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).

Exchanging best practice

Research Whisperer works through sharing experiences with our peers, and offering effective strategies for grantseeking and building a track-record. In doing so, it sets the level of exchange within a professional sector context and prioritises gaining knowledge of the research and higher education terrain.

The Research Whisperer allows research developers and managers to engage with practical and conceptual topics without being restricted by embedded organisational blindspots or deficiencies. It has also given space to colleagues who wanted to share ways to address those institutional problems specifically.

For example, when Katie Mack wrote about her conflict between being an international post-doc and wanting to raise a family, the post garnered over 40,000 views and 105 comments from others discussing their experiences, and the twitterstream provided even more discussion around obstacles and possible solutions. The post was discussed in Italy and in Poland; in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Ladies of Science subreddit.

The exchange became a multi-layered, textured conversation about this issue from those who experience it (researchers), those who see the results of it (research leaders / centre directors), and those who can help to ameliorate it (research professionals).

International approaches to supporting research

Through the Research Whisperer, we improve our own practice while engaging in a discussion with others from around the world. We invite research professionals and academics to share their knowledge and expertise. As well as colleagues in Australia, we have had guest posts from Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Though they may work in different national contexts, there are foundational aspects to the research process that greatly benefit from comparison and cross-pollination.

All of our posts are in English, so the bulk of our readers are from the English-speaking world. Our posts are most popular in Australia, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

However, we also have a strong readership in countries that are not traditionally thought of as ‘English-speaking’. These include the Philippines, India, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa and the Netherlands.

Top views by country, as at 9 February 2018
Top views by country, as at 9 February 2018.

We have experimented with sharing our posts to Spanish and Arabic-speaking readers. Currently, a volunteer translates a tweet for each new post into Spanish. This provides Spanish-speaking readers with a tiny abstract – enough for them to decide if they wanted to read the English-language post.

Contribution to research management

The Research Whisperer’s outstanding contribution to research management is in the dynamic, multi-cohort forums that it has created and through which it openly shares.

The blog publishes a broad range of content that informs the practice of research developers and managers from across the sector, whether they are in professional or academic roles. We strive to include a diverse range of voices from research institutions, at all levels of seniority and from units with differing priorities. The more we all understand how the whole research cycle (and experiences of it) works, the better we can enable good practices that achieve their aims, and have integrity and positive effect.

Our social channels, particularly Twitter, foster an honest, compassionate, and ongoing conversation about the processes of research management/development alongside the experiences of the research community.

While the reach of our project and its audience is international, its value lies in the direct, informed nature of its content and conversations. Through writing out our practices and strategies, we clarify our ideas for an international audience. This tends to help to make them both simpler and clearer. That makes them more useful to our own researchers, too. We have a series of prosaic posts that cover the parts of a grant application that academics can struggle with: methods (10,000 views), budget (50,000 views) and timeline (150,000 views). When we point people to these resources, we get better applications. Easier for them, better for us.

Stepping outside of our institutions has allowed us space to talk about topics that are often highly mediated within institutions; they are contentious and sensitive. We’ve published personal accounts of bullying, of the casualization of academia, ‘slow academia’, and the increasing ‘metricisation’ of our sector. These issues, highly relevant to researchers, are important to understand as our working context.

The Research Whisperer community gains a university-wide view of what we do, and how it aligns with others in our organisations and in broader society. It empowers colleagues in our sector and goes a long way to bridging the academic/professional divide that does us all a disservice.

Leadership in research management

We are strong believers in personal learning networks and circles of niceness: loose networks that provide support and informal learning opportunities. We walk alongside our colleagues, learning as much from them as they learn from us.

To this end, we have adapted a number of models that allow us to share time and experience with colleagues. We are passionate about creating opportunities for quality connections within our professions and with our researchers:

  • We run Shut Up and Write sessions that are open to all comers. The weekly Shut Up and Write session at RMIT attracts colleagues and students from universities around Melbourne. In a similar vein, we helped create and continue to support #MelbWriteUp (a full-day, monthly writing retreat for researchers), which is convened by our colleague Jason Murphy.
  • For two out of the last three years, we have hosted the Whisper Workshop, a 20-25 person workshop that brings together researchers and research administrators in humanities, social science and the arts.

Through our engagement with our extended network, we have been invited to speak at 45 events since establishing the Research Whisperer. Two examples stand out:

  • Last year, the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) asked our advice on developing a half-day HASS careers event for early career researchers. This was so popular that CHASS worked with Tim Pitman (Curtin Uni) and ourselves to replicate the event in Western Australia in May 2018. You can see some of the action in the #CHASSECR livetweets (complete with spam!).
  • This year, we have teamed up with Jen Martin (Espresso Science) to develop an open workshop on research engagement with the public. It’s all happening on 16 November 2018.

These events have emerged through engagement with our extended network. They are collaborations that take advantage of our increasing knowledge of the possibilities presented by Research Whisperer’s open, peer-informed and -centred opportunities.

We see the long-term value in this project not just in what we are doing, but in the model that we are demonstrating. We modelled the Research Whisperer on Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer. In doing so, we demonstrated that the it was flexible enough to work for anyone, and was not reliant on Inger’s leadership or particular form of content. In 2016, after attending the Whisper Workshop, Kim Tairi established the Library Whisperer, extending the model again. We look forward to the day when there are similar open resources for post-award, ethics, finance, and other aspects of research and university life.

In being open in this way, and in licensing all our work through Creative Commons, we have embedded our support for concepts of open research and sharing in the Research Whisperer project. We know that research is strongest when it is open and international. As such, we believe that the future of research administration should be equally open and international.


    • Thanks, Amy. Miami OARS has been one of our most steadfast supporters, and we appreciate that so much.


    • Thanks, Sally. That means a lots, especially since you have actually written about generous scholarship. Was on a writing retreat organised by @bronwyn_eager earlier this week – was fab!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.