure out what would feel right. Then, in my office one day, a teetering pile of books caught my eye. My to-be-read pile of work books had grown, over the last year; there were 12 books I either hadn’t read or hadn’t read properly, which I was waiting to find time to tackle. That’s it, I thought to myself – I can have a reading week! Universities have those so I can too. Reading is also my work, but it’s a part of my work that doesn’t get enough attention, and one I find relaxing and pleasant.

So, this week, that’s what I’m doing. On Monday I read two books (they were short, I read fast, and skip-read bits I’ve already read or that aren’t relevant for me). On Tuesday I only read one chapter, but I also did an online exercise class, made muffins and a salad, had a distanced picnic and walk in the park with a good friend I haven’t seen for ages, and wrote this blog post. And anyway I was never going to read 12 books in a week – some are quite long – and it’s more about having a break than getting through the list. It’s relaxing and delightful having time to read, properly, and think.

This also got me wondering about other creative approaches people may have taken to having a break at home. If you too have been in this lucky position, and you’ve done something that might provide inspiration for others, please let us know in the comments.

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 $53 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $53 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Power To Do Things Differently

doing things differentlyAs an independent researcher I have the power to do things differently. My last journal article was in a forensic science journal; my next (due out in TQR on 13 July) will focus on comics. When I was writing my book on research ethics, I talked through the innovative approach I was taking with a senior professor, who commented that I wouldn’t have been able to write that book if I’d been working in academia.

There are increasing numbers of people doing research and scholarship differently. As a result, there are new societies and organisations springing up – and some that are not so new. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars (which, despite its name, is a global organisation) was formed in January 1989 to support researchers who are not part of an institution. It offers networking opportunities, grant awards, and discounts on professional services, and operates a peer reviewed journal. Some countries do have national associations of independent scholars, such as Australia (founded 1995) and Canada (founded 2001).

The Ronin Institute was founded in 2012 to facilitate and promote scholarly research outside academic institutions. It is based in the US and is a non-profit, which means its members can apply for some research funding (presumably restricted to US members and US funding). It makes a good case for funding independent researchers – something I’ve been lobbying for here in the UK, with the support of the Social Research Association – and also offers publicity and networking opportunities.

The Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) was founded in 2016 to improve the quality of science and science education, and to improve the quality of life of scientists and scientists’ families. They are open to researchers within institutions, though their main long-term aim is to build a new type of university where researchers can choose whether – and, if so, when and what – to teach, and the focus will be on using openly accessible materials and open source software to teach open and replicable scientific practices. At present they have a small not-for-profit campus in Bali, Indonesia, which is open to the public, and offers a small academic library, meeting rooms and facilities, and plenty of space to read, think, and work.

Others are also working to build new types of university. The London Interdisciplinary School plans to offer courses encompassing the sciences, arts, design, technology, the social sciences and the humanities. The aim is to produce graduates who are better equipped to tackle real-world problems than those who have studied a single or double discipline. Their admissions process does not only focus on grades, but also takes into account applicants’ educational, familial and personal backgrounds. Their first cohort will begin study in 2021.

An even more recent innovation is the Free Black University. This is a significant step in the essential decolonisation of academia. The long-term vision is for a university, with its own university press, which ‘will centre radical and transformational thought that may not be respected under the current frame of knowledge’. Also, the project is thoroughly intersectional, being ‘Black, queer, trans, anti-colonial, and revolutionary from its very heart’. Funds are currently being raised for the Free Black University. I have made a contribution. Maybe you could too – or, if money is tight for you, perhaps you could circulate the link on social media to encourage others to donate to this important cause. We all have the power to do things differently, in small ways and/or large, and to help others do things differently. Let’s find and use our power.

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 $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – 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!

Why I Am Self-Isolating

self-isolationYesterday afternoon I came home at the end of a week away teaching and speaking at universities in Southampton (England) and Stavanger (Norway). It was an odd week: last Sunday emails were whizzing back and forth about whether events might be cancelled; by Wednesday night the organisers in Stavanger decided to cancel the last half-day of their conference scheduled for the next morning; and on Thursday morning they got so worried by rumours in Norway that Oslo airport was about to close, that they booked me a new flight back to Heathrow that afternoon and a hotel at the airport (I’d previously booked myself onto an early flight the next day to Manchester).

Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon I went through three airports (one of them twice) and eight train stations (three of them twice). I travelled in two planes, one tube train, eight regular trains, and four taxis. I stayed in three hotels, and had two work-related restaurant dinners with other travelling professionals. One was with a single colleague who had flown from South Africa to the UK to attend the course I ran in Southampton and the other was with around 35 people in Stavanger, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance on planes and/or trains to get to the conference.

Even so, considering the current stage of the pandemic, I would be unlucky to have contracted the virus. I took all the precautions I could; my hands have never been so clean. People in Norway were being very careful: elbow bumps replaced handshakes; hotel workers wore disposable gloves to serve food and drink and to collect used crockery and cutlery. But I won’t know for sure whether I have caught the virus for at least 14 days, maybe longer – and if I have caught it, then during those days I could infect tens or hundreds or even thousands of other people. Preventing this would save potential misery for individuals and families, and potentially also reduce – or, at least, help to spread – the burden on the health service. As the NHS has been undermined by ten years of austerity, plus the impact of Brexit, it is not in the best shape to manage a pandemic. Our hospitals were already full before this pandemic hit.

Making the decision to self-isolate, in the absence of official requirements for me to do so, wasn’t easy. Several things helped. Conversations with family members – some in their later years, others with several serious and complex health conditions including immunosuppression – were useful. These people are also self-isolating; like me, as much for others’ protection as for their own. One family member sent me this really well argued article which also helped. And my partner’s willingness to support my wishes was crucial. Also the requirements in other countries such as Canada, Norway and now New Zealand for self-isolation in circumstances like mine were helpful too. (I can’t find links for the Canadian and Norwegian requirements so my evidence there is anecdotal: I have family in Canada who recently returned from the Caribbean and are being required to self-isolate for 14 days, and an airport official at Heathrow told me of a similar requirement in Norway for travellers returning from the UK.) This photo, posted on Facebook, also helped – I’m interested in Ireland’s response because their Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is a doctor, as is his partner.

Irish Daily Mail 13.3.2020 save many lives

(I usually source reusable photos from Pixabay, or use my own. I don’t know who generated this image; if it was you, and you want me to credit you or you’re unhappy with my use of the image, please get in touch.)

I am lucky that my work allows me to self-isolate. All my forthcoming speaking and teaching engagements have been postponed, most of them indefinitely, which means a loss of thousands of pounds of income over the next few months. However I have desk research to do for clients, and research teams I’m on are considering changes to planned fieldwork as bringing groups of – mostly older – people together in the UK and the EU doesn’t look like an option any more. Meetings are being moved online, though that can come with its own problems as tech providers deal with unexpected spikes in demand. So I can still earn a living, albeit a smaller one.

Then there’s the question of how to self-isolate. Usually when I get home from a trip I turn to domestic tasks such as shopping. My partner agreed to do that instead of me, so I offered to put everything away. While I was waiting I read some more and learned that the virus may be able to survive on hard surfaces for days. So, after putting away the shopping, I washed my hands again – and resolved to continue my frequent and regular hand washing during this period of self-isolation.

I won’t be going to shops or to the gym; I’ll be doing my grocery shopping online and doing yoga and lifting weights at home. I’ll call my hairdresser and discuss my planned appointment for Tuesday – if it’s just him and me in the salon, and I wear gloves throughout, maybe that would be OK. (I’m aware that he runs a small business and needs the work, so at this stage I’ll take the decision with him rather than unilaterally.) I will be using contactless payment and bank transfers for everything so as not to handle cash, in accordance with WHO advice. And so on.

There are so many decisions to make. How much distance do I need to keep from my partner? That’s a really hard one. We hugged when we were reunited yesterday, but we haven’t hugged since, though that’s not a firm decision. We are due to visit friends down south next weekend; I guess we won’t go, but we haven’t actually decided. A nearby friend had a baby recently and I’ve been longing to visit but now I doubt that will be happening any time soon. I miss my friends already, but at least I can talk to people on the phone, or text, or tweet.

I’m looking forward to Monday morning when I can go to my office in my usual work routine. I’m looking forward to a time when conversations don’t centre on the pandemic. I’m looking forward to feeling able to move freely again. But in the meantime, while my Government seems to be looking the other way, and the press supporting the Government have suggested that a coronavirus-induced ‘cull’ of elderly people could benefit the economy, I will be self-isolating because I am persuaded, by the evidence, that it is the most sensible course of action.

If you would like to quote from or share this post, please do. Let’s support our health services. Let’s save lives.

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 $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – 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!

Random Acts of Kindness Day: Thanking Anonymous Reviewers

kindness 2Taking to Twitter this morning as usual, I discovered that today is Random Acts of Kindness Day (aka #RandomActsOfKindnessDay). My first thought was bah, just one day? One out of 365 (or even 366 in this leap year)? That’s rubbish; let’s commit random acts of kindness EVERY day!

Then I got an email from one of my editors. She had recently sent me three excellent anonymous manuscript reviews: engaged, thoughtful, really helpful to me in improving the text. It seems so unfair that they have to be anonymous; I wish I could credit them by name. I wrote a short email to each reviewer to thank them which I included in an email to my editor with a request that she forward them on. This morning she replied:

Thanks too for sending your responses to the reviewers, which I will send on.  I’ve never been asked to do this before and think it’s a lovely thing to do, especially when peer review can be quite a fraught process…

My editor has been working in academic publishing for almost 20 years. And she has never been asked to do this before.

I have always written thank-you emails to manuscript reviewers, and where possible to reviewers of journal articles. These are people who have spent hours, perhaps even days, helping me to improve my work for no recognition whatsoever. I know this is how academia works, but it seems to me simple human courtesy to say thank you.

I say ‘always’ and that’s not quite true. There was the time I got a manuscript review which was only half a page long and with nothing I could use. Some journals seem to have no way for people to get in touch other than the automated online submission system. I know some people get destructively critical or even abusive reviews, though luckily for me I haven’t had those. Whenever I can and it’s merited – which in my experience it almost always is – I say thank you.

Why don’t other people do this? If it’s just ‘not done in academia’ then that’s reason no. 48367 why I’m glad I’m an independent researcher. I honestly thought everyone would be doing it. Though if I’d given it proper thought, I’d have realised I’ve never had a ‘thank you’ from an author whose work I’ve reviewed anonymously…

So anyway, it turned out I did a random act of kindness today without even realising. But how about we make it not random? If you’ve recently benefited from anonymous peer review, can you find a way to send a short thank-you note to your reviewer?

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 $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog (a random act of kindness!) 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!

Travelling For Work – The Reality

travelI travel quite a lot these days. It’s rare for a fortnight to go past without me having to pack my case at least once for a domestic or international trip. This week I’ve been in Strasbourg for meetings about the EU research ethics project I’m working on. How lovely, people say; lucky you. And indeed I am lucky, though not in the way you might think.

There is a whole lot of detail to attend to before leaving home. Arranging travel and accommodation can take so much time. I’d never been to Strasbourg before; I didn’t really know where it was, except that it’s in France, but France is a big country. I learned that it does have an airport, but the airport is a long way from the city, and there are no direct flights from any of my local airports. So on Monday I made an epic train journey via London St Pancras and then Eurostar to Paris, then on to Strasbourg from there.

Paris, you say, surely that’s glamorous? It is, though the ten-minute walk between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est takes you through a very unglamorous part of the city. I had 68 minutes in Paris which wasn’t long enough to go anywhere or do or see anything I might have liked to go to, do or see. If I’d had a couple of hours and no luggage, I might have gone somewhere on the metro, but instead I had a bottle of cold citronnade in the station and did some people-watching which was fun.

I’m pretty good at packing these days. I travel light and it doesn’t take me long to get my things together. I have a little stash of Euros – but there’s always something – and this time I forgot to pack an adaptor. Luckily I had time to buy one at St Pancras, which I can add to my large and growing collection of international adaptors. (My favourite is a lightweight one my Dad bought for me when I made a big trip in 2016 which covers every country in the world. If I could only remember to pack it when I need to, I’d be golden. My last few overseas trips have been to Dublin and Belfast which is probably why I’m out of practice here.)

Then there are all the logistics. Where are the meetings? Where is the station? How far is it from one to the other? Should I find accommodation close to the station or close to the meetings? Which maps do I need to print out? (Yes, dear reader, I like maps on paper. They’re big enough to read, they don’t rotate of their own volition, and the batteries don’t run out.) What will the weather be like? What shall I wear?

I try really hard to get all the travel details right but I do slip up. For example, when I flew to Belfast earlier this month, I flew with Flybe but I booked through a third party and Flybe wasn’t mentioned till halfway down their email. When I was packing, I got mixed up and thought I’d booked with Aer Lingus, so I took my slightly larger case (which I didn’t even need to do as it wasn’t full) and ended up having to pay £35 at the airport to put it in the hold because it wouldn’t quite fit in their specified dimensions measurement box. Book it in online for the return trip, said the check-in clerk, it’ll be cheaper. So I did. Saved me a whole £6. A man next to me in the queue told me he works for Flybe and said all the budget airlines are taking tips from RyanAir about how to rip off passengers.

Then when I went online to book my train ticket for last Monday’s journey to St Pancras, I saw that first-class tickets were the same price as second-class for the train I needed to travel on. Happy days! I took a screenshot to show my client that I wasn’t wasting their money – and then when I picked up my ticket from the machine at the station, it was second-class. I fumed all the way home, planning my email of complaint to the train company, pulled up the screenshot full of righteous anger – and saw that I’d booked a second-class ticket after all. Probably force of habit.

I don’t get paid for travelling time, so I’ve become very skilled at working on trains and planes. Yet the night before I travel, I always sleep badly. I can understand myself worrying about oversleeping when I have to get up very early. I find it much less understandable when I don’t even have to leave the house till midday, like when I went to work in Belfast earlier this month. The night before I had the most ridiculous string of anxiety dreams – cancelled plane, incomprehensible message from airline, driver refusing to take me to the airport – I woke up feeling as though I hadn’t slept at all.

So there are many frustrations. But there are also joys. I arrived in Strasbourg at 5.40 pm on Monday, checked into my hotel, and went out for a walk around the beautiful mediaeval centre. There were some entertaining sights, an ‘artisanal creperie’ provided a tasty dinner, and I found a little supermarket for some treats to take home. That was a bit like having one evening of holiday, but the rest of the stay was full-on work from breakfast to bedtime. It’s often the way with these trips because the cost and effort of bringing people together means everyone feels we need to make the most of the time we have.

People often think this kind of travelling is glamorous and fun. Occasionally it is, but mostly it’s hard work and tiring. I’m glad I can do it, though; I learn a lot and that’s always a plus for me, even if I’m learning about European train timetables or hotels in Cardiff.

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!

The Mothership Project

mship-cover-2I don’t say much on this blog about my client work because most of it is confidential. But I’m delighted to have permission from one of my lovely clients to tell you about a project I’ve been helping them with over the last couple of years.

The Mothership Project is based in the Republic of Ireland and is a network of parenting artists run by four awesome artist mothers: Leah Hilliard, Michelle Browne, Seoidín O’Sullivan and Tara Kennedy. It was founded in 2013 as a result of Seoidín O’Sullivan’s frustration at struggling to retain her arts practice after becoming a mother. She fired off an email to a few friends who shared her concerns and set up a working group of volunteers. They organised workshops and discussions, show-and-tell events and reading groups, focusing on issues facing parenting artists such as visibility, time, money and precarity. Despite the name it is not gender-specific or even parent-specific but welcomes all artists who are primary carers of children.

In 2017 the Mothership Project made a successful application to the Irish Arts Council for funding to build on this work with a research project to find out what would help parents most, a pilot programme of artists’ residencies tailored for parent artists, and a publication of their findings.

The first I heard of any of this was a message from Leah Hilliard which came via this website in December 2017, asking if I could help advise them about the research. We spoke on Skype and I agreed to help. The Mothership team had drafted a questionnaire and wanted some feedback. We spoke again in January and, as luck would have it, I was doing some speaking and teaching in Dublin in March so I was able to meet three of the team in person – Leah, Michelle, and Tara, plus Tara’s six-week-old daughter Kim!

They piloted the questionnaire before it was finalised, put onto SurveyMonkey, and circulated the link as widely as they could. The questionnaire was quite detailed, asking questions about respondents’ art practice, their parenting experience, workspaces, childcare, financial situation, experience of artists’ residencies, and a final ‘is there anything else you would like to tell us?’ question. By the end of July 2018 there were 145 responses. I analysed those in August, using descriptive statistics for numeric answers and basic qualitative analytic techniques for text answers. This involved separating out the answers to each question and grouping similar ones together into categories, then writing about the categories and the number of responses in each category. Some of the responses to the final question were really positive about the questionnaire itself and the work of the Mothership Project.

My lovely clients were pleased with the analysis I sent them. They held their pilot residencies in the autumn for 15 parent-artists, and conducted an exit questionnaire which I was also able to help them analyse. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Then they set to work to prepare their publication. They brought me over to Ireland to spend a day with them working on this. I learned that artists take a very different approach from writers to making a book. When I want to create a book, I sit down at my computer and write words onto a screen. When these women want to create a book, they start by figuring out how many pages it will be. Then they put a page of A4 for each page of the book up on a studio wall, and write and draw on Post-Its and on the pages of A4 while talking together to work out how to make the book they want.

pic for blog

The team were keen that the publication should be accessible, visually engaging and would act as an advocacy tool in the future. They wanted to have a two-page centre spread setting out the findings and recommendations which would be easy for the reader to find and reproduce. This focus on making the research visible and visual, and easy to use by other people, was paramount in the planning stage.

And a very fine book it is too, fulfilling all those aims. It was launched on 16 May in Dublin – I was working in Dublin again at the time, but unfortunately couldn’t make it to the launch as I was in an all-day workshop with another client at Dublin City University. So frustrating!

As an independent researcher, I don’t often hear about what happens as a result of research I’ve worked on, so I was delighted when Michelle got back in touch last week to update me. The research was covered in the Irish Times and is being taken seriously by policy-makers in Ireland, which is great news. Only last Friday she presented the methodology and findings at a conference called Measuring Equality in the Arts Sector at University College Cork. This was run by an organisation of the same name, known as MEAS, which was set up last year, with support from the Irish Research Council to monitor and report on representational inequalities in the arts in Ireland. It’s great to know that this kind of work is going on, and that my experience and skills have been able to make a tiny contribution.

Creative people frequently amaze me by what they achieve in the world, and the Mothership Project team are a great example. It was a real pleasure to work with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, are 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!

 

Why I Adore Email

email inbox not zeroThe number of emails these days is problematic for many people, particularly professionals. Efforts are being made to reduce the volume of email – and this is a good thing, in principle. Yet some of the methods people are choosing don’t seem to me to be solving the problem.

My perception of this is particularly acute because I’m an indie. If you work for an organisation that decides everyone will use Trello for project management, or your department decides to use a WhatsApp group for internal admin, then fair enough. You know what you have to do and everyone you work with is doing the same thing. But recently five separate clients have asked me to use Slack, Trello, Basecamp, SharePoint, and a WhatsApp group, for project management or discussions or both. Also, I have missed work offered to me via Facebook Messenger, and I rather think a prospective client has fallen out with me as a result which is a very unfortunate outcome from my point of view. I’m not signed up to Messenger (never did think it was a good idea to give FB my phone number) so I don’t always get messages people send me on there. Other clients have approached me via DMs on Twitter, which are slightly more reliable but again I don’t always get the notifications so I don’t always pick up the messages. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens on Instagram.

There are several issues here. Let’s start with social media. Not everyone is on Facebook or WhatsApp. Even if someone appears on a platform you use, they may not use it in the same way as you. If you send someone a private message for the first time, and you don’t hear back as quickly as you expect, let them know in a public space that a message is waiting for their attention. And generally I would advise not using these systems for professional messages. These messages are not searchable, and they cannot be backed up except through a saved screenshot which is also not searchable. They are certainly not confidential; I know email, too, can be hacked, but if you use appropriate security it’s more secure than web-based messages. Also, I doubt that agreements made via social media – especially in private messages – are legally binding; or at least, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been tested.

Then there are the web-based programs and apps such as Trello, Slack, Basecamp and Sharepoint. Several of these are designed on the basis that one person = one login = one location. And the login is usually your email address. These systems are designed for organisations, not for indies. Recently I had a Basecamp account with one organisation and then needed to use my email for a different account with a different organisation – but the web-based system couldn’t provide that option. I spent best part of a day working with the second organisation’s IT department to find a way to resolve this problem. And of course, for me, that time is unpaid, which makes it even more galling.

All these systems are intended to reduce the volume of work in general and emails in particular. In my experience they don’t; they increase the volume of work and of emails. Learning a new system takes time and it’s not always easy. I now get email notifications from several of these systems, sometimes in multiples per day, clogging up my inbox. I can turn off notifications but then I have to remember to log in everywhere regularly or I miss important work messages. Logging in to several systems several times a week = more work.

However, it is true that the volume of email has become a problem. These days I get around 50-250 emails per day; I know some people get many more. A lot of these are junk or spam and swiftly deleted, but the rest take time to answer. There are various methods we can use to help manage emails, such as:

  1. Inbox zero. This is not about having no emails in your inbox, it’s about managing your emails so effectively that they don’t take up space in your head. Implementing some or all of the suggestions below can help you to achieve this.
  2. Those e-newsletters that induce only guilt because you never actually read them? Unsubscribe. The annoying spam that keeps on coming? Unsubscribe. Now that the EU has instituted GDPR, unsubscribing actually means something.
  3. Check email at specific times, say once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The rest of the time, turn off email notifications so you can concentrate on work.
  4. When you read an email, if possible deal with it straight away. If that’s not possible, tag it and make a note on your to-do list or equivalent to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.
  5. Use folders to sort emails into ‘Read’, ‘Answer’, ‘Keep’ or suchlike categories. You can also use folders for emails related to specific projects.
  6. Delete everything you don’t need (though be sure it definitely is surplus to requirements).
  7. Don’t reply to any email unless a reply is truly necessary. If you’re cc’ed so you know what’s going on, do you really need to add to the discussion?

As this last point suggests, it helps to take care when you’re writing emails, too. Don’t write an email unless it’s really necessary, and when you do write, try to be as succinct as possible. I see, and I appreciate, a tendency to leave out the courtesies, such as ‘I hope you’re well’ (which is horribly insensitive if the person you’re emailing has a chronic health condition, as a lot of us do) and ‘best wishes/kind regards’. Email, used properly, is more like a conversation, with direct exchanges.

It seems to me that email has huge advantages over other systems. For example:

  1. You can work offline (as I often do – I’m writing this post on a train) including during power cuts, at least for as long as your battery lasts.
  2. Email is searchable. I recently had an email from someone I couldn’t remember but who evidently knew me quite well. I found the last email she’d sent me – 10 years ago! – which reminded me that we had worked together on a project, and meant I could send her a suitable response.
  3. You can tag emails with different colours for different actions.
  4. Emails can be filed by topic or project.
  5. Email is easy to back up and preserve.
  6. Agreements made by email have legal standing as contracts.

So, for all its downsides, I would like to stick to using email. But am I a dinosaur? Or am I missing something crucial? And what do you think about professional communication in 2019? Let me know 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!

 

Funding for Indie Researchers – update

coins on handSocial media recently brought to my attention the fact that my post on this topic from January 2016 is now woefully out of date. The UK’s research councils now have an umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation, which came into operation last year. So far it doesn’t seem to have improved the funding situation for indie researchers in the UK, though I live in hope.

Anyway, the good news is that I have found a couple more funding sources that UK indie researchers can apply to. Also I have updates on those that were in my previous post, including one for European researchers. So here goes.

The British Academy offers Small Research Grants, in partnership with Leverhulme, of between £500 and £10,000 which may be spread over two years. These grants are for research expenses only, in the humanities and social sciences. Projects may be solo or collaborative. If collaborative, the lead scholar must be based in the UK, but beyond that, people from other countries may be involved in the project. The funders look for a clearly defined piece of work with an identifiable outcome.

The Wellcome Trust offers Research Fellowships for health-related researchers in the humanities and social sciences who do not hold established academic posts. These are for up to three years (or even longer, if part-time) and can be of a total value up to £275,000. You need to work at a ‘host organisation’ and the grant can cover a basic salary, personal removal expenses, and research expenses.

The Independent Social Research Foundation offers Independent Scholar Fellowships for European researchers. They are intended to buy out someone’s time for up to a year, with a maximum award of £25,000 or €28,500 depending on location, to enable them to work on a research project or an article or book.

The Leverhulme Trust offers Research Fellowships for experienced researchers in any discipline, including independent researchers, to complete a piece of original research. The fellowships may last for 3-24 months and the maximum value is £55,000. The awards provide research expenses over and above normal living costs and/or provide a contribution towards reasonable replacement costs or loss of earnings.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust offers Fellowships for travel in one or two continents, for 4-8 weeks, to find ‘innovative solutions to today’s most pressing problems’ from experts abroad. The grant covers all the costs of travel: transport, accommodation, food, visas, travel insurance, and so on. It does not cover loss of earning or replacement costs.

On the one hand, these are paltry amounts of money compared to the £6 billion of UKRI funding each year that indie researchers can’t access directly. But on the other hand, I could do a great deal with a small five-figure sum. This is partly where I think the larger funders are missing a trick: indie researchers don’t have big overheads so we’re very cost-effective. So far I’ve tried for Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust and from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust; no luck yet, but I shall keep trying.

Then of course there’s Patreon, crowdfunding and so on. 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!