Book Launch And Reviews

Research ethics in the real world [FC]My book launch was yesterday afternoon, and it was a peak experience – I’ve written about these before; they don’t come along often. I gave a free seminar on research ethics at City University in London, which was well received, and my lovely publisher kindly put on a wine reception afterwards. It was an amazing night with friends old and new making up an attentive audience who asked insightful questions. I had so much fun I forgot to take any photos!

I am absolutely amazed that, just a week after publication, this book already has two five-star reviews online. That is unprecedented in my experience. And no, they’re not by people I’ve paid to write them, or by my Mum – they’re by genuine readers. One review is on Amazon and says ‘New researchers and seasoned academics can learn much’ from the book, and also describes it as ‘an enjoyable read’ (that was my favourite part!). The other is on Goodreads and describes the book as ‘an invaluable resource for the researcher’.

Of course these are very pleasing reviews, but that’s not all they are. The time between publication and first reviews is always quite nerve-racking for an author. I know that aspects of this book are controversial. Some of the typescript reviews were very negative, and I’m not expecting all of the book reviews to be positive either. So it is a huge relief to me that the first reviews, at least, are favourable.

My book is properly out in the world now and I’ll stop banging on about it after this – but honestly it has dominated my life for the last couple of weeks and I really haven’t had anything else to write about! Normal service, as they say, will be resumed next week.

 

Ethics, ethics, ethics

Research ethics in the real world [FC]So it’s publication this week, launch next week – places still available if you want to come, it’s free and there will be WINE. This is always a very busy time and the everyday work doesn’t stop to make space. I’m currently working on the next book for Sage and on one I’m co-authoring for Routledge – more about that later. I am also preparing for a busy November: teaching in Birmingham and Southampton, helping to facilitate events in Brussels and Sheffield, attending an event in Leeds, and two trips to London as well. And I have preparation to do for my book launch a week tomorrow.

This means I have no time to write posts for this blog! Luckily I’ve written several for other people. The Research Whisperer published the first of them yesterday, on The Ethics of Conference Speakers. I’d encourage you to head over there and read it, and while you’re there why not have a look around and give them a follow? The scholars who run the blog publish lots of useful posts, and they’re lovely people, too.

Academic taboos #4: what cannot be published

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be publishedWe are all familiar with the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around attributes such as age, ethnicity, and gender. These faultlines act, and sometimes interact, to create barriers to academic publication. For example, Michael Eisen, a US biologist, found in 2016 that, in US-funded health research, less than 30% of senior academic authors are women. He also found that male authors write with fewer female co-writers (35%) than female authors do (45%). Leaving aside the whole ethical problem with treating gender as binary, this demonstrates an interaction between gender and publishing that disadvantages women.

So far, so straightforward. While of course institutionalised sexism needs to be addressed, it is hardly news these days, and there are legislative and policy structures designed to assist. A more unusual take is to look at the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around institutions and managerial practices, which are not currently addressed by equalities legislation or policy. These faultlines, too, act and interact to prevent people from publishing academic work. And by ‘people’ I mean academics, independent scholars, and Indigenous researchers.

Many academics of my acquaintance want their research to change minds and hearts and lives. They long for wide exposure, which often means publishing in open access (OA) journals. However, in many fields, the impact factors of OA journals are not high enough to satisfy audit requirements. So academics have to settle for publication in paywalled journals, read primarily by other academics.

With the growth of OA publishing, some OA journals are now reaching the dizzy heights of audit-worthy impact factors. But then there is another barrier. Access to these journals is open to all readers, but only to those writers with enough money – or an institutional budget – to pay the article processing charges (APCs). This can exclude many junior academics, whose senior colleagues get first dibs on the budget, and most independent scholars (though, to be fair, some OA journals do waive part or all of their APCs for indies).

Being outside an institution can cause barriers to publication in unexpected places. Take the reputable online publication The Conversation, whose strapline is ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. The Conversation covers virtually all disciplines and has a lofty ‘charter‘ which claims to ‘support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.’ The charter speaks of freedom from bias, and operation for the public good. Yet the author information states that ‘you must be a member of an academic or research institution to write for The Conversation’. So academics who are between jobs, or independent scholars who prefer to work free from institutional biases and constraints, or retired scholars who have plenty more to say, have no voice within this so-called ‘academic freedom’.

Perhaps the biggest exclusion affects Indigenous researchers and those from the global South. In her 2012 book Indigenous Research Methods, Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana noted that Indigenous researchers find it almost impossible to publish their work through Euro-Western publishing systems (p. 55). Some organisations are working to counteract this, such as the international research development charity INASP, whose Journals Online Project currently covers work from Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. (More info here.)

However, it is notable that most of the action to increase authors’ access to scholarly publishing comes from outside academia. The much-vaunted ‘public engagement agenda’ doesn’t seem to consider that some of the public might like to engage, not only as passive consumers of lectures, but also as active authors of scholarly work. Until all of these inequalities are systematically and effectively tackled, academic publishing will continue to represent privileged voices alone.

Academic taboos #1: what cannot be said

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be saidAcademia is a community with conventions, customs, and no-go areas. These vary, to some extent, between disciplines. For example, in most STEM subjects it is taboo for research authors to refer to themselves in writing in the first person. This leads to some astonishing linguistic contortions. Conversely, in arts disciplines, and increasingly in the humanities and social sciences, it is permissible to use more natural language.

It seems, though, that some conventions exist across all disciplines. For example, conference “provocations” are rarely provocative, though they may stretch the discussion’s comfort zone by a millimetre or two. Then conference “questions” are rarely questions that will draw more interesting and useful material from the speaker. Instead, they are taken as opportunities for academic grandstanding. Someone will seize the floor, and spend as long as they can get away with, effectively saying: “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” I have found, through personal experiment, that asking an actual question at a conference can cause consternation. I confess it amuses me to do this.

Perhaps the most interesting conventions are those around what cannot be said. Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University of London, UK, has noted the taboo around admitting how difficult, even impossible, it can be to cope with the pressures of life as an academic (2010:229). The airy tone when a colleague is heard to say: “I’m so shattered. The jobs on my to-do list seem to be multiplying. Haha, you know how it is.” Such statements can be a smokescreen for serious mental health problems.

A journal article published in 2017 by the theoretical physicist Oliver Rosten made a heartfelt statement about this in its acknowledgements, dedicating the article to the memory of a late colleague, and referring to “the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system”. Several journals accepted the article for its scientific quality but refused to publish the acknowledgements in full; it took Rosten years to find a journal that would publish what he wrote. He has left academia and now works as a Senior Software Developer at Future Facilities Ltd in Brighton, UK.

Another thing that cannot be said, identified by Tseen Khoo, a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, is that some academic research doesn’t need funding, it just needs time. This is anathema because everyone accepts that external funding makes the academic world go round. But what if it didn’t? What if student fees, other income (e.g. from hiring out university premises in the holidays), and careful stewardship was enough? What if all the time academics spent on funding applications, and making their research fit funders’ priorities, was actually spent on independent scholarship? It seems this is not only unsayable but also unthinkable. One of Khoo’s interlocutors described this as “a failure of the imagination”.

Another unspeakable truth I’m aware of is for someone to say that the system of research ethics governance is itself unethical. Ethics governance is something to comply with, not to question. That has led us to the situation where most research training contains little or no time spent on research ethics itself. Instead, young researchers learn that working ethically equates to filling in an audit form about participant welfare and data storage. They don’t receive the detailed reflective instruction necessary to equip them to manage the manifold ethical difficulties any researcher will encounter in the field.

I wonder what role the lack of research ethics education plays in the increasing number of journal articles that are retracted each year? I would argue that we need to separate ethical audit from ethical research, because they have different aims. The former exists to protect institutions, the latter to promote the quality of research and ensure the well-being of all concerned.

These areas of silence are particularly interesting given that academia exists to enable and develop conversations. However, I think that as well as acknowledging what academia enables, we also need to take a long hard look at what academia silences.

How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

editing textYour first set of reviewers’ comments lands in your inbox. Your heart begins to race. Will your work be accepted or rejected? Will they love it or hate it? Can you bear to open the email?

These may be reviews for a journal article, book proposal, or book typescript. In each case the process is the same. First you need to read the comments and give yourself time to react. Whether it’s the exultation of an acceptance, the despair of a rejection, or the mixed feelings that come with requests for revisions, you need time to process your emotional response before you do anything else. Whoop, cry, eat chocolate, do whatever you need to do.

Because of negativity bias, negative comments – even when constructively phrased – have more impact on most people than positive comments. We need to work to counteract this bias. So, unless you’ve received very favourable comments and you want to revel in their glory, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before you read the comments again. This can help you to take a more balanced view, which is useful because if it’s a rejection or revisions, you’ll need to see how your work can benefit from the reviewers’ input before you send it off again. This can be quite a challenge, especially if the reviewers have different views of your work and how it can be improved. Your journal or commissioning editor may offer some guidance and if so you should take that into account. But sometimes they leave it all to you.

My solution to this is to treat the reviewers’ comments as data and go into analysis mode. I create a table with one column for the comments and another for each reviewer. Then I enter each substantive comment into the first column and put a mark in the other columns for each reviewer who has made a similar point. This helps me to pick up the instances where reviewers are effectively saying the same thing, though perhaps in very different ways. It also helps me to see at a glance which comments have been made by all or some reviewers, and which only by one of the reviewers.

I have said before on this blog that reviewers’ comments come in three categories: the no-brainer (act on this), the no-thanks (don’t act on this), and the oh-wait (probably act on this, though not necessarily in the way the reviewer suggests). So my next job is to sort comments into these categories.

If a comment has been made by more than one reviewer I will take it more seriously. That doesn’t mean I’ll definitely implement it, but I am more likely to do so. If a comment has been made by all reviewers I would need a very, very good reason not to implement it. If a comment has only been made by one reviewer, that in itself might be one reason I could decide not to implement it, though I would also expect to give at least one other reason.

Once I have sorted the comments into their categories, I will list them by category in the first column of another table with two further columns: a brief note of what I plan to do in response to each of the no-brainers and the oh-waits, and a brief note of what I plan to write in the cover letter against each comment from all three categories. This is useful because I can dip into it when I have a spare half-hour or so, and find a job or two to do to get me closer to the finish line.

It is important to be polite in your response to reviewers’ comments, even if you think they’re the biggest load of old rubbish you’ve seen since your last visit to the municipal tip. Some reviewers’ suggestions seem to be based more on what they would have written than on what you actually have written and this can be quite annoying at times. When you come across a suggestion you really don’t want to implement, there are some tactful ways to say so, such as:

“This is an excellent suggestion though unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular project.”

“I can see how this suggestion would improve my work but sadly I am unable to incorporate it within the allocated word count.”

“This is a really interesting idea. I have considered it carefully and concluded that it doesn’t quite fit with the thrust of my current article/book, but it will influence my thinking for future projects.”

Remember you are the author and, as such, you have authority. While authors do need reviewers’ input (at least, when it’s constructive), and your work should benefit from intelligent use of their feedback, you don’t have to do everything a reviewer says. Also, a rejection is only a rejection from this journal or publisher. It doesn’t mean your work is worthless; sometimes it’s only because they already have plans to publish something that is similar in some way. This post should help you make the best use you can of reviewers’ comments. That will produce the greatest benefit to your work and career, and is also a way to respect and honour the time and care (most) people put into writing reviews.

I Finished The Book!

Research ethics in the real world [FC]For the last three-and-a-quarter years I have been writing a book on research ethics. It has been like doing another PhD, only with reviewers instead of supervisors. Four sets of reviewers: two sets of proposal reviews and two sets of typescript reviews. I have to thank my lovely publisher, Policy Press (part of Bristol University Press), for giving me so much support to get this book right.

This has been the hardest book I’ve written and I hope never to write another as difficult. On the plus side, I’m happy with the result. It is different from other books on research ethics in three main ways. First, it doesn’t treat research ethics as though they exist in isolation. I look at the relationships between research ethics and individual, social, institutional, professional, and political ethics, and how those relationships play out in practice in the work of research ethics committees and in evaluation research. That makes up part 1 of the book.

Second, it demonstrates the need for ethical thinking and action throughout the research process. In part 2 there is a chapter covering the ethical aspects of each stage of the research process, from planning a research project through to aftercare. There is also a chapter on researcher well-being.

Third, the book sets the Indigenous and Euro-Western research paradigms side by side. This is not to try to decide which is ‘better’, but is intended to increase researchers’ ethical options and vocabularies. I am writing primarily for Euro-Western readers, though the book may be of use to some Indigenous researchers. There is a sizeable and growing body of literature on Indigenous research and ethics, including books, journals, and journal articles. Using this literature requires care – as indeed using all literature requires care (see chapter 7 of my forthcoming book for more on that). But Indigenous literature, as with other literatures by marginalised peoples, requires particular care to avoid tokenism or appropriation.

Many Euro-Western researchers are completely ignorant of Indigenous research. Some know of it but are under the misapprehension that it is an offshoot of Euro-Western research. In fact it is a separate paradigm that stands alone and predates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. Some Indigenous researchers and scholars are now calling for Euro-Western academics to recognise this and use Indigenous work alongside their own. My book is, in part, a response to these calls.

It was so, so hard to cram all of that into 75,000 words – and that includes the bibliography which, as you can imagine, is extensive. There was so much to read that I was still reading, and incorporating, new material on the morning of the day I finished the book. I’ve found more work, since, that I’d love to include – but I had to stop somewhere.

I awaited my final review with great trepidation, aware of the possibility that the reviewer might loathe my book – some previous reviewers had – and that that could put an end to my hopes of publication. Was I looking at three-and-a-quarter years of wasted work? I was so relieved when my editor emailed to say the review was positive. Then the reviewer’s comments blew me away. Here’s one of my favourite parts: “In my view the author through excellent writing skills has covered very dense material (a ton of content) in a very accessible way.”

I was even more delighted because this review came from an Indigenous researcher. She waived anonymity, so I have been able to credit and thank her in the book. I will not name her here, as I do not have her permission to do so; you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out.

Finishing a book feels great, and also weird. It’s like losing a part of your identity, particularly with a book you’ve lived with for so long. Though there’s still lots of work to do: I have to write the companion website, give input on the book’s design, read the proofs, start marketing… publication is due on 1 November, which feels a long way off but I know how quickly five months can pass.

I think this book will be controversial. A senior and very knowledgeable academic told me that one reason I could write such a book is because I’m not in academia. I’m glad if I can use my independence to say things others cannot say – as long as I’m saying useful things, at least.

More than anything else, I hope the book helps to make a difference. In particular, I would like to make a difference to the current system of ethical regulation which is too focused on institutional protection and insufficiently focused on ethical research. It is also terrible at recognising and valuing the work of Indigenous research and of Euro-Western community-based or participatory research. When I was preparing to write the book, I interviewed 18 people around the world and promised them anonymity. Some were research ethics committee members and others had sought formal approval from ethics committees (or institutional review boards in the US). I heard tales of people completing ethical approval forms with information that committees wanted to see rather than with actual facts; people teaching students how to get through the ethical approval system instead of teaching them how to conduct ethical research; people acting ethically yet in complete contravention of their committee’s instructions; people struggling to balance ethical research with Indigenous communities with the inflexible conditions set by ethics committees. Although many of the people who serve on ethics committees are highly ethical, the system within which they are forced to work often prevents them from acting in entirely ethical ways. It seems to me that this system is not currently fit for purpose, and there are many other people who think the same. I hope the evidence I have gathered and presented will help to create much-needed change.

As an independent researcher, I am self-employed. This means I do all my writing in my own time; I don’t have a salary to support my work. Do you like what I do on this blog, or in my books, or anywhere else, enough that you might buy me a coffee now and again if we were co-located? If so, please consider supporting my independent work through Patreon for as little as one dollar per month. In exchange you’ll get exclusive previews of, and insights into, my work. 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 www.researchprofessional.com.

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.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk About The Index

indexDo you ever think about the indexes of textbooks and reference books? Do you ever wonder how they’re created? Because they don’t appear as if by magic, and as yet no software has been invented that can extract a good quality index from the text of a book. It takes human intellectual effort to figure out how readers will want to use a book, and so which words and phrases and ideas from the text need headings or cross-references in the index.

The best indexes are created by professional indexers. In the UK they are likely to belong to the Society of Indexers (SoI), which also provides training and accreditation for would-be indexers. The SoI’s distance learning course includes four assessed modules, online tutorials, an online workshop, and practical indexing exercises and assignment. The SoI also provides a conference, various workshops, and online resources for members and non-members. There are equivalent organisations in other countries, such as the American Society for Indexing, the Indexing Society of Canada, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.

As a reader, I care a lot about indexes. A good index makes it so much easier for me to use a textbook or a reference book. Even if I’ve read a book thoroughly and taken notes as I went along, there’s almost bound to come a time when I want to look up something I remember reading but didn’t note down. Some academic publishers, such as Sense Publishers, don’t seem to provide indexes at all. I find that hugely frustrating, digging around among 240 pages of text to try to find the paragraph or two that I want to read again.

Other academic publishers pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to the author. That can lead to indexes of variable quality. Here’s a photo of one from a Palgrave Pivot book, Writing Anthropology by Francois Bouchetoux.

Writing Anthropology index

That is the entire index for the whole 120-page book. Palgrave is an established publisher which has published many fine books, some of which have excellent indexes. The author of this book is evidently highly intelligent, with many skills, such as writing; it’s a worthwhile book. But I don’t think indexing is in his skillset.

Some authors can produce good indexes. Pat Thomson is one, but she’s in a minority. Yet publishers still try to persuade authors to create or pay for indexes. As authors don’t get paid for writing books, and academic books earn much less for authors than they do for publishers, this seems both wrong and stupid to me. Wrong because an academic publisher should accept the financial responsibility of providing a good quality index, stupid because if they don’t then their book is less useful so fewer people will recommend it to others. I am not the only person who takes the quality of an index into account when writing reviews online (as I plan to demonstrate, next week, upon this very blog).

Several times in my life I have been in discussion with various publishers who have tried to pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to me. Each time I have argued that they should pay for it because I have neither the skills nor the budget, and the lack of an index will reflect more poorly on their reputation than mine. Each time I have won the argument. So if you are a writer in this position, fight your corner. And if you’re a publisher, be like non-fiction publisher Mango Books.

Round of applause!

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.