Which academics are happy?

Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber.

He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics. Clients include Newman, Leeds Trinity and Harper Adams Universities. He previously worked in research development at the University of Warwick as well as roles in the civil service, local government and economic development consultancy.

Lachlan is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the School of Business, University of Leicester. He tweets from @HEresearchfund.


Academics everywhere are under increasing pressure to improve their performance and that of their institution, often by undertaking tasks that respond directly to new forms of measurement and management within the sector.

Image by rromer on flickr | Shared via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image by rromer on flickr | Shared via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

League tables now exist for every imaginable university degree, region and specialism and the plethora of tables continue to grow.

Over the last eight years, since I started working closely with academics, the number of metrics has only continued to expand, prompting the question from an academic I know well: “Which academics are actually happy in English higher education today?”

The question took me by surprise. I had never been asked this question so directly before.

This academic had recently taken the plunge and resigned from her academic role in England and taken up opportunities in South-East Asia. Part of the driver for this was unhappiness with the English higher education sector, including heavy (and often unrealistic) teaching loads, burdensome administration and a lack of support from senior management, coupled with the introduction of more metrics into the everyday life of academics. These include the Research Excellence Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the associated National Student Survey (NSS). And, of course, there is the newly emerging Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), as well as a reduction in student fees potentially on the horizon to complicate the policy and organisational landscape further.

It is a pretty exhausting mix for anyone, and that’s just thinking about it, let alone doing any of this. How, for example, do people manage to do research – that key underpinning platform of universities? Read more of this post

preLights: A new way to share research?

Máté Pálfy is the Community Manager for preLights, a preprint highlighting service that was launched a year ago by the not-for-profit publisher The Company of Biologists.

Before taking up this role, Máté did his PhD at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, studying gene regulation using zebrafish embryos. He is a big supporter of open science and is excited to see how preprints will shape the future of publishing. Máté tweets from @mate_palfy and you can follow preLights @preLights

The Research Whisperer was very interested to hear more about preLights because we’re always up for different ways of sharing research, and this model appears to benefit the researchers, our scholarly communities, and the research itself. That’s winning all around!

While preLights is focused on the biological sciences, the potential for its format extends much further than this area.   


preLights 1st birthday cake! Photo from Mate Palfy.

preLights 1st birthday cake! Photo from Máté Pálfy.

When I was a PhD student, one of my favourite things to do was to discuss the latest experiments and results related to my research, and exchange views on where the field was heading.

I particularly enjoyed poster sessions at conferences, where early career researchers can easily engage with more established scientists and discuss unpublished, ‘raw’ science.

In many aspects, preprints (non-reviewed versions of manuscripts deposited on a public server) can be viewed as similar to unpublished research presented at conferences and other meetings. They facilitate collaboration and open discussions about the work, but are much more transparent than conference talks or posters, as the details of the work are better documented. Given these advantages (along with a number of others, discussed here), you might think that researchers would’ve already made the public discussion of preprints part of their routine. Unfortunately, this hasn’t really been the case. Read more of this post

Drop around for a visit

This article is based on material that I wrote in 1994, when working with Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor on a project related to encouraging research in disciplines that were not traditionally considered strong in research. It originally appeared in Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor. 1994, ‘Developing Academic Research Performance’. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


Urbex image of an old and abandoned desk, with a bright orange chair behind it. On the wall is graffiti - TSJ
Beauty in decay #10, by Jinterwas, on Flickr.

Having someone come to visit is always nice. Unless they arrive unannounced, or stay too long, or too many people come at once, or… actually, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong with visitors.

Visiting researchers can be like that, too: a great boon to a research group when the visit is well planned, a special kind of hell for the guest when it isn’t.

Visits are usually initiated by individual staff members, based on their personal connections. However, the organisational support for the visit is generally provided by a research centre or group. They take a bit of work to organise, so it’s worth it to put in the planning time to make the visit a success.

How do you plan for a visiting scholar?

Well, if you were visiting, how would you want things to be organised? Thinking about the visit from the visitor’s point of view can help you to:

  • Clarify the purpose of the visit and set realistic expectations.
  • Understand the logistics and funding required to get a visitor to your campus.
  • Plan the actual visit, including a welcome kit for your visitor.

As a visitor, you would probably want to know why you are being invited to visit. This is often assumed and unstated, which can lead to mixed expectations. Read more of this post

Feedback and me

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

I have a troubled relationship with feedback.

It has been this way for many years, from my days as a PhD researcher in literary studies (where someone has literally fallen asleep in front of me while I was tutoring) to disjointed gigs as a guest lecturer and convenor where my contact with the student cohort was minimal and very episodic.

These days, I teach classes, convene intensives, and run multi-part programs all the time. And I must evaluate them constantly.

I’ve recently had a revelation that you should feel free to roll your eyes at: getting feedback is meant to be helpful, not harmful.

Let me sketch what’s happened a bit more.

One of the final things I had to do last year was convene three days of researcher intensives – two days for the Early Career Researchers and one for the Mid Career Researchers. It happened in the first week of December and I spent my last working week in 2018 following up properly with materials and links, and clearing urgent backlogged tasks. Never has a week appeared so short!

The theme was ‘engagement and impact’. This was not surprising seeing as ‘engagement and impact’ are the Sonny and Cher of Australian and UK higher education research circles in recent years. I invited Tamika Heiden of KT Australia to run a couple of workshops for us and it was great to have a Research Whisperer buddy come to play at my institution.

I also had the benefit of great chats with Tamika during those days. One of the things we discussed was the way we solicit and act on feedback. Read more of this post

The care and feeding of critical friends

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 14 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record. Read more of this post

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

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