Research methods to consider in a pandemic

methodsSince lockdown began, researchers have been discussing how best to change our methods. Of the ‘big three’ – questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups – only questionnaires are still being used in much the same way. There are no face-to-face interviews or focus groups, though interviews can still be held by telephone and both can be done online. However, doing research online comes with new ethical problems. Some organisations are forbidding the use of Zoom because it has had serious security problems, others are promoting the use of Jitsi because it is open source.

I’ve been thinking about appropriate methods and I have come up with three options I think are particularly worth considering at this time: documentary research, autoethnography, and digital methods. These are all comparatively new approaches and each offers scope for considerable creativity. Documentary research seems to be the oldest; I understand that its first textbook, A Matter of Record by UK academic John Scott, was published in 1990. Autoethnography was devised by US academic Carolyn Ellis in the 1990s, and digital methods have developed as technological devices have become more available to more people through the 21st century.

Documentary research is also called document research or document analysis. Interest in this approach has been growing recently, with two books published in the last two years in the UK alone. The first is Doing Excellent Social Research With Documents (2018) by Aimee Grant (with a gracious foreword by John Scott). The second is Documentary Research in the Social Sciences (2019) by Malcolm Tight. These books demonstrate that documents can be used as data in a wide range of research projects. Of course some documents are only available in hard copy, such as those held in archives or personal collections, but a large and growing number of documents are freely available online. A range of analytic techniques can be used when working with documents, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or narrative analysis.

Autoethnography is ethnography written by, about, and through the researcher’s self (just as autobiography is biography written by its subject). In some quarters autoethnography has a bad reputation as self-indulgent navel-gazing. And of course, like all research methods, it can be poorly used – but when used well it has great potential for insight. I am seeing signs that there are going to be a lot of COVID19 autoethnographies, so I would recommend steering away from this, but there may well be other aspects of your life that could become a fruitful basis for research. Using autoethnography well requires the researcher to make careful judgements about how much of their self to include in the research as data, what other data to gather, and how to analyse all of that data. Also, good autoethnography is likely to have a clear theoretical perspective and implications for policy and/or practice. Texts I would recommend here are Autoethnography as Method (2009) by Korean-American academic Heewon Chang, and Evocative Autoethnography (2016) by US academics Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis.

Digital research or digital methods are terms that have come to encompass a wide range of methods united by their dependence on technology. Although this is the newest of the three approaches I’m covering today, it is also the most complex and changeable. Many pre-digital research methods can be adapted for use in digital ways, and the digital environment also enables the development of new research methods. Documentary research in lockdown will be mostly, if not entirely, digital, and there is also scope for digital autoethnography. Texts I would recommend, again both from the UK, are Understanding Research in the Digital Age by Sarah Quinton and Nina Reynolds, and Doing Digital Methods by Richard Rogers. One thing to remember when doing digital research is that inequalities also exist in the digital environment; it is not a neutral space. I can recommend a couple of texts on this topic too, both from the US: Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble, and Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin.

Doing research in a pandemic also requires considerable thought about ethics. I have long argued that ethical considerations should start at the research question, and I believe that is even more crucial at present. Does this research need doing – or does it need doing now, in the middle of a global collective trauma? If not, then don’t do that research, or postpone it until life is easier. Alternatively, you may be doing urgent research to help combat COVID19, or important research that will go towards a qualification, or have some other good reason. In which case, fine, and the next ethical question is: how can my research be done in a way that places the least burden on others? The methods introduced above all offer scope for conducting empirical research without requiring much input from other people. Right now, everyone is upset; many are worried about their health, income, housing, and/or loved ones; increasing numbers are recently bereaved. Therefore everyone is vulnerable, and so needs more care and kindness than usual. This includes potential participants and it also includes researchers. We need to choose our methods with great care for us all.

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 $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

How To Prioritise

prioritising

Laurie Prange is Professor of Business and Management at Capilano University in Vancouver. She and I have been talking online for some years, and last year I was lucky enough to meet up with her. She treated me to a wonderful brunch at Aphrodite’s Organic Café, and then we took a stroll to look at the beautiful Kitsilano houses by the ocean. Also, we talked non-stop.

Our online talk is more intermittent. Here’s an example from last week:

 

Laurie’s question got me wondering whether people are having difficulty in prioritising during these lockdown times, particularly those who are not used to home working. I had a look round the blogs I’ve taken to checking before I write a post, in case the topic has already been covered: the Thesis Whisperer, the Research Whisperer, Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega. I found quite a lot of advice about planning, but very little on prioritising. And they’re not the same thing.

Planning is, of course, essential. You need a plan before you can prioritise. So this post assumes you have a plan. Some people need detailed long-term plans and Raul Pacheco-Vega offers lots of good advice on how to construct and manage this kind of plan. Others can manage with a pen and the back of an envelope. And others still – like me – take an in between approach. I have a top-level to-do list of all my current projects: research work for clients, teaching and speaking engagements, writing and publishing projects. I use that to create a lower-level list of what I need to do each month, then use that list to figure out what I need to do this week, and refer to that list each day to write my daily to-do list. This may sound like a cumbersome approach but in practice it takes just a few minutes each day. I write my weekly to-do list on a Friday evening for the following week, which helps me to put work down for the weekend in the knowledge that come Monday morning, I won’t have to think about what I need to do, I’ll only have to prioritise.

Prioritising is micro-level planning: it’s about what you do first, what you do next, and why. The former US President Dwight D Eisenhower coined a helpful principle. He said that it is necessary to understand the difference between urgent and important tasks. Those that are both urgent and important take top priority. Then – and this may seem counter-intuitive – the second priority goes to the important non-urgent tasks. This is because important tasks are those which help you move towards your goals, while urgent tasks may not be urgent to you but only to someone else. Of course to that other person the task may be both urgent and important – but if a task is not important to you, it should take a lower priority in your life. This is linked with the vital task of saying ‘no’. Then tasks which are neither important nor urgent take the lowest priority.

More things to consider when prioritising are your own energy level and working style. There are three good options for what to do first in any given day. One is the most urgent and important task on the day’s list; if something is screaming ‘now now now!’ then get it done first. Another option, particularly on a day when you don’t feel so good or you’re struggling with motivation, is to do a small easy task to give yourself a sense of achievement. The third – and the one I use most often – is to ‘swallow the frog’. This expression comes from a saying by the American humourist Mark Twain, who said that if the first thing you do each day is eat a live frog, then for the rest of the day you can have the satisfaction of knowing that the day’s worst experience is already behind you. This jest has become a useful metaphor in prioritising, summing up advice given to me as a child by my mother: do the thing you least want to do first of all or, at the very latest, second. It’s tempting to do the easier or more enjoyable tasks first, and work up to the more demanding jobs. But that can quickly turn to counter-productive procrastination, as the more demanding jobs are even harder later in the day when you’re tired.

Another thing that can help with prioritising is to eat a healthy balanced and regular diet. I can hear you asking me, Helen, what on earth has THAT got to do with it? Stick with me, reader; this is evidence-based. The psychologist Roy Baumeister used empirical research to demonstrate a link between willpower and blood sugar. Doing unappealing tasks takes willpower, which requires good blood sugar levels. This does not mean you should eat all the chocolate or snack throughout the day; that poses a particular danger in these lockdown times when the fridge is close at hand. It means you should, whenever possible, eat three healthy meals a day. If you have a low patch – for me it’s around 4 pm – add in a healthy snack; my go-to options include a cup of cocoa with no added sugar, or some carrot sticks and hummus.

It is also necessary to be flexible. Prioritising is not a one-off task; it needs regular revision in the light of external changes. The need to make changes can make people feel as though they are poor prioritisers, as if their prioritising techniques are at fault because they haven’t been able to stick to their original micro-plan. Don’t fall into that trap; recognise that changing circumstances require us to reprioritise, and be ready and willing to do so. Use good time management techniques, though, such as batching tasks and minimising distractions, to help you recognise the events that mean reprioritisation is needed. Don’t let your micro-plan be knocked off course by every incoming email.

And finally: always, always, prioritise self-care.

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 $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – 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!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

please do not disturbWe’re all quite distracted at the moment: by world events, changes in routine, the needs of family members and friends, and our own emotions. Yet many of us still have writing work to do. And it’s hard. Writing is hard anyway, and in this time of massive uncertainty it’s harder than ever.

I have been thinking about this a lot as I have a whole bunch of writing on my to-do list right now. I’ve also been watching and participating in online conversations about the difficulties people are experiencing when they’re trying to write. And I’ve tried out a few strategies of my own in recent days. So here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Don’t expect to do as much work as you usually would. We are all anxious and, at some level, grieving. Be gentle with yourself, and cherish what you do manage rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t achieved.
  2. Establish a writing place in your home. It doesn’t need to be solely devoted to writing – it could be one corner of the sofa, or of the dining table – nor does it need to be large.
  3. Plan a swift pre-writing ritual e.g. making a ‘writing drink’ – hot or cold, whatever your preference, but the same one each time. This all helps to reinforce the message that you’re about to write and it’s important.
  4. Get a routine going. Many of us have less structure in our lives than usual, and routine is often helpful for writing. Write at the same time each weekday, or on the days that are best for you. Or, if your routine is irregular, e.g. due to shift work, plan your writing times in advance and stick to them.
  5. Use sound or silence in the way that helps you most. Some people like to write to music, others prefer soothing sounds like waves or rain – there are plenty of options on YouTube. If silence works better for you, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  6. If you’re writing first draft material, set yourself small daily goals: half an hour of focused writing, or a few hundred words if you respond better to word count goals. If you’re at home alone with children, unless they’re too young, set a timer so they know when they can interrupt you again (barring emergencies of course). If there’s another adult in the house, do a deal with them so you get time to write and in return they get time to do whatever they need to do.
  7. Break down your writing jobs into small chunks. Usually I regard ‘edit book chapter’ as a single task. On Tuesday I scrolled aimlessly around in the text of a chapter I needed to edit, wondering how on earth I could tackle the work in front of me. In the end I wrote myself a list: add bullet points to the end of section 1, check case study on page 3 against citations elsewhere to ensure a smooth flow, write reflective questions – that kind of thing. Then I found I could deal with each small job in turn, albeit more slowly than usual.
  8. Renegotiate deadlines if necessary. Supervisors, editors, and other such people are likely to be sympathetic to the need for extensions. Try to be as realistic as you can about how much extra time you need, and then aim to stick to your new deadline.
  9. Restrict your consumption of news websites and social media. At present, they increase anxiety. I’m now looking at the news, briefly, just a couple of times a day; I have mostly stopped using Tweetdeck with the rolling feed that I usually love, and am using my Twitter notification page instead; and I’m spending less time on Facebook and Instagram. This is helping.
  10. Join and use a virtual ‘shut up and write’ group or book a virtual writing retreat. New ones are springing up all the time at present and you can find them by searching online. Writing with others can help you to focus, even if you’re with them virtually rather than in person. If you don’t fancy a group or a retreat with strangers, maybe you have a colleague/peer/friend or two who you could write with online.
  11. Five minutes of freewriting can help you to get going. Set yourself a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘What I want to say is…’ Then set a timer for five minutes and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping or editing or censoring yourself. If you pause, or get stuck, write the prompt again, as many times as you need until it takes you somewhere else.
  12. Take as good care of yourself as you can in this unprecedented situation. When possible, do things that soothe you and take your mind off your troubles: hot baths, making, exercise, gaming – different things work for different people. Looking after yourself will help you maintain the resources you need to write.

Given a chance, writing itself can become a useful distraction. I wrote this while intensely worried about the health of two people, one family member and one friend, both of whom are very unwell. It took my mind off everything for a little while. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

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!

To Ask Or Not To Ask

helpI am all in favour of people asking for what they want and need. It’s useful for each of us to figure out what we really want, what we need, how much of that we can sort out for ourselves, and what we need to ask from others. However, as my work has become more widely known, I have begun to receive more and more requests for help from people I have never met offline or interacted with online. I want to help where help is needed, but some of the requests I get are quite unreasonable. For example, I got an email from a stranger asking me to write their doctoral thesis for them, because they were unwell, and because God would reward me in heaven for my good deed. There is so much wrong with this request. To begin with, I would never write someone else’s doctoral thesis for them, or even part of one, because that would be highly unethical. I do take writing assignments on a professional basis – which means I get paid in actual money (or I don’t take the work). Also, assuming someone shares the same beliefs as you is not sensible and, I would argue, not ethical.

Other requests are differently unreasonable. Direct messages on Twitter or Instagram asking things like, ‘I’ve heard of thematic analysis, what other kinds of data analysis are there?’ which could easily be answered through an online search. Or ‘What’s the best way to ask people for consent to participate in research?’ which is a big question with no context and so impossible to answer. Then there are the emails saying, for example, ‘I love your blog, can you tell me how to get a good deal from a publisher?’ which signals to me that the writer hasn’t bothered to actually read or search my blog where I have written about this subject.

Then, of course, there are all the reasonable requests. Can you review this article? That manuscript? Keynote this conference? Deliver that seminar? And so on.

Recently I spent a whole morning responding to requests, only one of which was asking me to work for money. I realised, then, that I needed to write this blog post.

I would like to suggest four key pointers for contacting busy professionals with whom you have no existing relationship (and, FYI, a couple of tweets exchanged does not constitute a ‘relationship’). I have been using this system myself for many years, but it’s only just occurred to me to put it in writing.

  1. Do all you can to find the answer you need for yourself. Use internet search engines and search functions on website and blogs, libraries, and your own networks. Apart from anything else, this will strengthen your research skills.
  2. If you can’t find the answer and decide to ask someone you don’t know, wherever possible, ask in public. If you ask in a public tweet or blog comment or suchlike, others can also provide answers which can help the person you’re asking, and any answer may help other people. Asking questions in private – through direct messages, emails and so on – puts more pressure on the respondent and doesn’t benefit anyone but the questioner.
  3. There will be times when asking in private is appropriate, such as if you want to ask about something sensitive, confidential, or contentious. But if you do need to ask in private, try to keep it to a single or – at the most – a double exchange. Don’t assume that because you received a helpful reply, the person you have contacted is your new best friend.
  4. If you get help from someone you’ve not otherwise dealt with, think about how you could repay them. Are you in a position to contribute to that person’s Patreon, Kofi, or suchlike? If not, can you review one of their books (or equivalent) on a website or blog? I would not recommend posting on social media about how helpful they are, because I can assure you the last thing they want is for you to encourage more people to ask them for help. If nothing else, vow to ‘pay it forward’ – i.e. help someone else when you’re in a position to do so – and make that happen.

I think one of the problems with private messaging or emailing is that each person may feel they are the only one making such requests because there is no opportunity for them to see all the others. But I am absolutely sure that if you have enough respect for someone’s work to want to ask them a question, so will many other people. So now I’m going to ask of you: please, please be aware that you’re not the only one, and that the person from whom you’re seeking help has very many other demands on their time.

This is not to say “don’t ask”. It is to say please ask only as a last resort, and in public whenever possible. Thank you.

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 $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – 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 Ethics of Working with Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $25 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $25 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Ways To Unstick Your Writing

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

  1. Freewriting

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

  1. Think-walk

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

  1. Do something repetitive

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

  1. Use placeholders

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

  1. Start somewhere else

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

  1. Permission to write rubbish

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

  1. Read

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

  1. Change your writing method

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

  1. Change your location

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

  1. Get creative

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

I hope that if you are – or become – stuck with your writing, one or more of these strategies will be helpful for you. If you have any other strategies to share, please put them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Don’t Get Off At Cliché Central

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

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

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

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

Take this short paragraph from a draft research proposal:

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

Compare it with this version:

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

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

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

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

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $35 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $35 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Top Tips For Managing Your Own Research

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

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

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

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

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

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Aftercare in Social Research

aftercareWhen does a research project end? When a report has been written? When a budget has been spent? When the last discussion of a project has taken place? It’s not clear, is it?

Neither is it clear when a researcher’s responsibility ends. This is rarely spoken of in the context of social research, which is an unfortunate omission. A few Euro-Western researchers recognise the need for aftercare, but they are a tiny minority of individuals. There seems to be no collective or institutional support for aftercare. In the Indigenous paradigm, by contrast, aftercare is part of people’s existing commitment to community-based life and work. Euro-Western researchers could learn much from Indigenous researchers about aftercare: for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves.

The standard Euro-Western aftercare for participants is to tell them they can withdraw their data if they wish. However, it is rare for researchers to explain the limits to this, which can cause problems as it did for Roland Bannister from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Bannister did research with an Australian army band, Kapooka, which could not be anonymised as it was unique. Band members consented to take part in Bannister’s research. He offered participants the opportunity to comment on drafts of his academic publications, but they weren’t interested. Yet when one of these was published in the Australian Defence Force Journal, which was read by band members, their peers, and superiors, participants became unhappy with how they were represented. Bannister had to undertake some fairly onerous aftercare in responding to their telephone calls and letters. Of course it was far too late for participants to withdraw their data, as this would have meant retracting several publications, which is in any case limited in its effectiveness. However, particularly in these days of ‘long tail’ online publications, we need to be aware that participants may want to review research outputs years, even decades, after the substantive work on the project is done. We have a responsibility to respond as ethically as we can although, as yet, there are no guidelines to follow.

Data also needs aftercare, particularly now that we’re beginning to understand the value of reusing data. Reuse increases the worth of participants’ contributions, and helps to reduce ‘research fatigue’. However, for data to be reusable, it needs to be adequately stored and easy to find. Data can be uploaded to a website, but it also needs to be carefully preserved to withstand technological changes. Also, it needs a ‘global persistent identifier’ such as a DOI (digital object identifier) or Handle. These can be obtained on application to organisations such as DataCite (DOIs) or The Dataverse Project (DOIs and Handles). As well as enabling reuse, a global persistent identifier also means you can put links to your data in other outputs, such as research reports, so that readers can see your data for themselves if they wish. This too is an ethical approach, being based in openness and transparency.

Then there are the findings we draw from our data. Aftercare here involves doing all we can to ensure that our findings are shared and used. Of course this may be beyond our power at times, such as when working for governments who require complete control of research they commission. In other contexts, it is unlikely that researchers can have much say in how our findings are used. But we should do all we can to ensure that they are used, whether to support future research or to inform practice or policy.

Researchers too need aftercare. In theory the aftermath of a research project is a warm and fuzzy place containing a pay cheque, favourably reviewed publications, and an enhanced CV. While this is no doubt some people’s experience, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a number of documented cases of researchers developing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their research work. In between these two extremes, researchers may experience a wide range of minor or major difficulties that can leave them needing aftercare beyond the lifetime of the project. For that, at present, there is no provision.

Not much has yet been written on aftercare in research. If it interests you, there is a chapter on aftercare in my book on research ethics. I expect aftercare to be taken increasingly seriously by researchers and funders over the coming years.

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

 

Rowan the Rigorous Research Rabbit

Middle poster-minI have more exciting news! But first: why is this blog like a bus stop? Because you wait ages for posts with exciting news, then two come along in quick succession!

Further to last week’s comics extravaganza, this week I would like to present an animation I wrote, which has been animated by clever and diligent students at Staffordshire University. The idea for this came from Alke Gröppel-Wegener. She and I were chatting over lunch late last year and I told her about the comic I was writing. “Why don’t you write an animation, too?” she asked. “Because I don’t know how to write an animation and I don’t know any animators,” I said, thinking that was a fairly conclusive argument. But Alke brushed away my objections with a flick of her hand, explained there were student animators at the University, and proclaimed her conviction that of course I could write an animation if I tried.

So I went home and asked the internet how to write an animation and whaddaya know, it knew. I was also very lucky to work with Laura Weston, a knowledgeable and gifted tutor who downloaded segments of her brain into mine on demand. And as for the animators – well!

Laura told me I’d be working with third-years. She helped me to put together a brief, mainly by reining me in when I got all enthusiastic about over-complicating things, and then she publicised the brief. To begin with we asked for character sketches and received several submissions. It was so hard to choose between them that I ended up asking two people to work together – and then discovered that (a) Kalina Kolchevska and Kiefer Bray were first-years and (b) they were already good friends and happy to collaborate. They did a great job creating our hero Rowan and his evil nemesis Cavil the Carrot Fly.

Then I went to meet with a group of third-years, had a chat with them about the freelance lifestyle, and explained that I wanted to put a team together to create the animation. I am so pleased that Carolann Dalziel, aka Caz, volunteered to be the producer, because she did an amazing job. I am also very pleased that Aimee Carter volunteered to direct. I would have been happy with whoever wanted to work on the project, but I am honestly delighted to have had two women working with me as the animation industry is so male-dominated. (I’m also delighted that my comic was illustrated by a woman because that industry is too.)

The rest of the team included artistic director and lead animator Janine Perkins, sound technician and background artist Cameron Jones, Aneesa Malik and David Trotter who drew the storyboards, and Kiefer Bray and Ash Michaelson who worked as junior animators. They have all done such a terrific job that the animation looks very professional. I went to the end-of-year degree show at Staffordshire University earlier this month, where the animation was first shown to the public, and it got excellent feedback.

It is of course about research methods: in particular, how to choose a research question. This is something that troubles students year after year, all around the world. Caz and Aimee, Kalina and Kiefer, Aneesa and David, Janice and Cameron and Ash and I all hope that the animation we have made will help students through this knotty problem. Check it out and see what you think. It’s only one minute long.