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!

Knowing When To Stop

stopSometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. That could be when you’re still having fun and you don’t want to stop even though it’s after midnight and you’ve got to be in work at 9. In my early 20s I could get away with that. In my mid-50s? No chance. The dark sides of not knowing when to stop are dependency and addiction. Then there are the mental ‘ought’s and ‘should’s. I ought to finish reading this book, that I’m not enjoying at all, because the author took so much trouble in its writing. I should keep working on this collaborative piece even though my collaborator hasn’t answered my emails in months.

There’s an art to knowing when to stop. My mother, who is prone to outbreaks of wisdom, explained to me the point of stopping while you’re still having fun. Because what’s the alternative? Keep going till you’re not having fun any more? If you do that, you’re unlikely to want to do whatever-it-was again. Whereas if you stop while you’re still having fun, you keep the magic.

The ‘ought’s and ‘should’s can bog off. There are so many books (and journal articles, and – ahem – blog posts, and so on) that if you’re not enjoying one, why take the time to read it to the end? You won’t have time in your whole life to read all the books (journal articles, blog posts etc) that you do enjoy. So blow it out. Read the last page/paragraph if you need to satisfy your curiosity, then toss it and find something that suits you better.

And as for collaborations that have gone belly-up… that can be hard, when you’ve put in a lot of work and you’re not far from the finish line. But recognising when you need to quit is an important survival skill because it protects you from throwing good time after bad.

There’s another way this can work, too, which is not so much knowing when to stop as recognising that you have stopped. This has happened to me with my New Year’s resolution (I know! July! Not bad, eh?). My resolution was to review a book a week; i.e. an academic book, and to publicise this and encourage others to join in. I said from the start that it didn’t actually have to be a book a week, and I followed my own guidance; I reviewed 14 books between 1 January and 7 June, 12 on Wordery/Amazon and two for the LSE blogs. I haven’t reviewed an academic book in the last couple of months, though I’ve read quite a few. I will continue to review academic and other books but I’m not going to plug it as a ‘thing’ any more.

This is partly because hardly anyone joined in. A few people said it was a great idea, and one or two did write reviews, but it was evidently an idea whose time has not come, or has passed, or will never exist. Conversely, the monthly creative methods chat that I started in June has taken off rather well. And of course the point of all these things is not only to be the thing in itself, but also to raise my profile. Sounds cynical, in a way – yet I’m running a business and I have books and skills to sell. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to sell them to everyone all the time; that would clearly be unrealistic. I aim to create initiatives which will be of value to people in themselves, because I think that’s the best way to do marketing. Not to shout GIVE ME WORK AND BUY MY BOOKS AND BE MY PATRON but to generate resources and opportunities for people, which may lead to some of those people choosing to put some work or money my way. Or not – there’s no obligation and I like it that way. But the return on investment for these initiatives is low. For example, there have been over 5,000 downloads of Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know and around 25 reviews worldwide, or one review for every 200 downloads. So evidently it’s sensible to invest time in the initiatives that increase my visibility rather than those that don’t, no matter how close they may be to my heart.

So bye bye, review a book a week. It was nice knowing you. And hello, #CRMethodsChat. You’re ace, and you happen on the second Tuesday of every month. Long may that continue.

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!

 

Academic Publishers and Production Values

pile of booksLast week a book review I wrote was published on the LSE Review of Books blog. (This review is part of the ‘review a book a week’ series I’m running through 2019.) The book I reviewed was The Lost Ethnographies, edited by Robin James and Sara Delamont, and it is an excellent collection with only one problem: poor production values.

In publishing, “production values” is a term that covers the technical parts of the process. These include such things as: paper quality; page layout and cover design; font types and sizes; proof-reading, copy editing and indexing; print quality – essentially all the different factors that go into making a physical or digital book. A publisher with high production values is one that aims for good quality in these factors; a publisher with low production values is the opposite.

The Lost Ethnographies was published by Emerald and I’m sorry to say the production values weren’t great. As a reviewer, this was handy because it gave me something to criticise, but as a reader it was intensely irritating. There were typos on most pages, the print quality was poor, and the index was inadequate. I’m seeing more and more of this with academic books and it’s beginning to annoy me.

I understand from people who work in publishing that some academic publishing, particularly of monographs, is uneconomic. Therefore they have to outsource proof-reading, omit indexes, keep paper costs to a minimum, and so on. I hear from academics that they are really fed up with having to spend time, sometimes a lot of time, on correcting the errors of incompetent copy editors and proof-readers. At times these people are even introducing errors into books and articles. Here are some examples from the last week’s conversations:

“I had a difficult relationship with the people [publisher] outsourced editing to in [overseas country] – big issues were introduced the first time I got the proofs (bits missing, new wrong spelling) and it took a lot of pushing from me to get them changed.”

“I did an article on Jewish [redacted] whose editor changed every mention of midrash to mid-rash. It makes it sound as if I were writing about the aetiology and progression of measles.”

“When I first started writing and publishing I didn’t know how awful it was and consequently I didn’t proof read as carefully. Any newer academics who trust the process will find things are being published with typos, added words and other random deletions and insertions that ruin their papers. It is definitely getting worse and taking hours of my time to undo the damage at proofing stage.”

Worse still, academic publishers with low production values have the gall to charge three-figure sums for their books. From what I hear, Springer, Emerald, Palgrave and Routledge have bad reputations in these areas, while smaller academic publishers, such as Policy Press and Jessica Kingsley have much better production values and pricing policies.

In theory, the trade-off with the bigger publishers is that they’re better at distribution, marketing, and selling translation rights, but in practice this may not be the case. I am also hearing that even getting commitments about things like marketing and pricing into contracts with large publishers may not mean they are met. I heard one sad tale last week about pricing, where the author fought hard to have their book reasonably priced as per their contract, but didn’t have much success. I heard another about a publisher who had made clear commitments on marketing in a publishing contract but then didn’t see them through. The author concerned did what they could to put pressure on the publisher, but couldn’t afford to hire lawyers and in the end had to put up with broken promises and shattered dreams.

It seems it’s no longer the case that authors simply write books and publishers do the rest. It also seems that we have reached a point where academic monographs are being published badly because they are uneconomic. There is a simple solution to this: self-publishing. Perhaps it is time for academic researchers to build self-publishing costs into their funding bids. Authors could commission their own copy editors, proof-readers, indexers, page layout specialists and cover designers. That way they could have full control of the process and ensure that their book’s production values are high. Copy editors and proof-readers can be found via the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and indexers via the Society of Indexers. Page layout specialists and cover designers don’t yet have professional associations, so look for people with experience of academic work and testimonials that you can check such as Blot Publishing, or ask around for a recommendation.

Of course self-publishing isn’t valued by the REF, so some UK-based academic authors will have to continue working with commercial publishers. But I think that might change in time. Also, there are no paywalls for self-published books and articles. Digital self-published materials such as e-books and pdfs can be made available to readers for free, and hard copies can be produced as print-on-demand for small sums to cover costs. So there is a strong argument for self-publishing being the ethical option. (And blogging is self-publishing too!)

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 4-5 of my blog posts 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 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!

Self-Publishing For Academics

Self-Publishing For Academics - High Resolution.jpgToday Dr Nathan Ryder and I are launching our co-authored e-book Self-Publishing For Academics. Self-publishing offers a huge opportunity for many academics, and they’re beginning to take it up. Nathan and I have self-published several e-books between us, and have self-published in other forms too such as blogs and zines. We wrote the book we wished we’d had when we set out on our self-publishing journeys.

Working together turned out to be a dream collaboration and we’ve written about that this week on the Research Whisperer blog. For this blog, we thought we’d interview each other; this gave us a chance to ask some questions we hadn’t got around to before. Here are the results.

Helen: What surprised you about our work together?

Nathan: How easy it felt. Writing a book is hard, and I’ve always thought that collaboration is quite tricky too, despite how necessary it is. We started from a concept, expanded out, divided the areas up and got to work. I know we’re both busy, but we made this a priority, and I think because of that it’s got done in a far more timely manner than I thought.

Given your own experiences in publishing and self-publishing, why did you want to co-author this one?

Helen: There are so many different options for self-publishing and marketing that I suspected you and I had taken different routes, even though we have both self-published for the same audience, i.e. doctoral students (up to now, anyway!). When we began talking I found we did indeed have different, but complementary, experience and knowledge. I think the combination of our approaches has made for a much better, richer book than I could write by myself.

Where do you think self-publishing will be most useful for academics?

Nathan: A big problem for many people is that they wait a long time to be “picked”. Someone waits for someone to pick them for a job, or a project or to write a book, say. The need to be chosen is a really tough need to overcome, but it’s barrier that can be hurdled. Academics don’t have to wait for a publisher to say yes to their monograph: it’s perfectly possible to do it yourself. A consequence of this could be that they could do the work that they think matters and will connect rather than what someone else thinks they can sell. There can often be shortened turnaround times for publication too.

What have you learned about self-publishing by doing this project?

Helen: I learned a lot about covers. I guess I vaguely knew it was possible to design your own but, not being a very visual person, I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do. Now, though, I might just have a go! It’s also useful to know where good bespoke covers can be obtained more cheaply than by commissioning a professional designer. Also, I learned a lot about self-publishing for free. I haven’t spent a huge amount on my e-books, but I certainly haven’t done them for free, and it’s really useful to know about the options there.

Which makes me wonder, what have you learned about self-publishing from our project?

Nathan: The value of beta-readers and an editor. For both of my previous books I had relied on myself and asked my wife to look through the drafts, but we don’t have the experience to know everything to look for when it comes to editing. And for this book, the beta-readers really helped us to spot gaps in our writing or logic – and even corrected us on some of the terms we used!

Do you have a routine or process when it comes to writing?

Helen: For the first draft of a book, I calculate how many words I need to write per day or (more often) week to get the draft done by the deadline. Then I add that to my weekly to-do list, and ensure I get those words written – even if that does, on occasion, mean spending Sunday at my computer. Also, I am quite focused about using my writing time for writing, so I’ll produce several hundred words in an hour rather than spending my ‘writing time’ fossicking about on social media or surfing the internet. I don’t need a particular place to write, I just need my laptop – I write on trains, in airports, on friends’ sofas, and in bed. However, unlike many writers, I’m not keen on writing in cafes because I find the people-watching and eavesdropping opportunities too distracting!

What do you plan to self-publish next?

Nathan: I’m going to finish a project I started some time ago, and get my first book available for print-on-demand. Fail Your Viva came out in January 2013, and within weeks I was exploring how to get it in print. At the time and for a long time since I’ve convinced myself that I can’t manage a print run, but as we were working on our book – and through doing a little hobby self-publishing – I’ve gained the confidence to finally make it happen. That, and digging some older writing out and seeing if I like it again.

I know you’ve got your series that you’re past the halfway mark on. Have you got any plans beyond them?

Helen: Lots and lots of plans! I want to narrate the audio-books for all the e-books I’ve self-published for doctoral students. I also want to start making videos for YouTube. That’s something I’ve tried several ways but haven’t yet got the hang of, but I feel as if I’ve learned quite a bit in the process and if I keep trying I’ll get there eventually. Also, I’m doing preparatory reading, thinking, and interviewing for my next full-length trad-published book, on research ethics, and I expect to start writing that in earnest in the autumn.

So if you could sum up in a sentence the main piece of advice you’d give someone who was thinking of self-publishing… well obviously that would be ‘read our book’! But apart from that, what would you say?

Nathan: Start now! There are a hundred-and-one things that can get in the way of finishing any writing project, but the only thing that’s really in the way of starting is the writer. Start today. (then read our book)

Last question from me: what are you going to do to celebrate Self-Publishing for Academics being finished and out there?

Helen: Have a cuppa with you on Skype! After that: take your advice, and start writing the next e-book. That’ll be the last in my series for doctoral students, and the last one I write for a while, so when I get that one finished I’m really going to celebrate.

Analysing Data For Your PhD: New Book Launch!

ADFYPhD_darkbrown_neurons_LC_RGBToday sees the launch of the third in my Phd Knowledge series. The subject of data analysis is close to my heart. It is at the core of our work as researchers, yet it’s often poorly understood. Doctoral students can find themselves facing the analysis of a sizeable amount of data without really knowing what it is they’re supposed to do. My new e-book, Analysing Data For Your PhD: An Introduction, is designed to help in this situation – or, if you read it in time, to prevent you reaching such a stressful impasse. This book follows on from the previous books, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know and Gathering Data For Your PhD: An Introduction, but it works equally well as a stand-alone volume for anyone who only wants to delve into this part of the process. It is concise – around 10,000 words – and clearly written (says my editor – in fact, he said ‘As usual, this was a beautifully written little document to work on’). And, as with the others, it costs less than the price of a coffee: £1.99/$2.99 and equivalent prices in other jurisdictions.

But wait! There’s more! To celebrate the launch, and in recognition of the new academic semester starting soon in Australia and New Zealand, I have reduced the price of Starting Your PhD to £0.99/$1.49. This is a time-limited offer for one week only, so get downloading. And happy reading!

 

Gathering Data For Your PhD – New Book Launch!

GDFYPhD_red_data_LC_multi_RGBYou may remember that just two months ago, on this very blog, I announced the start of my indie publishing career. I’m publishing a range of short e-books for doctoral students, and the first one was Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, launched on 8 September. I’m delighted to launch the second one today: Gathering Data For Your PhD: An Introduction.

Again, it’s around 11,000 words, and is suitable for all doctoral students, whether studying for a scholarly PhD or a professional doctorate. Here is the blurb:

You can’t do research without data. But what kind of data will help you answer your research question? Where can you find that data? And how much data do you need? If you’re doing doctoral research, particularly in the social sciences, arts, or humanities, this book will help you answer those questions. It offers an overview of traditional and innovative methods of gathering quantitative, qualitative, secondary and primary data. The book also outlines the pros and cons of devising your own method of gathering data, and lists a range of resources for further exploration of the methods that interest you most.

Just like the last book, it’s available for the price of a coffee: $2.99/£1.99/E2.99 or thereabouts – exact prices may vary slightly with different distributors. Talking of which, it’s available (or will be any minute) from all the major players: Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook etc.

This seems a perfect time to launch my latest oeuvre, as it’s the first ever Academic Book Week here in the UK. There are loads of events and discussions happening all over the country. There’s very little, though, about indie publishing – perhaps because Academic Book Week mostly involves traditional publishers and booksellers. I want to emphasise here that I don’t see indie publishing as a rival to traditional publishing, though I guess there may be some booksellers who wish digital books had never been invented. I love p-books and I don’t want, or expect, them to disappear. But I think there is also room for e-books in academia, and it surprises me that so few academics and alt-acs are taking up this opportunity.

Starting Your PhD – New Book Launch!

SYPhD_green_SQmarks_noblend_LC2_RGBI’m launching my Top Secret Project today. It is a short e-book (11,000 words) called Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know. I published this e-book myself, under the Know More Publishing imprint (see what I did there?!), which I set up for the purpose. The book is available via Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, Scribd, and Inktera. So as well as being an indie researcher and writer, I’m now an indie publisher too!

I wrote three drafts of the e-book, each of which received feedback from a small group of different beta readers, including people who might do a PhD one day, current doctoral students, and experienced supervisors. The final version was professionally edited. I am very grateful to my beta readers and to my editor, each of whom provided input which improved the book’s quality. And you can buy the fruits of all this labour and experience for the price of a coffee: approx £1.99/$2.99/E3.29 or equivalent (actual prices may vary slightly due to circumstances beyond my control).

So why did I take up indie publishing, you may ask? There are times I’ve been wondering that myself over the last year or so, as it’s been a massive learning curve. I think if I’d known how much work was involved, I probably wouldn’t have started the process. But now that the curve is beginning to flatten out, I’m very glad I did. There are a number of reasons I decided to publish independently. In no particular order, the main ones are:

  • I spotted a gap in the market that a short e-book would fill
  • I’m intrigued by indie publishing; it seems to fit with being an indie researcher and writer
  • Short e-books are increasing in popularity
  • I wanted to offer good quality and affordable help for doctoral students

I expect you’re wondering whether I’ve done all this work just to produce one short e-book. No, I haven’t. ‘Starting Your PhD’ is the first in the ‘PhD Knowledge’ series, with other volumes of similar length to include:

  • Gathering Data for your PhD: An Introduction
  • Analysing Data for your PhD: An Introduction
  • Writing Your PhD: An Introduction
  • Research Ethics for your PhD: An Introduction
  • Finishing Your PhD: What You Need To Know

The second volume is scheduled for publication in November, and I aim to publish the others in the course of 2016.

ALLiEthicalAuthor_BadgeThis is an exciting new venture for me. I’ve had loads of help already: from friends, colleagues, people I’ve met online, and the Alliance of Independent Authors. I’m proud to be a member, and would recommend them to anyone; their closed Facebook group is an invaluable source of support. Also, I’m particularly pleased that they have a code of ethics for indie authors, with the guiding principle of putting the reader first – a principle that guides all my writing.

With that in mind, I need your help too, because there are some things you can do for potential readers that I can’t: tell them about the book, and write honest reviews to help people decide whether the book would be useful for them. Of course I can tell some people, but with my traditionally published books, I’ve had access to an established publishing firm which employed a range of professionals to help spread the word. As an indie publisher I am my own marketing, distribution, and sales departments. So it would be enormously helpful if you could talk about this e-book to people who might find it useful: people considering doctoral study, people embarking on doctoral study, or people supporting someone else through their doctoral study. When I say ‘talk’ I mean the virtual kind too, i.e. tweeting, blogging, Facebook etc. And I absolutely can’t, and wouldn’t, review the book I’ve written; that would be most unethical, so I’m completely reliant on others to give their honest opinion in a way that will help prospective readers decide whether it’s worth investing a few of their hard-earned coins.

Doing a PhD – or a professional doctorate; the e-book is applicable to either – is an enormous undertaking. It can be really difficult even to start on this long, complex process, much of which is incomprehensible at the start. I began mine, back in the early 2000s, with a complete false start which cost me a year and a lot of wasted time and effort; I ended up at a different university with a completely different topic, supervisor, and discipline than I’d originally planned. I guess that is another reason I wrote the e-book: to help others make a more sure-footed start, and to save them timchampagne launche and effort.

If this works for you, please do let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter where I always love to hear from my readers. But for now: I declare my indie publishing career in general, and the Starting a PhD e-book in particular, open!