Should Academic Writers Create Companion Websites?

I am preparing to write the third edition of my first research methods book, and this has got me thinking about the companion websites that many publishers like authors to create for our books. There is very little information online about companion websites, such as how to create a good one or their pros and cons. I found one article on Google Scholar, but its central thesis was ‘don’t replicate material on companion websites which is also in the book’ which I would have thought was common sense. I searched my go-to resources, starting with the Research Whisperer, and found two mentions in passing, both in posts written by, er, me. Then I searched the Thesis Whisperer and found one mention in passing, in a post written by, guess who? Yep, me again. And Pat Thomson’s blog has no hits at all for “companion website”, but then I have never written a guest post!

It seems that writers don’t write much about companion websites. Though I did find two very helpful posts from the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association blog, one by my friend and colleague Janet Salmons on what to consider when creating a companion website, and the other by the equally excellent Katie Linder on five questions to ask your publisher about their author websites. These posts are both well worth reading. But they don’t answer a question that has started to bug me: should we be producing companion websites in the first place?

One of the reasons for companion websites is to keep the size, and therefore the cost, of books down. In my view some publishers do this to the detriment of the books they produce. I have a great deal of respect for Colin Robson’s book on Real World Researchand have bought every edition. I was astonished when the fourth edition was smaller than the third, and even more astonished when I found that, unlike previous editions, it had no list of references or author index. I emailed the publisher, Wiley, to ask what had happened, and they told me those features were now on the companion website. The link was in the prelims and I had missed it. I find it incredibly frustrating to have to move to a website when I want to chase up a reference in a book. This is odd, as my next move might well be to find it on Google Scholar or an online book retailer, but it is so, and the net result is that I use the book much less these days.

Another reason for companion websites, ostensibly, is to be able to update resources between editions. I will hold my hand up and tell you right now that I have never done this; I’m too busy writing new books. And I often find dead or broken links when I’m looking at other people’s companion websites. According to Twitter, I’m not alone. I tweeted last week to ask for people’s thoughts on companion websites: whether they liked them or ignored them, and for recommendations of good ones. This generated several interesting discussions, but it was notable that many readers ignore or dislike them. Also, around half of respondents shared my experience of dead/broken links in companion websites run by publishers. Lauren Gawne and Dana McFarland both made the very good point that all companion websites should be added to the Internet Archive as soon as they are created, which would help to solve this problem.

Some authors set up and run their own companion websites. Examples include Petra Boynton’s website for The Research Companion, Helen Sword’s website for The Writer’s Diet (thanks to Inger Mewburn for alerting me to this), and Andy Field’s website for his Discovering Statistics books (thanks to Rory Beaton for the info). But this is even more time-consuming than creating a website for a publisher to host.

I asked Policy Press for page view stats for the companion websites I had done for them. Not surprisingly as it’s my best seller, Creative Research Methods scored highest. But to my astonishment, second highest was Creative Writing for Social Research which only came out in January. And Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners, my longest-standing research methods book, was trailing far behind the rest of the field. Which made me realise that if you’re creating a book for busy people, adding a website they have to go to for resources may be counter-productive.

However, there is the whole book size/price problem to consider. And some people love companion websites, especially teachers such as Beth Kelly and Karen Zgoda who like to find reflective or discussion questions, tasks for students, handouts, quiz questions, and even PowerPoints and videos based on the concepts in the text. Sandra Flynn is another fan and encourages her MSc research students to bookmark the companion guide to the core text (HE teachers, be like Sandra!). So evidently there is a place for them. And Mandy Shaw made an excellent point when she said that if they are hosted by a publisher, they need publicising by that publisher.

So, here are four good practice points for companion websites to academic books, and their creators and hosts:

  • Only create a companion website when there is scope to include material which is supplementary to, and cannot fit in, the book you are writing. If there isn’t, don’t bother, even if the publisher pleads; refer them to this post – it’s a waste of time.
  • If you want to be sure of the quality of your companion website, create and update it yourself – but be aware that this is time-consuming unpaid work which may benefit your publisher more than yourself.
  • If you are considering creating content for a publisher-hosted companion website, ask them some searching questions first, including how they promote their companion websites, whether the website will be open access, and how they ensure the websites don’t contain dead or broken links. If you are not happy with the answers, don’t create the content for the publisher; consider making your own website instead, or setting up an alternative resource such as a YouTube channel. (You would probably be well advised to have these conversations when you are negotiating your contract, or you may find yourself signed up for a big job you don’t actually want to do.)
  • If you do create a companion website, add all the pages to the Internet Archive at an early stage.

Steve Wright raised the topic of payment. He wrote some content for the companion website of a book he was not otherwise involved in. Steve argued for payment from the publisher on the basis that if they would pay him to do a proposal or manuscript review (which they would), they should pay him to write content for a book in which he had no commercial interest. He had to really push, but he did get paid in the end. And that got me thinking. Writing companion websites is very time-consuming and a big extra responsibility for a textbook writer. There is no flat rate for payment, so no incentive to create that content. Also, there is no royalty attached to page views, so no incentive for writers to promote their own publisher-hosted companion websites. Many academic writers – me included – seem to have accepted this unpaid extra work as something we have to do, without asking a lot of important questions of our publishers and ourselves. I hope this post will help to redress that balance.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – 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!

Open Access Research Methods Resources

Last week Anna Fazackerley wrote an article in The Guardian about the current price-gouging practices of some academic publishers who have hiked the price of e-books used by university students, in some cases by around 500%. I was aware of this from discussions on Twitter, though I am glad to say none of my own books are affected; they are all reasonably priced.

I realise, though, that my idea of a reasonable price for a book will be completely unaffordable for many people. So I thought I would gather some of the excellent open access resources from my field of research methods.

The National Centre for Research Methods, here in the UK, has a large and growing body of searchable open access resources on their newly revamped website. This covers quantitative and qualitative methods, conventional and creative methods – not quite every method under the sun, but close; an excellent collection that is well worth exploring.

The Global Social Change Research Project curates a lot of open access resources, more on quantitative methods with some qualitative methods. It is searchable and the links down the left-hand side of the page are also useful for navigation.

The British Library’s Social Welfare Portal is very useful for anyone interested in UK social policy: its development, implementation, and evaluation. You can search for ‘downloadable content only’, which should be OA, or ‘all social welfare content’, which is likely to include some paywalled items.

Then there are a whole bunch of open access research methods journals, covering quantitative, qualitative, and creative methods.

Quantitative journals include the Journal of Modern Applied Statistical Methods, the Journal of Methods and Measurement in the Social Sciences, Survey Research Methods, Survey Methods: Insights From The Field and Survey Practice. The first four are peer reviewed while Survey Practice is editor reviewed.

Social Research Practice is the peer-reviewed journal of the Social Research Association, and it includes all kinds of methods.

Then there are three good qualitative journals, which also include reports of creative research methods. They are Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS), The Qualitative Report, and Qualitative Sociology Review. The first two are multi-disciplinary, and all are peer reviewed.

Art/Research International is a multi-disciplinary peer reviewed journal focusing on arts-based research.

The publishers I work with are Routledge, SAGE, and Policy Press. They represent a cross-section of academic publishing. Routledge is part of Taylor & Francis which is part of Informa, a global multinational. SAGE is an independent publishing house. Policy Press is an imprint of Bristol University Press (BUP). Routledge’s profits mostly go to Informa’s shareholders, and BUP is not for profit. Nevertheless, BUP creates open access resources such as a blog, podcasts and webinars – but these understandably focus on all the topics it publishes, not only research methods. SAGE majors on research methods and reinvests some of its profits into resources for the communities it serves. It offers loads of free resources on research methods, an online research community called Methodspace, a research methods resource centre, and lots more which you can access through those links.

So although some publishers are shamelessly taking advantage of the pandemic, others are working hard to help those affected. No doubt there are more resources than those I have listed here. If you know of others, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why Academics Should Publish Books With University Presses

I discovered that last Friday was publication day for a book of great interest to me: Indigenous Research Ethics: Claiming Research Sovereignty Beyond Deficit and the Colonial Legacy, an edited collection out of New Zealand and published by Emerald. In hardback. For £85. Or as an e-book, for £80.75.

I have been cross for a while about the ridiculous pricing of some academic publications, and now I’m furious. I really want to read this book, and it’s way beyond my budget. It will be beyond the budget of most independent or precariously employed researchers. And how many Indigenous scholars can afford £85 for a book – or the e-book with a derisory £4.25 reduction?

This pricing is calculated for academic libraries. It is closed access in book form. The publisher can claim they are supporting Indigenous researchers and scholars and, sure, those whose work is published in this book get a new line on their CV which may help them in their career. But their work is not going to be widely read, used, and cited by others. Because, guess what, academic libraries are experiencing budget cuts. I was chatting on social media with a senior academic who had asked her university library to get this book, and whose library had said no, that’s above our threshold now.

This is of course n=1, so let’s take a wider look. I’ve been doing some research into the practices and economics of academic publishing – and it’s horrifying. Of course books and journals are inextricably linked, but I can’t cover both in one post, so I’m focusing on books today; journals in a couple of weeks’ time.

Broadly, academic publishers can be divided into three categories:

  1. for profit and part of a bigger business;

2. stand-alone independent for profit; and

3. not for profit.

In general, the scholarly publishing industry makes a 35-40% profit margin. Walmart makes 3%. Publishers that are part of bigger businesses are usually part of global corporations who divert a proportion of any profit to their shareholders. In such corporations, the academic publishing arm is often so profitable that it is propping up other parts of the business.

A lot of scholars are completely unaware of how this works. Most scholars in the social sciences and the humanities have heard of the book publisher Routledge; most STEM scholars have heard of CRC Press. Some know that one or other is part of the academic publisher Taylor & Francis. Few understand that Taylor & Francis is part of Informa, a global corporation in the FTSE 100, huge, wealthy, growing – and making good money for its shareholders. Taylor & Francis isn’t a little bit of Informa, it is the second biggest of five divisions, and, according to the 2019 annual report, is showing ‘good levels of growth’. In 2019 Taylor & Francis’ revenue was £560m, and its adjusted operating profit was £218m. Part of this was due to ‘a steady performance in books’ – 7,300 books, in fact, that year. E-books accounted for 31% of the year’s total book sales.

I found a vaguely equivalent book on Routledge’s website: Social Science Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and CrossCultural Perspectives, another edited collection. The hardback price is an eye-watering £125, but at least there is a less expensive paperback (£36.99) and e-book (£33.29). They’re still outside my budget, though – my ceiling is £30. (Full disclosure – I could buy the paperback with my Routledge author discount. But we can’t all write for all of the publishers. And these prices are still very high for a 350-page book.)

By contrast, UCL Press is a fully open access press. It is run by a working group of the UCL Library Committee, and has published 184 books since it was established in 2015. And those books are all fully open access. Which means free. Free to download, free to read.

Not, sadly, free to write, though – at least, not for all authors. Publication is free for people working at UCL, and for their co-authors and co-editors. UCL also cover the publication costs of up to five non-UCL book projects each year. After that, it costs £5,000 to publish a book of up to £100,000 words. This would usually come from research funders, as part of the dissemination strategy for a research bid.

So there is still a huge degree of privilege in operation here. To publish a book with UCL Press you need to be connected with UCL, or very lucky, or funded, or rich. You almost certainly won’t be from the global South. I have been worried for a long time that open access would benefit readers at the expense of writers, and this does seem to be happening. But I understand that, on the whole, this is a step on the way to social good, as it offers good quality academic literature more freely to any reader with an internet connection. Also, UCL Press are offering consultancy and training to other universities that want to set up open access publishers of their own.

There are other OA and scholar-led presses at Goldsmiths, Westminster, Huddersfield and elsewhere. Larger university presses in the UK include Bristol University Press, Liverpool University Press, Manchester University Press and Edinburgh University Press. Then there are the oldest and largest, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. And there are many others around the world. Their mission includes making research available to the public, and giving voice to under-represented groups and experiences. Any surplus income they generate goes to support their mission.

You can see the difference, too, when you read the books. Routledge publishes some good books but their production values are not high. They are often poorly edited and with inadequate or no index, and their cover designs are basic and repetitive. Policy Press, an imprint of Bristol University Press, also publishes some good books and their production values are much higher. The editing is good, more of their books have good indexes, and their covers are carefully designed.

So, academics, what do you want for your books? Do you want them to be well constructed and made available to as many people as possible, by an organisation with a mission to help make that happen? Or do you want them to be averagely constructed and available only through some academic libraries, by an organisation that has a mission to line the pockets of its shareholders?

The recent Open Access Manifesto for Freedom, Integrity and Creativity in the Humanities and Interpretive Social Sciences recommends that scholars in those sectors consider the political and ethical implications of where they choose to publish, and aim for ‘outlets whose values align with your own’. I would recommend that for scholars and researchers in all sectors.

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 $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – 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 Open Is Open Access?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 18 January 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

partly open doorThose outside the UK probably won’t be aware of Jisc. The non-profit organisation’s role is to provide technological solutions to academic problems, including researching and developing new ways of working supported by technology. (Full disclosure: they are also one of my clients.) Jisc is publicly funded by UK taxpayers’ money and member subscriptions. Its members are from the UK, and its objectives are designed to create benefit for the staff and students of adult education institutions in the UK.

But its strategy includes a stated intention of ‘growing our offering internationally to further benefit our members’.

Jisc is also very keen on open sharing of information and resources. It advocates open access to research publications, which its says means making them ‘freely available so anyone can benefit from reading and using research’. It promotes the sharing of research data, and the use of non-restrictive Creative Commons licensing to enable re-use of resources. Jisc identifies various potential benefits of this, one of which is that ‘researchers in developing countries can see your work’.

So far, so many good intentions. I’m sure most of my Euro-Western colleagues will be nodding their heads and thinking yes, marvellous, jolly well done Jisc. And indeed I am not writing this post to criticise those at Jisc, who are doing their best to be good guys, and who after all exist in the UK for the benefit of their UK members. My point here is to critique our more general Euro-Western academic mindset, which Jisc’s example illustrates.

You see, until very recently, I would have been one of those people nodding along, with a satisfied expression, thinking “oh Jisc you are doing well”. But my eyes have been opened by a recent blog post written by Andy Nobes of international development charity INASP, featuring the work of Florence Piron from Université Laval in Québec and her colleagues from around the world. Piron and her colleagues have written – in French – some publications that offer new perspectives and ideas to Euro-Western advocates of open access. In particular, they challenge the idea that Euro-Western researchers simply making their work visible to ‘researchers in developing countries’, as Jisc suggests, equates to open access. By contrast, they see it as an extension of colonialism and an ‘alienation epistemic’. This is because it does nothing to make knowledge generated in other parts of the world equally visible to researchers in Euro-Western countries. In turn, that serves to reinforce the use of Euro-Western theories and models as normative, which is to the detriment of local epistemologies in other parts of the world (Piron et al 2017).

We don’t think of these things, do we, us Euro-Western researchers? We’re too confident that we’re doing OK as long as we’re making some kind of gesture towards those with fewer privileges.

Piron and her colleagues point out that many Euro-Western academics are unable even to think that ‘valid and relevant knowledge’ could exist in other places and other ways; they can be ‘blind to epistemological diversity’ and regard Western science as universal (ibid). Even those Euro-Western academics who do respect other forms of knowledge are unlikely to engage in truly reciprocal knowledge exchanges. Collaborative projects often involve Euro-Western academics acting as principal investigators while researchers from other parts of the world are restricted to data-gathering and administrative work (Sherwood 2013, Yantio 2013).

In some Euro-Western academic circles there are moves afoot to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But this is not only needed in Euro-Western establishments. Some teachers in other parts of the world also choose exclusively Euro-Western literature and examples for their students (Mboa Nkoudou 2016). This is a direct real-world consequence of the pervasive Euro-Western conviction that any other way of thinking must be inferior to our own. It makes life harder – not easier – for people in other parts of the world to solve their own local problems in appropriate and sustainable ways (ibid).

Truly open access will involve a two-way exchange of – and respect for – knowledge and the epistemological positions on which it is based. Obviously this is beyond the power of a single organisation, such as Jisc, or a single individual, such as you or I. However, all Euro-Western researchers, and those who work with them, need to be aware of the difference between open access as we tend to purvey it, and genuinely open access. Only with such awareness will we find ways to move from our one-way, take-it-or-leave-it approach to a true openness and sharing with other academics around the world.

New Year’s Resolution: Open Access Only

open-doorHappy New Year, all my lovely readers! I hope you’ve had a wonderful break and that any resolutions you may have made are the life-enhancing rather than the punitive kind.

My resolution for 2017 is that from now on, I will only write academic articles in my own time for open-access journals. If someone wants to pay me to write an academic article, then I’ll be open to submitting that article to a journal of their choice. (It has happened once in my life, so far.) But otherwise I’m going OA.

I can’t afford to do that with books, as I’m finding that academic self-publishing doesn’t pay, while academic traditional publishing does, a bit. (My trad pub royalties for the year 2015-16 finally broke four figures, which felt GREAT.  The actual figure was £1,627.20 which is a month’s money for me. Though it did take five-and-a-half years of dedicated writing and promo to reach this point… at that rate I should be able to give up the day job in 2071. When I’ll be 106 years old. Oh well!)

Articles for academic journals are much easier and quicker to write than books. They’re also good for testing and refining small ideas. I enjoy writing them, so I’m not going to stop. But I am planning to reduce the number I write to two a year, and publish those in OA journals or not at all.

This is primarily an ethical decision. Early in the days of OA publishing, although I liked the prospect from a reader’s viewpoint, I worried that many writers would be excluded because of the costs. I think that is still the case in some quarters, but I have found that reputable OA journals are often willing to waive their fees for independent researchers, and some don’t charge fees at all. Also, I would like my work to be more widely accessible, including to people who are temporarily or permanently outside the academy, or in parts of the world where it’s particularly difficult for people to access paywalled academic journals.

There are many more open access journals around now than there were five years ago. When I was working on the first edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners, in 2012, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) listed 22 journals covering social work. Now it lists 125. There are similar levels of increase in other subject areas, and there are now 9,000 journals on the site as a whole. Yet the DOAJ only lists journals that are peer-reviewed or otherwise editorially controlled; they don’t list predatory journals. They promote best practice in OA publishing and have high ethical standards.

I feel ashamed to say that I have never published an article in an OA journal. To begin with I was advised on where to publish by academic mentors, then I wanted to publish in the journals I liked to read. Now I want to read more OA journals as well as publishing in them. I’m not going to rule out citing work from paywalled journals – yet – but I want to focus on finding and using more OA journals, rather than going straight to the usual suspects all the time.

I do have a couple of articles in the pipeline with paywalled journals, so it’ll be a while before I get to assess the impact of my New Year’s resolution for 2017. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting adventure!