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!

Five Top Tips for Managing Deadlines

October is a month of several deadlines. The rapid e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID-19 that I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo are being published on Friday 23rd, and I have to draft a post for the LSE Impact Blog to be published on that date. The online launch for the Insider Guides to Success in Academia series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson is on Thursday 28th, and I have a bunch of preparation to do beforehand. The end of the month is the deadline for four draft chapters of a new book I’m writing for SAGE, and for the draft MS of a book I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo for Policy Press. I have to draft the conclusion for that book by then. And those are just the publishing deadlines; I have client deadlines too, and this blog needs writing every week, and my accounts will be due soon. The deadline pressure seems never-ending.

People have different attitudes to deadlines. Some need the pressure of a deadline to do good work. Others find the stress of an approaching deadline means their work deteriorates, so they need to plan ahead. Some are continually surprised by deadlines; others ignore them. The writer Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” We often talk in terms of meeting deadlines, but that’s not the whole story. I think we need to learn to manage our deadlines. Here are my five top tips for deadline management.

  1. Don’t let your deadlines take you by surprise

I’m sure we’ve all had colleagues who have said things like, “You mean this week?”, and caused much eye-rolling irritation. Everyone needs a system to help us stay aware of our deadlines. I use lists; a friend uses Post-Its stuck around her computer monitor; another friend uses a big wall-mounted year planner. It doesn’t matter what system you use, what matters is that it works for you

2. Do sweat the small stuff

Paying attention to detail really helps when you’re managing deadlines. Some people really struggle with details, such as ‘big picture’ thinkers and some neurodiverse people. If you find it really difficult to pay attention to detail, try to work with others who have these skills, or enlist the support of a friend who can help you to focus. If you find it a bit tricky, whether because you find it boring or because you’ve never really honed the skills, I recommend working to develop your ability to pay attention to detail. The time invested will pay dividends.

3. Manage your time well

Time management helps with deadline management. I raise my head from my immediate tasks to check on my deadlines and review my progress at least once a week, usually late on a Friday or early on a Monday. Sometimes more often if I feel the need. At particularly busy times I might do this daily; it is particularly helpful at times when deadlines and priorities are, or may be, changing. Another important component of time management is to be realistic about what you can get done in the time available. I worked with one person who was frequently astonished by the need to spend time on things like childcare and teaching preparation – which, as they were a parent and a teacher, seemed quite odd to me. A third component of time management is to say ‘no’ when necessary. I’ll be saying ‘no’ to anything else with an October deadline. ‘Too many deadlines already’ is a very good reason for saying ‘no’.

4. Communicate if you have a problem

If you think you’re not going to meet a deadline, tell the people who need to know. Most people are forgiving and flexible, particularly if you have an unforeseen problem, sometimes even if it’s simply because the work was more complicated than you had expected. The earlier you can let them know, the easier it is for them to be forgiving and flexible. (Making a habit of missing deadlines has the opposite effect. Therefore I don’t advise this as a regular practice, but it’s useful when needed.) So don’t procrastinate here, not least because that will only add to your stress levels.

5. Practise self-care

Looking after ourselves should always be a priority. If we are well cared for, we are better able to manage our deadlines. And managing deadlines is a form of self-care in its own right, because really the whole point of deadline management is to manage the stress and pressure deadlines can cause.

So those are my five top tips. Is there anything I’ve missed? If so, please let me know in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $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!

History, Truth, Research and Choices

I didn’t get on too well with history at school. It was all about kings and queens and battles, people and events I couldn’t identify with. I enjoyed historical novels if they were about times that had relevance for me, e.g. the first world war (in which my maternal grandfather fought) or the second world war (in which my paternal grandfather fought). But in general I preferred the contemporary world I knew, and books and films set there.

In the late 1980s I discovered revisionist history. I loved The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles (later rebranded as Who Cooked the Last Supper?), which was an eye-opening book, clever, funny, and a welcome counterpoint to all the male-dominated history I’d read. I was fascinated by Peter Fryer’s books Black People in the British Empire, which demonstrated that the British empire was based on exploitation and oppression, and Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, which showed how Black people had been present and influential in British society for two thousand years. (The link is to a recent edition of this book with a new foreword by Gary Younge – if you haven’t come across it and you’re interested, I would recommend a read.)

More recently I have read Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor (2017), An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014), and The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (2013). I would recommend each of these books for their perspective, dignified approach, and eloquent writing.

At the start of lockdown, some kind neighbours along my street set up a book exchange for our community outside their house. A few weeks ago I found a copy of The American Future by Simon Schama, a high-profile and respected British academic historian, award-winning writer and broadcaster. This book has four sections:

  1. American War (civil war, World War Two, Vietnam)
  2. American Fervour (religion – mostly Judeo-Christian)
  3. What is an American? (immigration, primarily of Germans, other Europeans, Mexicans and Chinese people)
  4. American Plenty (shift in mindset from infinite to finite availability of land and resources)

With my new awareness of the position of Indigenous peoples in the US, thanks to the work of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Thomas King, I wondered what Schama said on the subject. The subtitle of his book is A History From The Founding Fathers to Barack Obama, which didn’t fill me with optimism. And sure enough, Indigenous people barely feature in sections 1-3. There is a brief acknowledgement in the prologue on page 14 that ‘Native American tribes’ in Iowa might have had a different viewpoint from ‘Canadian troopers’ on whether Iowa had ever experienced war. There is a brief mention on page 114 that in the late nineteenth century, the army was involved in ‘finishing off Native Americans’. And other such mentions in passing – until section 4, pages 316-330, a subsection called ‘White Path 1801-1823’, which tells the story of the Cherokee people in Tennessee. Schama evidently attempts to use a reasonably even-handed approach: he acknowledges the Cherokee perspective and recognises at least some of the injustice done to them through broken promises, land grabs and forced relocations. He describes president-to-be Andrew Jackson as ‘unexpectedly brutal’ and says that ‘extinction’ [of Indigenous peoples] ‘was an actual policy determined by actual men’ (322). Schama also describes Jackson as ‘the ethnic cleanser of the first democratic age’ (326).

The story of American history from the late 18th century to the present day is told very differently by Dunbar-Ortiz. She acknowledges Jackson as ‘the implementer of the final solution for the Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi’ (96). She points out that ‘In the 1990s, the term “ethnic cleansing” became a useful descriptive term for genocide.’ (9) And she identifies ‘four distinct periods’ where documented policies of genocide were created by US administrations. The first is the ‘Jacksonian era of forced removal’, and then ‘the California gold rush in Northern California; the post-Civil War era of the so-called Indian wars in the Great Plains; and the 1950s termination period’ (9).

Having already read Dunbar-Ortiz and King, the way Schama tells the story seemed to me to involve a lot of erasure of Indigenous peoples. And sometimes, due to his narrative choices, his writing seems quite tone deaf. ‘The dream of American plenty for the ordinary man was born from Andrew Jackson’s determination to evict tens of thousands of Indians – Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek as well as Cherokee – from the only homelands they had ever known, because they happened to be in the way.’ (323) Recognition of Andrew Jackson’s atrocities doesn’t hide the division Schama draws between ‘the ordinary man’ and ‘Indians’. That raises a whole bunch of ugly questions. He doesn’t engage with any of them.

Dunbar-Ortiz writes about the impact of history itself as its scholars work to protect ‘the origin myth’ of the Founding Fathers and independence. That origin myth ‘embraces genocide’ (2) which is ‘often accompanied by an assumption of disappearance’ (xiii). I see this in Schama’s engaging, entertaining, readable writing: the overall message is that some Indigenous people were badly treated, a long time ago, in a sub-plot to the major storyline of independence and democracy in a nation of immigrants. A Spectator review on the back of the book reinforces this point by claiming that Schama is ‘weaving the immediate present with [America’s] earliest history’. That ‘earliest history’ is somewhere around 1775. Dunbar-Ortiz, meticulously and forensically, establishes the existence of sophisticated societies and cultures in America thousands of years ago.

Schama’s book was first published in 2008, Dunbar-Ortiz’ in 2014 – but most of her sources are pre-2008, so they would also have been available to him. It is both fascinating and nauseating to read these two very different accounts of what is ostensibly the same history. The authors have completely different perspectives and narratives. And this, for me, is the key learning point. When we conduct research or scholarly work, we bring a perspective and we choose a narrative. Dunbar-Ortiz is open about this, talking about starting a dozen times before she settled on a narrative, and outlining where she sits within relevant debates around Native American scholarship (xii-xiii). Schama simply launches in to an authoritative tale.

The narratives selected by researchers and scholars both reveal and conceal. It is not possible to tell everything that could be told. With this comes huge responsibility. We need to tell the most important, most necessary stories – but that in itself raises new questions. Most important and necessary to whom, for what, and why? Which other stories could we tell? How do we know those stories are not every bit as important and necessary? With the story we choose to tell, how can we acknowledge what we are leaving out as well as what we are focusing on?

This is a complex business and there are no easy answers because each case will be different. What is essential is to be aware of the issues and to use our authorial power as wisely as we can.

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 $57 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $57 – 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!

An Embarrassment Of Books

This week I find myself promoting one forthcoming series of books I’m co-editing, another series which is underway but we’ve only just started the promo, a sole-authored second edition which will be out next month, and two co-authored books which will be out in January.

How did this happen, you may well ask? Let me explain. Three years ago Pat Thomson recruited me to co-edit the Insider Guides to Success in Academia, short books for Routledge. I also co-wrote the first in the series, Publishing From Your Doctoral Research, with Janet Salmons, and that was published last December. Now there are six books in the series, available to buy or for pre-order, with several more in the pipeline.

The other series happened much more quickly: it’s made up of the Policy Press innovative Rapid Response e-books which address issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote a post on this blog in May about research methods to consider using in a pandemic. My commissioning editor at Policy Press read the post and contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in editing a short e-book on the subject. I recruited Su-ming Khoo and we put out a call for chapters – and got 104 submissions, many of which were excellent. So now we’re co-editing three short e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID-19. Volume 1 is on Response and Reassessment, Volume 2 is on Care and Resilience, and Volume 3 is on Creativity and Ethics. Each book contains 11 chapters by researchers from around the world: UK to Tonga, South Africa to Peru, New Zealand to India. The e-books are very affordable at £6.99 (or equivalent) and best of all, until 31 August you can get a 50% discount on each book by emailing the address on the web page.

Then for most of last year I was working on three full-length books. The second edition of my book on Creative Research Methods has five new chapters and over 200 new references. That alone was a mammoth task – much bigger than I expected when I started work. And it was sole-authored, unlike all of the others where I had collaborators to help when the going got tough. This book is available for pre-order now and will be out next month.

Then I was also co-writing a book on Creative Writing for Social Research with Richard Phillips. He asked me to work on this in mid-2018, we co-facilitated a two-day workshop on the subject in November 2018, and began writing together in early 2019. It was a complex project, with workshop participants contributing short creative pieces of various kinds that we had to work into the book as examples while maintaining some level of coherence – though we drew on queer theory to underpin the importance of valuing an element of messiness. Our collaboration was an absolute joy and I cherished the opportunity to bring together two of my great loves, creative writing and social research.

The other book I was co-writing was Creative Research Methods in Education, with Narelle Lemon, Dawn Mannay and Megan McPherson. This was Narelle’s idea and she pitched it to me and Katy Vigurs, on a hot day in May 2017, when she was visiting the UK. We were keen and started work on it but Katy had to drop out for personal reasons and it took a while to regroup with new colleagues. The work got going again in mid-2019, exactly the wrong time for me because I was already working on two books and a series, but I wanted to work on this book too and I didn’t want to delay it further. So I gave up having weekends off and we got it all done. Luckily all three books were with the same publisher and the commissioning editor was hugely helpful in timetabling the projects so that, for example, I could work on one manuscript while another was being peer reviewed. I really do not advise working on three books at the same time but, if you have to, I recommend them all being with the same publisher. I think if it had been different publishers it would have been very much harder.

So there we are. After this lot I’m only working on two books, one co-edited and one sole-authored, and I’m not taking on anything else until those are done. Apart from anything else, I think I’ve written quite enough books for the time being!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $53 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $53 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How To Respond To A Call For Chapters – Twelve Top Tips

callingI recently put out a call for chapters for an edited collection on research methods in times of crisis, together with my co-editor Su-ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland. We received an astonishing 102 proposals in response, and selecting chapters for publication was a really tough job. It also taught me a lot about what works – and what doesn’t – when responding to such a call.

We made our requirements very clear (if you want to take a look, you can download the PDF here). The call was circulated via social media and our own networks. Proposals began to arrive within hours, though over half arrived in the 48 hours before the deadline. I have learned a lot from this process and I’m happy to share it here.

  1. Address the editors politely and personally. Dear Dr Kara and Dr Khoo – fine. Dear Dr Helen and Dr Su-ming – also fine. (In some countries the former is commonly used, in other countries the latter. They’re both polite.) Hi Helen and Su – we were OK with this too as informality is increasingly acceptable by email. Dear Sir Or Madam – very much no. To Whom It May Concern – also no. If the editors’ names are on the call, use them.
  2. Don’t bang in something you wrote for another purpose in the hope that it will pass muster. It won’t. Take the time to prepare a proper proposal.
  3. Think about topics and themes that are likely to be common in the responses, then write something different. (We had a lot of proposals from researchers who wanted to write about how they had planned in-person interviews or focus groups, and now they were conducting interviews or focus groups online. This is understandable, but no editor is going to accept more than one of those.)
  4. If the call states a word count, stick to it; it’s there for a reason. (In our case, we knew the word counts for the chapters would be tight, so we needed to see that potential contributors could write effectively to a tight word count.)
  5. Use all or most of the allotted word count, especially if it’s low – unless you really can say everything that needs to be said in fewer words. Only one of our contributors did this effectively. Others submitted proposals around half of the length of the word count we specified. We have no idea why. Maybe they were trying to impress us, but it didn’t work, as they were unable to tell us enough about their work to give us confidence that it would make a good contribution to the book.
  6. You don’t have to include references in the word count – but in most fields we would suggest you reference lightly, if at all. Remember you’re only writing a proposal for a chapter, not the chapter itself. (I am grateful to my co-editor Su-ming Khoo for the latter point, and for approving the rest of this post.)
  7. If you want to reference the work of the editors, do so sparingly. Peppering your proposal with their names will not increase your chances of success. In fact, they are likely to read your work even more critically.
  8. Do not try to get around a word limit by adding extra information in the body of your email. The editors are unlikely to take it into account.
  9. In fact, keep your email brief and business-like.
  10. If the editors ask for specific information, provide it in your proposal; they are asking for a reason. For example, we asked for the location of the research, so we could ensure a good geographical spread. Some people responded with statements such as ‘online worldwide’, which was perfectly acceptable. Others didn’t state any kind of location which was unhelpful.
  11. There may be something relevant to your research that the editors haven’t asked for. If so, work it into your proposal. For example, we didn’t ask for information about the use of theoretical perspectives, because (a) we’re creating a practical methods book and (b) many methods can be used with more than one theoretical perspective and vice versa. (There’s a longer discussion here about the relationship between theory and method – and, indeed, practice. I’ll write about all that one of these days.) Even so, some contributors told us how they were using theory. That was useful, though never the deciding factor.
  12. Meet the deadline.

If you do all that, you are maximising your chances of success. That said, there are never any guarantees. We had to reject over 50% of the proposals we received, for a number of reasons; ‘didn’t meet the submission requirements’ was rarely the only reason. Sometimes we had two or more good quality proposals featuring much the same method, or approach, or participant group, or theme, and we would have to find other ways to choose between them. We spent hours on Zoom weighing up the pros and cons of different proposals and combinations of proposals. We spent more time negotiating with the publisher, Policy Press, to find ways to accept as many proposals as we could. The good part, though, is at the end of all this we’ll have an excellent book – or three!

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!

 

Call for Chapters

undefinedI am delighted to be working with Su-ming Khoo, from the National University of Ireland, to co-edit a book on Research Methods in Times of Crisis for Policy Press.

We put out the call for chapters last Thursday and we have already had several submissions.

This is no doubt in part because this is a fast-tracked book which will be swiftly written and produced, initially as an e-book. However, there is still plenty of time to respond to the call; the deadline is not until 15 June. So please click on the link above if you want to find out more, or download the PDF here.

 

Not Spock! The myth of “objectivity” damages public trust in science

Dan Cleather cover kdpI am happy to host this guest post by Dan Cleather, a lecturer at St Mary’s University in London.

Public perception of the nature of science and scientists is neatly encapsulated in the portrayal of scientists on the big and small screens. It is a well worn trope – the scientist is a highly intelligent but eccentric character who struggles to understand human problems and to fit into society. Some of film and television’s most popular fictional characters are cast in this mould: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in Star Trek, Dr Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, the Ghostbusters, Sheldon and the gang in the Big Bang Theory, Jeff Goldblum in almost all his films…

These characters suggest that scientists live in ivory towers where they seek to solve abstract problems without ever considering the human condition. Science is a complex game with little relevance to real life. As a scientifically literate, but admittedly weird, kid, I experienced the effect of these prejudices first hand. “Yes Dan, you’re very clever, but you have no common sense…”

Scientists often reinforce aspects of these stereotypes. Many scientists believe that science is objective – that they are engaged in a pursuit of universal truth and are unaffected by bias. Most scientists would consider this objectivity to be a hugely important, positive characteristic of science. In particular, they think that their objectivity and ability to impartially weigh the evidence should lend authority to their opinions on key issues of public debate like climate change or vaccine hesitancy.

Unfortunately, in today’s “post-truth” world, the expert opinion of scientists is increasingly marginalised. A key factor in this is a lack of public trust in scientists. In 2019, the Wellcome Trust published a survey of global attitudes to science and health which was based on responses from more than 140,000 people in over 140 countries. They reported that globally, only 18% of people had a high level of trust in scientists and 54% a medium level of trust. Only 40% of people believed that science benefits most people in their society.

The public’s perception of scientists is clearly a key factor in whether they will trust them or not. The problem here is that we would trust Sheldon Cooper to fix a mobile phone, but we wouldn’t let him look after our children. If people see science as clinical and soulless, they don’t believe that it will properly capture and reflect the human considerations that are important to them.

Dan Cleather Star_Trek_Spock

Both scientists and their opponents revel in the supposed difference between science and common sense. Scientists like it because it suggests that they have rarefied skills that aren’t available to the common person. For science deniers, a perceived lack of common sense serves as a useful cudgel with which to attack scientists’ positions.

The myth of scientific objectivity defines these debates in a similar way. Scientists consider that they have truth on their side, and thus have little patience for debate. Science deniers are suspicious of scientists’ claims to objectivity and believe that the stance serves to disguise some type of hidden agenda.

But is science objective? Of course not! We all have conscious and unconscious biases that affect the way we think. One key strength of science, however, is that we study our biases. The naive scientist believes that this process allows them to eliminate bias. Better scientists try, instead, to understand how their biases affect their thinking.

The apparent dichotomy between science and common sense is false. Both forms of thought are based on reason, and on using evidence to understand the real world. Scientific training is simply based on refining these skills and understanding how bias can mislead us.

The solution to vaccine hesitancy or climate change scepticism does not lie in disenfranchising science deniers because we believe they have an inability to listen to reason. For instance, public health messaging is more effective when a sustained effort is made to listen and respond to public concerns.  Scientists need to demonstrate how they use evidence to arrive at their positions. They need to show how the human factors that preoccupy science deniers are also captured within scientific debate, and that scientific consensus does account for their concerns.

It is disingenuous to claim that science is objective, and the public can see through this claim. Rather, scientists need to be honest as to the strengths and limitations of science, and be open to alternate points of view. Who knows, if we listen to the concerns of science deniers we might learn something that can help us.

As Spock himself put it, “”Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end”.

Dan is an affiliated researcher with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. His new book, “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist” (geni.us/Subvert), is out on 14th May 2020.

Creative Research Methods – Second Edition!

Creative research methods (Second edition) [FC]My book on creative research methods was launched almost five years ago, at a conference on creative research methods at the British Library. The book has been well received worldwide and has had some excellent reviews. Around 18 months ago my editor and I decided it was time to start thinking about a second edition.

The field of creative research methods is exploding, and the changes to the second edition reflect the speed and extent of the field’s development. Almost all of the first edition content is still present, apart from a few edits and one or two citations which have been superseded by later work. And there is a lot more. Five new chapters, over 35,000 new words, and over 200 new references. And a new cover – isn’t it gorgeous?

Also some of the emphases within the book have been rebalanced. One proposal reviewer said they didn’t think there was enough in the first edition about research using technology; another said they would like more on creative approaches to quantitative methods. I wanted more examples from the global South. These have all been addressed.

The attentive reader may notice that the title has changed. The first edition was called ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide’. That title always annoyed me; it should really have been ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities, and to some extent STEM subjects as well’ but that was too unwieldy for a book title. This second edition is truly interdisciplinary so we’ve dropped the ‘social sciences’ tag, but we’ve kept the subtitle because the book is as practical as ever. It won’t answer all your questions – no book could do that – but it offers a fairly thorough guide to the options available, and is carefully referenced to help you find more information on topics of interest.

Sorting out the new structure was a massive headache and it took a few iterations before we arrived at the final result. The first part of the book has expanded from four chapters to five, with a new chapter on ‘transformative research frameworks and Indigenous research’. The second part has expanded from five chapters to nine. Data gathering, data analysis, research reporting, and presentation now each have two chapters, one covering arts-based and embodied methods, the other covering technology-based and multi-modal research.

As this suggests, my conceptualisation of the field has also changed in the light of recent literature. The first edition identified four ‘pillars’ of creative research methods: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed-methods research and transformative research frameworks. The expansion of the field over the last five years has led to the inclusion of embodied research as a fifth ‘pillar’. These are not mutually exclusive; creative research often falls into more than one, but they offer a useful way to help us think and talk about a highly complex interdisciplinary field. Also, thanks to the suggestion of an anonymous manuscript reviewer, the term ‘mixed-methods research’ – with its implication of quant data + qual data – has been replaced by ‘multi-modal research’. This term reflects the point made in the first edition, and now more widely understood, that methods may be combined within quantitative or qualitative research alone, and at any stage of the research process.

I’m really excited about this second edition and I hope you are too. It will be published in September and is available for pre-order now. I have developed a two-day course based on the book’s content, in conjunction with the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods, which we will run when everyone can move around again. Also, I am currently developing online versions in collaboration with universities in the UK and Australia. If you are at a university which would like to book me for a course, do get in touch.

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

blurbThe ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book’s cover which tells you what the book is about. It’s not simply a description, though; it is also a sales tool. For this reason some people find blurbs difficult, even distasteful to write.

Do you want to know a secret? I love writing blurbs. This is partly because I love writing and I always enjoy a different and interesting wordsmithing job. It’s also because I enjoy a chance to show off. For the same reason, I like being interviewed for contracts, giving keynotes, and running workshops. Generally speaking, showing off is regarded as bad form, but these are situations where you’re supposed to show off. And so is writing a blurb.

I do understand why blurb writing can feel difficult and distasteful for some people, particularly academics who are trained not to over-claim – and so may spend much of their time actually under-claiming in their efforts to follow academic convention. Generally speaking I think that’s a good thing, but when you’re writing a blurb, you need to use a different register. If you’re one of the people who finds blurb-writing difficult – or perhaps you’re coming to this task for the first time – these tips should help you to write an irresistible blurb.

  1. Start by studying some blurbs of books in your field. Take note of what appeals to you, what puts you off, and in particular what might encourage you to open the book and start reading.
  2. Go back to your book’s proposal and manuscript reviews and pull out every complimentary word, phrase and sentence into a new document. Think about which of these you could use in your blurb, and how.
  3. Revisit the proposal you wrote for your book. Look for ideas or wording you can use in your blurb.
  4. Explain as clearly as possible what your book does that no other book does.
  5. Use strong language. I don’t mean swearing (unless you’re in a very particular kind of sub-genre), I mean words like “first”, “brilliant”, “ground-breaking” – especially such words that were used by your reviewers and/or in your proposal. This kind of language inspires curiosity in potential readers.
  6. Specify who your book is for. This could be by category of people (students, teachers, early career researchers) or by interest (e.g. anyone with an interest in urban design and planning).
  7. Work hardest on the first sentence; it’s the most important. Make it as compelling as you can.
  8. Work almost as hard on the last sentence. Fiction blurbs often use a cliff-hanger (“Will Curtis ever recover from his terrible ordeal?” “Can Lila catch the serial killer before more nurses die?”). Academic books can rarely do this but at least we can try to be intriguing.
  9. Make every single word count. Blurbs are usually limited to 100-150 words so there’s no room for waffle.
  10. Expect input from your publisher’s marketing people. They’re good at this kind of thing. For example, the second sentence of the blurb for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners says “Brilliantly attuned to the demands placed on researchers, this book considers how students, academics and professionals alike can save time and stress without compromising the quality of their research or its outcomes.” I have to credit Kathryn King, marketing manager at Policy Press, for most of this sentence, perhaps all, and certainly its opening.
  11. If you don’t get input from your publisher – or even if you do – test out your blurb on a few friends or colleagues who you can trust to give you honest constructive feedback.
  12. Be prepared to revise and revise and polish and polish and revise some more.

One piece of advice often given to blurb writers is to be sure to use your own voice. I only agree with this up to a point, because it’s not like any of us only have one voice. Think how you might talk to a tired two-year-old or to a police officer who has just stopped you in the street. Different voices, right? And so it is with books and blurbs. In the book, you’re talking to your reader; you know they’re there with you. In the blurb, you’re trying to persuade them to join you. Again, think how your voice might differ in equivalent real-life situations: perhaps where you’re chatting to a friend over a table in a coffee shop, versus standing in the street trying to persuade your friend to join you for a coffee when you really want them to say “yes”.

Ultimately, that’s what your blurb needs to do: persuade potential readers to say “yes”, to become actual readers, to take your words and ideas along with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Random Acts of Kindness Day: Thanking Anonymous Reviewers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog (a random act of kindness!) if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!