Mind the gap

“This project fills in a significant gap in the literature…”

“This project will address this significant gap in knowledge…”

Text on a railway platform that says 'mind the gap'.

Mind the gap, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several applications that identify a gap in the literature. The ‘gap’ is a useful way to think about your research. It is often presented as a triangle (or a square):

Poincairre says…
Munroe framed the problem in this way…
Flanders contributed the theory of…
However, between those three approaches, there exists a gap…

Sometimes, this research gap is real. Sometimes, it is a little bit constructed (for the purposes of the theoretical argument, of course). In the end, it doesn’t matter. You’ve found your gap.

That gap in the literature? It won’t get you funded.

If you have a gap, and every other applicant has also identified a gap, then that makes your application just like everyone else’s. It doesn’t differentiate you from the crowd. It is a necessary condition for being competitive, not a competitive advantage. Demonstrating it gets you in the game, but it certainly doesn’t win you the grant. Read more of this post

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Supporting scholars seeking a new intellectual home – what can we do?

This article is a collaborative effort by members of the Global Young Academy, the Young Academy of Scotland and Research Whisperer. It was developed by Dr Eva Alisic, Dr S. Karly Kehoe, Debora Kayembe, Dr Shawki Al-Dubaee, and Jonathan O’Donnell.


Woman in protest crowd holding up a sign that reads

Refugees welcome, by Ilias Bartolini, on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Academic solidarity is a core value shared by researchers all over the world. There is a recognition of the need to support, challenge and – when required – protect each other, our disciplinary integrity, and our fundamental investigative principles.

War and conflict disrupt (and sometimes destroy) societies. As part of that process, academics can be specifically targeted. In Free to Think 2017, the organisation Scholars at Risk analysed 257 reported attacks on higher education communities in 35 countries over a period of 12 months. Along with fellow citizens, academics often need to flee conflict zones.

As researchers already working in a certain location, we can offer significant support to fellow academics who are refugees. The ways of getting involved vary from minor and short-term initiatives to substantial and more long-term programs.

The list that follows is by no means complete, but it serves as an idea generator to help build a diverse range of activity. A challenge at the start of any initiative is finding out who the at-risk or refugee academics in your community are, and to make it easier for them to find colleagues in universities or local scholarly associations. Read more of this post

This wasn’t always me

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

There’s a post I tend to share when major grant round results are announced.

It’s ‘Picking up the pieces‘. In it, I emphasise that “I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.”

I always thought those sentences failed to convey the howling disappointment, derailment of career, and emptying out of all confidence that these results can bring.

It is hard, after all, to capture the sound of your professional self decomposing in half a second after realising you’re not a named awardee.

This post, below, was originally published on my personal blog at the end of 2010, seven years ago. It felt like my lowest point, career-wise. I was not in a good place.

I wanted to re-publish it to the Research Whisperer audience as a collegial artefact, to share my thinking about academic identity and scholarly life at a very raw time. Read more of this post

The cruel world of funding peer review

This article began life as a presentation for Peer review and grant funding: From evidence to practice at Melbourne University, 17 November 2017. Thanks to Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke for inviting me to speak.


Before I begin, I should point out that I write from a position of incredible privilege. I’m not an academic – I’m a university administrator. I am securely employed, and have been for most of my working life. My job is to help academics find funding for their research.

In that role, I work with Australian academics from RMIT University. I work with artists, designers, educators, social scientists and humanities scholars, primarily on their Australian Research Council applications. A significant number of the academics that I have worked with over the last seven years have been early career researchers, generally trying to win their first major grant.

Early career researchers face a cruel world these days. Even though they are an increasingly diverse cohort, they are still generally imagined as young, full-time academics without significant outside commitments. They aren’t. Many of them have significant responsibilities outside of work, taking care of children and elderly parents or working on limited visas, far from home. Most of them have no secure work, while being expected to take on increasing levels of accountability. Their research outputs, their teaching performance and even their scholarly engagement with the world are under intense scrutiny and evaluation.

All this has interesting ramifications for the peer review system that we use for government grants.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Beware the Profzi Scheme, on “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

Read more of this post

The gift of record-keeping: A tool for future promotion

Dr Bronwyn Eager works as a Lecturer, Entrepreneurship at Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her research focuses on stress, coping and time-orientation in entrepreneurs and integrating entrepreneurship education into STEM domains.

She tweets as @bronwyn_eager, and is always up for a coffee and interesting conversations.


Photo by Max Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash.com

I was recently asked by a colleague to help edit her application for a Professorial role.

As a recently minted PhD, and academic Level B (i.e. the bottom of the academic food chain), I was honoured. The process of reviewing her application gave me some insight into academic promotion, which I want to share with you below. Namely, the importance of record-keeping and a gift of a simple spreadsheet to help you capture your data now, so it will be on hand for when you need it in the future.

Reading my colleague’s application, I felt exhausted. Not from the editing process (which was minimal – she is a brilliant writer), but from living vicariously through the vast number of publications, supervision roles, teaching activities, grants, and engagements that were laid out in her documents.

I looked up more than once from my screen and wondered how she’d had time to sleep since completing her PhD. Read more of this post

Is the academic lone wolf extinct?

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Academic lone wolves get a bad rap.

In today’s hyper-collaborative academic world, the idea that researchers might work on something alone, get funding alone, and publish alone, is weird and even abhorrent to many.

Yet, it is the reality for many humanities and social sciences academics, from postgraduates to senior scholars. They have projects where they publish and work on projects alone, as well as collaborative and joint initiatives that involve others in their own discipline and beyond.

It’s not a case of either/or, but the general vibe in many academic ‘advice’ streams is that scholars should not work alone.

Scholars can and do work alone, and they can be excellent colleagues, productive academics, and generous mentors. Sure, there are some researchers who work alone because they don’t play well with others, but many work alone because it is an expectation of their disciplines. Some work alone because they enjoy working alone, but it doesn’t mean they can’t work with others.

Not only is sole-authorship relatively common practice, it is in fact a sought-after signal that the researcher has the ability to create and complete major intellectual work. The opaqueness of who did what can be the source of much contention on work that involves more than one named investigator or author. Humanities scholars are not as often embroiled in these debates because they practice a discipline “where text and author are tightly coupled; where the process of inscription implies intimacy with one’s materials” (Cronin 2003 [196 Kb PDF]).  Read more of this post

Crowdsourcing transcriptions of open archives

This article began life as a presentation for Open Access week at La Trobe University, 23 October 2017. Thanks to La Trobe for inviting me to speak.


Poster for the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon MoAD at Old Parliament House 9-10 September 2017, showing a handprint, an identity photo and a bureaucratic form in the background.A little while back, I travelled to Canberra with my partner, Sophie Couchman, to help Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall with their ‘Real Face of White Australia’ project. We spent the weekend transcribing documents relating to the history of White Australia, and Australia’s historical attempts to exclude people who were not ‘white’.

First, a bit of history. There was a period (not so long ago, in the scheme of things) when Australia used a bureaucratic system to bar entry to anyone who wasn’t white. As part of that process, we used a ‘dictation test’ to bar entry to anyone deemed undesirable.

If you were already a resident in Australia (because, for example, you had been born here) and didn’t look white, you needed to get an exemption from the dictation test before you went overseas. If you didn’t, you might not be allowed to re-enter the country. These ‘Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test’ are all stored in Australian archives, and provide valuable insights into that period of history.

Unfortunately, they are currently all locked away. Not because of the issues that normally relate to Open Access: ‘Open’ versus ‘Closed’ legal permissions (although there are issues there) or ‘ ‘Free speech’ versus ‘Free beer’ (versus ‘Free puppies’) monetary issues. No. This information is locked away because it is handwritten on paper. Even where the archive has digitised the certificates, there is no reliable way to optically recognize (OCR) the characters.

We lose sight, sometimes, of how much stuff is still locked away on paper, in handwriting. That’s where I came in. With my partner, Sophie, I went to Canberra and spent a couple of days transcribing this handwritten data. Read more of this post