Little Quick Fixes for Research

Little Quick Fix logoBack in May, I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by a research methods editor from SAGE Publishing, Mila Steele, who asked me to write books for their new Little Quick Fix series on research methods. I had met Mila several times at conferences and other events, and we’d had some good chats, but her email came quite out of the blue.

The series is a new departure for SAGE. It’s also a new departure for me, as the books are intended for undergraduates and I’ve only written for postgraduates before (though some enterprising third-year undergraduates have used, and kindly given me good feedback on, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide). There are two other authors currently writing for the series: Zina O’Leary, who is covering the project management side of things, and John MacInnes, who is writing on statistics. Mila wanted me to focus on data, and we agreed that I would start with two books: Do Your Interviews and Write A Questionnaire.

The books are short, pocket-sized, colourful, and interactive. They have a template for consistency, but there is also scope for varying that template as needed. There is no peer review; instead, authors work closely with their editor. In one way this is a joy, though in another way it has caused me problems because I don’t work with undergraduates myself. Luckily I have a colleague/friend who teaches interviewing to undergraduates and was willing to let me pick her brains over lunch. Twitter helped me find another contact who teaches questionnaires to undergraduates and, as she was in Australia, Skype allowed us to speak. I was grateful to both people for alerting me to important points I might otherwise have missed.

Before these, the last book I wrote was Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives which took three-and-a-quarter years to complete. So it was a joy to find that I could write a Little Quick Fix book in just a few weeks. They’re not easy, though, because – as anyone who has written for an academic journal knows – ‘easy’ and ‘short’ are not the same thing. Each of these little books is like a puzzle. The text has to be both distilled and accessible; there are strict word counts for different sections; you need to cover the same ground three ways – in under 25, 130 and 600 words – without being repetitive. And then you have to devise interactive exercises to reinforce and embed the points you’ve made. Plus, with the first two, the timescales were tight. SAGE approached me in May, I signed a contract in June, delivered Do Your Interviews in July, Write A Questionnaire in August, they went into production in September and will be published in December. That is a blisteringly fast schedule by traditional publishing standards.

The really good news, from my point of view, is that SAGE has a design team who are doing a proper professional job on the books’ covers and contents. Look at my covers! Aren’t they lovely?

Do Your Interviews coverWrite A Questionnaire cover

I can’t wait to see the contents.

While I was writing, I made some design suggestions, and it will be interesting to see which the team take up and which they ignore or change. Design is not my strong point, to say the least. I can’t bear to show you the flow chart I cobbled together in Word which I could only be proud of if I was five years old. But I have seen these designers’ outputs and I know they are going to make my work look good.

I am also pleased that the books will be very accessibly priced at £6.99, US$9.50, and equivalent prices around the world. Perhaps the best news of all is that I have now contracted to write two more books in the series: Use Your Interview Data and Use Your Questionnaire Data. Plus these have much more relaxed timescales; the first is due by 1 December and the second by 25 February, for publication next July. I love my life!

Fear Of Success

leapI have seen several pieces written online about impostor syndrome (one of them by me) and there is a body of scholarly work about fear of failure. Fear of success can be as big a barrier, in my view, though much less is written about that. For example, on Google Scholar, “fear of success” gets around 8,500 hits, while “fear of failure” gets around 59,000. So here’s a post to help redress the balance.

I have been grappling with a potential project over the last couple of months which requires a brief application of 1000 words. I’m good at writing and I’ve had some top quality help and support, yet this has been a real struggle. I have emailed three separate versions to my main support person for feedback; I haven’t done that since my PhD days over 12 years ago. And I have come to the conclusion that fear of success is part of the problem.

I found myself doing various small acts of self-sabotage, such as putting a relevant electronic document in the wrong folder, and procrastinating about research I needed to do for the application because it felt too difficult to tackle. Those unusual (for me) activities alerted me to something unfamiliar going on in my psyche.

I don’t feel like a fraud, so it’s not impostor syndrome. It’s not fear of failure, either, as if I fail, I lose nothing but the time I have invested. I will be no worse off apart from a temporary feeling of disappointment. So I think it must be fear of success.

Reflecting on this, I realised that fear of success is based on fear of identity change. If I get to do this project, it will change who I am. I will become ‘the person who [does things I don’t do now]’. And change like that is scary, even though the project is something I think I want and something others are encouraging me to attempt. If I become ‘the person who’, will I still fit in my primary relationship with my significant other? Will I still more or less fit into my professional communities? Will I still fit in my skin?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. That means if the people who have the power to offer this project to me do so, and I decide to accept, I will be taking a leap into the unknown. That feels so scary.

I know impostor syndrome well; it was with me for the publication of Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners in 2012, and again for the publication of Creative Research Methods in 2015. Fear of failure goes back much further, to my school exams in the 1970s. But fear of success is new to me. I’m not familiar with all its little schemes and wiles, but I expect I’ll counteract them the way I have with fear of failure and impostor syndrome: I will get to know how fear of success works on me, and then I’ll carry on regardless.

Academic taboos #3: what cannot be written

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

what can't be writtenAcademic writing has powerful conventions that lecturers, doctoral supervisors, and published academics work to uphold. Proper academic writing should be correct in every detail of grammar, punctuation, spelling and structure. It should use the third person, for neutrality, and to remove any sign of personal bias. The author should be as specific and precise as possible, and careful not to over-claim.

All this leads to some interesting linguistic contortions. ‘Two categories were studied to assess… the results highlight… the article will show…’ These kinds of constructions are commonplace in academic writing like nowhere else. Nothing is studied in a vacuum, and it is not ‘results’ that highlight or an ‘article’ that will show. Research is carried out by human beings, who decide what will be highlighted or shown in the reports of their research. Whose interests does it serve to conceal these truths?

In some disciplines, it is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge the researcher’s and authors’ roles in writing; to use the first person, and to accept the inevitability of bias while looking for ways to reduce it as far as possible. Yet moving away from attempted precision and correct use of English is still taboo. This causes problems, for example when the author needs to represent spoken English, such as in quotes from participants. Academics, research participants, and readers disagree about whether quotes should be rendered exactly, with their ‘incorrect’ grammar, or tidied up. If quotes are collected online, entering them into a search engine can identify participants. Quotes including swear words may alienate some readers. Exact quotes rendered in writing, with all their ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and half-formed sentences, can make participants seem uneducated or unintelligent. Generally, academia prefers sanitised quotes. However, this can be viewed as an abuse of authorial power, as it removes authenticity from participants’ words.

In fact academic writing conventions are all about power. The apparently laudable aims of precise, unbiased writing conceal the power dynamics at play. Academic writing conventions – themselves allegedly neutral – in fact operate to exclude those who cannot or will not abide by them.

The good news is that there is now a tiny but growing movement to break down these conventions, led by some brave doctoral students, supervisors, and universities. For example:

  • Nick Sousanis, now Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University in the US, presented his doctoral dissertation as a graphic novel at Columbia University in 2014. The following year it was published by Harvard University Press, entitled Unflattening.
  • Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect in Canada, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia in 2015. Entitled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, it has almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English academic writing conventions.
  • Piper Harron is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. She was awarded her PhD from Princeton University in the US in 2016. Her dissertation included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’, as well as a whole lot of jokes.
  • Ashleigh Watson, a doctoral candidate at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, founded So Fi, a sociological zine publishing creative sociological writing including fiction and poetry, in 2017.

Academia needs to take these kinds of alternative formats seriously. They enable more voices to be heard, more fully, than the conventional style of writing. Some universities have developed helpful alternative format policies to support this movement, such as this one from the University of Exeter in the UK. Implementing these kinds of policies will enrich academia.

Conversation With A Purpose

covertest2I have exciting news! This has been a long time in the planning and making, and has come to fruition in part thanks to the support of my beloved patrons. The inspiration came almost two years ago, at one of the pedagogy sessions of the 2016 Research Methods Festival. Research colleagues from the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods, where I am a Visiting Fellow, talked about the difficulty in bridging the gap between classroom and practice when teaching research methods. It occurred to me then that comics and graphic novels could have a useful role to play here, and I vowed to do what I could to make that happen.

Today, I am glad to launch my first research methods comic online. It’s called Conversation With A Purpose and it tells the story of a student’s first real-life interview. I wrote the words, but I couldn’t have made a comic without a collaborator, because I can draw the curtains but that’s about all. My colleague and friend Dr Katy Vigurs put me in touch with Gareth Cowlin who teaches on the Cartoon and Comic Arts degree course at Staffordshire University. I presented his students with a brief, and was lucky enough to recruit the very talented Sophie Jackson to create the artwork for the comic. Sophie is not only a highly skilled artist, she is also a joy to work with, so the entire project was a delight from start to finish.

The in-person launch happened last Friday night at Show and Tell, Staffordshire University’s 2018 art and design degree show. I also launched another creative teaching aid at the show, but you’ll have to wait till next week to find out about that! People’s feedback on the comic was very positive, though I wasn’t surprised because we had already received terrific testimonials from a couple of eminent scholars.

And you know the best part of all? You can download the comic, Conversation With A Purpose, and you will find instructions for printing it here. It will look best if you have a colour printer, though it should also work in monochrome. The comic includes discussion questions for use in the classroom.

Please enjoy, use, and share our comic. And if you would like to help me create more resources like this, please consider joining my patrons. I love producing free stuff to help students and teachers but, as an independent researcher with no guaranteed salary, my resources are very limited. This is where every single supporter makes a real difference.

How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Finished The Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Open Is Open Access?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 18 January 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

partly open doorThose outside the UK probably won’t be aware of Jisc. The non-profit organisation’s role is to provide technological solutions to academic problems, including researching and developing new ways of working supported by technology. (Full disclosure: they are also one of my clients.) Jisc is publicly funded by UK taxpayers’ money and member subscriptions. Its members are from the UK, and its objectives are designed to create benefit for the staff and students of adult education institutions in the UK.

But its strategy includes a stated intention of ‘growing our offering internationally to further benefit our members’.

Jisc is also very keen on open sharing of information and resources. It advocates open access to research publications, which its says means making them ‘freely available so anyone can benefit from reading and using research’. It promotes the sharing of research data, and the use of non-restrictive Creative Commons licensing to enable re-use of resources. Jisc identifies various potential benefits of this, one of which is that ‘researchers in developing countries can see your work’.

So far, so many good intentions. I’m sure most of my Euro-Western colleagues will be nodding their heads and thinking yes, marvellous, jolly well done Jisc. And indeed I am not writing this post to criticise those at Jisc, who are doing their best to be good guys, and who after all exist in the UK for the benefit of their UK members. My point here is to critique our more general Euro-Western academic mindset, which Jisc’s example illustrates.

You see, until very recently, I would have been one of those people nodding along, with a satisfied expression, thinking “oh Jisc you are doing well”. But my eyes have been opened by a recent blog post written by Andy Nobes of international development charity INASP, featuring the work of Florence Piron from Université Laval in Québec and her colleagues from around the world. Piron and her colleagues have written – in French – some publications that offer new perspectives and ideas to Euro-Western advocates of open access. In particular, they challenge the idea that Euro-Western researchers simply making their work visible to ‘researchers in developing countries’, as Jisc suggests, equates to open access. By contrast, they see it as an extension of colonialism and an ‘alienation epistemic’. This is because it does nothing to make knowledge generated in other parts of the world equally visible to researchers in Euro-Western countries. In turn, that serves to reinforce the use of Euro-Western theories and models as normative, which is to the detriment of local epistemologies in other parts of the world (Piron et al 2017).

We don’t think of these things, do we, us Euro-Western researchers? We’re too confident that we’re doing OK as long as we’re making some kind of gesture towards those with fewer privileges.

Piron and her colleagues point out that many Euro-Western academics are unable even to think that ‘valid and relevant knowledge’ could exist in other places and other ways; they can be ‘blind to epistemological diversity’ and regard Western science as universal (ibid). Even those Euro-Western academics who do respect other forms of knowledge are unlikely to engage in truly reciprocal knowledge exchanges. Collaborative projects often involve Euro-Western academics acting as principal investigators while researchers from other parts of the world are restricted to data-gathering and administrative work (Sherwood 2013, Yantio 2013).

In some Euro-Western academic circles there are moves afoot to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But this is not only needed in Euro-Western establishments. Some teachers in other parts of the world also choose exclusively Euro-Western literature and examples for their students (Mboa Nkoudou 2016). This is a direct real-world consequence of the pervasive Euro-Western conviction that any other way of thinking must be inferior to our own. It makes life harder – not easier – for people in other parts of the world to solve their own local problems in appropriate and sustainable ways (ibid).

Truly open access will involve a two-way exchange of – and respect for – knowledge and the epistemological positions on which it is based. Obviously this is beyond the power of a single organisation, such as Jisc, or a single individual, such as you or I. However, all Euro-Western researchers, and those who work with them, need to be aware of the difference between open access as we tend to purvey it, and genuinely open access. Only with such awareness will we find ways to move from our one-way, take-it-or-leave-it approach to a true openness and sharing with other academics around the world.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.