Author Archives: Monica Clua-Losada

University metrics – producing plywood?

A few days ago I attended a training course on journal metrics – however, the course was entitled with a more personal heading of  “Evaluate your publications” (emphasis added). I signed up to it hoping it would shed some light on all these indicators that we hear about every day but that, at least, I, don’t fully understand.

Whilst the course itself wasn’t that useful, it made me think, a lot, in a manner that I don’t think was the intention of the course organiser. The performance indicators that are being used to evaluate research are deeply meaningful and we need to start understanding them. It is both interesting and sad, that whilst many of us have spent a long time thinking and researching the meaning and the use of performance indicators in the neoliberalisation of public services, we have turned a blind eye to the same processes being applied to our very own academic work process.

I think there are two reasons for this. On the one hand, we are able to see the danger in others, and yet we have, partly, bought in the ideological construction developed by an increasingly neoliberal academia. On the other hand, we do see the point in being cited: we actually like to think that someone out there is interested in our work and that our work is somewhat useful.  This raises the following conundrum. Is the current obsession with citations and impact the correct way to measure this? Or rather is it an ideological construction designed to ensure that, as academics, we only develop certain types of research and behaviours?

There are different indicators designed to measure our research, or rather what is increasingly being called scientific production. These indicators primarily measure something they call “impact”. In a rather simplistic fashion these indicators measure impact according to how many times an article is cited in other articles that are published in equally citeable journals. This system designed by a librarian called Eugene Garfield (yes, like the cat! but not as innocent) measures impact according to how many times an article is cited in the two years immediately after its publication. After that, who cares?

It is an interesting measure. In my discipline, and I’m sure you may all be able to find examples in yours, the big names such as Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, or even more contemporary ones such as Theda Skocpol or Charles Tilly, may have rarely been cited in the two years immediately after their work has been published. So what can we do?

In my training session the advice was clear: check what journals have the most articles published with the highest impact factors in your area of research, then target your publications to them. Apparently, carrying out high quality research and then look for a journal to publish it in is no longer in vogue.

The ideological discourse that is driving the idea that universities have too much ‘dead wood’ is bringing us to a future (and possibly a present) where universities may end up with too much plywood (to continue the metaphor). Wouldn’t it be better to create the necessary conditions for different types of wood to develop? Most of us may just become pine, but by allowing good quality research (whether it may or may not have a two-year impact) some oak or mahogany may appear. Surely creating the conditions where quality oak can shine, rather than mediocre plywood, is a much better scenario don’t you think?

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Settling into an academic career

After a long time without writing in this blog, I’d like to do a double-exercise. By explaining why I haven’t been contributing as much as I would have liked to, I hope I can provide our readers with a taster of my first year as a full-time lecturer.

Starting a new job is always exciting and challenging, and in my case, I had plenty of challenges to balance the excitement! Fresh from my PhD, I was thrown (quite happily and literally) at the very deep end, into a new academic culture (for me) and a return to a country I had left over ten years before.

There were three key challenges, that I encountered in my first year and I think considering them can help anyone to plan in advance (or at least expect what’s coming your way!):

The first challenge is at the personal level: if the appointment involves moving across countries, the move will be a logistical nightmare. Promise. No matter how hard you plan, and try to pre-empt problems, they will occur. I had a disappointing experience with a reputable removals firm – the last thing you need as it is hard enough to find a new place to live. It is vital to bear in mind that, taking up a new post abroad can be expensive. By the time you get your first wage, you may have already had to pay for your deposit, first-months’ rent, furniture essentials, removal costs, etc.  This means you need to have some money to back you up at the very beginning – something quite difficult for a ‘fresh off the viva’ PhD candidate!

The second challenge has to do with research. You are now in the very real world of citations reports, ISI quartiles, and competitive research bids. As a PhD student I had heard of some of these things, and I certainly knew about the importance of publishing in good journals, but just how “good” a journal is perceived to be was not something I truly understood. The pressure to publish is immense, the saying “publish or perish” is certainly true, but does not go far enough. It should be “publish in an ISI first quartile journal or perish publishing in a fourth quartile!’  If this is confusing, you are not alone. In fact, I hope to write another post on journal publishing and “quality” – or at least how all these league tables work! So, in your first year you’ll be sending everything you possibly can to journals and will be getting successful (and unsuccessful!) responses. Dealing with success and failure will be a steep learning curve.

The third challenge and possibly the most time consuming one in your first year, will be teaching. You will no longer be teaching other people’s courses. You will be designing (and delivering!) your own course. This involves long-long-long-long hours of preparation. They will pay off (I’m told) as you will be able to rely on your own preparation year after year. However, in your first year, the sheer amount of prep work is truly overwhelming! Not just preparing module guides from scratch, but also ensuring your reading material is pitched at the right level (2nd year undergraduate students will not understand sophisticated texts written for PhD students or academics). Additionally, different countries have different disciplinary traditions, and with that comes different ways of understanding what a foundation to a discipline is. What you may have thought was basic and fundamental to all, may no longer be. Be flexible, listen to students, but also be confident in what you are doing!

That being said, it has been a great year. It’s a key stage of progress from being a PhD student to becoming an academic. The learning process has been rapid, and I’m sure it hasn’t stopped! What it does is ensure you start looking forward to far more challenges!

 

Being part of a community

When I first started my PhD I thought there were two basic kinds of PhD students; those that were natural networkers and those that were not. The first type would be excellent at not just making contacts, but filling them with actual content and keeping them. That would be impressive enough, but the best part of it would be that they do it naturally, without appearing too interested or seemingly using people for their own purposes. I was certainly the second type. Any thought of networking would fill me with dread. It was not necessarily the talking to people that made me feel anxious (as I am quite a chatty person when I get going!), but rather the thought that they would feel I was only making conversation out of selfish interest.

I knew I had to change the way I viewed networking if I wanted to have a successful academic career, or at least that is what I was told in all the training sessions I attended. Still, I felt uneasy. The more I saw some of my peers excel as networkers, the more I felt alienated by the idea. Until I realised that there are different ways of viewing networking. The world of academia is small, very small, and in order to be part of it you must make an effort to be a full citizen of that world.  Being that citizen involves not just engaging in your community and being nice to people, but also discovering new areas and new people doing research, etc… And when you do that, usually, the reward is that the community also feels that you are trustworthy of being a member of it and it provides you with new opportunities.

It does sound a little rosy, and with just cause. However, it does not always work in this way; after all you are networking with people who also want to be rewarded. I think the point is not to be constantly thinking about the possible immediate benefits; that would turn many people off, including me. Instead, the idea is that you must ensure you gradually become part of a community of scholars. But, how do you do that?

Well, I do not have a right or a wrong answer. I am still in the process of learning myself! But I do think that some things are key:

  • Social skills – whilst you may spend most of your day reading and thinking about obscure things, and other academics do the same, they may not necessarily want to hear that in full detail at the conference dinner / drinks reception. Prepare a short blurb on your research that precise and to the point. Also be prepared to have a general chit-chat about everything and anything. Be nice.
  • Go to places where other academics meet – make sure you are aware of what is happening in your area of research, conferences, seminar series, workshops, email lists, working groups, etc. 
  • Be prepared to help – although you may be a young academic you may also be of help to more senior academics. Be ready.
  • Do not underestimate people – in an effort to impress, young academics focus their networking efforts only on senior academics. Whilst this may work for some, it is a risky strategy. From my own experience, people who are one step ahead from you are usually those who are more willing to offer you friendly advice. Don’t underestimate them!

Becoming an expert

Whilst reading the newspaper this morning an article grabbed my attention. It was entitled “10,000 hours of work”.  The article is a review of one of those self-help books that apparently teaches you how to be successful. The point, however, is not just about being successful, but actually about becoming outstanding in a particular field.

The theory behind the book, or so the article tells me, is that you need 10,000 hours of work (or 416 days) in order to excel in a particular field. Apparently that is what The Beatles did, Mozart actually doubled that to 20,000 hours.

It made me think….

According to the article you need five years working 8 hours per day in order to make the 10,000 hours. However that does not count the hours spent on Facebook,  writing/reading blogs or making endless to-do lists or Gantt charts, which means you would probably need to double that to perhaps ten years….

Nevertheless, I have spent the last few years being told that doing a PhD would make me an expert in my area… Yet, I probably haven’t spent 10,000 hours on my PhD.  It’s funny how our perception of expertise changes, or it should change, as we increase our ability to digest information.

I think that is key… it isn’t necessarily a matter of becoming experts. The fact our very own expertise, although extremely interesting to us, is probably highly irrelevant to most people’s daily lives. It reminds me of my auntie’s face after I told her what my contribution to knowledge is. The point then is not what makes us experts, but the skills we have achieved in getting there. Skills need to be constantly updated, enhanced and most importantly, used. So, whilst it may be a matter of how many hours we spend gaining expertise, the point is that to continue being an expert, you cannot stop.

In addition, there are two attributes that are crucial in developing our expertise: research and writing. Doing research, from talking to people, to delving into data, to analysing all sorts of records and attempting to make sense of it are some of the skills anyone doing a PhD should master. Being able to write clearly and concisely is the other one.

So, how many hours writing and researching do you need to do to become an expert? I guess the answer is an infinite number of hours. Whilst best-selling books may need to give us a specific target to achieve, life is usually more complicated than that. Every new turn, every new word or piece of data or research topic should make you feel like you are starting fresh once again, remembering the pitfalls of your previous project but ensuring that you have your senses awake to becoming an expert once again. It should be a continuous process.

Plagiarism in Academia

Whilst I have always been (almost) obsessed with the avoidance of plagiarism, it never ceases to amaze me how students look at me when I alert them of how careful they need to be in order to avoid it.

Ok, maybe I exaggerate and need to chill a bit about it…. At least in this blog. After all, if you are reading this you may be at an advanced stage of your academic career and you have certainly understood what plagiarism is about, right?

The real problem is that you can either plagiarise consciously or unconsciously.  Whilst I expect that plagiarism amongst undergraduate students can be a matter of both, depending on the student and depending on the circumstances, within postgraduate students and professional researchers and academics the situation can become more complicated.

Assuming that you are an honest researcher, and I think the majority of us actually are, plagiarism is something you are careful about. By now, you will be aware that you need to reference properly and that you must acknowledge any influences on your work, right?

Let me start from the beginning. Plagiarism, to put it quite simply, is the process whereby somebody steals somebody else’s idea and passes it off as their own work.  Therefore, it is a theft as, in a sense, it’s the theft of what someone else has produced: the fruits of their labour. Increasingly, it seems that the discourse of plagiarism is not sufficiently clear for students and many prefer to talk about academic integrity instead, which would include plagiarism but also other forms of dishonesty in an academic setting.

Whatever we may call it; it is obvious that it’s a problem. The problem appears to have become worse as we have access to far more information than we ever did, and that information is far easier to copy than it may have been in the past. Whilst there is some attention being paid to the way in which undergraduates understand and deal with plagiarism  (Ashworth et al., 1997; Gullifer and Tyson, 2010; Pittam et al., 2009), it seems that once we cross the doctoral line we are no longer worried about committing it, just being able to spot it. We are no longer the possible criminals, but the plagiarism police.

However, I think that two challenges await us. The first one may lead us to become victims, in an attempt to become known within professional and/or academic circles we may disclose our research too soon and without adequate protection.  Keeping some kind of control over what parts of your work are publicly available (before they have actually been published) is crucial. In particular, making sure that everything that is posted online has your full contact details and name (ideally in every page). At least you’ll be able to avoid unconscious plagiarism!

The second challenge could turn us into perpetrators. Acquiring good referencing habits at all times is crucial in order to avoid finding yourself in such a situation. Good referencing should not be something that is done at the end of a project, but rather it should be put in place right at the beginning. Remember, the beginning is when you start reading! It’s important to ensure that both your work and your teaching materials are free from plagiarism. How many times have you seen badly referenced teaching materials? It’s crucial to ensure that they are also treated as rigorously as your academic work. As well as creating a good example for your students you’ll be respecting everyone else’s work too!

Ashworth, P., Bannister, P. and Thorne, P. (1997), ‘Guilty in whose eyes? University students’ perceptions of cheating and plagiarism in academic work and assessment’, Studies in Higher Education, 22: 2, 187-203.

Gullifer, J. and Tyson, G. (2010), ‘Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a focus group study’, Studies in Higher Education, 35: 4, 463-481.

Pittam, G., Elander, J., Lusher, J., Fox, P. and Payne, N. (2009), ‘Student beliefs and attitudes about authorial identity in academic writing’, Studies in Higher Education, 34: 2, 153-170.