Category Archives: Reading

Book Review: The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice

I recently reviewed The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice for SAGE Methodspace. While this book will be of limited relevance to many PhD students, Chapter 6 provides a useful discussion of quality as it pertains to qualitative research practice that may be helpful to those of you coming to terms with your own epistemological and paradigmatic leanings.

Hammersley, M. (2013). The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice. London: SAGE.

First, a confession: I was drawn in by the catchy title. Working broadly in the area of international development, I frequently encounter appeals for research that can inform policy (e.g. situation analyses, monitoring & evaluation, impact assessments). As an early career researcher, I also feel intense pressure from within the university sector to demonstrate either that my research is ripe for commercialization or that it has a social impact (i.e. that it can influence decision makers). So when the title of this book promised to expose research-based policy/practice as a myth, it immediately caught my attention.

I am also quite interested in the politics of evidence. Who determines what counts as evidence? And by what standards? These questions are inherently political, snarled in complex webs of power and influence so pervasive they are often easily overlooked.  So if we accept (at least initially) the premise that research can (or should?) inform policy/practice, we need to carefully consider the standard of evidence required by policymakers and practitioners, as well as what this then means for our own research practice.

The Myth of Research-Based Policy and Practice has two stated objectives: first, to broadly consider ‘what counts as knowledge’ and then to expose ‘the limits of what counts as knowledge in evidence-based policymaking’ (p. 1). The book goes some way toward achieving both. The Introduction provides a useful overview of the history of evidence-based/informed policy, charting its path from medicine to education and other policy areas encompassed by the social sciences. This historical background is significant in that it clearly illustrates how randomized controlled trials (which provide a particular type of evidence suitable for answering certain types of questions in a medical context) became the gold standard for research-based evidence across a broad spectrum of social policy areas. This ‘positivist conception’ of the social sciences, moreover, has little time for socially grounded or ‘critical’ research that adheres to alternative epistemological and paradigmatic positions. And therein lies the problem. As Hammersley notes, “…a grand conception of research is widely shared among social scientists: it is often assumed that the knowledge they produce can generate conclusions that should replace or correct the practical knowledge of actors, and that this will bring about substantial improvement in the world” (p. 9). But all evidence is not created equal. And, as the author points out, practical knowledge also has a role to play in informed decision making.

With this in mind, I found Chapters 2 through 4 (which address the issues raised above in more detail) particularly interesting and well developed. Living in our own epistemological bubbles, we rarely pause to consider – let alone critically question – the nature of evidence. Hammersley urges us to take these questions seriously, further differentiating between evidence and expertise. While it could be debated whether or not the author convincingly demonstrates that evidence-based policymaking/practice is a myth, he certainly exposes the limitations of evidence produced by social science research in this context.

The book has been written so that each chapter can stand on its own and be read independently; this is both a strength and a weakness. While there are some advantages to this format (and I know that more publishers are moving in this direction), the book as a whole seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. At Chapter 7, it takes an abrupt turn; shifting focus from the theoretical and philosophical issues that underpin research and ‘evidence’ toward, first, action research as a particular research practice, and then different approaches to reviewing literature. As systematic reviews constitute one element of the ‘gold standard’, I can understand why the topic of literature reviews is relevant; however, I am not convinced that dedicating a full third of the book to literature reviews is justified. The lack of a concluding chapter means that the book comes to an abrupt stop, without tying off the various threads to the argument.

In sum, I suspect that this book will appeal to scholars frustrated by growing demands that their work produce particular sorts of outcomes, and those interested in phronetic social science. Chapter 6, The question of quality in qualitative research, might also be of interest to PhD students as they discover their own epistemological and paradigmatic leanings. It is a book worth dipping in and out of (particularly the early chapters), which I suspect may have been its aim all along.


Praise for Papers

When I blogged about Endnote last month, I suggested that I might come back with a review of Papers once I’d registered for my free 30-day trial.

Well, the trial period is nearly over and the verdict is in: in this researcher’s humble opinion, Papers is an excellent organizational tool at a price (£15/$25 after applying the 40% student discount) that even the most destitute of PhD students can afford.

**I should note at this point that Papers is only available for macs **

The idea behind Papers is simple. As researchers, we download hundreds of journal articles and other documents as pdfs. But then what?

Sometimes we print them out to make notes as we read, inevitably resulting in piles of papers that, like Jack’s beanstalk, grow to amazing heights. Even if you are a meticulous filer, finding a journal article months or years after first printing it out can prove surprisingly difficult.

The alternative to printing articles is to read them on your computer. This avoids the paper skyscraper phenomenon, but prevents you from making notes on the articles as you read. Moreover, locating the article at a later date can still be headache inducing as you search through a maze of virtual files and folders.

Papers solves both of these problems by providing a single database for filing, organizing and searching your pdf library. There is even a feature that allows you to make notes as you read that are then saved with the article for future reference.

Importing pdfs to the database is a snap: simply drag the files to the Papers library and you’re done. The Papers software also allows you to import bibliographic information from Project Muse, JSTOR, Web of Science and Google Scholar (among others article databases), a huge time saver compared to entering all of the information manually.

According to the Help Center, it is possible to use Papers in combination with Endnote and Word for seamless reference management. I haven’t tried this yet, so can’t vouch with how well it works. (And, to be completely honest, I’m so fed up with Endnote that it is unlikely that I ever will.) However, if the other features of Papers provide any indication, I expect that this probably works quite well.

So, if you are just starting out on your PhD, I would highly recommend getting started with Papers now to avoid the jungle of printouts/pdfs that will surely begin to take over your laptop, office, and/or living room if left untended.

Or if, like me, you are struggling to keep the hundreds of articles you already have under control, initially organising them in Papers may take some time but is well worth the effort. Not only is my pdf library on the way to being impeccably organised, it is now fully portable and can come with me to the Federated States of Micronesia (wishful thinking) or wherever that next research project might be.

For additional information about Papers, visit:


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.