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!

Collaborative Book Writing – The End Stage

online collaborationRecently I’ve been writing books in collaboration with other authors. I collaborated with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) on Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which was published last December. I have also been collaborating with Professor Richard Phillips (aka @PhillipsSpace) on Creative Writing in Social Research which is due for publication next January. We’ve just finished the draft manuscript and it’s gone for peer review.

The final stages of producing any book – or thesis, or dissertation – are tortuous for a solo writer. There are so many little details to check and re-check. Is each heading in the appropriate style? Does every citation in the text correspond to a reference in the bibliography? Is every reference in the bibliography cited in the text? Are there any typos? Does the text make sense? I have dreamed of having someone to help with all this checking and re-checking, yet to my surprise it seemed even more tortuous when I was working collaboratively. This is no reflection whatsoever on my collaborators; they were both a delight to work with and I would happily work with either of them again. However, it seems to me that collaborating may be easier for strategic and creative tasks than in painstakingly detailed work.

Janet is based in Colorado and when we were finishing our book, the number of emails whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic was enormous. They said things like:

“I’ve restructured chapter 6 and I think it works better now, please could you take a look and see if you agree?”

“I’ve sorted out the figures, they’re all numbered and captioned now.”

“OMG – I’ve just noticed the chapter titles aren’t consistent – how did we miss THAT?!?”

And many, many more such messages. Working with Richard was easier in that he’s based in the UK and, what’s more, works at a university which is only a short journey from me. So at times we could meet up in person to go through comments and make decisions together. At other times we met on Skype, as I also did with Janet. Not that speaking in real time is foolproof – more than once I wrote down something one of my collaborators said, then found later that my notes made no sense.

In my latest meeting with Richard we divided up the final tasks. Here’s the to-do list I scribbled at my desk the next morning:

book finishing to-do list

I rarely write by hand these days, but this task was so complex I felt the need for an old-skool list rather than the digital ones I usually use. Getting through that lot took me about three working days. The deadline was tight, and I had to fit the work around other commitments, so I ended up working till 10 pm two nights in a row. I don’t usually work in the evenings because my brain shuts down around 6-7 pm, but checking references is fairly mindless work so I saved that for the late sessions. Once my tasks were complete, Richard had a list of similar length, and it took him a good few days, too, to get through all his tasks.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that the end stage of a collaborative book is at least as time-consuming for each author as the end stage of a solo-authored book. This is counter-intuitive: you’d think that with two of you, it would take each person half as long as if they were working alone. In some parts of the book writing work that’s (almost) the case – but not at the end stage. So when I next collaborate on a book, I will allocate the same amount of time to the end stage as I would if I was doing it all myself. Then, with luck, I won’t need to work in the evenings.

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!

Too Tired To Blog

PFYDR coverThere’s lots I could write about this week. I could write a post around my new book, out this very week: Publishing From Your Doctoral Research, co-written with Janet Salmons, the first book in the series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson. I’m proud of this book and happy to see it in print – and it’s currently on special offer through the above link for only £14.39 (paperback). But mid-December is a rubbish time to publish a book because everyone is preoccupied with the holidays.

I could write about the winter lurgy I’ve been suffering from this week, and the importance of rest and recuperation, though that would be a real case of ‘do as I say not as I do’. I could write something creative about the forthcoming festivals – winter solstice, Hanukah, Christmas, Hogmanay, and so on.

tiredThis has been a helluva year workwise. I could focus on that: calculate how many train journeys I’ve taken, how many beds I’ve slept in – it would be a lot. That’s mainly why I’m so tired, I think. I’m not short of material for this blog; I’m short of energy. I need a break. So I’m going to have one. Beginning on Friday, when I won’t have done all the jobs I wanted to do, but I will have done all that I can. I’ll start work again on Monday 30 December, but I’m going to take a slightly longer digital break – I’ve already ducked out of Instagram, and I’ll be weaning myself off Twitter and Facebook over the next few days. I’ll be back online, in the New Year, when I’m ready. This blog, too, will be quiet now until the first full week of January. I wonder what I’ll post about then… I envy my fellow bloggers who can generate several posts in one go; I almost always write mine the same week as I publish them. It’ll be a whole new decade. I wonder if I will feel any different. I doubt it, really – except for, I hope, a little less tired.

Wishing you, too, an enjoyable and restful break. Especially if you’re one of my beloved Patrons.

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 $45 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $45 – 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!

Making Money From Writing Books

coins on handI’ve been writing steadily since 2011, and I’ve just done my accounts for 2018-19. I have published three full-length books (one in 2018) and one second edition (in 2017) for my main publisher. I’m now writing for two other publishers and have received several small advances for those books. When I say ‘small’, I mean between £125 and £500, so nice to have in the bank but not at all representative of the amount of time I spend writing the books.

Publishers can be a bit funny about authors telling people about royalty rates and amounts of advances, so I need to be a bit circumspect in this post. (Bit annoying really – this kind of secrecy benefits corporations not individuals, but still, that’s where we are right now.) My royalties took a dip this year which surprised me. In the previous year I’d made it into four figures; in 2018-19 I was back into three figures (though I’m happy to say I’m back in four figures again for 2019-20).

I have also self-published six solo-authored short books for doctoral students and one co-written book on self-publishing for academics. These would sell more if I did more to promote them; in 2018-19 global profits totalled £175.65.

I got money, too, from the Public Lending Right – every time one of my books is borrowed from a UK library, I am entitled to a payment of a few pence.  The payout is made once a year and this year was my biggest ever: £8.61.

Also the completely wonderful Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society pays out twice a year to UK authors whose work has been photocopied anywhere in the world. They also collect PLR payments from outside the UK. This year, that added up to £414.60 in total which was very nice to receive.

With all of this, my total gross income directly from writing in 2018-19 was £3,671.32. There were some outgoings too: mostly books, and my Society of Authors’ annual subscription, which brought it down to around £3,000 of net income.

While still not a life-changing amount, it is a game-changing sum of money. It means that, after eight years of steady writing, I can now spend several weeks of each year on writing alone, paid for by the income from my writing. This is a lovely position to be in. It’s better than spending several weeks of each year on writing mostly subsidised by my paid work, which is what I have been doing up to now. Also, I expect it to improve year on year: this time next year I should be receiving royalties from three publishers rather than one (assuming I can earn out my little advances quickly enough).

It has taken me the full eight years to get here. My total earnings from writing for the last eight years have been around £7,500. Most of those have been in the last three years: £1,500 in 2016-17 and £1,600 in 2017-18, plus the £3,000 this year. The first five years, 2011-2016, I earned around £1,400 in total. That was partly because I invested in my self-published books, paying an editor to work on the text and paying for cover design. Speaking purely financially, that was a bad move, but I’m not sorry because I know those books have helped people.

I love writing books; I don’t think I could write them otherwise. Also, my books make me money in other ways: I get asked to run workshops in universities, and to work on projects, solely on the strength of my writing. But I think it is worth reflecting on how poorly academic writing pays writers. We’re still dealing with a system which is based on the principle that anyone doing academic writing has a secure and sizeable salary. That is outdated but it’s taking a long time to change.

Since my very first book, I have negotiated as hard as I reasonably could for a good deal, with the support of the excellent contract advisers who help out members of the Society of Authors. If I hadn’t argued my case, my earnings from writing would have been even lower. I’m sure some people think being a published writer means I’m rich. They look at the kind of income achieved by writers like JK Rowling or Jodi Picoult and think the same applies across the board. I’m sure others think knocking out a book or two will make an appreciable difference to their income and/or pension. Not if it’s an academic book it won’t.

Based on my experience, I reckon you could make a decent living as an academic writer if you write lots of books of interest to people across a range of disciplines, and work with several publishers – for about 20 years. If you write single-discipline books your earnings are likely to be very small. I think it’s important to share what we can of this kind of information, depressing as it is, so that people go into the writing business with realistic expectations.

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 $45 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $45 – 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!

Reviewing Work by Indigenous Scholars

Indigenous methods booksA year ago I launched my book on research ethics which draws on the work of Indigenous researchers from around the world, setting the Indigenous research paradigm and literature side-by-side with the Euro-Western research paradigm and literature. I state in the book that I am not an expert on Indigenous research or ethics. And I never will be – I am a student of the literature, aiming to decolonise my own thought and practice. When I was writing the book I realised that after it came out, Euro-Western institutions would try to position me as an expert by offering invitations to speak about and review the work of Indigenous scholars. And indeed they have.

I have turned down all invitations to speak that would constitute me speaking for Indigenous scholars, and I will continue to do so. I tell whoever has invited me that Indigenous researchers and scholars need to take these assignments, and give them pointers on how to contact suitable people. I can, and do, speak about Indigenous research and ethics in the keynotes and workshops I give. For example, when I was asked to focus on the history of creative research methods in my keynote for the recent Manchester Methods Fair, I included what I know of the history of Indigenous research. I know some Indigenous scholars think I shouldn’t speak on this topic at all, while others call for inclusion of their work in Euro-Western scholarly spaces. I am working to respond to these calls because my own view, currently, is that dialogue is more important than segregation.

Reviewing written work is a different matter. I have been asked, by prominent Euro-Western academic journals, to review articles by Indigenous scholars. Here is an example of actual email correspondence I have had with such a journal (which I will not name as that seems unfair):

Me: Hi. I can review this if you can confirm that at least one of the other reviews will be done by an Indigenous scholar/researcher. I’m not sure COPE has caught up with the ethical aspects of Indigenous scholarship, research, and publishing. Essentially, it’s not ethical for non-Indigenous people to make pronouncements about anything to do with Indigenous issues without Indigenous input. I’m hoping you’re already aware of this and have one or more Indigenous reviewers lined up – in which case, I’m in.

Journal editor: We understand the importance of this and I have forwarded your concerns on to the internal editorial team to ask them for further information. However, please be aware that we do operate our external peer reviews on a largely blind basis in terms of names, background etc. For example, when the authors receive the reviewer’s comments they do not see the names of the reviewers. I only receive the names of the reviewers from the editorial team who are the ones with the in depth knowledge concerning the reviewer’s research specialties etc. Thus, at this point I’m unsure as to the backgrounds of the reviewers we have invited as I only communicate with them through the manuscript and e-mail system we use.    Me: I take your point about blind peer reviews. This of course is in direct opposition to the Indigenous ethical principle of accountability which I expect your author has addressed in their article. My own engagement with the Indigenous methods literature, plus a small amount of work directly with Indigenous researchers and scholars, has brought me to my current position. This is that I won’t act as any kind of authority on Indigenous issues unless I know for sure that Indigenous people are involved at the same level. And ‘authority’ includes peer reviewing.

Having solely non-Indigenous people act as authorities on Indigenous issues is analogous to having solely men act as authorities on women’s issues. I’ve fought against the latter all my life. It would be hypocritical of me then to take an equivalent stance in another arena.

Internal editorial team rep: Thank you for this, and for the important point you raise. Supporting and finding a space for indigenous scholarship and methodological discussion is something that, as a new editorial team, we take seriously and are currently discussing. We will endeavour to recruit an indigenous reviewer (with the recognition with all that is bound up with this category and how often it is a little too broad for each context) and will be reviewing policy on this matter at our next meeting.

This did nothing to reassure me so I declined to review.

From dr.whomever on Instagram, aka Em Rabelais from the University of Illinois in the US, I have recently learned that the preoccupation of Euro-Westerners with the ‘evidence base’ is colonialist and gets in the way of a lot of anti-oppressive work. Many Indigenous peoples have a different view of evidence: for example, if someone has lived through a phenomenon, event, or relationship, they know about it and so can provide evidence. In Euro-Western cultures, we accept this kind of evidence to convict people of crimes and call it a ‘witness statement’, but we will not accept it in research where we dismiss it as ‘anecdote’. This seems to me an anomaly, and one I have never understood.

Imposing this approach to research on people from other cultures who take a different view, as dr.whomever says, is epistemic violence. Last week I spotted this tweet by Grieve Chelwa from the University of Cape Town in South Africa:

I’m now wondering whether I should accept invitations to review because at least I understand this and have some knowledge of Indigenous ethical principles. But I’m also aware that the little knowledge I have can be a dangerous thing. And I don’t want to end up being seen as “an expert” on Indigenous scholarship, or even “a go-to person”.

In an ideal world, I would like Euro-Western and Indigenous scholars to review each other’s work with a good understanding of each other’s perspectives. I was very grateful to receive a review of the draft manuscript of my book on research ethics from Indigenous scholar Deborah McGregor from York University in Canada, who waived anonymity to enable dialogue, and was helpfully constructive with her criticism and generous with her praise. However, in our far-from-ideal world, I recognise that Indigenous scholars have higher priorities than reviewing the work of a privileged Euro-Western scholar.

I think waiving anonymity would help a lot in these situations. I would be happier to review the work of Indigenous scholars if I knew they were happy for me to review their work, and that we could have a dialogue to ensure mutual understanding.

Having said all that, I definitely want to support Indigenous researchers (and other marginalised researchers) whenever I can do so ethically. But figuring out when and how to do that is not straightforward. If you have any ideas or suggestions to contribute I’d love to read 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 $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!

Publishing From Your Doctoral Research

PFYDR coverNew book klaxon! Publishing From Your Doctoral Research: Create And Use A Publication Strategy is now available for pre-order.

This book is exciting for a number of reasons. First, I wrote it with US colleague Janet Salmons which was a great collaboration. We based it on an online course we developed a few years ago. Janet and I did loads of market research before developing the course; established that there was definitely a demand; did loads of promo when we launched the course; and had hardly any take-up. The students who did work with us were very complimentary about the course and have gone on to publish successfully in a variety of formats. We were sad that the course didn’t really take off, then happy to find we could revise the material we’d prepared into a book for Routledge. It was fun to collaborate with Janet and we have worked hard to make the book accessible and practical.

Second, this is the first in the series Insider Guides to Success in Academia which I am co-editing with the incomparable Pat Thomson. They are short, pocket-sized books, about half the length of a standard book. And they cover topics which are not already covered in the literature; the kinds of things people seem required to learn by osmosis. Two more titles are almost ready to go into production: Making It As A Contract Researcher and Being Well In Academia. Other books following along are on topics such as collaboration, the viva around the world, bidding for grant funding, PhD by publication. This is the first time I’ve worked as a series editor and it’s really interesting to do, as well as highly enjoyable to collaborate with Pat.

Now, as always, it’s the anxious wait for reader feedback. Though I have been considerably more anxious about other books, because the material in this one has been thoroughly tested by our students. Still… we’ll see!

 

Five Years Of Blogging – Help Me Celebrate!

celebrateThis blog has been in existence for five years. Since October 2014 I have published a weekly post, on average, in 43 weeks of each year. Some posts, like the first one, have been posts of the moment, or places for me to put things I wanted to find again, or topical posts that are now out of date. Others have wider appeal and more longevity, and are regularly shared on social media and, no doubt, elsewhere too.

My blog has 530 followers and, if you’re one of them, thank you, you intelligent, discerning, marvellous person. However, that figure is not entirely representative. Over the last five years my blog has had 27,900 visitors. The majority have come from the UK and the US (around 11,000 from each); significant numbers have come from Australia, Canada and India (1,000-3,000 from each). In all, people from over 100 countries have visited my blog. And the numbers have increased steadily over time: I had over 1,000 visitors last week alone.

My most popular post of all time is Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Publishers, with over 3,000 views to date. My most popular download is my short comic on qualitative interviewing, Conversation With A Purpose drawn by Sophie Jackson, with over 800 downloads. I don’t keep an eye on my stats (too busy!) so these figures were a pleasant surprise.

It’s good to know that people appreciate and use my work. However, it would be great if this translated into more followers, donors, and patrons. I currently have 13 patrons contributing $25 per month, which I hugely appreciate. The PayPal donate button on my blog has been used once. Again, I really appreciated that, but with more I could do more. So, in celebration of my five-year anniversary of blogging, how about doing one of these five things: either

  1. Click the button on the right to follow my blog (one post a week, at most, in your inbox); or
  2. Become a patron for as little as $1 per month; or
  3. Make a one-off or monthly donation – amount of your choice – via the PayPal button on the right; or
  4. Write a short review of any of my books that you’ve read and publish it online; or
  5. Share one of my posts on social media.

Thank you for helping me celebrate!

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!

More Little Quick Fixes for Research

Little Quick Fix logoRegular readers may remember that I’ve been writing short research methods books for SAGE’s Little Quick Fix series. The first two, Write A Questionnaire and Do Your Interviews, came out in January. I’m delighted to announce that their sequels, Use Your Questionnaire Data and Use Your Interview Data, will be out any day now. Like their prequels they have gorgeous colourful covers – look!

UYQD coverUYID cover

You may be thinking, Helen, how can you write so many books? For a start, these ones are short –  only 7,000 words each, though that brings its own challenges. Also, I love writing, and am happy to do lots of it, as evidenced by this blog among other things.

The sad thing is that nobody much is likely to be interested at this time of year. It’s the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere and the winter holidays in the southern hemisphere. Talking of holidays, this blog is going to take a break until September. I’m not – I have more books to write!

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!