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Don Webber discusses his book, How to enhance your research: 100 practical tips for academics

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How to enhance your research: 100 practical tips for academics

(2021) Edward Elgar; ISBN 978 1 78897 808 8 (cased), ISBN 978 1 78897 809 5 (eBook)

What led you to write this book? 

This project started as an opportunity to reflect on our collective ability to make the academic world a better place. Over the years, I have had informal discussions with friends, colleagues and acquaintances across different universities and it appeared to me that some individuals perceive their institution to be demoralising and dispiriting while others see their institution as having a culture that is energising, supportive and enabling. The former group perceive their research activities as more of a chore while the latter group see their research as a source of pleasure and something that they actively look forward to undertaking. I wanted to understand what caused these differences in perceptions. Are they person-specific? Are perceptions common across individuals within an institution? For instance, an institution may be a place where academics bond by grumbling about things, and this grumbling feeds a scholastic atmosphere that enables research.

When I talked through the positive and negative perceptions with respective individuals, I began to realise that they all wanted something multidimensional; they wanted:

  • a persistent high valuation of research
  • to be recognised for researching something that had value to academia
  • to work in a research culture where they felt they could achieve their potential
  • to receive support from their research leaders, and
  • the influence of negative colleagues to be suppressed.

Those friends, colleagues and acquaintances suggested many seemingly small initiatives that they saw could have huge beneficial effects on their own productivity, effectiveness and job satisfaction. This book is a collation of their uplifting ideas plus a generous sprinkling of my own. My hope is that this book moves forward the conversation about the academic research culture for the benefit of all.

Why are many researchers underperforming?

This is a question that I do not answer specifically in the text. However, I do cover a number of possible issues that result in the underperformance of academics. Primarily, I focus in on the importance of social norms. The behaviours of those around you will shape your behaviours towards others. Of course, lessons on how to interact with others commence and are learned in childhood, and then extend across our entire lives, but a researcher’s early and updated experiences with their own research leaders will subsequently shape and revise their own interpersonal behaviours. A positive, nurturing and supportive experience with a research leader can be very enjoyable and encourage you to help others, not for thanks or recognition but simply as a way of passing on the beneficial ambiances that have already been granted to you. It appears to me that this is how a healthy and constructively critical research culture reproduces itself in a sustainable, rewarding and expanding manner. Negative experiences with a research leader or senior member of staff (such as belittling, passively aggressive, or gaslighting) will only encourage you to dismiss your colleagues’ efforts, installing in you an incorrect and shameworthy impression of superiority, and make you reticent to help others.

The book contains a whole range of tips that can help generate a positive, nurturing, and supportive experience within the academic workplace. It is about having the confidence to ask colleagues for constructive advice, guidance and critical feedback, as often the ideas that we receive from those trusted colleagues can stimulate and advance our thinking in interesting and new ways. It is all about being open to provide and receive support and constructive criticism and feedback. Those who are underperforming are likely to be those who do not receive the support or recognition that they think they deserve, and a major part of this is due to the atmosphere within a department and whether you feel that you fit with your colleagues.  A good fit in a supportive and constructively critical department is likely to accelerate your productivity, whereas working in an atmosphere where there are belittling, passive aggressive, and gaslighting behaviours is likely to reduce your productivity and your ability to reach you own research potential.

One possible area of future research is whether people have been promoted to research leadership positions based solely on their own excellent research output. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that someone who is excellent at their own research is also excellent at enabling their colleagues to also achieve their research potential; it’s a Peter Principle applied to academia. If someone is promoted to a research management position, then at a minimum they must not reduce the performance of their colleagues and should instead be promoted because of the ability to enhance the performance of their colleagues. Similarly, some individuals may well be fantastic at supporting the research journey of their colleagues but not necessarily be promoted to that position because they may not be the one appearing to achieve greatness in their own research; that’s a Paula Principle.

What are your most valuable tips for pluralist researchers?

This book is a collection of 100 tips that could create beneficial change both at a personal level and at a departmental/faculty/institutional level. Depending on your own circumstances, some tips will apply more to you than will others. At the very least I hope that this book starts a wider conversation about how we can more actively support each other across the social sciences to achieve our potential and produce greater amounts of higher quality research output. This includes being open to and tolerant towards the use of different ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies, which unfortunate is not always the case within our discipline. I feel that these barriers to communication are limiting the progress of the discipline. If we can open up these lines of communication enough, then we can start helping each other to achieve more.

There are a number of stories in the book that hopefully senior colleagues can relate to. For instance, one day I was chatting with a junior colleague and realised that they were researching something very interesting and had already published that idea as a paper in a working paper series, but they simply were not ready to present that paper at a conference or submit it to a journal. Although I didn’t fully understand the true force of their work, I knew that their research would be of interest to an acquaintance at another university, so I phoned them to look at the working paper and see if it was appropriate for their staff seminar series. I left it up to them about whether they would approach my colleague. The following day, my junior colleague rushed into my office with the widest grin exclaiming that prof X at university Y had on the off chance seen their working paper and that they were really impressed, and they had invited them to present their work in their staff seminar series. My junior colleague was incredibly excited but did not know whether to accept the invitation. I persuaded them that the worst that could happen is that the audience would find holes in the research that could be subsequently addressed, and hence move the research forward. After some hesitation, they agreed to present in that staff seminar series and the preparation for that presentation accelerated their research. Identifying those types of opportunities is exactly what a more senior colleague should be doing to help their colleagues, junior or otherwise.

Many other tips address things that researchers can do to help themselves. For instance, being a member of an email distribution list that announces seminars on a wide range of topics can be very useful. When you make time to attend something slightly different to what you are used to then you can end up finding some new and different ideas that you can integrate into your own research. For instance, many economists would benefit from attending presentations by sociologists. One of the most inspiring seminars that I ever attended was presented by a biologist (specifically how plants depend on their neighbours and ecosystem).

There are other tips about how to lever greater academic benefit from contract research opportunities, how to lever greater impact from your research, how to collaborate more effectively, the benefits of broadening your methodological toolbox, and the ability to find inspiration when you least expect it, and many others. There should be something in there for everyone, including for those just starting out and those in senior management positions making decisions within and across departments.

Is the responsibility for increasing research output at the individual or institutional level?

A university must have an institutional environment that values the cross-fertilisation of ideas and skills from experienced to less-experienced staff and back again. There are some institutions where the researcher is left to their own devices and is expected to produce research almost in isolation. In other institutions, the culture is so competitive that it frowns on collaborative and mutually supportive behaviour, often sourcing justification from research assessment exercise rules that state that a journal article can only be submitted under one resident researcher’s name. These competitive cultures may be effective for some narcissistic researchers (and yes, such researchers definitely exist!), but knowledge production progresses much faster when people discuss their research openly, constructively, and constructively critically, and when colleagues see mutual benefits from doing so.

The act of providing constructively critical feedback to colleagues is grounded in the principal objective to improve the quality of the work. The best scholars actively learn from constructive criticism: they see the positives and appreciate the feedback. The best research leaders, who combine generosity and compassion, already know that emotionally and intellectually supporting their colleagues takes a huge amount of time, energy, patience, and perseverance; they also know that this effort pays off. Research leaders must be socially benevolent and want to get the best out of their colleagues; as the best parents intuitively know, the support provided by research leaders to their colleagues must be selfless and reliable. A researcher should be given complete freedom to follow his or her own talent and intuition, and they should feel supported and not experience fear when they face a challenge or wish to proclaim an idea.

It is not only a research leader’s responsibility to create these open, supportive, and tolerant conditions but also the responsibility of the researcher and each researcher’s colleagues. This is the case not only for the achievement of the pinnacle of self-actualisation, but also for general fulfilment and opportunities for personal and academic growth and development: research leaders are necessary for this effect but not sufficient because colleagues build on, refine, and magnify the research leader’s effect across the department.

From: pp.12-14 of WEA Commentaries 11(3), October 2021

Download WEA commentaries Volume 11, Issue No. 3, October 2021 ›

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