Why we do what we do

Early in 2018, the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) established an Award for Excellence in Research Management Leadership. Here is our entry, slightly modified and updated, to make sense as a stand-alone article. We wrote the application for an audience of research management and development peers, so keep that in your mind as you’re reading it!

Thanks to our nominator Deb Brian, and to our referees and long-time allies Phil Ward and Michelle Duryea for their support! Thanks also to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) for their consideration of our application.

We didn’t win the award but we found the process of writing the application really useful for reflecting on what Research Whisperer is all about and how we have tried to develop its community. It was a good, affirming thing to do, and made us appreciate all the more what a fabulous RW network there is. 


Tseen Khoo (left) and Jonathan O'Donnell (right) at Pearson and Murphy's cafe, RMIT.

This is us! Tseen Khoo (left) and Jonathan O’Donnell (right).

We established the Research Whisperer to demystify the research cycle for researchers. We have been using blogposts to reflect on our own practices, and Twitter/Facebook to share those thoughts with others since 2011.

By using social media, we have made our research administration and development practice available to a global readership. By presenting our work to an international audience, we have been able to work beyond our institutional borders.

By being open about our research administration practices, we have built a body of knowledge of over 320 articles (roughly 400,000 words), which attract an annual readership in excess of 150,000 (WordPress views for 2017). We’ve created an international network of researchers and research administrators who find our work useful and valuable that is 36,000+ strong (Twitter followers as at 22 June 2018). Read more of this post

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Should we really write daily?

Chris Smith is a co-founder of Prolifiko who’s interested in using behavioural science, neuroscience and positive persuasive technology to unlock human potential.

Chris is a former founder of Swarm, a content and digital marketing agency with a background working for consultancy firms.

He’s also a London Short Film Festival award-winning script writer and a former lecturer in social psychology, continental philosophy and aesthetics at Staffordshire University.

Prolifiko tweets from @beprolifiko.


The most cited work in the field of ‘academic writing productivity’ is that of Robert Boice from the 1990s. Is it that because there’s been no further research in this area or has nobody bettered his findings?

Photo by NeONBRAND | unsplash.com

Photo by NeONBRAND | unsplash.com

We’ve just launched our own study into academic writing practice. It’s research that we hope will give anyone who needs to write, evidence-based guidance on how to develop a writing system that works for them. It builds on Boice’s work and we’re using startup principles and tools to do it.

Boice’s research was innovative at the time but boiled down, it amounted to one simple scholarly nugget: whatever type of writer you are and whatever type of writing you do, do it daily.

His work has helped thousands to develop an effective practice. It has informed academic writing workshops the world over and made its way into more mainstream productivity advice on all aspects of human habit formation.

Does daily do it?

We’ve worked with and talked to thousands of writers in our work and Boice’s research has always been an inspiration to us. That said, his ‘do it daily’ mantra doesn’t always ring true. It can feel a little outdated in today’s busy world.

For example, our latest (thoroughly non-academic) poll amongst our community found 41% self-identifying as ‘binge writers’ (Boice would seriously not approve!) with just 20% saying they could manage a daily habit.

A regular, daily writing practice might be the gold standard but is it realistic? We decided to find out. Read more of this post

Looking backwards

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes have changed, and will continue to change. 


Philosophical Transactions: giving some account of the present understanding, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. Volume 1, for years 1665 and 1666.

Frontispiece of Philosophical Transactions, by Henry Oldenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago. Read more of this post

The value of real relationships in research development

Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber.

He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics. Clients include Newman, Leeds Trinity and Harper Adams Universities. He previously worked in research development at the University of Warwick as well as roles in the civil service, local government and economic development consultancy.

Lachlan is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the School of Business, University of Leicester. He tweets from @HEresearchfund.


Research support professionals are always on the lookout for good practice. I should know, I’m one of them.

A common way to do this is to attend relevant conferences, and one of the largest of these – INORMS – took place in Edinburgh in early June.

Photo from @ARMA_UK's #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

Photo from @ARMA_UK’s #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

INORMS brings together well over one thousand people who work in research management globally. Around half were from the UK with the rest coming from North America, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe.

These conferences are always an opportunity to catch up with old colleagues, forge new partnerships and projects and find out how the profession is changing and developing across the world.

So, what did I learn over the three days? Well, if I am honest, I don’t feel like I learnt anything particularly new.

It feels wrong to say that but, in reality, things don’t move too quickly in research management (as much as we might like to think they do).

That isn’t to say the conference wasn’t useful. I met some great new people and it highlighted some important issues, crystallising my thoughts in a few areas that I thought might be valuable to share in this post. Read more of this post

Openness and security

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.  


This message and any attachment are intended solely for the addressee and may contain confidential information. If you have received this message in error, please contact the sender and delete the email and attachment.

Page 1 of a US Department of Defence document with heavy redactions.

Redacted document, via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.

For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.

As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.

This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial. Read more of this post

Laying the research groundwork

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 3 June 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Jon Tyson | unsplash.com

Photo by Jon Tyson | unsplash.com

When I’ve asked researchers about their funding streams, many want to talk about the projects they want grant money for. Drilling down a bit further, however, it becomes obvious that many of the projects aren’t actually projects…yet.

Some researchers have ideas for projects, while others have started initial discussions but haven’t gotten their collaborators to commit to the project yet. Some researchers have said they have a full-fledged project in their head but haven’t talked with anyone else about it. Often, even if the team has come together, the thinking around the project itself has not.

This makes it hard to talk to your university’s grants team because the research project you want funded isn’t properly baked. It’s all still a bit doughy and unformed. I’ve written before about why you should only submit golden-brown applications, and I know how much work it can take to get to that stage.

Most grants teams are fabulous and want to help you submit strong applications to those competitive funding rounds. However, it’s often neither their job nor do they have the capacity to get you to the project grant application starting block with a red-hot project and a team ready to go.

Grey areas

The problem here is the grey area of where this research development happens.

Particularly for early career researchers who may be fresh out of their PhD, starting that next big project—without a supervisor or the scaffolding of a degree—can be a significant challenge.  Read more of this post

When grants were handwritten

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role.

I couldn’t actually be in Edinburgh, so my main contributions was a personal reflection on the last 30 years of research administration, and how the technology has changed. This is an expanded version of that talk.


1987: Thirty years ago

A grant application form from 1987, for the Australian Research Grants Scheme

1987: note the ‘Office use only’ boxes, where we could hand write the file number.

Thirty years ago, I began my career in research administration working for one of Australia’s national funding agencies, the Australian Research Grants Committee. I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to universities because, at that time, there was no effective email between government departments and the universities. I also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the photocopier, as everything was delivered on paper.

Here is an exercise for you: imagine all the major grant applications that you submitted this year, printed out eight times each (I think we asked for eight copies of each application). Then think about the logistics involved in getting them physically transported to the funding agency on time. Today? We just push a button.

The year that I worked there was the last year of the Australian Research Grants Committee. In the next year, Don Aitken transformed it into the funding organisation that Australian researchers know today, the Australian Research Council. It was part of wider democratisation of the Australian university systemRead more of this post