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September 19, 2019

Reflections of the Vitae Researcher Development Conference

On Monday (16th Sept) this week, I had the delightful opportunity of attending and speaking at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, hosted at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel. Leaving home before dawn, and returning home quite late in the evening, it was nevertheless an excellent event. Exchanges has a core mission to support not only the dissemination of early career researcher’s discourse and, in line with the IAS’s mission, also seeks to work with authors in developing their prose and voice. Hence, attending a conference focussing solely on the practice, theory and policy of developing researchers was very much in my interest.

While the conference was broken down into plenaries, breakout sessions and workshops like any conference, it was interesting to witness the recurrent themes that came up, especially during the opening keynotes. Wellbeing was a strongly represented theme, along with that of coping with a changing research environment, both for researchers and those who work alongside them. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the ‘B-word’ was alluded to on numerous occasions as a particular challenge for the entire HE sector, not to mention the nation as a whole. However, it wasn’t a topic that any of the sessions I attended specifically focussed on, but nevertheless remains the elephant in the room we can’t simply ignore.

These dark clouds aside, after the fairly rousing opening session, we moved on to an excellent lunch before for me the high-spot of the day: my own talk. Those of you who have met me, know there’s on thing I love doing (almost) as much as managing Exchanges, and that’s to talk about various aspects of scholarly communication and publishing to anyone who will listen. At length.

I was speaking as part of a panel session providing case studies of researcher development practice. It was, as a few of the speakers commented, a slightly odd session in that the examples of researcher development ranged from an exemplar collaborative workshop to discussions around a specially configured building housing 6 overlapping departments in Barcelona. Nevertheless, the packed room seemed responsive to the topics discussed. My own contribution was very well received too, as I was bombarded with questions during and after the session. There was quite a positive response on social media too, and I suspect there may be some follow up with a few people as a result. My thanks to the conference organisers for hosting me, and I hope to be back with another paper next year!

After this session there were a couple of ‘half-plenaries’, so called as half the delegates would fit into each of the allocated rooms. I attended the one with the more senior academics speaking, and after some (slightly baffling) discussion on the ‘concordat’ [1], two particularly inspiring talks from Prof Matthew Flinders (Sheffield) and Prof Marcos Munafò (Bristol) followed. Matthew’s enthusiasm in particular was infectious, especially given he launched into his talk before halting after a couple of minutes to realise he’d failed to introduce himself to the audience!

Matthew expounded on the theme of change, but also uncertainty, in that ‘change is endemic’ within researcher careers, but what and how it is changing is not easy to identify or quantify. He also noted how much developmental effort centres on early-career researchers, but given the post-doc period of employment now increasingly stretching to a decade or more, the mental health toll on many emerging scholars is immense. And this is even before they land their first ‘academic’ post. He noted how mid-career researchers and professoriate also need developmental support and mentoring (‘the M word’) in order to cope with both the changes across the academy and within the ‘academic job’ remit. This he stressed was alongside the need for them to be able to offer effective support to their subordinates. He took the opportunity too to criticise the ‘silly culture’ wherein scholars leaving the academy are perceived to have ‘failed’ by their colleagues remaining behind. He argued these people could return to universities and bring an incredible richness of experience with them, and yet systematically they were disenfranchised by the career esteem models the academy has embraced, to the detriment of teaching and research. Matthew concluded by noting how the academy doesn’t sufficiently celebrate, support and manage the exceptional talent they have within research support staff and units; which given the increasingly crucial part they play within the modern research team was disheartening.

Marcos, started on a theme familiar to myself, that scholars are more incentivised (through career esteem structures and metrics) to publish and bring in funding, rather than to produce research which answered genuine problems. He noted, as has been discussed elsewhere, the lack of publication of ‘null results’, due to the low esteem it brings to journals and authors, results in pointless and resource-costly repetition of experimental research which could be avoided. He also drew the insightful simile concerning academia, notably doctoral programmes, and the US 1970s motor industry; where the focus on mass production ignored the many errors requiring remediation. Marcos also highlighted the lack of accountability within the academy, illustrated by failing PhD students. Here, there was little blowback on supervisors when this happened, which was not an equitable state of affairs. Marcos also highlighted how senior academics continue to be recruited for the possessing wrong traits for their roles. People are being picked for being career superstars with strong esteem credentials, rather than being able to demonstrate strong human resource, managerial and project management abilities. This he suggested added to the problems faced by the academy as an employer and in terms of employee wellbeing.

After this excellent session, I attended a workshop on failure and PGRs – Fail Live, delivered by Davina Whitnall and Dr Ursula Hurley at the University of Salford. While fairly discursive, and inaugurated with a guided mediation, I confess of this conference session was the one which inspired me the least. That isn’t to say the topic of embracing and celebrating failure as ‘part of the story of success’ wasn’t an important one to be addressed. However, the workshop felt unwieldly in terms of content and delivery, and I suspect it would have worked better with a smaller and more intimate audience, than to a room of 40+ delegates.

To end on a high, I concluded my day in one of the special interest sessions, in this case concerning academic podcasting. Hosted by Donald Lush (King’s College London) the session made use of the time to do a ‘live’ recording of a joint episode of two podcasts: one aimed at established researchers and the other at doctoral candidates. I’ve long been a producer and contributor to podcasts in a personal capacity, and I confess they’re on my wishlist to develop around Exchanges and our contributor community as an extension to the journal’s brand and discourse contribution. In this respect, myself and the library’s Scholarly Communications team have been having some tentative conversations about this and other media areas, so perhaps watch this space for news of our future collaborations.

As you can tell from these reflections, I was pleasantly surprised to find such an embarrassment of inspiration, insight and engagement at the Vitae conference. It exceeded my expectations in nearly every sense, and I wished I could have somehow transcended time and space to attend many more of the breakout sessions than I was physically able. I also slightly regret only booking for one of the two days, as the second day also clearly included a lot of engaging material. I look forward to catching up with my Warwick library colleague who was in attendance throughout.

Nevertheless, I was delighted by the reception of the work that Exchanges and my editors do, which is something I’ve passed along to them, in partial thanks for all their efforts in helping keep the journal running.

I'll share some notes from my talk, in my next post.

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[1] That would be The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, but it wasn’t something I was keenly aware of until after the conference.


May 23, 2019

One Step Beyond: The ESA Living Planet Symposium 2019

Writing about web page https://lps19.esa.int/NikalWebsitePortal/living-planet-symposium-2019/lps19


Conference VenueLast week I had a rare opportunity to step professionally well and truly outside my comfort zone. I had taken up the rather unexpected but delightful chance to be a delegate at a major international conference in a totally unrelated academic field to my own. If you’ve not picked up from earlier posts, my own research domain is media and communications, within a healthy cultural studies envelope, specialising in academic communication. To spend a few days dipping in and out of the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium, which brought together over 4,000 scientists, industrialists, technologists and industry people in the earth observation sciences was, to say the least somewhat daunting. Thankfully I wasn’t there to present myself!

Technically speaking, I was on vacation, accompanying my wife to Milan, Italy where she and colleagues were contributing to a session concerning their team’s research. However, the chance arose for me to break off from planned my marathon walking city excursions [1] and attend the conference too. I concluded it would be well worth sacrificing some of my leisure time to increase my experience of interacting with and listening to scholars outside of my normal realm. As the editor of an interdisciplinary title, clearly this was a great professional development prospect!

What struck me, other than the sheer size of the venue and delegate numbers [2], were the similarities between this and many other conferences in my own fields I’ve attended. From the friendly registration desks and bag of conference swag, through to opening plenary and associated breakout sessions, despite the topic divergence, the symposium still strongly resonated with most professional events I’ve attended. Given the international nature of the conference, I was a little surprised by the opening panel being dominated by white, older men, albeit one fronted by a young, glamourous woman hired to moderate. While she inarguably gave a polished and professional performance, her role’s juxtaposition with the other stage denizens didn’t make for great optics. Going by the twitter feed, this hadn’t escaped the audience’s attention either, and it was heartening to see the BBC’s Jonathan Amos taking the organisers to task for the lack of demonstrable diversity. The less said about a similarly composed panel commenting at one point on Africa’s past and future contribution to earth observation science, perhaps the better.

These slightly uncomfortable elements aside, I spent most of my time at the conference dipping into sessions and observing the speakers. With all kinds of academic communication being a personal interest, meant the opportunity to listen to and watch speakers, divorced from a need to comprehend their content, provided a golden opportunity to conduct a little presentational critique.

Information overloadFor me, I think the chief recurrent issue was that time-honoured foible of trying to cram too much information onto a single slide. The NASA representative for example, but by no means the only one, crammed no fewer than 22 lines on a single slide, displayed for less than 30 seconds. I could almost feel my teeth grinding in frustration trying to parse the information in that talk. I was also amused that, plenary speakers aside, every single speaker I sat through insisted in using a PowerPoint [2] style presentation. I was rather hoping to see a little more ‘hands-free’ presentation, but I guess academics and industrialists alike fall back on the PowerPoint crutch rather more than we perhaps should. Although, I can be as guilty as the next scholar in overusing, so I’m not critiquing from a higher plateau. It was just a shame there wasn’t more variety in the ‘chalk & talk’ approaches adopted to communicate to the audiences.

There was also a genuinely evidenced split between speakers with media training heritage or experience, and the majority who hadn’t. Most of the plenary speakers had clearly been coached in their presentational style, with for example the head of ESA providing a real standout in terms of clarity and engagement. Very much a style to be emulated I felt. Although, it I am going to be critical, I’d perhaps leave out the string quartet and bombastic Day Today style promotional video the audience were subjected to at various points. At worst it felt like corporate brainwashing, and at best (given the climate crisis theme of the symposium) I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into the final reel of Soylent Green.

While I accept some speakers may have been harder to focus on given my limited personal field experience and lack of shared vocabulary, there were some who really drew my interest. I know more about Finland’s space programme as a result than I ever expected, and was delighted to hear about it. Notably, quite a few senior organisational representatives fell into the trap of assuming the audience will gift them with their attention, simply because of their personal reputation and standing. Sorry to say, attention needs to be grasped, won and captured, it’s rarely genuinely given.

Spaaaaaaaace Ships. Ahem. Sorry, Swarm Sats.Other weaknesses I spotted were the inability to thread a talk with presentational narrative; the normative preference seemingly being a rhythmic delivery of: facts, facts, graphic, facts then conclusion. Perhaps this observation comes from being a qualitative scholar at an event riven with scientism, positivism and quantitative method. Nevertheless, even in these field facts can still be used to tell a powerful and engaging story, without diminishing the science which underlies them, in a manner which serves to enhance comprehension and retention. I really believe many of the papers I witnessed would have been deeply enhanced through embracing storytelling and narrative techniques, to contribute in creating far more compelling talks.

Finally, I also witnessed quite a range of disconnect between panel topics and the talks inside them. This is something most if not all academic conferences I’ve attended have a tendency to demonstrate. It can be a real disservice to the audience, who likely were expecting to hear one thing, and who then witness a speaker holding forth on a questionable or divergent topic instead. I’m not sure I have a ready solution to this one, but I’d be interested to hear other’s experiences in overcoming this within their event chairing capacity.

Overall then, the conference was eye opening for me, less so for the shiny satellites and exciting environmental-monitoring related technology, but more for the witnessed similarities. Perhaps in this burgeoning interdisciplinary world, it’s worth remembering that even snug and safe within our disciplinary niches, it turns out there’s a lot we all do communicatively which is broadly similar. Albeit, there are also many things we should as scholars perhaps be working towards improving too. I’ll be interested to see if my experiences in Milan, match up to my visit in July to the Utopian Studies Society conference; again an event outside my own disciplinary traditions.

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[1] For those keeping score, I managed about 40 miles in three days.

Venue Security[2] Also the security level was a lot higher than a media & comms event - I've not been bomb wanded by a battalion of serious looking guards before just to get into a venue!

[3] Other slide projection packages are available.


December 12, 2018

Article Focus On: Critical reflections – what’s their value?

In my last post I talked about interviews, or the Conversations with, series of articles that we publish in Exchanges. In today’s post, I’m going to talk about the other kind of article which stands alongside the more research intensive pieces in the journal: critical reflections. According to our author guide a critical reflection article comprises:

Focussed, critical appraisals typically covering an area of emerging research, a key event or a crucial new text. (1,000-3,000 words).

That’s not a long explanation for what are actually highly readable and insightful articles, so let me expand a little here. When people approach us with a critical appraisal article, most commonly they want to write about an event they have recently attended. This is a great start, as we are all interested in reading about conferences, workshops, seminars and symposia others have attended which (for whatever reasons) we didn’t have the chance to. However, so far, so much a blog post. Where the critical reflection article differs is that they are not intended to be a simple narrative of what was said and/or who spoke. Yes, this sort of contextual information is still an important part of the content, but where the critical reflection article takes a step forward towards being a more academic piece of writing is right there in the title.

Context - What are they?

In short, these pieces are supposed to entail a critical reflection about an event that is to say for example, what was it about the context, content and theme, which was of value or importance? Did the author agree with everything which was said or, from their own scholarly perspective, were there aspects that they wanted to take issue with or even wholesale challenge? Ideally too, there needs to be an element of how the event changed the author’s perspectives, thinking or knowledge. Essentially, how did it have an impact upon or affected them. Incorporating these evaluative and self-reflective elements is what changes an ‘event report’ from a tasty but ultimately unsatisfying intellectual snack, into a gourmet and rewarding scholarly treat. In short, this is what makes the paper a critical reflection.

Now, in the prior paragraph I’ve been writing about critical reflections of events. However, you will have noticed Exchanges is not only interested in critical reflections on events, but on essentially any reflections on aspect of scholarship. Typically, what should stimulate the writing of a critical reflection is an intellectual intervention or encounter of any kind. I’ll acknowledge events are the most common or perhaps most prominent such circumstances. Yet, other artefacts or circumstances can move us as much, if not more sometimes. For example, you might have spoken with a particular author, or read a lot of their work lately, which has stimulated your thinking in new directions. Alternatively, you might have read a particularly challenging paper, report or monograph which has caused you to reconsider your own research practice. Writing a critical reflection concerning these ‘events’ can be therefore as valuable and timely a piece of written scholarship as writing about a literal event. Personally, with our engaged, broad and interdisciplinary readership in mind, I’d like to see far more critical reflections about non-conference type events appearing in our pages.

The last kind of critical reflection is perhaps less easy to predefine, at least structurally, and that’s the opinion piece. For example, as a scholar there might not be a singular specific event or work you’re looking to critique. What you want to offer instead is your own, unique insight into an aspect of your discipline. In this respect, here is where Exchanges can be a most valuable publication destination especially for those scholars in the STEM subjects, where opinion pieces are less commonly accepted in major journals. Certainly, many major journals may perceive early career researchers have more ‘limited’ disciplinary experience and insight to offer, and may decline to publish such submissions as a matter of course. Here at Exchanges, we’d respectfully disagree with this stance, as per our mission, we strongly believe that new, original and insightful thought which critically reflects on a field can emerge from scholars at any stage in their career. Hence, as Editor-in-Chief I’d strongly encourage anyone who’d like to ‘make a scholarly statement’ about their field, to consider writing it as a critical reflection for us.

Criticial Refelction Advantages

One advantage of the critical reflection piece by the way, is that they are mercifully brief pieces of work, which means they can be written, edited and ready for publication quite rapidly. They can be almost as brief as this blog post in length, in fact! Naturally, the manuscript should include the context and set the scene, as with all our articles, remember you are writing for a readership which doesn’t automatically have a deep familiarity with your field. Nevertheless, this should diminish the depth or breadth of scholarship that can be include. Have a look at these recent examples, for an idea of the sort of things you might write about.

Eden, A.A., 2018. Enchanted Community: Reflections on Art, the Humanities and Public Engagement. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v6i1.252

Mulcahy, S., 2018. Dissents and Dispositions. Reflections on the Conference of the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v5i2.247

Crealock-Ashurst, B., et al., 2018. A Critical Reflection on the 28th International Biology Olympiad. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v5i1.221

Messin, L.J., & Meadows, J.C., 2018. Science for All. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v4i1.153

Incidentally, a critical reflection can also act as a promotional piece. Not only for the author, but for institutions, research groups and projects, looking to raise their profiles. I really do believe these are exactly the sort of article which can really help to get a scholar noted. Hence, critically appraising some work you are intimately involved in, not only helps to develop your own career, but can serve as a valuable adjunct to other ongoing efforts.

In Conclusion

So, there you go. The critical appraisal, a valuable and relatively easy article type you can publish with Exchanges. And if you’re reading this and thinking you’ve got a great idea for one, either speak to myself or any of the Editorial Board about it. Or better yet, get writing and submitting – there’s every possibility critical reflections submitted in the first few months of 2019 can see publication in our spring issue of Exchanges! (possibly!)

Finally, on a personal note, I’m signing off as the Managing Editor-in-Chief for the Christmas break today. So can I wish all our readers, reviewers and authors (old and new) a most festive, relaxing and perhaps critically reflective break!


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