On scholarly monographs and the sciences

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in research policy is that it forces you to explore and understand the research cultures of disciplines other than your own. I am a life scientist who specialised in plant biology by background, but in my current role I need to understand the processes, challenges and norms of the whole range of research disciplines. And it is fascinating to see both the differences and, importantly, the similarities across diverse subjects.

Over the last twelve months I have been privileged to have played a small part in the review of monographs and open access carried out by Professor Geoff Crossick, and through this have developed a much deeper understanding of the research culture of those disciplines that communicate their research through long-form writing, and the place writing occupies in the research process. The report has now been published, and it makes an important contribution, not only to debates about open access, but also more generally to our understanding of the role of the book.

What emerges from the evidence and analysis in the report is a very special role for the sustained writing required for longer works:

In many cases, the most effective way of communicating several years of sustained research on a single topic is to present it as a monograph. This does not preclude the publication of articles en route to the book itself, but the book has a special place in the culture of research publication. It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. […] Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

But it’s not just about the space that a book affords to set out arguments and analysis, the process of constructing the narrative does itself influence the outcome:

The term ‘thinking through the book’ emerged through the consultations, and it is a powerful concept, effectively reintegrating the research into the writing process itself. Monographs should not be seen simply as the way in which research findings are communicated, because the act of constructing and writing a book is often a core way to shape the ideas, structure the argument, and work out the relationship between these and the evidence that has emerged from the research process.

Reflecting on these passages, I was struck by how these points could be applied to disciplines in the natural sciences, where the scholarly monograph is much less common. When scientists write books they are much more likely to be aimed at communicating research to a non-specialist audience, rather than presenting, synthesising and developing research ideas for fellow specialists.

It wasn’t always this way. What is On the Origin of Species if not a monograph? And there are plenty of other examples from the past. For my own PhD research I read Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by Norbert Wiener, an important book published in 1948, that has influenced many fields of research. Perhaps some of the most recent examples are some of the works of Stephen Jay Gould which were important vehicles for setting out his ideas about evolution, but they were still written very much with the non-specialist in mind.

Hearing about the role of long-form writing in the humanities and social sciences, I am left with a feeling that the natural sciences are missing out by not embracing the monograph. Of course, there is a tradition of review articles in the sciences; while some of these are summaries of current knowledge and evidence on a particular topic, others are more synthetic in nature, advancing new ideas based on a thorough consideration of current understanding. However, these are more limited in size than the scholarly monograph, and don’t afford the opportunity to develop arguments at length. The opportunity to ‘think through the book’ is much less evident.

How scientists would find the space in the fast-paced competitive world of scientific research is hard to imagine, when being the first to new findings is so important. Perhaps it is this feature of the natural sciences that results in less focus on communicating in long-form works, rather than any structural reason why the monograph couldn’t exist or be important. It is worth reflecting, though, that the norms of scholarly communication in the natural sciences may be incomplete, and that we lose something in the development of research because this is so.

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Venture research and diversity

Earlier this month, I attended a discussion event organised by UCL's public policy unit on the idea of 'Venture Research'. This notion has been developed and operated by Professor Don Braben. With sponsorship from BP, a scheme was run in the 1980s, and now there is a similar, smaller scale, initiative operated within UCL.

The aim of the venture research approach is to tackle a perceived research policy issue: the idea that peer review, especially of research proposals, stiffles creativity and the solution is to give able scientists resources and let them follow their curiosity with limited or no constraints. If we don't do this, argue Braben and his supporters, we are unlikely to see a continuation of the major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century.

I have written about Braben's ideas before. I think they are based on a particular reading of history, and ignore the fact that there are mechanisms that allow all sorts of researchers to follow all sorts of ideas. I suspect there is a place for something like the venture research fund in the range of funding approaches, although it would be problematic for anything more than a fraction of funding to be distributed in this way. I wasn't clear from the event whether Braben and his supporters would like to see all or just a small proportion of public funding allocated by a venture-research mechanism.

While the principles behind the venture research fund are sensible as long as the scale is kept appropriate, there are considerable challenges in implementation. Whatever the scale, a fund like this will need to be selective, so how are researchers selected to benefit? In the case of the original venture research fund, selection was made on the basis of a very short proposal, and an interview. The selection was made by Braben and two other people. This approach raises considerable concerns from a diversity perspective. Selection by small groups of people from a non-anonymised applicant pool is extremely likely to introduce selection biases against certain groups. These biases can be conscious or unconscious.

I asked a question about this at the event. While this point applies to all under-represented groups, to make my question simple I asked about the gender make-up of the selection panel of three, and of the 26 successful applicants to the original venture fund. Rather shockingly, Braben would not answer the question! So I have done a little digging… I can't find the identity of the other two members of the selection panel, or a full list of the successful applicants. But there is a list of those funded by the venture fund who have made (in Braben's view) significant breakthroughs. The 13 'transformational discoveries' listed refer to 26 researchers. I can only find two female names on the list, both involved with the same discovery.

In the absence of any positive evidence, and much to be concerned about, I conclude that the selection approach for the original venture fund is likely to accentuate the already significant biases against women, people from non-white ethnic group and people with disabilities. The detailed process for the more recent UCL version of the fund isn't clear. As far as I can see only one award has been made under the scheme so far, so it is a little early to draw any conclusions.

Interestingly, Iain Foulkes from Cancer Research UK, who also spoke at the event, mentioned their plans to introduce a 'Pioneer Research' scheme not dissimilar to venture research. CRUK plan to anonymise applications to this scheme, which will go some way to addressing these issues. With this plan they will not be able to have the interview stage, which Braben suggests is an essential part of his process.

UK research already performs exceptionally well, and I don't see evidence of a lack of creativity among our researchers. The problem that UK research does have is its lack of diversity. Imagine how much better we could be if we were able to exploit the full talent base of the groups that are currently under-represented within research? And to benefit from the different approaches and ways of thinking that these groups would bring? Solving the diversity issue in research is the real priority.


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Questioning research culture

Earlier this week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched the report of its enquiry into scientific research culture. I was invited to respond to the report at the launch event, and this post is a summary of my comments.

The Nuffield Council’s report on research culture is an important piece of work. It tackles important questions for research policy-makers, in general, and for the development and shaping of proposals for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). As the report acknowledges the REF is one of the influences on research culture, and, of course, these effects are part of the considerations that need to be taken into account.

The question of research culture is also a fascinating one for me personally. As a researcher-turned-policy-maker I have thought about these questions from a range of perspectives. It is an issue of complexity and, for me, one of considerable academic interest, but also an area where we need to be able to find pragmatic solutions. I am currently investigating some these questions as an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy(CSaP) at the University of Cambridge, and my reflections on the report are in part informed by the thinking that has resulted from my own research for the fellowship.

The report will be a key contribution to the debate about research culture. The evidence collected as part of the inquiry, and summarised in the report, provides a robust assessment of the perceptions of the scientific community about the culture within which they work. It tells us how it feels to be a scientist in the UK today, how the policy, institutional and individual imperatives combine to make our research culture.

And there is a lot of positives to take away from the report. People see collaboration and working across disciplines as important, and many aspects of the funding and policy environment as supportive of these aspects of research. The open research agenda – open access to publications, open data, and working with people and groups from outside the academy – are valued, and are seen to be moving in the right direction. There is also support for the value and necessity of ensuring the benefits of research are delivered to society.

Of course there are perceived challenges too. Career progression and development, and the related issue of ensuring the diversity of the research workforce are familiar areas of focus. There is also evidence of a disconnect between researchers and the policy environment in which they sit, with both misconceptions of policy requirements and mistrust of their implementation.

In addressing these and other challenges it is welcome that the report acknowledges that the drivers are both external, from the research and institutional policy environment, and inherent in some of the behaviours and practices of researchers themselves. So it follows that the solutions are also shared by all the actors. To coin a phrase, we really are all in it together.

As I read the report, and in wider discussions I have been having as part of my CSaP fellowship, I was struck by a central theme. Within the research environment there are a number of tensions or oppositions that need to be worked out for a successful research culture. These include:

  • collaboration and competition;
  • whether research is inspired by researchers or inspired by potential uses and the wider needs of society;
  • a focus on single discipline as opposed to multi- or inter-disciplinary research;
  • whether objectives should be short-term or long-term.

All of these tensions are characterised by the need to find the appropriate balance. They represent a spectrum of options, and I would argue that for all of them the extremes are not desirable. Take competition and collaboration. The report presents important positive aspects of both attributes. Collaboration is valuable, but the complete absence of competition would lead to lower quality research.

If we accept that the research culture challenge is finding the correct balance between these tensions, I think this raises three questions:

  • What is the current balance point?
  • Who decides what the correct balance should be?
  • What steps should we take to alter the balance if necessary?

The first – What is the current balance point? – is one where the Nuffield report makes an important contribution, providing evidence on the perceptions of researchers on these important issues. But this evidence is not complete. While I would agree, as it states in the forward to the report, that:

It is the people engaged in scientific research who are in the best position to tell us what it is like to be a researcher

There is another side to the question. We need an external view, provided by social science, of how these tensions are being resolved within the academy. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published an assessment of the features that lead to a productive research culture earlier this year. And at HEFCE we are currently planning a study to examine the factors that have resulted in strong performance in the current REF. However, I think further work is needed to improve our understanding of the current position.

My second question – Who decides what the correct balance point should be? – is an equally important one. Of course the academy itself will have a view, and again the Nuffield report provides evidence to illuminate the views of researchers on what they see as the optimum culture. Wider society may take a different view, which we also need to understand and balance with the views of researchers. For example, people outside of the academy may place a greater emphasis on research aimed at application. In response, researchers might point out that history tells us that some undirected research has delivered huge benefits to society. We need a dialogue about these matters, and a resolution that balances all the viewpoints.

Part of the answer in resolving the tensions I have described may depend upon thinking about the best level to attempt resolution. For example, should every researcher attempt to balance fundamental and applied research in their work, or is this balance best addressed by groupings of researchers seeking to achieve the appropriate balance across their portfolio of work?

Once we have resolved my first two questions, and have a sense of where we are, and where we want to be, we can naturally turn to the third question – What steps should we take to alter the balance? As a policy-maker this is the question that falls squarely into my domain, and is a challenging one. The Nuffield report demonstrates the complexity. There are many factors that determine the research culture, and individual policy-makers have limited influences on them. While I can help determine the shape of the next REF, I can’t control how many ‘mock’ exercises a Vice-Chancellor may decide to run, or the performance metrics a university might use to evaluate its staff.

Added to this complexity, is the diverse policy environment with many organisations, within and outside the public sector, making interventions. Undoubtedly, part of the answer is for research funders to work together more, and consider the holistic impact of what we do. But I do worry that this will inevitably lead to more alignment, something we are often exhorted to do. Maybe it would be better sometimes for different funders to have distinct policies that act in different directions and so balance one another? Either way, we should not underestimate the challenge of balancing the inherent (and healthy) tensions that exist within the research culture. In any considerations of changing research policy in the UK we also need to be mindful that we are dealing with a highly successful system by many measures, something we need to protect and nurture.

So, in conclusion, I strongly welcome the Nuffield Councils report. This is a conversation we all need to be having, and this report is the solid foundation on which to build the future analysis and debate.


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Open access: because it’s worth it

The cost of implementing open access policies in the UK remains a hot topic. It is part of the deliberations of the review of RCUK policy of which I am a member, and the question of costs continues to be raised in the context of the open access requirements for the next Research Excellence Framework.

As we transition to a fully open access world, by whatever route, there will undoubtedly be additional costs. Even in the long run, if the costs of subscription access to research don't fall there may be additional costs. And either way the transition period may be a long one. If the UK makes rapid progress, it may take the rest of the world time to catch up.

We can debate the costs involved, and should seek to reduce them if possible, but for me this misses the point. The goal we are trying to achieve is worth the extra cost.

The move to open access is about more than efficiency in an overly narrow sense, or achieiving instrumental benefits. The move to open access is about doing the right thing; making the findings of research available to as wide an audience as possible. Research that is locked away where many people can't access it is less valuable, so it is worth doing a bit less research in total, if the research we do fund is widely accessible. If the UK is at the forefront of the move to open access, and so incurs some additional cost, then that's fine. We are doing the right thing, and that is something to be proud of.


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Understanding academic culture

Next week I am going back to school. I will start a research project as an Associate Fellow1 of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge. The aim of my research is to investigate how decisions of policy-makers that shape the research policy environment are translated into actual outcomes and responses within the academy; how policy and research culture interact. You can read a slightly more expansive summary of the project here[pdf].

Although not part of the scheme, I will be using the tried-and-tested methodology of the CSaP Policy Fellowships programme. Next week, and during a second visit in November, I will meet with a range of experts from within Cambridge and beyond. They will be drawn from a range of different disciplines, and will bring diverse perspectives on the research questions I am interested in. I am hoping they will navigate me into research literatures, and help me develop and refine the questions I am addressing. It promises to be an illuminating, exciting and exhausting few days.

The central question – what determines research culture – is an important one. Many of the debates around research policy centre on issues related to it. Do we have the right research culture? Is it changing for the worse? Do research policy interventions foster a positive research culture? The question forces us to examine the balance between academic freedom, and the imperative of the academy to be responsive to society’s needs. The current review by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is exploring many of these issues, and I am hopeful that my research will illuminate them further. The mechanisms by which policy interventions lead to changes in culture are important to understand, and I think we need to learn not just from how things work in academia, but also from other sectors.

As well as the research questions themselves, I am also keen to reflect on the process of investigation. Seeking insight to how the culture in academia works from experts who are operating within that culture themselves brings front and centre questions of the independence of experts. I am firmly of the view that whenever expertise is brought to bear on a policy question it is important to recognise that the experts will bring biases of one sort or another, some of them unconscious. When we are dealing with ‘policy for science’ (as opposed to ‘science for policy’) the need to keep this in mind becomes all the more apparent.

I will be blogging about this project as I go, writing about the experience, what I am learning, and interesting research sources that I come across. I am also keen to hear your views. What should I be exploring more? Are there research papers or reports that I ought to read? I have no idea where this research will take me, but I am sure it will be an interesting journey.

  1. As I write the website has yet to be updated to include my name on the list…^
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His master’s voice?

There are many different styles of blog covering an incredible range of content. Many people write about their personal life, topics unconnected with their professional roles, but equally a lot of blogs, like this one, cover topics where the author has a direct professional interest. This raises interesting questions for the author, and by extension the readers: whose voice is it, the author or the corporate? And if the author is writing their personal views, how does this relate to the views of their employer.

Since I have been writing here I have felt these questions acutely. I have also had feedback from readers that reflect these concerns. During one of the all-to-frequent gaps in my blogging, a reader ask whether I had been 'gagged' by my then employer following this post that strayed into the politics of research funding. I should stress that neither of my employers during the period I have been blogging, Research Councils UK and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), have ever even suggested I shouldn't blog or tried to remove or alter anything I have written here or posted on Twitter. And the views I express here are very much my own. This isn't a corporate blog in disguise.

This tension, between the personal and the corporate view, is one that seems to be surfacing increasingly. Phil Ward, the author of the excellent Research Fundermentals blog, has some interesting reflections on his experience. And the pages of Times Higher Education have had a number of stories recently about universities attempts to silence academics, whose views aren't aligned with those of the institution.

The debate is also live within HEFCE as we are exploring new ways to present our policy and analysis work, including through more use of social media. The debate centres around the processes we might use, and the extent to which the individual voice that such communications will involve should necessarily align with the corporate view. This is making us all think about how we should describe ourselves on twitter bios for personal accounts where we tweet professionally-related material. I have also been giving some thought to how a post I write here might differ, if at all, from a post on a corporate blog.

These questions go well beyond social media behaviousr, and are fundamentally about the relationship between individuals and the organisations they work for, and in some senses represent. Do organisations and their positions appear weaker because individuals who work for them hold and express contrary views? I think not. Anyone who has ever worked for an organisation knows that not everyone agrees with everything the organisation says or does. The development of organisational positions is a process of discussion, debate, negotiation and challenge. That organisations draw on, and work with a range of different view points and values is a strength not a weakness, and to surface those differences provides evidence of that strength. And if an organisation's position can't withstand the debate generated by expression of a contrary view, then maybe the position isn't the right one after all.

Some organizations demand total fealty, and often that means never questioning those in authority.

Those organizations are ultimately doomed.

Respectfully challenging the status quo, combined with relentlessly iterating new ideas is the hallmark of the vibrant tribe.

Seth Godin: Confusing Loyalty with Silence


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The many paths to PhD study

I presented at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference today. My slides have been published and this post is a summary of the issues covered in my talk.

Every year more than 20,000 students embark on a journey towards qualifying with a PhD. As part of that journey they make a significant contribution to the research endeavour. And when they graduate they progress into all sorts of careers, inside and outside of research, here and overseas, bringing the benefits of doctoral training in a myriad of ways.

It is hugely important that we set a policy environment that ensures that talented people with the commitment and aptitude for PhD study make the successful transition, with the minimum of barriers, and certainly no barriers that lock people out of this course for reasons outside of their control. To set this policy environment we need to understand how and when the transition happens, who makes the transition and what motivates them.

New data and new analysis is illuminating the transition process, and it turns out to be more complex than many might think. HEFCE analysis published last year demonstrates that there are some students who transfer directly from their undergraduate courses within a year or two, and without acquiring any additional postgraduate qualifications. But for others there is a much longer gap between their first degree and PhD study, often including a period studying a taught postgraduate course.

The students who transfer directly have some particular characteristics. They are mostly male, mostly study STEM subjects, and mostly graduate from more selective institutions in terms of undergraduate entry.

New analysis has shown that the group who begin their PhD studies after a period of taught postgraduate training are more likely to be in the social sciences or humanities, but this is not exclusively the case. For example, around a third of the students starting a PhD in the Life Sciences have a prior postgraduate qualification. Those with prior qualifications also tend to have longer gaps between their last period of study and starting on PhD. In contrast to the direct transferrers, these students are moving from study to the workplace and back again over an extended period before PhD study.

Understanding the many and varied pathways to PhD is important to the policy goal of minimising barriers to the pursuit of doctoral study. The challenges facing students taking the longer, more complex routes involving taught postgraduate study will be different from those moving directly from undergraduate courses. There will be different financial challenges, for example. Even navigating the processes of recruitment and selection for PhD places may be more complex for those students doing so from a position outside of the Higher Education sector. These issues are strongly confirmed by a qualitative study of the recruitment and selection of PhD students carried out for HEFCE by CRAC.

Further insight into the transition into PhD study is also coming from the new Intentions After Graduation Survey (IAGS). This survey, part of the National Student Survey, is providing important information on the proportion of final year undergraduates who are planning postgraduate study, and their motivations for doing so.

According to these data, some 44% of final year students are either 'certain' or 'likely' to progress to postgraduate study, and around a fifth of these express an intention to study for a doctoral degree. A further 14% are planning a postgraduate taught course as a step towards a PhD. This information will be an important baseline for discerning any effects of the undergraduate fee regime on intentions for further study. But the survey is also revealing important information about the transition. Some ethnic groups, for example, have a very much higher expressed intention to progress to PhD study than is achieved in reality, helping to pinpoint potential barriers to progression.

So there are many paths involved in progression to PhD study, each with their own issues and possible barriers. Does the policy environment appropriately cope with this diversity? At one level the answer is yes – the evidence published today suggests that there is no shortage of well-qualified candidates applying for places. But in other respects we are less successful. There are still issues with the diversity of the PhD student population; in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability and socio-economic background the population does not reflect the representation in the undergraduate population from which they are drawn. To address these issues a better, more nuanced understanding of the pathways of transition is essential.


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On commonplace books

If you are looking to kill some time try Googling 'commonplace book'. You will find an endless stream of fascinating material, both examples of commonplace books themselves, and writing about commonplace books, including, eventually this post.

The commonplace book is a seventeenth century innovation, and the idea is a simple one: A notebook for capturing interesting quotes from reading, ideas, snippets of text for writings, diagrams, sketches, anything that comes to mind. Over time these notebooks developed into personal anthologies of thought and reflection, and were often accompanied by elaborate schemes of indexing, so that the entries could be located and themes extracted.

The age of the internet has the potential to be the golden age of the commonplace book. First we have an unprecedented opportunity to read and access texts of all sorts, and secondly it is simple – no more complicated than 'copy and paste' – to bring elements of text together into places where search tools allow the rapid compilation of themes.

I have been using Evernote as a commonplace book for a number of years. All sorts of things get saved into my Evernote notebooks, some of them automatically, and then the search function allows later retrieval. For example, a quick search for 'commonplace book' reveals that, rather spookily I was contemplating drafting a blog post on the topic exactly a year ago today. I was also able to identify previous reading I had done about commonplace books, and a quote from 'Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation' by Steven Johnson:

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.

The search also provided me with a link to a related piece I had read by James Gleick on digitising books.

The commonplace book was a powerful idea in the seventeenth century but digitised text takes it to a new level. This idea is explored and developed further by Johnson in a blog post. In this post Johnson points out that searching for text can, in an instant, assemble a type of commonplace book using an algorithm. The google search I linked to at the beginning of this post is an example. The search results are presented in a particular order, and to an extent that order is customised to the individual. A new association of words and ideas is being created, specific for the reader, and in no way predictable by the authors of the original texts:

What you see on [a Google search results] page is, in a very real sense, textual play: the recombining of words into new forms and associations that their original creators never dreamed of.

Johnson goes on to consider the value that is created through these new combinations of text:

When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created. Value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups.

And there is a following discussion on paywalls and technologies that prevent text to be mined and combined in new ways. The whole, long post is well worth a read. His conclusion is that access to text and reasonable re-use rights are central to ensuring that the potential benefits of the internet-enabled commonplace book. In Johnson's words we need text to be in a commonplace book, not a glass box.

This is one of the reason that open access to the scholarly literature is so important. At the moment much of the scholarly literature is, at best, in a glassbox and at worst in a locked chest for which only a select few hold the key. Not only does the scholarly literature need to be made more available, but also licensed in such a way that re-use and re-purposing is possible. As Cameron Neylon has recently argued permissive licensing is essential. Access through glass boxes, like the Access to Research initiative is also deeply limited in its value.

I wonder what those seventeenth century 'commonplacers' would make of all this. I think they would be amazed by the potential of the digital commonplace book, but shocked to see how we have locked away some of the most valuable text, preventing real value to be obtained.


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