Tag Archives: Academics

Q. Should PhD students blog? A. Yes.

I wish I could go back and rewrite everything I have published, including my PhD. If I knew then what I know now: I would get to the point quicker and describe its importance to a far wider audience than my supervisor and a few dedicated journal readers. To do so, I would exhibit the skills you develop when you write frequently for an ‘intelligent lay’ audience.

These are the writing traits that I think you develop when just writing for academics:

  1. You assume a specialist audience, familiar with key terms. So, you use jargon as shorthand without explaining its meaning. The downside is that the jargon often doesn’t have a particularly clear meaning. When you blog, you assume a non-specialist audience. You use less jargon, or you explain its meaning and value.
  2. You treat the exercise as a detective novel with a big reveal: a nice, vague opening discussion (passive tense optional), a main body of text to build up the suspense, and finally the big twist at the end. Ta da! Wow, I didn’t see that coming. When you blog, you assume that people will not read your work unless you front-load the reveal. You have a catchy and tweetable title, you provide a hook in the first sentence, and you only have a few hundred words in which to show your work (and encourage people to read the longer report).
  3. Or, you describe your hypotheses in a way that suggests that even you don’t know what will happen. Wow – I confirmed that hypothesis! Who knew? When you blog, it seems more sensible to use the language of hypotheses (or an equivalent) more simply, to explain what factors are most important to your explanation.

You can develop this skill by using a personal blog to describe your research progress and the value of your findings. However, it is also worth blogging in at least two other venues:

  1. Somewhere like the LSE blog, or Democratic Audit, in which the editors will try to summarise your argument in a short opening statement. This is very handy for you: did they summarise the main argument? If so, good. If not, look again to see if you explained it well.
  2. Somewhere like The Conversation, in which the editors will try to mess around with the title (to encourage more traffic) and wording (to make it punchier and quotable). This is a good exercise in which you can think about how far you want to go. Are you confident enough in your research to make such stark statements? Or, do you want to obfuscate and fill the argument with caveats? If the latter, you can think about the extent to which your argument is clear and defendable (it may well be – sometimes caveats and humility can be good!).

I also encourage advanced undergraduates and taught postgraduates to produce a blog post (albeit unpublished) alongside an essay or policy paper, because it is difficult to be concise, and the exercise helps develop a good life skill. Even without the blog exercise, I’d still encourage dissertation students (at the start of their research) to write up their argument/ plan/ work in a half-page document, so that we can see if it adds up to a coherent argument. You can do the same thing with a blog post, with the added (potential) benefit of some feedback from outside sources.

See also: there are resource sites which go into far more aspects of the writing process, such as medium.com/@Write4Research and patthomson.wordpress.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, PhD

Academics: should we stop emailing our colleagues and students at 7pm?

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed (Athene Donald, ‘Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?’)

My University is serious about the Athena Swan process, and I have begun to coordinate the bronze application for our School of Arts and Humanities. My impression from the guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit is that the focus is more on the process in which we come up with a good strategy than the strategy itself (or, at least, they should have equal weight).

In other words, it is not enough to import something that worked in another department or University, partly because a lot of these initiatives only work when they are introduced on the back of meaningful discussion about their rationale and likely consequences.

My not-entirely-useful analogy (which I use in empirical policy analysis) is with medicines: with ibuprofen the important thing is the active ingredient, isobutylphenyl (which comes with a suggested dosage), and the delivery system – such as the capsule – is less important. Yet, in policy, the ‘delivery system’ can be the crucial factor since it involves issues such as how you determine the best ‘intervention’, who is involved in the decision, and how you will seek to persuade people about, or ‘coproduce’, the best way forward.

Are there any quick wins?

I’d been hoping that, during the development of our application, we might produce a few ‘quick wins’ –  solutions that are so obvious and well supported that we can put them forward for School approval with minimal discussion – to allow us to focus on the more ambitious and difficult proposals. Yet, even at this early stage, I’m not sure they exist.

Let me give you the example of this solution to one problem: let’s not email our colleagues or students at the weekends and outside the hours of 7am and 7pm.

I think there is a good rationale for this solution if you start at one particular place with an argument relevant to Athena Swan:

  • Universities have a reputation for implicitly encouraging long working hours
  • Part of the problem is a macho or male-dominated culture in which you boast about how long you work (and, in effect, how willing you are to ignore your families while you climb the career ladder)
  • People often refer to this expectation for long working hours to make unrealistic demands on University staff: some managers looking for increased outputs, and some students demanding late night and weekend responses to emails.

So, we need a solution which places limits on those expectations and symbolises the need:

  1. For all staff to maintain a good work/life balance for the sake of their mental and physical health.
  2. To make sure that the staff with significant caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged by the promotions and pay rises system based on the unrealistic expectations that only so many people can meet (in the context of a working assumption based on probability: that women are more likely to have such caring responsibilities).
  3. In terms of the initial aims of Athena Swan, to make sure that this culture does not dissuade women from entering the profession, or contributes towards them leaving.

On that basis, a 7-7 (no weekend) email policy looks like a great solution. It is simple and looks feasible (it is easy to communicate and you can likely track its progress) and would signal to people that there should be a time when work stops and life begins (even if the simple dichotomy is misleading). A University commitment to such a policy would signal to managers and students that they should not expect a response from staff at particular times, and might spark off a more meaningful discussion on these issues.

Yet, it will not be a quick win, for the following reasons:

  1. Without consultation, you don’t gather enough relevant information and identify alternative perspectives on the same issue. For example, I have spoken to people with caring responsibilities who would see this move as detrimental to the flexibility they enjoy as academics. For example, some people catch up on emails when their children have gone to bed in the early evening, and many would resent the additional burden of rescheduling their work.
  2. Without discussion, you don’t generate ‘ownership’ of policies. These policies, which largely began as a way to help people, can soon seem like a top-down imposition which makes their working lives worse.
  3. The subsequent debate on this issue takes time away from the consideration of others. The perception of imposition tends to produce prolonged debate. Seemingly simple solutions begin to dominate our time-limited discussions, since it is often easier to debate in painful detail the minutiae of University rules than to take a collective step back to think of the big picture.

In other words, all of these ‘no brainer’ solutions can have major unintended consequences.

So, where do we go from here?

In this case, it would be tempting to produce a fudge about not normally emailing after 7, and focus on explaining its rationale without trying to change behaviour directly, but my impression is that the ECU wants specific ‘actionable’ plans which allow us to measure our progress towards an aim. It would also be tempting to come up with a technological solution, which allows us to click a button to delay the sending of our emails (which is not always as easy as it sounds when you work off campus).

Who knows? I guess, until we ask enough people in our departments, we won’t find out. Or, if anyone else has tried out this sort of solution in Universities, I’d like to know about it. Please feel free to add a comment with more information.

Update: so far, when people have expressed concerns or opposition to such a policy, they say that: the real aim is to remove the expectation that people have to reply to emails outside normal working hours, so address it directly. I’d be interested in any initiative to do that without a limited hours policy. For example, has any division/ University simply made a statement to staff and students about what they can expect?

See also: you can follow some of the twitter discussion by opening the link here Twitter thread

3 Comments

Filed under Athena Swan

The Art and Skill of Academic Translation: it’s harder when you move beyond English

I have been writing about the idea of ‘translation’ in terms of ‘knowledge transfer’ or ‘diffusion’, which often suggests that there is a linear process of knowledge production and dissemination: knowledge is held by one profession which has to find the right language to pass it on to another. This approach has often been reflected in the strategies of academic and government bodies. Yet, the process is two-way. Both groups offer knowledge and the potential to have a meaningful conversation that suits both parties. If so, ‘translation’ becomes a way for them to engage in a meaningful way, to produce a common language that they can both ‘own’ and use. Examples include: the need for scientists to speak with policymakers about how the policy process works; the need for ‘complexity’ theorists to understand the limits to policymaker action in Westminster systems; the separate languages of institutions which struggle to come together during public service integration (key to local partnership and ‘joined up government’); and, the difference in the language used by service providers and users. We might also worry about the language we use to maintain interdisciplinary discussion (such as when ‘first order change’ means something totally different in physics and politics).

It’s not the same thing, but translating into another language, such as when conversing in English and Japanese, reinforces the point in an immediately visible way. In both directions, English to Japanese, and vice versa, it is clear that the recipient only receives a version of the original statement – even when people use a highly skilled interpreter. Further, if the statement is quite technical, or designed to pass on knowledge, the gap between original intention and the relayed message is wider still.

This point can be made more strongly in a short lecture using interpretation. As academics, many of us have been to conferences in English, and witnessed a presenter trying to cram in too much information in 15 minutes. They give a long introduction for 10, then race through the slides without explaining them, simply say that they can’t explain what they hoped, or keep going until the chair insists they stop. You don’t really get a good sense of the key arguments.

In another language, you have to reduce your time to less than half, to speak slowly and account for translation (simultaneous translation is quicker, but you still have to speak very slowly). You have to minimise the jargon (and the idioms) to allow effective translation. Or, you need to find the time to explain each specialist word. For example, while I would often provide an 8000 word paper to accompany a lecture/ workshop, this one is 1500. There is no visible theory, although theory tends to underpin what you focus on and how you explain it. It took 40 minutes to present, largely because I left a lot of topics for Q&A. I still had a hard time explaining some things. I predicted some (such as the difference between ‘federalism’ and ‘federacy’, and the meaning of ‘poll tax’ and ‘bedroom tax’) but realised, late on, that I’d struggle to explain others (such as ‘fracking’, or the unconventional drilling used to access and extract shale gas).

This sort of exercise is fantastically useful, to force you to think about the essential points in an argument, keep it short without referring to shorthand jargon, and explain them without assuming much prior knowledge in the audience, in the knowledge that things will just mean different things to different audiences. It is a skill like any other, and it forces on you a sense of discipline (one might develop a comparable skill when explaining complex issues to pre-University students).

Indeed, I have now done it so much, alongside writing short blog posts, that I find it hard to go back from Tokyo to jargon city. Each time I read something dense (on, for example, ‘meta-governance’), I ask myself if I could explain it to an audience whose first language is not English. If not, I wonder how useful it is, or if it is ever translated outside of a very small group.

This is increasingly important in the field of policy theory, when we consider the use of theories, developed in English and applied to places such as the US and UK, and applied to countries around the globe (see Using Traditional Policy Theories and Concepts in Untraditional Ways). If you can’t explain them well, how can you work out if the same basic concepts are being used to explain things in different countries?

Further, we don’t know, until we listen to our audience, what they want to know and how they will understand what we say. Let me give you simple examples from my Hokkaido lecture. One panellist was a journalist from Okinawa. He used what I said to argue that we should learn from the Scots; to develop a national identity-based social movement, and to be like Adam Smith (persevering with a regional accent, and a specific view of the world, in the face of snobbishness and initial scepticism; note that I hadn’t mentioned Adam Smith). Another panelist, a journalist from Hokkaido, argued that the main lesson from Scotland is that you have to be tenacious; the Scots faced many obstacles to self-determination, but they persevered and saw the results, and still persevere despite the setback (for some) of the referendum result (I pointed out that ‘the 45%’ are not always described as tenacious!). Another contributor wondered why Thatcherism was so unpopular in Scotland when we can see that, for example, it couldn’t have saved Scottish manufacturing and was perhaps proved correct after not trying to do so. Others use the Scottish experience to highlight a similar sense of central government imposition or aloofness in Japan (from the perspective of the periphery).

In general, this problem of academic translation is difficult enough when you share a common language, but the need to translate, in two ways, brings it to the top of the agenda. In short, if we take the idea of translation seriously, it is not just about a technical process in which words are turned into a direct equivalent in another language and you expect the audience to be informed or do the work to become informed. It is about thinking again about what we think we know, and how much of that knowledge we can share with other people.

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Japan, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Reviews of My Books

A review of Understanding Public Policy and Global Tobacco Control in Public Administration: Painter review of 2 Cairney books 2013

A review of Global Tobacco Control in Governance: Kurzer review of GTC in Governance 2014

A review of Understanding Public Policy from an early career academic: http://ezinearticles.com/?Book-Review:-Understanding-Public-Policy-by-Paul-Cairney&id=7116636

Two reviews of Understanding Public Policy in Political Studies Review:

Richards review in PSR

 

Kihiko review in PSR

(they are both here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1478-9302.12000_9/abstract)

From someone keeping it succinct and numeric: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12570034-understanding-public-policy#other_reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing

Journal Article Acceptance(s) After 5 Rejections and 25 months

Update: the title is now less catchy but more accurate. See the italicised bits for the update. I have also added this poster:

hang-in-there-baby

You might have to be a glass-is-half-full kind of person to take something positive from this story of publication success after a long run of failure. After 18 months, 5 rejections, 4 substantial redrafts, 2-3 changes of journal direction, and minus 8000 words, we had it accepted (update: add another 7 months,  and three substantial redrafts and additions, for the 2nd article acceptance).

It began with our submission to World Politics, which is a high status journal, in politics and international relations, with a high rejection rate, so this was a gamble. I thought we had done the double: produced something interesting to say about ‘evolutionary’ policymaking, building on work I began for Understanding Public Policy; and, produced a wealth of new information on global tobacco policy, built on work led by Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu, and informing Global Tobacco Control. So, HM and I put both together to produce this paper, submitted 11th September 2012:

World Politics Evolutionary Theory International Agreements 11September2012

It was rejected on the 4th December (not a bad turnaround). The rejection came with substantial reviewer comments – World Politics decision letter – which we used to revise the next version substantially. My impression, from this review, was that the combination of evolutionary theory and the case study was not working. In fact, I may have been pushing us into a position that I advise PhD students and early career researchers to avoid: a paper suggesting a new theoretical angle, reinforced by a single case . In my defence, I wasn’t proposing a new theory. Instead, I was trying to present the approach as a reflection of accumulated knowledge, in both theory and case.

Still, it wasn’t working, so we separated the two elements somewhat. I chopped about 3000 words of theory – something made easier by the fact that I had submitted (February 2012) a separate paper on evolutionary theory to Policy and Politics, which was reviewed (July 2012) and accepted after a minor revise-and-resubmit (23 October) then published early 2013 – ‘What is Evolutionary Theory and How Does it Inform Policy Studies?’ Policy and Politics, 41, 2, 279-98 Paywall Green

We hummed and hawed about policy journals before I made the mistake of sending it to Public Administration and Development, partly because we were focusing on contrasts in implementation based on the simple developed/ developing country distinction, partly because it was interdisciplinary, and partly because its description seemed really close to our topic.

Cairney Mamudu Evolution Tobacco Control PAD submission 5Feb2013

It was rejected without going to review, described by the editor as ‘out of scope’.

So, we sent it, almost immediately (21 Feb 2013), to Governance, which had been HM’s (more sensible) preference. Again, this is a high status political/ policy science journal with a high rejection rate, so we were still confident enough to take the usual gamble.

Anonymous Evolution Tobacco Control Governance submission 21Feb2013

It was rejected on 26th May after substantial review (which seems more critical than the reviewers of World Politics, so we were no further forward) –  governance rejection

We figured that we had to do two things based on the reviews: (1) strip out the discussion of evolutionary theory more and focus on the basic political science concepts (implementation, networks, agendas, etc.), shifting back the focus to the case study and evidence so far (particularly since I had now published an article separately on evolutionary theory); (2) be super-clear on key terms (leading/ laggard; developed/ developing) to anticipate future concerns, and clarify the narrative on the origins and role of the FCTC.

By this time, my University had made available some funds for Open Access, and I was keen to go this route, partly because OA seems good, and partly because I had recently co-authored an article in the OA journal Implementation Science and it was a very positive experience.

We chose Globalization and Health – based at the LSE, interdisciplinary, covering our topic and focus – and submitted on 12th September 2013. It was rejected on 29th October, which is a good turnaround, but the reviews were too brief to be useful – except it is still clear that our attempts to address the developed/ developing distinction are still needling our referee audience.

GH rejection letter GH referee 1 GH referee 2

Our solution was twofold: (1) to check with the editor of the next journal if there would be a problem with our approach, and (2) to get away from the developed/ developing sticking point by presenting an even more nuanced account, taking every opportunity to show that we weren’t providing naïve caricatures, and going super-conceptual to describe an ideal-type of a leading implementing country rather than identifying ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’.

I emailed the editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy in November and got a good assurance on the developed/ developing point. The only problem is that the word limit is 4000, which is about one-third of the length of our original paper. Still, we revised the paper again.

By then, HM reckoned that Tobacco Control was a better fit, since they had begun to publish a series of papers on the ‘endgame’. We submitted there on the 20th December.

TCJ-Endgame_CoverLetter-14Dec2013 2 Cairney Mamudu Checklist cover letter 3 Cairney-Mamudu_22Dec2013

They rejected it on the 8th January 2014 without sending it to review TC rejection

We sent it to the JPHP on the 10th January – 1 CAirney Mamuducover letter JPHP 10JAn14 2 CAirney Mamudu Submitted article JPHP 10JAn14

We got a revise and resubmit on the 17th February – a very decent turnaround indeed. We got the classic binary response: one thought it was great, and one thought it was mince – JPHP reviews 17.2.14

We resubmitted on March 13 – 1 cover and rebuttal letter 2 resubmitted JPHP    – and got the thumbs up by the 27th.

Update, November 2014. We submitted a much better paper on the same theme (more developed theoretical argument, more data, a better refined argument) to Public Administration (special issue on global public policy) in June. After two resubmissions (and, unusually, a referral to a member of the editorial board – to deal with comments made by the third reviewer), we had it accepted in November.

So what did we learn?

    1. It is natural to blame journals, editors and reviewers for these long, drawn out processes – but I need to take some responsibility for the journal choices and the quality of submissions.
    2. Even a rejection can give you useful material for a redraft, as long as it actually goes to review.
    3. It is worth persevering. This is a very unusual case of 5 rejections, but it seem fairly normal to get 1 or 2 before success. For a while, I went on a good run of acceptances-after-revision, then a run of acceptances after rejection. I have almost always published each paper by the end.
    4. I think the article is, in many ways, a far better paper than when it began – but it also changed so much that we reckon we can go back and submit some of the chopped material (the new data) elsewhere.
    5. Final lesson – you need a thick skin for this process, particularly when you get one or two cranky anonymous reviewers, and particularly when you go interdisciplinary and invite comment from people who often don’t respect your discipline.
    6. Final, final, updated lesson: don’t lose your confidence and settle for a second-best result. Our first acceptance was for an article that stripped away a lot of what was good in the original idea (partly to meet the 4000 word limit), and it was rewritten for a public health audience in a way that I don’t entirely like. The Public Administration article (9000 words) is the one I’ll send to people and be proud of. It was accepted more than two years after we first made the mistake to send it to a different journal.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Public health, tobacco policy

How do people consume your research? A short video, on tobacco and alcohol policy, requiring attention and feedback

This is a first draft of a simple video I am doing with Tereza Procházková @ZasCreativeBag to accompany a blog post I did on the differences between tobacco and alcohol policies in the UK. I wouldn’t mind some feedback (here or to @cairneypaul) on it before I ask to have it tweaked then embedded in the proper post (although, realistically, it’s feedback for the next one, if there is a next one). From looking at it myself, I know that I try to pack a lot of information into 3 minutes (perhaps a bit like an inexperienced lecturer trying to tell students everything) and so the pictures and audio come thick and fast. Next time, I will speak more slowly. But maybe it still works because it is accompanied by a blog post with all of the information. Maybe you listen to the 3 minutes then decide if you want to fill in the blanks by reading the full post (and then maybe the full paper). My partner tells me that I take a while to get to the point and that there need to be more punchy bullet point moments (I didn’t get too offended). Would you agree? There is also a bit of a skip in the audio towards the end (a big problem?), and I trail off at the very end (to press the stop button on the ipad). Note that I am not Glaswegian – the Irvine/ Ayrshire accent is a wee bit different. Polite comments on my voice/ pronunciation also welcome.

The post can be found here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/34735. If the video doesn’t play, you can get it here on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fujeajKKa-E or here:

UPDATE: here is the more polished version:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6pkPTPohas

For more discussion of the ‘impact’ side of the work, see: http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/how-do-people-read-your-research.html
and http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/a-picture-of-pathways-to-impact.html

2 Comments

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing

How Do People Read Your Research?

People may nod at you and say ‘yes, hmm, very interesting’, but do they understand what you are saying (in a satisfying way)? I would like to know if someone could read something of mine, write down the key points and then explain them back to me in a way that I recognised. It needn’t be a regurgitation (which is not what I do when I read the work of others) but I’d like to think that they took the key points I tried to convey, with no major misinterpretations. That’s one sensible interpretation of ‘impact’, isn’t it? So, for me, these drawings by @ZasCreativeBag are excellent. A drawing also condenses an argument – and puts all the points together in one page – in a way that might take me 1000-2000 words. They may not convey the same points entirely, but they do a decent job of reinforcing the argument (I hope).

Here (with a longer explanation) are some earlier examples (I did not get the grant!) and the most recent example is below (for the blogpost, see here)

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized