Why writing is never fixed or final

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

A simple guide to ethical co-authorship

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

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

Ethical co-writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethical co-publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Creative Data Analysis – Call for Chapter Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!


 

Creative Writing for Social Research

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

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

Here is the out-take:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $75 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $75 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Research and Stories, Part 2

My recent post Research Is All About Stories got a big reaction on the socials. I encouraged people who tweeted me to add their comments to the blog, which several of them did. They made some really useful points that I’m going to amplify in this post. Also on Twitter Hoda Wassif recommended The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr which I am now reading. It’s an excellent book and quite an eye-opener, even to someone who has been interested in stories and storytelling for many years.

In my last post I said that stories are used all around the world, and I stand by that, but I have learned from Storr’s book that there are cultural differences in the types of stories which are told. Stories told in Europe (and therefore, by extension, stories told by European settlers and their descendants in the US and Canada) generally focus on a courageous individual who can create change, and have a clearly defined ending. Stories told in China usually focus on a group or community, involve multiple perspectives, and have an ambiguous ending which the reader can figure out as they please. European readers take pleasure in a story’s resolution; Chinese readers take pleasure in deciding on their preferred solution to narrative puzzles.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are elements of ambiguity to the ending of some European stories, and I would suspect there are elements of resolution to the ending of some Chinese stories. And other cultures treat stories differently again. The Indigenous writer Jo-ann Archibald/Q’um Q’um Xiiem, in her book Indigenous Storywork, tells us that in the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples, stories are used for many purposes, such as education, entertainment, healing, ritual, community, and spirituality. A storyteller will select a story for a particular occasion and reason, and will tell it in their own way, as honestly and clearly as they can. The listener is expected to listen fully, engaging their emotions as well as their cognition, and visualising scenes and interactions.

The key point for us, as researchers, is to understand that if we are using stories with participants and/or audiences from a variety of cultures, they may have a different understanding of what constitutes ‘story’ and what stories are for. We need to know about this if we are to do our work effectively.

In response to my last post on stories, Pauline Ridley helpfully questioned my assertion that ‘we all do know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth’. She pointed out that ‘Unfamiliar stories, outside the listener’s experience, may take longer to penetrate before they ring true.’ This chimes with the information I have gathered about the different ways in which stories are told and used within different cultures. I should know better by now than to treat anything as widespread as stories as a single homogenous category, but clearly I have some way to go!

Damian Milton and Olumide Adisa on Twitter, and Hala Ghanem on the blog, all made the important point that we need to consider who is telling a story and whose stories are being told – and heard, and acted upon. Storytellers have power, and for some years researchers thought a good, ethical, use of our power was to use our stories to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people. More recently we have begun to see this as paternalistic and to recognise that others’ voices are not ours to bestow. Marginalised people already have perfectly good voices, which researchers might usefully amplify at times, by helping to ensure those voices are heard by people in power. One reason stories are useful for research is that a story poses and investigates a question. So does a research project, albeit in a different way, but the parallel is clear. Stories are useful for research in a multitude of ways: on funding applications, as data, in reports and presentations, among others. I’m not sure it would be possible to complete a research project without involving a story somewhere, somehow. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to try. My human brain is hardwired to create stories; I would rather recognise and acknowledge this, and work with it rather than against it. Bring on the stories!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Demystifying The Author-Editor Relationship

This week’s blog is a podcast I made with my Policy Press editor, Philippa Grand.

There were a couple of things I thought of afterwards. One is that we should have explained the distinction between a commissioning editor and a copy editor. A copy editor is what most people think of when they talk about an editor: someone who goes through your text, line by line, and makes it better. Policy Press use that kind of an editor too, but Philippa is a commissioning editor. She works with authors to create and develop books and is her authors’ first point of contact throughout the writing process, until the book goes into production.

The second thing that occurred to me was that we didn’t say as much as we’d intended to about the process of creating the rapid response e-books I co-edited with Su-ming Khoo. I have already written about that process on this blog, and there is more about the e-books on the LSE Impact Blog here and here.

And here is the podcast. I hope you enjoy listening. Do let us know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter where we’re @DrHelenKara and @BUP_philippa.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Research Is All About Stories

My assertion that research is all about stories is probably less divisive and controversial now than it was 15 years ago when I was finishing my PhD. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of researchers who would disagree. Let me put my case and see whether I can convince some of them to come over to the fun side.

Stories are a key part of how human beings interact. To the best of my knowledge, there is no human community or culture in the world which does not use stories to communicate. We also use stories for entertainment – skilled oral storytellers and story singers have been popular entertainers since time immemorial, and the huge popularity of more recent media such as books and films speaks for itself.

I have argued earlier on this blog that stories are also valuable for learning. Communication and learning are central to research, and there is a role for entertainment, too. So we can see that stories might be a good fit. But, Helen, you might be saying at this point, shouldn’t research be about facts and the truth? Well now, let’s think a little about truth. In the English oral storytelling tradition, a teller will sometimes close a story with a short rhyme:

The dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by,

I told you a tale, my tale is a lie.

But heed to me closely, fair maiden, proud youth,

My tale is a lie – what it tells is the truth.

In a journal article I wrote with Lucy Pickering on the ethics of presentation, we said something very similar in a more academic way. Drawing on the work of Bakan and others, we distinguished between ‘literal’ truth and ‘real’, or authentic, truth. The former deals with facts, the latter deals more with feelings; what ‘rings true’, to use a metaphor whose source seems lost to history. Blacksmiths? Musicians? Campanologists? Who knows?. But we all do all know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth.

Lucy Pickering and I argued that research needs an appropriate balance of literal and authentic truth. That balance will shift between topics and disciplines, but there always needs to be some of each. Even in the most quantitative research, a story is still necessary; the researcher can’t simply present pages and pages of tables, calculations, graphs and charts without a written narrative directing the reader to the salient points – how this calculation was chosen, why that outlier is important, the implications of the significance level for practice and policy.

Scholars of story Louise Phillips and Tracey Bunda, in their excellent book Research Through, With And As Storying, suggest that stories can be experienced as theories. I agree with this, and would extend it to suggest that theories can be experienced as stories. In fact I could go further and say that theories used and/or developed by researchers, whether formal or informal, are stories: stories about how the world can be shaped and about how we see the world.

In Unflattening, Nick Sousanis describes stories as ‘that most human of activities, the framing of experience to give it meaning’ (p 95). Which is exactly what researchers do, especially if they are using qualitative techniques.

Asking ourselves the question, “What’s the story here?” can be helpful at many points in research work. We should have a clear story to tell of why we are doing our research, and another to explain what the research is about. When we come to report on our research, whatever the medium – written, presented remotely, presented in person, video, animation, multi-media, whatever – we should be using stories. Stories are engaging, informative, and memorable. Surely that’s exactly what we want our research to be.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $67 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $67 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why Academics Should Publish Journal Articles With University Presses

Last month I wrote about why academics should publish books with university presses. This is a follow-up post explaining why I think academics should also publish journal articles with university presses. Much of the information in this post is taken from the Paywall documentary which I recommend watching if you are interested.

As a whole, academic publishing is quite phenomenally profitable, making a profit margin of 35-40% which compares with 12% for Toyota and 3% for Walmart. Academic publishing profits are in line with those of the biggest social media companies such as Facebook. What do they have in common, you may ask? People provide content and services for them for free, which they then sell on to advertisers and data purchasers (in the case of Facebook) or academic libraries.

Some single academic journals charge thousands of pounds for a university library subscription, and increase their costs by big percentages each year. These costs have been increasing above inflation for decades, and have contributed to the closure of some American universities. Even the library budgets of wealthy prestigious universities such as the University of California in San Francisco are struggling to make ends meet (and that was pre-pandemic; I understand that more libraries are cancelling more subscriptions now). The publishers of these journals also make it impossible to read their content without access through a subscribing university library, thereby creating the scarcity essential for a commodity to become expensive. And they do these things essentially because they can. The sought-after high impact journals are effectively mini-monopolies. Academics provide and review content for free – and these days may even pay to have their freely provided content, based on publicly funded research, made openly accessible. And this puts yet more money in the publishers’ pockets, because there is no corresponding reduction in subscription charges.

Some universities spend millions of pounds each year on journal subscriptions. This causes higher tuition fees for students, leading to personal sacrifice, debt, and misery, exacerbating social problems of poverty and mental ill-health. It also prevents access to the latest medical information for some doctors and other health workers, and for patients and their carers. This causes more sickness and grief.

Academia is culpable here too because of the emphasis on publishing in high impact journals as part of the research assessment process. This approach to publishing is subject to gaming, nepotism, and fraud, plus it maintains structural inequalities by being more accessible to insiders and professors than to outsiders and early career researchers. Also it wastes people’s time, as high-impact journals are more likely to reject publishable work which then has to be resubmitted elsewhere. The innovative online open access journal PLOS ONE was set up in 2006 to stop the cycle of wasting authors’, editors’ and reviewers’ time at the expense of research and society. We know, now, that open access journal articles get more views and more citations. Surely that constitutes higher impact?

Some influential people think so. In 2013 the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was published. This aims to stop using the “impact factor” as a measure of research quality. At the time of writing, DORA has been signed by over 16,500 individuals, and over 2,000 organisations. These include publishers of all kinds, libraries, learned societies and universities. In 2019 the Netherlands launched a new national system of recognition and reward for researchers based on the DORA principles.

So far, so good. But most journal publishers still charge their authors for open access publication, often a four-figure sum per article, which is a barrier for authors with no access to a budget for such payments. Imagine if the profit made by academic journals was not diverted into shareholders’ dividends but put back into the system, to make study more affordable, support research that could not otherwise be funded, help marginalised writers to publish their work, equalise access to that work. You may say I’m a fantasist. I say look at university presses.

Publishers are vital and in my view some are more vital than others, primarily those that help to democratise information and promote equality of access. This is important because, as you may have noticed, there are big global problems we need to solve. Expertise can exist anywhere in the world. The best minds need access to knowledge – and those minds are not all in academia. Collaboration is essential to solve such problems, including other thinkers and scholars as well as academics. University presses promote these kinds of working practices. And any surplus they make is reinvested into their work rather than disappearing into the pockets of shareholders.

Again, UCL Press is doing well here: all but one of their journals are free to publish in, and the one that isn’t free has a low publication charge. Other university presses offer free publication for some marginalised authors, such as those from countries in the “low human development” category of the UN at Bristol University Press. Cambridge University Press has ‘Read and Publish’ agreements which allow for some articles to be published at no cost to the author, though this is a rather more complex system. Some for-profit publishers also offer waivers for certain groups, such as Elsevier – and so they should – but at present they are in the minority. However, if you have no budget but have written an article which is a good fit for a particular open access or hybrid journal, it is always worth asking the editor whether they can waive the APC; they might say yes. And in general, if you can, please consider publishing your articles in university press journals, because overall they are rather more ethical than other types of publisher.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $67 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $67 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve top tips for co-editing a book series

This post is co-written and simultaneously published with Pat Thomson, to coincide with the launch of the Insider Guides to Success in Academia book series.

Helen: It’s interesting to reflect on how we do this co-editing thing. We’ve been working together on this series since May 2017, so that’s three-and-a-half years. You and I hadn’t worked together before, though we’d talked a lot on Twitter, a bit by email, and got into a comfy habit of meeting for lunch now and again at a nice pub midway between our 
offices. Ahhh, those were the days… anyway, now it’s mostly email with the occasional online meeting. Those are the nuts and bolts, but there’s a lot more to co-editing a series than that. I think it helps that we share quite a similar outlook on life. Was that why you asked me to 
co-edit with you?

Pat: I’m always prepared to take an educated punt on who might be fun to collaborate with. I saw that you were talking with doctoral and early academic career people on social media, as I was, but you had a very different background. You were an independent researcher, as opposed to me, a full time academic. However, we shared an interest in methodologies and methods. But we also knew about some different things too. As I remember it, we hadn’t actually even met face to face, but “knew” each other online. I think that you can actually get to know people through social media, just as you used to be able to through the medium of writing letters. Over time, as you see how people are on social media you get an impression of how they are and how they might be to work with. So asking you if you’d be interested in working on a series was in part about our shared interests and complementary differences, but also about the hunch that you would be good to work with. But why did you say yes?

Helen: I was a little bit flattered by you asking, and I too thought you could be fun to collaborate with. But mostly I agreed with you about the gap in the market for short books on topics around academia that didn’t merit a full-length book and so weren’t adequately covered in the literature. It was so interesting to think about! I’ve just checked my records and when we met in April 2018, the first book in the series was being written and we had 21 other ideas of titles and/or authors to follow up. Some have come to fruition now, such as Narelle Lemon’s and Janet Salmons’ book on collaboration, and Petra Boynton’s book on being well in academia. That’s lovely to see. Some didn’t even get off the starting blocks, and we have others in the series that we didn’t consider in that meeting, such as Your PhD Survival Guide which offers doctoral students help for their final year. Many of our authors come from our networks, so clearly networking and thinking are two of the key skills for co-editing a book series. You have more experience of this than me; what would you say are the others?

Pat: Well there’s choosing a publisher. I’d had a very initial discussion with Sarah, an editor at Routledge who I had worked a lot with before. I’d floated the idea of a series for doctoral and early career researchers that were shorter than usual, covered niche topics were affordable. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged me to pursue it. She also sent me a few small books that I could look at. At our first meeting, we discussed the style and tone of the books. We agreed on the size question, and also that our books should have a voice somewhere between a blog and an ordinary academic book. We also wanted something where the layout was half way between a text book and a monograph – so we needed a template/house style that allowed for different kinds of exercises, examples, illustrations. So afterwards, when we wrote the actual book series proposal we not only knew the competition and the market as well as the prospective authors, we also had a clear idea of what the books would be and do. And then of course there was the series cover decision!

Helen: OMG the cover decision… that took us a while, didn’t it? But I’m happy with the results. I have copies of all the books we’ve published so far, and they look good together. That’s important for the Routledge stand at academic conferences – not that those are happening at present, but I hope they will be again in time. So promotion is another skill co-editors need, and of course social media savvy is helpful there too. I think communication skills are also important. You and I communicate well with each other and with our authors and would-be authors. And it mattered to us both from day one to be supportive to people thinking of writing, or actually writing, for our series. I don’t think all series editors do that and I’m not sure why; do you have any thoughts?

Pat: Well, we are really committed to the series and what we think it can be, and we want it to be super good. We want to make the dream we had about it at the start a reality. I guess we run the risk of being seen as being too hands-on, but I think I’d rather that than distant and un-contactable. And I’ve certainly had the experience of working with a pretty remote series editor when I could have done with some conversation about working with a production editor and that was much harder than it needed to be. We do want our authors to feel supported, and that also means offering some constructive suggestions for improvement.  And of course it’s important that Sarah, our Routledge Editor, shares our view of what the series is and does; we do have a productive partnership with our publisher. That’s important too; we can make suggestions about the series, its direction and processes, and also about its promotion.

So here’s our twelve top tips for series editing:

  1. Know the field, its debates and authors
  2. Choose a co-editor with complementary skills and similar interests
  3. Identify the niche in the field that the series will occupy, and the potential audience
  4. Imagine the possible series – what it could be – and its USP
  5. Identify the right publisher you can partner with
  6. Build a list of potential titles and authors
  7. Line up the first two or three titles and authors
  8. Write a short and punchy proposal for the series
  9. Work with the publisher on the series identity – size, layout, cover etc
  10. Actively recruit authors and titles
  11. Work with the authors through proposal and manuscript development stages
  12. Actively engage with the publisher and authors in promoting the series

Five Top Tips for Managing Deadlines

October is a month of several deadlines. The rapid e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID-19 that I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo are being published on Friday 23rd, and I have to draft a post for the LSE Impact Blog to be published on that date. The online launch for the Insider Guides to Success in Academia series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson is on Thursday 28th, and I have a bunch of preparation to do beforehand. The end of the month is the deadline for four draft chapters of a new book I’m writing for SAGE, and for the draft MS of a book I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo for Policy Press. I have to draft the conclusion for that book by then. And those are just the publishing deadlines; I have client deadlines too, and this blog needs writing every week, and my accounts will be due soon. The deadline pressure seems never-ending.

People have different attitudes to deadlines. Some need the pressure of a deadline to do good work. Others find the stress of an approaching deadline means their work deteriorates, so they need to plan ahead. Some are continually surprised by deadlines; others ignore them. The writer Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” We often talk in terms of meeting deadlines, but that’s not the whole story. I think we need to learn to manage our deadlines. Here are my five top tips for deadline management.

  1. Don’t let your deadlines take you by surprise

I’m sure we’ve all had colleagues who have said things like, “You mean this week?”, and caused much eye-rolling irritation. Everyone needs a system to help us stay aware of our deadlines. I use lists; a friend uses Post-Its stuck around her computer monitor; another friend uses a big wall-mounted year planner. It doesn’t matter what system you use, what matters is that it works for you

2. Do sweat the small stuff

Paying attention to detail really helps when you’re managing deadlines. Some people really struggle with details, such as ‘big picture’ thinkers and some neurodiverse people. If you find it really difficult to pay attention to detail, try to work with others who have these skills, or enlist the support of a friend who can help you to focus. If you find it a bit tricky, whether because you find it boring or because you’ve never really honed the skills, I recommend working to develop your ability to pay attention to detail. The time invested will pay dividends.

3. Manage your time well

Time management helps with deadline management. I raise my head from my immediate tasks to check on my deadlines and review my progress at least once a week, usually late on a Friday or early on a Monday. Sometimes more often if I feel the need. At particularly busy times I might do this daily; it is particularly helpful at times when deadlines and priorities are, or may be, changing. Another important component of time management is to be realistic about what you can get done in the time available. I worked with one person who was frequently astonished by the need to spend time on things like childcare and teaching preparation – which, as they were a parent and a teacher, seemed quite odd to me. A third component of time management is to say ‘no’ when necessary. I’ll be saying ‘no’ to anything else with an October deadline. ‘Too many deadlines already’ is a very good reason for saying ‘no’.

4. Communicate if you have a problem

If you think you’re not going to meet a deadline, tell the people who need to know. Most people are forgiving and flexible, particularly if you have an unforeseen problem, sometimes even if it’s simply because the work was more complicated than you had expected. The earlier you can let them know, the easier it is for them to be forgiving and flexible. (Making a habit of missing deadlines has the opposite effect. Therefore I don’t advise this as a regular practice, but it’s useful when needed.) So don’t procrastinate here, not least because that will only add to your stress levels.

5. Practise self-care

Looking after ourselves should always be a priority. If we are well cared for, we are better able to manage our deadlines. And managing deadlines is a form of self-care in its own right, because really the whole point of deadline management is to manage the stress and pressure deadlines can cause.

So those are my five top tips. Is there anything I’ve missed? If so, please let me know in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!