The Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) held their annual conference back in November 2022. I was lucky enough to have a submission for an on-demand webinar accepted on the topic of research culture, and in particular on the role of Research Development Managers.
The talk covers ways in which Research Managers (and those in similar roles) can improve research culture, first through our own policies and practices, and second, through positively influencing others. I also (briefly) discuss writing ‘research culture’ into funding applications, before making some final predictions about what might the future might hold as regards research culture.
The recording features me making a mess of trying to describe myself (not having had to do that before), and includes a few brief references to the broader conference. In my presentation, I assume that copies of my slides will be circulated, but I’ve no idea if they ever were, and if you’re watching now, you certainly won’t have them. That being so, here are the key links from the session.
So… this is a quick post because I’m pushed for time, but if you’ve not heard about #ResearchFishGate, then’s here’s a quick primer from Research Professional’s Sophie Inge.
Short version… academics have been complaining on social media about having to make their annual returns on their funded projects. In the best of all possible worlds, with the best possible system for collecting such information, academics would still complain about having to do it. Academics always complain about admin. However, I don’t think that accounting for how you’ve used public (or charity) money is itself unreasonable.
However, I think the bulk of the complaints in this case have been less about having to do it at all, but about the software/platform that’s used to do it and whether this information is every actually used. I’ve not been involved in supporting ResearchFish returns for some time now, but my impression is that the platform has improved. But clearly not as fast as some people would like.
ResearchFish have – for some time – been, er, trawling twitter for mentions and have been responding to any criticism with a fairly standard form of words.
We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.
There have since been a number of apologies and attempted apologies, UKRI and other funders have weighted in, and it’s been a bit of a mess. At the time of writing it remains unclear whether concerns were shared with the funder in question, though there are stories on twitter of academics being ordered in front of HR/Heads of School to explain themselves. So something has been going on.
Responding to legitimate criticism with threats to report critics to funders has gone down very poorly indeed. Researchers have questioned the GDPR implications… how does ResearchFish know which funder to “share their concerns” with? Is it misusing data?
Anyway, never mind all that
I’m less interested in the specifics of #ResearchFishGate and more interested in the broader issues raised about social media use. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw the tweet and had a moment of alarm… who or what have I criticised? Have I gone too far? Is anyone going to share their concerns with my funder?
I have permission, approval and (occasionally) encouragement for my social media activities. (It helps when your meta-meta-meta-boss is Registrarism). With the proviso that I don’t “start slagging off funders on twitter”. And I have been a good boy.
However… you don’t get very far on Twitter if you’re in corporate drone mode. I wrote something about social media personas in 2014 (2014!), in which I argued for “smart casual” as a sensible Twitter approach. Adam-at-work, if you will. By showing my human side, I build relationships. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. And if I didn’t build networks and relationships, then what’s the point?
One key point from #ResearchFishgate is that few/none of the critiques actively @-ed ResearchFish onto the discussion. They were talking about ResearchFish, not to ResearchFish. This is a really important point. However….
Of course ResearchFish has a Twitter search column for mentions of their name. I have one for links to my blog so I can find out if anyone’s tweeting about it (spoiler: they’re usually not). I have one for an LSE Impact Blog article I wrote in which I definitely don’t slag off funders, and occasionally I’ll set them up for Research Professional articles I’ve written. And I’m just a vain blogger who craves validation, not a corporate behemoth.
So anyone who tweets about ‘ResearchFish’ or any other funder or ecosystem platform or player, even without @-ing them in is being naive in thinking that they won’t see it. Perhaps even if you disguise the name to evade searches.. they might have that search set up too. Replacing all the vowels with “*” in the style of some newspapers and swearing isn’t that original.
The traditional social media advice was always that it’s public and permanent… don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want everyone else to see…. who knows what will go viral (possibly wildly out of context)? Of the comments I’ve seen, some do include industrial language, but if there have been any that are abusive of individuals or even @-ing ResearchFish in, I’ve not seen them.
I’m sure it’s not nice to read that people don’t like your product… especially if it’s something you’ve worked very hard on trying to improve… none of us like criticism when we’re doing our best. We especially don’t like it if we can’t use it to improve in any way… but the answer is to grow a thicker skin and ignore it. It would be entirely sensible to use twitter as sentiment analysis, and to look for feedback – especially if there are concerns or issues that can be addressed instantly with user guide advice, or which can be fed back to the Devs. That’s okay.
It’s not okay to trawl twitter for mentions and then issue threats. It might be okay… just about… to make a polite enquiry in response to criticism and ask how the product could be improved. But it’s still barging – uninvited – into someone else’s conversation, even if it’s conversation that’s in the public square.
And I think that’s something that has changed during the pandemic. The tweets that drew the ire of the Fish of Research are the kind of thing that would – in the before-times – probably have been said around the metaphorical water cooler. Only we’re not there any more so often… we’re working from home, or our colleagues are. We have our Teams chats, but that’s generally work stuff, or work-flavoured. But Twitter’s right there, it’s a different and broader social circle. We’re all feeling more alone, more atomised… so those of us on Twitter are perhaps leaning to it more for conversation, companionship, interaction, and validation than before.
I’ve complained about an issue that… in hindsight… I probably shouldn’t have done, as it’s an internal University of Nottingham issue. But I learned that it’s a problem elsewhere too, that people agreed it was a problem and I heard some extra-egregious examples of the kind of thing I complained about. So I don’t regret doing it. I have raised it with my colleagues, but I think they’ve had enough of me moaning about it. Also… what can they really say? We’re in agreement about it.
Are there any? I guess so. A few lessons.
(1) Big Brother is watching you. Criticise any product and organisation on Twitter – even without @-ing them in – and you should assume that they’ll see it. None of the old advice has changed about social media use and who might see it. Indications are that employers are getting more stringent/intrusive about this.
(2) The default assumption for any organisation (or public figure) being criticised is that they’re talking about you, not to you. Without an @, it’s a private conversation, and you should think very carefully before intruding. And then you probably shouldn’t unless you think your intervention might be welcome.
(3) In spite 0f (1), I do think that the pandemic/wider social media use means that there should be greater allowances for social media use. A conversation can both be in the public square and be a private conversation, with at least some allowances for language and tone. Perhaps X wouldn’t have criticised ResearchFish in precisely those terms and with precisely that language if X knew they were eavesdropping, but the overall sentiment would be the same. That’s not to say that there aren’t still lines that shouldn’t be crossed… just that perhaps the tolerance band should be broader than before.
I’ve recently moved from a role supporting the Business School and the School of Economics to a central role at the University of Nottingham, looking after our engagement with research charities. I’m going from a role where I know a few corners of the university very well to a role where I’m going to have to get to know more about much more of it.
My academic background (such as it is) is in political
philosophy and for most of my research development career I’ve been supporting
(broadly) social sciences, with a few outliers. I’m now trying to develop my
understanding of academic disciplines that I have little background or
experience in – medical research, life sciences, physics, biochemistry etc. I
suspect the answer is just time, practice, familiarity, confidence (and
Wikipedia), but I found myself wondering if there are any short cuts or
particularly good resources to speed things up.
Fortunately, if you’re a member of ARMA, you’re never on your own, and I sent an email around the Research Development Special Interest Group email list, with a promise (a) to write up contributions as a blog post and (b) to add some hints and tips of my own, especially for the social sciences.
So here goes… the collated and collected wisdom of the SIG… bookmark this post and revisit it if your remit changes…
Don’t panic… and focus on what you can do
In my original email, the first requirement I suggested was ‘time’, and that’s been echoed in a lot of the responses. “Time, practice, familiarity, confidence (and Wikipedia)” as Chris Hewson puts it. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sea of new faces and names and an alphabet soup of new acronyms- and to regard other people’s hard-won institutional/school/faculty knowledge as some kind of magical superpower.
Lorna Wilson suggests that disciplinary differences are overrated and “sometimes the narrative of ‘difference’ is what makes things harder. The skills and expertise we have as research development professionals are transferable across the board, and I think that the silos of disciplines led to a silo-ing of roles (especially in larger universities). With the changes in the external landscape and push with more challenge-led interdisciplinary projects, the silos of disciplines AND of roles I think is eroding.”
But there are differences in practices and norms – there are differences in terminology, outlook, career structures, internal politics, norms, and budget sizes – and I’m working hard trying not to carry social science assumptions with me. Though perhaps I’m equally likely to be too hesitant to generalise from social science experience where it would be entirely appropriate to do so.
Rommany Jenkins has “moved from Arts and Humanities to Life Sciences” and thinks that while “the perception might be that it’s the harder direction to go in because of the complexity of the subject matter […] it’s probably easier because the culture is quite straightforward […] although there are differences between translational / clinical and basic, the principles of the PI lab and team are basically the same”. She thinks that perhaps “it’s more of a culture shock moving into Arts and Humanities, because people are all so independently minded and come at things from so many different directions and don’t fit neatly into the funding boxes. […] I know a lot of people just find it totally bizarre that you can ask a Prof in Arts what they need in terms of costings and they genuinely don’t know.”
Charlotte Johnson moved in the opposite direction, from science to arts. “The shortcut was trying to find commonalities in how the different disciplines think and prepare their research. Once you realise that an artist and a chemist would go about planning their research project very similarly, and they only start to diverge in the experimental/interpretation stage, it does actually make it all quite easy to understand“
Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg says that her contribution “tends to be not so much on the science front, but on the social and economic or policy and political implications of the work STEMM colleagues are doing and recommendations around impact and engagement or even interdisciplinary angles to enquiries for larger projects.”
My colleague Liz Humphreys makes a similar (and very reassuring) point about using the same “skills to assess any bid by not focusing on the technical things but focus on all the other usual things that a bid writer can strengthen”. A lay summary that doesn’t make any lay sense is an issue regardless of discipline, as is a summary that doesn’t summarise that’s more of an introduction. Getting good at reviewing research grants can transcend academic disciplines. “If someone can’t explain to me what they’re doing,” says Claire Edwards, “then it’s unlikely to convince reviewers or a panel.”
Kate Clift make a similar point: “When I am working in a discipline which is alien to me I tend to try and ground the proposed research in something which I do understand so I can appreciate the bigger picture, context etc. I will ask lots of ‘W’ questions – Why is it important? What do you want to do? Who is going to do it? Less illuminating to me in this situations is HOW they are going to do it”.
Roger Singleton Escofet makes the very sensible point that some subjects are very theoretical “where you will always struggle to understand what is being proposed”. I certainly found this with Economics – I could hope to try to understand what a proposed project did, but how it worked would always be beyond me. Reminds me a bit of this Armstrong and Miller sketch in which they demonstrate how not to do public engagement in theoretical physics.
Ann Onymous-Contributor says that “multidisciplinary projects are the best way to ease yourself into other disciplines and their own specific languages. My background is in social sciences but because of the projects I have worked on I have experience of, and familiarity with a range of arts and hard science disciplines and the languages they use. Broad, shallow knowledge accumulated on this basis can be very useful; sometimes specific disciplinary knowledge is less important than understanding connections between different disciplines, or the application of knowledge, which typically also tend to be the things which specialists miss.” I think this is a really good point – if we allow ourselves it include the other disciplines that we’ve supported as part of interdisciplinary bids, we may find we’ve more experience that we thought.
Finding the Shallow End, Producing your Cheat Sheet
Lorna Wilson suggests “[h]aving a basic understanding” of methodologies in different disciplines, “helps to demonstrate how [research questions] are answered and hypotheses evidenced, and I think breaks through some of the ‘difference’. What makes things slightly more difficult is also accessibility, in terms of language of disciplines, we could almost do with a cheat sheet in terms of terms!”
Richard Smith suggests identifying academics in the field who are effective and willing communicators “who appreciate the benefits and know the means of conveying approaches and fields to non-experts… and do it with enthusiasm”. Harry Moriarty’s experience has been that often ECRs and PhD students are a particularly good source – many are more willing to engage, and perhaps have more to benefit from our advice and support.
Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg suggests attending public
lectures (rather than expert seminars) which will be aimed at the generalist,
and notes that expert-novice conversations will benefit the academic expert in
terms of practising explanations of complex topics to a generalist audience. I
think we can all recognise academics who enjoy talking about their work to
non-specialists and with a gift for explanations, and those who don’t, haven’t
Other non-academic colleagues can help too, Richard argues – especially impact and public or business engagement staff working in that area, but also admin staff and School managers. Sanja Vlaisavljevic wanted to “understand how our various departments operate, not just in terms of subject-matter but the internal politics”. This is surely right – I’m sure we’re all aware of historical disagreements or clashes between powerful individuals or whole research groups/Schools that stand in the way of certain kinds of collaboration or joint working. Whether we work to try to erode these obstructions or navigate deftly around them, we need to know that they’re there.
Caroline Moss-Gibbons adds librarians to the list, citing their resource guides and access/role with the university repository. Claire Edwards observes that many research development staff have particular academic backgrounds that might be useful.
Don’t try to fake it till you make it
“Be open that you’re new to the area, but if they’re looking for funding they need to be able to explain their research to a non-specialist” says Jeremy Barraud.
I’ve always found that a full, frank, and even cheerful confession of a lack of knowledge is very effective. I often include a blank slide in presentations to illustrate what I don’t know. My experience is that admitting what I don’t know earns me a better hearing on matters that I do know about (as long as I do both together), but I’m aware that as a straight, white, middle aged, middle class male perhaps that’s easier for me to do. I’ve suspected for some time now that being male (and therefore less likely to be mistaken for an “administrator”) means I’m probably playing research development on easy mode. There’s an interesting project around EDI and research development that I’m probably not best placed to do.
While no-one is arguing for outright deception, I’ve heard
it argued that frank admissions of ignorance about a particular topic area may
make it harder to engage academic colleagues and to find out more. If academic
colleagues make certain assumptions about background, perhaps try to live up to
those with a bit of background reading. It’s easy to be written off and written
out, which then makes it harder to learn later.
I always think half the battle is convincing academic colleagues that we’re on their side and the side of their research (rather than, say, motivated by university income targets or an easier life), and perhaps it’s easy to underestimate the importance of showing an interest and a willingness to learn. Asking intelligent, informed, interested lay questions of an expert – alongside demonstrating our own expertise in grant writing etc – is one way to build relationships. My own experience with my MPhil is that research can be a lonely business, and so an outsider showing interest and enthusiasm – rather than their eyes glazing over and disengaging – can be really heartening.
Kate Clift makes an important point about combining any admissions of relative ignorance with a stress on what she can do/does know/can contribute. “I’m always very upfront with people and say I don’t have an understanding of their research but I do understand how to craft a submission – that way everyone plays to their strengths. I can focus on structure and language and the academic can focus on scientific content.”
Find a niche, get involved, be visible
For Jeremy Barraud, that was being secretary for an ethics committee. In my early days with Economics, it was supporting the production of the newsletter and writing research summaries – even though it wasn’t technically part of my remit, it was a great way to get my name known, get to know people, and have a go at summarising Economics working papers.
Suzannah Laver is a research development manager in a Medical School, but has a background in project management and strategy rather than medicine or science. For her it was “just time” and getting involved “[a]ttending the PI meetings, away days, seminars, and arranging pitching events or networking events.” Mary Caspillo-Brewer adds project inception meetings and dissemination events to the list, and also suggests attending academic seminars and technical meetings (as does Roger Singleton Escofet), even if they’re aimed at academics. This is great in terms of visibility and in terms of evidence of commitment – sending a message that we’re interested and committed, even if we don’t always entirely understand.
Mark Smith suggests visiting research labs or clinics, however terrifying they may first appear. So far I’ve only met academics in their offices – I’m not sure I trust myself anywhere near a lab. I’m still half-convinced I’ll knock over the wrong rack of test tubes and trigger a zombie epidemic. But lab visits are perhaps something I could do more of in the future when I know people better. And as Mark says, taking an interest is key.
Do your homework
I’ve blogged before about the problems with the uses and abuses of successful applications, but Nat Golden is definitely onto something when he suggests reading successful applications to look at good practice and what the particular requirements of a funder are. Oh, and reading the guidance notes.
Roger Singleton Escofet (and others) have mentioned that the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering produce useful reports that “may be technical but offer good overviews on topical issues across disciplines. Funders such as research councils or Wellcome may also be useful sources since funders tend to follow (or set) the emerging areas.” Hilary Noone also suggests looking to the funders for guidance – trying to “understand the funders real meaning (crucial for new programmes and calls where they themselves are not clear on what they are trying to achieve)”.
There’s a series of short ‘Bluffer’s Guide’ books which are somewhat dated, but potentially very useful. Bluff your way in Philosophy was on my undergraduate reading list. Bluff your way in Economics gave me an excellent grounding when my role changed, and explained (among many other things) the difference between exogenous and endogenous factors. When supporting a Geography application, I learned the difference between pluvial and fluvial flooding. These little things make a difference, and it’s probably the absence of that kind of basic ground for many disciplines that I’m now supporting that’s making me feel uneasy. In a good way.
Harry Moriarty argues that it’s more complicated than just reading Wikipedia – the work he supported “was necessarily at the cutting edge and considerably beyond the level that I could get to in a sensible order – I had to take the work and climb back through the Wikipedia pages in layers, and then, once I had some underpinning knowledge, go back through the same pages in light of my new understanding”.
Specific things to do
“Become an NIHR Public Reviewer”, says Jeremy Barraud. “It’s easy to sign up and they’re keen to get more reviewers. Being on the other side of the funding fence gives a real insight into how decisions are reached (and bolsters your professional reputation when speaking with researchers). “
I absolutely second this – I’ve been reviewing for NIHR for some time and just finished a four year term as a patient/public representative on a RfPB panel. I’d recommend doing this not just to gain experience of new research areas, but as a valuable public service that you as a research development professional can perform. If you’ve got experience of a health condition, using NHS services (as a patient or carer), and you’re not a healthcare professional or researcher, I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.
Being a research participant, argues Jeremy Barraud, is “professionally insightful and personally fulfilling. The more experience you have on research in all its different angles, the better your professional standing”. This is also something I’ve done – in many ways it’s hard not to get involved in research if you’re hanging around a university. I’m part of a study looking at running and knee problems, and I’ve recently been invited to participate in another study.
Bonhi Bhattacharya registered for a MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) – an “Introduction to Ecology” – Bonhi is a mathematician by training – “and it was immensely helpful in getting a grounding in the subject, as well as a useful primer in terminology.“ It can be a bit of a time commitment, but they’re also fascinating – and as above, really shows willing. I wrote about my experience with a MOOC on behavioural economics in a post a few years ago. Bonhi also suggests reading academics’ papers – even if only the introduction and conclusion.
Subscribe to The Conversation, says Claire Edwards, it’s “a great source of academic content aimed at a non-specialist audience”. In a similar vein, Helen Walker recommends the Wellcome-funded website Mosaic which is “great for stories that give the bigger picture ‘around’ science/research – sometimes research journeys, sometimes stories showing the broader context of science-related research.” Both Mosaic and The Conversation have podcast companions. Recent Conversation podcast series have looked at the Indian elections and moon exploration.
I’m a huge fan of podcasts, and there are loads that can help with gaining a basic understanding of new academic areas – in addition to being interesting (and sometimes amusing).
A quick search of the BBC has identified four science podcasts I should think about listening to – The Science Hour, Discovery, and BBC Inside Science. Very open to other suggestions – please tweet me or let me know in the comments/via email.
A huge thank you to all contributors:
I’m very grateful to everyone for their comments. I’ve not been able to include everything everyone said, in the interests of avoiding duplication/repetition and in the interests of keeping this post to a manageable length.
I don’t think there’s any great secret to success in supporting a new discipline or working in research development in a new institution – it’s really a case of remembering and repeating the steps that worked last time. And hopefully this blog post will serve as a reminder to others, as it is doing to me.
Jeremy Barraud is Deputy Director, Research Management and Administration, at the University of the Arts, London.
Bonhi Bhattacharya is Research Development Manager at the University of Reading
Mary Caspillo-Brewer is Research Coordinator at the Institute for Global Health, University College London
Kate Clift is Research Development Manager at Loughborough University
Anne Onymous-Contributor is something or other at the University of Redacted
Claire Edwards is Research Bid Development Manager at the University of Surrey.
Adam Forristal Golberg is Research Development Manager (Charities), at the University of Nottingham
Nathanial Golden is Research Development Manager (ADHSS) at Nottingham Trent University
Chris Hewson is Social Science Research Impact Manager at the University of York
Liz Humphreys is Research Development Manager for Life Sciences, University of Nottingham
Rommany Jenkins is Research Development Manager for Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham.
Charlotte Johnson is Senior Research Development Manager, University of Reading
Suzannah Laver is Research Development Manager at the University of Exeter Medical School
Harry Moriarty is Research Accelerator Project Manager at the University of Nottingham.
Caroline Moss-Gibbons is Parasol Librarian at the University of Gibraltar.
Hilary Noone is Project Officer (REF Environment and NUCoREs0, at the University of Newcastle
Roger Singleton Escofet is Research Strategy and Development Manager for the Faculty of Science, University of Warwick.
Mark Smith is Programme Manager – The Bloomsbury SET, at the Royal Veterinary College
Richard Smith is Research and Innovation Funding Manager, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social sciences, Anglia Ruskin University.
Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg is Researcher Development Manager (Strategy) at the University of Sydney.
Sanja Vlaisavljevic is Enterprise Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London
Helen Walker is Research and Innovation Officer at the University of Portsmouth
Lorna Wilson is Head of Research Development, Durham University
A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in November 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com
Given the ever-expanding requirements of most research funding application forms, it’s inevitable that applicants are tempted to pay less attention to some sections and end up writing text so generic, so bland, that it could be cut and pasted – with minimal editing of names and topics – into almost any other proposal.
Resist that temptation. Using text that looks like it could be cut and pasted between proposals suggests that you haven’t thought through the specifics of your project or fellowship, and it will make it seem less plausible as a result.
I often see responses that are so content free they make my heart sink. For example:
1) “We will present the findings at major international conferences and publish in world class journals”
2) “The findings will be of interest to researchers in A, B, and C.”
3) “This is a methodologically innovative, timely, and original project which represents a step change in our understanding”
4) “We will set up a project Twitter account and a blog, and with the support of our outstanding press office, write about our research for a general audience.”
5) “Funding will enable me to lead my own project for the first time, and support me in making the transition to independent researcher”.
These claims might well be true and can read well in isolation. But they’re only superficially plausible, and while they contain buzzwords that applicants think that funders are after, they’re entirely content, evidence, and argument free.
Why should you care? Because your proposal doesn’t just have to be good enough to meet a certain standard, it has to be better than its rivals. If there are sections of your application that could be transferred into any rival application, this might be a sign that that section is not as strong or distinctive as it could be and is not giving you any competitive edge.
Cut and paste sections may be actively harming your chances. They may read well in isolation but when compared directly to more thoughtful and more detailed sections in rival applications, they can look weak and lazy, especially if they don’t take full advantage of the word count.
Cut and pasteable text tends to occur in the trickier sections of the application form to write and those that get less attention: dissemination; impact pathway/plan; academic impact; personal development plan; data management plan; choice of host institution. Sometimes these generic statements emerge because the applicants don’t know what to write, and sometimes because it’s all they can be bothered to write for a section they wrongly regard of lesser importance.
Give these sections the time, attention and thought they deserve. Add details. Add specifics. Add argument. Add evidence. Find things to say that only apply to your application. If you don’t know how to answer a question strongly, get advice from your research development colleagues.
The more editing it would take to put it into someone else’s bid, the better. Here are some thoughts on improving the earlier examples:
1) “We will present the findings at major international conferences and publish in world class journals”. I find it hard to understand vagueness about plans for academic impact. Even allowing for the fact that the findings of the research will affect plans, it’s surely not too much to expect some target journals and conferences to be named. If applicants can’t demonstrate knowledge of realistic targets, it undermines their credibility.
2) “The findings will be of interest to researchers in A, B, and C.” I’d ban the phrase “of interest to” when explaining potential academic impact. It tells the reader nothing about the likely academic impact – who will cite your work, and what difference do you anticipate it will make to the field?
3) “This is a methodologically innovative, timely, and original project which represents a step change in our understanding” Who will use your methods? Who will use your frameworks? If all research is standing on the shoulders of giants, how much further can future researchers see perched atop your work? How exactly does your project go beyond the state of the art, and what might be the new state of the art after your project?
4) “We will set up a project Twitter account and a blog, and with the support of our outstanding press office, write about our research for a general audience.” If you’re talking about engaging with social media, talk about how you are going to find readers and/or followers. What’s your plan for your presence in terms of the existing ecosystem of social media accounts that are active in this area? Who are the current key influencers?
5) “Funding will enable me to lead my own project for the first time, and support me in making the transition to independent researcher”. How does funding take you to what’s next? What’s the path from the conclusions of this project to your future research agenda?
Looking for cut and paste text – and improving it where you find it – is an excellent review technique to polish your draft application, and particularly to improve those harder-to-write sections. Hammering out the detail is more difficult, but it could give you an advantage in the race for funding.
Last week I gave a brief presentation at a training and development event organised by ARMA (Association of Research Managers and Administrators) entitled ‘Using Social Media to Support Research Management’. Also presenting were Professor Andy Miah of the University of Salford, Sierra Williams of the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, Terry Bucknell of Altmetric. and Phil Ward of Fundermentals and the University of Kent. A .pdf of my wibblings as inflicted can be found here.
I guess there are three things from the presentation and from the day as a whole that I’d pick out for particular comment.
Firstly, if you’re involved in research management/support/development/impact, then you should be familiar with social media, and by familiar I don’t mean just knowing the difference between Twitter and Friends Reunited – I mean actually using it. That’s not to say that everyone must or should dash off and start a blog – for one thing, I’m not sure I could handle the competition. But I do think you should have a professional presence on Twitter. And I think the same applies to any academics whose research interests involve social media in any way – I’ve spoken to researchers wanting to use Twitter data who are not themselves on Twitter. Call it a form of ethnography if you like (or, probably better, action research), I think you only really understand social media by getting involved – you should “inhabit the ecosystem”, as Andy Miah put it in a quite brilliant presentation that you should definitely make time to watch.
I’ve listed some of the reasons for getting involved, and some of the advantages and challenges, in my presentation. But briefly, it’s only by using it and experiencing for yourself the challenge of finding people to follow, getting followers, getting attention for the messages you want to transmit, risking putting yourself and your views out there that you come to understand it. I used to just throw words like “blog” and “twitter” and “social media engagement” around like zeitgeisty confetti when talking to academic colleagues about their various project impact plans, without understanding any of it properly. Now I can talk about plans to get twitter followers, strategies to gain readers for the project blog, the way the project’s social media presence will be involved in networks and ecosystems relevant to the topic.
One misunderstanding that a lot of people have is that you have to tweet a lot of original content – in fact, it’s better not to. Andy mentioned a “70/30” rule – 70% other people’s stuff, 30% yours, as a rough rule of thumb. Even if your social media presence is just as a kind of curator – finding and retweeting interesting links and making occasional comments, you’re still contributing and you’re still part of the ecosystem, and if your interests overlap with mine, I’ll want to follow you because you’ll find things I miss. David Gauntlett wrote a really interesting article for the LSE impact blog on the value of “publish, then filter” systems for finding good content, which is well worth a read. Filtering is important work.
The second issue I’d like to draw out is an issue around personal and professional identity on Twitter. When Phil Ward, Julie Northam, David Young and I gave a presentation on social media at the ARMA conference in 2012, many delegates were already using Twitter in a personal capacity, but were nervous about mixing the personal and professional. I used to think this was much more of a problem/challenge than I do now. In last week’s presentation, I argued that there were essentially three kinds of Twitter account – the institutional, the personal, and what I called “Adam at work”. Institutional wears a shirt and tie and is impersonal and professional. Personal is sat in its pants on the sofa tweeting about football or television programmes or politics. Adam-at-work is more ‘smart casual’ and tweets about professional stuff, but without being so straight-laced as the institutional account.
Actually Adam-at-Work (and, for that matter You-at-Work) are not difficult identities to work out and to stick to. We all manage it every day. We’re professional and focused and on-topic, but we also build relations with our office mates and co-workers, and some of that relationship building is through sharing weekend plans, holidays, interests etc. I want to try to find a way of explaining this without resorting to the words “water cooler” or (worse) “banter”, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Just as we need to show our human sides to bond with colleagues in everyday life, we need to do the same on Twitter. Essentially, if you wouldn’t lean over and tell it to the person at the desk next to you, don’t tweet about it. I think we’re all well capable of doing this, and we should trust ourselves to do it. By all means keep a separate personal twitter account (because you don’t want your REF tweets to send your friends to sleep) and use that to shout at the television if you’d like to.
I think it’s easy to exaggerate the dangers of social media, not least because of regular stories about people doing or saying something ill-advised. But it’s worth remembering that a lot of those people are famous or noteworthy in some way, and so attract attention and provocation in a way that we just don’t. While a footballer might get tweeted all kinds of nonsense after a poor performance, I’m unlikely to get twitter-trolled by someone who disagrees with something I’ve written, or booed while catching a train. Though I do think a football crowd style crescendo of booing might be justified in the workplace for people who send mass emails without the intended attachment/with the incorrect date/both.
Having said all that… this is just my experience, and as a white male it may well be that I don’t attract that kind of negative attention on social media. I trust/hope that female colleagues have had similar positive experiences and I’ve no reason to think they haven’t, but I don’t want to pass off my experience as universal. (*polishes feminist badge*).
The third thing is to repeat an invitation which I’ve made before – if anyone would like to write a guest post for my blog on any topic relevant to its general themes, please do get in touch. And if anyone has an questions about twitter, blogging, social media that they think I might have a sporting chance of answering, please ask away.
In part 1 of this post, I raised questions about how academic writing might have to change in response to the open access agenda. The spirit of open access surely requires not just the availability of academic papers, but the accessibility of those papers to research users and stakeholders. I argued that lay summaries and context pieces will increasingly be required, and I was pleased to discover that at least some open access journals are already thinking about this. In this second part, I want to raise questions about whether researchers and those who support them are ready for the potential extra degree of scrutiny and attention that open access may bring.
On February 23rd 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics published a paper called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. The paper was not to advocate “after birth abortion” (i.e infanticide), but to argue that many of the arguments that are said to justify abortion also turn out to justify infanticide. This isn’t a new argument by any means, but presumably there was sufficient novelty in the construction of the argument to warrant publications. To those familiar with the conventions of applied ethics – the intended readers of the article – it’s understood that it was playing devil’s advocate, seeing how far arguments can be stretched, taking things to their logical conclusion, seeing how far the thin end of the edge will drive, what’s at the bottom of the slippery slope, just what kind of absurdium can be reductio-ed to. While the paper isn’t satire in the same way as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, no sensible reader would have concluded that the authors were calling for infanticide to be made legal, in spite of the title.
I understand that what happened next was that the existence of the article – for some reason – attracted attention in the right wing Christian blogosphere, prompting a rash of complaints, hostile commentary, fury, racist attacks, and death threats. Journal editor Julian Savulescu wrote a blog post about the affair, below which are 624 comments. It’s enlightening and depressing reading in equal measure. Quick declaration of interest here – my academic background (such as it is) is in philosophy, and I used to work at Keele University’s Centre for Professional Ethics marketing their courses. I know some of the people involved in the JME’s response, though not Savulescu or the authors of the paper.
There’s a lot that can (and probably should) be said about the deep misunderstanding that occurred between professional bioethicists and non-academics concerned about ethical issues who read the paper, or who heard about it. Part of that misunderstanding is about what ethicists do – they explore arguments, analyse concepts, test theories, follow the arguments. They don’t have any special access to moral truth, and while their private views are often much better thought out than most people, most see their role as helping to understand arguments, not pushing any particular position. Though some of them do that too, especially if it gets them on Newsnight. I’m not really well informed enough to comment too much on this, but it seems to me that the ethicists haven’t done a great job of explaining what they do to those more moderate and sensible critics. Those who post death threats and racist abuse are probably past reasoned argument and probably love having something to rail against because it justifies their peculiar world view, but for everyone else, I think it ought to be possible to explain. Perhaps the notion of a lay summary that I mentioned last time might be helpful here.
Part of the reason for the fuss might have been because the article wasn’t available via open access, so some critics may not have had the opportunity to read the article and make up their own mind. This might be thought of as a major argument in favour of open access – and of course, it is – the reasonable and sensible would have at least skim-read the article, and it’s easier to marshal a response when what’s being complained about is out there for reference.
However….. the unfortunate truth is that there are elements out there who are looking for the next scandal, for the next chance to whip up outrage, for the next witch hunt. And I’m not just talking about the blogosphere, I’m talking about elements of the mainstream media, who (regardless of our personal politics) have little respect or regard for notions of truth, integrity and fairness. If they get their paper sales, web hits, outraged comments, and resulting manufactured “scandal”, then they’re happy. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask Hilary Mantel, who was on the receiving end of an entirely manufactured fuss with comments she made in a long and thoughtful lecture being taken deliberately and dishonestly out of context.
While open access will make things easier for high quality journalism and for the open-minded citizen and/or professional, it’ll also make it easier for the scandal-mongers (in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere) to identify the next victim to be thrown to the ravenous outrage-hungry wolves that make up their particular constituency. It’s already risky to be known to be researching and publishing in certain areas – anything involving animal research; climate change; crop science; evolutionary theory; Münchhausen’s by Proxy; vaccination; and (oddly) chronic fatigue syndrome/ME – appears to have a hostile activist community ready to pounce on any research that comes back with the “wrong” answer.
I don’t want to go too far in presenting the world outside the doors of the academy as being a swamp of unreason and prejudice. But the fact is that alongside the majority of the general public (and bloggers and journalists) who are both rational and reasonable, there is an element that would be happy to twist (or invent) things to suit their own agenda, especially if that agenda involves whipping out manufactured outrage to enable their constituency to confirm their existing prejudices. Never mind the facts, just get angry!
Doubtless we all know academics who would probably relish the extra attention and are already comfortable with the public spotlight. But I’m sure we also know academics who do not seek the limelight, who don’t trust the media, and who would struggle to cope with even five minutes of (in)fame(y). One day you’re a humble bioethicist, presumably little known outside your professional circles, and the next, hundreds of people are wishing you dead and calling you every name under the sun. While Richard Dawkins seems to revel in his (sweary) hate mail, I think a lot of people would find it very distressing to receive emails hoping for their painful death. I know it would upset me a lot, so please don’t send me any, okay? And be nice in the comments…..
Of course, even if things never get that far or go that badly, with open access there’s always a greater chance of hostile comment or criticism from the more mainstream and reasonable media, who have a much bigger platform from which to speak than an academic journal. This criticism need not be malicious, could be legitimate opinion, could be based on a misunderstanding. Open access opens up the academy to greater scrutiny and greater criticism.
As for what we do about this….. it’s hard to say. I certainly don’t say that we retreat behind the safety of our paywalls and sally forth with our research only when guarded by a phalanx of heavy infantry to protect us from the swinish multitude besieging our ivory tower. But I think that there are things that we can do in order to be better prepared. The use of lay summaries, and greater consideration of the lay reader when writing academic papers will help guard against misunderstandings.
University external relations departments need to be ready to support and defend academic colleagues, and perhaps need to think about planning for these kind of problems, if they don’t do so already.
Hello everyone, and happy new year’s eve. Or probably more likely by the time you’re reading this, happy first day back at work of 2013 and a prosperous new email backlog from people who had less time off over Christmas than you, and are anxious to demonstrate their productivity. My last new year’s message was a bit of a whingeathon, so I’m going to be more positive this season and share some youtubes that I’ve enjoyed over the last year. I know you’ve got a lot to do today, but why not leave this page open and watch the clips over lunch?
1. John Cleese, Jonathan Miller – Words… and things
This is a sketch from 1977 starring John Cleese and Jonathan Miller, which I think I’ve tweeted before with the title “Philosophers preparing their REF Impact statement”. And while there’s a bit of that, what I like most about this is the superbly well observed and subtly exaggerated academic mannerisms. Are those mannerisms a peculiar philosophy affectation, or are they more widespread?
2. Armstrong and Miller Physics Special
In which Ben Miller (who I think has a PhD in physics) demonstrates how not to do public engagement/media work. Watching this, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort that does go into communicating very complex science to the general public, particularly the efforts to explain the search for the Higgs via the medium of rap, when I suspect that the reality is pretty much as Miller’s character says. Special hat tip on the science public engagement front to m’colleagues from the Periodic Videos team at the University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry, though apparently they prefer Dubstep (whatever that is) to rap music.
3. A Very Peculiar Practice
I finally got round to watching this late 1980s TV series about a medical practice at a university. It’s both very current (debates about research v. teaching; working with industry; student finances; university politics; the role of the university; the place of the arts/humanities) and very dated (haircuts; weird theme music and opening credits; accents – some weird London accents that have either died out or never existed at all). On the down side, it does require the viewer to accept the premise that a university medical practice is a department of the university (was this ever the case anywhere?), and the overall tone and level of (sur)realism uneasily shifts between sitcom and comedy-drama. On the up side, it’s an interesting view of 1980s campuses (Birmingham and Keele – my former stomping ground) and has a superb cast – Peter Davison, Barbara Flynn, John Bird, plus small early roles for Hugh Grant and Kathy Burke. It’s worth a look – I’ve embedded the trailer for the DVD complete box set, though a fair bit of it is also on youtube if you want more of a taster before investing.
4. “Don’t wanna work in admin”
I’ve been a fan of Nick Helm’s brand of on-the-edge-of-a-breakdown stand-up and musical comedy since seeing him in Nottingham a few years back – hilarious and terrifying at the same time. What I remember most about that performance was a song that will resonate with anyone who has or has had a basic admin job. It’s very sweary and therefore not work safe, so I’m only going to link it rather than embed it.
The Association of Research Managers and Administrators conference was held in Southampton last week, and I’ve only got time to scribble a few words about it. It’s a little frustrating, really – I’ve come back from the conference with various ideas and schemes for work, and a few for the blog, but I’m on annual leave until the end of July. While I’ve always written this blog in my own time, I’m going to have a near-complete break (apart from perhaps a little Twitter lurking) so my reader will have to wait until July at the very earliest for the second instalment of my impact series.
I have a slight stammer that I’m told that most people don’t notice, so I’m not a ‘natural’ public speaker, but I’m very pleased with the way that the session went. I’m very grateful to my three co-presenters for their efforts and for what really amounted to quite a lot of preparation time, including a meeting in London. I’m also very grateful to the delegates who attended – I think I counted 50 or so, which for the final session of the conference and scheduled against a very strong line-up of parallel sessions, was pretty good. It was a very warm afternoon, but energy and attention levels in the room felt high, and this helped enormously. So if you made it, thank you for coming, thank you for your attention, and most importantly of all, thank you for laughing at our jokes.
David opened the session by asking about the audience’s experience with social media, I was surprised at how much experience there was in the room. We weren’t far short of 100% on Facebook, probably about 20% or more on or having using Twitter, and four or five bloggers. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise, as perhaps the title of the session would have particularly appealed to those with an interest or previous experience. But it was good to have an idea of the level to pitch things.
The session consisted of a brief introduction and explanation of social media, followed by four case studies. Phil and I talked about our motivations in setting up our own blogs, our experiences, lessons learnt, and benefits and challenges. Julie and David talked about their experience in setting up institutional research blogs, and how they went about getting institutional acceptance and academic buy-in. It was interesting to see that the Open University had a poster presentation about a research blog that they’ve set up, though that’s internal only at the moment. ARMA itself is now on Twitter, and this was the first year that the conference had an official hashtag – #ARMA2012. While there’s no need for an official one – sometimes they just emerge – it’s very helpful to have an element of coordination. I don’t think blogging or social media are going away any time soon, and I can only see their usage increasing. – though I do have reservations about scalability and sustainability.
As I said in the presentation, my motivations in setting up a blog were to try to join in a broader conversation with academics, funders, and people like me. We get to do a lot of that at the annual ARMA conference, but it would be good to keep that going throughout the rest of the year too. A secondary motivation was to learn by doing – I’m expected to help academics write their pathways to impact, which almost inevitably involve social media, and by getting involved myself I understand it in a way that I could never have understood as a mere bystander.
My blog is now a few weeks shy of its first birthday, an auspicious event marked by a birthday card invoice from my hosting provider, and a time for reflection. I’ve managed reasonably well to hit an average of 2-3 posts per month – some reactions to news, some more detailed think pieces, and some lighter reflections on university culture and life. That’s not too bad, but looking into the future I wonder whether I’ll be able to sustain this, and whether I’ll want to spend my own time writing about these things. While I’m hopeful that I might be able to shift a little of the blog into my ‘day job’ (discussions on that to follow), one other option is to share the load, and I think the future for most blogs is multi-author. Producing semi-regular, consistent quality content is a challenge, and I’m going to be soliciting guest posts in the future to feature alongside my own – whether that’s semi-regular or one off. So, if you’d like to write occasionally but don’t want a whole blog, this might be a good opportunity. Happy to discuss anything that’s a good fit with the overall theme of the blog. Please drop me an email if you’re interested – I don’t bite.
One issue that came up in the questions (and afterwards on Twitter), was the question of the personal and the professional. My sense was that a fair few people in the room had their own Twitter accounts already, but used them for personal purposes, rather than for professional purposes, and were concerned about mixing the two. Probably there was little or no reference to their job in their bio, and they tweet about their interests and talk to family and friends. This issue of the personal and the professional was something we touched on only very briefly in our talk, and mainly in reference to blogs rather than Twitter. But it’s clearly something that concerns people, and may be an active barrier to more people getting involved in Twitter conversations. Probably the one thing I’d do differently about the presentation would be to say more about this, and I’ve added it to my list of topics for blog posts for the future.
This week I was asked to be involved in a Research Grant application ‘bootcamp’ to talk in particular about the use of social media in pathways to impact plans, and academic blogging in general. I was quick to disclaim expertise in this area – I’ve been blogging for a while now, but I’m not an academic and I’m certainly not an expert on social media. I’m also not sure about this use of the word ‘bootcamp’. We already have ‘workshop’ and ‘surgery’ as workplace-based metaphors for types of activity, and I’m not sure we’re ready for ‘bootcamp’. So unless the event turns out to involve buzzcuts, a ten mile run, and an assault course, I’ll be asking for my money back.
But I thought I’d try to put together a list of resources and examples that I was already aware of in time for the session, and I then I wondered about ‘crowdsourcing’ (i.e. lazily ask my readers/twitter followers) some others that I might have missed. Hopefully we’ll then end up with a general list of resources that everyone can use. I’ve pasted some links below, along with a few observations of my own. Please do chip in with your thoughts, experiences, tips, and recommendations for resources.
Things I have learnt about using social media
You must have a clear idea about your intended audience and what you hope to achieve. Blogging for the sake of it or because it’s flavour of the month or because you think it is expected is unlikely to be sustainable or to achieve the desired results.
A good way to start is to search for people doing a similar thing and contact them asking if you can link to their blog. Everyone likes being linked to, and this is a good way to start conversations. Once established, support others in the same way.
You have to build something of a track record of posts and tweets to be credible as a consistent source of quality content – you’ve got to earn a following, and this takes time, work, and patience. And even then, might not work. Consider a ‘soft launch’ to build your track record, and then a second wave of more intensive effort to get noticed.
Posting quality comments on other people’s blogs, either in their comments section, or in a post on your blog, can be a good way to attract attention.
Illustrate blog posts with a picture (perhaps found through google images) – a lot of successful bloggers seem to do this.
Multi-author blogs and/or guest posts are a good way to share the load.
And consequently, offering guest posts or content to established blogs is a way to get noticed.
The underlying technology is now very straightforward. Anyone who is reasonably computer literate will have little trouble learning the technical skills. The editing frame where I’m writing this in looks a lot like Word, and I’ve used precisely no programming/HTML stuff – that can all be automated now.
The technology of @s and # is fairly straightforward to pick up – find some relevant/interesting people to follow and you’ll soon pick it up, or read one of the guides below.
A good way to reach people is to get “retweets” – essentially when someone else with a bigger following forwards your message. You do this by addressing posts to them using the @ symbol
Generally the pattern of retweets seems to be when people find something interesting and it suits their message. So… the ESRC retweeted my blog post linking to their regional visit presentation when my blog post said nice things about the visit and linked to their presentation
Weird mix of personal and professional. Some twitter accounts are uniquely professional, others uniquely personal, but many seem a mixture. Some of the usual barriers seem not to apply, or apply only loosely. Care needs to be taken here.
Social media is potentially a huge time sink – keep in mind costs in time versus benefits gained
It can be a struggle if you’re naturally shy and attention seeking doesn’t come easily to you
Some of the links and choices of examples, are more than a little University of Nottingham-centric, but then this was an internal event. I’ve not checked with the authors of the various resources I’ve linked to, and taken the liberty of assuming that they won’t mind the link and recognition. But happy to remove any on request.
Any resources I’ve missed? Any more thoughts and suggestions? Please comment below….
The Russell Group announced today that the Universities of Durham, Exeter, York, and Queen Mary University of London have been offered and accepted membership, taking the group from 20 to 24. The 1994 group – their former mission group home – has yet to announce whether they will rename themselves the 1990 group or look to make some new signings of their own. There’s a fair few out-of-contract unaffiliated universities who are up for grabs, so perhaps that will be the next logical step.
Russell Group to expand to include universities everyone thought were already in it – Durham, Exeter, QMUL and York.
… which I think sums it up nicely. Speaking of Twitter, it’s surely a sign of something when ‘Russell Group’ starts to trend. It’s very odd reading the spambots tweeting about it as well – clearly the realignment of HE mission groups is a hot topic in the world of the internet fraudster and spammer. Trending is normally reserved for topics that I’m reliably told are related to a Canadian singing beaver, footballists who have done a goal, celebrities who have just died, the twoutrage du jour, One Directioners – presumably a re-branding of the Girl Guides – and wretched, wretched Saturday night reality television.
Getting ‘Russell Group’ trending is a sign that the LSE Impact Blog’s mission to get every last academic on Twitter by 2014 is well on track. And when we see Bertram Russell trending, we’ll know they’ve finally won. Or that Twitter has gone the way of MySpace.