writing a highly cited paper – a sceptical view

I’ve been somewhat irritated recently, as I’m sure most academics have been, by the increasing interest that our universities have in citations. Citations count in league tables.  We – academics – are increasingly told that we must focus more on how to ramp up our own citations. It’s recently been explained to me for example that citations can be increased by writing review articles and by writing with colleagues from particular US and Australian institutions.

This kind of advice is invariably based on interpretations of citation metrics. I strongly suspect that these explanations of how-to-write-a-highly-cited- paper are a case of people  (who ought to know better) mistaking correlations for causes. Apart from the times when academics cite papers that are bad, or because they are written by someone already famous, my sense is that it’s more generally the case that the papers that are cited a lot also happen to be significant in some way. That’s not to say that all significant papers get cited a lot, but rather that if a paper gets a lot of citations it’s because colleagues are referring to what it says for a reason. Well, that’s my hypothesis anyway.

So how would I test this out? Well, I think it might actually be helpful to have some further research and analysis. Maybe we could actually look at some highly cited papers to try to understand better why they have become important in their field. It might also be interesting to talk to their authors and some of their readers, those who do the citing.

Let me give you an example to show why I think that such an endeavour might be of use.

A little while ago, and in my own field of education, an editor of the journal  Discourse asked an author – Stephen Ball – to look back at, and talk about, what is now a very highly cited paper. It was something that he’d written twenty one years previous. Ball recorded his reflections on What is policy: texts, trajectories and toolboxes (passworded) in a Youtube clip.

Ball pointed to the paper as a transition point in his own thinking. Ball suggests that the paper was intended to provoke peers and to create a new critical basis for policy analysis – to provide “more theoretical heft”. The paper not only marked a profound shift in his own research and provided the basis for his next two decades of subsequent inquiry, but also laid out a new agenda for the wider field. Ball had an ambition for the paper, beyond his own thinking and work, which went to the state of scholarship at the time. He wasn’t thinking about getting citations, but about purpose and influence. He was concerned about getting read but not about measurement.

This is a particular case, of course, but what’s most interesting to me is the way in which Ball is able to talk about his own research trajectory at the same time as making clear his ambition to make a very significant contribution to the field in which he was researching. He thought the field was limited, and he wanted to change it.

Even this one example sheds a little light on one way that important contributions to the discipline and to the field can be made through an individual  intervention. This single example illustrates a way in which making a significant contribution might be imagined and accomplished. Personal research and change in the field can happen together. Getting a highly cited paper in the field is a by-product, not the point, of the publication exercise.

My hunch is that something like Ball’s example may well be the case with a lot of highly cited papers. I can’t really believe that the papers that everyone refers to have been developed by people saying to themselves – Now I need to get a highly cited paper, I’m going to co-write a review paper with a colleague in a university above mine in the league tables. That’ll make sure I get a big hit in the indices. NOT. I suspect it’s much more likely to be the case that the highly cited paper comes from a happy meeting of luck, the zeitgeist and a researcher thinking seriously about their own scholarship in the context of the current state of the field.

In other words, I strongly suspect that the bulk of high citations are connected to scholarship, and are not a highly calculated and self-serving act.

I’m pretty convinced that we need something in addition to metric analysis to actually understand citations. Don’t we all teach research methods courses which say that numbers can do some things and not others? …. But of course we need many more than this one example I’ve given. N = one doesn’t fly either, even if it is interesting. It might be enough however to suggest the merit in looking beyond numbers when we think about influencing the field and getting readers.

But, in the meantime and in the absence of research more thorough than that available from indices, I’m going to take those metric-based causal analyses about how I should write, about what and with whom, with a very large grain of salt.

Posted in citation, metrics, Stephen Ball | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

the post PhD slump

So you’ve finished the PhD. You’ve had the exam and the results are in. You’ve made the few corrections that were needed, and they’ve been signed off. You’ve printed out the final version of the thesis, had it bound and lodged it in the university repository. You’ve made the companion PDF and submitted that too. You’ve changed your email signature to reflect your new status. You’ve done it. You’re a doctor.

You ought to feel elated – but you don’t. Sure, there was the immediate celebration once the results were known. The champagne. The congratulatory emails. The hugs and handshakes from friends and family. But that didn’t last long, and now it seems that things just go on as if nothing had changed. What an anti-climax… You ought to be feeling great – but you don’t. The thought of going back to the Big Book to extract a few journal articles fills you with dread. You’re over it. Really over it.

Now of course, not everyone experiences the post PhD slump. But enough people do to make the slump a recognisable phenomenon. And when you think about it, it’s hardly surprising …

You’ve lived with the PhD for years. It’s taken up a huge amount of your headspace and an enormous quantum of emotional energy. It’s been exhilarating, terrifying and bewildering in equal measure. And as for the last last few months – well, it was all about getting the text done. The thesis was all-consuming and you had to put your life on hold just so it would get finished in time – not to mention summoning up the sheer will power that was required for that very last push. All the dreary but essential proofreading and formatting just had to get done.

The truth is that, after the examination and the lodging of the thesis in the library, you have a thesis-sized-hole in your life. There’s nothing where there used to be a big long term task. You now have to learn a new way of managing your time, what writing and reading you do and how you manage your intellectual activity. But you also have to manage the sometimes-sadness of being finished. You know now that the PhD was a unique period, and that you probably won’t have the same disciplined structure again, the same time to read and write, the same intense conversations with another scholar about your research. That’s a change, but also maybe a loss.

And it’s that peculiar combination of not having the thesis to worry about, finding out how to continue being a scholar in different circumstances, not having the doctoral structures to work with, and that diffuse sense of sadness that produces the post PhD slump.

You have to allow yourself to feel a bit deflated, but at the same time take charge of the process of what-happens-next. The thing to do is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Feel sad – and know that you’re not alone in this. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. So grieve, but also write a publishing plan. Go to some conferences. Establish some new networks through social media. Find some people in the same boat as you. Look for funding to continue your research, following up some of the questions that arose at the end of your study…

But do, really do understand that this moment of leaving-behind and moving-on is not something that only happened to you. Many of us have been there. We recognize the symptoms. We’ve come out the other side of the thesis-sized-hole, and you will too.

Posted in thesis | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

reflecting on PhD learning

Some supervisors ask the doctoral researchers they work with to formally reflect on their learning. A what-am-I-learning conversation might be a regular part of supervision. Reflection is also often self initiated – ongoing thoughts are recorded in a doctoral researcher journal or a blog. University initiated ‘skills audits’ and the use of researcher development frameworks also require the doctoral researcher to step back and assess what they know, and what they still need/want to know.

Reflecting on learning is sometimes formally required as the final act in the thesis – the conclusion to the concluding chapter becomes a look-back at new understandings generated from the doctoral experience. And some examiners like a little learning-focused reflection too. There might very well be a question in the viva which requires the candidate to share what they’ve learnt about research and about being a researcher.

The request and expectation for reflection doesn’t happen consistently across disciplines, or even commonly within a single discipline. But the concern with doctoral learning does seem to be more usual in some areas than in others. Not surprisingly, the what-have-you-learnt question is quite likely to appear in education, where critically reflecting-on-learning is a major preoccupation of the field. Educators believe, and I’m one of them, that explicit and critical reflection actually consolidates and extends the learning. In the case of the thesis, a meta-reflection at the end can be seen as a further act of researcher formation.

But the inconsistency of supervisor and examiner requests to discuss doctoral learning does mean that the advice – about what exactly might count as an end-of-doctoral learning reflection in the thesis and what to do about it – is a bit thin on the ground. That’s probably why I’ve just been asked for a few hints. So here goes…

To begin with, it’s worth considering what supervisors and examiners don’t want to see in any thesis-based meta-reflection on your doctoral learning. They don’t want you to rehash what you’ve already said earlier in the thesis. They don’t expect to see the results of your research again, nor do they want a repeat of basic research methods literatures and what you did in training courses. They don’t want a protracted self-indulgent ramble about ‘the journey’. They don’t want a lapse into a moan about how hard it all was.

Supervisors/examiners do expect that you will have learnt something by doing your own project, something more than was available to you in the research methods courses you did and the books you read. They do therefore expect to see something which indicates your current thinking about the conduct of research and/or about the research enterprise itself.

Of course, any reflection on learning is going to be idiosyncratic and particular. It’s not going to be the same from one doctoral researcher to another. A reflection on doctoral learning will be tied to the specific project, process and person. It must however be directed to the new knowledge that has been gained about research itself. So, please take the following suggestions with the very strong caveat that you need to make them your own.

Here’s five starting points for an end-of-thesis (or viva) refection on learning:

  • a short narrative about your initial expectations of the research process, what actually happened and what this means for the way you will conduct any future research. This might for example not only cover particular ethics, access or analytic issues that were not dealt with in the relevant section of the thesis, but also the implications that this new knowledge has for you as a researcher.
  • a succinct discussion which compares an aspect or aspects of the research methods literatures with what actually happened. Many doctoral researchers talk about the particularities of the messy research reality compared to how neat and tidy it appears in the books- this is not a general discussion but is specific to the research – and implications for the newly-minted Doctor are spelled out.
  • a comparison of some initial aspirations for the thesis and what actually happened at the end. (This is what I did in my own thesis where I discussed the relative strengths of arts-informed approaches and more conventional social science. I then argued for their complementarity in relation to my topic. This analysis was something I could only have arrived at by actually writing the thesis.)
  • a brief narrative about the complexities of developing a researcher identity – maybe that was a major issue resolved through the research and thesis writing process, via the text work/identity work* involved.
  • some thinking about an aspect of the research process of interest to others, maybe something that could form the basis of a future journal paper. So for instance – and I’m just making these up, these are simply examples not things you should copy – you might think you have acquired some new insights into insider research, the temporal issues involved in working as a researcher in a site with different paces and pressures, working with vulnerable populations, or the importance of a particular form of note-taking. If you think that this insight might be of interest to others, it’s worth looking at the methods journals. That will help you frame up a more substantive end-of-thesis reflection as a dry-run at a contribution to writings about the doctoral research process itself.

Well that’s a beginning on the topic. Are there other starting points that you can think of that might be helpful to those who have been asked to add a reflection-on-learning to end of their thesis?

Note: * Text work/identity work is extensively discussed in Kamler B and Thomson P (2014) Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. Second Edition, London: Routledge

Posted in doctoral research, text work/identity work, thesis, viva | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

structuring research articles

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there about how to write a publishable journal article.

What do I mean by an academic journal article? Well, I think of an academic journal article as a reasoned presentation of material gained through a scholarly process – such as examining and deconstructing texts, hard thinking, generating and analyzing data. The writer builds up a logical argument, step by step, in order to persuade the reader about a particular point/result. The paper’s argument is situated in a context – for example, the extant literatures, policy and or practice, a debate of an ongoing blank or blind spot. And the paper is of course written for the particular readers of a specific journal.

The most usual advice given in books and online resources is to follow a scientific report-like structure for a scholarly paper – Introduction, Literature, Methods, Report, Discussion, Conclusion. ILMRDC we might call it. It’s true that a lot of journals do like this structure, particularly in the Sciences and Social Sciences, and it ‘s also true that some of them will penalise writers if they don’t go along with it. But not all of them do. Some journals are more open to other ways of approaching a paper. And of course Arts and Humanities routinely use structures other than the ILMRDC.

There are some limits to how much you can experiment with journal article structures. It’s not a case of anything goes. Unless your paper is deliberately and explicitly something other than argument, you do want to reason throughout the paper – you start your reader off somewhere and then take them somewhere through the paper, in a way that is convincing. But ILMRDC is not the only way to do this. The ILMRDC approach to paper structure focuses primarily on the content that is to be discussed in the paper, not the logical structure that the paper might take. And it’s worth thinking about the logical structure. There is much more available to writers than ILMRDC.

If abandoning ILMRDC brings out out in a cold sweat it’s perhaps helpful to think about your material as a set of moves that you can choreograph in multiple ways – but one or two of these patterns of moves are likely to be a better fit with your material than the others. It’s a question of trying a few out and seeing what works best.

So what are other paper structure options? Well here’s some*:

 Thesis to ‘proof’ – you begin with a proposition and then demonstrate its veracity by considering evidence and counter evidence.

Problem to solution – a problem or problematisation is outlined and then the steps to a ‘solution’ – or a different problematisation – are laid out. Alternative solutions are considered and reasons for rejecting them given.

Question to answer – a question is posed at the start, and justified – and the answer built up. Alternative answers are considered and dealt with along the way.

Compare and contrast – the topic is presented and the need for a comparison is given. Material which compares and contrasts is presented and lessons drawn from the exercise.

Cause and effect, or effect and cause – either the cause or effect is presented and justified. The connections are traced and evidenced. The implications of knowing the now apparent causal relationship are elaborated.

Known to unknown or unknown to known – the initial state of knowing or unknowing is outlined and a rationale given for why it is important to un/know it. The reader is led through a set of steps to the opposite condition and the So What – why we needed to do this – is explained.

Simple to complex – a simple or commonsense understanding is presented, and then a set of issues which complicate the initial situation are outlined. Reasons are offered for the importance of these more nuanced understandings.

Each of these logical structures could be presented via the ILMRDC, although they might equally be organised – and more naturally – around the flow of moves that you need to make.  The maxim here is that form follows function.

If you want to jettison ILMRDC than you need to have the alternative logical structure in your mind at the start of constructing a paper. You need to focus on the meaning you want to convey.  If you focus on the logical structure of the paper then you have to consider carefully how you will make the intention of the paper clear and explicit. What do you want the reader to understand at the beginning? Then you need to be clear about the end point. What does the reader need to be convinced of by the end of the paper? Then it’s a question of thinking about the middle… How will you get the reader through the argument, what moves do you need to make from A to B?

You see, each logical structure requires you to do different rhetorical workFocusing on the actual argument you want to make, rather than a set of headings or chunks, means that you have to think first of all about the way that you will introduce the topic of the paper. Then you think about the way in which you will write the moves in the argument.  How do you write these moves in ways that are persuasive and convincing? What signposting do you need to put in to keep the reader on track and to follow the logic of the paper? And finally, what you need to say to the reader in the conclusion – to leave them in no doubt about your take-home message.

While there’s nothing wrong with ILMRDC, there are other approaches that are worth giving a go. It may even be the case that focusing on the structure frees you up to write in more engaging ways and to play with the text a little more.


* These moves are my adaptation of p.19, Ballenger, Bruce (2012) The curious researcher. A guide to writing research papers. Boston: Pearson

See more about writing for journals in Thomson P and Kamler, B (2013) Writing for peer reviewed journals. Strategies for getting published. London: Routledge.

Posted in argument, journal, logical structure, scholarly article | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

I still call australia/england home

A version of this post was recently published by the Guardian HE network. It seems appropriate to post it now, given that I’m just back home from five weeks in Australia.

Some academics are now highly mobile. We are internationally focused. We are a lucky elite, members of the global knowledge workforce Robert Reich talked about a long time ago. We have opportunities not available to everyone.

I am one of those ‘international academics’. Mine is not a unique and singular story. I moved to the United Kingdom from Australia nearly twelve years ago. At the time I didn’t think too much about it. I was ready for a late-career academic adventure. I had a partner prepared to move, a grown up family and two young dogs who could be micro-chipped, packed up in vet-approved crates and flown away in air-conditioned comfort. A house was easily sold, possessions loaded into a tin container and moved from a dry South Australian desert on one side of the world to a Midlands drizzle on the other.

This kind of movement is not a new situation. A few academics have always moved around. My own undergraduate experience at Adelaide University was greatly enhanced by conversations with Professor George Rudé, one of the 20th century’s notable Marxist social historians. His disenchantment with the British academy increased my/my peers’ understanding of events in places far away. Some of our other lecturers had also studied abroad, as it was quaintly known then, and they brought a cosmopolitan consciousness to a liberal, but then still provincial, university. They were however a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Antipodean institution.

Of course, everyone in higher education is more focused on the international these days. Even if our research is highly localised, we are all very mindful of the need to foster international conversations, networks and partnerships and publications. We swap notes about which software allows us to video-conference without the picture freezing every few minutes, and how to best share files, images and co-authoring. We are very familiar with high-speed trains, long haul planes and the vicissitudes of lost luggage, skipped meals and cancelled flights. But in this brave new scholarly world, the ‘international academic’ now has a particular position and currency.

These days, ‘the international academic’ is easy to find. We are no longer a tiny minority. At my current institution, for example, close to one in every five academic staff comes from somewhere other than the United Kingdom. The University of Nottingham not only has a highly diverse student population, the same applies to its staff. And this is not an uncommon picture around the country.

Achieving this kind of staffing mix isn’t accidental. While each of us who comes from elsewhere has made our own individual decision about whether to pack up our goods and set off into the unknown, there is something else going on in our institutions. Universities have decided that they want to operate in both a global student and staff market. They deliberately place job advertisements in a range of overseas locations and on the web. Search committees and personal networks are encouraged to be active in spreading the word about vacancies and opportunities.

But why, we might ask, are universities so keen to have staff from elsewhere?

Our institutions believe that we ‘international academics’ bring two key attributes:

Firstly, within globalised higher education institutions, we ‘international academics’ embody and represent to the wider public the international nature of our institutions in particular, and of a globalized academy more generally. While we live the idea that it’s possible to be educated and scholarly no matter where you’re from, we are key signifiers within our institutions of their reach and activities.

Secondly, we ‘international academics’ often bring potential competitive advantages to our new employers. League tables of bids, citations and esteem are the currency of higher education quality and we ‘international academics’ can count and be counted in these areas. Our previously local knowledge and contacts are now very helpful to our new institutions; we can form partnerships with our previous colleagues. Our ‘over there’ networks convert to new international research partnerships and projects. And we may come from countries and/or institutions that are of strategic interest to institutions seeking international research clout. Cross-country co-authorship is now seen by many universities as particularly important in the citations game and many of us are urged to write with colleagues from home, particularly if they are in high prestige institutions. We may also bring esteem to our new institutions if we are invited ‘back home’ as international experts to keynote events and lead prestigious projects.

What is less acknowledged, it seems to me, are the institutional benefits that come from having a diverse staff. Consistent with my own experience of classes with George Rudé, a culturally and linguistically rich mix of academics can enhance the experience of students. International academics are able to share, with their class made up of students from around the world, the need to make connections between what happens here and what happens elsewhere. We often incorporate into our teaching our home-grown literatures, scholars, histories and ways of life. We can provide experiences and narratives that might otherwise be harder to access. However some international academics do face discrimination – ranging from indifference to outright rudeness and prejudicial judgments – if they are in locations where World Englishes and cultural diversity are not recognised and affirmed by university policies.

So if we are helpful to universities, how is it for the scholar who is mobile?

Well, all this here-ing and there-ing creates a somewhat ambiguous mandate for the ‘international academic’. One the one hand, we want to pursue research in our new location. The challenge of transferring our interests into new places is one of the things that was most attractive about the move in the first place. On the other hand, there is also considerable mileage in keeping close contact with our former connections, research agendas and policies, events and scholarship in the places we have come from.

This kind double thinking and double being is increasingly the lot of ‘the international academic’. We are neither simply expats nor migrated scholars, but must somehow metaphorically be astride two locations and contexts, always a little concerned about not falling too far to one side or the other. Some of us get tired of this and go home. Some of us stay and get acclimatised. As well as maintaining some kind of scholarly locational balance, we learn to moan about the weather and the traffic in two locations. But we also relish the privilege of ready access to places and practices we previously only knew in books. Home and away becomes a way of life.

Posted in academic life | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

travel diary – early-career or emerging researcher?

One of the best things about conferences is that you can learn a little something just when you aren’t expecting it. That happened to me at the conference I’ve been at. The conference is all finished now, whew, but the little surprise learning has stuck with me.

I was a speaker at the pre-conference postgraduate and early-career day. At one point our discussion switched to the prospects for early-career researchers. One of the conference participants, Dr Emily Nelson, told us that the term early-career researcher wasn’t used in New Zealand. Early-career was considered a deficit term.

Now of course it might sometimes be helpful to be called early-career. The term is often used in funding schemes, designating who is eligible for money and who isn’t. But the flip side of early-career, we were told, is an implicit assumption that the researcher has little to bring to the task of research. It’s just too soon. They don’t have enough experience, yet.

According to Emily, in New Zealand, it is common to talk of an emerging researcher. Rather than the emphasis being on beginning, being a novice, being new to the game, at the start of something, the idea of emerging suggests a change, a move from something else. It allows people who have already had a career to feel that they are engaged in a transformation from one kind of career to another. For those coming straight through on a university pathway, the idea of emerging also carries a picture of a scholar coming into being, a becoming visible, rather than a researcher of lesser status, a baby among grown-ups.

I wondered then, and now, what difference it might make if the New Zealand nomenclature were more widely adopted. Would it make researchers just post PhD feel any different, better, more capable, more respected even, to be known as emerging rather than early? What do you think?

Posted in early career researchers | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

travel diary – a mid-conference musing

I’m in Queensland and it’s hot. As you’d expect in a tropical state -it’s hot but not too humid. I go back to England this coming weekend where it’s not exactly warm, so I am not complaining about high 20C. One of the consequences of hot weather is thirst. In hot weather, you do have to make sure that you always have water with you, and enough of it. If you get thirsty then you’re already starting to dehydrate, and you ought to have been drinking water well before that dry-mouth point.

Now Australians are pretty aware of the need to stay well watered. All Australian academic gatherings have plentiful supplies of H2O. Often this is in the form of water fountains that simply cool tap water down. Sometimes it’s water containers, large plastic kegs that supply bottled water in bulk, dispensed in cups. Less often, much less often, it’s individual.bottles of water put out at every break. That’s the situation at the conference I’m at now.

The conference has about 900 people and there are at least 200 bottles of water distributed, three times a day. You do the maths. That’s a lot of water bottles over a four day conference. And a lot of bottles means a lot of landfill*, a lot of landfill that might have been avoided if water was provided in another way. While the water is absolutely necessary for all of us to stay healthy, the way in which it has been provided is having additional effects, and not good ones.

Now this good-but-also-other-not-so-good is actually not unlike the academic conference itself. The conference can be thought of as something that nourishes and nurtures scholarly activity. People network, they meet old friends, they give papers, they hear about new research, they meet new friends, they do deals with publishers and journal editors. This is scholarly hydration. However, the form that this hydration comes in can be less than beneficial.

For a start, there’s four days of sitting down. That’s not so good for most people, and pretty poor for those of us with back problems. And a lot of academics do seem to have back problems, many of them related to sitting at computers, I dare say. Then there’s four days of eating mass-catered conference lunch. While the odd conference manages good lunch, most don’t. The one I’m at definitely hasn’t. Conference caterers also roll out lots of cake and biscuits at coffee time so everyone has a quick sugar hit before the next session. Really not so good, not so good at all. Oh and four days of being out rather later than usual with friends old and new. Good yes, but also bad. Sleep deprivation begins. Eating out in lots of different restaurants. Expensive, but also sometimes not good for the digestion. But wait there’s more, conferences are generally also tiring. At the end of a four day conference you might begin to feel a bit like landfill yourself. I know I’m starting to.

So you do need to plan for conferences beforehand, just as you need to plan to bring a refillable water bottle. You almost need a pre-conference training programme so you can take on the task of concentrating sitting and eating oddly for the designated period of time. It’s probably a good idea to anticipate the general kinds of mild conference-related abuse you inflict on your body and get it ready for the change in routine … and if you don’t, you need to build in a post conference recovery programme. I’m planning mine right now, along with packing my refilled water bottle for the conference day coming up.

*Yes, there are recycling bins. However I’ve noted most people aren’t using them.

Posted in conference, conference survival tips, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments