How to keep up to date with research in your field (particularly in the social sciences)

I was asked recently by the lovely people at UTS Library (who happen to have an excellent blog), to speak to doctoral students and other early career researchers about what I do to keep up to date with research in my field. This provoked me into thinking…

What does it mean to be ‘up to date’?

Being a social scientist, my first instinct is to debunk the question, to challenge the assumptions underpinning it. Let’s begin with up-to-date-ness. I don’t regard knowledge in my field (education / social sciences) as being updated in the sense that what comes later replaces what came before. Old knowledge is rarely obsolete, and new does not necessarily mean better. Furthermore there are fashions and trends which have interesting relationships with temporal trajectories of knowledge: education, for example, is sometimes seen as developing obsessions with thinkers and writers who have long since been left behind or fallen from the limelight in other social science fields.

For me, being up to date includes the conventional sense of having my finger on the pulse in terms of what some of the most recent outcomes of research are (note I don’t use the term ‘findings’). But this also involves maintaining a sense of the changes in the landscape in terms of groups of researchers and what kinds of work they are doing. Not just a retrospective ‘what has come out in journals’, but a contemporary ‘what are the key people in my field up to’. Being up to date also involves anticipating what is coming: there’s an ace team in [insert your university of preference here] that are the ones to watch; what’s going to happen now [superstar Prof or ECR] has moved to [wherever they have gone]. Up-to-date-ness involves projecting what will be in vogue and novel in the coming months and years. For many of us this anticipation requires looking outside the field (to changes in policy, practice, social contexts), and within it (who’s emerging, who’s taken over influential editorships etc).

And what is ‘my field’?

Not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. I do work based on pedagogy and practice in child and family health settings. Is this my ‘field’? I publish in journals relating to continuing education and workplace learning: maybe this is my ‘field’? I draw on sociomaterial and practice theories? Do writings by researchers using these (in philosophy, organization studies, education etc) constitute my ‘field’? As an educational researcher, don’t I also have a professional responsibility to know what’s going on in other areas: school education, higher education. Isn’t this my ‘field’?

Well, I think the answer to all of those question is ‘yes’. One’s location or position in intellectual communities is not singular. Just as those communities have a texture created through questions of conceptual scale, disciplinary boundaries, and historical changes, so our position in those communities becomes a textured on: positions [plural], maybe.

And this means we must have a textured approach to keeping up to date. Not all dimensions of our field are as important as others. For me, I use Table of Contents (ToC) alerts to keep tabs on who is publishing on what topics in the general field of education, reading the odd abstract I find interesting. For specific areas where I’m publishing and contributing to advances in knowledge, the approach is much more in depth. But even then it’s not that simple. What if I want to publish in a very general journal like British Educational Research Journal? It’s no good just having a cursory sense of what’s going on in my field and in the broader conversations that ‘big’ journals like BERJ support and publish. If I’m going to take that conversation forward, or in new directions, I’ve got to be more than a (legitimate) peripheral participant in it [those of you who’ve come across Communities of Practice literature will get the poke here].

What is a field made of? Is it findings? I’ve already questioned that notion. Is it ideas? Concepts? Studies? People? Research centres? Theoretical ‘turns’? My answer [no surprises for guessing]: all of the above.

And now, some strategies I use for keeping up to date with my field (whatever that means)

Live on Ramsay Street

Forgive the reference to TV soap opera Neighbours but there’s an important point here, relating to the complexity and texture I discussed above. We have to know who our research ‘neighbours’ are: who is next door, doing the work that relates most closely to mine? Who is down the street, doing similar stuff, maybe in a slightly different way or with a different angle? Who comprises my suburb or neighbourhood – people with whom I share a broader affiliation, but who as a collective still mark ourselves as distinct from the field at large? And how much does my city sprawl – who are the people to watch in the broad discipline or field (for me, education)? And of course, we might be flying over to other cities (fields) from time to time, too: who are our best friends there?

Accrue air miles

Air miles rock (though I have to admit the environmental consequences of rewarding pollution with yet more pollution seem troubling). Not only because you get access to business lounges, free upgrades, and a sense of superiority when you tread the red carpet at check-in, beat the queues through security and immigration, and board before everybody else.

Air miles rock as an outcome of important ‘keeping up to date’ activity. Like it or not, intellectual work doesn’t happen in a single place (note how I’m deliberately upsetting the Ramsay Street metaphor I used above, bringing out the need to jump on a plane every now and then). This was true when I worked in the UK when there were dozens of universities I could visit easily by car or train within a day, and is more true now I’m in Australia where the density of higher education institutions is much lower.

But how many universities there are within 200km isn’t the issue. Chances are no matter where you are, some of the best people in your field are 1000s of km away. Being friends with them, knowing what they’re doing, what they’re about to do, and what they think is coming up next is crucial.

I admit I’ve been very fortunate in receiving generous support for international travel through the positions I’ve held, and I recognise not everyone will be flying often enough to get to gold status. The air miles thing is me being flippant. What’s important is not being parochial in the contacts we make (and twitter, skype, email etc are all useful). And being strategic in how we plan and make use of international travel. Tempting as it may be to find conferences in the more glamorous locations and to travel widely, I’m increasingly of the view that going back to the same place(s) again and again is of more value. This means choosing a couple of conferences that you’re going to make an ongoing commitment to. You want to be walking into the room and recognise, and be recognised by, a good proportion of the people there. It also means doing things like doubling up conferences with institutional visits. The Researching Work and Learning conference creates a temporary Ramsay Street for me, when most of my buddies from that part of my field actually do come together for a few days and inhabit the same (geographical as well as intellectual) space. It’s happening in Stirling in 2013, and I’ve arranged to spend a month there in the run-up to the conference. One air-ticket, but a whole new level of richness in terms of my engagement with overseas colleagues. I’m flying less and making each truckload of carbon dumped in the atmosphere worth more. Visiting institutions is becoming increasingly important to me, and sometimes even replacing conference attendance.

The oedipus technique

Obviously you all think your own work is brilliant, amazeballs, the best. Other researchers who think the same might be worth tracking down: they clearly are the wise ones who know what good research looks like and what the important issues are. Maybe your next door neighbour is a bit of a quiet, introverted type, and without you knowing they’ve been devouring your papers and citing you left, right and centre. Google scholar is a great way of finding out who is reading your stuff – just click on the number of citations and you get a list of where you’ve been cited. It’s also good to see which of your publications is the intellectual equivalent (in terms of popularity, not quality, of course) of Harry Potter, or Fifty Shades of Grey, and which is less widely read (you may wish to regard these as ‘niche’ or ‘challenging’).

In further egotistical adoration of seeing my reflection ripple across the pond that is my field (another metaphor? seriously?!), I also keep tabs of who has been contacting me and asking for papers etc. Not only is this useful when you have to demonstrate ‘impact’ but it’s another way of figuring out who to be friends with, and a way of instigating contact. By not putting papers online, but instead putting details and asking for people to contact you for a copy, you can encourage this. It’s particularly useful with papers published in journals with copyright restrictions. You can’t publish them freely on your own web page.

Old doesn’t (always) mean gold

No offence here to my more established readers, but you’re not going to be here forever. There is constant talk of demographic crises in social sciences: many fields are quite top heavy – lots of academics with decades of experience, not so many in the younger / earlier career ranks. At some point, our current profs will no longer be occupying those prime real-estate offices and editing the big journals. Someone else is going to have to take over. Anticipating who that’s going to be is crucial.

At conferences (particularly the big education conferences in the USA), I have seen well-published professors followed round with a flotilla of admiring doctoral students and early career researchers. Celebrity or guru academics pack out rooms. Great. Many of them probably deserve it and are doing brilliant stuff. But two caveats: sometimes the most established people in the field can also be the most conservative and resistant to change, policing values of the old school. These may be values worth policing (I have my own gurus who do such policing, and I thoroughly intend to continue it myself in some areas). But what happens when they’ve moved on?

Building relationships with other doctoral students, early career researchers, new lecturers etc not only brings different kinds of friendship and joy to research. It is also an investment in your future and the future of your field. Attempts to keep up to date might be well served by following the top professors; they might not. I’ve yet to meet a doctoral student who wasn’t shockingly up to date with what is going on.

Up to date 2.0

Nothing revolutionary here (nor surprising to you since you’re reading this on a blog): social media are great. Twitter, blogs, podcasts, – all great. My advice: don’t lurk, be active. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you can tweet or blog yourself into thesis completion or that next journal paper. These are means to something else. But a valuable one.

Sit back, relax, and let others do the work for you

I have self-confessed to adopting a laziness-based approach to keeping up to date with my field. I’m exhausted after having written the above, let alone actually done it all (keeping logs, jet lag, making friends, predicting the future etc). Luckily there are lots of other people who (more or less intentionally) are willing to do some of this work for you. Read book reviews. Use automatic email lists for selected journals and authors. (BUT! And I learned this from a panel member at UTS last month: do this selectively. If you find yourself automatically deleting or ignoring the automatic emails, you’ve giving yourself information overload and need to cut it down). Join Special Interest Group (SIG) lists. Follow interesting and relevant people on twitter. Read blogs.

And double-up on your own work. Reviewing articles for journals is great. Not only do you develop your own writing skills, and make a contribution to your discipline (an ethical obligation in my view), but you also get an early scoop on what is coming out. I often ask to see the other reviews of papers I referee, so I can see if other reviewers identify literature or ideas that I’ve missed. See, other people are doing the work for me again! And like I said, I reckon doctoral students are some of the most up to date researchers there are around. Reading their lit reviews is great, and a bonus of being a supervisor. Laziness is not total work avoidance, but recognising the multiple benefits of work you already are doing. And avoiding work where it is distracting, irrelevant, or if other people are already doing it for you.


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