have I got “advice” for you… 

I want you to imagine that you are going to build a fence. You have a wide choice of potential materials and style. Well and good. But you haven’t build a fence before, so where do you go for some advice?  You can:

(1) go to someone who has built a fence – yes one – and who knows, they say, the perfect way you can get the fence built cheaply and efficiently
(2) talk to and read the stories of people who have built a fence and have learned some things in the process
(3) go to a skilled tradie who has built a lot of fences. You can visit their fences to see their work for yourself
(4) get a manual written by someone who knows a lot about fences and has also built a lot. They don’t just use their own fences as examples but refer to fences built by other people and fences built using a range of different materials and approaches.

Now (2-4) are all helpful, each one, by themselves. You might also very fruitfully combine them – so you could talk to some people who’ve built fences, talk to a tradie and buy a manual. 

You could choose however to only do (1) , that is, talk to someone who has built one fence for themselves. Now this is a potentially risky strategy.  The one-fence-maker’s version of how to build a fence might work really well for you. On the other hand it mightn’t. They were perhaps using different materials, or building a fence in a different style, or their fencing needs are just very different from yours.  You could, if you go with the one-fence-maker, end up with a costly and time wasting experiment. Or not. Of course, you might get lucky and/or you might have the all the knowledge you need to make up for what the one-fence-maker didn’t tell you.

Now, humour me. Please change the words building a fence to any of these – writing the thesis, writing a journal article, doing a doctorate, doing the viva, writing a research proposal, getting a job … Of course the fence analogy doesn’t really hold for these situations, because doctoral researchers for example aren’t doing their doctorate by themselves. They have supervisors/committees/gradschools. They aren’t just dependent on the advice they get online and from books. But I reckon that some of my fence-building  analogy is pertinent.

The web has proliferated advice about every aspect of doctoral education, academic writing and scholarly career development. In general, I think that’s a Very Good Thing. Learning and knowledge is shared. It is not kept in tiny journals, closed offices and people’s heads.

Some of this knowledge is offered free and some costs money. And there is both less helpful and more reliable advice and support around. But this is not a simple binary. It’s not that free=good, and for sale=bad. Not at all. There is the best to the worst advice and support in both free and for sale services.

This kind of advice “market” both interests and worries many of us. Julia Molinari wrote about dubious proof reading services not long ago in the Guardian, and Doctoral Writing SIG scholars Claire Aitchison and Susan Mowbray have been studying the doctoral support field, as have @ThesisWhisperer, Inger Mewburn and I.

And we’ve found some pretty interesting things – for instance I’ve recently seen:
* a book about how to write your PhD by someone who is only half way through their own,
* an advice service set up on the basis of n=1, I wrote my thesis this way so this is how you should write yours,
* a writing tips website that basically re-publishes other people’s advice as its own,
* a self published book that brings together bits and pieces from other people’s work and twitter chats, largely unacknowledged,
* a book on how to turn your thesis into a book but this is the author’s first book, they haven’t actually turned their thesis into a book at all, they just want to …

And so on. I can’t help but compare this kind of advice to: the carefully constructed posts and books by highly experienced scholars; the sharing of personal stories and experiences; and the pedagogical writings of those whose work is academic and researcher development or writing, language and linguistics.

I’m not arguing for some kind of peer review system here, or a bizarre quality kite mark scheme. Not at all. It is just a caveat emptor situation out there/in here. The fence analogy is probably the most helpful for anyone wanting to make sense of the proliferation of what’s on offer. You have to shop around and consult multiple sources.

So to that end, here’s a couple of questions that I think might be useful in making sense of advice.

First off – determine whether whether what you are looking at is sharing of experience or advice. 


Sharing experiences is generous, and a gift. Learning in public is brave, and readers need to recognise and value the offer of some vicarious education. The reader can take what they want, compare sets of experiences with one another, and see how their own experience checks out. Building up a sense of your own experience by engaging with other people’s is part of the way we live our lives and construct our repertoire of understanding and possible actions.

However if what’s on offer is advice, then I think something different is warranted. 


What’s their track record? what’s the basis on which they are offering advice to you? What has the writer done? Are they n=1? Or are they experienced writers, supervisors, researchers in the topic that they are addressing, academic developers, teachers of methods or writing? Can you read their work – are there samples available for you to see? Can you see what people they have worked with have done as a result of their support and advice? Do they have good references from people who’ve used them? Can you try something free before you buy?

So given this, what actually is my advice about the proliferation of advice? Should doctoral researchers and early career academics just leave it all alone? NO. Not at all. Take my view with a big pinch of salt of course, as I’m one of the people in the mix. But I’d carefully check what’s out there and then plunge in. I’m sure it’s much better to be informed than just squirrel away on your lonesome.

But I’d look at several sources of advice rather than just one or a few, take the books out of the library rather than buy them, find out what works for others, and then see what you think will work for you. And, as Howard Rheingold says, have your crap detectors at the ready.

And now, just for a laugh, a bit of vintage Australian comedy about the ultimate not-to-be-trusted salesmen, the Dodgy Brothers.

Posted in academic writing, advice, crap detection | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

what is an “original contribution”?

Many doctoral researchers worry about what ‘original’ in original contribution to knowledge means. They worry  whether their research will be seen as original enough. They worry which of the multiple ways in which original might be interpreted will be applied to their thesis.  

The notion of original seems to carry with it the idea of singularity – I’ve done something fresh and unique– combined with the notion of originary – I’ve started something new here – combined with the notion of authenticity – this is all my own work, I haven’t copied it from anywhere else. Now each of these terms, applied as assessment criteria, is actually pretty unhelpful when it comes to academic work. These categories of originality might make sense for thinking about painting the Mona Lisa, or even inventing Facebook, but they don’t get very far in relation to scholarship. Let me explain.

Singularity? Something unique? Not always the case in research …  there are often teams of researchers working separately and apart on exactly the same problem. And some of these teams even come up with theories or results that are pretty similar. There is also a firm place in some disciplines for replication studies and testing out existing results.

A solo PhD most often offers small variations in research in a field that is relatively well trodden. Nick Hopwood has recently reported his own PhD experience where, coming to the end of his research, he found a published thesis which addressed almost the same question as his own – right down to the wording! Every doctoral researcher’s nightmare. However, the context, sample and approach were different. Nick argues, and I agree, that even in the unlikely and unlucky situation where the doctoral researcher’s  question is the same as someone else’s, and both doctoral researchers draw on the same literatures, the end results are highly likely to be different. But even if they were completely identical, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the two studies had been carried out completely independently (see all my own work).

Originary? Well no. Probably not. Very few people get to work on the undiscovered manuscript, a new invention, a new part of the universe. Many  people do get to look at things that no one has yet investigated, but these are generally still related to a broader concern – so for example an examination of national identity in one country’s television news programmes sits within broader fields of inquiry about television and national identity, about media and national identity and about national identity per se. The object of study might be different, but the contribution will be to a broader field.

But, even if not originary, PhD researchers do of course come up with some of their own interpretations and categorisations. These arise from their particular question, sample, methods and analytic/theoretical approach. It is in the thinking-for-myself process that their originality lies.

Authenticity – Well yes, and no. The PhD is all the doctoral researcher’s own work. It mustn’t be plagiarized. But almost every piece of research draws on other research – it uses other people’s work as building blocks, it is situated in and converses with its field as a challenge, a complementary addition, a re-framing. 

As a frequent PhD thesis examiner I of course look for authenticity – I am concerned to ensure that a thesis isn’t copied, and that it acknowledges other people’s work. And I look to see what it builds on, and what the text adds to an existing conversation. However, I’m generally looking for something much less daunting than a singular and originary contribution. 

I rather like David Lodge’s notion of originality. Lodge, writing about the novel, argues that originality is about making known things strange and unfamiliar.

What do we mean – it is a common term of praise – when we say that a book is “original”? Not, usually that the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already, in a conceptual sense, ‘know’, by deviating from the conventional, habituated ways of representing reality. Defamiliarisation, in short, is another word for “originality”. ( Lodge, 1992/2011, P 55)

Lodge suggests that originality means giving the reader interesting and different insights into something – an event, a social phenomenon, a text – that they might otherwise take for granted or see in a common sense way or interpret and/or explain using largely agreed language and ideas. This kind of defamiliarisation is something I expect to see in a thesis I’m examining. 

You see I’ve been asked to examine a PhD because I already have expertise in the field in which the PhD is based. I know the literatures. I know the debates. I’m already part of the scholarly conversation and community. That’s why I’m in the viva. So there is nothing more pleasurable for me, as an examiner, than to be presented with a thesis that makes something about the field unfamiliar – that is, the doctoral researcher offers some insightful analysis, some alternative ideas, brings some new literatures or methods and/or presents a cogent problematisation. I thought I knew the field, but here is some thinking and some research which is not simply more of the same. I’m prompted to rethink some of the things that I take for granted and/or add something interesting to what I already suspect or ‘know’.

As David Lodge argues, originality is taking the reader, and I’m suggesting the thesis reader/examiner too, somewhere which is simultaneously familiar and not. Original thinking and writing defamiliarises and in doing so, recovers a newness about the topic no matter how well trodden it is. An original contribution to knowledge offers the reader a chance to re-view and re-think the event/text/phenomena in question. That’s the kind of original contribution I’m interested in. 

Posted in David Lodge, defamiliarisation, Nick Hopwood, originality | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

book update – on the importance of chapter structure

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my current book project with Barbara. We are still in the throes of revising the text, turning our incredibly messy first draft into something more readable. But we are up to the last couple of chapters and we hope to have the whole thing ready for its third revision at the beginning of next week. With any luck we will have the completed text off to the publishers at the end of May, or not long after.

This second revision has been pretty major. We already had substantial content in the first draft but when we came to it again, it didn’t hang together in the way that we wanted. We had to find the big organizing idea for the book and then use that to revise.

We’ve had to make two key decisions:

(1) We had to work out a structure that would be roughly the same for each chapter, one that would carry our organising idea through the book without labouring it beyond the possible. We didn’t know at the start we would need to do that. The book is called Detox your writing, and we decided at the start of this  revision to focus each chapter on a common problem that doctoral writers experience. We then offer a reframing idea and a set of strategies that readers can try out to address/redress/interrupt the problem. So our chapter structure is this – Problem, Big Idea, Strategies.

Now, this might seem like a pretty obvious set of moves, and indeed it isn’t rocket science. But we haven’t written our other books using such a strong framing structure. Like most authors, we’ve dealt with each chapter as it comes. We’ve stuck to letting the argument dictate the organisation of the material. But to our surprise, we’ve found that this structure is rather pleasing. It has been helpful to have a frame that we can work with, that we can riff and remix as the material demands.

The pleasure of having an underlying chapter pattern reminds me that the results chapters of a thesis can also be organised using a common framing. A little bit of chapter structure can be a very good thing. While the reader may not be very aware of a commonality in the sequencing of contents, they do get the sense of systematic thinking that structure provides. Having a frame which orders the material can be very helpful, both for the writer and also the reader. It is a Good Thing for doctoral researchers to convey in as many ways as possible that they have been methodolocal in their approach; a consistent but flexible, unobtrusive internal results chapter skeleton can help. 

(2) We had to decide/re-decide what goes where. This actually was our fourth go at getting the material in the right place, sigh. We’ve done some very major re-organising during this revsion. On two occasions we’ve had to work with two chapters at the same time in order to match “the problem” with appropriate strategies. We’ve had to reshuffle the contents of the chapters, cutting and pasting and interleaving the pieces we already had into new chapters. It’s been a bit like working with a patchwork quilt, moving pieces around until we find the best possible arrangement.

Now, our book shuffling and interleaving is not at all dissimilar to the experience of thesis writers. It’s not unusual for a thesis second draft to require some major adjustments in order to get the argument moves in the right order and  avoid overlap. The thesis examiner must be able to follow the steps of the argument in a logical sequence. 

As experienced writers, Barbara and I are not afraid of major revision, and we quite like the challenge of making something better out of an existing draft. However, some thesis writers do get terribly upset when they find they have to do major rethinking, and they opt for a patch-it-up approach, rather than something much more fundamental. Our experience is that the big restructure always pays off  – you own the changes. You decide what has to be done. Revising a thesis or book is not like having a peer reviewer give you a set of things that they think you ought to do. This is you, the writer, deciding for yourself that there’s a need for a rethink.

What’s also interesting for us is that we’ve managed to do all this slashing and burning over long distance. We’ve struggled with distance before and until this book, we thought that we wrote best when we were face to face. However, this time, the writing apart has been more than OK. 

We’ve had weekly skypes where we’ve agreed on the general changes that need to be made to a chapter – or two chapters – and then allocated ourselves weekly tasks. Mostly we’ve worked on one chapter serially throughout the week, Barbara during her day, and me during mine. I’ve got up in England to find what changes she’s done overnight during the Australian daytime. There’s often been a surprise waiting for me, a new twist on an old idea, a chuckle at a turn of phrase. There have also been times when we’ve worked on different chapters, Barbara editing the most recent one, and me starting on the next (or vice versa). Via this talk-and-then-take-turns approach, we’ve been able to make continued progress on the text.

We’ve been able to work collaboratively but apart for a complex mix of reasons. While the chapter structure has undoubtedly helped, we are also very used to working and writing together. We’ve been co-writing for fourteen years. We trust each other’s judgment. So if one of us says “this here doesn’t work”, then the other will stop, listen and think about what the issue might be and how it might be fixed. And we generate a lot of ideas through talking; we are prepared to put in 60-90 minutes a week talking on skype. We know this is how we get things done. We are also forgiving of each other’s schedules and demands and quite often one of us will do a bit more on the weeks when the other has less time to give. We don’t keep score.

I’m already a bit sad to think that this is our last book. But then, Barbara did say that last time and look… Here comes another one.

Posted in Barbara Kamler, book writing, chapter, co-writing, revision | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

literature know-how – beware too much naming, not enough framing

You’re in the middle of working with literature. You find that you have to bring several texts together and compare them. Why? Well, you might be trying to establish points of difference and similarity between several papers. Or maybe you are illustrating a chronological line of thinking, or you’re establishing a conceptual family tree. Any of these tasks requires you to engage in some textual compare and contrast.

Now, if this is what you are doing, you need to exercise a little care. The compare/contrast task has odd effects. It seems to cause some people to write prose that ranges from the clunky to the utterly unreadable. At worst, names of authors, texts and quotations are jammed together in dense, incomprehensible proximity and the reader has trouble working out what on earth is going on.

If you want to avoid producing unreadable compare/contrast texts it’s helpful to understand how and why this tortuous writing is constructed. To illustrate,  I’ve manufactured a set of dense sentence skeletons; that is, I’ve stripped out the content from a problematic paragraph in a draft paper that I could barely follow.

Here is the paragraph of sentence skeletons.

According to A & B (date), Professors in … at … C & D’s argument derives from E’s view that….. In a move similar to A & B, F (date) matches
C & D’s (date) concept of … with that of G’s (date) concepts of … . Writing in (title of book) G, (date) a professor in …, states: “two line quotation” (p. ). Like C and D’s …., G’s notion of …… is…. G’s concepts of … are very similar to C and D (date) concept of … and….., “three line quotation” (p.).

Below I’ve numbered the sentences and set them apart so that they now read like a list.

(1) According to A & B (date), Professors in … at … C & D’s argument derives
from E’s view that…..

(2) In a move similar to A & B, F (date) matches C & D’s (date) concept of …. with that of G’s (date) concepts of … .

(3) Like C and D’s …., G’s notion of …… is…..

(4) Writing in (title of book) G (date) states: “ two line quotation” (p.). G’s concepts of … are very similar to C and D (date) concept of … and….., ‘three line quotation” (p.).

So what’s wrong with this? Well for start, once you make the paragraph into a laundry list, you can see that that’s probably how it started. However, the list is only one part of the paragraph’s troubles. Let’s see what some of the problems are.

It’s not immediately clear what the paragraph is about. That’s because there’s no topic sentence.

The paragraph is actually about a concept that C and D use, and its origins. The paragraph claims that C and D developed their idea from E (according to A and B). However F says that this isn’t what happened at all – C and D got their idea from G. F produces a quotation from G as evidence to show the similarity with C and D’s.

It wouldn’t be too hard to start the paragraph with a topic sentence that read something like this:

The source of C and D’s concept of… is contested.

This makes it clear what the writer is going to discuss. Once the topic sentence is sorted, it could be followed by something like …

One the one hand A and B say that it is derived from E. E wrote about …. and  ….. However, an alternative view (F date)  is that it is actually a reworking of G’s work. F for instance shows the similarity between …. and …… 

Or something similar. You get the idea

We now have a clearer meaning – and in doing so we’ve got rid of every  sentence starting with an author’s name (the he said, he said list). And we’ve also eliminated the quote dumping. But doing this rewriting means that we can now see two other problems.

There is unexplained information in the original paragraph. There’s some miscellaneous information about the people concerned – Professor of – and it’s not immediately clear why that needs to be there. It may perhaps signal disciplinary differences or countries of origin or periods of time, but the writer doesn’t say why they’ve put this detail in. The reader thus has no idea why this information is important. If it’s pertinent then the writer needs to provide some commentary.

But hang on, the revised version reads like it’s only half a paragraph. That’s because we don’t know where it’s going. Why does the contestation about the idea matter at all? The point of the paragraph is unclear. Why does the reader need to know where C and D’s idea comes from; what is it about the origin? Is it really important to understand the two possible sources of C and D’s idea? Does one source offer something that the other doesn’t?

The writer probably can’t answer those questions in this one paragraph. But they can do something towards an answer, otherwise the paragraph has no purpose. Even if this paragraph isn’t going to give the reader all of the answers to the “so what who cares” questions, the reader needs to know that there is some point in the differences of opinion. The writer has provided the evidence for their opening claim about contestation – but why??? 

At the very least, I’d expect there to be a last sentence in the paragraph which summarises the evidence that has been presented and provides some clue about where the argument is going. There needs to be a concluding sentence.

So to sum up …There’s no topic sentence, and no crunch at the end. They’ve jammed a lot of information – names, dates, quotes, locations – into a very little text. It’s this combination of too much naming and not enough framing that makes this paragraph difficult to understand.

The standard paragraph structure – claim, evidence, conclusion – is missing.

But the ultimate problem with the paragraph is that the writer hasn’t constructed a thread through the text. They haven’t used a meta-narrative which explains to the reader what is going on. Writ large over several pages or an entire chapter, the problem of no framing and all naming means a discussion of literature that goes nowhere, fast. The thread of argument created by those topic and concluding sentences will be missing. The overall text won’t make any sense at all. And that why getting naming and framing in balance is crucial.

This problematic paragraph is symptomatic of a writer being submerged by their literatures. They know what they want to do, but they haven’t yet got far enough away from the material to take charge of the conversation. They’ve produced some bits of text out of which an argument might be crafted, but they haven’t yet taken the leap to sort out what they want to make of their assembled bits. The writer is not yet not evaluating, arguing, telling the reader why this matters. The writer is simply reporting some differences between texts and doing so in a way that is barely readable. 

And that means that the poor old reader is left to fight their way through the names, dates and quotes, and draw their own conclusions. 

Additional information

– Some material on paragraphs here

– More about writing with literatures in:
Graff and Birkenstein’s (2007) They say I say and Kamler and Thomson’s (2014) Helping doctoral students write.

Posted in list, literature review, literature reviews, paragraph, too much naming, topic sentence | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

PDF alibi syndrome

Not so long ago I did a bit of academic spring-cleaning and got rid of all of my photocopies. I’d been carrying them around with me since I did my PhD. Neatly organised in alphabetised files, they occupied three drawers of a filing cabinet. I didn’t feel too bad about dumping them. I reasoned that most were probably now available as PDFs should I ever want them again, and so there was nothing lost by putting them out for recycling.

Yes, I had rather a lot of photocopies. I did my PhD by distance and couldn’t physically get to the library much. At the time, journals were only available in hard copy so the university library operated a mail order system for far-away folk. You’d send off your order and eventually a large parcel of reading would arrive in the post. Getting the bundle of new articles was always a bit like Christmas, the scholarly textual equivalent of socks, schlock and welcome surprises.

I had a set routine when new photocopies arrived. I quickly entered them into Endnote – yes, that was available at the time, I was an early user and a mature age PhD. I did this before I’d actually read anything. I added in any relevant notes as I worked my way through the pile. And, as you’ve already heard, all the hard copies were filed alphabetically in folders so I could dig them out, working back from the Endnote search function, any time I needed to.

The PDF has made life so much simpler and easier. There’s no need to make physical copies. You just click and download. You don’t have to set up special files or invest in a big bulky filing cabinet. Endnote (now joined by alternative bibliographic software platforms) imports PDFs and stores them for you. And because the record and the PDF are connected in the app, there’s no getting up shuffling between the filing cabinet and the computer.

All good, right? Well, maybe… I’ve noticed that I now accumulate many more PDFs than I ever did photocopies. They don’t take up physical space, merely digital memory, and there always seems to be more of that than I can use up. And because I now use a range of portable devices, I often just grab a PDF from a link that’s been tweeted or which arrives in my email and I then store it temporarily in dropbox or ibooks or kindle or cloud. 

And when the journals offer free access to all of their archive for a month, I’m there. Heaven. That’s me searching and saving for hours at a time. Filing all these PDFs can come later. Save now while you still have the link and/or access.

The upshot of all this is pretty predictable. I now have many more PDFs than I actually have time to read. What’s more, they are on a range of topics, many of which have no apparent direct relationship to my own work, but I’ve saved them because they just looked interesting.

And I confess. I’m waaay behind on filing. I’ve lost my habit of filing the PDFs as soon as I save them. I say to myself that I will get a moment soon to transfer them to Endnote. But I don’t.

In my defence, it’s not all laziness. As I write this I’m transferring PDFs from my IPad to my computer, a process that is somewhat less seamless than I think it ought it be. But even when I do finally get around to syncing, as I am now, there are still the PDFs in Dropbox to attend to. The truth is that I hardly ever get around to importing all of these into Endnote, which is actually a pretty seamless process. I just don’t make the time for it.

I’ve wondered why.

It wasn’t until I read Umberto Eco’s recently translated book, How to write a thesis, that the penny dropped. Now, Eco was writing in 1977, at a time of library cards and photocopies. However, much of what he says is still of interest, still pertinent. And when I made it to page 125, I found the answer to my PDF stockpiling habit. Eco says

Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labour he (sic) exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neo-capitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap; as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it. (original emphases)

So there it is. I have succumbed to another form of neo-capitalist accumulation, that associated with information. I have, it seems, a kind of vertigo, a giddy glee which comes from possessing all of those papers. Merely having and storing them is enough. I own, therefore I have read.

Damn. I knew how not to do this with photocopies. I read, filed and noted, and therefore in Eco’s terms, I owned the texts. Now I simply own the idea of the reading, not the actual content.

I’m suffering from PDF alibi syndrome. The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information. Double damn.

After  reading Eco I know what my problem is. No excuses left eh? I just have to gather the strength for the cure. Now just where did I put my willpower?

Posted in alibi syndrome, pdf, photocopies, Umberto Eco | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

the ten habits of highly unsuccessful research bid writers

I’ve just reviewed a lot, and I mean a lot, of research bids. I review research bids regularly, as do a lot of senior academics. Some of them are great and some of them are decent, sensible and worth doing. But more of them could be like this. I’m always pretty shocked when I get bids where the basics haven’t been attended to. I know that there are more issues than are here on my list, but honestly, I’d be a pretty happy reviewer if all the bids I get/have to read attended to the following ten things.

1. The reader/reviewer can’t easily find out what the bid is about. The title is obscure. There is nothing on the first page which states what the researcher is going to do. The reader/reviewer has to search for the aims and objectives and/or the research questions. They have to wade through a lot of justification and background before they can begin to piece together what the proposed project is about.

2. There is no warrant for the project. The reader/reviewer does not know why this project should be funded and done. Telling the reviewer we don’t know anything about the topic is no substitute for a cogent explanation about why we should bother to understand more about the topic. The bid writer might care – but why should I?

3. The research design is cursory.
• There are either no details of the methodological tradition in which the research is based, or there is a tedious extended essay about epistemology and methodology.
• There are no details. The reader/reviewer hasn’t got a clue about what is going to happen, to whom or what, how many/how often, when and in what order. What is actually to be funded? This isn’t a trust-me-and-give-me-the-money exercise.
• There are problems with the research question. There are too many questions, and there is probably a bigger question trying to get out. There is no connection between the research questions and the data generation methods or there are several questions in several places in the text none of which are linked to the data generation methods or there are several work packages none of which apparently connect together or relate to the questions.
• There is nothing said about analysis or naming a piece of software is given as a substitute for providing any details about what the writer/researcher will actually do once they’ve generated all that data.
• There is no discussion about ethics or there’s simply a statement that the university has an ethics committee or that the project adheres to ethical standards set by a learned society. This assurance is expected to stand in for an economical discussion of any pertinent ethical concerns and it assumes that the reader/reviewer actually knows the university/learned society standards and processes.

4. The budget is unbelievable. It is either inflated or the project is under-budgeted. There is a big list of equipment that any university already has. There is a huge amount allocated for international travel and conferences which seems to suggest that the researcher is seeking to fund everything they desire in the next three years.

5. The research fellow is expected to do all the work. Readers/reviewers often take a particularly dim view of this. There is nothing said about how the PI will support the researcher, nothing about their development or issues of quality control. It looks like exploitation of the staff member, and it probably is.

6. The researcher doesn’t have the track record for the project. There’s no problem with a bit of a step-up in scale or going in a  new direction, if it’s acknowledged. The problem arises when the researcher doesn’t address any training or mentoring arrangements that will allow them to make the jump from single researcher to leading a large project team. Alternatively, the researcher doesn’t have the expertise for the project and has produced no evidence they know how to get it

7. The project doesn’t fit the call or the scheme. The researcher hasn’t done their homework and hasn’t found out what the aims of the call or scheme actually are. Lazy.

8. The literature review is inadequate. The scholarly contribution is thus unclear. This is because:
• the researcher has only cited their own work. Presumably they work in a vacuum or nobody else’s work is worth a damn.
• the researcher has written an essay on every available bit of literature they’ve found. The reader/reviewer hasn’t got a clue which of the literatures are more significant and which are going to be used and/or challenged.
• the researcher has left out some of the key texts in the field. This is either because they don’t know them or they don’t want to acknowledge this body of work. Either way the reader/reviewer is left wondering about the scholarship of the researcher/bidder.

The following two aren’t as critical, but they can make the difference between being funded or not.

9. The bid is as dull as ditch water. There is no indication that the researcher is enthusiastic about the project. No, it’s more than dull. It’s badly written and tedious. The reader/reviewer isn’t convinced that the researcher will be able to communicate anything to anybody.

10. There is an inadequate communications plan. The researcher seems set on only presenting their results to a few mates, a peer reviewed journal and a select academic conference. They haven’t grasped that if scarce public money is to be spent on their project then they do need to make some effort to tell said public what they’ve done, and what happened as a result.

There, I’ve got that off my chest. Now I’ve got some more bids to review…  fingers crossed.

Posted in research bid writing, research design, research funding, research methods, research plan, research proposal | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

collective free writing – inkshedding

In this post I’ve taken, what is for me, an unusual option. This post is largely an extended quotation which explains a practice of collective free writing known as Inkshedding. Inkshedding is a Canadian invention, a pedagogy developed by Russ Hunt and Jim Reither from St. Thomas University to make classroom writing assignments more interesting, conversational and meaningful ( see Russ Hunt’s description of Inkshedding as pedagogy, and Elizabeth Sargent’s version). Reither and Hunt took Inkshedding to the newly founded Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning where it has now become a key process through  which annual conferences, online discussions and publications are developed.

I’m very interested in the potential of Inkshedding as a method to be used in participatory research, and I have played with it in projects as a means of sharing experiences and developing collaborative analysis. However, when I use the term Inkshedding in public I generally find that people aren’t familiar with it, hence this post. I hope that this information stimulates some wider interest in the process and further experimentation with it.

I’ve chosen to quote an explanation of the Inkshedding practice written by a member of the CASLL community, rather than offer my own version of it –I’ve learnt about it second-hand. This explication is by Miriam Horne who has been researching Inkshedding.

Briefly, at the conference, the inkshedding writing process follows four basic steps. First, participants respond in writing to a common prompt—for example, a conference presentation such as, “What is literacy in the information age,” or “Resisting the teaching subtext in composition books” (presentation titles from the 2005 conference) to name two. The writing activity follows one or several presentations on a theme and is similar to a freewriting experience. (Freewriting is a term coined by Elbow, 1973, who describes a writing process, often used for generating ideas, in which participants write for around ten minutes without stopping. There is no concern for grammar, or punctuation, or format, but in¬stead, for getting ideas out of the head and onto paper.) The writing produced is often messy and unorganized, but many Inkshedders (a title taken on by people who attend Inkshed conferences, participate on the listserv, inkshed, and other-wise mutually engage in socially situated and dialogic written interactions) argue that it affords everyone—not just the highly articulate and verbal or the most ag¬gressive community members—equal opportunity to express whatever thoughts the presentations may have inspired.

Second, after writing for a few moments, participants pool their writing in the center of the table (there are usually about eight people per table and about eight tables in the conference room). Everyone then takes a text other than her/his own and begins to read. As participants read, if anything stands out to them as significant or meaningful in any way, they draw a line beside it in the margin, underline it, or otherwise highlight it to show other readers that they found the particular section meaningful. Some people will even add a few words reflecting their response. Participants are encouraged to read and respond to as many texts as they can during the allotted time period.

Third, the marked up texts are taken to an editorial committee (usually made up of volunteer conference participants) who look at the sections that have been most marked up. These sections are excerpted and typed up.

Finally, the typed-up sections are copied and circulated to all participants in order to facilitate and encourage further discussion.

Since the introduction of inkshedding at the first conference in 1984, the annual conference has continued to grow around the philosophy of dialogism that inspired inkshedding. To this end, there are no concurrent conference ses¬sions. Everyone attends the same sessions so that everyone is able to respond to the same prompt. In addition to this, however, the conferences are often held in remote locations where there are few distractions to draw participants away from conference sessions. Participants are lodged under the same roof and share meals and evening entertainment together. In fact, one of the highlights of the conference is a talent night held on the last evening of the conference in which everyone is given the opportunity to participate (the term “talent” is very loosely interpreted). In these ways, people get to know each other and interact more than they might at a larger more traditional kind of conference. As much as possible, conference organizers facilitate social interaction and dialogue in order to generate knowledge.

The conference center becomes a Burkean parlour where all who enter, newcomer and old-timer alike, are invited to participate in an on-going conversation. While this invitation to participate comes in the op¬portunity to present research, participate in talent night, and otherwise engage in socializing, the primary and central means for participation in the Inkshed conversation at conferences is through inkshedding. Thus, those who success¬fully learn how to join in inkshedding join in the practice of knowledge making in an academic society. Those who do not learn to participate effectively remain peripheral to knowledge creation. (pp. 239-240)


There are some issues around people’s willingness to write in public in Inkshedding, and you can read more about this as well in:

Miriam Horne (2011) Writing in to the knowledge society: a case study of vulnerability in Inkshedding, in Starke-Meyerring, Doreen; Pare, Anthony; Artemova, Natasha; Horne, Miriam and Yousoubova, Larissa (Eds) Writing in knowledge societies. pp 237-256 The WAC Clearinghouse. Wac.colostate.edu. (Both this chapter and the book are Open Access.)

Further information about Inkshedding from Russ Hunt

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