How Much This Academic Writer Earns

I have been writing for Policy Press since 2011. I am contractually forbidden to tell you the level of royalties they pay me, but I can tell you it is higher than any of the other publishers I work for. However, there is nothing to stop me telling you how much money I make from the writing I do for them. I just received my most recent royalty statement, which is my tenth. 

Before we get to the actual figures, you need a sense of the scale of the work I have done for them. I have written three full-length sole-authored books. Two are now in their second editions, and the third edition of the first one will be out early next year. I have co-written two full-length books and co-edited three e-books and a full-length book. I have also created four short digital books, adapted from chapters in my first full-length book. Even over 11 years, that is a lot of work. And my books sell well.

However, you also need to know that, as yet, none of these books have been translated into other languages. Translations are great for writers because they are effectively free money. This means they are good for publishers, too, and I know Policy Press has tried to get translation deals for me. Maybe one day they will succeed. But in the meantime, all the money I have earned to date has been from the original English-language editions.

I began writing in early 2011, my first book was published in September 2012, and I received my first royalties in October 2013. Royalties are calculated on sales from August to July. Here are the amounts, by year:

  • 2012-13 – £128.39
  • 2013-14 – £324.76
  • 2014-15 – £482.70
  • 2015-16 – £1,040.00
  • 2016-17 – £1,627.20
  • 2017-18 – £1,663.70
  • 2018-19 – £947.46
  • 2019-20 – £1,901.93
  • 2020-21 – £5,197.57
  • 2021-22 – £2,417.27

Total: £15,748.98

Average per year (11 years): £1,431.73

Assuming 42 writing days per year: overall, on average, £34.09 per day.

You can see the upward progression has not been smooth. Between 2017 and 2018 there was not much increase; between 2018 and 2019 there was a big reduction. 2021 was a bumper year, probably because the pandemic led to lots of e-book buying (and I had negotiated higher royalties on e-books with Policy Press), but 2022 was again a big reduction.

I negotiated a good royalty deal when Policy Press were a younger, more idealistic organisation, wanting to support independent researchers and others outside the academy. I don’t think any author would be able to negotiate such a good deal now, even a more experienced author, even if their books sold well.

It is fortunate that I love writing books. Also my Policy Press books increase my income in other ways. I get well-paid teaching and speaking work, particularly because of my creative research methods and creative academic writing books. And I was accepted to work as an ethics expert for the European Commission largely because of my research ethics book.

Also, I get a few hundred pounds every year from ALCS (the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, which gathers income from mysterious sources such as educational photocopying). I get very little from PLR (Public Lending Rights, which gathers income from library loans) because they don’t include academic libraries. 

So it’s not just the royalties. But they do count. And their count is surprisingly small. Even if I add on my royalties from my other publishers (which are very much smaller) and from my self-published books (smaller still), I don’t get anywhere near the average income from book sales for an author in the UK. The latest survey, done in 2017 and published in 2018, found that the average was £10,500. I dream of my royalties hitting five figures, but I have a long way to go.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Why Peer Reviewing Is More Difficult These Days

I have been a peer reviewer of journal articles for the last eight years. I documented my first peer review, in late 2014, on this blog. Peer reviewing has never seemed easy to me – and I don’t think it should. Reviewing original work by other scholars is bound to be intellectually and emotionally demanding. But I feel as if peer reviewing has become more difficult, even over the comparatively short time I have been involved. There are several reasons for this, and I will focus on three of them here: hoaxes, malpractice and complexity.

Academic hoaxes pre-date my reviewing experience. In 2005, three US-based doctoral students in computer science, Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn and Dan Aguayo, created SCIgen. SCIgen is a computer program which can generate whole computer science journal articles including graphs, figures and citations, that look credible but are in fact nonsensical. A lot of articles generated by SCIgen have been accepted by, and published in, academic journals, despite the use of peer reviewers.

And such hoaxes are not limited to computer science. In 2017–18, three UK-based scholars, James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, wrote 20 fake articles using social science jargon. They were able to get several of these articles published in academic journals, even though some of them promoted morally questionable acts. The aim of these three scholars was apparently to highlight what they saw as poor quality work in some areas of the social sciences. However, I am not sure this intended end justifies the questionable means of duping reviewers and editors into publishing bogus research.

Sadly, though, it seems that academic journals are regularly duped into publishing bogus research by researchers themselves. Retraction Watch, based in the US, has been keeping track of retracted journal articles for the last 12 years. Some articles are retracted because their authors made honest mistakes. But the Retraction Watch database lists a lot of other reasons for retraction, including falsification or fabrication of data, and falsification, fabrication or manipulation of images or results. And the numbers are staggering. At the time of writing, there are over 1,500 articles listed on the database as retracted due to the falsification and/or fabrication of data, and over 1,000 due to the manipulation of images. Also, the database only includes those articles in which fabrication, falsification or manipulation have been detected and reported. By its own admission, Retraction Watch is biased towards the life sciences, so problematic journal articles in other sectors will be even less visible.

A bunch of people make it their business to find and publicise these problematic articles. One even does it under her own name: Elisabeth Bik. Others use pseudonyms such as Clare Francis, Smut Clyde, Cheshire, and TigerBB8.

Bik specialises in identifying manipulated images, and has found through empirical research that their prevalence is increasing. However, Bik has a particular talent for pattern recognition. Of course it is useful to know that images may be manipulated, and Bik regularly shares examples on social media and elsewhere which can help others understand what to look for. But even so, spotting manipulated images can be difficult for the average, harassed, unpaid peer reviewer. And catching fabricated or falsified images, data or results may be almost impossible without inside information. Most journal articles have strict word limits which can work against them here. These restrictions mean researchers are used to some aspects of their processes receiving a cursory mention at best, and this can enable cheating to pass undetected.

When reviewing goes wrong, consequences can be disastrous. The link is to a recent controversy about a published article promoting a morally questionable act. I am not using any of its keywords in this article. I think there are some particularly interesting aspects of this case. It is not the first article to be published that features morally questionable acts. I have read the article; it is well written, and I can see how a peer reviewer could regard it as worthy of publication – as its own peer reviewers did. The problem, for me, lay in the background of the author who promotes morally questionable acts outside of academia. He may have written this article in the hope that publication would lend legitimacy to his actions. Even if he did not, publication might be perceived to confer such legitimacy, which could cause reputational damage to the publisher and the university concerned.

So, the article you are reviewing may be a hoax, and/or may contain data, images, and/or results that have been manipulated, fabricated or falsified, in ways that are difficult or impossible to detect, and/or may have been written by someone with a dodgy agenda. But that’s not all. Academic work – and, indeed, the world around us – is becoming more complex. More research is transdisciplinary, pushes methodological boundaries, is multi-lingual, and so on. The process of peer review was devised when people worked in neat, tidy, single disciplines and fields. In that landscape people could act as experts on other people’s work in its entirety. These days that is not so easy. Topics such as sustainability, the climate crisis, and food security transcend disciplines and methods. This means that nobody, really, is an expert any more, so peer review is effectively obsolete. Yet it is still being used.

This means we need not only peer review before publication, but also after publication. Luckily there is a tool for this: PubPeer, a website where you can comment on published journal articles, anonymously if you wish. This enables researchers with inside information to whistleblow without risking the loss of their jobs. Also, you can use PubPeer to check articles you are intending to cite, to make sure nobody has raised any concerns about the work you want to use. At the moment PubPeer focuses mostly on laboratory and clinical research, but there is also (not surprisingly) some computer science. In fact PubPeer can be used for any published journal article as long as the article has a recognisable ID such as a DOI. Also, there is a PubPeer browser plugin which enables PubPeer comments to be visible on other websites besides PubPeer itself.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Resources for Creative Academic Writing

I am delighted to say that creative academic writing is gaining in popularity and acceptance, at least in some parts of the world. I have been teaching creative thesis writing and creative academic writing at universities around the world since 2015, and I know many postgraduate students and early career researchers are keen to learn and to apply their learning. I know they also, sometimes, meet resistance from their supervisors or managers. The best way to overcome this resistance is to formulate an academic argument based on academic resources. I am happy to say there are now a range of resources people can cite as they outline the rationale for writing creatively in academia.

The main reason for writing creatively is that it makes your writing more interesting and memorable for your readers. I’m sure most of us want other people to be interested in our work and remember the points we make. However, the thought of writing creatively can be daunting for those of us who have learned to report as factually as possible. The good news is we don’t have to use creativity at a macro level, such as by producing graphic novels, epic poems or full-length screenplays – though for those of us with the talent and dedication, macro creativity is certainly an option. But we can all use micro creativity: sensory language, imagery, metaphor and so on. And if we’re not sure how, these resources will help.

The first is a book edited by Pamela Burnard, Elizabeth Mackinlay, David Rousell and Tatjana Dragovic: Doing Rebellious Research In and Beyond the Academy, and in particular, Part 2, which focuses on ‘rebellious writings’. I am not highlighting this book because Pam has kindly agreed to give the first keynote at the International Conference on Creative Research Methods next year. I am highlighting it because it is a wonderful, transgressive, boundary-bulldozing book. It was published in 2022 and uses colour and theory, poems and images, concepts and diagrams, prose and music, and a bunch of other devices to get its points across. This book is a real tour de force and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The next book is edited by Cecile Badenhorst, Brittany Amell and James Burford: Re-imagining Doctoral Writing. This one was published in 2021 and is also available as an open access ebook. While it is evidently aimed at doctoral students, I think it could be useful to any academic writer wanting to work more creatively. I found it interesting, informative and thought-provoking, and I have been doing academic writing at postgraduate level and beyond since 1999.

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In 2022 a book was published focusing on creative academic writing in a single discipline. When that happens, you know an approach is taking hold. Edited by Francesca Cavallerio, it is Creative Nonfiction in Sport and Exercise Research. There is no paperback at present, only a very expensive hardback or a quite expensive ebook, so it is best to use if you have access to an academic library. Again, I think it would be helpful for people in any discipline wanting to write more creatively.

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So far, these are all edited collections. In 2021 a book was published written by Richard Phillips and, er, me, called Creative Writing for Social Research: A Practical Guide. We included 14 creative contributions from 17 researcher-writers to show how this can work in practice. I’m pleased to say we’ve had excellent feedback on the book so far. It even generated an online book club in the year of its publication.

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There are a couple of potentially useful open access journals, too, each founded in 2020. Both are aimed at the humanities, but again people working in other sectors may well find articles that are of use to them. One is from the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US, and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. The other is from the UK National Association of Writers in Education (aka NAWE), and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Research.

I am quite sure this is not an exhaustive list, though I hope it will be a useful one. If you have other resources to add, please share them in the comments.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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 Find A Collaborator

The question to ask first is, when might you want to find a collaborator? Some work needs to be done alone, such as most doctoral research. Some work is sometimes best done alone, such as writing an opinion piece for a high-profile blog. But some work definitely needs to be done in collaboration. Most research benefits from collaboration. When I am commissioned to do a piece of research alone or with one other colleague, I always recommend that the commissioner set up a small group of relevant people to advise and steer the research project. And writing often benefits from collaboration too. In fact academic writing is always more or less collaborative: even if only one person is named as the author, the work will have been influenced by other scholars, colleagues, reviewers, editors – the list is long. And if more than one author is named, the work is likely to have benefited from the sustained engagement of more than one person.

Some work really needs collaborators. Three colleagues and I wrote Creative Research Methods in Education, and it was a better book, as a result, than it would have been if any three or two of us had worked on the project. I often receive requests to collaborate with others on research, or writing or both. Sometimes they are from friends or colleagues, and I always consider those carefully. Narelle Lemon from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, suggested we work together on the education book when we first met in person. Sometimes requests to collaborate come from people I don’t know. The reception those ones get will vary depending on what the person is proposing and how they put that across. If the email is from a free email provider such as gmail, with lots of spelling mistakes, asking me to collaborate on research to help prove that hemlock cures cancer – and to contribute to the funding of that research – I will reach swiftly for the delete button. Conversely, if the email is from an organisational address, well written, and asking me to collaborate on work that is within one of my areas of expertise, I will respond – and if the enquirer mentions that they have a budget, I am likely to respond positively.

The best collaboration request I have had from a stranger came from Richard Phillips of Sheffield University. His initial message, in July 2018, simply said: “Dear Helen, I would like to explore the possibility of involving you in a workshop on creative writing and social research, and have a budget for this. It would be great to hear from you and discuss. Thanks, Richard.” Short, to the point, and very interesting indeed. I emailed straight back, and in his reply he told me he liked my book on creative research methods. Better and better! We spoke a couple of days later, met a couple of weeks after that, ran the workshop in November 2018, and our book on Creative Writing for Social Research was published in January 2021.

If you want to find a collaborator, the most important thing is to do your homework. If you want someone to co-write a journal article about the role of manicures in ex-convict rehabilitation, you need to find someone who shares that niche interest. And when you do find someone who seems suitable, make sure your potential collaborator likes to write; not everyone does. There should be no need to introduce yourself, because the person you are contacting should be able to find information about you online; if they can’t, they are much less likely to agree to collaborate with you.

Overall, people are more likely to agree to collaborate if you are their peer or above, the work you are proposing is within their areas of interest, and you have a budget. If you have nothing but passion for a project, it is still worth asking suitable people if they are willing to collaborate, but be prepared for rejection. Also, please be aware that offering to collaborate for free could put you at risk of being exploited. However much you care about an issue, it is equally important to take care of yourself.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers

My new book on Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers was published last week. It came about in an odd kind of way. Some conversations online, mostly with members of the Women in Academia Support Network, plus various comments in client meetings, and a few things I’d read, coalesced in my head into an idea. Then it just so happened that I was at a meeting for the PRO-RES project, in London, in November 2019, and also present was Katie Metzler, a vice-president of SAGE Publishing. I had met Katie before and we had chatted on Twitter. While we were catching up over pre-meeting coffee, I told her of my idea. The next thing I knew, she had whipped out her phone and asked a commissioning editor to work with me on the book.

It was an interesting book to write, tracing a journey I had made myself – if I hadn’t, I don’t think I could have written the book. My first degree, a BSc in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, was pure quantitative research. One of the things I most enjoyed was following reference trails down interesting paths in the library, and during one of these intellectual expeditions I found out about qualitative research. It fascinated me even then, and I asked if I could do a qualitative dissertation in my third year, but the answer was a resounding, rather shocked, and very firm ‘no’.

That seemed illogical to me, and slightly annoying, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t realise I had been caught up in the paradigm wars until I learned about them, much later, when I was doing an MSc in Social Research Methods in the early 2000s. The MSc covered both quant and qual methods, and you could specialise in either or both. It also taught social theory and the relationship of theory to research and research to practice. This time, my dissertation was qualitative, and I am still in touch with my wonderful dissertation supervisor Maggie O’Neill.

My PhD was mostly qualitative though I sneaked in a few bits of quant – my doctoral supervisors weren’t keen, but I have never seen the point of sticking to one or the other exclusively when some of both could work better. In the early 2000s I regularly met methodological opposition in my commissioned research. My own non-disciplinary and pragmatic approach to methods and theory is to use what is likely to work best to help me answer my research question, within the constraints of budget, timescale and so on. But some people are attached to specific methods or theories, whether through disciplinary or individual preference. I have long thought it is unnecessary and unhelpful to limit your options in that way.

In the later 2000s and early 2010s I observed little increases in flexibility here and there, such as some clinical researchers becoming more amenable to the occasional qualitative element, and some qualitative evaluators conceding that numbers could come in handy now and again. Further into the 2010s this began to pick up pace, and towards the end of the decade I noticed quantitative researchers discussing how difficult they found some aspects of qualitative research. Some comments I saved from online discussions included:

As a medic, I found some challenges personally conducting quali research – I come from a more quant background.”

I’m a biomed scientist who wants to learn and do mixed methods research. We’re not bad people but (gasp) have never been told any other method than the scientific method exists.

I was trained a positivist marine biologist and am now a marine social scientist… the field of social science has multiple philosophies that as natural scientists we rarely get to hear of, let alone understand.”

“I am also biomedical by background and have just started to use mixed methods/qual stuff. I am STRUGGLING it is really hard to wrap your head around if you’re just used to p values.”

I thought I could write a book to help people in these kinds of situations. So I did. And I’m delighted to say the finished book has already had some very good reviews. I am proud of what I have achieved with this book, and I hope it will help a lot of researchers.

By the way, if you’re interested in this subject you might want to join my Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers course at the Methods at Manchester summer school in June.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Innovation in Academic Publishing

I often get emails from publishing professionals wanting to commission a book. Mostly I reply with a polite version of ‘no, go away’, because I already have loads of writing projects stretching far into the future so it would be idiotic to take on any more. But now and again something piques my interest.

During the holidays I received a message from a commissioning editor at Lived Places Publishing. This is a new venture, based in the US and working globally, aiming to make publishing more inclusive. They are setting up a Disability Studies Collection ‘to increase understanding and advance the social and economic inclusion of people with disability’ and they asked me to write a book for the collection. I replied, true to form, with a polite version of ‘no, go away’, but this time I also said I would publicise the venture on my blog. Because, although I don’t want to write for them at present, you might.

Disability is not the only area they are working on. They are also commissioning work for a Black Studies Collection, an Education Studies Collection, a Latinx Studies Collection, and a Queer and LGBT+ Studies Collection. All of the commissioning editors are experienced and claim to work supportively. They want to commission short books (40,000–50,000 words) that are useful for both education settings and the wider public.

Regular readers will know I bang on about the woeful rates of academic royalties from time to time. One reason I am choosing to publicise Lived Places Publishing is that they are working hard to make improvements for authors. To begin with, they are being entirely transparent about their approach to ‘revenue sharing’. They take 50% to fund the publishing house; 20% goes to authors as royalties; 10% goes to collection editors; 5% is dedicated to funding open access, and 15% is ‘set aside to owner’s equity to be used at the discretion of the ownership to fund the growth of the publishing enterprise once breakeven has been achieved’.

I have a lot of time for this approach. Partly because I am in favour of transparency. In the conventional model, authors can negotiate, but most academic publishers work to keep authors’ royalty rates as low as possible and don’t offer much wriggle room. Also, some forbid authors from discussing their royalty rates with others, so we can never find out what might be possible. And partly because 20% across the board is, in my experience, a much higher royalty than most academic publishers pay.

Of course the whole thing could be a scam, but I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, the commissioning editors are experienced and that is verifiable online. Second, it seems very well thought through and professional. Third, Lived Places Publishing are in a partnership with Newgen, and here I do have some personal experience. Newgen is also a young venture, just over three years old, offering project management services to publishers. They managed the production of Qualitative and Digital Research in Times of Crisis for Policy Press, and they were very good to work with: friendly, helpful, professional.

You can subscribe to Lived Places Publishing to get free articles, written by commissioning editors and authors, in your inbox. They say ‘Hold us accountable and challenge us to remain true to our convictions as we build Lived Places Publishing. If we’re successful, we’ll challenge the rest of the industry to amend their practices.’ And that is something I would love to see.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Why writing is never fixed or final

I am working on the third edition of my first research methods book. Books like this, if they sell enough copies, are regularly updated into new editions. There are a few reasons for this. One is that ideas develop and the world changes, which means updates are needed. Another is that a new book usually has a comparatively small word count to help keep the price down; when it is proven to sell well, there is a business case for an increased word count and a slightly higher price. A third is that authors and readers think of more topics which could usefully be included.

The second edition of this book had 12 chapters; the third will have 16. I only have around 12,000 new words to play with, but fortunately some of the new chapters are chapters which were already rather long and still need new material, so have been split into two. There are only two completely new chapters, and one of those also has a chunk of content which I have moved over from another long chapter in the previous version. So, while there will be around 12,000 words of new content, only one of the four new chapters has to be written from scratch.

I regularly teach creative academic writing (aka academic writing it’s all creative), mostly to doctoral students who are faced with the terrifying task of writing a book. It’s called a thesis or a dissertation, depending on which country you are in, which makes it sound different from writing a book. But it’s not really different. Even a shorter thesis or dissertation of 40–50,000 words is equivalent in length to a Mills & Boon novel. An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation is equivalent to a standard paperback, and 100,000 words would be a larger paperback. Nobody tells doctoral students that they have to write a book – but, in effect, that is exactly what they have to do. Most theses and dissertations have chapters, contents, acknowledgements and other such book-like features. As the saying almost goes, if it looks like a book and quacks like a book it is probably a book.

Students often think writing a book is a similar process to reading: start with ‘Chapter One’ and then it’s one word after another until you get to ‘The End’. Nope. It is always difficult to convey the process of writing a book to someone who hasn’t written one, because describing is not the same as doing, and the only way to really understand how it works is to write one yourself. Which is a really difficult task, even if you have written several already. All I can do is to tell my students, in as many ways as I can, that most of us start in the middle even if we think we are starting at the beginning; it is fine to write fragments, or lists, or mind-maps; all of your work will go through at least three drafts; nothing is fixed, even when it’s published. I watch the level of comprehension on people’s faces vary from ‘utterly bemused’ to ‘penny dropped’. I know it’s pretty much impossible to learn about a process without any relevant experience, and I throw out blobs of wisdom hoping some of them will stick. (Some do. I once had a tweet from a former student, 18 months after I taught their class, saying ‘I just realised what you meant when you said…’ – it was lovely to know one of my blobs had landed after all that time.)

Perhaps the part students have most difficulty with is understanding that writing is never fixed or final. It looks so fixed, when you make a mark on a page; it seems indelible. But it’s not. You can move, change, edit, delete, add… Even published work isn’t fixed or final. This published blog post can be changed if I see a need for change. And, as new editions of books show, even published books are not final.

Once you understand this, it is a useful counter to perfectionism. In fact, it is not surprising that perfectionism is an enemy of writing, because writing can hardly ever be perfect (maybe a few shorter poems). Writers need to put down any perfectionism they may be holding, and simply be willing to do the best they can today. We also need to accept that this day’s ‘best’ is rarely the same as the next day’s ‘best’. When you look again at something you wrote last month or last year or last decade, it can make you cringe and wonder what on earth you were thinking. Which does not mean you are, or were, a bad writer; it means you have learned new things since then.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

A simple guide to ethical co-authorship

This post was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog in March 2021.

Ethical co-authorship is rarely discussed by authors and publishers, and even more rarely by research ethics committees. Yet co-authorship is a notorious site for unethical practices such as: plagiarism, citation manipulation, and ghost, guest and gift authors. For authors setting out on a collaborative writing project, two key aspects to ethical co-authorship need consideration: ethical co-writing and ethical co-publishing.

Ethical co-writing

Being invited to write with one or more others can feel flattering and exciting. Hold on, though, because before you co-write a single sentence, it is sensible to figure out whether you can work well together and to ask yourself some simple questions. Do you share enough priorities and values? If so, do you have similar working practices, such as attitudes to timescales and deadlines? While diversity of authorship will bring richness to your co-authored work, you need enough similarity to ensure that you can work well together. There is no shame in finding you can’t collaborate with someone; it doesn’t devalue your scholarship or theirs. But, it is worth ensuring you make that discovery early, rather than after you have already invested considerable time and effort.

Agree on the format for the work, and who will take the lead on each section or chapter. Different people can have very different ideas about format and structure, and again it is worth establishing this at the outset, rather than ending up with sections or chapters of wildly varying lengths and structures. This won’t impress reviewers and will create an unnecessarily large amount of work at the editing stage.

When you decide on deadlines, always build in contingency time. Things go wrong in people’s lives, particularly during a pandemic, and those affected need time to deal with their difficulties. Be willing to compromise or, in a group collaboration, to be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way – write alone – though you will still have to deal with others, reviewers and editors; to adapt a famous saying, the sole-authored paper is dead.

Encourage your co-authors to adopt ethical citation practices. This means avoiding citation manipulation, i.e. excessive self-citation, excessive citation of another’s work, or excessive citation of work from the journal or publisher where you want to place your own work. It also means ensuring a good level of diversity within your citations. Who are the marginalised scholars working in your field: the people of colour, the women, the Indigenous scholars, the scholars from the global South, the LGBT+ scholars, and so on? Make sure you read and cite their work, engaging in co-writing can be an opportunity to reassess what literatures have become central to your research.

When you give feedback to your co-authors, make it constructive: tell them what they are doing well, what needs improvement, and how they can make that improvement. When co-authors give you feedback on your writing, accept it gracefully, even if you don’t feel very graceful. Respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. Maintaining relationships with your co-authors can be more important and may even take precedence over being right.

Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your co-authoring, let your co-author(s) know as soon as possible.

Ethical co-publishing

Academic publishing is troubled by ghost, guest and gift authors, if you are in doubt, COPE provides a useful flowchart detailing these practices. Ghost authors are those who have contributed to a publication but are not named as a co-author, perhaps because they are a doctoral student or early career academic and a senior academic has decided to take the credit for their work. This is a form of plagiarism. Guest authors are those who have not contributed to the writing of a publication, though they may have lent equipment or run the organisation where the research took place. Gift authors are those who have made no contribution at all, but are offered co-author status as a favour. None of these practices are ethical. It doesn’t matter if some co-authors do more work than others, as long as everyone involved is happy with that, but you should be clear about each co-author’s contribution to the work, and outline that in a statement in the final draft.

Another ethical issue in co-publication is the order in which authors are named. This varies between disciplines. In economics, co-authors of journal articles are named in alphabetical order, while in sociology the co-author who has made the largest contribution is named first. Heather Sarsons studied this and found that the system used in economics has an adverse effect on academic women’s career prospects, while the sociology system does not.

However, this does not mean the sociology system is perfect. What if two or three authors have contributed equally? An alternative option could be to write enough articles or chapters for each co-author to have first authorship on one of them, but this isn’t always possible or desirable. Some scholars use pseudonyms to ensure that equal contributions are recognised. Economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson published several books and journal articles under the joint name J.K. Gibson-Graham, some of which were ‘sole’ authored and some with other co-authors. Geographers Caitlin Cahill, Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain and Mike Kesby have published together under the name Mrs C. Kinpaisby-Hill, and Kindon, Pain and Kesby have collectively used the name Mrs Kinpaisby. Professors EJ Renold and Jessica Ringrose work together as EJ Ringold.

This isn’t always an option, though, as publishers are not always happy to take an unconventional route. Book publishers for instance, will usually want as first author the person whose name they consider most likely to help sell copies. And, journal editors are sometimes reluctant to name participants who have co-authored journal articles, even when they evidently want to be named.

Acting ethically while co-writing is easier than acting ethically to co-publish, because authors have more autonomy while writing. Self-publishing may present opportunities for more creative representations of co-authorship practices, but self-published work is not generally valued by academia. Bumping up against the structures and priorities of big business, whether a publisher or a university, can make it more difficult for people to maintain an ethical course. Perhaps the most ethical option is to place work with a journal or publisher that is not for profit, so you are not contributing to shareholders’ dividends but to organisations that invest any surplus back into research dissemination.

To some extent, co-authorship is an academic virtue in itself. Co-authors learn from each other and help each other develop as researchers and scholars. Co-authored work is often stronger than it would have been if sole-authored. If we can also co-author ethically, that will further improve the quality of our collaborations and our outputs.

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Creative Data Analysis – Call for Chapter Proposals

I have wanted to make a book on creative methods of analysing data for years. I knew it wasn’t a book I could write on my own unless I did a load of research. I would have loved to do that, but I needed funding, and there are very few funds I can apply to as an independent researcher. I did try Leverhulme but got nowhere. Then I thought about an edited collection, which I probably could have done on my own but I figured it would work better with co-editors. And I wasn’t sure who to ask, so the whole thing stayed on my wishlist.

Then, back in February, I co-hosted a webinar for my publisher Policy Press on creativity in research. My co-hosts were Dawn Mannay from Cardiff University and Alastair Roy from the University of Central Lancashire. We had over 200 attendees on the day, and far more questions than we could answer, including several questions about creative data analysis. This reminded me of my wish to make a book on the subject, so I asked Dawn and Ali if they would co-edit with me. And they both said yes!

Over the summer we have worked with Philippa Grand, my lovely editor at Policy Press, to put together the call for chapter proposals. I am really pleased with what we have produced, not least because we managed to keep it to one page of A4. I can’t wait to see the proposals that come in – though I will have to because the deadline isn’t until 31 December. But I feel so happy about this book because I know researchers in all disciplines around the world are devising and adapting analytic methods in many creative and useful ways, and I am really glad to have an opportunity to help collate some of that information so it can help other researchers in the current and in future generations.

Having said that, there is a whole process to go through. Once we have accepted and organised the chapter proposals, we need to write a proposal for the book, which will be peer-reviewed before Policy Press make a decision on whether or not to publish it. Then we need to work with the chapter authors to help them produce their chapters to a good standard, and write a useful introduction and conclusion. After that the manuscript will be peer reviewed, and then we will need to support chapter authors with their revisions as well as making our own. Then the book will go into production, probably in late 2022 or early 2023, for publication in mid-2023.

After the frenzy of rapid publication last year, this seems almost glacially slow. And I am impatient! But I would rather make a good book than a quick book – I know it is possible to do both, but I also like having a life, so actually this is fine by me.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – 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!


 

Creative Writing for Social Research

Today is the official launch day for Creative Writing for Social Research, the book Richard Phillips and I have written, with 14 short contributions from other creative scholarly writers. I am so proud of this book! It is not perfect – no book is perfect – but I think it is the book I am most proud to have written. We will be on Twitter for much of the day: you can find all the launch information via #CreativeAcWri.

Every book has out-takes; good sections that, for sensible reasons, don’t make the final cut. To celebrate the launch of this book, I thought I would share one of its out-takes that I drafted, and was – am – fond of, but which just didn’t fit. It is about field notes, and centres on an excerpt from Eating Soup Without A Spoon by Jeffrey Cohen. That is an ethnography I love because, unlike most anthropologists, the author discusses his methods.

Here is the out-take:

“Ethnographers, who might spend years living with the people they are studying, were the first social researchers to use their own field notes as data. In the early 1990s, the American anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen and his wife Maria spent a year living in the rural village of Santa Ana del Valle in Oaxaca district in Mexico. Cohen writes eloquently about the complexity hidden by the glib term ‘field notes’ (2015:39-40):

Each night found me sitting at my desk writing notes; in fact, most nights found me writing at least two and sometimes three different kinds of notes.

The first notes, to which Maria contributed as well, were daily diary-like entries recording observations and exploring our experiences as we were introduced to village life. We wrote about shopping, about social life and the gendered divisions that defined what men and women were doing in their lives and around their homes, managing kitchens and the challenge of keeping a house clean.

I also described our home and the houses we visited, noting the physical trappings of life such as the layout of compounds, what people owned, and what luxuries were present.

A second set of notes was anthropological. Although they also explored our experiences in and around the village and market, they were organized around critical themes in anthropological theory… I would use these notes to think about economic change… family cooperation and reciprocity… the efforts to… not simply survive but thrive in the changing world… in my notes I could explore how [these efforts] worked, how they failed, and how they matched up to my expectations and training.

The third set of notes was much more personal and reflected my sense of self and my own experiences. On occasion I wrote letters to long-dead ancestors in anthropology. Looking back on that odd process, I can see it was one way I was able to deal with the ghosts of anthropology’s past that haunted me.

This is a lovely depiction of writing in practice as a method of turning experiences into data. It is also a clear illustration of writing as friend, teacher, and therapist. In the first set of notes we can see writing as a friend to whom Cohen recounted daily events, in the second a teacher showing Cohen how to think about his work and link theory to practice, and in the third a therapist who helped Cohen manage his feelings of being haunted by anthropological ghosts.

This kind of creative ethnographic writing can generate lots of rich data. The downside is the huge amount of work resulting at the analytic stage. For some people, this is so overwhelming that they never complete their research (Cohen 2015:150). Even for those who do find a way through the analytic morass, it will be ‘hard, exhausting work’ that is incredibly time-consuming (Cohen 2015:149). Though again, here, there are creative writing techniques which can help, and we’ll be highlighting some of those later in this section. However, unless you are doing this kind of ethnographic work, we would advise you to limit the amount of data you generate. Working with creative writing can be fun and interesting and so it’s tempting to keep on going. But as we’ve seen, this can present considerable difficulties for analysis, so we recommend resisting any such temptation.”

That should have given you a flavour of the book Richard and I have written. I use the conceptions of writing as ‘friend, teacher, and therapist’ in teaching creative and productive thesis writing to doctoral students. I tell them writing is a teacher; we learn as we write, often surprising ourselves. Writing can be a therapist: obviously an actual therapist is, generally speaking, more use, but if you have a distressing or complicated experience during research, writing about it can be cathartic and help you process your feelings. And writing is always there for you; sometimes annoying and disappointing, but reliable and reasonably predictable, like a good friend.

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 $75 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $75 – 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!