The measurement tail should not be wagging the impact dog

Helen Sowey, smilingHelen Sowey was Senior Research Support Officer at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW, from August 2017 to October 2018. Prior to this, she spent 20 years working as a practitioner in the health, justice, and social services sectors. Contact helen.sowey@gmail.com.

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Australasian Research Management Society Conference, Hobart, 20 September 2018.


A pop art representation of a puppy dog, mostly in different shades of blue

‘Blue Dog’ by Romero Britto. Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell.

Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment encourages universities to ensure that their research is of benefit to the world beyond academia.

Or does it?

Having spent more than a year in a dedicated “engagement and impact” research support role, I am concerned to see that institutions tend to be narrowly focused on the task of showing evidence of engagement and impact, rather than thinking about what kind of impact their work might have and what kinds of engagement would allow that to happen.

This is problematic, because knowing what kind of impact is intended is a logically prior step to collecting evidence of it! If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you can hardly hope to achieve it, much less document it.

The focus on showing evidence is also problematic because it shifts attention away from creating impact, which is something grand, visionary and inspiring, towards creating only the kind of impact that is measurable – a smaller, more individualistic, and potentially less relevant endeavour. Read more of this post

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Ethics in an age of data breaches

This post began as a comment on a blog post, The Ethics of Research on Leaked Data: Ashley Madison, by Neurosceptic on their Discover Magazine’s blog, 14 July 2018.

I’ve expanded it here to provide context and background.


Photo by Oumaima Ben Chebtit | unsplash.com

Photo by Oumaima Ben Chebtit | unsplash.com

In August 2015, a hacking group released data from AshleyMadison.com, a website designed to attract funds from men seeking an extramarital affair.

Before the year was out, academics were drawing on the Ashley Madison breach data.

I’ve found five journal articles or scholarly papers that draw on the data.

  • Grieser, William, Rachel Li, and Andrei Simonov. ‘Integrity, Creativity, and Corporate Culture’. SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 19 April 2017. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2741049.

Grieser, Li and Simonov (all based in the USA) used email domain names to compare the proportion of staff in the Ashley Madison breach data with occurrences of corporate fraud.

  • Griffin, John M., Samuel Kruger, and Gonzalo Maturana. ‘Do Personal Ethics Influence Corporate Ethics?’ SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 26 July 2017. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2745062.

Griffin, Kruger and Maturana (all based in the USA) identified Chief Executive Officers and Chief Financial Officers in the Ashley Madison breach data and compared that data with corporate infraction data.

  • Chohaney, Michael L., and Kimberly A. Panozzo. ‘Infidelity and the Internet: The Geography of Ashley Madison Usership in the United States’. Geographical Review 108, no. 1 (1 January 2018): 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/gere.12225.

Chohaney and Panozzo (based in the USA) grouped Ashley Madison breach data by US Metropolitan Statistical Area (roughly analogous to large cities) and related this to patterns of affluence and other aspects of those areas. Read more of this post

The ethics of conference speakers

Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods.

She is the author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015). She is not, and never has been, an academic, though she has learned to speak the language.

In 2015, Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods. Her latest book is Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018).

Helen’s webiste is helenkara.com and she tweets at @DrHelenKara. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-7348-0963


Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

In March 2018 Stanford University in California held a two-day conference in applied history. There were 30 speakers. Every single one was male and white.

Like most academic fields, applied history is dominated by white men. However, there are also many women and people of colour who work and study within the discipline. No doubt there are also queer historians and historians with disabilities. To be fair to Stanford, three female historians had been invited to take part in the conference, but each of them declined due to previous commitments. To be fair to women, I’m sure that more than 10% of historians are female. Stanford inadvertently made history itself by ending up with the biggest manel ever. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, a manel is a panel comprised entirely of men.)

Of course the media, as usual, reported this event as though gender is binary. While there is some point in prioritising women, who still face structural discrimination in professional life, this also risks further marginalising trans and non-binary people. Their voices are equally important, as are those of people from different sexual orientations, belief systems, and so on. Read more of this post

What I like seeing researchers post

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

‘But I haven’t got anything to say!’

This is one of the most common laments I hear when I’m running social media workshops, particularly from emerging scholars.

Researchers – many of whom we know are rather fond of holding forth (it’s tough to make them stop) – suddenly clam up when they’re staring at their newly created Twitter account or Facebook page. They’re sometimes wary of the exposure, often anxious of doing something ‘wrong’, and rarely at ease with platforms from the start.

To address this stumbling point in my ‘Researchers and social media’ workshops, I indicate what might be good content for a researchers’ social media stream. It’s a starting point to think about what types of information to include, how they’d source that information and what they might ‘sound’ like.

This post is a more detailed version of my earlier post about what I tweet (when I was running three different types of accounts…which was before I was running four different types of accounts!).

Small caveat: What I include in that workshop is not definitive; it’s not based on scads of data. It’s what I find in others’ social media streams that I think is valuable, and the people and organisations who share this kind of stuff will probably be followed or liked by me.  Read more of this post

Residential writing retreats: three wishes for academic output

BronwynEager-150pxDr 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. Her ORCID is 0000-0003-4512-1263To learn more about her writing retreats, visit Academic Writing Retreats


Photo of writing retreat by Narelle Lemon

Photo of writing retreat by Narelle Lemon

If academia was a Disney film and I was a street rat (early career researcher) living on the sandy backstreets of Agrabah, who happened to summon a genie, my three top-of-my-head wishes would be: publications, grant money, and a pipeline of non-traditional research outputs.

But after the wishes were granted and I was flying away on my magic carpet, I’d realise my error (besides the fact that I’d forgotten to wish for world peace).

I should have asked for ‘time’ and ‘space’ and ‘someone to cook my meals’ so I could get on with what I actually love: reading, asking questions, collaborating with other academics, discovering answers, writing, editing prose, and disseminating my findings.

Outputs are by-products. If they were instantly granted through genie magic, then the joy of the journey would evaporate quicker than you can say “How’s your research going?”

Yet when you are under pressure to publish (just to keep, let alone advance, your career), have demanding teaching loads, a never-ending cycle of meetings, and deadlines, what you need is time. Time away from distractions. Time that you can dedicate to research. Mostly, that means time for writing.

Which is why, as the kind of person who walks through a weekend craft market thinking “I could make that!”, I decided to start running residential writing retreats.

Read more of this post

How a university punished a whistle blower

Ann L. Berrios is a graduate of Barnard College and received her Masters from Stony Brook University. She has worked as a university administrator since 1983. She has also written about this incident at Citizen Truth. 

We don’t have the resources to fact-check Ann’s story, and we have not asked her to satisfy a burden of proof. To do so would put more strain on her. We present her story here as she presented it to us.

We do this because we recognise that there are entrenched power structures within universities. We know that sometimes people in power commit fraud and break the law. We know that sometimes those people are protected by the universities that they work for. We know that sometimes whistleblowers are persecuted.

We believe that Ann has the right to be heard. 


A brass whistle that has been washed.

Whistle wash shop, by Holly Occhipinti on Flickr (CC BY)

By reporting fraud, my husband acted to protect the scientific integrity of repositories of knowledge in libraries and databases. Protecting these valuable but endangered resources from the introduction of falsified publications must be done early in the manuscript review stage.

My husband was a faculty member in the School of Medicine and Director of a Microscopy Imaging Center at a state university in the USA. There he witnessed, proved and reported scientific fraud in the laboratory of the University Vice President for Research.

Following his medical school’s faculty code of ethics, my husband reported the fraud to his supervisor. Independently, two investigative committees confirmed the misconduct by failing to reproduce the intended results.  Confronted by these committees, the Vice President professed to have had no knowledge of the fraud, which he ascribed to a subordinate in his laboratory.

Investigative committees disagreed, learning that the University and President knew of the Vice President’s long record of scientific and sexual misconduct yet had covered up these acts for years at the expense of witnesses, victims and taxpayers. Read more of this post

A call to arms for established researchers

Dr Matúš Mišík is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. His main area of expertise is energy security within the EU. He also studies the role of perceptions within the EU decision-making mechanism.

Matúš has published articles in Nature Energy, Energy, Energy Policy, Geopolitics, Czechoslovak Psychology, Journal of Popular Culture, Comparative European Politics, Asia Europe Journal and Slovak Sociological Review. He regularly writes for the leading Slovak dailies and comments on energy policy related topics in the electronic media. He has undertaken study / research trips to Norway (2006), Kazakhstan (2009), Finland (2009), the UK (2011), Austria (2012) and Canada (2015-2016). Matúš will be spending the 2018 fall semester at the Carleton University in Ottawa as a EU visiting scholar.

He tweets from @misikmatus.


Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com

Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com

The decision of Swedish research institutions not to renew their contract with Elsevier after 30 June 2018 is the latest instance in the “database wars”.

Several countries – with Germany in the lead – have gotten into a dispute with major publishers over the rising prices for database subscriptions, which persist despite increasing numbers of open access articles.

I think it’s up to established researchers to initiate change in the way research results are being distributed.

Several governments have already claimed that publicly funded research has to be made freely available, while some research agencies require all supported research to be published open access. For example, the European Commission’s goal is to have all research freely available right after publication by 2020 and its grant schemes require all results to be accessible to everyone without paywall.

Journals have already started to offer open access options to enable unrestricted access to published papers, which requires authors to pay a fee to cover publishers’ costs. Read more of this post