making the most of research leftovers

You all know about leftovers. The bits of a meal that you couldn’t quite finish. The remnants that end up in a plastic box or a covered bowl in the fridge. Mostly you get round to eating them for lunch afterwards, yum. But occasionally you find a long forgotten leftover lurking behind jars – it’s no longer so appetising. Perhaps it’s become an inedible science experiment. Still, it’s great for the compost.

Researchers also often have leftovers. Yes, research leftovers. Research leftovers can be little scraps of stuff. The odd bit and piece that just didn’t make it into the final argument. But sometimes the leftovers are rather more substantial. Data we’ve not used because we just had too much. Extra data generated just in case, but only needed as general gist. A test analysis rejected in favour of something more persuasive. A theorisation abandoned as a more plausible approach muscled in. A vignette excised because it didn’t fit within the word limit. A set of interesting categories that weren’t robust enough to support the current argument. A side story we had no time to tell.

A lot of us end up with research project leftovers. Once upon a time I interviewed a group of people who I thought were going to be important to my study. The interviews ended up being quite peripheral to the issue I was focusing on. I didn’t need to say much more in the final text than they weren’t much involved, and then wonder why. But I did then have interviews surplus to requirements. Leftovers. I never used them I’m afraid and I still have vaguely guilty feelings about people’s gift of time and words even though they did help me understand the situation I was researching. But I can still muster up echoes of frustration about ‘wasting’ data. I had stuff there that I might have been able to do something with. But I didn’t.

You’d think I’d have learnt from that experience but alas. My colleague Chris and I always generate a lot of material in our funded projects. But the pressure to publish and get more funding in limited time frames means we never quite get around to using it all. We have leftovers. But we are getting better at going back to this data and thinking about what it might have to offer.

I hope those of you doing PhDs take some comfort from the fact that it’s pretty common to have research leftovers. We just don’t talk about them that much. But if you ask, you will find that it’s not entirely unusual to generate stuff that you don’t get around to working with. Mostly this is not about a lack of will, and more often the practicalities of contemporary scholarship. I’m also betting there’s many a PhDer who has had to unwillingly part with painstakingly generated ‘stuff’ in order to craft the thesis text to a word limit and get it submitted on time.

But here’s the thing. Letfovers can be re-used. All those little scraps, jottings, worked samples, playful experiments, reluctantly abandoned theories, unloved interview transcripts and apparently irrelevant cross tabulations might just be the basis for a something new. Rather like turning the leftover vege stew into a pasta sauce, it is often the case that apparently stand-alone research bits and bobs can have a life of their own.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the research leftovers. Keep them somewhere handy. Make sure you know where you’ve put them in case you work out how to re-engage. Keep an ear out for any insistent whispers that there is still have some life left in the material. That these fragments were not spent effort, they can still be interesting and useful. They can be re-approached and re-worked and re-imagined.

Leftovers often come into their own after you’ve been awarded the Doctor title. At the time when you want a rest from the thesis. When you just can’t face the text or the data again. It’s too soon. You’re over it. But well-meaning others are telling you to get going. And you do want to get cracking and write and publish. Put yourself out there as the newly Doctored scholar. But you feel the energy draining away every time you sit down at the computer.

Or perhaps you are the more experienced researcher who is just feeling stale. Perhaps you too just can’t face going back – to a research report that ought to become something else, to the stuff that ought to become a book or the killer article. Or it may feel that you’ve got nothing much to say. That you’re worn out, drained, done. You can’t line up for more peer reviews. You’ve had enough of publication churn – but you know you must.

This is a pretty good time to check out the leftovers. There may well be something that you put aside that is now suddenly tempting. Maybe there’s an idea worth pursuing. There’s material here that might just say something new. The stuff seemed a bit off-piste at the time, but now you look at it, there might be something there. Or there’s an entirely new project just waiting to be developed.

Don’t give up on the research leftovers. They benefit from being warmed up again – lo and behold, they’ve matured and got more tasty. And once you’ve found the reusable stuff, how about a bit of a brainstorm, a bit of a free-write to see what you might be able to do. Generate a few possibilities. Get creative. Playful. Think laterally.

Perhaps those leftovers are different enough from the PhD, or the funded project, to get you going again. (And if they don’t, that’s OK too.)

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, leftover, Pat Thomson, research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

revision – the “make it better” exercise

Occasionally I offer strategies that you can try to see if they work for you. If they do, and not everything works for everybody, then you can add them to your academic writing repertoire. Today I’ve got an exercise designed to support diagnosis of your own writing weaknesses.

In the quiet of your own work space, find a passage of text written by someone other than you. A text which seems to you to be not as well written as it might be. Read the text. Take note of where you think there might be some clunky writing.

Now read it again. Identify the problems.
Here’s a starter list of some things to look for.
Headings – too many? Not enough? Too vague? Don’t seem to be what the text is about? Too clever by half?
Meta-commentary – you can’t work out the point of reading this? Where does the writer tell you what they are doing? What do they say? Alternatively, too much meta commentary? (I get it, stop now please.)
Paragraphs – not clear what the paragraph is about? Sentences seem in the wrong order? Doesn’t connect to the paragraph before or after (there is a big leap in topic and sentence subject between paragraphs)? Too long, goes on for ever through multiple ideas and points? Argument doesn’t seem to have all of the steps – the paragraph doesn’t seem to be in the right order? Seems like there is a missing step?
Other people’s work – Too many quotations? Too many authors as subjects of sentences? So many citations you can’t keep track of what’s being said? Too many assertions – where is the support for key statements?
Sentences – too long? Too short? All the same length? Do they all start the same way? Too many phrases and clauses and you can’t keep track? Everything is written in the passive voice?
Words – loads of abstract multi-syllabled words (nominalisations)? Word repetition? Specialist terms not defined? Too many obscure words ( you have to go to the dictionary too often)?
Dull – Needs livening up, could use a few more engaging words? Could do with an interesting and memorable category, a metaphor, an anecdote?

Now, you get to play with the text. Your goal is to try to make the passage ‘better’. Remove what you can of any unnecessary text. Change things, move them about, add and rewrite.

Read again. Does the text now seem better? Why? Were some of the improvements you made more important than others? What is ‘better’? What might this exercise help you understand about the writing you aspire to do?

Reflect. Think about what this exercise might tell you about your own writing.

Now go to a first draft or a text that you suspect needs a lot more work. Use the same process. Ask the same questions. Remove. Change. Add and rewrite. Read again and reflect on how this might influence what and how you write next. Use the understandings you gain to help you work on subsequent messy first drafts.

This exercise is named after and inspired by a creative writing strategy developed by Beth Kephart in We are the words (p. 119)

Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash

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recycling your thesis text – is it self plagiarism?

The term self-plagiarism is usually associated with re-using your own work, recycling slabs of material already published, cutting and pasting from one text to another, producing something which duplicates something that has already appeared elsewhere.

Self-plagiarism is not the same as stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, that’s plagiarism. Nor is it the same as violating copyright – using other people’s text without permission, or even re-using your own work when the copyright has been signed over to someone else. We all know these practices are wrong, so if self plagiarism is like these, it must be too.

The idea of self-plagiarism is scary. We all know that plagiarists get punished if they are found out. They can be sacked, their work pulped or retracted. And universities and publishers are increasingly on the lookout for plagiarism, using automatic software to detect it. So the notion of plagiarising your own work carries with it the spectre of the surveillance and punishment.

But recycling your own work is more often discussed as an ethical question not a legal one. A question of deliberate deceit perhaps. Reuse of your own writing can be regarded as a form of ‘cheating’ – you’ve written something which is published and then you don’t do the hard work of writing something new, you take the easy way out by dragging and dropping the text you made earlier. You aren’t producing something new or original, this version of recycling goes, and to make things worse, you’re tricking the reader into thinking that the work is new. You’re double-dipping – writing without integrity. Some people even see such recycling of text as a form of academic fraud.

But the reuse situation isn’t that straightforward. There may well be circumstances where recycling doesn’t seem unethical, but sensible. Where it’s not simply a question of saving the effort of producing a new version of material.

Think of descriptions of research projects which appear in methods sections of journal articles and in books. It’s not just that there are only so many ways that you can present the same information about the one research project – it’s more that you actually want the way in which you report your project, and its design and processes, to be consistent across publications. Similarly, if you have developed a novel interpretation or heuristic or model which you then use as the basis of future work, you also want there to be a through line from the initial work to the latter. While some of this origin tracing can and should be done via citation, there may also be some common wording that you want to use, something longer than a quotation, perhaps something more like a big chunk of a chapter. Re-use is often key to iterative knowledge-building.

Duplicating thesis text, repurposing it for publication often bothers PhDers. Sometimes a lot. That’s understandable. The PhD is most often now a digital text and is a publication in its own right, but the PhD is also the basis for papers and perhaps a book. Let me explain the most common examples of re-use.

Publishing before the thesis and then reusing it in the thesis text. Publishing prior to the PhD being finalised is quite common and is often done as disciplinary convention, as reputational move and/or as a means of developing a line of argument for the thesis itself. This isn’t a huge issue.

In the PhD by publication, the papers are by definition part of the thesis text. They often appear in their final published form, which may be copyrighted to a journal, not the final author version. I am not aware than any publisher has taken issue with the practice of using the final copyrighted version. But they could I guess. In which case you’d use the final author version as is often now done in university repositories.

By contrast, in the monograph PhD, the text of a previously published paper is usually incorporated into the text and an acknowledgement made, either at the beginning of the text or when the text appears, that some of the material has been published elsewhere. There are however some disciplinary differences here about how acceptable this practice is, and it is always worth checking out rules and conventions with your supervisor and/or your university librarian.

Publishing after the thesis is completed and publicly available. The situation is a little different when the thesis becomes the basis for post-graduation publications. Here the question is how much you can cut and paste from the digital thesis into another, usually shorter, form. There is an a priori question of course about how much you should recycle given that the thesis is written for a different audience and a particular purpose. Most books of the PhD are actually very substantially rewritten. Put that issue aside for a moment. The question is how much should, and can you, re-use of the thesis? What are the risks and wrongs?

Theres a lot of rumour about cutting and pasting from your big book. Everyone seems to have heard of the publisher who refuses a book proposal on the grounds that it will be substantially the same as an e-thesis. However, there seems little actual evidence of this happening. A study by UCL librarians Brown and Sadler found no cases of this happening in the UK, although fears and worries about the possibility were rife particularly among PhDers and their supervisors. But…

Because no one is quite sure about recycling from the thesis you may get various forms of advice. If you want to re-use substantial thesis extracts for a book you may be advised to restrict access to your thesis for a period of time so that the new publication become the major source. Embargo to avoid problems. Or you may be advised to discuss the re-use of thesis material with the publisher if you are writing the-book-of-the-thesis. Or you may be encouraged to learn about open access so that you can have a conversation with an editor about the benefits of having both the thesis and a new book version of the work available at the same time.

Maybe you’re not writing a book but journal articles and book chapters. Reuse here is different. You aren’t very likely to be carrying over thesis literature work – too long. Your methods chapter will be too big. So we are probably talking about bits of what appears in your thesis as results and discussion. For example, there may be tables, graphs or diagrammes. There may be descriptions of participants or places. Most likely there are chunks of worked analyses that you want to cut and paste. Usually it seems to be enough to say in the text of the paper or chapter that the material is based on doctoral work, providing a citation to the thesis online. But there’s always the possibility of something more sinister happening. Again loads of urban myths here.

So is recycling a real problem? Are we just getting worked up over not very much? The first problem seems to be that we don’t even agree on what self plagiarism is, let alone whether it’s a serious issue or not.

My own view, which won’t be everyone’s, is that provided you recycle thesis material in ways that are acknowledged, then some re-use in journal papers and book chapters is not only acceptable but also sensible. After all, you slogged over these chunks for quite some time and worked hard on making them as good as you could. You may find of course when you revisit them that you do still want to tinker with the wording, or add a bit more/cut some things out. For me, the key thing is to own up to this re-use and not to try to hide it. As long as you make sure to check with the relevant editors and journal rules then transposing some text from a thesis or research report to book or journal seems to me to be quite in keeping with the spirit of scholarly publication ethics.

But, as always, do check this out. If in doubt who to ask, start with your university library.

And help may be at hand. Do look at this research project on text recycling which offers some very helpful guidelines for how to steer through murky re-use territory. One of the things the project suggests is doing away with the ambiguous term self plagiarism – Yes!!!- and adopting a more specific set of terms – see the note at the end of this post.

Recognising the reality of text re-use, the project’s guidelines for researchers say:

  1. Authors should recycle text where consistency of language is needed for accurate communication. This consistency can be especially important when describing methods and instrumentation that are common across studies. If the amount of recycled material is substantial, authors should determine whether permissions are needed (see Recycling Text Legally) and whether it is acceptable for the outlet (see Recycling Text Transparently).
  2. Authors may recycle text so long as the recycled material is accurate and appropriate for the new work and does not infringe copyright or violate publisher policies.
  3. Authors should be careful not to recycle text in ways that might mislead readers or editors about the novelty of the new work.

Sounds good to me. Can we all decide this is the way to go?

Note:

The Text Recycling Project is based at Duke University and is directed by Cary Moskowitz. It is primarily concerned with practices in STEM but is of much wider interest and application. The project has produced a number of scholarly papers on reuse.

A recent and open access paper written by Moskowitz proposes a new taxonomy for re-use – developmental recycling, generative recycling, adaptive publication and duplicate publication. The paper is open access and well worth reading. I for one will be adopting his terms.

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Posted in academic writing, plagiarism, re-use, self-plagiarism, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

missing working at work?

Eighteen months of working from home. Or WFH, WTF!! as you will now hear me say. Often.

I want to WAW (work at work). I’m not desperate about it yet, but I really do miss WAW.

Pre pandemic, a whole lifetime ago it seems but really only eighteen months, it was different. Working at work was ho-hum. Same old same old. WAW was always about the meetings, teaching, and sundry administration and some professional-social time with colleagues.

To be fair, responding to emails happened both at work and at home, as did some administrative work. But the work I did at home was mainly reading and writing, and quite often messing about with the stuff of research.

Now I have to own up here. I have the privilege of a separate office at work and at home. Two offices that are all mine! I know many other people would happily sell the naming rights to their most recent publication for such luxury. I am acutely that many of the PhDers I work with have no such space and have been trying to keep up with their research in their bedrooms, on their kitchen tables, in shared spaces. And of course I no longer have onerous caring responsibilities. Only Ruby (she hates to be called “the dog”) demands occasional attention and is allowed to interrupt office-working-time. I’m not tutoring children at home, nor worrying about older family members. So this is indeed a story of an academic’s advantage.

Bear with me however as there may still be something in this narrative. My point really is about separations. Borders. Corralling. Sequestering. Severing. And it’s about the consequences of prolonged blurring.

My home office is in the loft, so I leave the rest of the house behind me as I climb the stairs. The stairs are a tangible demarcation separating the work I do at home from other home-based activities. Just as the drive to work separates the WFH from the work at the office, the WAW. Two border to cross each day.

My pre-pandemic life was a taken-for-granted set of working arrangements that I really didn’t appreciate. I used to really enjoy being able to work at home. It always felt vaguely naughty to go up to the office when I could be at work, even though I was actually working from home. And WFH was very much part of my writing routine. When I was writing I was in the loft. When I wasn’t writing, I was mostly elsewhere. The WAW was my carefully carved out writing-reading-thinking-just-messing-about-with-ideas-and-stuff place.

Why am I blathering on about this you might wonder? Aren’t we all in the same boat? Well yes. We are. And that’s really the point. I think I may not be the only one feeling a little less enthusiastic about some of the things I used to do at home and finding it more difficult to get the energy to do them.

In my case, this means I have noticed that I am just not writing as much as I used to. And when I write, it takes quite a bit of will to get going. And quite a bit to keep on going. Writing is just less enjoyable. It’s more like work!! It’s no longer a vaguely guilty pleasure to skive off upstairs first thing in the morning and write. I can no longer look at my morning’s words and then leave the house to go do something else. Everything happens in the same space, the same chair, the same screen, the same, the same.

Working from home and working from work together are completely blurred together, morphed into one.

I don’t like it. I think I need both a special time and space to write. I need to be able to mark off more “contemplative” and creative” academic work from other activities. Many of the PhDers stuck in the bedroom, kitchen, and shared spaces need their offices even more.

So it was an absolute treat to go into work last week. A real pleasure to have a face-to-face meeting. Admittedly, the meeting was about research so it was already off to a good start. But nobody apologised for a flaky connection. Nobody’s mike was on mute. Nobody got interrupted by the postal service. And – joy – we could work as a team in a room with huge whiteboards. And use markers. And project our docs in the Teams folder onto the whiteboard and not all end up peering at our own separate screens. And use chart paper spread out on tables if we wanted to. Rush off to the copier. Grab a book from our shelves.

Of course we had windows open and the building was deserted. But still, we had an actual team meeting. And then – we got to go off to have a coffee and sit outside – and the autumnal wind didn’t matter a bit.

I’m now all in for some real old fashioned WAW. I want it to be safe of course. And I’m prepared to keep doing WFH if it’s necessary. But I do think that my writing won’t really recover until I’m doing less in my home office, and more at work.

Having more geographical balance in my life now seems important.

Did I ever think I’d say I really wanted go into work? Hear me now. Work office, I miss you, as do my ever receding deadlines. Anyone else feel the same?

Image: Atrium, School of Education, University of Nottingham.

Posted in office, pandemic, place, time | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“showing” and “telling” in the thesis

The thesis must show and tell your examiner that its writer is ready to be called Dr. Yep. Dr (insert your surname here.)

What do I mean by show and tell? Well, even if these are not the usual definitions, in the context of the thesis I mean:

  • showing is when the writer provides carefully selected information for the reader, some might call this “evidencing”. That is, there is some important stuff that you need to make sure your examiner can see.
  • telling is when the writer is explicit about what the reader is to think, interpret, conclude. That is, there are some things that you need to make clear to your examiner in the text, and not leave it up to them to guess at.

Now, you don’t necessarily do show and tell together. You might do the two things at once, but very often you need to do one or the other, or make one or the other your main focus. Let me explain.

The thesis must show that its writer has done their research well. Put another way, it’s not good enough to simply tell the examiner “I did my research thoroughly and rigorously” and expect them to take your word for it. You need to show them. You have to provide enough information for them to have no doubt that you did your research well. That it meets doctoral standards. That the examiner can let you loose on the world complete with the testamur and floppy hat which attests that you have real research expertise.

The usual caveats apply here – showing you know how to do good research varies from discipline to discipline, and method to method, and text type to text type. The audit trail you provide is bespoke to your project. In some contexts, you’ll need to provide extensive data sets which can be checked, or detailed descriptions of procedures, or analytic workings of data. In other contexts, examples of data and your analytic approach will be sufficient.

You’ll also need to show the examiner that you can justify your design and your choices and the decisions you made along the way. You usually do this through a combination of description and reasoning, but you may also need to refer to research traditions and precedents (found in the research methods literatures) You’ll have to show the examiner that you understand any ethical issues, again through a combination of description and discussion of how you applied general ethical principles. And of course, you’ll need to show that you understand what your research does and doesn’t do, not only through description but also in the way in which you make claims on the basis of your results.

Similarly, you don’t just say that you have read a lot of literature and you know your field and you can pinpoint where your research sits. Yes, yes. Of course you’d never dream of doing this. You show your examiner that you know your field through the literatures that you use and cite – and many examiners do look at your reference list very carefully, and often first of all, to check what you’ve read and how much. And of course, as you use literatures to situate and support your research – constructing an argument for and about your study, grouping and categorising texts, naming pertinent debates and key figures – you demonstrate your command of the scholarship in the field. Your examiner has the evidence they need to tick off this aspect of doctorateness.

However, when it comes to the contribution that your research makes, you need to switch your attention to telling. Yes, your writing about the research must demonstrate that your contribution to knowledge is sound and defensible, but you can’t leave it to the examiner to work out what it actually is. It’s not enough to simply report what you have done. The thesis is not a set of clues from which an examiner can detect the significance of your project and work out the implications for themselves. You have to tell the examiner, in no uncertain terms, what your research achieves.

It is important that you spell out to the examiner the novelty and innovation in your work, both at the start of the thesis and at its end. What have you added that wasn’t known before? What does the examiner know at the end of the thesis that they didn’t know before? You have to be open and explicit about the importance of your work, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. You need to tell the examiner why it was worth you spending years of your life on this research. What about the question or hypothesis was most interesting or compelling for you? You need to firmly connect your results with your overall contribution – What is different about your research from other research that has already been done? You need to say what about your research is most valuable and why. Why do we need to know this about your topic? Why now? What will happen or could/might happen as a result of your research? Where does the field go next?

You may well get questions about contribution and significance in a viva. But you may also get asked to put more in the thesis if you haven’t done enough telling – in the introduction, where you set up the warrant for the research, and the conclusion, where you are expected to provide much more than a succinct summary of your “answer” to the question you posed at the start.

Yes, you’re right, this is not all that there is to showing and telling in the thesis. You may for instance in some research fields be expected to tell the examiner more about your personal professional relationship with the research, or to tell the examiner what you learnt from the process. You can work out with your supervisor what in particular you need to show and what you need to tell.

They key thing is to keep asking yourself if you have adequately addressed what matters most in doctoral examinations. Have you shown the examiner that you know how to research? Have you told the examiner why your research makes a noteworthy and new contribution?

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Posted in academic writing, audit trail, conclusion, introduction, literature reviews, methods, show and tell, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

should you publish during your PhD?

So you are not doing PhD by publication. You’re not in a country and/or discipline which expects you to publish during your PhD – yes really, some do. And you hear conflicting advice about whether publishing during your PhD is a good idea or not. Some people say that writing a paper for publication (or a book chapter), while you are doing your PhD, means you won’t complete your PhD on time. Or that you don’t yet have anything worth saying. They hold one or both of these reasons for not publishing during the doctorate as a blanket rule which covers all situations, and all people, and all kinds of research.

So why even think about during-doctorate publication? I have a different view. I think that there are reasons why it can be a good idea to write during the PhD – yes, even at the same time as you are writing the thesis.

Before I start, it is important to say that not all PhD research projects lend themselves to pre-thesis and pre-examination paper writing. Sometimes you just can’t pull a paper out prior to completing your entire analysis and subsequent results chapters. And for some people, saving the material for the book of the PhD may be more important than writing a paper or two midway.

That said, here are six possible reasons for writing a paper during the PhD. The first five focus on what writing a paper can do for you, and your PhD.

  1. Writing a paper can help you to test out a theoretical or analytical approach. It can be very instructive to take a piece of “stuff” and see how it plays out when you take a particular approach to it. It can even accelerate your meaning making process. Once you’ve test driven an approach you can decide whether it is a good line to pursue or not. If it is, then you take on the rest of the analysis and/or writing with a greater sense of security about what you are doing. You’ve tried out a strategy and you know how it goes.
  2. Writing a paper can help consolidate your sense of your “self” as a scholar. Putting something out into the world means you not only see yourself, but also are seen as someone who has something of importance to contribute. You are knowledgeable. You have expertise. So writing a paper can do important identity work. Seeing your work and your scholarly self in print can be a pretty helpful confidence boost. I’m real. I’ve done it. I can do it. This in turn can help you write the thesis text with a greater sense of authority.
  3. Writing a paper helps you to sort out your scholarly “persona”, the way you present yourself in textual form. As you make authorial choices about composition – your choice of words, syntax, sentence length, use of metaphors, narratives, examples, figures, who you do and don’t build on, challenge and/or cite, and so on – you make yourself into a particular kind of writer/scholar. Beginning to create the scholarly you in writing, prior to completing the thesis, focuses you on the decisions you need to make about your thesis text. (This is also text work/identity work, like number 2 above.)
  4. Writing a paper means that you start to get your stuff out into the world. Scholarly work is about communication, about linking into scholarly conversations and connecting with various professional/policy communities. Taking on the activities associated with writing a paper – using print, audio and social media to let people know it has been published for example – is integral to locating other people who are interested in your work. Going public adds to the sense that you have of yourself as a scholar, not just as a “student”.
  5. Writing a paper means that you open yourself up to peer review and to scholarly exchange. This is the most risky aspect of writing during the PhD and, let’s be honest, it can be a bruising experience. Thoughtless or cruel feedback can put you off for a long time – and in these situations writing a paper can turn out to be a bad idea. So you need to take steps to minimise the risks. Maybe you want to co-write the paper, or enlist the support of a mentor during the writing. You may also want more experienced help to decode the feedback you receive. You’ll want to choose the journal carefully too, going for one which is “good enough” and therefore “quick enough” – finding out the results of submission can drag on. Some journals are better at being constructively critical than others – ask around so you lessen the chance of encountering mean-hearted Reviewer 2s. The up side of being reviewed, yes there is an up side, is that when your paper is accepted you’ll not only feel great. You’ll also have some experience of critique outside supervision. Getting a taste of what it means to have your writing subject to critical examination – and considering how to revise in light of comments, where to defend and where to do more work – is useful for you in writing the thesis as well as dealing with the viva.

There is of course a much more instrumental reason for publishing during the PhD. It is a reason that I have left to last as I have less positive feelings about it.

6. If you are looking for a postdoctoral position then, in some locations and in some disciplines, the more you have already published the more likely you are to be in the race. You may well be competing with people who have done PhDs by publication and who already have three or four papers published. So getting a start while you are doing the big book PhD can be a help. Publishing signals to funders/employers that you know you have to get your stuff into print. But this cutthroat postdoc and job situation is pretty grim and inequitable. I don’t condone it, there’s no “level playing field”, people are variously able to publish. However, it would be remiss of me to omit reason 6, as it is something that you need to make a decision about.

My six reasons don’t add up to saying you must publish during your PhD. Not at all. It is something to discuss with your supervisor. The six reasons are however worth considering when you are making your decision whether to do this additional writing, or not.

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Posted in academic writing, publishing, text work/identity work, thesis, writing for publication | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

does a thesis conclusion have “recommendations”?

I’ve seen many a thesis which concludes with a set of recommendations that arise from the research. This practice troubles me. I’ve got two basic concerns about putting recommendations in a thesis conclusion. My position may be a bit contentious – I don’t know whether or how much, as I can’t recollect reading much discussion about conclusions and recommendations per se in the doctoral writing literatures.

So here goes. My first concern is about whether the claims on which any recommendations are based actually fit with the research that’s been done.

Some doctoral research is, either by virtue of its method, theory or size, able to make far-reaching claims. But much of the doctoral research that I see doesn’t have the kind of scale, duration, or comprehensiveness that would be the basis for recommendations.

OK – I need to provide an example. Pardon my disciplinary context – but you’ll get the drift. Interviews with sixteen school leaders aren’t a great footing for developing a sweeping set of recommendations about education policy or professional development programmes. That’s like building your house on shifting sands. However, sixteen interviews with school leaders may very well enhance and deepen existing understandings of identities, events, meaning-making, processes and/or practices. And sixteen interviews may well be the basis for theory-building, depending on the approach used.

Now let me just say the obvious. It’s not that small and detailed research is not worth doing, it is. I’m an ethnographer by heart and the last thing I would do is slag off the small and intense inquiry. But its being real about what this kind of research can do, and what it can’t. Small scale studies with depth or even of moderate scope are not for recommendations per se, but they are often the basis for developing a set of possibilities, or raising questions, or even developing a new research agenda.

So it is always important when writing the doctoral thesis to ask yourself whether your conclusions sit comfortably with the purposes of your research – was your research initially designed to influence policy or to build theory or enhance understandings? Has it fulfilled this goal? Or has the connection to change emerged – and if so what can your claims “say” in relation to the research actually undertaken and your results?

There’s a parallel here with the old Gilbert and Sullivan song about the punishment fitting the crime. The claims made in the conclusion of the thesis have to fit with its results. 

My second concern is about the audience for the thesis and the need to write in the appropriate genre. 

The thesis is written for an academic audience. In the first instance, the readers are the examiners, and then whoever happens across the text in digital thesis collections. So let’s think about what an examiner and a wider academic readership expects and can actually do. And can’t.

I’ll first of all talk from my experience. Mostly, the theses I see which have recommendations assume a different, non-academic audience from me. One that is able to take up and implement their recommended agenda. In this situation, as an examiner, I am left asking myself how am I to do anything with these recommendations? Change education policy? If only! I wish! Who does this person think is going to read their thesis and be able to act on it?

Of course sometimes a doctoral thesis recommends something that readers can do something about – perhaps it is the doctoral candidate themselves, they’ve written a thesis that is relevant to their professional practice and they can therefore recommend something that they might do, or take up within their institution, union or network. Of perhaps its to do with university teaching or supervision or academic cultures. There are exceptions where academic readers might be recommended to because they can take the recommendations up. But mostly academic readers aren’t the target of thesis recommendations.

Now, an important clarification. I am absolutely not suggesting that doctoral theses can’t develop an agenda for action and change from results. Of course, they can and they often do. But I am suggesting that thinking about your research and change isn’t the same as making recommendations.

In the thesis conclusion, proposals for change most often come in the form of implications for policy and practice and/or thinking about what a change agenda might be. The results of the research are x which suggests strongly that any future policy agenda which is going to address y needs to include/do the following z things.

But don’t despair if you want to do more than spell out some implications. It is important for those doctoral researchers who really want their research to influence or produce change, and have an urge to make recommendations, to act. Here’s two suggestions to avoid the ‘Who me?” examiner response.

1. You might find an imaginative way to formulate recommendations – introduce a section by saying that if you were making key recommendations to someone, then these are what they’d be. Or include a letter or pamphlet you might write to show how your results would ideally be taken up. A creative approach to the relationship between research results and their application will show the examiner that you understand that a specific audience needs to be informed about your research, listen and act. This connects to the next suggestion.

2. You can write something specifically for the audience who needs to hear about your work or who would be interested in it. You may well need to write this kind of text in a different or shorter form, using different language perhaps, and/or using different media. It’s good news that other audiences for research also often prefer other text types, maybe a short leaflet which references a longer document. Perhaps it’s material which appears on a website or a short punchy paper in a professional publication or a film…

In the UK the practice of research “translation”, or follow-on activity, is often referred to as public engagement. In fact, all publicly funded researchers are expected to develop public engagement plans to take their research results to relevant audiences. And the resulting public texts may well have action points or develop an agenda for change. You won’t be the only one working on further texts from your research. More good news, there are models to look at.

My view is that putting recommendations in the thesis is a kind of genre confusion. It’s not theses but research reports which usually have executive summary and recommendations. Commissioned research uses a report genre, as does research that is directed to particular policy or professional readers. These are texts written for the readers who can act on the recommendations.

But a thesis is not a research report per se, even if there is reporting within it. In the first instance and in its the first iteration, the thesis is an argument for your particular and distinctive contribution. Like other texts in its academic family (monographs, peer reviewed papers etc), the thesis is designed for scholarly action – enjoyment, use, assessment and peer review.

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can you say something about the “theory chapter”?

I’ve been asked about writing a theory chapter. But should I say anything? I feel a bit iffy about the very idea.

What to do? Take your own advice here. Write for ten minutes about a theory chapter. Write about why you find this topic difficult. Write about anything to do with theory and chapters so you get into the right head space. At the end of writing for ten you’ll know whether you have anything to say, or not.

OK, here goes. 

Well, this is not the only time I’ve been asked about theory chapters. The topic comes up pretty regularly in workshops and courses. So there is a theory chapter issue, at least for some people. And it’d be rude not to at least have a go, wouldn’t it?

Reasons to write anything about a theory chapter. Or not to, and be cheerful about it.

A lot of people won’t understand the” theory chapter” as A Thing at all, let alone a problem. That’s because a lot of disciplines don’t use “theory” in the way that this question does. I imagine someone in Philosophy, or someone doing a theoretical inquiry in Politics, looking at this question and being mystified. Not to mention someone in some of the Sciences. For different reasons, the “theory chapter” is a non-issue for many people.

When a discipline does talk about theory as A Thing to write a chapter about, theory is often conflated with “conceptual”. So people talk about having a theoretical or conceptual framework. I’d have to write a lot about theory and concept first before getting to the chapter question. Then I’d have no room in a blog post to say anything else. Maybe it ‘d be enough to just refer people back to these old posts?

Must do better. Here goes. Some people don’t have A Theory, but Theories – multiples. And perhaps these are theories from different disciplines. Constructing a new or underused multi/trans theoretical approach, and showing what it can/can’t do, is a significant contribution. If innovative use of theory is one of your anticipated contributions, then you’d have to set that up early. You’d need to say at the very start that your thesis will use a novel combination of theories, and you’d have to justify this. Create the warrant for your novel theoretical approach by saying what is going to be helpful, insightful, productive, generative about the theory/ies.

But hang on – maybe I need to start off differently. Maybe I need to say that you do heaps of reading during a doctorate, and some of it is obviously about theory, but most things have an implied theory. Theory versus non theory is problematic. Oh that’s a rabbit hole. Better not go down there in a thousand words or so.

Maybe I should talk about where theory fits with the other categories of literatures, as dodgy as those categories are. OK. If you read” theory” (aargh), then some of your reading will be texts about the theory. Then you’ll read texts that apply the theory, and maybe apply it to your topic or topics like yours. But you also have to read the theory itself, you can’t rely on other people’s interpretations. In fact, you have to read your chosen theory/ies a lot, so that you know it/them really intimately and can talk about it/them in your own words. And by the end probably talk about it/them in your sleep.

I’m straying away again. Let me refocus this and try the question head on. Yes, some people have a theory chapter. In an IMRAD thesis the singleton “theory chapter” usually comes before the literatures and the methodology chapters. The “theory” is separated out from the texts that are about your substantive topic.

Now, even if it’s not uncommon to have a singleton theory chapter, there are occasions when you might be able to combine this theory stuff with other literatures. Oh dear, of course you could have one chapter with both theory/ies and literature, depending on what kind of meta-commentary you use to explain the way you’ve presented your material. And there might be literatures about your topic using your theory which you could use to segue between the two sections. But you can also use the explanation of the theory in conjunction with explanations of the context or policy. So there aren’t really a set of rules here. It’s an “it depends” situation.

That’s probably not as helpful as I’d like to be. It’d be easier to say that most often the theory talk comes pretty early on. Let’s not talk about a chapter per se. How about this? If it’s important for the examiner to understand how theory/ies was/were used in the research, this needs to come close to the beginning of the thesis. So the theory talk comes in the introduction, or soon after.

But of course it’s more complex than that. As soon as I write “early” I can think of instances where that’s not the case… action researchers for instance wouldn’t necessarily talk theory early as their dissertations, unlike most others, are chronological and organised to show the learning that happens through cycles. So action researchers might come to a theoretical position later in their research and it’s appropriate to put it later.

Ah. But. A lot of people don’t start with a chosen theory at all, they come to it as they are working out how to make more sense of their analysis. But they present the theory near the start of the thesis because they aren’t writing about the “journey”, as most often their thesis is a final text about where they are at the end. But because they do end up with a theory (or combination) they generally then use their newly arrived at theoretical lens to rewrite their literatures work and report their methods.

But how to deal with the way that some people talk about a theoretical “framework”? I guess the intention of framework is to say that the research project is designed using a particular theory. So you use the theory to sort out the who, what and how of your research problem. And the theory comes into the analysis and discussion too (As long as you didn’t do something tautological – I designed this project around x and look I found x. Or something that meant you ignored data that didn’t neatly fit with your theory.) Well, some people use theory as a framework and I guess I can’t ignore this – and they would explain this framing early in the thesis. Early.

But … Should I just say what I do? I don’t actually see theory as a framework. Even though I’ve tried to explain what’s meant by framework somewhere else on the blog. I see theory as something that helps you to think and explain. So theory is a kind of thinking toolkit. My thinking about theory-as-toolkit came from reading Foucault early on in my own PhD and the metaphor helped me – it bumped theory off its pedestal and said that if the theory isn’t useful than don’t use it. Don’t idolise it. Don’t fetishise it. The old if-you-only-have-a-hammer-then-you-can-only-bash-nails-in cliche. Theory isn’t one size fits all. Often, your favorite theory isn’t appropriate for every design or explanatory job. Or the theory you started out with may not be the one you finish with.

So back to the question. What about the theory chapter? Well, I don’t know about a chapter per se, but because I want the examiner or reader to know my thinking toolkit, I would always explain my approach at the start. And because I don’t separate out theory from the ologies (epistemology or ontology), these always come together either in the introduction or close to next up. So I’d be saying what’s the problem I want to research and why. Then… What’s my approach to it – that’s the theory and ologies… What have other people said about my problem and how have I used this, How I did my project, what stuff have I ended up with – and so on.

Whew. That was more like forty minutes brain dumping not ten. And I have no really easy answer at the end. I think the theory chapter question is very complicated. But maybe this collection of perspectives might provide a starting point for supervisor discussion…

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The up in writing

Last week I moaned about the unintended side effects of the term imposter syndrome. Maybe I’m just feeling generally a bit browned off because I also caught myself this week revisiting old irrits about the term “writing up”. It’s nostalgic niggle time.

I was thinking about the fun Barbara Kamler and I used to have with “writing up” in our workshops. To be fair, we used to have fun with most things. Soup. Shoes. Jewellery. But especially with “writing up”.

Writing up – why up? we used to say. Why not down? Writing down, isn’t that what we do? Getting it down on paper, getting down and dirty with all the words, getting down before we rise up again? How about writing around? Lots of us experience that, we go around and around and around (short break for singing) until we giddily land somewhere. Or how about writing into, many of us have to write ourselves into that final text. We start off tentative, knowing some bits and not others, and then get into it, stuck in rather than stuck.

So why writing up?

Well of course, we had to acknowledge writing up is the term used to describe a stage in research, and particularly the doctorate. I’m writing up says I’m in the later stage of the work, I’m now constructing The Big Book, I’m not out and about, I’m at my desk and I’m scribbling away. Congratulate me I’ve reached the writing up stage, the end is nigh. ( Yes it is. Hooray. Keep going. You can do it. ). Bear with me if I’m like the proverbial bear with the sore head, I’m writing up (Yes, writing can do that to you. Us too. After all, 100k words is no mean feat.)

But, we said, often in chorus, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t mean that we give the impression, we believe, we tell ourselves, that writing only comes at the end of the research and the end of the doctorate. We actually write all the way through the research and doctoral process, or at least it’s better if we do. Yes, there’s something particular and challenging about producing the thesis at the end – but is that best captured in the word up? Or writing up? 

And, we’d say putting on serious faces, the term writing up can also be interpreted as meaning that we have actually finished with the thinking work … all we need to do now is write it up. The research is done, dusted, lay down misere. No worries, right?  Only putting the words on paper to go. That interpretation really trivialises the very hard work involved in creating text.

And perhaps the thinking is not actually all completed. Of course there are some bits of the thesis that are – we know what we did, for instance and writing about our methods and process can be a matter of crafting the well-known. And there may be other bits of the thesis that we feel pretty secure about. But most of the time, despite our best planning, abstract, tiny texts, storyboards, mind-maps and accumulation files, there’s still some thinking work left to do. And then some. Writing up doesn’t mean all of the thinking work is over. Writing a thesis is often thinking with and through the writing. Writing with. Writing in the middle. Writing through. Writing beyond.

Well, hardly surprising that Barbara and my clownish performances didn’t lead to change. After all, we never came up with a term good enough to replace “writing up”. Even putting our objections on paper in our first book (2006) didn’t make a dent in its popularity. B and P weak, writing up strong. Our categorical failure was/is because the term does do very helpful work when used as a fairly clear stage of the research.

Ah, but the term still niggles. I twitch when I hear it. I even occasionally find myself starting to use it and then pull myself up short. However, the term writing up is simply ubiquitous and widely understood. It’s part of the scholarly lexicon. Well, OK then. I give up. I hear you and I understand what you are saying. But don’t expect me to utter these words. I may put up with it, but you’ll never get me to like “writing up”.

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feeling like an imposter? ask “what’s going on here?”

The term imposter syndrome is everywhere. People “have it”, “suffer from it” or “ have a bad case of it.” 

Imposter syndrome is a term that worries me. I’ve been concerned at how it’s used for quite some time. I’m hardly the only one. The original inventors of the term, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Innes, rejected it shortly after publication, saying that it wasn’t a clinical category. They weren’t really talking about a Syndrome, as in something like Down Syndrome or Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Or Long Covid. These medical syndromes are more than feelings, they are symptoms correlated with the occurrence of particular conditions or diseases.

Clance and Innes used both  “syndrome” and “phenomenon” to describe what appeared to be a common set of feelings experienced by high achieving women. But Clance and Innes were concerned about hostile organisations. They didnt want to “fix” the women. Clance later said that the term “syndrome” was popular because most people experience these feelings at some time in their lives. However the more accurate term “phenomenon” was very vague and much harder to say and think about.

Clance in particular, and many others since, have been concerned about the ways in which the descriptive term “imposter” has been and is widely applied to a cluster of feelings as if they are a personal problem, rather than also – or perhaps almost entirely – the result of context, of social and cultural practices.

It’s worth thinking about this concern. It’s worth asking whether, if we talk about ourselves as “having” imposter syndrome or “suffering from it”, we might be putting on categorical blinkers. It’s worth asking, What else might be going on if I am feeling like a fraud at this moment? What do these feelings tell me?

Learning and not knowing

Many academic “imposter” feelings are the result of being a learner on the way to becoming a professional not-knower. The three year full time doctorate for instance consists of a year of not having much of a clue about what you are doing and knowing, a year of generating “stuff” that may or may not add up to something you can’t yet recognise, and nearly all of the next year making a version of sense out of everything that you’ve done. Well, I exaggerate here, but you get the point. You pull threads together at the end of the doctorate to make something which is defensible and which you can feel comfortable enough defending. But you are always aware of what else there is that you don’t know.

The doctorate is a really extended period of uncertainty, of not knowing, and of learning what you are doing. So standing up and speaking about the research while you are in the middle of it can be pretty terrifying. What if you have it all wrong? And what if some of those people who are reading your work or at your conference presentation are actually key people on your reading list? Aargh, Of course you feel vulnerable and worried and – yes like a bit of a fraud. That’s entirely understandable.

Now, that scary “I’ll be found out” feeling can come at any point when you are talking about something you don’t have quite a firm grip on. During and after the doctorate. But that doesn’t mean you have nothing of interest or importance to say. It just means that you are in the middle of something. Or this is the first time you have presented something. You’re learning. And you’re being brave in making it public.

It seems to me that there is absolutely nothing wrong or sick or problematic about feeling worried about putting your work out there whether it’s for the first, second or twentieth time. Or feeling worried about not knowing. You may really be talking to people who do know more than you do about some of your chosen topic. For example I’m always terrified talking to linguists about writing, even though what I talk about is usually pedagogy, about which I do actually know a fair bit. But you know, I’m human too, and I worry about what I don’t know, as opposed to what I do. I now know enough about handling my nerves to generally get by, even though it’s always a bit of a “front stage” performance. I’ve also been known to say at the outset of a presentation what I do know about and what I don’t.

There are ways to focus on what it is you can say with some confidence. The problem is the way that learning and not knowing are sometimes dealt with.

Academic cultures and practices

Most important. Those nervous sick feelings aren’t necessarily something wrong with you/me. They are actually pretty rational in a competitive academic environment, where not everyone behaves well. You/I don’t want to be seen as foolish. Who does?

But not everyone is understanding about emerging work and work in progress. Who knows, there may well be a Reviewer 2 in your audience or reading your paper. There may well be someone who wants to tell you all about their work, or be very patronising about the things you haven’t read and/or haven’t done. There may well be someone who’s into gaslighting. Who wants to tell you your work has gone off lately or they’ve never heard of you or it’s a pity you don’t do anything original or new or you’re just behind the times. (Yes I’ve been told all of these things.) But this very bad behaviour is on them, not you. If you are in an educational context, and all universities are about education, then it’s very off behaviour to be overtly or covertly rude and nasty, just for the sake of it, to people who are learning and/or sharing their learning.

And those out of place, I shouldn’t be here, scary feelings are usually the result of long-standing structural and cultural practices. Universities aren’t yet institutions which are inclusive of everyone. That feeling of being out of place and that you don’t belong? Well yes. Universities are elite institutions and even if they have policies and aspirations to promote equity, they still have a myriad of ways to create “outsiders”. That feeling that is called “imposter” is usually how we register, at a haptic level, these old and often undocumented inequitable organisational cultural practices.

Do I feel this? Well yes, but a lot less than I used to. Like many first-gen students, when I first went to university I had no idea of what a university actually was. Women were up to almost a third of the student population in my undergrad university, and only 10% of the total student population had gone to a state school, let alone one that creamed the most academically successful working class kids into higher education (the Australian equivalent of the UK grammar school). I spent most of my first year at university clinging to a small huddle of other young people like me. Until I learnt that we were way more cool than the posh kids.

I’m hardly the only one to experience this. Feeling out of place at university is a well known social phenomenon. Educators and social scientists study it. There’s lots written now about how this institutionally produced “otherness” feels, and how it happens. But simply knowing the literature may not stop the feelings called imposter-ness. But is this feeling something to feel crap about? Not in my book. It’s more something to either note or perhaps to feel angry about. Perhaps even to act on those feelings in ways that create change, even if only in little ways.

I do think it is worth thinking more about “imposter syndrome”. It trips off the tongue but may do more harm than good. It is worth asking either at the time or after what was actually going on, Why am I feeling like an imposter? If this is not just about me, what other explanation is there? What else might be causing this response? How much is about you/me and how much is about the situation, the context, the institution?

You/I might also want to ask how you can deal with these kinds of feelings if they arise again (likely) but you/I also might want to look at the external issues and see if it is they, and not you/me, that really needs to change.

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