Raising the risk threshold

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis)

When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?

Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?

I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.

I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.

I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.

Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.

Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.

Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.

These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.

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Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

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FoRs and the Alleged “Gaming” of ERA

Michelle Duryea, ECUMichelle Duryea has been the Manager of Research Quality and Policy at Edith Cowan University for over four years. She is responsible for the University’s ERA and HERDC submissions, research management systems, research policy development, reviews of research centres and research performance evaluation, reward and reporting.

Prior to working at ECU, Michelle was the Associate Director of Research Evaluation at the Australian Research Council, directly involved in developing the original ERA policy and guidelines.

Before working for Government, she occupied the position of the Senior Policy Officer for the Australian Technology Network of Universities. Michelle is on Twitter as @MishDuryea


Numbers (Photo by supercake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/supercake)

Numbers (Photo by supercake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/supercake)

Following a recent Research Whisperer post on ‘What’s a FoR?’, a Twitter conversation arose regarding the way Field of Research codes are assigned to publications for Government reporting purposes, specifically ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia).

This post is a product of that discussion and aims to clarify the role research offices play in preparing a university’s ERA submission.

More importantly, I also discuss the question of the impact these activities may or may not have on the publication practices of individual researchers.

In order to have a legitimate appreciation for what is involved in preparing the data about research outputs for an ERA submission, there are some fundamental ERA concepts which need to be understood initially, and which I will attempt to explain as clearly as possible.

Out of necessity, the following is taken largely from the ERA 2012 Submission Guidelines, so I apologise in advance for the “policy speak” but hopefully you’ll hang in there long enough for us to get to the good bit.

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Lost and found

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A few things happened last week that made this post both easier and harder to write.

What made it easier was that I had done a quick canvas of my colleagues about topics they’d like to see addressed on Research Whisperer. Susan Leong (@susanmeeleong), a member of my research network, wrote:

“Not sure if this has been addressed but I often have to remind myself why research matters beyond the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) rankings.

That it is worthwhile choosing the not-so-sexy trending areas to study.

Because once we enter into the borg of academia, it seems that is all it counts for, that and tarting ideas up for funding.”

Right, I thought. That’s not hard. Writing about why we have a passion for research will be easy.

So, I planned a post on why the research caper can be so rewarding, despite the constant institutional pressures and uncertainties. How you can lose track of time in the excitement of delving into a subject, and finding and collaborating with smart colleagues. The thrill of road-testing ideas and new topics at conferences, and weaving the feedback into future papers. The luxury of being paid for your intellectual work and its whims.

There was even a post recently by E. J. Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland) on why she loves her job in academia at the Imperial College Conservation Science group’s blog. She described why she appreciated the academic environment this way:

“It’s exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I’m well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.”

I also had an anecdote lined up about how ‘un-sexy’ topics can become government priorities and suddenly have a lot of grant money thrown at them.

Then I had a long phone call with one of my closest academic colleagues that derailed my neatly planned post.

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Tattoo your data

Margaret HentyMargaret Henty is Senior Policy Advisor with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

In practice, this means looking at all of those legal and policy issues which have an impact on data sharing and use, such as copyright, licensing, ethics, Gov 2.0, etc and keeping an eye on developments overseas.

ANDS is building the Australian Research Data Commons: a cohesive collection of research resources from all research institutions, to make better use of Australia’s research data outputs.


Tattoos are big business at the moment.  People everywhere are adorning themselves with something to help make them feel a little more individual, something which belongs to them and no-one else.

Remapped back (from Kyle McDonald: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kylemcdonald)

Remapped back, from Kyle McDonald on Flickr

The data you create as part of your research can have its own tattoo, too.  It’s called a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). You’re probably familiar with the concept of the DOI being attached to your journal articles. Now you can also attach them to your data. It is something like a tattoo for your body, an electronic tag for your dog, or an ISBN for your book.

You should tattoo your data for the same reasons you tattoo your body (and for some bonus reasons, too):

  • It makes the data uniquely identifiable.
  • You will always be identified as the creator of the data.
  • Having a data tattoo means that your data can always be located with a simple web search.
  • It means your data can be cited, whether by someone else or by you and any data citations can be added to journal citations.
  • It means that usage of your data can be followed as others use and cite your data.

“So what?” I hear you ask. Well, changes are afoot in the research world, the kinds of changes which may well have an effect on the way reward structures in academe operate.  Currently, merit in the academic world is recognised by virtue of research publications in the form of books or journal articles (or in some cases, creative works).

Other types of research output have barely, if ever, been recognised.  This applies especially to research data, something which is routinely collected in the course of research and that forms the basis of all those publications.  Is it valuable?  Yes, it is, and not just to you.

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Long-term grants

Dr Ben Kraal (QUT)Dr Ben Kraal is a Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia. He works with the People and Systems Lab on various projects.

In the broadest sense, what he does can be described as Design Research. Ben’s background is in what people call “IT”, though he has spent most of his time thinking about how people use technology in their work and life.

His PhD was about the lived experience of people who use large vocabulary speech recognition systems in the workplace.

Ben tweets from @bjkraal and blogs at Not Easily Obvious


Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Recent ideas for “fixing” research grants have proposed long-term grants as a potential solution.

Nobel Prize-winning astronomer, Brian Schmidt (ANU), proposed the idea and it showed up in a Minister’s speech too.

As a post-doc on soft money, long-term grants only seem to solve the problems of established professors whose problem isn’t getting grants, but keeping their lab or group liquid for the medium to long-term.

I fear that long-term grants will turn the early career researcher’s (ECR) problem of getting a grant into the problem of getting a job. But with fewer, bigger projects about, that could get harder, not easier.

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Gantts vs Zombies

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

As my experiences of university functions move beyond ‘plonk and cheese’ to gigs that involve sushi rolls, mini-quiches, and chocolate eclairs, I felt like it was time to write something about the slippage between the intimate and the professional in academia.

I’m particularly interested in the way that staff negotiate the grey area of social participation and personal revelation* as part of a university’s everyday rhythms. This is a topic that fascinates me, and the ‘and another thing!’ nature of this post probably reflects this.

I’ve often joked with my peers that my most enduring trauma in academia was watching colleagues boogeying on the dance-floor at the tail end of conference dinners. It is my scholarly primal scene. It is also another very good reason not to attend conference dinners, but I’ll save that invective for another post.

I mention the dance trauma because it’s an example of a time when I felt that I got to know too much about colleagues (you can tell a lot about people from the way they dance).

If there’s one thing I learned early in my academic life, it’s that many academics are extremely good at not-participating in institutionally sanctioned events. Being the introvert that I am, I appreciated this culture because I’m a picky participator. If there’s the faintest whiff of ‘team-building games’, I’m hard at work getting out of it. If anyone mentions a themed university event, I’m suddenly booked up…all the time, anytime.

At most of the functions I attended, academic staff were poorly represented, and the ones who were there tended to bemoan the heinous crime of being forced to attend when they were already the most wronged in the university ecosystem (i.e. they were humanities academics, or quant social scientists adrift in a sea of qual boffins, or a constructionist pitted against a school full of positivist educators, or …). Read more of this post

Getting the jump on 2013

Ce-le-brate. You. Must. Ce-le-brate.  (Photo courtesy of Catriona Mills)

Ce-le-brate. You. Must. Ce-le-brate.
(Photo courtesy of Catriona Mills)

With the atmosphere in most workplaces already in holiday mode, it can be hard to keep track of our research, or even pick up that next article to read.

While taking a break and recharging over the holidays is essential for good research practice and life balance, there are some things you can do right now – pre-holidays – to get a head-start on your research in the new year.

If you’re able to push aside the tinsel and dodge the flashing lights for this final burst of productivity, here are each of the Research Whisperers’ Top 3 End-of-Year research tips.

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Who works harder?

Dr Angela Dobele is a creative, results-oriented academic with progressive career accomplishments in research, teaching and community engagement. Her research focuses on three main areas: word-of-mouth referrals (including technological communications), gender diversity, and teaching and learning. Angela’s teaching disciplines include electronic marketing, services marketing, new product development, marketing management and integrated marketing communications. 

As well as immersing herself in research and teaching, Angela is a Foster Dog Carer, enjoys Science Fiction and plans on taking music lessons (any day now…).


Fight-Talk (Photo courtesy of FooDavid)

If you’re a female academic who thinks you’re working harder than your male colleagues, you may well be right!

Not only that, you might be working harder, but you’re less likely to be in the professorial ranks.

I was part of a team of researchers (from RMIT and Griffith universities) who found that, while women are shouldering the majority of the workload at each academic rank, they are under-represented further up the pecking order.

Our results show gender equity in terms of workload on five key workload measures, but there was inequality in terms of pay and status. It confirms what many already presume: it is still the case that fewer women are employed in senior ranks. These results suggest, despite policy reforms, inequity continues to be a problem in the Australian higher education sector.

Our study focused on business faculty employees, and showed that female senior lecturers – the ‘middle’ tier – are teaching an average 848 students compared with their male counterparts’ 229. The number of courses co-ordinated by senior lecturers was an average of 4 for women and 3.2 for men.

Despite shouldering much of the work, women are underrepresented in the higher ranks: senior lecturers, associate professors and professors. For example, in one of the universities studied, one fifth of the male staff were professors, compared with no women.

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The labyrinth of research

Rod Pitcher (@RodPitcher100) is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research.


The ornate textured surface of a bronze urn

Surface of an Urn by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The labyrinth or maze is a very good metaphor for research. Solving the labyrinth and reaching the middle is similar to solving the problems of research and producing a result.

Finding a starting point to the labyrinth is not usually a problem, since one is probably standing at the entrance.

Similarly, finding a topic for research is not usually very difficult. Topics crop up in one’s work continually. The only difficulty is deciding which one to do first.

The labyrinth winds and meanders all over the place, often in circles, while one is looking for a way that leads somewhere. Some paths that open up have to be investigated to see if they lead anywhere useful.

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