Author order and disorder

Debra Carr has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering.

Prior to joining Cranfield University, she was employed by the Ministry of Defence (SCRDE), Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering) and The University of Otago (Clothing and Textile Sciences).

Debra is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a Fellow of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

In 2012, Debra was a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. Debra’s research interests include personal protective equipment design and testing, and behind armour wound ballistics.

I’m a materials engineer specialising in textile science. After I finished my PhD, I first worked in Government and now I’ve been an academic for nearly 20 years.

I love working with my research students (MSc and PhD) and I try to give them as many opportunities to publish as possible.

When a student first approaches me, I talk about where their work might be published – should it be a journal, or conference proceedings? I encourage them to think about their work as publishable and plan the work right from the start for publication. I think this is as important for my students who are completing a taught Master of Science (MSc) that includes a 3-month research project resulting in a dissertation, as for my PhD students who are in a 3-year program.

Most of my personal research projects, and those that my research students conduct, are for customers who have a real-world problem (i.e. most of the work is applied in nature). Some projects cannot be published due to confidentiality and I let my students know this ASAP in the process. I always ensure we meet with the client.

As far as I am concerned, if an article is written from a thesis by either the student or me, then they are first author on the publication and I am usually second author as their supervisor. My boss and my institution (I believe) expect me to be second author. Obviously, these articles contribute significantly to my career progression as well as theirs and I have benefited from my students with respect to promotion. Other authors on the articles might be another research student or a staff member who has helped (academic or technical), and an industrial supervisor or a sponsor (particularly if the work was originally their idea – so an acknowledgement of their intellectual property).

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Should I apply?

Recently, I needed to write an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page about finding research funding. I thought of some questions that people often ask me, but they didn’t seem very interesting. So I asked Twitter.

The response was immediate and wonderful. Not everything came in the form of a question, but everything related to question that people ask. Here is the first of my responses to my Twitter-asked questions. I’d like to thank Ana Isabel Canhoto (@canhoto) for triggering this post.

The Great Wall of China, stretching off into the business

That must have been a lot of work, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Should I apply?

Let’s skip over the existential aspects of this question and assume that you are an academic required to undertake research as part of your job. Let’s also assume that you’ve finished your PhD. If you haven’t, go do it now. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you come back.

Sometimes, your research doesn’t require any funding. You might be working on an aspect of pure mathematics or ethics, and all you need is a computer, a good library, some peace and quiet, and the occasional chance to talk to smart people working on the same stuff. Or you might be working on a very small part of an overall research program that doesn’t need any extra staff, any equipment, or any travel. In that case, don’t apply for funding. You don’t need it and it won’t substantially improve your research. However, those situations are pretty rare.

In all other cases, you should apply for funding. However, there are some important things that you need to consider.


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

Life, death and collaboration: How to find research friends

Found zen (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

For the first years of my academic life, I only ever published as a sole author. I worked on projects as a sole chief investigator and, for the most part, started projects by myself. Coming from the humanities of the time, this was not that unusual.

In my later years as an academic, almost everything I wrote or worked on was not as a lone researcher. I co-wrote, co-edited, was part of project teams and event committees.

In academia these days, the collaboration factor is huge. Perhaps even de rigueur. Track-records with no history of working with others are viewed with a suspicion. Heads of Schools and grant assessors may well wonder: is it because you don’t work with others, or because you can’t work with others?

While some ‘collaborations’ can be nightmares that you try to get over and done with as quickly as possible (therefore, aren’t collaborations in the holistic sense…), research collaborations can be the absolute best things in your academic life.

And, because you’re not an Emperor penguin, you don’t have to ‘mate for life’ with one collaborator. You can work with various groups and individuals off and on throughout your career, finding more along the way. Train that creative sensibility to find ways to work with people you respect and like; it will make your working life a happy place.

As with many things in life, the best way for these things to happen is organically. A forced research relationship makes the baby sloths cry.

With this in mind, then, what’s the best way to find a collaborator? First, remind yourself about what academic networking can mean.

Then, check out my top strategies for finding good collaborators:


Making co-writing work

Four people, concentrating on their laptops, in a library

From 'Writing like the wind' by snigl3t on Flickr

Writing with your colleagues can be as fantastic as it can be abysmal; it’s all about who you’re playing with, and what kind of experience those dynamics create.

Academia in general appears to be increasingly geared towards multiple authors and team-based research, even in the traditional bastions of sole authordom such as the humanities. Most of those in the sciences co-author and team-write as a matter of course, though many admit that the process can still be a fraught one. Susan Cain, in her recent New York Times article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink“, focuses her criticism on the context and implementation of that collaborative work.

While performing a critique of prescriptive collaborative work cultures, Cain notes: “recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.)”

This post is about the process of intensive co-authoring. I’m not talking about the formality of including a research team on a publication, where only a handful of the listed researchers may have actively worked on the paper. Nor will I cover the situation where one person does all the work and then feels obliged to add a senior colleague’s name on it.

ALL successful intensive co-authoring requires:

  • A feasible, agreed-upon schedule for drafting and deadline for completion.
  • A strong leader for the paper, someone who takes final responsibility for its proofing and submission (even though the actual tasks may be devolved to someone else…).
  • Proper version control. That’s why I emphasise the serial process of sending it around the team. When X has done their bit, they send it to Y (cc’ing the others), who then sends it to Z (cc’ing the others). Don’t fiddle with the writing till you are the one the document is sent to.
  • All members of the team to be committed to adding value to the publication, and doing their bit.

The three approaches that I’ve experienced (for which I’ve committed the sin of neologism) are: