Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Don’t Neglect Your Data!

English: Histogram of sepal widths for Iris ve...
Histogram of research data (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This situation comes up a lot, especially when I speak to social scientists.

A student has 1 year left before they have to submit their PhD thesis. They have written 10s of thousands of words. They have read countless articles. They have an outline of their thesis and a few drafts of some of their chapters.

They have some good ideas, they have a good knowledge of their field, and have done all their data collection … but they have done zero data analysis. Sometimes, they won’t have transcribed their interviews. Some won’t have even listened to the interviews since they conducted them (perhaps several years ago).

This leaves them in a very precarious situation; with only a few months remaining, not knowing whether there is anything useful in their data, and not knowing how to find out. They have to learn how to do the analysis for the first time under enormous pressure, with no opportunity to redo any of the practical work should there be a problem with the data (or to further investigate anything interesting).

It’s a nightmare situation, but so easily avoidable if you start learning how to do data analysis as early as possible. This includes;
  • Learning how to use the software you need (eg NVIVO)
  • Putting data in an appropriate format (transcription)
  • Basic analytical techniques (coding)
You don’t need a full data set to get started. It doesn’t even need to be real data. Starting early means that you be more comfortable with the analysis once you do have a full data set, and having an understanding of the analytical process will help you get better quality data. Don’t neglect your data, and don’t treat the analysis as something you can throw together at the end.

What to do if you have neglected your data until now

First, make sure you know where the data is, then start on whatever formatting needs to be done. For example, if you have audio recordings of interviews, these will probably need to be transcribed. Many underestimate how long this takes, so start immediately.

Once you have one transcribed file, that’s enough to load into whatever software you are using so you can play around with the basics of analysis. If you know someone who has used the software before, ask them nicely if they can show you what their process is for analysing data. If you don’t know anyone, find some online tutorials to get you started.

You must then get all your data into a usable state. Until this is done, you don’t really have anything to work with. It’s time-consuming and can be tedious, but it has to be done. Try to put together a checklist so you have a consistent process to follow. Take note of where you save every file, and ALWAYS keep an unaltered copy of the original raw data.

Only once you have the data in an analyzable form can you start to figure out whether you have anything valuable. The earlier you do this, the better.

"Box of floppy disks and USB memory stick" by JIP - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Box of floppy disks and USB memory stick” by JIPOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Impact Sensationalism: A Means to an End?

by : https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/impact-sensationalism/

Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com
Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com
Jenn Chubb is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of York examining the philosophical effects of the impact agenda in the UK. Jenn’s background is in Philosophy and she has a particular interest in virtue ethics, academic freedom and the philosophy of science. She tweets at @jennchubb

Richard Watermeyer is a Sociologist of education specialising in critical social studies of higher education. His research interests include higher education policy, management and governance; academic identity and practice; public engagement; impact; and neoliberalism. He tweets at @rpwatermeyer.

We recently published an article in the Journal of Studies in Higher Education titled ‘Artifice or integrity in the marketization of research impact? Investigating the moral economy of (pathways to) impact statements within research funding proposals in the UK and Australia.

Our paper reveals that the need to articulate the potential impact of research, where it is not immediately obvious, can lead academics to embellish and create stories or charades about the impact of their work. Impact projections were described as “illusions”; “virtually meaningless”, “made up stories” - that were seen as necessary in order to secure a professional advantage.

This is perhaps not entirely surprising. After all, in making a pitch for funding researchers are inherently ‘selling’ themselves or their ideas. Polishing or enhancing claims may be the default position to make sure that a proposal stands out. However, the extent to which this is being done may signal a deeper, systemic moral dilemma concerning the integrity of competitive research funding processes.

Impact in the UK and Australia

In recent years, research councils in the UK and Australia have required applicants to include projections of potential impact in their funding proposals. In addition to this, impact is a component of the Research Exercise Framework, an exercise used to assess the quality of the UK’s research. A consultation concerning impact as a companion piece to Australia’s own national research evaluation exercise, the Excellence in Research for Australia, has also just been completed.

‘Impact’ (the effect and influence that research has on the non-academic environment) has been the subject of significant debate recently. Its critics claim that it has the potential to impede academic freedom, whilst its proponents cite the enrichment of research and public accountability.

Importantly, Research Councils UK maintain that excellent research is the primary criteria for the assessment of grant applications and that impact is a secondary concern. They make clear in their policies that where no route to impact is perceived, a researcher should instead use that part of the application to explain why this is the case. In their Pathways to Impact advice, they state:
“It is expected that being able to describe a pathways to impact will apply for the vast majority of proposals. In the few exceptions where this is not the case, the Pathways to Impact statement should be used to fully justify the reasons why this is not possible”.
Those critical of the impact agenda suggest that to be asked the impact question: ‘how will (non-academics) benefit from this research’, is just an indirect way of asking what the impact will be. There is still little evidence as to how much an impact statement can influence the outcome of a funding decision.

Some academics in our study claimed that impact was not something they considered to be a deciding factor when assessing grants, others claimed the complete opposite. A researcher’s interpretation, conceptualization and confidence in the policies in place influences their behavior in responding to this agenda. There appears, therefore, to be a disconnect in understanding what funders require and separating how this might play out in reality within peer-review.

Despite the messages set out by policy, our study identified that academics clearly locate a sense of moral tension when having to answer the impact question. This was particularly the case for academics in theoretical disciplines or ‘pure’ and blue skies research.
If I want to do basic science I have to tell you lies - UK, Professor.
The primary motivator for embellishment was the need to secure research funds, a regrettable but perhaps necessary evil:
Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money - yes - UK, Professor.
Many claimed that this was a symptom of academic life and expressed a survival instinct over their decisions to embellish the truth. Participants felt that fiercely upholding any moral imperative to be truthful could risk one’s own job, perhaps suggesting that the moral question of impact lies not with the academics themselves, but with those demanding it:
If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable - Australia, Professor.
The other concerns articulated by our interviewees were more localized, with academics reporting that the need to predict impact at the outset of the research was simply unscientific, and not feasible:
The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ - Australia, Professor.
Others claimed that this ran counter to the research process itself, and that it was in direct conflict with the very philosophies and principles of science:
It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda - and that is it’s not true it’s wrong - it flies in the face of scientific practice - UK, Professor.
To ultimately conform to what many described as a neoliberal mandate in a now marketised higher education environment seemed, for a large number of our academics, to be the only answer. However, for some, this was tempered with the ability to draw a distinction between impact sensationalism and being disingenuous in applications:
They’re telling a good story as to how this might fit into the bigger picture. That’s what I’m talking about. It might require a bit of imagination, it’s not telling lies. It’s just maybe being imaginative - Australia, Lecturer.
Perhaps integrity is therefore not at risk - it’s just “creative people telling creative stories” as one of our interviewees believed? The picture on this front is less than straightforward.

Is integrity at risk?

For some, the prominence of perceived game-playing, insincerity and a tacit coercion to inflate the truth surely risks the view that academics are truthful authorities, worthy of the trust of the communities that support them. For others, the response came that the moral obligation sits not with those at its mercy but with those who impose it and, ultimately, those who assess it. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between.

We have seen how the research councils in the UK and Australia repeatedly reassure academics that the primary assessment of grants is the excellence of the research itself.

When our paper was published, it prompted significant debate on Twitter and in online news outlets such as the Conversation. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) also ran a feature on it including comments from Professor Aidan Byrne (former Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council) who stated that ‘a small number of proposals did go too far, but most were accurate and all were heavily examined’. He claimed that the peer review will protect integrity and sift out bogus claims of impact:
“The proposals are reviewed by experts who do have a really good and sharp sense of what’s plausible and what’s implausible, and what’s fictitious and what’s not” - Professor Byrne, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council.
Indeed, our own research was described using sensationalist headlines that were elaborations of what we found. There are, however, issues to be discussed given the testimonies of academics who are struggling, and feeling the need to embellish and dramatize the important work they do.

Despite reassurance from those who create research policy, the testimonies provided in our study tell a somewhat problematic, less straightforward story about research impact policy.

Our findings raise the concern that policies that encourage certain behaviors that run counter to the intrinsic moral fabric of academics risks becoming ineffective for all parties.

Monday, August 29, 2016

18 Digital Tools and Strategies That Support Students’ Reading and Writing

(Brad Flickinger/Flickr)
“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them …”.
Levesque said she wants to make sure teachers and students are aware of tools that could help them, and to develop the agency to choose what works for them. Some students use many tools to bolster their writing and build skills, others don’t use any. The idea is to give students a toolbox they can continually return to both in school and in life beyond its doors.

“Kids have different learning styles,” Levesque said. “Why should I make them learn in a way that’s not their strength.” She said often teachers let students know about the district’s sites for writing, reading and research tools at the beginning of school and then let them decide what will work for them throughout the year.

Marissa Broyles taught English and social studies to a class or sixth graders who needed extra support last year. She experimented with many of the tools Levesque has compiled and saw how her willingness to be flexible as a teacher made her students feel supported.

One girl with dyslexia could easily have been mistaken for being further behind than she really was because of how much she struggled with writing. “That was her only barrier, and it was so sad for me because she’s one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught, but the dyslexia was really getting in her way,” Broyles said.

Broyles began allowing the student to use Screencastify, a Chrome extension that lets users record a video of what’s happening on their screen while voicing an explanation. The student would pull up a digital copy of a book, for example, find evidence to support her claims, and explain her thinking orally. All her moves on the computer, as well as her exposition, were recorded, showing Broyles the complexity of her thinking.

When Broyles presented to her middle school colleagues about the success of this approach she got push back from some teachers who wondered when the girl would learn crucial writing skills if she was always allowed to use the work around.

“At that point I wanted to know her thinking,” Broyles said. “I didn’t really care about the physical act of her writing, and I wasn’t scoring her on the writing.” But at other times they did focus on the mechanics of writing, and the student did improve. But Broyles doesn’t believe a student should have to write as a prerequisite to having ideas. Even better, the student learned to advocate for herself, identifying some assignments when Screencastify was appropriate and others when writing was necessary.

That student is now entering seventh grade, where she won’t have the same intensive support that she had last year, but Broyles feels confident that she now has a bag of tools to rely on for her assignments. And, since all students at this middle school have Chromebooks, no one has to know when she’s using a support or not.

Both Broyles and Levesque say the important thing is for kids to begin to think metacognitively about what they need to succeed in school and to advocate for what works. Not every student will use the same tools, but there are lots of powerful ones that could be the slight boost a student needs to feel successful. 


Graphic organizers are a common way teachers try to support kids to brainstorm ideas and organize them into cohesive arguments. But some students might not find graphic organizers inspiring or exciting, and since the ideas, not the worksheet are what is important, Levesque has compiled many tools kids might use to organize their thoughts.

For example, some kids still prefer to write and draw ideas on paper, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do that even if their ultimate writing product will be digital. Students can easily take a snapshot of written thoughts to document them digitally. Or they could download a variety of visual templates Levesque has compiled or even use a tool like Answer Garden to generate a word cloud. “It’s just one more way to capture it,” Levesque said. 


Many students who struggle with writing get hung up when it comes to putting the first ideas to paper. But if teachers help them see drafting - the first iteration of a writing piece - as a separate step from editing, there are many ways to help students jump this initial hurdle.

Voice typing could be one such strategy. “Just have the kid talk about their topic, and at least they can draft it out and then have time to edit,” Levesque said. After getting those initial ideas down, a student can spend time restructuring sentences and improving the vocabulary. Often having something to work with can make this process smoother and it helps students begin to see multiple drafts and editing as a crucial part of writing. Levesque also noted voice typing is good for students still learning English, especially because it can translate languages.

“Drafting is for ideas and editing is where you’re going to start making sure all those ideas are right,” Levesque said. That’s why she often encourages students to “remove spelling suggestions” for documents in the drafting stage. When kids aren’t paralyzed by the squiggly red line indicating spelling mistakes it’s often easier for them to get their ideas down. 


At this stage, students are working to make their sentences crisp and clear and to use higher level vocabulary words to express their points. Levesque said many of Littleton’s teachers use a strategy called “find richer words” when students are editing digital documents. Right clicking on a word in Google Docs brings up a list of synonyms. The student can choose a richer word and make a note to the teacher about the word used previously.

“We see a lot of teachers doing this so when they have time to edit [students] work they have a quick visual of what were those edits that they made,” Levesque said. This is also a good time to turn spelling suggestions back on and clean up any mistakes.

Teachers can also look at the full revision history of a document to see the progression and changes a student has made over time. Many students have appreciated learning about revision history when they delete a paragraph and what to recover it in a later draft.

Levesque has also written up careful directions for ways students can embed snapshots or images and then label them. In science, students will often take a picture of their lab station, upload it as a drawing, and then add arrows and text to label each element. 


“When it comes to writing, we’re changing our writing product to not just be a writing piece,” Levesque said. Teachers in her district are trying to honor the strengths of different students within the same assignment by assigning an artistic representation and an audio description alongside writing.

“The reason this example stuck with me is maybe this kid’s writing is not their strength, but wow did they showcase on their speaking part, or the art piece,” Levesque said. The writing is still important, but honoring the strengths of the whole child can give students confidence that their ideas will be understood.

Teachers are also experimenting with publishing to more authentic audiences. In one assignment, elementary students published their art pieces online and high school students wrote poems based on that art before publishing them again. Levesque said the elementary students were thrilled that high school students had taken the time to appreciate, interpret and reinterpret their work. And having the same ideas bouncing around within the district in multiple mediums and multiple times strengthened the meaning of the work. 


Evaluating is important for both teachers and students. It’s important for students to be able to identify accurate sources and understand online permissions as they work on writing and multimedia projects. Levesque has put together some exercises teachers can use with students to get them in the habit of carefully evaluating the accuracy of online sources.

And when teachers evaluate student work within an online environment they have a huge advantage; they can see the revision history and comments from students about their changes, which also have a time stamp. Levesque recommends teachers embed the rubric for an assignment at the bottom of a Google Doc so students know exactly what’s expected of them. Rubistar is an easy way to create a rubric. They can also give examples of specific skills they’d like to see so students know what’s expected of them. 


“These tools help scaffold reading for many of our readers who can’t access certain texts,” Levesque said. “Kids use tools they think they need.” She has compiled a list of Chrome extensions that help kids access dictionaries and pronunciations they don’t know, as well as Speak It and Read&Write, which offer audio supports for students having difficulty reading text.

“Some kids are using this a lot especially in content areas like science where there are a lot of vocabulary words,” Levesque said. Some teachers she works with no longer compile vocabulary lists for students. Instead students make lists of the words they don’t know with definitions and examples as they read.

Levesque was surprised at how excited her high school teachers were to discover a tool called Rewordify, which allows students to paste a link and get back a version with simpler words and sentence constructions. When students hover over highlighted areas the original, richer text shows up so they can gradually build their vocabulary and familiarity with difficult texts.

Levesque also recommends Newsela and the free and nearly identical tool Tween Tribune for non-fiction readings offered at various reading levels. The app offers texts in both Spanish and English. 


Research is a central skill for students and yet often teachers don’t give them questions that require the synthesis, analysis and critical thinking inherent in good research. Levesque has compiled resources to help teachers design “thicker questions” that push students to use multiple sources, analyze them, develop an opinion and connect to the real world.

There are lots of useful digital tools to help students keep track of information they find online and to cite it correctly. The easiest is the research tool within Google Docs, which pulls up a whole list of resources related to any right-clicked word, and can be filtered by license or type of search. If students pull quotes, images or tables into a research document they’ll also get a link back to the original site and information about how to correctly cite it.

Younger kids can get overwhelmed by text-heavy search results might enjoy using Instagrok. This tool will return a concept map related to the topic, instead of text heavy articles. That could help students plot a roadmap for their research without getting overwhelmed and frustrated.

Levesque finds students are often most appreciative for little tips or tricks that make their researching more efficient or less frustrating. For example, they were thrilled when she told them that if they accidentally closed a tab in Chrome they could re-open it by right-clicking on the previous tab and selecting “reopen closed tab.”

Students can also “pin tabs” that they are continually going back to so they don’t accidentally close them. A frustrating moment like that can discourage students from continuing with their research, and little tricks help smooth the process.

“Being aware of the small things that help with transitions my students say are crazy important,” Levesque said. For example, students were thrilled to learn about “bookmark all tabs” for those moments when they have ten tabs with research open and the bell rings. It helps them save all the research they’ve carefully found and they can open them all easily next time they need their work.

Above all, Levesque wants to build self-confidence in students and teachers around helpful tools. After that, it’s up to the individual to own what strategies are helpful and which can be ignored. 

Explore: Digital Tools, , ,

Author, Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

Five Ways to Structure a Literature Review

  • A chronology
As the name suggests, this is an historical map of the field. In writing historically, your intention is to show how your research either adds logically to what has gone before, or to show how your research challenges a taken for granted assumption in the field, or how it advances a particular body of work in the field. In doing this kind of temporal mapping, you need to highlight the key texts, groups and categories that your work is building on and/or speaking to. Even though a chronology is  linear, you need to also trace threads and associations through your chosen timeline.

  • Major themes
You might choose to just focus on mapping the current themes or topics in the field Your intention here is to show how your research connects to, uses and adds/speaks to contemporary themes/topics. You structure the thematic review through either an examination of the kinds of questions that have been asked and the topics that have been studied, or a look at the key concepts and categories that have been developed and used, or even a look at methodological and methods that are used.

  • The canon/classic studies
This can be standalone, a variation on either (1) or (2) or may also appear as a subsection of either of them. Your intention in a canonic review is to show how your research fits with the studies that can’t be ignored. This kind of literatures review is always heavily evaluative and comparative, so you usually need to set out some explicit criteria, drawn from your research question, that allows you discuss specific texts in some detail. You need to make a very clear connection with your study. One of the metaphors used for this kind of literature work is a tree, where the ‘trunk’ of the discipline is its classic studies.

  • The  wheel
Research very often draws on more than one body of literatures. These might be from different disciplines or be literatures that have been used to address very different topics. Your intention in the wheel-like review is to show that the originality of your research stems from the ways in which you’ve brought together areas that are usually kept apart. This bringing together is clearly elaborated in the discussion of literatures, where each formerly separate chunk is discussed in relation to your research interest. You need to draw out the key contributions of each corpus of literatures and their relevance to your research. You also need to show very clearly the ways in which the various spokes work together- you must show how the various spokes relate to and support the centre of the wheel - this is where your research is situated.

  • The pyramid
A pyramid literature review places your research in its context. Your intention is to show how your research interest is shaped and framed by other events/practices/people/policies etc. The literature review can be organised to start from the tip - what there is written about your specific topic already - and then move out and down through relevant contextualising literatures. More commonly, the pyramid is inverted, and the review begins with the wider context, honing in ever closer to your topic. The concluding tip section of the inverted pyramid review is what is written about your particular topic. By then you have indicated all of the potential issues and insights you will need to bring to your study.

There are of course variations on these  five structures and various ways to combine them. You will ‘bespoke’ your literature review to fit your topic. However, if you are at a stuck point with structure it can help to simply brainstorm how you would organise your material in some or all of these ways.

It is crucial to remember that the literature review is not a summary, a description or a list! Because the literature review is always an argument about why your research is the way that it is, some play with structure will help you to think through which set of moves allow you to make the most persuasive case.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Emotional Side of Leaving Academia

Guest contributor Virginia Schutte
by Jack Leeming, Nature.com: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2016/02/19/the-emotional-side-of-leaving-academia/

It took a lot for Virginia Schutte to set aside the feeling that she was wasting her PhD. Guest contributor Virginia Schutte.

I’m transitioning from a traditional academic career to one in science communication. There are many challenges that come with this shift, but I didn’t expect the process to be so emotionally difficult.

I left my academic career path in the best possible situation. I have a great relationship with my PhD advisor and everyone I talk to is encouraging when it comes to my new direction. But in my academic experience, changing position meant moving up, or at least adding something to my CV.

Graduating and then immediately starting at the bottom of the ladder in a new career felt like I was moving backwards; I was convinced that I had disappointed the people who invested in me because I was “wasting” my PhD.

Most of all, I struggled to accept that being employed during this career transition might mean taking a non-science job while I acquire skills and reshape myself professionally. I’d attached my identity so strongly to scientific research for so long that giving up that work was like losing a part of myself.

These emotions crippled my career advancement for months - I stalled my own progress by second-guessing my attempts at advancement instead of just working to advance. By believing I was failing, I actually was.

Now I’ve finished feeling this way. I can confidently answer when people ask me what I do, even if I’m talking to an academic: I’m an English teacher, but I’m also a media consultant. I talk about science online while I work towards landing a full-time communications job that connects the public with science. I’m driven and am once again excited to see where I end up.

Here are a few things that helped me leave my corrosive emotions behind and make real progress towards starting my new career:

1) Distinguishing unemployment from failure. Employment gaps are horrifying when you’re working your way through the academic system, so taking the time to build a new skill set and find a transitional job after graduation was always going to be difficult. But it takes time to shift careers. This is not the same as wasting time, even if I do not produce a tangible product or add a specific line to my resume each day. As a top headhunter says, “I don’t mind [employment] gaps so long as there’s a sufficient explanation.”

2) Taking charge of my rebranding. I had none of my academically-rooted confidence when it came to my new career path. I wasn’t just unsure whether I had the necessary skills to advance - I was certain that I didn’t. This changed after I sought help from the career center at the University of Georgia (my graduate institution). While reworking my resume and cover letter to convince others that I could succeed as a science communicator, I convinced myself. But more importantly, I realised that I have the skills to identify and use the tools that I will need in order to complete this journey.

3) Organizing my goals. Everything I did as a graduate student was planned to lead ultimately to professorship. Shifting professions muddied my career path and diversified my goals so I ended up questioning my priorities daily: it didn’t seem possible that I could get my dream job without first expanding my skillset, but it also felt wrong to spend time applying for something that I didn’t want to do forever. Now I spend my time working towards three goals: finding something to keep the next 6 months fun, securing a full-time transitional job, and landing my rest-of-life job. Laying out my goals according to these 3 timescales lets me see why each objective is worthwhile and that working towards one doesn’t mean that I’m neglecting the others.

The vast majority of science PhDs will now find work outside of the academic system. This figure gives a detailed breakdown of the 92% of biology doctoral graduates, for example, who will not become professors. At the same time, graduate students are trained almost exclusively by professors. This set-up assumes and naturally encourages a mindset that a professor position is the career to aim for.

If you leave academia, remember that you’ll have to adjust your psyche as well as your application materials. Be prepared to overcome emotional barriers on your path to a new career, and if you find yourself getting in your own way, fix it.

Virginia Schutte earned her ecology PhD from the University of Georgia in 2014. She worked in tropical mangrove forests for her dissertation research, but now works to connect the public with the science that will improve their lives. She currently lives in Germany, where she is building her credentials working with science in the media. You can read her other post on Naturejobs, covering how to handle sexism on social media, here.

Seven Upgrade Strategies for a Problematic Article or Chapter

Image result for The art of academic writing
by Prof Patrick Dunleavy, Writing For Research, Medium: https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/seven-upgrade-strategies-for-a-problematic-article-or-chapter-3c6b81be9aa2#.3o7ypr198

Do one thing well. Flatten the structure. Say it once, say it right. Try paragraph re-planning. Make the motivation clearer. Strengthen the argument tokens. Improve the data and exhibits.

I guess every researcher and academic writer has often faced the task of trying to upgrade a piece of work that just will not come out right.

 Sometimes it’s clear what the problem is, and colleagues, friends or supervisors who read the article or chapter can make concrete suggestions for change. But often it’s not so clear-cut. Readers are cordial but obviously unenthused. There’s nothing massively wrong, but the piece feels thin or unconvincing in some diffuse way.

Sometimes too the problem occurs well before you want anyone else to read your text. If it is a one-off piece of research then maybe it can just be filed for later reconsideration. But often the research plan in a grant bid, or the book contents page crafted a year ago, or the PhD structure devised two or more years ago, mean that an article or chapter just has to get done. Here an unsatisfactory first draft is not just much less than you’d hoped for at the distant planning stage, but instead a depressing roadblock to completing a whole, long-term project.

At times like these it is handy to have a set of standard things to try to improve matters - familiar strategies that you can frequently use, deploying them quickly because you’re deliberately not treating each article or chapter as sui generis or unique. Everyone has their own moves for coping with the upgrade task. Here are my top seven, in hopes that some of them work for you. 

1. Do one thing well. Many writing problems stem from trying to do too much within the same few pages, causing texts to inflate beyond journal length limits (often fatal for passing review), or just introducing ‘confuser’ themes that referees love to jump on. ‘I’m not clear if the author is advocating X, or trying to do Y’. Keeping it simple (within well defended boundaries) makes things clearer, so long as your paper is also substantive i.e don’t go from this point to try and ‘salami slice’ a given piece of research across multiple journal articles. A nice blog by pat Thompson puts this point alongside other common mistakes.
2. Flatten the structure. All articles in social science should be 8,000 words or less and most chapters are similar or verge up to 10,000 words. Given the attention span of serious, research readers, you need a sub-heading about every 2,000 words or so - that’s just four or five main sub-headings in total. They should all be first-order sub-heads, at the same level, and preferably dividing the text up into similar-sized chunks, that come in a predictable way and have a common rhythm. If you have two or three tiers of sub-headings in a hierarchy, make it simpler.

In other fields, length limits are much less - e.g. just 3,000 words for medical journal articles. So the numbers of subheadings needed here will be correspondingly reduced.

Each of your section headings should be substantive (not just formal, conventional, vacuous or interogative). Ideally they should give readers a logically sequenced set of narrative cues, about what you did, and what you have found out. You can add a short Conclusions section with its own smaller kind of heading. Also, never label the beginning bit of text ‘Introduction’ - this is already blindingly obvious.

Many structural problems and inaccessible text are caused by people using outliner software to create overly hierarchized sets of headings at multiple levels, made worse still by adding complex numbering systems (e.g section to ‘help’ readers. At an extreme, an analytic over-fragmentation of the text results, with sections, sub-sections and sub-sub sections proliferating in bizarre complexity. The text can become like the traditional British tinned desert called ‘fruit cocktail’, which contains many different kinds of fruit, but all in small cubes and smothered in a syrup so thick that you cannot taste at all what any component is.

The writing coach, Thomas Basboll, shrewdly remarked that: “A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case … the [typical academic] article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis (or “results” section) will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but “knowing” something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions”.

3. Say it once, say it right. Nothing is so corrosive of readers’ confidence in a writer than repeating things. Academic readers are not like soap opera fans - they do not need a thing previewed, then actually said, then resaid, and then summarized. So it a bad idea to take one decent point and fragment it across your text in little bits. If your current structure is forcing you to do this, recast it to make this problem go away.

Simple, big block structures are generally best. Complex structures, with points developed recursively on in frequent discrete iterations, are easier to mess up. Close to every nuance of your own argument, you may well feel that you are thematically advancing, embroidering and extending your arguments each time you come back to a linked point. But readers will just see repetition. So, say each point once - and say it right first time.

This motto also has resonance at the micro-level. Fellow scientists or academics normally do not need points to be so hammered home that every tiny scintilla of meaning has been triple-locked in case some doubt remains. This way lies turgid prose (as Voltaire shrewdly remarked: ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’).

4. Try paragraph re-planning, as discussed in my separate blogpost. This is a great technique for really helping you understand what you have done/got in the existing draft of your article or chapter. Rachael Cayley has a similar approach, which she calls ‘reverse outlining’. The core idea is to start with your finished text and then to resurface a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that. Looking at this synoptic view of your whole text, you should find it easier to come up with an alternative Plan B sequence for your text. Unless you are a genius writer already, re-modelling text is an inescapable burden at multiple stages of securing acceptance by a journal.

5. Make the motivation clearer. Give readers a stronger sense of why the research has been done, why the topic is salient and how the findings illuminate important problems. Researchers who live with their topic over months and years often lose track of why they started, why they shaped the study as they did, and what the significance of their findings is for a larger audience. If a text is not working, or not quite working, the author is often too close-up to the detail of the findings, too convinced that the study could only have been done this way and that its importance is ‘obvious’. Being unable to write an effective conclusion is a good ‘tell’ for this problem - an apparently separate symptom that is actually closely linked.

Trying to achieve a high impact start for an article (or a clean, forward-looking beginning to each chapter in a book or PhD) can help readers to better appreciate a motive for reading on. A quick start usually helps readers commit to learning more.

6. Strengthen the argument tokens. At research level every paragraph draws on ‘tokens’ to sustain the case being made - which might be literature citations, supportive quotations, empirical evidence, or systematic data presented in charts or tables (see point 7). On citations, quotes or evidence it is usually worthwhile to ask if your search and presentation could be made more convincing - for instance, by multiplying references, showing evidence of systematic and inclusive search, more methodical evidence-gathering, or simply updating and refreshing a literature search that is now a little dated. People often do a literature search at an early stage of their research, when they only understand their topic rather poorly - but then neglect to do a ‘top up’ search just before submission, when they are likely to be much better at recognizing material that is relevant.

7. Improve the data and exhibits. This works at two levels. First, at an overall level it is important to design effective exhibits that display in a consistent way and follow good design principles. Second, at the level of each chart, table or diagram, make sure you provide full and accurate labelling of what is being shown, and that the data being reported are in a form that will matter to readers - not ‘dead on arrival’. 

To follow up these ideas in more detail see my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 5 covers ‘Writing clearly’ and Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’.

There is also very useful advice on Rachael Cayley’s blog Explorations of Style and on Thomas Bassboll’s blog ‘Research as a second language’.

And for new update materials see the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter@Write4Research

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Will the Examiner Tear My Thesis Apart?

Image result for thesis examination
by : http://jameshaytonphd.com/will-the-examiner-tear-my-thesis-apart/

You’ve done years of research, you’ve got the results, you’ve done the analysis, drawn your conclusions … but what if the examiner tears your thesis apart?

Obviously you want to avoid the humiliation of having your thesis torn to pieces. So here are the 7 deadly sins of thesis writing to avoid at all costs.

1. Lies

Any hint that you’ve fabricated results, or tried to cover up major problems by lying, and the examiner will tear you apart. If you feel tempted (or pressured) to lie about your research in your thesis or in published journals, it’s really time to have a good look at your situation, and talk honestly with someone you trust. The temptation is understandable, but it’s just not worth it.

2. Bullshit

Distinct from outright lies, bullshit involves trying to give the impression of expertise in a subject you actually know very little about. It’s tempting to try to appear like you know everything, but it’s far better to give more detail on subjects you are genuinely expert in.

3. Plagiarism

Even if you get away with plagiarism in your thesis, you can lose your doctorate if someone finds out later. This happened to the German defence minister in 2011. It is sometimes hard to paraphrase other people’s writing, so it’s better to try explaining the idea to someone verbally then writing about it in your own way. Never sit with the paper in front of you and try to rearrange sentences to make it look different. It just doesn’t work.

4. Misrepresentation of other people’s work

You will have to write about other people’s work, and give references to back up your arguments. It’s very, very important that you know what these references actually say, because the examiner will tear you apart if you misrepresent other people’s work (especially if it is the examiner’s work). Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.

5. Getting the basics wrong

It’s OK to have the occasional mistake, but if you make a fundamental mistake in your assumptions which then undermines your conclusions, then you are in trouble.

6. Ignorance

While you aren’t expected to know everything, you should have a good knowledge of relevant developments in your field and some knowledge beyond your highly specialised niche. It depends how broad your field is, but at the very least you should be aware of who the top people are and the most highly cited papers.

7. Lack of insight

What does it all mean? How does your work relate to the wider field? What are the limitations of your research and what open questions remain (or are raised)? You have to give the examiner an idea of what and how you think, beyond just the dry technical details. You have to be willing to commit to what you think, and know that you can defend it.

It will be OK!

If you avoid these 7 sins, as long as the basic research is OK (it doesn’t have to change the world), and as long as you write honestly and don’t stray too far from what you are expert in, then you should be OK. 

James Hayton 

Author of "PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life"