Breaking boundaries

This is the first half of a talk that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event. Thanks to all involved for inviting me, and making me feel so welcome.  It was great!

A long high fence that has been built around a big tree branch.

Tree in the fence, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

When we work within organisations, the boundaries of our organisation can become limiting horizons.

More and more, I am finding that it is easier to do things with the whole world than it is to do them within my organisation.

Sometimes, it is easier to get my colleagues’ attention on Twitter than it is face-to-face (even though they work on the same campus  or even in the same building). The conversation can be richer online, too, because they often have more time to talk on the train going home than they do between meetings. And multiple voices can join in with different points of view.

Organisations want to engage with the outside world, but are bound up in their own identities. I’ve talked before about how I’ve failed to get my Twitter handle on my business card. RMIT recognises the Research Whisperer as part of my job, but only lets me put ‘official’ channels on my card.

At a larger level, national funding systems can fall into this trap, too. Even though they recognise that international research teams produce stronger research, they can sometimes find it hard to fund international collaboration. There is much encouragement to publish with international colleagues. Funding agencies love it, but they often find it difficult to fund the work that leads to those publications. I suspect that they don’t want to give ‘tax-payer dollars’ (nation-based funds) to people from other nations, even though that will probably create better research outcomes.

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What should you do with a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? | Photo by Tseen Khoo

What’s yours? | Photo by Tseen Khoo

When I wrote Do you have a toxic collaborator? back in January this year, I promised a follow-up post about what to do if you found you did have one.

This second post has taken me a while to write. Not because I forgot, or thought it wasn’t important. If anything, it has been weighing on my mind all year!

It’s a really hard post to write because I wanted it to contain useful advice – not just platitudes – for those who found themselves in these situations.

Various stories that came my way after the initial post also upped my trepidation. The elements I was talking about, while annoying and with the potential to be project-breakers, were not as vicious or vindictive as some of the narratives people shared with me.

I suddenly felt that whatever I said wouldn’t have helped any of those dire situations, and sometimes there were just awful, small-minded (but powerful) sorts that you just have to avoid or be wary about.

I’ve now come back to this half-drafted post. It is important. It won’t solve all the ills of heinous academic behaviours, but may push back effectively on some. Read more of this post

How do you find researchers who want to collaborate?

Jenny DelasalleJenny Delasalle is the editor of the Piirus Blog. She is also a freelance copywriter and librarian, currently based in Berlin, Germany. This means that she works collaboratively and remotely with the rest of the Piirus team.

Jenny has over fifteen years of experience of working in academic libraries, and is interested in scholarly communications, bibliometrics, copyright and many other things besides.

She blogs at A Librarian Abroad, and tweets at @JennyDelasalle.

We are pleased to publish her article describing research collaboration and Piirus, a not-for-profit service provided by the University of Warwick.

Contacts and collaboration are increasingly important to researchers. From the sparking of early ideas, to co-authorship which increases outputs and helps authors to reach new audiences, and on again to partnerships with organisations or industry which offer sources of funding and routes to impact: collaboration activities are increasingly seen as a part of research excellence.

The importance of collaboration

As the 2014 UK government report “Growing the best and brightest: the drivers of research excellence” (3 Mb PDF) identifies, features of successful collaborations include personal contacts and openness. Curt Rice, from the University of Tromsø points out that co-authorship is sometimes seen as a sign of co-operativeness, and is on the increase. Curt refers to the so-called “Matthew effect”, where “those who have much, get more”, a phenomenon also identified in bibliometric studies and that once more emphasise the importance of a researcher’s network of contacts.

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Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

JayThompson-smDr Jay Daniel Thompson is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne. His website can be found here.

Jay is also Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and continues to publish in the fields of Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.

He can be contacted via email at

Readers of The Research Whisperer will be familiar with that old chestnut ‘publish or perish’. This is supposed to be the key to getting (and keeping) an academic job.

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi |

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi |

So, what about those non-academics who publish academic writing— the latter broadly defined as writing which is scholarly in nature and appears in traditional academic mediums (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, edited collections, and so forth)? Why do these people put themselves through the blood, sweat, and peer-review?

Who are these people exactly?

Let’s start with the latter question.

Non-academic academic writers (to coin a terribly inelegant term) come in many guises. Some are working in ‘industry’, and bring coalface knowledge to academic publications. Publications in the ‘hard sciences’, for example, frequently feature ‘industry’ input. There are those writers who require publication notches under their belt in order to win that coveted fellowship or lecturing gig. Creative arts journals frequently feature submissions by artists (painters, creative writers, and so forth) who have a scholarly tone. Then there are those folk who are drawn to academic writing by a love of words and a desire to contribute to a particular field or discipline.

I traverse several of the groups listed above.
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3 ways to fix those meetings

[Image origin unknown]

[Image origin unknown]

Every academic I know loathes meetings. Loathes them.

They view meetings as obstacles to (rather than elements of) work, wasted time, forced upon them, and – even worse – as forums for awful colleagues to showcase their awfulness.

Having attended many meetings in my academic and other professional lives, I can’t rally much of a defence for meetings. They are the bane of many working lives, academic or not.

Now, I’m not talking in this post about getting together with collaborators, new colleagues, or catching up with buddies under the guise of ‘meetings’. These could turn out badly, but they’re more likely to be energising and fun events. And they’re often by choice.

However, no-one’s ever said that of the majority of work meetings, particularly those regular committee and staff ones.

Some of the meetings I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones I don’t attend. They’re the ones being livetweeted (or subtweeted) by my buddies on Twitter (often behind locked accounts because, you know, #clm).

But, despite initial appearances, this post isn’t just another long whinge about meetings!

This post is about how to try to fix the main things that are wrong with meetings. I want to help you help others make meetings useful. Oh yeah, I said it: useful. As a baseline, you should be observing meeting etiquette no matter how cheesed off you are that you have to attend.

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One weird trick to get a research grant

Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

1 tip to get a grant. See applications before they get funded. You decide who gets the money.In the past, when talking about how to write a better application, Tseen has advised you to ‘be the assessor’ – to channel the assessor and understand what they are looking for. It is great advice.

The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.

Here’s why:

Write better applications

Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic writing, such as budgets, CVs, and Gantt charts.

They look forward, when most other academic writing looks back at work that has already been done.

We don’t write them very often and we don’t read them very often. Compare the number of articles that you’ve read recently to the number of grant applications you’ve read ever.

By reading more grant applications, you will learn to write better grant applications. You’ll see what sort of evidence impresses you and what style of writing engages you. You’ll see what enrages you, too, when an otherwise good application contains obvious gaps or someone submits drivel.

Not only that, it will help you to place your own work in context. If you can see how other people position their work, it will help you to position yours.

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Everybody wants to save the world

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock |]

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock |

Everyone loves declaring that their research will influence policy, and thereby be the catalyst for enduring, transformative, and positive change.

But is it all just wishful thinking? How much does research actually influence policy?

With the Australian Research Council touting a new Research Impact Principles and Framework, being able to demonstrate that your research has influenced policy or program implementation becomes even more valuable. In the UK, with its Research Excellence Framework (REF), ‘impact’ has already become quite the dirty word.

I’m writing about this now because, in the craziness of November last year, I attended a seminar hosted by La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change. The presentation was by Duncan Green, Senior Strategist for Oxfam, and it was advertised as a talk about “how change happens”.

Given grant application and national research council demands, this topic is hard to resist, right?

As flagged above, “influencing policy” is one of the things that many academics argue that their research outcomes will achieve, along with produce a generous number of publications, storm the frontiers of new knowledge, and bring forth a herd of rainbow unicorns.



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