Tag Archives: the Academy

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: Labour, Brexit, and evidence-based policymaking

In a series of heroic leaps of logic, I aim to highlight some important links between three current concerns: Labour’s leadership contest, the Brexit vote built on emotion over facts, and the insufficient use of evidence in policy. In each case, there is a notional competition between ‘idealism’ and ‘pragmatism’ (as defined in common use, not philosophy); the often-unrealistic pursuit of a long term ideal versus the focus on solving more immediate problems often by compromising ideals and getting your hands dirty. We know what this looks like in party politics, including the compromises that politicians make to win elections and the consequences for their image, but do we know how to make the same compromises when we appeal for a more deliberative referendum or more evidence-informed policymaking?

I searched Google for a few minutes until I found a decent hook for this post. It is a short Forbes article by Susan Gunelius advocating a good mix of pragmatic and idealistic team members:

Pragmatic leaders focus on the practical, “how do we get this done,” side of any task, initiative or goal.  They can erroneously be viewed as negative in their approach when in fact they simply view the entire picture (roadblocks included) to get to the end result.  It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”

Idealist leaders focus on the visionary, big ideas.  It could be argued that they focus more on the end result than the path to get there, and they can erroneously be viewed as looking through rose-colored glasses when, in fact, they simply “see” the end goal and truly believe there is a way to get there”.

On the surface, it’s a neat description of the current battle to win the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn representing the idealist willing to lose elections to stay true to the pure ideal, and Owen Smith representing the pragmatist willing to compromise on the ideal to win an election.

In this context, pragmatic politicians face a dilemma that we often take for granted in party politics: they want to look flexible enough to command the ‘centre’ ground, but also appear principled and unwilling to give up completely on their values to secure office. Perhaps pragmatists also accept to a large extent that the means can justify the ends: they can compromise their integrity and break a few rules to win office if it means that they serve the long term greater good as a result (in this case, better a compromised socialist than a Tory government). So, politicians accept that a slightly tarnished image is the price you pay to get what you want.

For current purposes, let us assume that you are the kind of person drawn more to the pragmatist rather than the idealist politician; you despair at the naiveté of the idealist politician, and expect to see them fail rather than gain office.

If so, how might we draw comparisons with other areas in politics and policymaking?

Referendums should be driven by facts and an intelligent public, not lies and emotions

Many people either joke or complain seriously about most of the public being too stupid to engage effectively in elections and referendums. I will use this joke about Trump because I saw it as a meme, and on Facebook it has 49000 smiley faces already:


An more serious idealistic argument about the Brexit vote goes something like this:

  • the case for Remain was relatively strong and backed by most of the best experts
  • most Leave voters ignored or mistrusted the experts
  • the Leave campaign was riddled with lies and exaggerations; and,
  • a large chunk of the public was not intelligent enough to separate the lies from the facts.

You often have to read between the lines and piece together this argument, but Dame Liz Forgan recently did me a favour by spelling out a key part in a speech to the British Academy:

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme. If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media.

Of course, I have cherry picked the juiciest part to highlight a sense of idealism that I have seen in many places. Let’s link it back to our despair at the naïvely idealist politician: doesn’t this look quite similar? If we took this line, and pursued public education as our main solution to Brexit, wouldn’t people think that we are doomed to fail in the long term and lose a lot of other votes on the way?

Another (albeit quicker and less idealistic) solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement. Yet, if the problem is that people are too stupid or emotional to process facts, it doesn’t seem that much more effective.

At this stage, I’d like to say: instead of clinging to idealism, let’s be pragmatic about this. If you despair of the world, get your hands dirty to win key votes rather than hope that people will do the right thing or wait for a sufficiently ‘rational’ public.

Yet, I don’t think we yet know enough about how to do it and how far ‘experts’ should go, particularly since many experts are funded – directly or indirectly – by the state and are subject to different (albeit often unwritten) rules than politicians. So, in a separate post, I provide some bland advice that might apply to all:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

Yet, if we think that other referendum participants are winning because they are lying and cheating, we might also think that honourable strategies won’t tip the balance. We know that, like pragmatic politicians, we might need to go a bit further to win key debates. Anything else is idealism, right?

Policy should be based on evidence, not electoral politics, ideology and emotion

The same can be said for many scientists bemoaning the lack of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM). Some express the naïve hope that politicians become trained to think like scientists and/ or the view that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts. This seems to be EBPM’s equivalent of idealism, in which you largely wish for something that won’t exist rather than trying to produce pragmatic strategies for the real world.

A more pragmatic two-step solution is to:

(1) work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate (which I describe in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, and with Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead in PAR).

(2) draw on as many interdisciplinary insights to explore how to do something about it, such as to establish the psychology of policymakers and identify good ways to tell simple stories to generate an emotional connection to your evidence (which I describe in a forthcoming special issue in Palgrave Communications).

Should academics remain idealists rather than pragmatists?

Of course, it is legitimate to take what I am calling an idealistic approach. In politics, Corbyn’s idealism is certainly capturing a part of the public imagination (while another part of the public watches on, sniggering or aghast). In the Academy, it may be a part of a legitimate attempt to maintain your integrity by not engaging directly in politics or policymaking, and/or accepting that academics largely contribute to a very long term enlightenment function rather than enjoy immediate impact. All I am saying is that you need to choose and, if you seek more direct impact, you need to forego idealism and start thinking about what it means to be pragmatic while pursuing ‘evidence informed’ politics.


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and 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:


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


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)

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Notes From a Conference Part 1: Arrogance and Recognition

It’s hard to tell if people are (a) predisposed to arrogance at an early age and/ or (b) if they develop this trait as they age and become more powerful or better recognised in the profession. All I know is that some (generally well established) academics appear to ‘less modest’ than others. So, I have this general angst about becoming (or, at least, appearing) more arrogant when engaging with other people and, crucially, not knowing it. This is perhaps more of a concern for people in subjects like social science where some conference discussions will be about challenging the statements, methods and views of other people. There is a fine line between a positive challenge and a negative dismissal, so we need a high degree of self-awareness to reflect on our behaviour and ask ourselves if we have crossed a line. This is particularly important:

  • In international conferences where people bring different levels of expectation about politeness. For example, many UK based scholars may be less likely to start their comments with ‘thank you for your interesting paper’. Instead, like me, they may see a strong (thoughtful) challenge as a strong signal of respect (since, it shows that you care enough about the paper to listen and engage in a meaningful way).
  • If you are in a room with a dominant view – it is only by being open to opinions from others that you can avoid being close minded and dismissive of things you don’t agree with initially but might appreciate if you allow yourself the time to listen and reflect (something that is too easy to dismiss if you are in a room with people that largely agree with you).
  • If we identify the subtext to many conference proceedings: the desire to make one’s name by presenting papers and engaging with the papers of others. I have said to a few colleagues that a large conference is really a battle for attention and recognition, wrapped up in the pretence of positive discussion, and only most of that statement is tongue-in-cheek.
It is in that context that I’d like to describe the crumbs of recognition I got at a recent conference (International Conference on Public Policy). I figure that, if arrogance comes with age, I’d better write this down before it’s too late. The thing about this profession is that it is so full of negative signals from other people: critical reviews of articles; negative signals on promotion prospects; deflating rejections for grant proposals; and, so on (if you are trying to do a PhD, we might add deflating rejections for funding that threaten the completion of the project; if you are not a white man, we might discuss further obstacles relating to relative success rates). So, when people actually come up to you and say that they have enjoyed something you’ve written (and can discuss it with you in some depth, largely proving that they are not just being polite), it’s brilliant. There will be better descriptions out there, but ‘brilliant’ will do for now. The same goes for general name recognition – there is just something about people seeing your name badge and recognising your name (it beats the quite-regular semi-sneer when people can’t be arsed with you). So, the benefit of not being fully arrogant (yet) is that you can enjoy these crumbs of comfort in a rather disproportionate way. This may be some comfort to the PhD student wondering if it’s all worth it – in some cases it might be.

See also Part 2 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-2-what-are.html
See also Part 3 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-3.html

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Notes From a Conference Part 2: What are They For?

It’s probably not a good idea to reflect on a conference too close to its end, when you are tired and homesick, but I’m going to do it anyway. As with many large international conferences I’ve been to, my usual response is to wonder if it was worth the bother of being away from home, away from my family, (*middle class problems alert*) in a crap hotel room and faced with the need to sit, stand, listen and talk politely for such a long time – when the time could be put to better use at home (doing or writing research and/ or watching the tennis/ football). So, what are the most important benefits?

  1. Meeting people, new and old. Many of us will tend to have most contact with people by email, so it is good to get the time to have an actual conversation with people (often from different countries). In my case, I had a decent mix: meeting a longstanding co-author to discuss more projects; meeting a new co-author to discuss our chapter; meeting a handful of new people that I’d like to keep in touch, and do research, with; and having a few quick discussions with one of my PhD students off campus and in a new atmosphere (and immediately before and after her paper).
  2. Having your ego stroked a little bit and getting yourself known a bit better (see previous blog).
  3. Giving you a deadline to complete a piece of work in a way that other deadlines can’t do (for many, if not most, people the thought of talking mince for 15 minutes in front of your peers is not an enjoyable prospect).
I think these are the least important benefits:
  1. Getting new information from presentations and/ or papers. The quality of conference papers and presentations is so mixed that it’s difficult to justify the time spent reading and listening. In fact, my increasing impression is that many, if not most, people are *not* reading papers and listening (indeed, you can tell that many people are not listening because they have their laptops out and are replying to emails or having a sly look at the news and sport). This problem can be compounded by inadequate rooms (I had one seminar for 20 people in a 900 seat lecture hall; I had another in a room where you could only *just* hear the speaker if no-one moved).
  2. Getting feedback on papers. Sometimes this works. In fact, for one of my papers the audience was 7 people (it was at 8.30am, the day after the conference dinner, which ended after midnight), allowing us to engage in an *actual conversation* (the other was about 30 people, which was quite good too, but in a different way – it allows you to see if you can give convincing replies). Sometimes, it doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes (for example if you are on a panel of 4) no-one will ask you a question and you will wonder why you bothered.
  3. Finding that all the interesting papers are all being given at the same time (and. If you are very unlucky, at the same time as your presentation).

In other words, the benefit of a conference may not relate to the thing that seems to drive it and take up most of its time. Maybe the notional equivalent in politics is either the international summit (a set-piece event where most of the work is done in advance and the most productive discussions are ‘away from the table’) or the well-attended state funeral (which may involve fewer speeches and gives people the chance to talk without any weight of expectation).

See also part 1 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-1-arrogance.html
See also part 3 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-3.html

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Notes From a Conference Part 3: The International Conference on Public Policy

The ICPP (Grenoble) symbolised both the best and worst aspects of scholarship. The best bits include:

  • The unexpected levels of attendance (900) – which showed many of us (perhaps used to the limited focus on policymaking at general conferences) that we had many international colleagues engaged in similar research.
  • The ability to see beyond your specialism and listen to plenary discussions and panels on topics you may not consider in your day-to-day research.
  • The opportunities to meet people, exchange ideas and make research plans.
But, being a tired, dour Scot, I was struck mostly by the problems symbolised by the conference:
1.Are we talking *to* or *past* each other?
The plenary on the so called ‘tribes’ of policymaking (IAD, new institutionalism, ACF, etc.) involved a brief discussion, by each representative of a ‘tribe’, of the first principles of each approach – without giving much information about how they relate to each other. This is characteristic of much of the literature which involves specialisation. Such specialisation is often valuable and necessary – it is perhaps only when we immerse ourselves in, and fully understand, an approach that we can assess its merits and relate it to other approaches. However, it also seems parochial if there is a limited level of self-awareness and a tendency to ignore other approaches. Watching the event, you would struggle to identify a sense of *general purpose*. For me, the idea behind specialisation is that we are boundedly rational – we cannot produce all research ourselves. So, we produce some work and rely on others to produce the rest. Then we try to compare our experiences and: (a) explore or ability to generalise from those combined experiences; and (b) explore our ability to accumulate knowledge from a range of studies. This exchange of ideas and information will not be effective if we are all talking a different language; if we don’t know how to communicate our findings (and their significance) to each other in a meaningful way. Maybe the plenary served that purpose by reminding us of the wider world out there, but you would have to be a super-positive person to come to that conclusion.
2.Are we even talking about the same thing?
I was often struck by the relative lack of cohesion of many panels even when they came under a common banner. So, they were not only describing very different case studies but also very different ways to understand them. Again, this can produce a degree of innovative thinking when we consider new possibilities. However, it can also make you wonder if you can slip out of the room when no-one is watching.
3. Self-contradictory case study approaches.
The papers were either mainly-theoretical or contained a theoretical and case-study-based empirical section. What follows is a caricature of some presentations to make a broad point:
  • First, they say that existing theories cannot fully explain their case study.
  • So, they propose a ‘new’ theory which it explains it better.
  • Then, they might imply that this new theory has a more general application.
The overall effect can appear to be contradictory: no theory can explain my case because it is (a) more complicated than theory suggests; and/ or (b) the case has some unusual elements that are difficult to explain. If so, such papers perpetuate the problem – we are forever seeking novel and parsimonious theories to explain many cases, only to be faced with complexity and a significant level of non-comparability when we try to apply them in different cases.
In that light, my preference is for a problem-focused approach to presentation:
  • Talk about a real research problem – what do you want to explain?
  • Talk about the insights that one or more theories can give you when you seek explanation.
  • Accept that theories are simplifications to aid general explanation; don’t express mock surprise when they fail to explain everything. This is just not possible.
  • If a key tenet of public policy studies is that politics and policymaking vary from issue to issue (and country), we should not be surprised that a theory based on some issues and countries does not map directly onto others. The same can be said for the case study – don’t just assume that the usefulness of a new or old theory in one case applies to another. Instead, reflect on the ways in which your case compares to the cases described by other studies.
We might then want to talk about the research outcomes. Such conversations require a common language – a requirement that is not served well by the constant pursuit of new theories and a rejection of the old. If we are constantly claiming to be reinterpreting the fundamental nature of policymaking, how can we communicate our findings to each other?
Instead, we can pursue a common language by focusing on what Peter John describes as the five ‘core causal processes’ in public policy. We may say that policymakers operate within the following context:
  1. Institutional – they are influenced by the (written and unwritten; formal/ statutory and informal) rules and norms within systems and organisations.
  2. Agenda-setting – policymakers are ‘boundedly rational’, prompting them to (a) pay more attention to some issues and solutions at the expense of most others; (b) understand issues in a biased way. So, the way in which they act follows from the way in which they understand, interpret, define or frame their problems and actions.
  3. Networks/ Subsystem – policy is devolved from elected policymakers to bureaucrats who consult with groups to gather information and advice. This low level of government may be where most policy work is processed. Some groups are more powerful than others; they are considered more worthy of attention than others. Relationships develop between some groups and civil servants and these networks often represent the main arena in which information is exchanged, then given to elected policymakers (or, choices are made on their behalf by civil servants operating in these networks).
  4. Socio-economic – for example, some problems may appear more pressing than others, and some solutions may be more or less attractive, because they are linked closely to the economic environment. Or, demographic change presents new problems. Or, a policymaker’s understanding of social attitudes may underpin their policy strategy. In each case, policymakers interpret a range of policy conditions, or operate in policy environments, that appear to present obstacles to, or opportunities for, action.
  5. The role of ideas – policymaking is underpinned by the beliefs present within political systems, such as the world views of policymakers or the actors most influential in that system. We talk of ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘policy monopolies’ to describe the fundamental importance of a common understanding of the world that may be so dominant that it is taken for granted. We also talk about ideas as new ways of thinking about problems, and solutions, which challenge such fundamental beliefs (often following a period of ‘learning’ from the past, other issues or other political systems)..
We may have different interpretations of these concepts and they all overlap (the links between 2 and 5 may seem most obvious; we may also say that institutions are shared beliefs; that close networks are based on common understandings; that people interpret socioeconomic conditions and new ideas; and so on). Of course they do – these are analytical simplifications not present in the ‘real world’. Further, we may say that some issues transcend these factors – such as the role of gender inequalities which may be present in institutions, shape the way that people understand problems, influence the consultation process, and underpin belief systems.
However, at least they give us the chance for a common starting point for discussion and explanation. We might even say that our reference to these factors represents the product of our accumulation of knowledge in the field (or not).
4. What is a satisfactory explanation? Can we ever agree?
In a broader sense, we are talking about our ability to agree about what constitutes a satisfactory explanation. In my opinion, a convincing explanation comes from a detailed account of policymaking (stability and instability; policy continuity and change) with reference to all five of these causal factors. We discuss their individual importance – as an analytical device to aid the simplification of complex issues – and discuss the extent which outcomes are caused by the interplay between all five. So, for example, institutions alone do not explain behaviour (unless we use a ridiculously broad definition of an institution) and neither does the socioeconomic context (however pressing), the ideational context, or the strong relationships between some groups and government – but a combination of such factors may help explain why policymakers act in certain ways (and perhaps why their actions are more or less acceptable or successful).
The alternative is to specialise; to focus on certain aspects of this process to gain a better understanding of them. This is good too, but not if it comes at the expense of the bigger picture (or, if we simply try to quantify the relative effect of one factor in a naïve way – which, in many cases, misses the point of complex explanation). It would be good for presenters on particular topics to reflect, however briefly, on how these topics relate to the concerns of others – to recognise that they know a lot about the foot but that the heart might be important too.
5. Are we really talking to each other? How do we exchange information in a meaningful way?
I attended every possible session in the ICPP and so I received a concentrated dose of the tendency of presenters to give out information in an unsatisfactory way. My pet peeve is slides of very small numbers which are presented for a few seconds without explanation; without the presenter taking the time to give them meaning. For me, this tops the presenter-reads-every-word-on-the-powerpoint approach (because at least, in that case, you can close your eyes to listen). This is not good.
It is perhaps a symptom if the wider tendency to cram a ridiculous amount of presentations into short slots – either the 4 papers/ 2 discussant approach (90 minutes) of APSA or the 5 papers (2 hours) at the ICPP. Who can possibly sit through all of those presentations without daydreaming or nodding off?  It is also a symptom of the lack of awareness of the needs of an audience. If we are there to talk to each other (and not simply represent an awake audience), we need the time to discuss papers rather than just listen to them. Only then will we know if the information we present is useful, or if the round of applause is really just a symbol of audience relief.
6. Last but not least – too many men.
Even I (a male, white, middle class and increasingly privilege professor who benefits from these inequalities) am getting tired of seeing panels that are all, or predominantly, male. Most plenary sessions were embarrassingly male and, when the photos go on the web, will not serve as a good advertisement for the profession (although we cannot simply blame the organisers – http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2013/06/24/all-male-invited-speakers-its-complicated/).

See also Part 1 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-1-arrogance.html
See also Part 2 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-2-what-are.html

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Testing, testing, podcast on independence

This is a 10-minute podcast on Scottish independence – What Does it Mean and What Are The Big Questions? – recorded on my Ipad. The production values are fairly low and, on two occasions, it seems to flicker a bit (much like in those horror or sci-fi films where things go a little bit, spookily, wrong). I also get a text which distracts me a bit. Then I sound like I am getting bored and more sarcastic from 8 minutes (any of my former students will be used to that). Other than that, it is OK, as long as you like the Andy Murray style monotone (although our accents are very, very different).

You can also get it here: http://paulcairney.podbean.com/2013/06/18/scottish-independence/

The book is out in August and it won’t really be £25 – http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=569083

See also: http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-indyref-and-scottish-parliament.html

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A Picture of Pathways to Impact

This picture went into my recent ESRC application and it seemed a shame to just go to waste there (so to speak) …

….It was drawn by Tereza Procházková, who is a Masters student of Service Design, a course run by Hazel White at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. I had asked Tereza to interpret my ‘Case for Support’ so that I could demonstrate to the ESRC how I would try to work with Tereza to produce some reports using words and pictures. The point is not to make superificial or simplistic arguments about complicated topics. Rather, the idea is that the production of drawings forces you to decide what the key points of a document are (perhaps in a stronger way than an abstract or set of bullet points would make you choose). The interpretation of my reports by someone else also allows me to check if I have managed to get my point across to an audience that doesn’t understand the issues in the same way (see also http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/how-do-people-read-your-research.html).
The idea came from the CIPFA annual conference in Scotland in 2013. White’s students contributed to her lecture/ workshop on ‘Service Design’ at the event and Tereza also summarised my lecture (on complex policymaking systems) using text (found here, compare with my lecture/ blog post here) and pictures. I don’t *think* that it appealed to me simply because the picture of me was flattering. 


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Using the Internet for Political Research (POL9RM 30.4.13)

Since I am giving a lecture on using the internet for political research (for POL9RM), it seems appropriate to upload it to your actual internet. This is, depending on how you view these things, either an excessively long or good-value blog. We might settle on ‘generous’.

The lecture will be split into two basic issues:

1. What type of information should you seek, and from where?

2. What are the best (or, at least, most used) tools to use to source that information?

Types of Information

Before we examine how best to use the internet for political research, we should consider why you (as a former first year student) may have been advised *not* to rely on the internet to produce essays. Why would there be such an objection to using freely available information produced by such a wide range of people? Why, perhaps, would people criticise you for favouring the democratic, as opposed to the elite, production of knowledge? The answer is not that your older lecturers – who still remember the days of punch cards, rolodexes, hard copy journals and the need to speak to someone about borrowing books – resent the fact that you can get information so quickly without going to a library or even leaving your home. It is also not a form of group closure, in which we protect and promote our own people, methods and types of information.  It is not that lecturers associate undergraduate student internet research with a small bunch of people copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia into their essays (although this does happen, sometimes).

The more important explanation is that, in a world where the amount of information seems infinite, it may be increasingly difficult to identify the information to which we should pay most or least attention.  We need to identify some sort of hierarchy of important and/ or reliable information. This is a skill like any other. Your successful development of this skill will be reflected in your grades, since it will relate to the willingness of your essay markers to accept the information you present, according to the way in which you account for your information.

One way to address this issue is to consider why lecturers tend to treat books and/ or journal articles as the gold standard of information – at least as secondary sources, before you are expected to do your own research using primary sources such as government documents.

Possible answers (though not always useful answers) include:

1. They are peer reviewed. Lecturers may recommend journals that only allow publication after a number of relevant academics have commented on the work, often anonymously. The number of peer reviewers may vary from 1 to 6; in my experience an article is usually read by 2 or 3 anonymous reviewers. Their evaluation of journals may be linked partly to the reputations that some journals have in terms of academic rigour, linked to the need for scholars to anticipate and address critical reviews before having their work accepted.

2. They are competitive and much work is rejected. Some journals have an acceptance rate below 10%, which helps them develop an image of prestige and cutting edge research. (You can get a rough idea of acceptance rates in politics and IR here – http://www.reviewmyreview.eu/ ). Some people also put some faith in proxy measures of journal reputations, such as their ‘impact factors’ (although this is a problematic faith). It is also an increasing trend to evaluate the status of individual scholars according to the extent to which the publication is cited by other scholars (see below on Google scholar). Being well cited is a proxy used increasingly to gauge respect for the information.

3. They may be based on a long period of scholarly research. This varies from discipline to discipline. Consider, for example, the historical research produced over years after painstaking attention to thousands of documents.

4. The research may be theoretically informed. Being theoretically informed means being aware of the general implications of individual pieces of information. In part, this focus on theory is based on one role of scientific research: to draw lessons from sets of single cases to produce insights that may apply to many or all cases. A focus on theory is a focus on generalisation – something that is difficult to do if we rely only on information that is produced in very particular circumstances.

5. The research may be methodologically sophisticated. Most research is required to reach some sort of level of sophistication. For example, a quantitative survey requires a certain (large) number of responses to be considered statistically significant (in other words, for us to conclude that the results could not have happened by chance). It is then subject to a series of statistical techniques (which you may learn, using programmes such as SPSS) to explore the associations between variables. Qualitative research may be judged on different criteria, but there is a similar requirement that the conduct of the research meets certain professional criteria. The data may then be subject to further techniques to gauge its meaning and significance. It is often a condition of journal article acceptance that the scholars set out clearly their methods (and often provide a copy of the data for others to use).

6. The research may be empirically rich. Much research is based on surveys of thousands of people or qualitative interviews of dozens or hundreds. The data may be combined with documentary and historical analysis to produce a wealth of information. That information may be compared with information from other studies, to help accumulate knowledge within particular fields.

7. The authors may be meticulous when they identify the source of their information. One aim of the scholarly text is to show the reader where they got their information, to allow the reader to follow up, confirm and/ or read further. Most of you will have noticed the attention that we pay to your referencing style and bibliographies (hopefully most of us are looking for a consistent style rather than a particular style, although be suspicious of people who don’t agree that Harvard is best). This is because, when people make empirical or theoretical claims, the understanding is that they show us the information on which they based their claims (or, at least, they give us the option to follow up their work).

It is according to these kinds of criteria that we may judge other sources of information. In many cases, the information may be useful even if it does not live up to many or any of these criteria. For example, it is legitimate to use newspaper stories and commentary pieces, particularly if they provide much-needed timely information and the source is seen as reliable (indeed, although some newspapers now suffer poor reputations, we can still identify a tradition of fact/ source checking as a routine part of information gathering – partly, but not exclusively, because journalists are generally proud of their reputations and newspaper managers do not want to be sued). However, we would then have to consider the trade off against the academic ‘gold standard’ (is the information likely to be theoretically informed and based on a sophisticated method?) and consider the extent to which the trade is appropriate. In many cases, this just comes down to a mix of sources – student essays could benefit from immediate sources but those sources may not be an alternative to a more comprehensive review of the relevant literature.

However, this is not to say that academic information is unproblematic. We may be meticulous when we catalogue our sources of information, but that information may still be of varying value. For example, quantitative work may be limited by the availability of information provided by other actors (such as governments) and qualitative work may be limited by access to the right sources of information and simple things like the ability of interviewees to recall or provide an honest recollection of relevant information. The more difficult task, then, is to consider in more depth how people access and present information and how we might compare and critically analyse those sources to produce what we consider to be an accurate or valuable overall assessment of the available information.

Search Tools

We might divide that search broadly intro two categories: primary and secondary sources. I will a focus on Scottish politics to tailor the advice.

Secondary sources

The starting point for most students is likely to be a secondary source: you look through the existing academic literature for your information. Those texts analyse things like government documents, and you get your information about those documents indirectly, through a secondary source.

For me, the best way to start a search for secondary sources is to use Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.co.uk/). You enter a small number of search terms and it produces a list of materials to consult. Most Universities also have the ability (particularly if you search on campus) to link the article access directly to the search. Your results are likely to reflect your search terms. For example, a search for ‘Scottish politics’ reveals a list of general texts, while a search for referendums in Scotland produces more specific texts. They tend to be organised according to the extent to which they have been cited elsewhere (which often produces a tendency for older materials to be listed first).

A good rule of thumb is that you should use Scholar more as you progress in your studies. The ‘further reading’ section of a textbook, or list of readings in a course guide, is essential when you are an early undergraduate. When you become an advanced undergraduate, and start to plan to write a relatively independent piece of work, you are expected to do your own searches for the relevant literature. This will require you to think carefully about your research question and the keywords you will have to use to get the most out of the search. You may also need to think about the sources of offer from Google scholar. There is now a wide availability of journals and books, but how do you prioritise and/ or determine the quality of the information?

Primary Sources

An independent project will also prompt you to seek primary sources of information, including government and parliamentary sources. This requires a bit more thought, since you are unlikely to get useful information unless you have first thought about what your research problem is and how you intend to address it. In other words, you think about what you want to know, what are the most appropriate methods to get the right information, and *then* do these sorts of searches.

Government and parliamentary sources

It is quite amusing to look through the Burnham et al (2008) 2nd edition of ‘Research Methods in Politics’ because it still talks about CD ROMS. These were growing in popularity when I was a student, but you may never have used a physical, round, disk to secure information (and may never have to). Instead, sources of government and parliamentary information tend to be available online directly from them (or, if you are that way inclined, through sites that claim to provide documents that governments don’t want you to see). For example the Scottish Government has a fairly extensive site (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics) which allows you to search using key terms. This tends to be less straightforward than a Google Scholar search, forcing you to be much clearer in your mind about what sort of information you want (since you will have to be fairly specific in your search unless you want to sift through a tonne of information). Similarly, the Scottish Parliament (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/) provides a written record of virtually anything that any MSP has said in a committee or plenary discussion since 1999, as well as a full record of written and oral evidence to committees. Again, there is too much information to browse, so you first need to think about what you want to know.


Lexis Nexis (which can be accessed through library resources) is a key archive of UK newspapers and can track the Scottish papers to some extent (it is OK for Scottish papers like the Scotsman, Herald, Daily Record and Press & Journal, but it does not store Scottish editions of the UK papers like the Daily Mail). The archive varies, with papers like The Times providing the longest stretches of data (the Scotsman has also begun to archive its really old material). Again, to make the search manageable (below, say, 1000 stories), you need to be very specific about what you want. For example, a search for Scotland AND referendum AND independence will produce thousands of stories which will take you days to get through (unless you focus on a short space of time).


Blogs are a minefield. Consider the extent to which they meet the gold standard criteria I outlined above. Some of them might do, but how would you know? I would treat blogs in the way that I might treat newspapers: you might trust them if they have a good reputation (but, then, whose opinions do you trust on reputations?). You should also expect biased, and often highly biased, opinions. That means that they can be a good source of information, but you might ask yourself if you can rely on a blog on its own, or as something to be compared with one or more sources. Interestingly (for me at least), along with my co-author on the 2nd ed of Scottish Politics, Neil McGarvey, I had to come up with a list of websites to check out. The idea is that they would be relatively useful, but is this list (below) particularly reliable? Or, are they simply the ones that came to mind at the time?



Twitter and other things

I tend to use Twitter as an alternative to the TV, as an additional source of entertainment. However, it is possible to sign up to a wide range of news and party sites and to use twitter as an alternative to reading newspapers page by page. This provides you with a new source of bias, but perhaps no more problematic than sticking with a paper like the Daily Mail. You might even simply follow specific lists (such as academics on twitter) or, if you are feeling particularly lazy, just look at the list of people/ organisations I follow and piggyback on that.  There are things that are particularly useful, such as the LSE blog sites and accounts such as ‘Writing For Research’ which you might find more useful if you progress to postgraduate work.

And finally ..

Here is a list of websites that Neil and I produced for our book. It is likely to be a bit scattergun and biased (for example, we don’t list small party websites), and some will already be out of date, but there may be some sources there that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.


(from the chapters of the forthcoming 2nd ed. of ‘Scottish Politics’ by Paul Cairney and Neil McGarvey)

The idea here is that these websites might get you started if you don’t want to rely on a scattergun search engine search. It is not a particularly well-thought-out list, so be careful!


Scottish Parliament http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/
Report of the Consultative Steering Group
The Economic and Social Research Council ‘Devolution and Constitutional Change’ research programme
http://www.devolution.ac.uk  and ‘The Future of the UK and Scotland’ http://www.esrc.ac.uk/about-esrc/what-we-do/our-research/future-of-uk-and-scotland/index.aspx  
University of London’s Constitution Unit
UK Politics page

Paul Cairney’s Blog: http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/




Scottish Conservative Party http://www.scottish.tory.org.uk/  
Scottish Green Party http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/ 
Scottish Labour Party http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/ 
Scottish Liberal-Democrats http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/
Scottish National Party http://www.snp.org.uk



 UCL Constitution Unit – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/


Scottish Government http://www.scotland.gov.uk/

UK Cabinet Office http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk 
Scottish Ministerial Code



Convention of Scottish Local Authorities http://www.cosla.gov.uk/  
Friends of the Earth Scotland
Scottish Council for Development and Industry
Scottish Trades Union Congress
CBI Scotland
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organizations

NFU Scotland – http://www.nfus.org.uk/

Scotch Whisky Association – http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/

Educational Institute of Scotland – http://www.eis.org.uk/


Centre for Scottish Public Policy http://www.cspp.org.uk  
Centre for Public Policy for Regions http://www.cppr.ac.uk

For SPICe summaries of all Scottish Government bills see http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/12417.aspx



Her Majesty’s Treasury http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/


Scotland Act 2012 Sewel Motion – Scottish Parliament Official Report 18.4.12 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=6972 

Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers Fiscal Commission Working Group – http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Economy/Council-Economic-Advisers/FCWG

Edinburgh University Blog – http://www.referendum.ed.ac.uk/



Maybe you have read this far to see what we can say about Wikipedia. My view is that I am sometimes pleasantly surprised about what I see on some of those pages. However, you will find very few academics that will trust your information if your source is Wikipedia (partly because it is difficult to know who is providing the information, how they got it, how well they cite that information, and how easy the information is to edit and manipulate). Maybe a good rule of thumb is that you look at it for a short cut to information, but that you do not rely on it as your definitive source.


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized

Gender and Getting Ahead in Academia

Summary: a blog in which I, an increasingly privileged, white, male Professor in the UK, give advice on how to get ahead in a profession that may have already changed since I started. My advice is to be lucky and/ or work until you are ill and alienate your family.

Two panel discussions at the UK Political Studies Association conference 2013 perhaps showed a great and enduring gender divide within the profession. One, focused directly on equality and diversity, largely discussed the barriers that women face when trying to combine a research-active career with taking primary responsibility for raising a family (there was also a man on the panel, discussing issues such as paternity leave and sleep deprivation (*and other things – I only walked in at the end of the session*). Another, focused on impact, saw a successful male professor advise people to follow their interests, only to be reminded by a female colleague that not everyone is in the position to take this advice (to be fair to him, he was answering my question and I am in that position). There is also the wider context of (a) the current REF mania which prompts many University managers to spend their money on high status professors, leaving little money to give permanent contracts to potential lecturers at the other end of the scale; (b) a continued gender and ethnic imbalance in professions like political science, where the profs tend to be white men; and (c) a general sense, often expressed in magazines such as the THE, that the people most likely to succeed in academic life are married men with families. I don’t have the evidence for (c) (but see this on the US), but it is the thing I on which I can comment most, so let’s proceed on the conditional basis (if it is true, what can I say?).
In this context, it may be difficult for me to give general advice that is applicable to most. I could give the excellent but frustrating advice – publish a tonne of books and articles in a very short space of time and generate millions of pounds in research income – but really the question is: how do you do it? Instead, I will raise some issues about being a relatively successful male academic and you can decide if you can, and want to, copy me. The best advice is to recognise that there will always be an element of luck to success, and that success may produce rotten unintended consequences.
1. Mentoring and Support.

I was championed by a large number of academics and almost all of them were white male professors. There are key points in my career trajectory that were influenced by decisions made by other people – to identify my UG potential, to employ me to fund my MSc, to push for my PhD scholarship, to supervise me well, to employ me as a research assistant after PhD graduation, to give me research jobs and to recommend me for a lectureship (and promotions). I guess you either have that support or you don’t. It is difficult to generate yourself.

2. Research, not Teaching.

There was a 5-year gap between the end of my PhD and the start of my lecturing career in 2004. This seemed, at the time, to be a lengthy gap, but not anymore. I spent the majority of that time in full and part time research posts (which cushioned a brief spell in which I thought I might become a full time parent). I now look back on that time as part-wasted because I arsed around too much. However, when I started to take things more seriously, I produced five or six decent articles in that period. This level of output, in journals rated by short-listers like me, is now almost mandatory for people looking for their first lectureship. So, if you are lucky enough to choose, choose a research, not a teaching intensive post. If you have the right sort of employers, they will encourage and help you to publish. In my experience, good teaching feedback is still an added bonus on your CV. The short-listing eyes still scan the CV for the publications (and, for me, published outputs still trump funding inputs).

3. Work Until You Make Yourself Ill.

I *now* tell myself not to work at nights or weekends and I normally take my advice (bar checking email, blogging and twitter because you can convince yourself that it is partly social and it helps you clear the decks for proper work the next morning). Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that my writing has improved after I have taken the time to get more exercise, enjoy family life and watch more TV. However, I did not take that advice when I was climbing the greasy pole. My promotion from lecturer to professor was really based on six years of intense research and writing (2006-12), in which I worked very long days and weekends. My favourite trick was to leave all of the urgent work until the last minute, so that I could write up to the wire, then be forced to do the other work to deadline. My best effort involved leaving the marking of 100+ essays until Christmas Eve, marking them on the sly around Christmas, working too much in the dark and becoming suitably ill a few days later. This took place before a family holiday to Florida, funded by my share of my dad’s will. I spent the first Disney day in bed swigging Nyquil while everyone else spent the day in the sun eating sweets.

4. Work Until You Alienate Your Family (if you have one – see (c) above)

The thing that people don’t tell men (much) is that, although you may have the time and space to work long hours and go on international conferences (the key to promotion and those big money moves), it comes at a cost to your family life and relationships. Looking after a family involves an unpredictable mix of stress, boredom and brilliance. I am increasingly convinced that you have to put in the stressful and boring hours to get the brilliance. Only occasionally can you nip in and see something brilliant your child has done. Perhaps more importantly, I know that my children don’t confide in me in the way that they confide in my partner. I am resigned to knowing that my partner will hear about any major event in our children’s lives before me (unless I get lucky). There is the rub – you get to be the brilliant academic but not the brilliant parent. Or, there is a clear trade off between the two. You can’t have it all.

5. Work Until You Alienate Your Partner.

I won’t say anything about my partner that she hasn’t put on the web (*UPDATE – I have removed the link to L’s website on her request*). All I will say is that, when things were bad, and my partner needed me at home, to help her deal with what she describes as “amazingly impressive post natal depression”, I was still trying to work out how to complete my research in London and Cardiff (mid-2000s, when my career was taking off). My selfishness often knew no bounds.  When I became more sensible, I learned two important lessons that could be more transferable than a lot of this blog: (i) phone interviews are not always the poor relation to face-to-face. I was surprised at how effective these things could be. (ii) When you have immense caring responsibilities, and very little time to work, you learn how to work in incredibly intense bursts. Indeed, the article of which I am most proud is in Regional and Federal Studies (2006), not so much because of the subject or journal, but because I completed the revise-and-resubmit over 5 nights, one hour per night, when everyone else was in bed. I then learned, more sensibly still, that one hour of work in the very early morning (6am seems doable) equals two or three hours during the day. It is more difficult to skive and check social media when you have gotten up early to do proper work. My recommendation, to maximise your promotion chances, is to keep this up until you have a Road-to-Damascus moment and realise how ridiculous and damaging it is. Hopefully, by that time, you will have been promoted.

6. Be Instrumental.

I am obsessed with every number out there, including my h, my m, my Klout score, and the number of hits on my blog. However, perhaps my best move was becoming a role analyst (the person who scores promotion applications according to UK-wide criteria) because it allowed me to work out (i) exactly what the criteria for promotion were; and (ii) what people say about each other on promotions panels (although some of it is predicable – being a good citizen may tip the balance, but is no substitute for a research record).

7. Publish Often – It is More of a Skill than a Craft.

Most people that I respect – and whose advice I seek and try to follow – tell me to slow down and focus more on quality rather than quantity. I would not give that advice, for two reasons. First, in my experience, a long CV with loads of publications has a bewitching effect on selectors and promoters (as long as it is not puffed up with book proposals under consideration and articles in preparation). Second, I agree with the argument that quality can result from quantity; that writing is a skill and constant writing/ publishing allows you to hone that skill (see http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/28818).

8. Publish in Packages.

It is now common advice to treat publishing in terms of communication packages – the same research may produce articles, blogs, news stories and other forms of communication. To that list, I would like to add the textbook. My best work has surrounded the production of textbooks. Scottish Politics (with Neil McGarvey) was based on, and inspired, several articles. Understanding Public Policy forced me to get on top of the policy literature, allowed me to write several theoretical articles and underpinned my monograph (with Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu) on Global Tobacco Control. Some people are snobby about textbooks, and you certainly should not write one if you don’t yet have a permanent lectureship. However, UPP remains (in my opinion) my best work. It also allows me to communicate with people whose first language is not English (if you ever meet me, ask to see my photo of a Japanese colleague’s notes on my book) or political science (such as colleagues in physics or psychology, who may want to collaborate but don’t know the jargon).

9. Don’t take too much advice from apparently successful colleagues.

People who are doing well may not know why they have done well. They may give contradictory or silly advice. As ever, accept the advice you agree with, and reject the advice you don’t like.

[Update – I forgot one.
10. Annoy your colleagues.
One point that stuck with me at the PSA talk was the advice to women to not feel tied to their offices; to emulate high profile men whose absences are tolerated because the assumption is that they are off doing research or at conferences. I think this is terrific advice if you are in the position to follow it. I used to be described by former colleagues as a ghost-like figure and people would make digs about not seeing me very often. However, it allowed me to be productive while working at home (which, when school is out, often requires me to wear ear muffs to block out the noise until 5pm). I then made sure that I was highly visible while in my office (and that I answered anyone’s emails remarkably quickly). The unintended consequence is that students will turn up at your door unannounced. Then, when they don’t find you, they will knock on the next available door and expect advice from that person. This outcome can create considerable resentment if you don’t deal with it well – which is why I became such a gunslinger emailist (although other descriptions and solutions may be available). However, in my experience, it is nothing compared to the ill-directed, implicit or explicit, resentment that people have for colleagues on maternity leave in Universities that don’t provide resources to cover the absence. That is an issue on which I can only report; not give any meaningful advice]

[Update 5.4.13 How could I forget this one? It’s often the most important

11. Develop a Thick Skin.

The process of seeking article publication and grant income is often immensely dispiriting. Indeed, I have seen one or two people stumble in their careers because they are no longer willing to subject themselves to the often-harsh (and generally anonymous) criticism from their peers. For most, the criticisms and the mix of acceptance, revision and rejection is a regular part of professional life. It does not stop when you reach a particular status in the profession either (perhaps unless you are subverting the process and schmoozing editors on the sly, but few people have that ability). Indeed, my respect for my former Head of School, Steve Bruce, rose further when he sent round an email telling colleagues that he had just received a straight rejection from Sociology.  If you can put up with the criticism, it is worth aiming high for each article submission. If you then get a ‘major revision’ or other ‘revise and resubmit’, you have done well (a straight acceptance with minor revisions is uncommon). If you get a rejection, you can use the comments to make a stronger article to send elsewhere. My experience has been a mix of satisfying acceptances, rotten rejections and somewhere in between. For example, one of my highest status articles (in JEPP) was an acceptance after R&R. One of the articles that gives me the most satisfaction (in PSJ) followed the same positive-criticism process, but after a desktop rejection from Political Studies (largely my fault – I was playing the game instead of seeking the best fit). One article I have in Parliamentary Affairs was made stronger after an initial rejection, with comments, from the BJPS.]

See also: Journal Article Acceptance After 5 Rejections and 18+ months


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized

Should You Play the Citation Game?


This blog asks the simple but super-loaded question to academics: should you try, as much as possible, to make sure that proxy measures of your performance put you in a good light?

There are many, generally convincing, reasons to avoid getting sucked into metrics as proxy measures of performance.  Waiting times/ lists as a measure of health service performance is perhaps the best example, although league tables of school exam results give it a run for its money.  In higher education, we have the often-criticised reputation ranking for Universities, alongside other league tables on research performance and teaching reputations.  The professional academic equivalent may be a department’s record of research achievement, measured in terms of grant income and publication output according to external assessment (and the reputation of the journals and book publishers).

It may also relate to the growth in the assessment of individuals, through the income and output routes, but also using metrics on things like citations.  This focus on citations can relate to, for example, the ‘impact factor’ of the journal as a guide for submissions – a proxy that appears to have become almost taken for granted in many Universities/ disciplines, but one that is under increasing criticism (for example, Google ‘lse blog impact factor’). It can also relate to an individual’s h-index, which relates to the number of publications cited a number of times (for example, an h of 16 means that 16 of author’s outputs have been cited at least 16 times). 

We can come up with an incredible number of good reasons to question the value of individual citations measures, including:
  1. People may be cited as examples of rubbish academia, or as methods/ approaches to avoid.
  2. People may be able to inflate their citation scores by engaging in self-citation and (perhaps more importantly) group-citation, in which a group decides (explicitly or implicitly) to cite each other regularly.
  3. Some disciplines and sub-fields will generate a smaller amount of citations (such as in large parts of historical research which follow a long-research-low-output-but-high-quality model) and some will produce a higher amount, such as the life and natural sciences with a tendency to low word count, high output and co-authored papers.

However, I still think you should, as sensibly as possible, play the game, for the following reasons:
  1. You may get the impression from the (truly depressing) THE, and from departmental discussions, that we are all against these measures; that we have worked out their weaknesses and everyone else has too.  This would be a mistake.  Many people secretly (and some people openly) think that they are decent measures and act accordingly. For example, there are people like me who make sympathetic noises in discussions, then go off and play the game.
  2. More importantly, in my experience, they are favoured most by senior managers (and/ or important disciplines in universities).  The general point is that: (a) policymakers always work in an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity, with limited measures of performance and a limited ability to make sense of the available information; and, (b) they still have to make choices.  Specifically, they often make what we think are the wrong choices – but they make such decisions from a different vantage point.
  3. In my experience of promotions panels, someone’s h is discussed and debated quite naturally in the natural, physical and life sciences.  In fact, on a panel of about 10, you might have 4 people with their laptops out, debating the size and significance of applicants’ scores (with, for example, an h of 20 the figure they hope for in a professor).  It may not be the deciding factor, but it really counts. 
  4. At least one of those 4 people is likely to be a senior manager.    This is crucial for a discussion of the use of h in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  This is where you get the biggest opposition to h scores and you might have panels that reject them as measures of performance.  However, that senior manager may also be on the panel, applying the same mindset.  More importantly, they might not hold as much sway in this committee, but the recommendations may then go to a more senior committee on which they sit.
  5. The same might be said for appointments panels.  You may not be aware of the importance of the h, but there could be at least one person sitting there who has done the background work.  Or, that person is waiting for the recommendations and may use h as a way to argue against them.

So, if I was asked by a new colleague about the importance of h, I could not simply recommend that they ignore it and just focus on good quality research (which is a bit misleading anyway – I am with Silvia on this one).  Instead I would recommend four things:
  1. Get on top of the way that your h is measured.  Senior managers tend to use something like ‘Publish or Perish’ which, in my experience, can bring your h down (particularly with books). Or, people in meetings start debating the right number instead of your application. Instead, I began to put on my promotion and application documents a link to my Google Scholar page, which is the list of my citations that I think is the most accurate. 
  2. Present a convincing narrative of your h, not just in terms of how misleading the measure is.  Often, this is about pointing out that, for example, your articles have been published very recently (too recent to take off) or, for example, that your citation rates for particular journals are higher than the 5-year median (the measure now used by Google scholar to rank journals). This would sit alongside the usual narrative on your outputs and the quality of journals. My preference is to focus on the h trajectory: it is this high now, which means that we can reasonably expect it to get this high in 5 years.
  3. Don’t be a self-flagellating non-citer of your own work for the sake of principle.  If it makes sense to cite your own work, do it.  Reviewers and editors will soon tell you if it is too much.   
  4. We operate within a highly-critical profession in which constant rejection and criticism is something that we have to put up with to get ahead.  So, enjoy the occasional pat on the back that Google Scholar gives you.  Sign up for the service that allows you to receive an email when you are next cited – it is one of the very few boosts to the ego on which academics can rely.


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Political Studies Association: Applying to Study Politics at a British University

The PSA is holding a series of events for students thinking about studying politics and/ or international relations at University.  The notes on my talk on ‘Selecting the right course and institution’ (at the University of Edinburgh, 20th June) are copy and pasted below.  Note the potentially interesting difference in the advice given to students in Scotland:

“Paul Cairney, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen paul.cairney@abdn.ac.uk

Political Studies Association Workshop on Applying to Study Politics at a British University

Things to think about when selecting a University course in Politics and/ or International Relations

How far should I go?

• Most calculations might be in this order: how much will it cost? Should I stay at home? Will I make new friends? How will it affect my grades? How will it affect my learning?

• Beyond Scotland – to the rest of the UK? Most students in Scotland will not go to the rest of the UK because it will cost them an extra £27000 in fees. This is a reasonable calculation to make, although it would be worth being sure that you know how such fees would be paid back. Some of you may be in the position to see this as an investment in your future rather than a weight around your neck.

• Beyond Scotland – to the rest of Europe? Since the UK is an EU member state, its citizens can go to another EU university and pay the same fees as domestic students. The main obstacle is the language barrier. Few universities will teach undergraduate students in English (postgraduate studies are different) and it is not a good idea to learn a new language when learning a new subject (in my opinion, it is better to have this experience as part of an exchange programme where they teach courses in English).

• Beyond home? There may be a basic trade-off between the costs and benefits of moving away. The costs of living away from home are generally financial and occasionally social. The cost of staying at home can (but may not necessarily) be a relative inability to adapt to University life, since local students often have less of an incentive to form new social networks at University (since they always have the option of their friends and family at home). This may often be a factor in University performance – being engaged and content generally helps people learn.

What is the right institution?

• What are the practical implications of University snobbery? People will always have their own biases about the general quality of particular institutions. Perhaps the main bias to consider is that of employers – will they rate every degree in the same way? The answer is ‘probably not’ but individual employers (and their employees) are difficult to predict.

• What are the key sources of University selection snobbery? The obvious distinction is between Oxford/ Cambridge and the rest, followed by the ‘Russell Group’ (which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow) and the distinction between ‘pre-1992’ (such as Napier, Heriott Watt, GCU, RGU) and ‘post-1992’ universities (such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen).

• Note the (often large) difference between the status of the University as a whole and the status of individual departments. For example, the University of Essex has one of the highest status political science departments. Strathclyde was once the highest status department in Scotland.

• Note the difference between a department noted for its research excellence and its teaching excellence.

How can we analyse the ‘league tables’?

• Rule of thumb for academics: we don’t rate the tables but we use them if they make us look good

• Rule of thumb overall: Universities are now chasing these tables – are they getting better scores and becoming better Universities?

• Most important league table for academics: the Research Excellence Framework (as a source of prestige and funding)

• Most important league table for students: National Student Survey?

• What do the composite league tables measure?

• Complete University Guide – ‘entry standards’, ‘student satisfaction’, ‘research assessment’, ‘graduate prospects’

• Guardian – NSS, ‘Expenditure per student’, ‘Staff student ratio’, ‘value added score’, ‘entry tariff’

• Times – also includes completion rates and grades achieved

• Times Higher Education (THE) – (1) reputation (2) ‘teaching’, ‘research’, ‘citations’, ‘industry income’, ‘international outlook’ (3) factors such as sports facilities and student unions

• Note 1: handle with care

• Note 2: find subject specific scores

• Note 3: what do you care about most?

What other sources of information are there?

• Prospectus

• Website (University and department)

• Staff pages, blogs and other social media?

• Open days and applicant days

• Liaison visits

• PSA guide?

• Student associations

The important details

• 3 or 4 years?

• Liberal arts or specialise from the start? Or breadth versus depth?

• Mix of compulsory options and course choices?

• What course options interest you?

• Can you be confident that they will exist by the time you get there?

• Research led teaching? What does it mean?

• Do the Professors teach the undergraduates? If so, how much and when? How can you find out? Should you want the Professors?!

• How do they assess your work?

• How do they encourage learning? How do you learn?

• Campus or not?

• City or town?

• Easy to get around or easy to get back? Compare Aberystwyth with (say) Edinburgh.”

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