Category Archives: Academic life and work

Musings and commentary about life and work as an academic, particularly with early career researchers (ECRs) in mind

Anxiety in academic work

Hi everyone

This is a short blog post to accompany a YouTube video I posted recently, about anxiety in academic work and particularly among research students. It’s a fairly simple video in which I talk mainly about how own personal history and experiences of anxiety, and what I’ve learned about it along the way. No flashy data, no promises of solutions. Just an honest sharing of experience that puts anxiety out there as something that happens and is okay to talk about.

Why did I write it? Because of the work I do, I come into contact with students from lots of different universities and countries.  I got an email from a student who had experienced anxiety in relation to her studies. Part of what she wrote was:

It is a learning process, right? I’m still figuring out what works for me, like walking for long time is really good. But just recognizing that this anxiety is a problem, like a broken finger, for example, and that it needs some time, maybe medicine, to heal, has been a big step. And I know it goes away. Just being able to put a name on it, has helped me a lot. And what also help is to talk to people who experience such things, and realizing that it is so normal. For me, I’m having the ups and downs, and I have had some therapy. But I now somewhat accept this part of me, and that is why I want to make it normal for people to talk about.

This made me think. Anxiety is out there among research students. And I agree with her about how helpful it can be to recognise it and talk about it with others. I also agreed with her about how unhelpful it is to push things like anxiety under the carpet, hide them away.

So, I wanted to make a video about anxiety. But it’s not my area of expertise, either in terms of research I’ve done about doctoral students, nor in any medical or clinical sense. So I have to be careful. I thought it might at least be useful to reflect on my own anxiety, and lay out publicly what happened, what I tried to do in response, what worked, what didn’t, and how I view it all now.

If you want to follow up with a serious academic paper on this topic, I would recommend this as a good place to start: Wisker & Robinson (2018) In sickness and in health, and a ‘duty of care’: phd student health, stress and wellbeing issues and supervisory experiences. It is a chapter in a book called Spaces, journeys and new horizons for postgraduate supervision published by SUN Academic Press.

 

 

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Guest post on Pat Thomson’s blog

I recently wrote a post for Pat Thomons’s blog about being a researcher on someone else’s project, and then coming to be the person whose projects have others working on them. The post is in dialogue with a series on pat’s blog about being a ‘jobbing researcher’, and has comments also from Teena Clerke, who works with me on the Creating Better Futures project. We hope you enjoy it, and thank you Pat for the opportunity!

 

My Shadow CV

The idea of the shadow CV

I was been inspired to write this blog post Devoney Looser’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she asks: What would my vita look like if it recorded not just the successes of my professional life, but also the many, many rejections? After doing some digging I realised this wasn’t the first instance – I found one going back to 2012 by Jeremy Fox, another by Bradley Voytek from 2013 and a piece by Jacqueline Gill from the same year in which she mooted the idea (but refrained from sharing the dirt, yet). There’s also this piece, about the Princeton Professor @JHausfoher who shared his dirty career laundry in April 2016.

I have long been an advocate for more candid and open sharing of the often harsh realities of academic work. Here is my attempt to model the sort of warts and all honesty that I advocate and wish to see in others.

Aren’t I nervous about making this kind of stuff public?

Academia is a highly competitive and often insecure work environment. While I currently have the privilege of an ongoing, full time contract, who knows what the future will bring. It seems reasonable to expect that someday, someone might be looking at my CV and doing some digging around my online scholarly identity, considering whether to appoint me to another job, or perhaps even just as part of a promotion panel.

Devoney wrote about the tendency for us to hide our rejections, arguing: “That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection.”.

All academics face considerable rejection. I’m not revealing anything that I wouldn’t expect to be broadly true of any colleagues competing with me for whatever job or promotion it might be.

More importantly, if a prospective employer thinks twice about offering me a job because of what they read below, then I probably don’t want to be working for or with that person.

The values I see reflected in presenting a public shadow CV are ones of honesty, openness, and trust. I never claimed to be a perfect academic. Success in academia is not about never failing, never being rejected. It is about not allowing rejections to take hold of you. If I preach this but don’t have the gall to match generalisations with concrete detail, I should just shut up. So here goes.

My career path

My CV has a lovely little paragraph talking about an internationally recognized research profile. It all seems wonderfully coherent, planned, deliberate.

My Shadow CV would say something more like this: Nick started education research doing a MSc and PhD focusing on young people’s learning about geography and sustainability. However there were no jobs in this area when he graduated (see ESRC failure #1 below), so he had to look elsewhere. He got a job looking at doctoral education, and so there was then a period when this was his main focus. When that (4 year contract) job ended, again there were no jobs in that field (or none he could get in a place he was willing to live), so he applied for a postdoc at UTS. To be successful in that, he had to change fields again. In short: Nick’s research interests have gone where the jobs and money are. True, there are some consistent questions and approaches that I’ve been exploring and developing through these broad contexts. But a lot of it was to do with opportunity and constraint.

My employment history

My CV shows how I went from a funded postgrad scholarship to a full time job on a project at Oxford, to my UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which was converted into an ongoing position at UTS.

My Shadow CV would mention:

ESRC failure #1 – I applied for an ESRC postdoc, but didn’t get it. I found that out 6 weeks before I was due to finish my PhD, and had no job lined up. Panic stations.

  • Not getting interviewed, twice: about 3 years into my postdoc job at Oxford, I applied for two jobs advertised at Lecturer/Senior Lecturer level. I felt I had a pretty good publication track record, and relevant teaching experience. I wasn’t even called for interview. I had no idea how small a fish I looked in such a big, competitive pond.

My funded research

My CV shows I have consistently been able to get funding for the research I want to do, starting with an ESRC 1+3 scholarship for my postgrad , international funding from the NSF in the USA,  $371,000 from the Australian Research Council for my DECRA project, and some smaller grants more recently.

My Shadow CV would mention:

  • ESRC failure #3 – Part of a team applying for money to look at the education system in Bhutan. Mixed reviews. No funding.
  • ESRC failure #2 – I was part of a team that applied for funding for a project on doctoral education. The reviews were pretty blunt. No cash registers ringing anywhere near me this time!
  • ARC failures #1-5 – The Australian Research Council funding is highly prestigious, and undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. I heard of success rates around 17%. If that is true, then I’m no better than average I was involved in two Linkage submissions that were not funded, and two Discovery submissions that were not funded. I was also part of a proposal that started as a Linkage, fell over before it got submitted, came back to life as a Discovery, got submitted, and then was not funded.
  • Spencer Foundation – Particularly galling because I’d roped in some key international people to join in, and they put some time in… I feel it all falls on my shoulders. Interestingly, both the key people stuck by me and are now involved in my DECRA.
  • ANROWS – yup you guessed: another detailed proposal that took months to put together that resulted in $0.
  • Office of Learning & Teaching – didn’t get through to second round.
  • Norwegian Research Council – a project on innovation, but they didn’t think it was innovative enough.
  • STINT – application for funding to support research collaboration on simulation. $0.

Publishing rejections and other shadowy truths

My CV proudly shows off a number of book, journal article, and book chapter publications, alongside complimentary citation metrics.

My shadow CV would acknowledge that I still get plenty of papers rejected (one only weeks ago, which I did blog about). Off the top of my head I can say I’ve been (sometimes quite rightly!) rejected by British Educational Research Journal, Oxford Review of Education, Journal of Advanced Nursing, Qualitative Research, Vocations and Learning, Advances in Health Sciences Education, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Studies in Higher Education, Australian Journal of Primary Health. (Some of these have also subsequently accepted papers I’ve been involved with, too, proving a rejection doesn’t mean you’re marked for life as useless).

My book proposals didn’t all sail through at the first attempt either. I would hope that my rejections these days tend to be for ‘good’ reasons (foibles of peer review, fact that I’m presenting complex, sometimes challenging arguments) rather than ‘bad’ reasons (failure to do my homework, Early Onset Satisfaction etc.). My shadow CV would also point to the many papers that haven’t been cited by many people, including those that have only been cited by me. My published work is clearly not of uniform or universal appeal or value in the eyes of others.

In conclusion

I could add sections about awards (Shadow CV mentioning those applied or nominated for that I didn’t do so well in), about reviewing (the times I’ve said no, I’m too busy; the reviews where I have been harsher than was warranted), etc. etc.

Well, I doubt this post has achieved much except echoing Devoney’s brilliant piece. I’m just trying to say “Yes, she’s totally right! We need to do more of this kind of thing!”.

A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

I was talking with a colleague recently who described an interaction with one of her students who had been rejected from a journal. The response of her supervisors sounded really interesting, so I asked if she’d mind forwarding the emails onto me for a blog post. Which she kindly did! There’s a lot here that is useful in thinking about how to respond when you get rejected. I should point out this is in a country where many students complete a PhD through publications, and in this case the article was written by the student, with all the supervisors helping her and named as authors.

First the student wrote to her supervisors

Dear supervisors,

At last I have got response from the journal regarding my second manuscript. Unfortunately they are not interested to publish it.

I´m very disappointed about that. I can agree with a lot of the comments, it is useful for me in the future process but it has taken over 6 months to deliver that answer and right now I don´t have so much positive energy to restart the work.

I think I can interpret their comments (at least from the first reviewer) as if I rewrite the manuscript I can try to resubmit it but I´m not really sure if that is their suggestion.

Then one supervisor replied, cc’ing the others

Thank you for your email. Yes that is somewhat disappointing, but from the comments, perhaps it is good that it isn¹t published in its current form: because from what the reviewers saw, I don¹t think the paper did full justice to your work and your thinking! Better to have a stronger paper published, even if it is later.

I have had similarly prickly experiences, particularly in this journal, with reviewers who really want accounts of research to feel as if the research was quantitative (a bit like reviewer 1 worrying about interpretation in ethnographic research etc).

On the plus side:

  1. Both reviewers appear to have read your paper in quite a bit of detail! (which is not always the case)
  2. Both reviewers have offered well-written comments that are quite easy to understand (which is not always the case)
  3. There is lots in the comments that will help to improve the paper.

I think both the reviewers offer largely helpful comments – they are not fighting the kind of story you want to tell, or questioning its importance. They do want to know more concrete detail about the study methods, want a clearer alignment between the question, theory, findings and discussion, and a very clear argument as to what is new and why it matters. They are all very achievable without having to go back and do more analysis!

I think the process now should be to wait a few days until you feel a bit less fed up, and then to start:

  1. Thinking of alternative journals (although R1 seemed to invite this the journal is definitely not asking for a resubmission as I interpret the email). XXX might be one possibility. Or YYY?
  1. Coming up with your own to-do list in terms of changes you think are worth making to the paper – and perhaps differentiating those that are small/easy, and those that require a bit more thought and work. You can also list those points the reviewers made that you¹re not so bothered about and don¹t want to make big changes.

So, when you¹re feeling you have the energy to take it up again, there are my suggestions 🙂

Then another supervisor added her voice

I understand that it feels a bit disappointing, particularly since they kept you waiting so long for the decision. But I can only echo what [Supervisor 1] is suggesting, once you have worked through the comments, your paper will be much stronger.  I think you should let it sit while you are completing the paper on the [different analysis], you are in a good flow with that one at the moment! And we should think of an alternative journal, I agree, we need to aim for one that is included in Web if Science.

And then a third supervisor added his voice

This is the kind of experience that is not only sometimes happening, but rather a rule than an exception. And just as S1 and S2 state; it will in the end improve the paper. But I do agree they could have given us this feedback at least half a year earlier….

I also think S2’s advice is right; go on with the paper on [different analysis] and let this paper rest (just like a wine; it will become better with time and maturation – ask your husband!).

So let this experience take its time and aim for a journal that is indexed in Web if Science, although the IF is not too important.

Then the student replies

Thanks for the support!

I totally agree with you all and as I said, the comments from the reviewers are very good for me in the future process and also for my paper regarding the [different analysis]. I  struggle with the same issues here I guess; clear arguments for the study, evidence for my findings and how to discuss that much more clear.

Brief comment from me

What I like here is:

  1. That we end up with the student being able to take the rejection letter as a way to identify some things that she needs to look out for in another paper
  2. That S3 normalises this kind of experience
  3. That S2 provides very concrete suggestions in terms of not getting distracted by the rejection when work is going well on another paper
  4. That S1 finds positive things to appreciate in the reviewers’ comments, even though it was a rejection
  5. That the student felt comfortable sharing this, and got such strong and immediate support.

There is no such thing as a doctoral student

This post is a playful thinking-through of what it means to be a doctoral student. Obviously it is based on being pedantic about words and phrases to explore and make a point, but where we end up is interesting…

(1) You can’t be a ‘student’ and be ‘doctoral’ at the same time

If ‘doctoral’ means ‘studying for a doctorate’ then obviously my claim (1) above is false. But, if ‘doctoral’ refers to ‘being of a doctoral level’ then it is arguably true.

(By the way, for simplicity I will use ‘PhD’ as a placeholder for most doctoral degrees, like PhD, EdD, DCA, DPhil; but probably not DSc or DLitt – the super-posh, rarely awarded degrees that don’t apply to the lowly likes of you and me.)

If you’re studying for a PhD the point is to learn what it means to do research of a particular scope, level and quality. This is usually referred to as ‘doctoral’ and implies a kind of ‘doctoralness’ in what you are doing. The doctoralness of what you have done is not established until your examiners proclaim it so. And it cannot be evidenced until the very last minute when it all hangs together in a thesis (or creative work and exegesis) of some kind. However brilliant, your literature review is not doctoral until it is part of a wider piece of work. Your analysis may be ground-breaking and reveal a remarkable discovery. It is not doctoral until it is placed in the context of your scene-setting, argument as to previous work and the gap it has left (so-called literature review), your discussion, and conclusions.

Until you have the whole thing in place, doctoralness is an elusive quality. It may be that particular pieces of work that you do along the way are of a standard that will serve you well when it comes to putting it all together and making your case for the title ‘Dr’. But technically none of these things are yet, nor can they be, doctoral. A doctoral thesis is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes it doctoral. Any one part or task along the way can certainly fail to meet the standard, but this standard is not ‘doctoralness’, but something different.

Does this mean I’m saying journal papers can never be doctoral? Well, yes! (perhaps for the sake of argument). This doesn’t mean that journal papers are all ‘sub-doctoral’ in the sense that they are at a masters or lower level in terms of the robustness of the contribution or their intellectual sophistication. Journal articles are not miniature PhDs. Doctoralness is an aesthetically and substantively unique concept, and the only way to demonstrate doctoralness is in a doctoral thesis of one kind or another. That’s why a thesis by publication requires a linking text (exegisis, kapa etc) that frames the papers as part of a wider body of work, and (crucially) your development as a scholar.

What I’ve written above implies a lot about what doctoralness is – I’m not going to spell it all out (at least not here). But I am going to say it is worth some serious thought. If journal articles, even the most highly cited, groundbreaking ones, are not doctoral, what is? If the building blocks you create along the way (data, chapters) are not doctoral, what does this mean for your thesis?

 

(2) There is no such thing as a doctoral student in the same way there is no such thing as a baby

In the mid twentieth century, Donald Winnicott coined what has become a famous aphorism: “There is no such thing as a baby*”. What?! I’m guessing most, if not all, readers of this post would think, quite reasonably, that they were a baby at some point in their lives. Perhaps you were only a baby very briefly, before you morphed into that intellectually dazzling toddler… Or maybe you can’t be sure you were ever a baby, but you’re pretty sure babies exist: that last long haul flight was plagued by one of them screaming her lungs out, stopping you getting any sleep; those things in the really annoying pushchairs that get in the way pretty much everywhere aren’t just worryingly realistic (and noisy, smelly) dolls, they’re little human beings, right?

Yes, you’re right. And I’m no baby-hater. But Winnicott had a point. He went on to say: “A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship”. Elsewhere he wrote “if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone” (1947).

I think the same could be said of doctoral students.

A doctoral student cannot exist alone. Though an interaction on ResearchGate showed me that some like to think so. A prospective student posed the question, ‘Can I study for a PhD without a supervisor?’. To me this wreaked of arrogance (although everyone else on the planet and in history has needed a bit of help, I’m so brilliant I can do it by myself), and revealed a painful reluctance to do any homework on what a PhD is and what it means to study for one. The only rationale I could see here was someone thinking more about the certificate than the learning that leads to it.

My distaste at this proposition reveals how Winnicott’s idea applies. It was inconceivable to me that a PhD could be obtained without some kind of supervision or assistance from others. Yes, supervisors disappear sometimes, relationships break down, students don’t get the feedback they need. But zero support means no degree. It really is as simple as that. [I expect among readers there might be people who feel they are doing or did their PhD alone, abandoned by supervisors, or perhaps professionals who put together a thesis based on publications without much or even any supervision; in the first case my bet is you were not as alone as you think you were; in the second case this is not the kind of thesis I’m talking about, and my response to the first case also applies].

When you describe a doctoral student, you will quickly find yourself describing the other people around them. This is not to bloat the role of supervisors, or to negate the independence, creativity and shaping that come from doctoral students. But your thesis would be a different thesis if you had a different supervisor or different supervisors. It would be different if you had chosen to study somewhere else. Your thesis is a product of you, your work, and the intellectual environment you are part of.

Doctoral students can’t be imagined outside of other relationships, too, although we might often feel that our institutions forget this. Every doctoral student is always one or more of the following: someone’s sister or brother, mother or father, daughter or son, friend, colleague, housemate, facebook friend, twitter follower etc etc. Doctoral students are always other kinds of human beings. I might even be so bold as to say they are other kinds of human beings first.

So, when someone asks you “Are you a doctoral student?”, have fun and do your best to discombobulate the person asking the question. You might try these responses:

“No. There’s no such thing!”

“No, I’m a person [sister, mother, daughter] who happens to be studying for a PhD.”

“No. I’m learning to do research, and might by the end of it be able to show that what I’ve done is doctoral, but until then, I’m more student than doctoral.”

“No, I’m a doctoral student working with an amazing [or terrible, or something in between] supervisor.”

 

 

* Tracing the precise origins and wording of this phrase are a bit hard to pin down. It seems he spoke the words “There is no such thing as an infant” in 1940 in a discussion at the Scientific Metting of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. Since then different print versions and attributions have proliferated. A good place to look is Winnicott D (1964) The child, the family and the outside world. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.

Current trends in academic publishing and where things might be heading

WARNING! This post may well be out of date already, and if not now, then quite possibly by the time you’ve finished reading it! Not because it’s long, but because things are changing very quickly!

This is my attempt to identify some of the big changes that are happening in academic publishing, and to point to where I think things are going. This is not based on extensive research or systematic reviews of literature, nor amazing insider-insights through industry contacts (my industry contact seems as uncertain as me about much of this)… it’s more a combo of gazing into a crystal ball, and well not exactly wishful thinking, but perhaps my instinct to resist cynicism and hope for a palatable outcome.

Open access

What’s the change? There is more than a groundswell of opinion that academic research should not be locked away behind pay-walls, but freely available to everyone. A crude summation of the logics and values at play here goes something like this:

1. The view from the ‘outside’… Where taxpayers pay for research (through government grants etc) they shouldn’t pay to access the outcomes of that research. The person just diagnosed with cancer should be able to go online and read about treatments and the latest trials without being hit with a bill for doing so. After all she ‘paid’ for the research in the first place through her taxes.

2. The view from the ‘inside’… Hey! There’s heaps of money being made in academic publishing but none of it is coming to me, the poor academic who wrote all the stuff in the first place! So I’m going to thwart those greedy publishers by publishing in open access journals (even though I still make no money!)

In practice what this means is that some researchers or their institutions are now paying a fee to publishers to make their articles open access (no fee, no ‘free’ access for others). Or, some journals (often the more ‘indy’ types) ask authors to pay a fee up front (no fee, no publish).

Where do I see it heading?

Hard to call. Like most of the changes I discuss here, the status quo is pretty much a big mess, and difficult to predict. I’ll start with the most certain: the journals that are both free-to publish and free-to-access will soon be extinct. Often hosted on university websites, it’s hard to see how these will survive the cut and thrust of contemporary higher education funding. Either these will end up charging to publish (as happened with one that I published in while it was still free, phew!), or they’ll get bought out by commercial publishers (when they are established enough that the publishers think people will pay to access content, or pay to have the content opened ‘freely’).

What about stopping people having to pay to read research when they paid for it through taxes, or have some other innate ‘right’ to access it? This argument has gone a fair way in the UK, such that now some funding bodies build in costs for paying the open access fee to publishers. The political winds may mean this catches on, with funding bodies basking in the warm glow of ‘everyone can read what our researchers publish’ feelings. But don’t I see this becoming the norm. Why? Several reasons.

  1. Because it doesn’t change the fact that people are still paying for access, they’re just paying as a collective one step further upstream.
  2. Who wants to read what’s in journal articles anyway? Are there really masses of people desperate to read academic papers? I very much doubt it (even in medical fields). Academic papers work to inform academic debate and are not our most effective or primary means of engaging wider non-academic audiences. (I expect you may disagree with me here). And anyway, will making all our papers open access actually improve things for the masses? I’ve been doing educational research for over a decade now and I still find many if not most papers pretty hard going. Hey, I struggle with understanding and motivation a lot of the time, and I’m paid to be interested in this stuff, and extensively trained to read it, with a masters degree, doctorate, years of practice and thousands of references in my endnote. Why should I expect the proverbial woman or man on the street to be jumping at the bit to read this stuff? And even if she or he is keen now, send them a few dozen papers and see if they’re as keen later on. My guess is Game of Thrones or re-reading Harry Potter will probably look more enticing. I’m not about denying access to knowledge to people. I do doubt whether open access journal articles will result in masses of the masses relishing in their newly found right to roam the academic literature for free.
  3. Because universities paying for open access when they already pay to subscribe to a journal is a hard pill to swallow. Harder still when universities in many countries are facing unprecedented budget cuts, perceived threats from MOOCS (though I think we’ve been unnecessarily spooked by MOOCS, as a sector, but don’t get me started), and uncertain futures. There simply isn’t the proverbial money down the sofa for universities to start paying for open access or paying to publish in the first place. And academics aren’t going to do it out of their own pockets. At least, I’m not.
  4. And research funding bodies are often facing funding cuts, too. And why should they give out less money for research because they’re having to pay more to make it free? Is it better for cancer patients to read journal articles for free, or for that open access fee (which is often not inconsiderable) to have paid for more research to develop and trial treatments? I’m just saying…

The question is, who’s going to blink first? Universities aren’t universities if they’re not producing publications. Commercial publishers can’t exist without profits. And academics are, of course, greedy money-grabbing tight-arses, who refuse to pay a mere few hundred or thousand dollars for every paper so the plebs down below can read their inaccessible waffle. I haven’t blinked yet. Have you?

But there are other changes afoot, and more reasons why I think paid-for publishing or paid-for open access are not going to become the norm very soon.

  1. Institutional repositories: the content (ie pre-proof version) of many papers can already be made freely available to anyone who can be bothered to read it, through institutional repositories. The cancer patient can read your paper, just without the fancy doi numbers and typesetting etc, without paying anything. But institutional repositories are proving a bit slow to catch on, unless institutions mandate their staff to submit.
  2. Maybe the publishers have not quite blinked, but squinted. One BIG publisher has recently released its embargo on the pre-proof version of a paper (the one the academic typed and was accepted by the editor) – we’re now free to put these documents on our blogs, departmental websites. If you don’t know which publisher this is, do some digging!
  3. Heaps of stuff is already open access, although it shouldn’t be if you pay attention to the copyright. If you’re any good at ‘the internet’, it’s not hard to find free versions of papers you’re ‘supposed’ to pay for. Not every paper is freely available this way, but lots are, and the number isn’t getting smaller. I expect academics publish their papers this way out of ignorance of copyright, naivety, as a way to give the evil publishers the proverbial finger gesture, or to enhance their citations and h-index. Or maybe because they lie awake at night worrying about all the people also lying awake because they found an article on the latest poststructural deconstruction of liminality, or a miraculous formula for predicting nearly-prime numbers, and they couldn’t afford the $30 fee to read it.

Vanity publishers, predatory publishers, and the in-between

Vanity publishers are nothing new – paying someone to publish your work (particularly in book form). What is new is the fact that the ‘publish or perish’ climate in academia is leading some researchers to secure their moment in the sun by flexing their credit cards rather than their intellectual muscles. Will this become the norm? Screw peer review. Screw the big commercial publishers, screw the fact it won’t end up on amazon and no-one will ever know it exists, I’ll pay this lovely boutique press to print 200 copies of my book. I think not.

Predatory publishers. “Dear Dr Dr Hopwood Nicholas. I recently read your paper entitled… and know you are an expert in this area. I invite you to submit a manuscript in this new international, peer reviewed journal, with this stellar international editorial board…” Click the url and something’s not quite right. Not only is the email clearly automated (“Dr Dr Hopwood Nicholas,” pah!) but this journal has a mysterious 10 volumes published in the last 2 years by academic celebrities you’ve never heard of who are citing works you’ve never read… Need I say more?

The in-between. I’m not going to name names. You know who they are. They’re the ones saying they’d like to publish your PhD as a book, before they’ve even read it, or who manage to conduct a ‘thorough’ review of your manuscript in about 8 seconds. An interesting business model for now. Is it the future? Put it this way, if I were playing the stockmarket, I’d be selling my shares in these companies quicksmart.

 

Peer review

Another trend, or perhaps a fad, is to claim that peer review is broken. Peer reviewers are getting it wrong, causing embarrassment for journal editors and their publishers, who have to retract papers, apologise to the public, and lick their wounds as their reputation takes a knock (forget the stupid authors who did dodgy research in the first place, they should have been caught earlier!).

Peer review is also showing symptoms of ill health, and the prevailing winds do not look favourable. Most reviewers aren’t paid, but the ‘rewards’ for doing reviews are slim. Our university employers want us to do more, better, faster, for less, and doing reviews isn’t counted very highly (or at all) in the grand scheme of things. So we feel we have less time to do reviews, meaning we may do fewer of them, and do them less well when we do say ‘yes’. Neither are good for our disciplines – the fewer people who do reviewers, the narrower (and more tired, frustrated) the gates controlling and supporting the expression of new knowledge become.

Peer review has historically happened under a cloak of anonymity, often ‘double-blind’, where neither reviewer nor reviewee knows who the other is (as if it’s not often blatantly obvious, or we can’t take an educated guess or do a bit of digging on google)… this anonymity has well-rehearsed benefits, but also results in some otherwise decent and professional folk unleashing torrents of abuse at their peers.

In natural science fields now it is becoming increasingly common for reviews (and authors’ responses to them) to be published, and even for the reviewers to be named. This, it is argued, makes the whole process more transparent, enhances the quality of reviews (referees are more careful writing comments when they know they will be made public), and enables readers to see how the paper came to take the form it reached, and what doubts or criticisms were raised along the way.

Of all the trends I reckon this is the most likely to catch on. It doesn’t have huge cost implications, or many drawbacks as far as I can see (though I admit I’ve not looked hard enough into this and haven’t yet experienced it in my field so I may well revise this view later!). I can see it spreading through the natural sciences pretty quickly, particularly in the current climate where retractions appear to be becoming more common, and there is seemingly strong sense that because some  reviewers are getting it wrong the peer review system can’t be trusted. Even if peer review isn’t ‘broken’ and therefore doesn’t need fixing, this is an interesting idea that seems to have legs. I can imagine the social sciences coming round to this (or perhaps not fighting when norms from natural sciences are inherited or imposed on us). Who will be the last ones standing on the island of opacity as the waves from the sea of transparency lick higher and tides of change push forward? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Humanities? Anyone? Anyone?

If peer review is broken, why not pay reviewers? Then they’d review heaps more papers, treat the process seriously, and do it all on time too. Brilliant idea! Except there’s no money. Even if there was some money to pay for this (which there isn’t), it would be like saying “Hey, you know that thing you used to get for free? Well screw you! You’re going to have to pay for it now!” (the fact that this is precisely what has happened in relation to undergraduate tuition fees in many countries is not lost on me, in case you were worried).

Let’s say we do find some extra cash down the back of the lecture seats (which we won’t; I looked, it had already been pillaged by the big publishers, greedy tenured academics, overpaid managers and busybody bureaucrats), I don’t think it would make any difference. In fact it might make things worse – if people were incentivised to do reviews for money, it could distort things quite significantly. And I like to believe that academics still do things for the good of their discipline or field rather than for money anyway. So even if it was a good idea (which it isn’t) and there was the money for it (which there isn’t), it wouldn’t catch on.

Democra-truth

This kind of brings together all the issues so far. The idea that universities should stop being so elitist in claiming their exclusive rights to knowledge. Forget the elbow-patched professors festering slowly amid their piles of self-citing, self-aggrandising and self-plagiarising books full of interminable critique and concluding that “everything is more complex than we thought, so there!”. Let’s storm the university and take knowledge back into our own hands! Vive la revolution!

Except, when made ‘democratic’ or left to the ‘market of the masses’ to sort it out, it doesn’t always go so well. Do some searching about errors in a certain large internet encyclopaedia and you’ll see what I mean. Furthermore, the masses will tend to agree around the knowledge they want to know, that they are comfortable with.

Do you really believe democra-truth wouldn’t end up being ‘media-mogul-truth’ instead? The media would have us believe there is a ‘debate’ about climate change, for example. If by ‘debate’ you mean overwhelming scientific consensus on a global scale, versus vocal and vociferous, cherry-picking dissent, then okay, you’ve got me. [If you’re one of those dissenters, you can still see the point I’m making, just choose any topic where the media holds palpable sway over public opinion]. But we often trust the public with other important things, like in judicial systems with juries, right? Yes, but see how that would work if the judges, clerkes, and lawyers were all pulled off the street too. Oh.

I strongly believe there should be places preserved and reserved where we can ask the really awkward questions that no-one else wants to face up to (particularly governments and the general public), and present the arguments no matter how unpalatable they may be. We also need to cherish the pursuit of knowledge and discovery without necessarily knowing where it will take us. No, I’m not sold on democra-truth (but of course I’m biased, my job kind of depends on universities maintaining certain kind of rights to generating and policing what counts as knowledge).

So, there you have it. As the pilot says when a huge storm appears on the radar screen: “Please fasten your seat belts, it may get a little bumpy”.

Video about journal publishing basics

I’ve been preparing for some workshops on journal publishing for postgraduate research students and early career researchers. Following the idea of Flipped Learning, and the ‘Learning 2014’ strategy at UTS, my home university, I’ve been trying to minimise the time participants spend in the workshops sitting listening to me talk, and to create more time for group discussion and activities instead.

So I created a 30 minute video covering some basic points – many of which I’ve written about in other posts. Although readers of this blog won’t by default be able to come to the workshops I’m running, I thought I’d share the video anyway in the hope it might still be useful. One day I might even put my face in front of the camera!

If you’re interested, the workshops will then go on to look at: why papers get rejected, what reviews look like and how to respond to nasty ones (which are a sad inevitability in academic life), how to frame a response letter when you’re asked to revise and resubmit, and the ethics of peer review.

The main video can be viewed here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wGIieGeQ9U&feature=youtu.be

There are two supplementary videos

1. How to find out the ‘zombie’ rank of a journal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19b1z50E5Js

2. A bit more about researching the relative rather than absolute impact factor (or other status measure) of a journal. http://youtu.be/z3HhUtfXxUQ

The second one gets a bit more into technical side of using excel once you’ve imported relevant journal metrics data from an external source such as Scopus or SciMago SJR.

Please do add feedback and comments below! Are the videos useful? Do you disagree? Do you choose journals in a different way? Do you assess journal status differently? Am I out of date about copyright issues?

On this last point, a big BUYER BEWARE warning: copyright things are changing very fast. Only this week Taylor and Francis announced AAM (author accepted manuscripts) can be put on personal or departmental websites, free of embargo (this doesn’t mean you can make the final paper pdf freely available, but the pre-proofed word version)… so some of my comments will get out of date quite quickly if things keep changing!