Books on Academic Writing Productivity

This is a review of six books that address productivity in academic writing (though some cover other topics too). They are listed in order of publication date. Page counts do not include prelims or appendices, indexes etc. All costs are recommended retail prices for paperback editions apart from Helen Sword’s book which is only available in hardback. Prices were taken from Wordery (who offer significant discounts on the prices shown here) apart from Jo Van Every’s book where the information was provided by the author.

Zerubavel bookThe Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Eviatar Zerubavel, 1999, Harvard University Press. 98 pages. £15.95.

Zerubavel is a professor of sociology in America. This book is short, readable, and practical, with a decent index, and is lightly referenced using endnotes. It focuses on scheduling writing time, timetabling writing projects, and managing deadlines, both self-imposed and external. The voice is authoritative with touches of humour. Some points feel a little dated now: for example, Zerubavel advises the reader to check their electronic mail before they start to get it out of the way (p 19), but then the volume of email most people received in the late 1990s was very much less than it is today. But most of the advice given in this book is still sound, including the take-away message: that all progress is good, however slow or fast, and perseverance is key to making that progress.

Silvia bookHow To Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Paul Silvia, 2007, American Psychological Association. 132 pages. £15.95.

Silvia is a professor of psychology in America. He also focuses on scheduling, looking at goals, priorities, and ways to monitor progress, and again his book is lightly referenced. The voice is chatty, informal, often amusing, and the index is adequate. Silvia suggests setting up a writers’ support group as ‘a constructive source of social pressure’ (p 56). Only half of the book is focused on productivity, the other half addresses writing style and gives advice specific to writing academic journal articles and books. The short concluding chapter comes back to productivity and reminds the reader to set a schedule, get on with it, and keep making progress.

Murray bookWriting in Social Spaces: A Social Processes Approach to Academic Writing. Rowena Murray, 2015, Routledge. 135 pages. £29.99.

Murray is a professor of education in Scotland, UK, and has written several books on academic writing. She also conducts formal funded research into academic writing practices and this book is based on the findings from several projects. Although only one chapter of her book addresses productivity directly, it is a central theme. Her argument is that writing has a social aspect and that this can be leveraged to enhance motivation and productivity through goal-setting and progress management. The voice is clear and well-informed. This is a thoughtful book with a lot of detailed information on how to put its advice into practice. Sadly, the index rather lets it down, with only 32 main headings for a 150-page book, and no entries even for key concepts used such as leadership or containment. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading.

Goodson bookBecoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. Patricia Goodson, 2017, Sage (second edition – first edition 2011). 235 pages. £32.99.

Goodson is a professor of health education in America. She has developed the POWER model (Promoting Outstanding Writing for Excellence in Research) from a study of academic productivity research, psychology and neuroscience literature on talent and elite performance, and the writing theory of Peter Elbow (1998). Her argument is that academic writing improves with practice. Her first eight exercises focus on productivity, and (among other things) they cover the now familiar areas of scheduling writing time and monitoring progress. I don’t find exercises in books particularly useful, so I simply read the book and benefited from the information conveyed by the author. If you like doing exercises from books you’ll benefit even more. The voice Goodson uses is warm and encouraging, and the index is excellent.

Sword bookAir & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Helen Sword, 2017, Harvard University Press. 206 pages. £17.95.

Sword is a professor of education in New Zealand. She is also a poet with a background in academic literature. Her book is based on a specific research project: she interviewed 100 academics around the world about their writing. From this research she developed the BASE model (Behavioural, Artisanal, Social and Emotional habits) which demonstrates the complexity of the writing process. Productivity is covered in the section on behavioural habits which is designed to help writers identify their own best time, place, rhythm and ritual for writing. As you would expect from a poet, the book is beautifully written, and it has a calm reflective voice. Sword has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of relevant literature to draw on for the ‘read a book’ sections at the end of the chapters. Also, her book has a very good index.

Jo Van Every bookFinding Time For Your Scholarly Writing: A Short Guide. Jo Van Every, 2018, self-published e-book. $3.75. (paperback coming soon)

Van Every is an academic career guide in England, UK. I am grateful to her for the review copy e-book that prompted this blog post. Her book is full of practical advice on how to identify and manage writing time, whether that time is measured in minutes, hours, or days. Van Every covers the topics of scheduling and goal setting that are common to many of these books and, as with them all, the book is well written in itself. Like Zerubavel and Silvia, it is lightly referenced. The book has a lovely consistent voice, like that of a friendly, supportive, knowledgeable auntie; someone who is on your side and has helpful advice to offer. Van Every includes information about other resources: books – including those by Helen Sword and Rowena Murray mentioned above – and online resources. There is no index in the e-book, but that doesn’t matter because you can search it electronically.

Each of these books is full of wisdom. Perhaps you may think you have learned all you need from this blog post: schedule time, set goals, monitor progress, persevere. At one level it is that simple. But if you’re looking for ways to increase your writing productivity, I’d recommend reading one or more of the books I have reviewed. I hope this post will enable you to choose the book or books that suit you best.

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.

Words Will Never Hurt Me?

blog word cloud 7.10.15Last week I was privy to an interesting discussion in a Facebook group. The discussion was on quite a contentious topic, and one person (P1) left a comment saying they hoped those involved would acknowledge that we all have blind spots. A second person (P2) responded saying they wanted to call out the term ‘blind spots’ because it is ableist and comes with negative connotations in implying that people with visual impairment lack wisdom. P1 then disclosed that they themselves had a significant visual impairment, yet had no problem with the use of the term ‘blind spots’, and regarded it as a metaphor from driving rather than a discriminatory term. P1 asked P2 what language P2 would prefer to use, and P2 said ‘ignorance’.

Ignorance denotes a ‘lack of knowledge, education, or awareness’. For sure everyone lacks knowledge, education, or awareness, so in one sense it’s a statement of fact. However, it is also a term I have often heard used as an insult. As ‘blind spot’ is a metaphor, a little distance is introduced which in theory removes heat from the discourse – though evidently not always in practice.

Someone else (P3), who I know quite well in real life, has worked for years in senior roles in two charities for people with visual impairment. I asked P3 about this. P3 said that the beneficiaries of those two charities would have no problem with the term ‘blind spot’. In fact it is a term in common use among those beneficiaries, as it is for others. P3 told me their beneficiaries often use visual terms in speech even if they have no sight at all, saying to each other, for example, ‘Let me show you my new bag,’ or, ‘Have you seen Mary today?’ I have another good friend who has a physical disability such that their legs don’t function and so they use a wheelchair. This friend will cheerfully say to me, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ or, ‘Shall we wander round to the pub?’ Of course these are not terms with negative connotations, but even so it seems to me that they could be construed as ‘ableist’ by someone with particular sensitivities.

The thing is, we all have sensitivities. Including me. I have grown to hate the current vogue for praising something by saying that whatever-it-is ‘never gets old’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, so I much prefer the valuing of maturity. (Especially when it refers to cheese, or wine, or ideally both together.) I also hate the casual ‘hope you’re well’ that seems to be the requisite opening for emails these days, as I live with two disabilities, rarely feel well, and am never going to be fully well again unless medical science really gets its act together. I get really fed up with people using the term ‘manning’ (the stall, the phones, the fort) when there are perfectly good gender-neutral alternatives (staffing, answering, holding). I have tried calling people out about these terms, but learned that it wasn’t worth the effort, and on reflection I think there are more important causes on which to expend my limited energies.

It is quite evident that there is no set of terms that meet with everyone’s approval. When we are able, it makes sense to find out which terms people prefer, and to use those terms where possible. It seems to me that it also makes sense for us to cut each other some slack at times. I am a wordsmith, I care about language, and I try for as much precision and fairness as I can muster from the imprecise raw materials of my craft. I know that the language we use in speech and writing affects the ways in which we and others think. So I do believe it is necessary to be as careful as we can with our words. Yet I also recognise that there are a lot of fights to be fought in this world, and the most important battle is not always over words and phrases.

Write For Your Readers

rules-1752406__480This is the third of three posts inspired by an exchange on Twitter with @leenie48 and @DrNomyn. The first two posts were (1) about why I hadn’t included theory in a previous post about how to choose a research method, and (2) about the relationship between methodology, method, and theory.

To recap briefly, @leenie48’s view is that we should not discuss research questions and methods without also considering theory. In an ideal world, I would agree with her. However, my view is that the time and skills required to work with theory are not always available to every researcher. For example, some people studying for pre-doctoral degrees, or conducting commissioned research, may not be able to include a theoretical component in their work.

The post I wrote about how to choose a research method was aimed at Masters’ students and novice practitioner-researchers. When I began explaining this to @leenie48, she said, ‘Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!’

This was a really useful piece of feedback for me. In my experience, people don’t often give this kind of feedback online. There seems to be a kind of convention among scholars that if you read something you don’t like/understand/agree with, you simply click on to something else. This feedback told me two really useful things. First, if @leenie48 is a bit sick of having to make such explanations, then other people will be too. Second, and more importantly, I have broken a very important writer’s rule.

When I’m teaching writing to doctoral students and early career academics, I tell them over and over again to think of their readers. Figure out who your audience is, I say, and make life easy for them. That gives great value to your work. Whether you’re writing for supervisors and examiners, or journal editors and reviewers, or commissioners and service users, or commissioning editors and the general public, the same rule applies. The easier you can make your readers’ lives, the more they will value and use your work.

I have broken this rule in my own blog. I’ve done so by writing posts for people at different levels without making that clear in any way. I haven’t used appropriate tags or spelled out my intended readership in my introductions to posts.

I responded to @leenie48 saying ‘You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.’

I wish I could tell you I’ve done that already, but I haven’t yet had time. Writing and posting on this blog every week is always a scramble, and just now I am drowning in deadlines. But it is on my to-do list, and I’ll also tag all posts from now on as either: doctoral, masters, early career, or general.

Of course there are overlaps between the categories. My first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, is primarily written for masters’ level and practitioner researchers. However, I have had positive feedback from third-year undergraduate students and early-stage doctoral students, particularly those who are unfamiliar with research methods. My second book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, is intended for doctoral students and early career researchers. Again, though, I’ve had good feedback from masters’ level students and even some Professors on this book. So ultimately you need to decide for yourself whether to read only the posts with one tag, or also investigate other posts.

Nevertheless, this does not absolve me from the responsibility of giving you that choice. So I will get on to the re-tagging as soon as I have time, and I thank @leenie48 for a much-needed kick up the bum. Also, if you’re writing anything, don’t do as I do, do as I say! Think of your readers and work to meet their needs.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap Among Academic Authors?

Kara and DorlingThe gender pay gap is much in the news at present. The BBC is under scrutiny following the resignation of its senior editor Carrie Gracie on the grounds of unequal pay; large companies in the UK pay women less than men; Iceland has just become the first country in the world to pass a law making it illegal to pay men more than women. I could cite plenty more instances. And this got me thinking: what is the situation for academic authors?

I belong to several Facebook groups for people in or connected with academia. In one group recently, a doctoral student in some financial difficulty – as so many doctoral students are – bemoaned the need to read a chapter from a book costing US$52. “Is this how academics make their money?” the student asked.

The idea that all people who write books are rich is a complete misperception. A few writers are rich, and some of them are women: JK Rowling and Jodi Picoult, to name just two. But they are not academic writers. Some academics who are writers are rich, but that’s mostly because they receive generous academic salaries. (NB: I’m not saying all academic salaries are generous. I’m saying rich academics are the ones on generous salaries, and some of them are also writers.)

In America writers are treated with more respect than in most countries. The Textbook & Academic Authors’ Association is open to members from any country but it is based in America and 80% of its members are American. In 2015 the T&AAA conducted a survey of 403 textbook authors which showed that average royalties were in the band of 9%–18%. So it seems there may be a geographic pay gap for academic writers, because this range is higher than academic royalties I have heard about from the UK. But there was no breakdown of the survey findings by gender.

My publishing contracts contain confidentiality clauses which make it illegal for me to tell you, or anyone else, what my own royalty rates are. This is standard practice in the publishing industry. I can tell you that one young British academic of my acquaintance recently told me, pre-contract, that they had been offered royalties of 7.5% on sales. If that person’s book retailed at US$52, you might think they would therefore earn US$3.90 per sale. Not so. Royalties are paid on the amount the bookseller pays to the publisher, not the amount the customer pays the bookseller. A book with a retail price of US$52 would probably sell to the retailer at around US$36, so the author’s royalty per sale would be US$2.70.

Many academic books retail for less than US$52. Mine are currently listed on amazon.com at $39.93 for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners (2nd edn) and $33.66 for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Some retail for much more, though they are often edited collections. For example, the Sage Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods is an eye-watering $490.48. I have never heard of anyone earning anything for contributing a chapter to an edited collection. It seems likely that books at these prices are only bought by the libraries of rich institutions. (At least that means students and staff at those institutions can use the books, and a few other libraries provide wider access. For example, the British Library in the UK holds copies of every book published in the UK, and anyone can register to read those books for free. The snag is that you have to go to London, which isn’t easy or possible even for every UK resident, let alone people based further afield. Some other countries have national and regional libraries which are publicly accessible, but again they are bricks-and-mortar institutions and you have to go to them.)

Some publishing contracts offer no royalties at all on the first 250 or 500 (or some other figure) of books sold. Given that some academic books only sell a few hundred copies, these kinds of contracts could result in authors earning no royalties at all. I can’t find any reliable statistics about sales of academic books, which is a finding in itself.

I can tell you how much I earned in total royalties last year, on the two books I have in print, one of which is a second edition. For 2016-17 I earned £1,236.70 in royalties. Earlier this decade, Queen Mary University of London reported on the earnings of almost 2,500 professional writers in the UK. Academic writers had the lowest average annual income, at £3,826, behind travel writers, non-fiction writers, children’s fiction writers and adult fiction writers, respectively. I aspire to become average one day.

So publishing is not how academics make their money; it’s how academic publishers make their money. But is there a gender pay gap in academic authors’ royalties? With the current secrecy around royalty rates, there is no way of knowing. But given the prevailing interest in the gender pay gap, I hope that next time the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, or the Society of Authors, or a similar body conducts a survey, they will ask about, and report on, gender parity or disparity.

How To Market Your Academic Journal Article

millions

What can you do to stand out in such a crowd?

Last week I wrote about how to market your academic book. Journal articles, too, benefit from marketing. If you’ve ever had one published, you have probably had one or more emails from the publisher encouraging you to help market your article. It is in the publisher’s interest for you to help them with marketing, because higher visibility usually leads to more citations, and more citations (within two years of publication) help the journal concerned increase its impact factor. It may, though, be in your interest too.

Around two and a half million academic journal articles are published each year on this planet. Generally speaking, if you want your one journal article to be noticed and read among these millions, you need to help it along.

Marketing your journal article begins before you finish writing. A clear and descriptive title, and the most relevant keywords or phrases, will help your article to be visible online. Use as many keywords or phrases as the journal permits. If you find it difficult to come up with enough keywords or phrases, think about what your readers might search for. Also, make sure at least three or four of your keywords or phrases appear at least once in your abstract. This all helps to make your article easier for search engines to find.

The abstract, too, is important. It should tell a clear story in itself, and should include the key ‘take-away’ point you have made. To figure out what that is, it may help to think what headline a journalist would give to a piece based on your article. A well written and structured abstract will entice more people to read further.

Once your article is published, there is plenty more work to be done if you want your research to have an impact. Some publishers make your article free to access online for a specific period or give you a limited number of free eprints. Either way, you can advertise this through email, discussion lists, and social media. Talking of email, it can be useful to add a link to your article as part of your email signature. Also, you can add the link to any online presence, such as your institutional web page and your LinkedIn profile.

If you teach a course for which your article would be suitable material, add it to the reading list. Also, unless it’s open access, check whether your university library subscribes to the journal concerned; if not, recommend it to them.

It’s helpful to write a blog post about your research with a link to your article. This could be on your own blog (if you have one), or on a blog in your field with a wide readership, or on your publisher’s blog. Again, you can advertise the link through social media.

An infographic can be useful too, either as part of a blog post or as a stand-alone information source – or both. Information here on how to create an infographic.

You can make a short video abstract of your journal article and upload it to a video sharing site such as YouTube or Vimeo. This is becoming an increasingly popular way to share information, and there are some great examples online such as this one on social jetlag. It’s not difficult to do, and can be done using a smartphone; there is a tutorial here.

Another option is to create a press release to alert the mainstream media. This is generally only worth doing if the journal article contains information that will interest a lot of people. It also needs to be ‘newsworthy’, e.g. relevant to current news coverage, providing a new perspective on past news coverage, or coinciding with an anniversary. A press release is a short document, usually only a page or at most two, with a specific format; details here.

If this all sounds like a lot of extra work: it is. I’m not suggesting you should do everything listed above; nor am I suggesting that this post is exhaustive. But if you want to make your journal article visible to potential readers, you will almost certainly need to take one or more of these steps.

Creative Research In Practice

like cloudIt’s not often I get to share an output from the commissioned research I do. Sometimes clients don’t want to share publicly for reasons of confidentiality, and sometimes there are other reasons they don’t publish. As a commissioned researcher, I can’t publish the work someone else has paid for without their agreement. But I’m glad to say that Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has published the full report of the research I did for them last year with my colleague Roxanne Persaud.

The research question was: How can QMUL improve students’ experience with respect to the inclusivity of their teaching, learning, and curricula? The original brief focused on the protected characteristics covered by the UK Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Roxanne and I advised QMUL to take a more holistic approach to inclusivity, as the protected characteristics don’t cover some factors that we know can lead to discrimination and disadvantage, such as socioeconomic status and caring responsibilities. We recommended Appreciative Inquiry as a methodological framework, because it doesn’t start from a deficit perspective emphasising problems and complaints, but focuses on what an organisation does well and what it could do better. (It doesn’t ignore or sideline problems and complaints, either; it simply starts from the standpoint that there are assets to build on.)  And of course we suggested creative techniques, particularly for data-gathering and sense-making, alongside more conventional methods.

Roxanne and I were both keen to do this piece of work because we share an interest in diversity and inclusion. Neither of us had worked with QMUL before and we weren’t sure whether they would appreciate our approach to their brief. Sometimes commissioners want to recruit people who will do exactly what they specify. Even so, I’d rather say how I think a piece of work needs to be done; if the commissioner doesn’t want it done that way, then I don’t want the job.

QMUL shortlisted six sets of applicants. The interview was rigorous. Roxanne and I came out feeling we’d done ourselves justice, but with no clue as to whether we might have got the work or not. But we did!

The research was overseen by a Task & Finish group, made up of staff from different departments, who approved the methods we had put forward. We conducted a targeted literature review to identify key issues and best practice for inclusivity in the UK and overseas, and set the research in an institutional, societal, and theoretical context. The theoretical perspectives we used began with the theory of intersectionality developed by the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which we then built on using the diffraction methodology of the physicist and social theorist Karen Barad. These two theories together provided a binocular lens for looking at a very complex phenomenon.

The timescale for the research was tight, and data gathering collided with Ramadan, exams, and the summer holidays. So, not surprisingly, we struggled with recruitment, despite strenuous efforts by us and by helpful colleagues at QMUL. We were able to involve 17 staff and 22 students from a wide range of departments. We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with the staff, and gave students the option of participating in face-to-face interviews or group discussions using creative methods. These methods included:

  • The life-sized lecturer: an outline figure on a large sheet of paper, with a label indicating what kind of person they are e.g. ‘a typical QMUL lecturer’ and ‘an ideally inclusive lecturer’, which students could write and draw on.
  • Sticker maps: a map of organisational inclusivity, which we developed for QMUL, on which students could place small green stickers to indicate areas of good practice and small red stickers to indicate areas for further improvement.
  • Empathy maps: tools to help participants consider how other students or staff in different situations think and feel; what they might see, say, and do; and where they might experience ‘pain or gain’ with respect to inclusive learning.
  • Screenplay writing: a very short screenplay depicting an interaction between a student and a very inclusive lecturer, or between a student and a less inclusive lecturer. The screenplay will include dialogue and may also include information about characters’ attributes, the setting, and so on.

We generated over 50,000 words of data, which we imported into NVivo. Roxanne and I spent a day working together on emergent data coding, discussing excerpts from different interviews and group sessions, with the aim of extracting maximum richness. Then I finished the coding and carried out a thematic analysis while Roxanne finished the literature review.

We wrote a draft report, and then had two ‘review and refine’ meetings for sense-making, which were attended by 24 people. The first meeting was with members of the Task & Finish group, and the second was an open meeting, for participants and other interested people. We presented the draft findings, and put up sheets on the walls listing 37 key factors identified in the draft report. We gave participants three sticky stars to use to indicate their top priorities, and 10 sticky dots to use to indicate where they would allocate resources. People took the resource allocation incredibly seriously, and it was interesting to see how collaboratively they worked on this. I heard people saying things like, ‘That’s important, but it’s already got five dots on, so I’m going to put another one here.’ I wish I could have recorded all their conversations! We did collect some further data at these meetings, including touch-typed notes of group discussions and information about the relative frequency of occurrence, and importance, of the 37 key factors. All of this data was synthesised together with the previously collected data in the final report and its recommendations.

The comparatively small number of participants was a limitation, though we did include people from all faculties and most schools, and we certainly collected enough data for a solid qualitative study. We would have liked some quantitative data too, but the real limitation was that most of the people we reached were already concerned about inclusivity. We didn’t reach enough people to be able to say with certainty whether this was, or was not, the case more widely at QMUL. Also, while none of our participants disagreed unduly with our methodology or methods, others at QMUL may have done so. In a university including physicists, mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, artists, doctors, dentists and lawyers, among others, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could come up with an approach to research that would receive universal approval.

Yet I’m proud of this research. It’s not perfect – for example, I’ve realised, in the course of writing this blog post, that we didn’t explicitly include the research question in the research report! But its title is Inclusive Curricula, Teaching, and Learning: Adaptive Strategies for Inclusivity, which seems clear enough. I’m sure there are other ways it could be improved. But I’m really happy with the central features: the methodology, the methods, and the flexibility Roxanne and I offered to our client.

Working With Indigenous Literature

Indigenous methods booksI have been working with Indigenous literature on research methods and ethics for over a year now: reading, annotating, thinking, re-reading, and writing from this literature alongside Euro-Western literature on the same topics. During this process I have been reflecting on how I should, and how I do, work with Indigenous literature.

Working well with any literature requires careful and thorough reading and reflection. Beyond that, though, it seems to me there are some specific requirements for working with Indigenous literature.

To begin with, readers need to understand that although the current body of literature is small, it represents a much longer research tradition than that represented by Euro-Western methods/ethics literature. Indigenous researchers around the world, through their oral history, can trace their research tradition back over 40,000 years (Passingan 2013:361; Steere 2013:388-391). By contrast, in Euro-Western terms, anything over 6,000 years old is pre-history. However, there is also a translation problem. Although the first language of some Indigenous people these days may be English, the community and tribal languages of Indigenous peoples worldwide are very different. The complex concepts people develop when talking and thinking about research and its context may not translate directly between a community or tribal language and English, or vice versa. Even when words can be translated, the ideas those words describe may not be fully translatable to people with different world views. For example, some Indigenous peoples regard their ancestors as involved in the research they conduct. This is an unusual concept for most Euro-Western researchers and it is unlikely that we can understand fully what that involvement means to the Indigenous peoples concerned.

Then readers need an awareness that translating an oral tradition into writing is a big intellectual and emotional challenge. There is evidence within the Indigenous research literature that some of its authors are ambivalent about writing. For example, Shawn Wilson states that ‘A problem with writing down stories is that it makes it very difficult to change them as we gain new learning and insights.’ (2008:22) He solves this problem in his own work by writing, not in the Euro-Western linear style of introduction, methods, findings etc, but in ‘a more cyclical pattern that introduces ideas or themes, then returns to them at intervals with different levels of understanding’ (ibid:42). He also tries to write relationally, in accordance with Indigenous ethical principles, i.e. to build a relationship between himself as author, his readers, and the ideas he puts forward (ibid:6). With this aim in view, he uses a literary device of addressing his three children in sections of the book. He chose to do this because, unlike his unknown readers, he has an existing relationship with his children which enables him to use a more personal ‘voice’ in writing for them (ibid:9). Wilson’s hope is that these sections, alongside the more conventionally written ones, will help his readers to develop their own relationships with the ideas and themes in his book.

Wilson and others (e.g. Lambert 2014) also include stories from other named people in their books. This requires a change in citation practices, as simply citing the name of the person on the cover of the book does not adequately acknowledge the source of information. I have solved this problem by citing this way: ‘Lewis in Wilson 2008:110’ or ‘Leslie Camel in Lambert 2014:167’. (I have yet to find out whether my publisher regards this as OK or not, though I hope they will.)

It seems to me that Indigenous literature should be worked with in its own ethical terms. Indigenous research ethical principles are not the same as Euro-Western research ethical principles. While they are described differently by different writers, there are four key ethical principles that recur in the Indigenous literature: respect, accountability, relationality and reciprocity. For me, Indigenous literature should be treated with respect, such as by not dismissing concepts that seem unusual or even alien to me, but by giving them full consideration. If I can’t embrace a particular concept myself, at the very least I need to acknowledge and respect its significance for some Indigenous peoples.

Accountability comes with putting my name to my writing on these topics, making my views available on my blog and (next year) in a book, and giving anyone the right to comment or reply, whether or not they agree with me. Relationality involves careful reading and thinking and use of the literature, trying to understand the different works and authors in relation to me, and me in relation to them, as well as the relationships between the works and authors themselves. This is very much a work in progress and I hope one day to extend it into actual relationship with individual Indigenous researchers, though whether or not any Indigenous researcher would find value in that remains to be seen.

Reciprocity is the principle I find the most difficult when working only with literature. I hope I can achieve this by writing from the Indigenous literature in a way that its authors will value, and in a way that will enable other Euro-Western researchers and scholars to find and learn from that literature as I myself have done. I have been very concerned that working with the literature could be extractive, i.e. taking ideas and concepts and using them for my benefit alone. It is true that the books I write help me to earn a living, but I am not getting rich from them. Nobody pays me while I write, and my income from writing in 2016-17 was around £1,500 (I don’t have the exact figure yet, but will post it when I do). Also, I don’t write niche academic monographs, but textbooks that have proven to be of interest to postgraduate students and academics around the world. I found comfort in direct requests from some Indigenous writers to include their literature in Euro-Western works (Kovach 2009:13,25; Graham Smith in Kovach 2009:88-89; Chilisa 2012:56), and I hope that raising the profile of this literature within the Euro-Western research world will prove to be a positive act. If it backfires in some unforeseen way, on Indigenous individuals and communities who have already borne too much pain, all I will be able to do is acknowledge and own my responsibility for my part in that process, to remain accountable, learn, and do what I can to right any wrongs.

This post is a starting point rather than a conclusion. I have figured all this out myself, so I may be on the wrong track. If you are working with, or have an interest in, this body of literature, please contribute your views in the comments.

Why I Love Reviewer 2

pencils and heartFeedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:

  1. what you’re doing well,
  2. what needs improvement, and
  3. how you can make those improvements.

If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.

More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.

Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?

Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.

Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:

  • The synopsis is quite antagonistic
  • This will provide insufficient information to be useful
  • The thrust of the book remains unclear
  • Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
  • It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
  • The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
  • I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
  • Far greater clarity is needed
  • The book will not make a very original contribution
  • The writing style is stiff

Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.

There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.

Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.

Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.

This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.

I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.

I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.