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.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

Sage handbook of QREI have written two chapters for edited collections, both on qualitative research ethics. The first was for a book called Qualitative Ethics in Practice, edited by Martin Tolich and published in 2016 by the late lamented Left Coast Press. I said ‘yes’ to that one straight away because it was the first time I’d been asked. Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless. I got a free copy of the book, but I could have bought the paperback for £24.99 from Amazon or, no doubt, for less elsewhere. (I recommend using the book price comparison site Bookbutler, though it doesn’t index all sellers; I don’t see Wordery on that site, and Wordery often have good discounts as well as free shipping worldwide. eBay is also worth checking for discounted new copies; as an author myself I am not advocating buying secondhand books). Given that the chapter took me at least a week to write and edit, an affordable paperback is poor recompense. Also, book chapters don’t carry the academic kudos of journal articles, so they don’t do much for my reputation with universities.

When I was a doctoral student, I loved a good edited collection for offering a range of viewpoints and arguments within a single book. As a reader, I still do, when it’s well done. That suggests I should contribute to such collections. Yet there is so little recompense.

I thought about this carefully. On the morning of 5 January 2016 I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter. On the afternoon of 5 January 2016 I got an email from Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich asking me to write another book chapter, for the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics which they were beginning to co-edit. Ron and Martin are colleagues with whom I get on well, and that makes it harder to say ‘no’. I did say that I could not take on a chapter requiring primary research or any kind of extensive review of literature with which I wasn’t already familiar. (Well done, past Helen!) After some discussion we found an angle that worked, as it would cover an area where I already had some knowledge that I needed to develop, and it also suited the editors.

I got my copy of the book this week. It’s almost 600 pages, 35 chapters, and retails at £120 on Amazon. On one hand, that still represents woeful recompense for several days of work. On the other hand, £120 is way beyond my budget for buying any book, even one as extensive as this book. And I’m very glad to have a copy.

So I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again. Now I think I am more likely to say ‘yes’ if the book in question will be big and expensive and useful for my work. I also think I’ll keep to my decision not to write chapters that need primary research or extensive new reading. Some new reading is inevitable, and that’s OK, but essentially I’m only going to write chapters that I can actually write straight from my desk.

Another thing I have learned about writing book chapters is to ask the editors for the book proposal, so I can see where my chapter fits, and not duplicate work others may be doing in their chapters. It doesn’t seem to be common practice for editors to give the book proposal to potential contributors (I’m not basing this solely on my own experience, I’ve heard the same from other academic writers) though I expect some do. If you’re asked to write a book chapter and the editor doesn’t give you the book proposal, ask for it before you decide. It can give you a much clearer idea of what you’re contributing to.

As with all academic writing intended for publication, book chapters are likely to be peer reviewed individually, and the typescript of the whole book is also likely to be reviewed. (The proposal will have been reviewed, too, before being accepted by the publisher.) So be prepared for edits, proofs etc to come your way. You may also be asked to review a chapter by another author, as sometimes book editors and commissioning editors get around the difficulty in finding reviewers by having their chapter authors review other chapters. Overall, there will be more work than just the writing.

I’m currently reviewing the typescript of a book which is reminding me how much I like a good edited collection. The book’s theme is strong and consistent, and the variation in the chapters is fascinating, in terms of both their content and how authors are addressing the topic. This offers a particular type of richness that no single or co-authored book can achieve. So I’m content with my decision, now, not to say a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for book chapters. I will say ‘yes’ to writing chapters that will benefit me in the process and the outcome, as well as benefiting editors, publishers, and readers.

Methodology, Method, and Theory

debatingLike last week’s post, this one was inspired by @leenie48 on Twitter. My post of the week before was on how to choose a research question, and @leenie48’s view was that I should not tackle that topic without considering theory. Last week’s post dealt with why I didn’t include theory in the previous post (I hope you’re all keeping up at the back). This week’s post, as promised, explains why I think theory sits with methodology rather than with method.

Some people think ‘methodology’ is just a posh word for ‘method’. This is a bit like how some people think ‘statistical significance’ is a more important version of ordinary everyday ‘significance’. As in, it’s completely wrong.

Methods are the tools researchers use to practice our craft: to gather and analyse information, write and present findings. We have methods for searching literature and sources, gathering and analysing data, reporting, presenting, and disseminating findings. Methodologies are the frameworks within which we do all of this work, and are built from opinions, beliefs, and values. These frameworks guide us in selecting the tools we use, though they are not entirely prescriptive. Therefore one method, such as interviewing, may be used for research within different methodologies, such as realist evaluation or feminist research.

Here, as almost everywhere in the field of research methods, terminology is contested. But most people agree that there are several overarching categories of methodologies, such as post-positivist, constructivist, and interpretivist, and that within those overarching categories there are more specific methodologies, such as post-modernism and phenomenology. There are debates about what each category and methodology is, and how different methodologies should be used. These debates are mostly based on theory.

As I explained last week, theory also comes in many forms and is widely debated. These kinds of debates keep some academics in full-time work and are much too complex to summarise in a blog post. What I can say here is that @leenie48 and I disagree on a fundamental point. She thinks it is not an option to ‘jump from rq [research question] to method choice with no consideration of theory’. I know it is an option because I have seen it done many times, and have done it myself as an independent researcher working on commission for clients who are not interested in considering theory or in paying me to consider theory. The kind of briefs I often work to say, for example, ‘We want to know what our service users think about the service we provide, please do a set of interviews to find out.’ The commissioners don’t want a literature review or any explicit theoretical underpinnings, they simply want me to use my independent research skills to find out something they don’t know which will help them take their service forward. In a different context, I have taught and externally examined Masters’ level students, in subjects such as business studies and advice work, who are learning to do research. Their projects focus on method, not theory. It is as much as they can do, in their small word allocation, to contextualise their work, give a rationale for the method they have chosen, and describe and discuss their findings.

Masters’ level students in some other subjects would need to engage with theory, as I did in my own studies for MSc Social Research Methods, and I cannot imagine anyone doing research at doctoral level without using a theoretical perspective. I agree with @leenie48 that theory is important and has a lot to offer to research. In an ideal world, theory would form an equal part of a triad with research and practice.

In a comment on last week’s blog post, Sherrie Lee suggested that theory may be always present in some form, even if it is not explicitly considered. I think she makes a good point. I would like to use theory explicitly in all the research I do, rather than just some of it, but I am not sure that day will ever come. Much commissioned research isn’t explicit about methodology either. There is a lot of practice-based, and practice, research that goes on in the world where people simply move straight from research question to method. While this is not ideal, it is pragmatic. I think @leenie48 and I will have to agree to disagree on this one.

Why Not Include Theory?

theoryLast week I wrote a post about how to choose a research method. It received a fair amount of approval on social media, and a very interesting response from @leenie48 from Brisbane, Australia, with a couple of contributions from @DrNomyn. I’ve tidied up our exchange a little; it actually ended up in two threads over several hours, so wasn’t as neat as it seems here. I was travelling and in and out of meetings so undoubtedly didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I couldn’t embed the tweets without tedious repetition, so have typed out most of the discussion; our timelines are accessible if anyone feels the need to verify. Here goes:

EH: Your post suggests one can jump from rq to method choice with no consideration of theory. I disagree.

HK:I teach, and write for, students at different levels. Here in the UK masters’ students in many subjects have to do research with no consideration or knowledge of theory.

EH: Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!

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

HK: That seems unnecessarily pejorative. I don’t regard practice-based masters’ research as ‘pretend’, but as a learning opportunity for students. Commissioned research and practice-based research is professional rather than academic. Not wrong, simply different.

EH: Then why not include theory?

HK: I’ve explained why I didn’t include it in my blog post, so I’m not sure what you’re asking here?

And that’s where the discussion ended, with me confused as @leenie48’s question was on the other thread. Having put this into a single conversation, though, for the purposes of this post, it makes more sense. I think @leenie48 was asking why not include theory in masters’ level or practice-based research.

My conversation with @leenie48 might lead the uninitiated reader to believe that theory is a homogeneous ‘thing’. Not so. Theory is multiple and multifaceted. There are formal and informal theories; social and scientific theories; grand and engaged theories; Euro-Western and Southern theories. These are oppositional theory labels; there are also aligned options such as post-colonial and Indigenous theories.

I studied a module on social theory for my MSc in Social Research Methods, and used hermeneutic theory (a grand-ish formal Euro-Western social theory) for my PhD. Yet I don’t think I understood what theory is for, i.e. how it can be used as a lens to help us look at our subjects of study, until well after I’d finished my doctoral work.

If you’re doing academic research, theory can be very useful. Some, like @leenie48, may argue that it is essential. It is certainly a powerful counter when you’re playing the academic game. Yet theory is, like everything, value-laden. At present, in the UK, the French social theorist Bourdieu is so fashionable that the British Sociological Association is often spoken of, tongue in cheek, as the Bourdieu Sociological Association. At the other extreme, social theories from the Southern hemisphere are often ignored or unknown. So I would argue that if we are to include theory, we need to engage with the attributes of the theory or theories on which we wish to draw, and give a rationale for our choice. I find it frustrating that so much of academia seems to regard any use of theory as acceptable as long as there is use of theory, rather than questioning why a particular theory is being used.

This kind of engagement and rationale-building takes time and a certain amount of academic expertise. If you’re doing research for more practical reasons, such as to obtain a masters’ degree, evaluate a service, or assess the training needs of an organisation’s staff, theory is a luxury. These kinds of research are done with minimal resources to achieve specific ends. I don’t think this is, as @leenie48 would have it, ‘pretend research’. For sure it’s not aiming to contribute to the global body of knowledge, but I can see the point in working to discover particular information that will enable certain people to move forward in useful ways.

I have still to tackle two other points raised by @leenie48: the ‘methodology vs method’ question, and the issue of writing for masters’ students vs doctoral students on this blog and elsewhere. So that’s my next two blog posts sorted out then!