Category Archives: research

The 20th anniversary of the rediscovery of calculus.

Last week I was listening a 2009 BBC Radio ‘In our time' episode “discussing the epic feud between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who invented an astonishingly powerful new mathematical tool - calculus.”

Coincidentally I was reading through the Chronicle of Higher Education Forum yesterday and came across this gem from 1994. “A Mathematical Model for the Determination of Total Area Under Glucose Tolerance and Other Metabolic Curves”, Mary M. Tai, Diabetes Care, 1994, 17, 152–154. The paper outlines a ‘new’ way of measuring the area under a curve by adding up areas of rectangles and triangles which the author calls Tai’s method. In fact the method described has been understood for centuries as is known as the trapezoid rule. (I use this method in statistics for humanities for calculating the Gini co-efficient.)
I’ve not heard about the paper before and the journal quickly published responses pointing out that this method was not new. However, the paper continues to be cited… and not only by people talking about it.

There is an interesting discussion of the paper on Stack Exchange  about what should have happened to the paper. The first question might lie in wondering why no one out of the author, her colleagues, the reviewers or the journal editor had ever seen this before or something like it (I first remember coming across it in A-level Geography—pre 1994). On the other hand this demonstrates that it is perfectly possible for someone who has never seen as wheel to ‘invent’ the wheel, and the technique has been brought to a new audience, albeit about four centuries late.
This might be an extreme example, but I’m sure it’s not the only one of its kind. It begs the question though how much published research is genuinely innovative and how much is non-innovative stuff discovered independently.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing though is that twenty years later the paper is still being cited, and not just by people pointing out that this paper is nothing new. This paper from 2009 reads "Glucose and insulin areas were determined using Tai's model" (p.1046).

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More on using forenames in citation

My last post on whether we should use full first names in citations provoked some interesting discussions on twitter. In my own post I took the view that, where possible, I would use full first names in the references. I’ve just submitted an article to a journal which permits both “Canning, John” and “Canning, J.” so it’s not an entirely theoretical discussion. Inspired by Patrick Dunleavy’s (@PJDunleavy) recent blog post I went through my references and added in the first names of the authors I cited.

A dissenting voice about full firstname format came from Anne-Marie Jeannet @amjeannet who suggested that it can lead to gender bias in citation. She linked to an article on how citation practices lead to biases against women.  If I’ve understood her view correctly if we don’t know the gender identity of the people we are citing then citation bias can be prevented. I think it is a nice theory, but we would all need to publish in a gender neutral format as well as cite using just surname and initial. The other problem of course is that I know the gender of most people, even those I have never met, based on the first name.

My former colleague Catherine Baker (@richmondbridge), now in the history department at Hull, is keen on being cited as Catherine Baker rather than C Baker. She points out that that there are a lot of C Bakers in the world. Detractors might argue that there are not many C Bakers teaching history in Hull with research interests in the Balkans. However, location and research interests change so “Catherine Baker” is less likely to be mixed up with anyone else than “C Baker”. According to geneanet  there are 186,826 Bakers on the UK electoral role, 859,017 Smiths, but just 1,622 Cannings. Most of these do not publish in academic journals of course but the need for differentiation is likely to be important for those with more common surnames. This is just the UK of course and publication is an international endeavor.

If mistakes in citation occur first name and surname can help track an individual’s other work. An article by my former colleague Angela Gallagher-Brett (@angegallagher3b) was cited as Brett—the author or proofreader presuming thinking Gallagher was a middle given name and Brett the surname. If I didn’t know Angela Gallagher-Brett I expect I would be more likely to think Angela Brett was also Angela Gallagher-Brett than if all I had was A. Brett. (A recent article by James Hartley examines the issue of citation errors.)

The anglophone world actually has a high number of family names compared to other countries. David Wojick  puts a case for full names based on the Chinese experience where 1.2 billion people share fewer than 8000 family names.  As he notes, differentiating the people based on surnames and initials only would be difficult here, probably impossible.

So, as a consequence of Patrick Dunleavy’s post I opted to put in the full first names of all the authors I cited.

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Being Canning, John not Canning, J.

Being  John Canning, not J. Canning

On twitter today I spotted an interesting article on reforming citation practices. One element that caught my eye was its mention of the practice of using surnames and first initial in the references (e.g.  Canning,  J. rather than Canning, John)

The author Patrick  Dunleavy writes:

Academics and professionals from these smaller nations have been remarkably slow to appreciate the globalization of knowledge, and hence the need for much more distinctive author names. They (and their journals) are still reluctant to go beyond a single initial (J.) to distinguish John Smith from Joan Smith. By contrast, American publishers and journals (more accustomed to a country with 300 million people in it) tend to give the first name in full, and sometimes a second initial as well. Clearly, in the era of global search engines the US practice needs to become universal, but there is still a long way to go.

I am currently preparing to submit to a journal permits either style. Currently I have all the references in as Surname, Initial rather than Surname, Firstname.  I think I might change this before I submit.

For the record I am not the only J. Canning publishing in academia in the UK. Joseph Canning (no known relation) is a lecturer  in history at the University of Cambridge.  I’ve only come across his work through searching for myself on databases. Type “John Canning” into google scholar and there are pages and pages of articles, few of which are mine.

Canning is a sufficiently uncommon surname for me not to have to worry about being mistaken for any other John Cannings within my own field (I say that like I’m well-known). On the other hand I was working for a few years in 'higher education studies' before realising that Peter Knight and Peter T Knight were different people.

My full name is John Gordon Canning, but I have always published as John Canning. I was named Gordon after my grandfather but I’ve not used the name or initial in my work. (At a conference in Montreal though I did have a giant badge reading “John G. Canning” which I quite liked.)

No journal has ever asked my for ID and there is no rule that you have to use your actual name, or that you can’t add a middle name. Michael J Fox’s middle name is Andrew. If I lived in the shadow of another John Canning I could call myself John X Canning or John Xavier Canning even though neither is my name. I could Cymrify my name as Ioan ap Phylip (John, son of Philip) or just go for initials (J G Canning).

As it is agree that I’ll stick to being John Canning (or Canning, John) and not J. Canning (or Canning, J.).

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Hybrid Pedagogy: a different sort of journal

hybrisped

Developer, Financier, Designer: Building Hybrid Projects outside the University documents and reflects on my experiences of building the open access website YazikOpen. The article focuses more on the processes and issues about conducting a project outside the ‘official’ university than the technicalities of building the website, on modern languages or on the open access debate.

I wish to encourage others (in and out of academia) to take a look at the Hybrid Pedagogy online journal. I wanted to write this piece for some time, but was unsure where I could find an outlet to publish it. In my experience traditional journals don’t tend to be good outlet for reflective pieces, so I took to google and found out about Hybrid Pedagogy. Knowing nothing about the journal beyond what I saw on the website I took the plunge and submitted a short piece for consideration.

Hybrid Pedagogy is not only different in the sorts of article it publishes. Its peer review process is different from other journals I’ve published in. Rather than getting comments from anonymous reviewers, two editors from the journal, Sean Morris and Chris Friend, worked with me to bring the piece up to a publishable standard. They made suggestions, asked questions, asked me to expand certain sections and said what they thought was interesting about the piece and what they thought its shortcomings to be.

Hybrid Pedagogy is not only an open access online journal, but a different method of publication altogether. I would urge those with an interest in pedagogy or pedagogic research to take a serious look at the articles and consider contributing. There is even a section called 'Page Two' for non-peer reviewed contributions.

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Mary Willingham: the courageous and subversive act of pedagogic research

I hadn't heard of Mary Willingham until today. Her story has been the US education news for a few days now.

One of the risks of researching something is that you often find something out. When that research is into what actually goes on in a university the results can be unpalatable. Pedagogic research is often looked down upon, but in many respects it is the form of research that requires most courage.

Mary Willingham works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Over the course of her experience she came to notice that many student athletes were struggling with basic reading skills. She could have said nothing at all or merely harboured prejudice based on anecdote; instead her research into the reading levels of student athletes (and publication of the results) has brought condemnation from her university senior management, including according to CNN a demotion.

Those us in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) find it difficult to understand the concept of a university in which sports are such a great deal. Games are televised and watched by thousands of people. 80,000 plus seater stadia are not unknown. Athletics is seen as both a money spinner and community outreach. Some universities and college accept students who would not otherwise be qualified based on their abilities in particular sports. The [American] football coach is often the highest paid employee at the whole university. The Chronicle of Higher Education forums are a source of many stories about pressure from sports coaches to be lenient on students who have not done the work required or not done as much as they should.

But sports is not really my point here.

Mary Willingham’s experience illustrates that research into the activities of the universities, especially learning and teaching can be a courageous, even subversive act, which may have high personal costs. Real courage on the part of university management would be to encourage and applaud research into those things which happen every day in our universities.

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List of stuff I give the world for free

I attended an interesting discussion about open learning led by Jon Dron from Athabasca University in Canada. We discussed open access, open learning in various forms, open educational resources and open source software.  We also discussed why we do, or do not give away our knowledge, time and resources for free. (I’ll leave the ‘why’ for another post).

I am a big user of free software and, of the most part, a recipient of rather than a contributor to the various websites, blogs and forums providing knowledge about its use. However I provide a lot of my stuff for free. This is not to make any comments about its quality.

  1. This blog: Not that one would expect blogs to be anything but free to access, but I like to think some for my posts cause others to reflect on their practice or solve a particular problem. 
  2.  A database on open access articles about the teaching and learning of languages (YazikOpen). This directory is kind of “out there”. Most people see to be led to it through Google as far as I can see. I’ve had thoughts at various times about whether it is worth the effort to maintain it, but a handful of people have said nice things about it.
  3. An online introduction to statistics book aimed at students in humanities. A project with which I’m still fiddling. Wondered whether or not to have a forum.
  4. Teaching and Learning resources out together over the years mostly linked to my account in the humbox.
  5. Various open access publications, plus short articles on other websites.  
  6. The outcomes of projects I have contributed to, never intended to be anything other than openly available, notably Getting More Out of the Feedback and Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality.
  7. I post anonymously on a couple of forums.
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Five thoughts on why "I" blog

Mewburn, Inger, and Pat Thomson’s article “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.”* is a content analysis and not and a study of academics’ self-stated motivations for blogging. Nevertheless, five thoughts on why I blog here: 

  1. Self-promotion: I started blogging in earnest when the Higher Education Academy decided not to fund subject centres any longer. Whatever the rights and wrongs and politics of that decision it motivated me to raise my profile in the online world. I’ve promoted my research, conferences, publications and other ideas on my blog. I’m not ashamed of the self-promotion aspect of my blog. I’m not sure how many people actually read it on a regular basis, but this is part of my voice in academia.
  2. An aide memoire. Many of my more technical posts are to help me remember how to do things. A web developer colleague gave me the idea of blog things which I have worked out how to do, but can’t be relied upon to remember. If others are helped by this sharing, then that is great.
  3. Responding: I’m not a person who responds to every news story that comes out about higher education (or anything else for that matter). The annual ritual of worrying about how many people are studying languages is something I’ve written about fairly frequently trying to get behind the data, and get away from some of the less thoughtful discussions about why (or even if) language learning is in decline.
  4. Reviewing things: I’ve written about software such as nanDeck and AQUAD7 on the grounds that not many other people have.
  5. To help people: I hope it doesn’t sound ‘corny’ to say I’m motivated by helping others, but it is true. If people say they find my posts helpful then I’m all the more pleased to have written them.

*Mewburn, Inger, and Pat Thomson. “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.” Studies in Higher Education 38, no. 8 (2013): 1105–1119. doi:10.1080/03075079.2013.835624.

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Five ways to engage the public with your PhD work

This article was one of the last things I wrote whilst at the University of Southampton. It was published in the Humanities Graduate School newsletter.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Publishing in academic journals and engaging academics can help you get an academic job, get promoted, be invited to serve on committees, and get invited to speak at academic conferences. Yet if we want to make some sort of difference in the wider world we need to engage with people outside academia.

Most of us will never have our own TV series or sell millions of books, but here are five ways we can engage the public with our research.

  1. Start a blog: With blogger.com or wordpress.com you can get going within a few minutes. Try to write a post every week or so about something related to your thesis. The blog puts your work ‘out there’, especially if you are disciplined enough to write something on a regular basis. Your blog may be found by potential collaborators, journalists seeking an expert opinion or other people with an interest in your work.
  2. Write for non-academic audiences: There are lots of opportunities to write in publications for school pupils, teachers, activist groups, charities, popular magazines and clubs and societies where an audience for your work may be found. These sorts of publications are not a substitute for academic books and articles, but they will probably be read by more people.
  3. Get involved in non-academic activities: Similarly look for opportunities to give talks about your research to these groups and/or get involved in their activities. Before he became well-known for Time Team the late Mick Aston came to my school and gave my A-level history class a talk about the excavation of Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire. I have never forgotten that experience.
  4. Don’t keep interesting things to yourself: If you find out something you think may be of wider public interest speak to supervisors, colleagues and the university press office to explore how you might communicate your work.
  5. Get involved in the outreach activities of the faculty/ university: Public engagement is not just about your own work. The university reaches out to the public in many ways including lifelong Learning programmes, open days for prospective students, partnerships with local organisations and outreach into local schools.

Finally, two notes of caution.

Firstly, public engagement is important, but it is not a substitute for publishing in academic journals, going to academic conferences and becoming known in your academic community, especially if you desire an academic career in the future.

Secondly, make sure your public engagement is good public engagement. Despite the popular saying, there is such thing as bad publicity. Be very careful what you say and do, especially online. A negative ‘digital footprint’ is difficult to erase.

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Final Début Volume under my editorship.

The last volume of Début: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies I will edit is going online in the next week or so.  I thought I'd share a bit of my editorial.

Editorial: All change at Début

John Canning

Final-year projects and dissertations (FYPD) undertaken by students at the end of their Bachelor degree courses are a topic of current interest in many countries. It is timely to reassert the importance of FYPD and to rethink their role in the curriculum as the context of higher education changes. (Healy et al 2013).

Every year thousands of undergraduates undertake a final year project, an independent study or some other form of original research. Most of this research is never seen by anyone outside the student's own department. I don't know if a copy of my own undergraduate dissertation still exists somewhere in depths of Aberystwyth University. I think I had my own copy, if it survives it is probably in my parents' attic. As far as I know it was not read by anyone other than those who marked it. I can't recall receiving any feedback on it, except the mark which was printed alongside the results of my other modules.

I don't regard the non-publication of my own undergraduate work as a great loss to the world. In contrast I regard setting up Début : the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies which enables others to publish their undergraduate work as one of my major achievements. Undergraduate (and recently graduated) authors have received feedback on their work from academics outside their own institutions. They have revised their work and made great work even better.

This is my final edition as Debut Editor. I would like to thank all the authors, reviewers, colleagues at LLAS in Southampton, and colleagues all over the world who have urged their students to submit their work to Début : the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies 4 (2013)

Without all these people Début would not be possible.

From September 2013 Billy Clark, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Middlesex University will be taking over as editor.

I look forward to seeing Début  prosper under Billy's leadership and wish him all the best.

Reference

Healey M., L.Lannin, A, Stibbe and J. Derounian (2013) Developing and enhancing undergraduate final year projects and dissertations. York: Higher Education Academy. Available from: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/projects/detail/ntfs/ntfsproject_Gloucestershire10

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