To Cite Or Not To Cite Your Friends

One of the things I love about my scholarly activity is reading the work of people I know and like. I tweeted about this a while ago:

And that was indeed how I felt. The people I tagged in that tweet are all people I have shared social as well as professional space with, and I would count them, more or less, as friends. But I’ve been thinking about this recently, and wondering… is it a good thing to cite your friends’ work? Or is it a form of cronyism?

Cronyism is a dirty word, hurled at politicians and others who are seen to be giving jobs to friends or relatives. Yet in the small businesses I see around me, it seems absolutely natural to give jobs to people you know and have faith in, and those are friends or family. Why would you trust a stranger with your livelihood? In normal human terms it doesn’t make sense.

Yet we’re supposed to treat people and their work equally and on merit. Even the law says so, here in the UK at least, and in many other countries too. But I’m sure plenty of my readers, like me, have tales from inside and outside academia of times when this hasn’t happened. For example, I know an IT expert, I’ll call her Jade, who was asked by a local charity to help them recruit an IT professional. The charity had about 60 staff and really needed in-house IT support. Jade worked with them to prepare a job description, person specification, and advertisement, then she helped with shortlisting and interviewing. I saw her soon after the interviews and she was fuming. ‘I don’t know why they even asked me,’ she said. ‘They took no notice of what I said, they just appointed the person they already knew. Who was not the best person for the job.’

In theory scholars should treat academic literature equally and on merit, though there are debates about what ‘equal’ means here. I regularly see – and support – calls for positive discrimination, to ensure that women, people of colour, and others who struggle to get their voices heard are cited by those with more privilege. And I try to do this. But when I am writing myself, I feel a real pull to cite work by my friends. I like spending time in their company, whether across a café table or as a reader of their work. I want to share their ideas which are often kin to my own. I feel encouraged by them; they inspire me to do my best, whether through their physical presence or their written words.

I know that I should find and read and cite writing which contradicts my own, which I disagree with. This is necessary intellectual work. I tell students how important it is, and when I do it myself I feel clever and a bit smug. But when I cite my friends I feel loving and loved, which are much nicer feelings. And I hate when I read something by a friend which I can’t cite, not because it’s poor quality (my friends don’t write bad stuff!) but because it doesn’t fit with the work I’m doing.

We can’t separate our emotion from our intellect, whether we’re interviewing people for a job, or reading scholarly writing with a view to citing it ourselves, or simply taking a walk. So maybe we should stop pretending we can make that separation, or even that it’s somehow desirable. Perhaps it’s time to give feelings and thoughts equal billing in our decision-making, and to acknowledge this in our writing and other work. Those who practise reflexivity advocate this, but I don’t remember anyone I’ve read writing about the ethical and emotional aspects of citing (or not citing) work by your friends. I had a look online and there’s very little written about this. I did find one interesting recent open access article from the field of economics, by fellow independent Steven Payson. He points out that if you cite your friends in academic journal articles, the editors are more likely to pick them as reviewers, which can work in your favour. His article also states that close friends may ‘cross an ethical line’ and game the metrics system by citing each other as much as possible for mutual gain.

These are interesting perspectives on academia, but as an independent researcher they’re not relevant for me. Also I’m working on a book, not a journal article. So I guess what I need to do is get my emotion and my intellect working in tandem. They already do, to some extent; however much I love a friend, if they write rubbish I’m not going to cite their work. Also it’s not as if I only cite my friends. But I do recognise that the pull to spend time with the written work of people I like is strong, as is the wish to cite their work. This may be skewing me away from other potentially useful sources. So I need to aim for a balance: cite my friends’ work where relevant, be sure to seek out opposing views, and cite the work of lots of people I don’t know. Especially women and people of colour. That’s what I think I’ll do. As always, though, alternative views and counter-arguments are welcome 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 $23 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $23 – 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!

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!

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!

 

Ten Ways To Unstick Your Writing

stuckRegular readers know I have little time for the concept of writer’s block, where people allegedly find themselves unable to write for days, weeks, months, even years. However, I do understand that writers sometimes get stuck. This is a temporary affliction, but an annoying one, which can cost us valuable minutes or hours. So I thought it might be helpful to share ten strategies I have adopted and/or developed over the years to keep my writing flowing.

  1. Freewriting

This is a great technique that I always teach on doctoral writing courses. It has been around for a long time; for example, it was advocated by the American writer Dorothea Brande in the 1930s. There are several different approaches to freewriting. The method I find most useful is to formulate a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘I want to say…’ Then set a timer for five minutes, begin with the prompt and write without stopping. Don’t edit or revise. If you falter in your writing, write the prompt again – several times, if necessary – till your flow returns. At the end of five minutes you will probably find that you can write whatever you were stuck on, and you may also find that there is a useful nugget or two within the words you produced while freewriting. Even if you only have half an hour to write, it can be helpful to spend the first five minutes freewriting.

  1. Think-walk

Go for a walk, for at least 20 minutes if you can – longer if you prefer. Don’t listen to a podcast on this walk, use the time to think about your writing and your work. This think-walk can help you problem-solve.

  1. Do something repetitive

If the weather isn’t conducive to walking, or you need to stay home for a delivery or in your office for some other reason, find something repetitive to do. This could be tidying or cleaning or filing. Again, use the time to think about your writing and your work, to help you problem-solve.

  1. Use placeholders

My early drafts are full of phrases like WRITE MORE HERE and EXPLAIN THIS, usually in capitals and highlighted so I can find them easily. These placeholders show where I’ve got stuck – and they help me get unstuck, because they mean I can move on, knowing I’ll come back later and fix whatever needs fixing. I don’t know how it happens but when I do come back, I can almost always write whatever I was stuck on before.

  1. Start somewhere else

Sometimes people think that because reading is often linear, writing must be the same. Far from it. You can start writing anywhere you like. In fact, the easiest way to write is to write the easy parts first, the parts you feel like writing. And again, I don’t know how this happens, but once you’ve written those parts, the harder parts become easier. Novice writers usually don’t know this and may not believe it but honestly, I promise, try it and you’ll see.

  1. Permission to write rubbish

Perfectionism is a major cause of writers getting stuck. The highly successful novelist Elmore Leonard said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’ (Don’t @ me, I’m quoting!) Nobody writes well when they start work on a piece, but you need the rubbish as raw material to craft into good writing as you edit and polish later on. So give yourself permission to write rubbish – and then get on with it!

  1. Read

Reading in and around your topic is a great way to get unstuck. Other people’s work will help you generate ideas of your own. You may only need to read for a short time, or you may find you want to switch back and forth between reading and writing for a while.

  1. Change your writing method

If you usually write longhand, try writing on screen, or vice versa. If you always write longhand, try using a different pen or a different type or colour of paper. If you always write on screen, change the font size or colour and/or the background colour.

  1. Change your location

Generally for writers it is helpful to have a ‘writing place’ – or perhaps two or three – a particular space at home, a favoured café, a library desk. Some people can write pretty much anywhere, but most people have a location they prefer. If you’re stuck, though, it can be helpful to go somewhere else. You may not have to go far. If you like to work at home, you may be able to try a different room or an outdoor space. If you prefer café writing, try a different café. Or you may want a bigger change, in which case find somewhere you’ve never been before: perhaps a pub, or a community centre, or a park bench.

  1. Get creative

Try writing what you want to say as a poem, or a short story, or a scene from a play or a film. You don’t have to spend hours on this – you could set a time limit if you like. And it doesn’t have to be ‘good’ (whatever that is!). Nobody else ever needs to see what you write creatively, so allow yourself to be playful and see what happens.

I hope that if you are – or become – stuck with your writing, one or more of these strategies will be helpful for you. If you have any other strategies to share, please put them in the comments.

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!

Collaborative Writing: Ten Top Tips

collaborative writingI last wrote about collaborative writing in February 2016 when I was having a crazy year of writing – much like this year. Since you ask, this year’s output is scheduled to be six books and five journal articles. Most of the books and journal articles are collaborations, and I’m also co-editing a book series. I love the variety: this year I’m collaborating with forensic scientists, education researchers, an anthropologist working in a sociology department, geographers, and comics professors. This enriches my professional life, as well as enabling me to produce far more work than I could do alone. (Though it is a bit hectic. I’m definitely planning to do less writing next year. But then I said that in 2016, too…)

I thought it might be useful to share some of the key things I’ve learned from collaborating across different disciplines and in different ways.

  1. You don’t need to be co-located to collaborate. I’m located in the UK. I’ve co-written a book with my good friend Janet Salmons who is based in the US, and the comics professors I’m working with are in Australia. Email and VOIP (Skype, Google Hangouts etc) make collaboration possible across distances and time zones.
  2. Collaborations of two are easier to manage than group collaborations – but group collaborations can result in richer outcomes.
  3. Regardless of how many people are in a collaboration, time spent figuring out how to work together is never wasted. If you don’t do this, you can end up in conflict, which is best avoided.
  4. In a group collaboration, such as to write a book or a professional document, it is sensible to agree on a format for each chapter or section before you start drafting. Different people may have very different ideas about structure. If you don’t agree on a format you risk ending up with chapters of very different lengths and structures which will leave you with a lot of work to do at the editing stage.
  5. To decide on hard deadlines such as publishing contracts, think about how long you’re likely to need then add some time for contingencies. With a collaboration there are more people in whose lives things can go wrong – and they do, and those people who are affected need time to deal with their difficulties.
  6. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your collaborative work, let your collaborator(s) know at the earliest opportunity.
  7. If you’re in several collaborations, find a way to keep track so you don’t inadvertently miss deadlines or otherwise fail to meet your obligations.
  8. Be willing to compromise and/or be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way, work alone.
  9. When your collaborators give you feedback on your work, accept it gracefully even if you don’t feel at all thankful. Always respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. In collaborative work your relationships are more important than being right.
  10. When you’ve finished: celebrate!

Do you have any tips to add? If so, please share them in the comments.

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!

Don’t Get Off At Cliché Central

clicheI went to a meeting recently with some clients, lovely people doing really worthwhile work, and boy did they love a cliché. They were forever touching base, working across the piece, and moving the dial. There were any number of deep dives and light touches, and they were either sold on something or not feeling it. Learning had to be captured (poor thing) and change had to be embedded (though they never said into what).

By the end I was ready to prepare a bingo card for the next meeting. More seriously, though, I was getting a sense that these clichés had a couple of effects. One was positive and one was sinister. On the positive side, the common use of language was serving to create and build group identity. On the sinister side, clichés were so prevalent that they seemed to be reducing the space available for creative thought and discussion.

A cliché is initially a creative, original, sometimes even funny way of saying (or writing) something. It is so effective that it gets repeated a lot, and that is what turns it into a cliché. It stops being creative and original and starts being habitual, almost reflex, and can be stultifying in its effect on speech and prose.

Using clichés is lazy writing. Avoiding clichés requires more effort, more thought and care. Whatever you’re writing – job application, journal article, funding bid, doctoral thesis – aim for the specific. The initial impact of a cliché is lost through overuse, so it can seem quite vague, while particular details often seem interesting and fresh.

Take this short paragraph from a draft research proposal:

We will leave no stone unturned to ensure we get as many questionnaire responses as possible. Then it will be just a matter of time before we analyse the data and write the report. At the end of the day the research report will be fit for purpose.

Compare it with this version:

We will make every effort to maximise questionnaire responses. Our strategies will include: circulating the link by email and by social media; monitoring respondents’ locations regularly and targeting any identified geographical gaps; and offering a prize draw as an incentive. The questionnaire will be live online for one month, and it will take us another two weeks to analyse the data and write the draft report. We will write in plain English and the draft will be submitted for feedback which we will use to produce the final version.

The first version is stuffed with clichés and assertions and tells the reader nothing of substance. The second gives specific details, explaining how the researchers propose to achieve their aims.

It is really sensible to avoid clichés in your writing. Whatever you’re writing. What would you write in a condolence card? “I’m sorry for your loss”? “You are in my thoughts/prayers”? Don’t do that. Take a little time to think about the person who has died. Is there a memory you treasure that you could share in a few words? Perhaps an impact the person had on you that you could describe briefly and which will form part of their legacy? Whoever you are sending the card to will have dozens of others bearing standard clichés. Make the effort to send them something personal, real, authentic. It doesn’t have to be long, or take long, and it will mean a great deal more than platitudes.

One place you can get away with clichés is in titles, as with the title of this piece (which I could equally have called Colour Me Clichéd, or The Cliché At The End Of The Universe, or… you get the idea). But that’s about the only place you can use them in academic writing. So don’t!

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 $35 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $35 – 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!

Achieving A Good Work-Work Balance

work workA lot is said and written about achieving a good work-life balance, as though work is only one thing (and life another). Work is in fact several things and achieving a good balance between them is also important. In fact, a good work-work balance is an essential prerequisite for a good work-life balance.

Let’s start by thinking about paid and unpaid work. If you’re doing more unpaid than paid work, you are more likely to be a woman than a man. For sure some men do more unpaid than paid work, and anyway gender isn’t binary, but nevertheless this is a feminist issue. Having said that, sometimes more unpaid than paid work is inevitable, such as if you’re an unemployed job-seeker or on maternity leave. But if you’re employed or self-employed such that paid work occupies a good chunk of each week or month, you’ll need to take care to balance that paid work with any unpaid work you take on.

Of course people can have more than one job, or a job plus self-employment, or several kinds of paid self-employment. I currently earn money from research, writing, teaching, speaking, private coaching, and occasional bits of consultancy advice. Unpaid work, too, comes in a variety of forms. Although I earn money from my writing, I don’t receive any income until after my work is done, so the actual act of writing is unpaid (except for the rare occasions where some lovely person decides to pay me to write, which I’m glad to say does happen from time to time). But I love writing so I’m going to do it anyway. My visiting fellowship at the UK National Centre for Research Methods is also unpaid, though I do receive access to academic literature and some mentoring in return for providing help with various academic tasks, none of which are overly time-consuming or onerous.

Other forms of unpaid work include:

  • Formal volunteering (I’m currently a member of the publications committee of the Academy of Social Sciences)
  • Informal volunteering such as helping out a neighbour on request, reviewing an article for an academic journal, or joining a community litter-pick
  • Caring for family members who need your care, perhaps because they are very young or very old or living with one or more disabilities, and
  • Domestic work such as cleaning, shopping, and cooking.

We all have to do domestic work, though there are shortcuts – grocery shopping can be done online, ironing is not as important as some people seem to think, and if you have spare cash you may be able to outsource cleaning/gardening/DIY etc. But you will still have to do some domestic tasks. Also, caring may not be optional. If you have children you’re generally expected to meet their needs, while caring for older relatives or those living with disabilities may be optional in theory but is likely not to feel optional in practice.

However, formal and informal volunteering are optional and when necessary you can resign from formal positions or say no to informal requests. I have posted before about why and how to say no; it’s not always easy but it is essential if you are to create a good work-work balance. We all know people who wear themselves out doing everything for everyone and forget to meet their own needs. Maybe you’re one of those people. If so, you need to look at your unpaid work and think about what you can jettison. This can be difficult: it feels good to be needed, and it can be demoralising to realise that you are not indispensable. But it’s not impossible. And if you don’t control your unpaid work, it may end up controlling you.

In the final year of my PhD, realising that push actually had come to shove and I needed to spend a lot of time writing my thesis, I gave up all of my formal volunteering. I had a few roles at the time and giving them up was the only way I could meet my thesis deadline. I also turned down various offers of unpaid work – some of which were really tempting – on the grounds that I needed to get my thesis written. My doctoral work was also unpaid, as I was self-employed, and spending lots of time writing my thesis was quite enough unpaid work for one year. This meant I had a good work-work balance. (I gave up most of my social life for that year, too, so my work-life balance was terrible, but it was temporary and a means to an end.)

These days I take on one formal volunteering role at a time plus an honorary fellowship. Alongside my unpaid writing work, and the unpaid admin that goes with running a business, this is plenty to set against my paid work. So on the whole I think I have a good work-work balance. What about you?

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons who help with my work-work balance. 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!

How To Check An Index

index checkingIn August 2012 I was eagerly awaiting publication of my first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (now in its second edition). I received an email asking me to check and give feedback on the attached draft index. I had absolutely no clue how to check an index. It looked like a credible index to me so I sent an email back saying thanks, it looks great, and hoped that would pass muster.

In May 2014 I was delighted to receive another email telling me that the book had been positively reviewed in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology. Although the review was indeed predominantly positive, the reviewer – as reviewers will – offered some criticism too. For example, she stated that, in contradiction to the book’s title, evaluation had only been mentioned once in its pages. Almost two years had passed since I’d worked on the manuscript and I began to doubt myself so I turned to my copy to check. I was reassured to find evaluation mentioned on many pages. But then I wondered, how could the reviewer have made such an error? The rest of her review suggested that she had read the book quite carefully. I turned to the index – and found that there was only one page number given for ‘evaluation’.

I could argue here that the reviewer should have been more careful, or that the indexer should have been more thorough. But actually I think it’s my fault because I didn’t know how to check an index. On the plus side, this is a useful cautionary tale which demonstrates that indexes are used by many people in many ways. This is something that indexers understand, though they are not infallible and will never know a book as well as its author – which is why authors are asked to check indexes. But nobody ever explains how to check an index. So I’m going to try to do just that. I’m still no expert, but I have learned some points I can share.

There are three key points to consider: what the index does for the book, what the index does for the book’s readers, and whether the index is a good index by the standards of other indexes. These can be converted into three questions:

  1. Does the index accurately reflect the content of the book?
  2. Does it do so in a way that will make sense to your readers?
  3. Is the index, in itself, a good quality index?

To answer the first question, begin by making a list of key words from your title, chapter headings, and sub-headings. Ensure all of those words are properly and fully represented in the index. If they’re not, don’t try to fix it yourself or even make suggestions about how to fix the problem. Simply explain to the indexer which words need more prominence and why. Then let them sort it out because they will be able to do so far more quickly and effectively than you.

Once you’ve done that, read through the index with your book’s readers in mind. Is the language of the index closely aligned with the language of the book? Are the headings and sub-headings concise and useful? Is the index logically organised and easy to read? Are there double postings when necessary, e.g. ‘data: quantitative’ and ‘quantitative data’? Is the punctuation clear and consistent?

Then consider the more detailed indicators of index quality, usefully set out by the American Society for Indexing. For example:

  • Do main headings or sub-headings have more than 5-7 page numbers attached? If so, they may need to be broken down further.
  • Are there a reasonable number of sub-headings for each main heading? If there are more than a column’s worth then some may need to be combined.
  • Are sub-headings at a sensible level? If not, revision may be needed.
  • Are the page numbers accurate? Spot-check some to make sure.

If you want to know more, the ASI have also produced a book on the subject: Indexing for Editors and Authors: A Practical Guide to Understanding Indexes. I haven’t read it myself yet but it looks comprehensive and useful. (Thanks to Nicola King aka @icemaiden1964 for pointing me to these resources on Twitter.)

When my second edition index arrived and evaluation still didn’t have a high profile, I asked the indexer to make appropriate amendments. Which she did, quickly and cheerfully.

These days I feel more confident when I receive an index to check. I hope you will too.

If you have any good index-related stories to tell, please share them in the comments.

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 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!

Collaborating Through A Book-Finishing Frenzy

collaboration on bookIn Meredith Belbin’s terms I am a Completer-Finisher which means I love to finish projects. The term describes a team role rather than a personality type, though it goes with personality traits such as having high standards (yep), being conscientious (yep), and anxiety (yes, though not to a debilitating level). Attention to detail is a feature of completer-finishers which is probably why I made a success of being a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for some years before I became a researcher.

Over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) from Boulder, Colorado, on a book called Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which will be published by Routledge next March. Janet, too, is a professional writer, who has produced some excellent books about online research. Like me, she is fascinated by methods and ethics, so we have a lot in common. We’re almost done with the manuscript of our book and had a Skype meeting last week to plan the final stages. Janet is dealing with all the tables and figures, the chapter summaries and good practice points, and reviewing the exercises and reflective questions that we have set. I have been dealing with the overviews, illustrative case studies, and the referencing. These tasks have involved pulling out each of these elements from the individual chapters into a Word document of their own and then reviewing them for consistency. This is an amazing way to spot glitches. For example, we realised our chapter overviews varied in length from 71 to 922 words. That’s such a big variation that our readers would have been likely to notice – or at least to pick up a sense of inconsistency, which is not what we’re aiming for. On the other hand, I don’t have the perfectionist/obsessive tendencies that can be the downside of the Completer-Finisher, so I didn’t think we needed each overview to be exactly the same length. We agreed that 300-500 words would be about right. Then we had a chunk of work to do to make that happen, adding to some overviews and deleting from others, which meant figuring out whether we could swap sentences between each overview and other places in that chapter or whether we had to gain new words or lose old ones altogether.

We have spent the last few days in a finishing frenzy. Emails have been hurtling back and forth at speeds hitherto unknown to science. I don’t know what Janet’s Belbin role is but I figured she was probably a Shaper. I ran this past her and she said yes and she also thinks we are both Plants because we’re creative and undeterred by obstacles. Makes sense to me, particularly as Plants work well alone on the whole, but also benefit from collaborating – that’s us both to a T! We’ve collaborated with each other before and she’s a joy to work with: responsive, inventive, diligent. It’s not easy, though, for either of us. We have to keep an eye on the whole picture (‘here’s the latest word count’) and the tiny details (‘can we think of a better title for our case studies?’) all at the same time. This makes your brain hurt. We have had the occasional version control problem, which is almost inevitable at this stage if you’re working at speed, and the odd thing has been overlooked here and there. Luckily we’re both forgiving of each other’s flaws and disinclined to sweat the small stuff.

All I really want to do is get the book done. It’s irritating to have to stop to do things like eat and sleep and answer emails. Hang on a minute, though – wasn’t I just claiming not to have obsessive tendencies? Oh… But I do stop for food and rest and correspondence! So… yeah. OK. You can stop rolling your eyes now, I admit I can be a teeny bit obsessive. (Just as well Janet is so tolerant!)

On the plus side, we can easily put in a 16-hour day between us. When I start work in the early UK morning, Janet is sleeping sweetly in her cosy bed. When she starts work, first thing in the US morning, it’s the afternoon here. We overlap for a few hours when we can Skype and whizz emails back and forth, then I knock off for the evening and Janet carries on into her afternoon. When I get to work the next morning there will be new emails from her, and by the time she gets to work there will be new emails from me. We both find that this is a very efficient and effective way of working.

In some ways it’s a bit odd having a sprint finish at the end of a marathon. I find it helpful, though, because otherwise it can be hard to let go. I have experienced that with my sole-authored books before. I don’t foresee any such problem with this book, perhaps partly because it’s a collaboration. When collaborations work well, as this one has, it’s so encouraging. Janet and I both feel very positive about this book; we think it will offer information, advice and guidance that late-stage and post- doctoral students really need but often struggle to find. It’s almost as if she and I are racing neck-and-neck to the finish, though we’re racing together rather than against each other. And that is what would make me drag my feet if anything could. I won’t be sorry to see the back of the book, but I will miss working with Janet.

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 $26 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $26 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month 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!