Everyone (in academia) needs an Acadominatrix

Most researchers love research but finding the time and energy for serious writing is a real problem. We write all the time. But no amount of emails, blogposts and tweets will get you tenure (or whatever the local equivalent).

We complain and dream about having more time. Which is translated into the dream of being showered in research funding. But who has time to write applications we moan collectively. So we struggle and embarrassedly attempt to disguise the wrecks of unfinished texts that litter our careers. Sure money is a problem and time is even more so. But what we really need is self-discipline, the mother of all deadlines, the biggest whip that will crack us into action and keep our cold fingers typing.

Enter the wacky world of AcWriMo with its founder, overenthusiastic cheerleader and residing Acadominatrix Charlotte Frost.

The project is devised around social shaming and a shared support group among suffering equals (more details here) and has six easy steps:

1. Set yourself some crazy goals. My #acwrimo goal: 25000 words in November. Beginning on a book on how technologies (and law and norms) regulate us.
2. Publicly declare your participation and goals. Well I declared it on twitter, this blog and soon on Facebook.
3. Draft a strategy. Is write like the devil is chasing you a strategy? No? well I plan to write 1000 words a day for 25 out of November days. Missing a day will result in needing to write 2000 words the next day. Need to put this in my calendar somehow. Worst case scenario? I will sleep in December.
4. Discuss what you’re doing. The fellow madmen are extremely supportive and funny. Using twitter & facebook to update on work done, goals missed and a lot of information about which tea they are drinking. Writing like this becomes less lonely and talking about the goals gives me a renewed reachable goal each day.
5. Don’t slack off. Major, major problem. The list offers support but sticking with the program is tough. Not to be made easier this year with the release of Assassins Creed III on October 31 (damn you Ubisoft!) Here is where the whip crack of social shaming and the role of resident Acadominatrix, with an ability to crack virtual whips comes in.
6. Publicly declare your results – and please be honest! Win or lose this is the best part. Aside from some academics that seem to have an inhuman ability we are all human and the way forward is to admit that.

So don’t think about it – just do it! This will be my second round and it was lots of fun. I failed miserably for my overambitious goal last year but I still produced a lot of text. Talked a lot more about my research and writing than I normally do and discovered (which I really always knew) that I wasn’t alone.

Advice to a new PhD student 3.0

My friends @benteka and @velkova have just begun their PhD studies so I decided to revamp an old text. Warning: Following advice is like entering into Phd studies. You do it at your own risk.

One: “You changed man!” – Axel Foley. Write down a list of things you want to achieve. Include ideas, expectations, dreams and hopes. Put the list into an envelope and do not open until you are halfway or two-thirds through your Phd period. Most probably you will be cynical and jaded and your advice will sound silly. Take the idealist with you.

Two: “Save it for your blog Howard.” – Leonard Hofstadter. If you have the inclination to blog – then do so. There are loads of arguments for (here) and against (here) academic blogging. Some supervisors see it as a waste of time & energy. Sure focus is good but some reasons against: You will hate your PhD project when you realize that you have no time to explore other cool stuff – blogging is a way to explore that stuff. Second, getting along in academia is all about ranking and impact. Blogging will not make you famous but it will help you push your views across. Finally, any activity which involves the formulation and presentation of ideas is an important activity for a Phd.

Three: “Follow that ostrich!” – Mr Fix. Leave the department. Go international if possible. Departments are microcosms of ideas, beliefs and practices. Reading others is good. Meeting them is better.

Four: “Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down.” – Jimmy Durante. Be helpful and friendly to your colleagues. I have NEVER understood the competitive side of some PhD students who attempt to suppress others. I will never understand the reason why certain people with PhD’s tend to forget the reality of the situation and bully PhD students. Picking on people who cannot fight back does not mean you are powerful. It means you are a weak human being.

Five: “Humour is also a way of saying something serious.” – T S Eliot. Pick a cartoon. For me the best are XKCD & Piled Higher and Deeper. You will be surprised where inspiration comes from.

Six: “Trust me, Cardiff is the safest place in the world.” – Dr Who. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you about the Phd. It is an experience. You make the experience.

Seven: “Recheck everything, Captain, question everything.” – Vulcan Ambassador Soval. Conducting research means questioning everything. Its like a return to childhood with the endless naive questioning of accepted values.

Eight: “Is it rude to Twitter during sex? To go “omg, omg, wtf, zzz”? Is that rude?” – Robin Williams. Twitter is a brilliant tool. Use it wisely.

Nine: “Who woulda guessed reading and writing would pay off.” – Homer. From the day you begin your PhD work. Write! Reading is important but don’t get stuck there. Don’t wait until you have read “everything” or the next important book before starting. If you do not have text you cannot re-write.

Ten: “Have fun, just don’t have amnesia.” – Samantha. If you do not enjoy what you do your text will reflect this. If your text reflects this then your thesis will not be interesting for the reader. If you do not enjoy what you do how are you ever going to find the energy to read all the texts, discuss them with others, write all your texts and beg others to discuss them with you?

Eleven: Expect procrastination, plan for it and embrace positive procrastination.

Twelve: Avoid the Seven Deadly Sins of Academia

Recommended reading:

You know you’re a Phd student when…

The dangers and joys of Academic Language

Butterworth I did a PhD and did NOT go mad

Matt Might’s The illustrated guide to a PhD

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is fascinating. One of the reasons it holds my interest is trying to figure out why we get so worked up about it. On a basic level there seems to be a connection between creators and their creations, but why is this connection given so much importance?

In recent years a German Defence Minister and a Hungarian President lost their jobs because of scandals surrounding plagiarized PhDs. Surely their jobs had nothing to do with their ability to complete a PhD without plagiarism. They lost their jobs because of the perceived dishonesty plagiarism entails. But politicians are held up to strange standards of behavior.

When the author Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarizing sections of her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill she countered with: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

There is something interesting with this position – but it would have been stronger if she had put it forward before being found out.

Plagiarism has a strong place within academia but this can be explained by the internal social rules that exist there. Academia is a strange place where science is produced according to an odd set of norms and internal rules that are necessary in that context but are these norms even interesting outside academia?

The academic position on plagiarism is absolute. It is so strong that it is even applied to students in a way that may be harmful to teaching and learning. Here, I do not mean the rare cases where take someone’s work and simply change the name. What I mean here is the case when someone does not adequately use a reference system or when they practice the art of synonyms and re-writing the works of others.

A student work that does not use adequate sources is seen as plagiarism but can consist actually be an example of independent thought. Conversely a work that re-writes and synonymises and references properly is usually not judged as plagiarism – even if it in reality has no independent thought.

The anxiety of the system has led to investments into anti-plagiarism software. But this software does not stop plagiarism. It only teaches students to ensure that they have re-written and referenced enough. The focus is no longer on independent thought but on ensuring deniability and not getting caught.

Ultimately plagiarism and students tends to demand too much of a professionalism of the students and forgets the basic premise that much of learning is derived from copying. Professional academics should still be held to the system of plagiarism today – but should this still apply to students? We need to redefine student plagiarism in some form.

What are you writing for #AcBoWriMo

Following the good example of Emily and the Lime presenting what we are writing for AcBoWriMo.

My project is to write a book about Online Identity (this is a very crappy working title). Since finishing my PhD (effects of technology on regulation of Democracy) I have had several ideas for longer works. All of these ideas have crashed and burned due to lack of time and other good excuses. So when I came across AcBoWriMo at the same time I had yet another idea for a book it was time to jump in with both feet.

The idea of the book is the way’s in which technological change are forcing changing attitudes to the concept of identity. In particular I will look at the ways in which regulation and protection of elements of identity are being affected by these changes. The fundamental idea is that we have previously agreed upon loosely defined and understood ideas of identity and their protection but these ideas and protections are being challenged (blown away almost) by the ways in which we use technology. The book will show the ways in which regulation fails and attempt to describe why this failure occurs. This is not really as clear as it should be but I am right now not focusing on defining the overarching idea of the whole book but building it from the bottom up with each chapter exploring different (though naturally related) changes.

For me the project began with a mindmap – (ugly version below) – and will in 18 working days reach 36 000 words in November and somewhere between 80 ooo – 100 000 words by mid January. For me AcBoWriMo is a welcome kick up the backside in forcing the launch of the writing project (no more excuses) and a pleasurable way in working alongside others – is this a form of misery loves company?

So what are you writing?

The Martini Method

Writing can be hard, boring, lonely work. We need all the help we can get. I just came across the Martini Method (via Academic Productivity) and feel instantaneously its my kind of carrot and whip!

What I call the Martini Method is named after an anecdote I once read about the novelist Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame). Burgess was a very productive writer, which is attributed to a system where he would force himself to write a 1000 words a day, 365 days a year. When he had completed his word count, he would relax with a dry martini, and enjoy the rest of the day with an easy conscience, and normally in bar. A friend of mine’s version of the Martini Method was to come into the office everyday, and not allow herself to leave until her word target had been reached. Most days she left before 5pm, though on occasion she would stay as late as 6 or 7. She would also set herself mini Martinis, such as allowing herself an ice cream in the summer once she had hit half her daily word count. Though we started at the same time, she finished her PhD a lot earlier than me!

Guilting at its best #AcBoWriMo

The basic idea of AcBoWriMo is brilliant, even if it is a sort of academic weight watchers. You publicly declare a goal and then you keep showing your progress to your peers. If it works it is, in part, due to the social pressure and guilt associated with failure. There is obviously a lot more to it than this (read more here) but the basic steps are:

  1. Decide upon a target word count.
  2. Declare your participation and target word count (or productivity goal) publicly.
  3. Draft a strategy.
  4. Discuss what you’re doing.
  5. Don’t slack off.
  6. Declare your final word count – and be honest!

The event has already begun and will continue for all of November. But even though I am late to the game and I cannot begin before Monday the 7th. So this leaves (not counting Saturdays & Sundays) 18 days. Taking the weekend’s off may seem a bit lazy but this is only a half truth as I have planned events and conferences in November.

The goal is too push the limit of what is possible. The enthusiastic inspiration for the event Charlotte Frost has set the ambitious  goal for herself

I’d like this to be a good rough draft of my book but some of it might end up in the journal articles I’ve got on the go too.

I do have some form in the writing productivity stakes. When I was finishing my PhD I could churn out a fairly decent 1,500 words a day. That said, I did sacrifice a few things (including personal hygiene), and I think it only right to stay on top of such matters now I’m in a department. (You’ll find I’ve set out a few guidelines in a blog post on AcBoWriMo, as well as suggested the use of a Twitter hashtag, and invited everyone to publicly declare their participation – thus shaming them into definite action).

Since I cannot resist a challenge… I would love to do this but I need to be (a bit) realistic as I am starting a bit late. So my goal is the modest (?) 36 000 words – which works out to 2000 words a day. Which means that, if all goes well I shall have a first draft of my book by December. It’s going to be a push! It’s going to be hell! It’s going to be great!

Ghost writing in Science, plagiarism with a twist

Read yesterday in the Guardian that a MD was being accused of plagiarism with an interesting twist. Basically he had been accepting cash to add his name to medical articles written by a drug company.

Doctors have been agreeing to be named as authors on studies written by employees of the pharmaceutical industry, giving greater credibility to medical research, according to new evidence.

The Guardian has learned that one of Britain’s leading bone specialists is facing disciplinary action over accusations that he was involved in “ghost writing”.

When talking to students about plagiarism I tend to say that plagiarism is any attempt by a student to use the ideas or words of others in an attempt to deceive the examiner into believing they are students own. But is what the MD is doing plagiarism? And how does this differ from the more accepted forms of collaboration? For example lazy co-authors or large teams working together. How much does the “author” of a paper actually need to write him/herself for it not to be plagiarism? Some papers are co-authored by hundreds of researchers who have worked together to varying degrees. ScienceWatch reports on multi author papers and give examples of papers with up to 900 collaborators!

The question is naturally important but what is the difference between 900 collaborators or a paper ghost written by the company to which the MD agrees?

Is blogging counterproductive to writing?

Like many bloggers I have occasionally indulged in online self-examination and questioned why I blog (here, here & here). Obviously there are many reasons why to blog (personally I do it because it’s fun). But I have never really considered the effects of my blogging. Not the effects on other people, but the effects on me.

So far in my blogging I have been happy to write posts. They are a quick and comfortable way to organise and spread thoughts and ideas. Didn’t think much more about it. But then I came across a quote – which I cannot find right now, how typical. Anyway the quote was from a writer who said he did not like to talk about what he was writing about becuase… it ruined his creative tension.

I find the idea of maintaining a creative tension very interesting. Blogging is fun and can be used successfully to organize and communicate but could it have a negative effect on other writing? Writing blog posts not only take time and effort but is also very rewarding.

The rewarding part is actually not all good as it does produce a feeling of well being. And this well being does acutally remove part of the motivation to continue writing. Obviously I have no intention of giving up my blogging but I may need to come up with a better strategy to prevent blogging from killing the motivation to write other stuff.