putting the search into research – starting the phd

Getting through a doctorate requires a finely honed information practice. You have to become pretty good at summarising, synthesising and categorising ‘stuff’ – otherwise known as ‘the literatures’.  But you also have to keep track of what you’ve read, and you need to be able to find things again when you have to.  So scholarly information essentials such as reading and noting are underpinned by practical strategies; these  include recording, filing and retrieving the stuff.

But, you also need to be able to find the stuff in the first place. One of the information strategies developed through the doctorate is that of searching. You know, locating the stuff that is useful, and interesting (and these are not always the same thing).


Now, when I say searching I don’t mean going to one of those big data bases and hauling out a big list. No, what I actually mean by searching is knowing what to type into the search function. What to ask. That’s the tricky bit.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at a scholarly data base, journal publishers’ website, google scholar, a library catalogue, a newspaper archive or an online bookshop, the information you get is only as good as the question you ask.

Knowing what key words, strings and phrases produce good results for you, in your field of research, from what kind of data archive, is something that you learn over time. It’s often learnt through trial and error. There is a kind of grammar to searching, just as there is to software programmes, and it is something you get more familiar with the more you are immersed in it.  And it’s often not something that you notice you are getting better at. But you generally do.

Really experienced scholars search well. They are savvy with key words and phrases. They know to play around with the order of terms in a string in order to change search results. They even know how to locate that text that they saw two years ago but didn’t save – they can recall enough to find it even though they can’t remember the title or the authors. Damn – how did they do that?  And they can pull up a range of texts where others have failed. Hence the warnings to less experienced researchers about saying there is nothing written in my area… smart searchers can usually disprove claims to singular innovation in a single, quick search.

Skilful searchers seem to have a ‘feel’ for finding things. This’ feel’ isn’t some kind of innate ability. Astute stuff-hunters weren’t born knowing how to enter a cunning key word.  Searching is a form of tacit craft knowledge, accumulated over time – often without the scholar particularly noticing it is happening.

But it is helpful to take note of what and how you search and to make that searching learning a little more explicit. For a start, if you keep track of what keywords seem to work and don’t work than you can save time when you search again. You can create a set of search terms that have proved useful to you in your research and from what archive/catalogue/website etc. Keeping track of searches – perhaps through a simple word doc list – means that you can avoid repeating terms/searches that haven’t been very helpful in the past. Or you might repeat a search that didn’t yield much at one point, to see whether the field has changed over time.

More importantly, keeping track of what you’ve done means you can easily update a search. This is important in the PhD. While you do a lot of reading in the first year of the PhD, you still have to keep up to date with the field and incorporate more recent writings in your thesis. And let’s not forget that important pre-submission stage – it’s pretty helpful to do a last-minute check through the key literatures just to make sure there isn’t anything that you really do have to note – even if only in a post script or a viva. Being able to repeat a couple of your most generative searches, using the same terms in the same data archive as the original, is a pretty efficient and effective final check.

Keeping track of search terms also means that you can report accurately if you decide to write a literature paper. This may not be your intention when you start the research, it might be something you decide later on. If you have recorded the search terms you used for particular data bases, then you can easily report what what you did and didn’t do in a methods section.

Most importantly, in noting your searches you are also focused, even if only sporadically, on building your understandings of how particular data bases work and how they respond to different questions. And you can show others what strategies they might try for themselves.

If you are starting the PhD this year – or even if you are well on your way with it –  it is well worth while simply sitting alongside an expert searcher to see what they do. They might be a librarian or a supervisor or a mentor who has a lot of experience in your field.  Watch the screen. If they are using an approach that you’ve not tried yourself, ask why. Get them to say how they think about searching while they are doing it – find out the rationale for their searching tack. Why this term? Why this order of words?

Searching and researching. Of course, searching is not all that matters in research. Hardly. And searching data bases is not necessarily the only or best way to find all the stuff you need –  following references in papers and books, using idiot’s guides and Wikipedia, reading handbooks, getting advice – these are all helpful strategies to find the good stuff.

But searching is still important – it’s one of those necessary but not-talked-about-a-lot scholarly habits that you need to grow all the way through the PhD and beyond.

And it can even produce a kind of perverse satisfaction. Look at all that useful stuff I’ve just located through my search! Now I’ve just got to…


Follow other starting the phd posts.

Image credit: Michael Clore Flickr Commons




Posted in academic writing, keywords, literature review, literature reviews, research, searching, starting the PhD | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

a conference paper? it may be five texts, not one…

Conference season begins again. Well it certainly seems that way – there are lots of calls around for papers, workshops and posters.

A conference paper seems like an easy thing to do. Just write the abstract, then write the actual paper, and then present it. Not too hard.

And not high stakes at all. A conference paper is not the same as the journal article you write for review for instance. It’s not subject to reviewers’ critiques – well no, hang on, it is. Pretty well all conference abstracts get reviewed in order to be accepted.

Well OK. But it’s not like a conference paper is going to be published and permanently out there in the world with your name attached to it.  – well no, hang on, it is. These days many conference papers are refereed, and published in conference proceedings. And more often than not, someone tweets your slides, and their interpretation of what you’ve said, and that’s then permanently out there in the world with your name on it.

It’s the word paper that’s deceptive. Paper. One. Only one. But writing and giving a conference paper is actually a lot of work.  While it’s true that what you present might not the final version of a paper, it still requires the production of a decent text. Well no, hang on, actually multiple texts.  A conference paper is many sets  of words. A conference paper  is neither simple nor singular.

Let’s list how many texts there might actually be.

The abstract. This text is your bid for acceptance. The abstract has to be well argued and a good fit with the conference themes. It has to get past reviewers who may have different ideas from you about what constitutes a piece of research. More and more conferences now provide abstract templates that you have to shoehorn your proposed paper into. So, the abstract is not necessarily a text you can just dash off. For competitive/desirable conferences, you have to put a fair bit of careful thought and revision into the conference abstract

The paper. Your conference paper might be polished, perhaps even already published. But more often than not, it’s work in progress. However, regardless of its status, you may be asked to submit your paper before the conference. Perhaps it’s to go on a website. Flipped conferences require this, you have to read papers before you attend and the sessions are pretty well all discussion. Or… You may have to submit a paper to a symposium chair and/or a discussant. You may be asked to distribute the paper in your session and be advised how many copies to bring. (Sometimes people put their paper on a website and just distribute the address).  

A slideshow. Now a PowerPoint slideshow isn’t mandatory. But these days most people do have something visual. A good slideshow takes more than a couple of hours to put together. A good set of slides doesn’t mean cutting and pasting bits of the conference paper. You really have to go back to make a new outline and organise the slides around that. And because most conference time slots are 15 to 30 minutes, at most, the number of slides you can have is pretty small. And if you don’t want them to be completely unreadable, you need to work with less slides than you want, and fewer words.


too many words on the slide, light fades out the text, probably talked for too long too…. 

This means you also need

A script or set of notes to guide your talk. You may well need to have something to guide what you say, in addition to your slides. Whether you talk from notes that sit under or next to your slides, or use library cards, or an edited version of your paper, this means you have to write another text. One that is written to speak aloud. Not the same as writing the paper. Not the same text as is on the slides. The good thing about writing a speaking text is that you can talk the presentation through beforehand to make sure that you can fit what you have to say within time.

A handout. Some conferences now ask you to prepare a handout which lists the main points you will make. This is not a print-out of the slides, but a guide to the argument you are going to make. A handout is a long abstract. A handout usually also lists key references and may or may not point the session attendees to the full paper.

Now of course you may not have to do all five of these texts. It’s not unheard of for people to skip writing the full paper and just do a slide show and a script to talk to. But conferences are increasingly suspicious of people ‘winging it’, and are asking people to produce more by way of handout or full paper.And you can see the point of that I’m sure. 

So to sum up. A conference paper is generally not a case of ‘not much work’. It is simply different work to writing a paper for a journal.

And the conference paper may be a helpful step towards a journal article.  Writing all of these five steps – abstract, working paper, slides, handouts – does force you to think about and re-present your research multiple times. This repetition helps you to find the most salient details, the most persuasive order of information and the answer to the So What question. This text refining, even without helpful feedback or difficult questions at the conference, can be highly significant in getting your paper to a publishable state.



Posted in academic writing, conference, conference abstract, conference format, conference papers, conference presentation | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

if only …

This is a confession. One I know I shouldn’t be making in public. But I am.

I need to explain, before I let you in on my guilty secret, that I am a fanatical reader. I read every day and have done for as long as I can remember. I was one of those kids who read well before they went to school. Growing up I read anything and everything – books, cereal boxes, magazines, lists of instructions – it didn’t matter what the words were about, I just read them. I read everywhere too – at the table, on the bus, in bed. And I still read every night, usually for about an hour before turning off the light.

It’s a family thing. I learnt the book habit from my parents. My mother allegedly started a house-fire when she was small by reading a book under her bed by candle light. I have no idea if this is true, but I certainly never knew her not to have a book on the go. We made a weekly trip to the library and we each always took out the maximum number of books we could borrow. Often the librarian would have new books set by for us. What a treat.

I still get over-excited about new books. Things I haven’t yet read. That’s something to really look forward to. I love not knowing what a book is going to offer. I enjoy the anticipation – the book is ready, waiting for me be done at the end of the day.

And yes, I feel this way about academic books too. I love a new monograph. I love an edited collection. It can be a topic that is tangential to my own work, but which just looks interesting. I’ve learnt that nearly all the academic books I choose to borrow or buy, no matter how apparently unrelated to my immediate interests, have something to say to me. They are generally worth putting time – and quite often effort – into.

But here’s the thing. This is the confession. I don’t feel this way about journals. Ironic isn’t it, since journals are apparently the gold standard of scholarly publishing. Of course there are loads of journal articles that I find interesting and useful. There are journals I read regularly. But I don’t actually look forward to getting a new issue of a journal. I don’t carry a journal or two with me on the train, on holiday. I don’t love journals like I do books. Somehow journals are work, and often dull work at that.

My relative indifference to journals is in part because of their relentless same-ness. The papers are roughly the same length. Written in much the same structure. And overwhelmingly in the same kind of author voice. Well yes, I know there are exceptions to this rule and the occasional journal does publish more varied papers in different genres. But these exceptions are not enough to change my general attitude.

Journals are work. Journal articles need to be recorded and noted and categorised – knowledge of The Literatures is never static, it is always growing and expanding. Journal articles inform current and future work in utilitarian ways. Reading and keeping up with what’s in the journals in your field – it’s mandatory.

Yes, I know this attitude is silly. Yes. I do. I know that work and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. This is why I like academic books just as much as I like fiction. Yes, I know that journal ennui is irrational. But we all have secret foolishness, don’t we? We just don’t talk about them that much. Its not a very scholarly thing to do. (Neither is writing non-serious blog posts😏)

But I’ve done it now. You know my guilty secret. I don’t much like academic journals and papers. Ironic for someone who spends a lot of time teaching other people how to play the journal game. Ironic for someone who is a journal editor.

And…  well, here’s the thing. This is what I’d like to read the next time I open an academic journal. On the very first page. Before I get to anything else.


You will always be surprised when you read this journal.

You will read about people, places and events you didn’t know you wanted to. You will agree with things you didn’t know you thought. You will take pleasure in insights that you didn’t know you needed to know.

You will be delighted by our authors. They have spent time polishing their craft, honing their prose, structuring their narratives in ways that are pleasing to your ear, heart and mind.

You will encounter strangers who keep company with our authors. You will feel compelled to follow them up. You will find wondrous connections and rewarding resonances with your own work.

You will want to write for us. Not because we are rated or ranked or reviewed well. But because our journal is born from scholarly care and affection, produced with profound respect for the material. And because we are imaginative, creative and take delight in the written word just as you do.

You will leave each issue sad that there is not more. You will eagerly wait for the next one. It will arrive in your inbox as a welcome gift.

The next time you read us, we will be even better than before. You are our reason for being. We seek your pleasure, not your use.


Posted in journal, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 10 Comments

‘internationalising’ a journal article

Thankyou for your paper… blah blah blah revisions… blah blah... You need to make sure that your paper speaks to an international audience.

It’s not uncommon to get this kind of reviewer feedback on a journal article, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. And it can be that, if you’re relatively new to publishing, you don’t quite know what is meant by this. How can a paper, written about research carried out in a particular context, be made to be of interest to people elsewhere? If they aren’t interested in the topic in its local context, well… help!

If you’ve been in this situation, and have been asked to internationalise a paper, then it means that the reviewers have not found the local sufficiently persuasive. And they probably looked at three key parts of your paper:

(1) How the paper is framed in the abstract and introduction

The introduction needs to locate the particular study in a setting broader than its local context. The broader setting speaks to a concern, debate, issue, question or an interest that is shared across the field. The local is then used to explore/say something about the wider, international concern, debate, issue, question or interest.

(2) How the paper discusses the implications of the research and concludes

The discussion and conclusion need to bring the results, arising from the very particular and situated study, back to the broader international issue, debate, concern or question that was raised at the start.

(3) The connections with other studies, in other words, what other studies are referred to – the literatures relevant to the study.

The literatures used in the paper need to build on and speak to research that has been conducted in other locations, as well as to the particular. The international literatures are often first used as evidence of the widespread nature of the concern, debate, issue, question or an interest, and then to build the case for the particular methodological and/or theoretical approach taken. These texts are taken up again in the discussion and conclusion.

An example wouldn’t go astray here. Let me show you how this works.  I’ve chosen an example that is quite short and straightforward, and also available. Now I do need to say that I’m not discussing the content of this paper – I’m sure we could have all kinds of debates about what is said and argued in it. I’m not doing that here. I’m simply looking to see how a local study has been internationalised.


an internationalised journal article arrives….

I’m looking at the paper:

Quantity and/or Quality? The Importance of Publishing Many Papers 

Ulf Sandstrom and Peter van den Besselaar, published this in PLOS ONE  –  an open access publication – in 2016.

What the text says What the text is doing to internationalise

Do highly productive researchers have significantly higher probability to produce top cited papers? Or do high productive researchers mainly produce a sea of irrelevant papers in other words do we find a diminishing marginal result from productivity? The answer on these questions is important, as it may help to answer the question of whether the increased competition and increased use of indicators for research evaluation and accountability focus has perverse effects or not. We use a Swedish author disambiguated dataset consisting of 48.000 researchers and their WoS-publications during the period of 2008±2011 with citations until 2014 to investigate the relation between productivity and production of highly cited papers. As the analysis shows, quantity does make a difference.


The first three sentences create the international warrant for the paper. The two rhetorical questions work to name an issue about which little is known – a link between publication quantity and quality, where citations are used as a proxy for quality. The third sentence says why this issue matters – it anticipates the So What answer to be given in the paper. The fourth sentence outlines the local case which will produce an answer to the questions. The final sentence provides the result of the study. Readers can thus anticipate that the conclusion to the paper will bring this result to bear on the policy and practices of audit that were raised in sentence three.

The literatures section of the paper is short and part of an extended introduction. The literatures section draws on a range of studies to make the case that there is a debate about the connections between prolific publication and citation.

What the text says – taken from the Introduction and literatures What the text is doing to internationalise
 If one agrees that in science it is all about top (cited) publications, the question comes up what an efficient publication strategy would look like. Is publishing a lot the best way or does that generally lead to normal science , (Kuhn, 7) with only low impact papers? The total number of citations received may still be large, but no top papers may have been produced. This was already the core of Butler’s critique on the Australian funding system [8 ] and is also the underlying idea of emerging movements in favour of `slow science’ like e.g. in the Netherlands; there the `science in transition’ movement [9 ] was able to convince the big academic institutions to remove productivity as a criterion from the guidelines for the national research assessment (SEP). The underlying idea is that quality and not quantity should dominate and that with all the emphasis on numbers of publications, the system has become corrupted, see the discussion in The Leiden Manifesto (Hicks et al. [10 ]), and the Metric Tide report (Wilsdon et al. [11 ]). While the authors are located in Sweden and the Netherlands, they refer here to a seminal US theorist – Thomas Kuhn – in sentence one. They then refer to national contexts – Australia and the international slow science movement in the Netherlands, among other places. Readers are able to connect the Netherland reference and citation to their own knowledge of the field. Then comes the Leiden Manifesto which emanated from an international conference in Belgium, and a UK review – these are the international evidence of the quantity versus quality debate.

A further paragraph in the paper expands the dimensions of the debate through the use of more international literatures.

The conclusion connects back to the international context set at the start.

What the text says What the text is doing to internationalise

As the above results show, there is not only a strong correlation between productivity (number of papers) and impact (number of citations), that also holds for the production of high impact papers: the more papers, the more high impact papers. More specifically, for most fields there are constant or increasing marginal returns. In that sense, increased productivity of the research system is not a perverse effect of output oriented evaluation systems, but a positive development. It strongly increases the occurrence of breakthroughs and important inventions [16 ], as would be expected from a theoretical perspective on scientific creativity [13 ]. Also, we find that other recent work points in the same direction [18 ; 20 ]. The lively discussion [e.g. [9 ;10 ] that there is a risk of confusing quality with quantity therefore lacks empirical support. As we deployed a series of methods, with results all pointing in the same direction, the findings are not an artefact of the selected method.


The increasing popular policy that allows researchers to hand in only their five or so best publications seems in the light of these results counterproductive, as it disadvantages the most productive and best researchers. The analysis also gives an indication of the output levels that one may strive at when selecting researchers for grants or jobs. To produce high impact papers, certain output levels seem to be required of course at the same time dependent on which field is under study.

Future work in this research line will cover various extensions: Firstly, we plan to extend the analysis to some other countries, which of course requires large-scale disambiguation of author names. Secondly, we will in a next version control for number of co-authors, and for gender [30 ]. The former relates to the discussion about team size and excellence, the latter to the ongoing debate on gender bias and gendered differences in productivity. Thirdly, the aim is to concentrate on principle investigators, and remove the incidental co-authors with low numbers of publications, as they may seem to be high impact authors at the lower side of the performance distribution. This all should lead to a better insight in the relation between productivity and impact in the science system.


The first paragraph of the conclusion refers back to, and cites, the international literatures that were used at the start. It is not mandatory to do this of course, but it is an interesting example of how researchers make their results speak to the existing literatures.














The second paragraph addresses the So What question. The results are set against current audit systems and an argument made that the audit systems may work against particular productive researchers. Results are also brought to bear on promotions with some suggestion for practice.




The researchers then go on to discuss the Now What question. They address what might be seen as limitations of their study – they say that they themselves want to move out of the local and extend the reach of their analysis to make it more international. They also signal additional ways in which they will analyse the data to make it even more internationally relevant by including a focus on gender. They also intend to remove incidental co-authors to tighten up what they can say about highly productive researchers-writers.

So you can see that the authors have worked consistently through the abstract, introduction, literatures and conclusion to establish that, even though they have looked at data from one country only, what they have to say has wider implications – in fact, their study has international traction.

So, bearing this example in mind, it is worth asking yourself, if you get feedback that you need to internationalise your paper, these questions:

  • What bigger international concern, debate, issue, question or an interest does my paper speak to?
  • What international literatures can I draw on to make the connections with international debates and research?
  • What international literatures does my analysis speak to?
  • How might my results inform the wider international conversation in the field?

And of course, don’t forget that not everything has to be written for an international audience. Local research also has to be read locally. And a local paper written for a local audience is highly likely to be quite different in its abstract, introduction, literatures and conclusion than one written for international readers.


This post was written in answer to a question. I answer questions. DM or email me if you have a question that would also be of general interest to readers.


Image Credit: Matt Hintsa, Flickr Commons.

Posted in conclusion, internationalising, introduction, journal article, literature review, now what, so what | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

big researchers don’t cry?

This is a guest post from Jozica Kutin. Jozica is a researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne.

At the end of each research interview I tell the person I’ve interviewed how appreciative I am of their time and story, and how I hoped that their goals and dreams work out for them. In this one interview, I then felt the tears welling up in my eyes. My voice started to do that thing it does when you know you’re about to cry, my face started going red. I thought, I’m supposed to be the cool calm and objective one, not the soppy cry-ey one. I think my participant would have noticed the tear covered eyes, the choked up voice, the red face. Are researcher’s supposed to cry?

I was trained as a psychologist, so the poker face was de rigueur, and as a psychologist, you’re not supposed to cry (well not in front of clients). Doctors and business professionals aren’t supposed to cry either: especially women. It can be viewed as “unprofessional”, or that you’re not “objective”. Well it happened to me, about 20 years ago, a young women that I was assessing at a drug and alcohol clinic was telling me about her drug use history, about her childhood, and then about how her baby had died after childbirth. The memory of her in my mind, what she said, and my emotions are as clear now as it was 20 years ago. On this occasion the more I empathy I conveyed the more I felt I was “losing control” of my emotions. I remember, however, that she was not emotional; she had told this story many a time, at many assessments, to many workers. My reaction then felt even more odd, and out of context.

Context is important. Sometimes even in the ‘right’ context, say at a funeral, your crying is not right: I’m crying at my friend’s father’s funeral. I’d never met the guy. I didn’t know what he was like. I wasn’t going to miss him. So I would have looked a bit ridiculous. But I cried nonetheless. A death, of any sort, pain or suffering by anyone, even research participants, is a pain we can all relate to, a pain that triggers emotions.

Public crying is the most difficult, because typically people don’t respond or comfort strangers who are crying. My most profound public crying experience was at the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport, waiting to board my flight back to the Netherlands. I had spent the last 10 days with my grandmother (Baki) who was dying in hospital from ovarian cancer. I said my final goodbye; my uncle and aunty dropped me off at the airport. They returned to the hospital to learn that my Baki had died: she had died once we all had left the hospital (now I’m crying again as I write this). My phone rang at the departure gate. It was quiet. I answered. I sobbed loudly while I was on the phone and after; trying to pull myself together for the flight. Not one person came up to me to ask if I was ok. Crying in public like that makes you feel very alone.


Do researchers cry?

It’s not supposed to happen. You are supposed to be this objective data collecting machine. When I worked as a researcher at a youth drug and alcohol centre, people would comment “Oh that must be tough”. Well it kind of wasn’t. I was sitting at my desk, just crunching numbers, collecting data from other practitioners, and publishing papers and reports. And even though the findings were devastating, I didn’t have the young woman in front of me, telling me her story, a story of challenge, abuse, self-harm, drug use, and hopefully hope. I never spoke to clients or listened to their stories, it wasn’t part of my job. (Read my co-author and colleague Kat Daley’s work—her supervisor cried at the launch of her book.)

My PhD research is exploring how economic abuse manifests in young adult relationships. My first paper was based on the analysis of ABS survey data from 17,050 adults. The next phase of my PhD takes me out of my analytical comfort zone: narrative interviews with young adults who have experienced economic abuse. Their narratives usually start with the money issues, but these are never in isolation from the emotional manipulation and abuse, the control, the threat of physical or verbal abuse, and in some cases savage physical attacks. For the majority, it’s the first time they have told their stories— they are not engaged in the service systems—they’ve responded to a research recruitment advertisement. It’s the first time too that I’m hearing their stories. Young women terrorised, living in war-zone conditions, but living with hope that the relationship will work, that their children will have an intact family. They all have hopes for the future. They all have goals and are kicking them, despite—or because of—the experiences they have had. This is when it gets emotional for me, I’ve realised. Every young person should be filled with their dreams and hopes for the future, not abuse, violence and control.

Research interviewing can be emotionally distressing. I suspect most people don’t tell their supervisors or colleagues that they may have cried or choked up because of embarrassment or shame.

There are important ethical and supervisory mechanisms that need to be in place when you are researching sensitive topics. Students, supervisors and seasoned researchers shouldn’t fear crying or tearing up in the research interview. If in doubt, read Kathleen Cowles’ powerful work. We hold back discussion of this issue, as much as we try to hold back the tears: trying to be “big” researchers. The possibility of crying in this context needs to become part of the discussion around “managing interviewer risk”, beyond the advice of “whatever you do, don’t cry”.

So if the toe wigging and tongue biting are not working, and you find yourself tearing up during an interview, it’s important not to be hard on yourself. While you may think your “research participant” might find it odd, or you find it embarrassing, it is often viewed in a positive light by the person that you’re with. Interviewer crying reminds and confirms for us, and the people that we are interviewing, that what they have endured was a traumatic and emotional experience. It’s not just data, it’s their full and emotional life.

I’m curious if other PhDs have cried during an interview when a comment touched a raw nerve. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. How was crying received by the participant?  Did you tell your supervisor/colleague/mentor and how did they react?


Image credit: Flickr Commons: Guy Mayer

Posted in Emotion, emotional research, interview, interviews, research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

professor of the academic dark arts

Professor of the dark academic arts. It’s a job. Yes, really. No, you never see this position advertised. But it exists. And not just in J K Rowling’s world. In real life. Professors of academic dark arts magick away other people’s work and get away with it. They cast spells which do in their competition.

We have all heard about the dark arts of stealthy plagiarism, unethical appropriation of other people’s research agendas, fudging research results.


While there is emerging systematic evidence of extent of academic dark arts practice (see for example Retraction Watch, and here here and here, and an interesting editorial here), there are loads and loads of stories. Stories about manipulation of experiments and cleansing of data. Stories about senior academics taking off with ideas generated by doctoral and early career researchers or their peers. Stories about early stage researchers being dismissed when projects are incomplete and getting no credit for their work. Stories of reviewers who suddenly begin a new project “inspired” by a paper they rejected.

Almost every time I run a workshop on “communicating your research on social media” I discuss questions of plagiarism. Someone will inevitably talk to me afterwards or send me an email about a dodgy academic issue that they or one of their peers is dealing with. I’m sure you have heard these stories.

Sometimes people do complain about malpractice and the offending academic is  punished; they lose their jobs and qualifications as well as their reputations. But the stories suggest that for every one bad professor who is caught out, there are plenty of others who engage in the dark arts and escape scot free, leaving colleagues bruised and/or scratching their heads in wonder.

A google search quickly turns up a truck-load of dark arts stories.

I am a second year PhD student and I wanted to ask if anyone has experienced someone else stealing your ideas? Basically, I wrote a grant proposal 9 months ago and emailed it to someone who said they might be able to help me. A few weeks later I emailed to ask if I had been successful and I had a one sentance email to say that ‘sorry, I do not have the funds’. I have just found out, by chance, the same study is now being carried out by this person…


By chance, I am reviewing now the paper which I recognised as a paper of my colleague. We are from the same institution and I am surprised that I got this paper to review, but, on the other hand, I am lucky to see it before it’s published. My colleague mentions in this paper the methodology like it was his idea but actually, I am the one that developed it, made it work and applied it, together with the help of my supervisor. In short, he wants to be the author of the idea and the methodology. This is, in fact, what comes out from the paper. I am now preparing my own paper about this methodology and my work, and I don’t have any publication on it, so far, just a poster from when I participated at a conference six months ago. I talked to him about it but he doesn’t feel that it is wrong or ethically incorrect.

Sound familiar? Some stories of academic dark arts even appear in academic journals.  See this example from the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Dear Plagiarist: A Letter to a Peer Reviewer Who Stole and Published Our Manuscript as His Own 

Michael Dansinger, MD 

Dr. Doctor,

I am aware that you recently admitted to wrongly publishing, as your own, a scientific research paper that I had submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine. After serving as an external peer reviewer on our manuscript, you published that same manuscript in a different medical journal a few months later. You removed the names of the authors and the research site, replacing them with the names of your coauthors and your institution.

It took 5 years from conceptualization of the study to publication of the primary analysis. This study was my fellowship project and required a lot of work. It took effort to find the right research team, design the study, raise the funds, get approvals, recruit and create materials for study participants, run the diet classes, conduct the study visits, compile and analyze the study data, and write the initial report. The work was funded by the U.S. government and my academic institution. The secondary analysis that you reviewed for Annals used specialized methods that took my colleagues many years to develop and validate. In all, this body of research represents at least 4000 hours of work. When you published our work as your own, you were falsely claiming credit for all of this work and for the expertise gained by doing it. ….

The dark arts are always played out on unsuspecting and trusting victims. But worryingly, it seems that those who have been harmed by the academic dark arts often suffer more than the perpetrators.

Some victims do stay in the academy, just coping with what has happened. Others leave. Some who leave also speak out. Take this story for example…

At the top of my inbox was an email from Academia.edu alerting me that a professor on my dissertation committee, we’ll call them Dr. Mao here, had uploaded a paper they had recently published in a journal that I loved. Curious, I downloaded the paper and read it as I waited my turn.

As I read it, my stomach churned and my heart dropped. The constant murmur of conversation around me fell away, and all of a sudden, I was completely alone with my thoughts as I scrolled through the essay. The language was so familiar, though the argument had been expertly changed just enough. It sounded like my paper, one that I had sent to Dr. Mao for advice a year earlier. I never received that advice, but I guess it had been read after all.

The paper was something I was incredibly proud of; I knew what a good idea it was, and I knew that I needed to hold it close and reveal it only when I was ready to publish. To make matters worse, I had just integrated it into a chapter of my dissertation. It was the hinge point in my argument…

This is a story about the privilege of power enjoyed by a supervisor. It involves a dispute over whether a doctoral researcher’s ideas were stolen. It concerns the serious consequences experienced by the doctoral researcher when she took action. Chilling.  (Read the whole story on Why I left academia Parts 1-3.)

And of course, some of the stories are fictions. I’ve just read a book written by a doctoral leaver –  Karin Bodewits. The book, You must be very intelligent : The PhD delusion, is billed as part memoire, part fiction. Bodewits tells the story of an underfunded lab and its team of unsuspecting PhDs. Their supervisor,  a bullying academic focused only on his own career advancement, spectacularly fails to support doctoral research projects. Instead, he puts the hapless postgrads to work on an ever-changing set of faddish experiments. He subjects them to unethical neglect interspersed with abusive tirades.

If we believe Bodewits, questionable practices around research integrity, fair authorship and equitable and transparent processes for allocation of funds and networking opportunities dominate everyday life in this lab, and others. You see, it’s not entirely clear in Bodewits’ book what is fact and what is fiction. She says at the start of the book that it is not a diary. But I reckon a lot of readers will speculate about how much of the book was actually her experience. Readers will wonder how much the book is an amalgamation of true stories. The real cases we know about are not so different.

Bodewits doesn’t help the reader out in sorting fact from fiction. A Social Science researcher would certainly have spent more time at the beginning of the book discussing anonymity and ethics. And perhaps connected the lab in the book to a light-touch structural analysis.

You see, the most widely practiced academic dark arts revolve around selfish competition and ruthless self-promotion (1).  We usually think that these academic dark arts result from individual bad behaviour. Cases are rare, aberrant.  But… As a social scientist, I have to ask –  can phenomena that seem to happen so often be a matter of individual malpractice? Doesn’t the common knowledge we all have of these kinds of dark arts stories suggest that something more structural is involved? What if the dark arts are not simply about individuals with a poor moral code but something more systemic? What if the dark arts are encouraged and kept alive by academic funding, promotion, publication and audit systems that rewards a chosen few? And, what do we do about professors who practice the dark arts?

Well I’m going to leave that question for a moment and continue talking about the dark arts in part two. But do remember that if there are dark arts, there is also, thanks to J K Rowling, the now popular notion of defence against the dark arts  …

(1) Oh dear, someone used this phrase recently in conversation with me . Apologies I’ve forgotten who you are.

Image credit: Sarah Eling Flickr Commons

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creative re-vision


If you have a writing practice which begins with a quickly written and almost inevitably loose first draft, then you need a range of strategies that you can call on to beat the text into shape. And even if you start your writing by planning, you’ll undoubtedly write something at some point which just doesn’t work as you thought it would.

It’s time for revision.

There are some obvious approaches to revising a very crappy first draft – perhaps (re)writing an abstract or outline now that you know better what to say and using it as a road map for some cut and paste work. Perhaps using Rachel Cayley’s approach to reverse outlining.

However, you may well find yourself stuck. At the end of the first draft you can’t quite see how to kick off the revising process. You have words. All. The. Words. But they don’t seem amenable to being moved around. They resist your interventions.

If this is you, then it might be time for a bit of radical re-visioning. You need to see your text in a different light.


Here are seven playful strategies to get you into the spirit of re-vision. They require you to move things around to see where and how the rewriting needs to happen. They are intended to disrupt the ways in which you have already thought about your topic. They distance you from your text.

The seven strategies are  from Kristen Iversen’s book  Shadow Boxing. Art and craft in creative non-fiction. Iversen describes these strategies as ways to ‘trick your rational mind’. She advocates exercises which ‘help remove, at least temporarily, the emotional attachment you may feel to a particular piece of writing’. While Iversen’s strategies were written for creative non–fiction writers, they also work for scholarly writing – they can spark off new insights about the argument you want to make.

Seven playful and creative strategies for re-vision. Seeing anew. As Iversen urges, ‘Learn to love revision, not to fight it. Keep yourself open to creative possibilities.’

Iversen’s creative strategies for re-vision

  1. Find the best line you have written. Use it as the beginning sentence of the new paper.
  2. Remove the first paragraph and start from the second.
  3. Remove the first page and start from the second.
  4. Take the last paragraph and use it as your starter.
  5. Find your best paragraph and start the piece there.
  6. Throw the pages in the air to form a new order. Use this to make a new outline.
  7. Cut the first three pages into paragraphs. Turn them over, face down so you can only see the blank sides. Arrange them in a new and random order. Turn them over so that you can read them again. What do you see? What new sense has been made and where?

(Adapted from Iversen, 2004, pp 171-172)

If you’re stuck with nowhere to go with your first draft, it may be a very good idea to tear yourself away from the staring at the screen. Try out a couple of these more creative and radical re-visioning strategies and see what you can see.

Re-vision. Yes.


You may like to check out Iversen’s book in your university library. You may like to also check out a collection of patter posts on revising and editing.

Image credit,: Mongoose Flemmish, Flickr Commons

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