The big news for me this month is that the British Academy has agreed to fund me to produce an introductory online statistics resource for students in the humanities under its Languages and Quantitative Skills initiative.
The first challenge is how introductory is introductory? We have all come across books entitled “X for beginners” or “An introduction to Y” which have us lost by the second page. They may be introductions to X or Y, but they assume that their readers know all about A, B and Z. We see statistics books with an introduction on page 1 and a plethora of Greek letters on page 2. We see ‘teach yourself’ language books which begin with grammar guides discussing nominatives, vocatives , instrumentals, perfect and imperfect tenses etc., etc. A couple of months ago this sketch from French and Saunders came back into my memory. A man sues guitarist Ralph McTell because he is unable to play anything from McTell’s ‘100 Easy tunes for Guitar’, due to a lack of chord diagrams. Writing a book or developing a resource for beginners to be used without a teacher is a dangerous business.
I do see good examples too. I own books in the ‘for Dummies’ and ‘for Idiots’ range and I have been impressed with these and have not felt out of my depth with them and have had some success. I did manage to buy a house a couple of years back and I have succeeded in building a website in Drupal.
As Carol Voderman said in her report last year, pupils are doing trigonometry and algebra when they are unable to calculate a percentage. Does this mean that my introductory text will need to start with a refresher in basic mathematics, like how to calculate a percentage? I imagine my readers will have studied maths to GCSE at least, but there is no guarantee they will remember much about it. I am pondering this as I make a start on the project.
An additional challenge is not the how, but the why. Statistics courses often fall into that category of a ‘necessary evil’—boring courses which need to be done so that exciting things can be done later. In these days of the extensive monitoring of student satisfaction, these courses are very dangerous – students must be able to see the point. And statistics is usually the last thing students expect on their humanities degree—and frequently they don’t come across them at all.
I hope that my project will answer the ‘why’ question just as well as the ‘how’ question. It is easier to teach someone how to do a statistical test than it is to explain how, when and why you might use it.
I plan to update on my progress from time to time. I hope this post will serve to remind me of the pitfalls of writing an introductory text.
Fourteen participants were placed in a brain scanner and shown images of works by 'Rembrandt' -- some were genuine, others were convincing imitations painted by different artists. Neither the participants nor their brain signals could distinguish between genuine and fake paintings. However, advice about whether or not an artwork is authentic alters the brain's response; this advice is equally effective, regardless of whether the artwork is genuine or not.
I wonder if academics’ brains would undergo the same process if told that an article was published in Nature (or whatever the ‘top’ journal in your discipline might be) as opposed to being posted on some random website or published in a low ranking journal (however defined). For the sake of argument I am assuming that the academics would only be looking at work which was good (the imitation Rembrandts were good paintings by all accounts.) I‘m not a scientist, but I know that Nature is good – at least that is where to publish if you want Radio 4 to notice your work.
Last week I attended a workshop for Islamic Studies PhD students in my capacity as Acting Academic for the HEA Network. A business academic told me about the Association for Business Schools’ journal guide. Each journal has been classified as 1 to 4 star (in parallel to the UK’s Research Evaluation Framework). It isn’t my place to comment on the policies of disciplines in which I do not have expertise, but this strikes me as a highly transparent way of assessing the quality of research—if you publish in a 4 star journal the article must be good, if a 3 star not so good etc. etc. No arguments- the publication is the judge.
However this puts some topics off limits to academics wanting to publish in the top journals. I understand the top business journals publish little about Islamic Finance—if this is your topic then you cannot publish in the top journals. A humanities academic from an Eastern European country recently informed me that research impact in his country involved publishing in ‘top journals’, in short journals written in English. Linguistic issues aside, one of the consequences is that he and his fellow academics have to write about the sorts of topic Anglophones (or more accurately Americans) think are important —therefore fewer academics are writing about their own country – they write about the USA.
In science PLOS One is an open access venue which is unrestricted by topic or by what editors think would be expedient to publish (important and popular not being the same thing).
This is one of the great advantages of the internet—we can have peer review, open access research which is not restricted to certain topics.
Under the current system the journal an article is published in is our equivalent of a genuine Rembrandt. It would be interesting if all inputs to the REF had to be submitted as plain text files to see if the efforts of the Rembrandts and artists of lesser reputation can really be distinguished. Brain responses might be the fairest method of evaluation we have available to us.
The question in the title was a friend’s facebook status earlier this week. My friend is a first year undergraduate at a UK university. She is doing research for her essay and is finding some great articles which will help her as she writes her essay. The problem is her university does not subscribe to the journals in question. She knows the information she wants is there. It’s just that she can’t get it. One day she might be your psychologist. Wouldn’t you like to think that had access to the best research and practice in whatever issue it was that had led you to need her services?
Open access has been in the (academic) news a lot in the past few days with the academic boycott of Elsevier gathering pace. This boycott is about a range of issues, but most critically it is about the price of journals to subscribers and also the fees Elsevier charges to make open access possible ($4000 according to one article). Detractors will point out that all journals cost money to run and someone has to pay somewhere. I am editor of the undergraduate journal Debut. There are no submission or access fees or print costs, but my time is paid for by my employer. If it wasn’t the journal might not happen or I might have to run it my ‘spare time’. Alternatively I could hand it over to someone else who would be operating under the same kinds of constraints.
Since I set up the open access language teaching research database YazikOpen I have been thinking more and more about what the right model should be for academic publishing. I have been drawn towards John Rawl’s Theory of Justice as a starting point. Rawls about what he called ‘the veil of ignorance’. The just society would be one which was agreed by people who did not know when or where they would be born, whether they would be black or white, a man or woman, rich or poor, intelligent or not, etc., etc. When applied to access to academic research I think along these lines.
People should have access to research irrespective of where they live, how much money they have or where they work or study etc.
People should be able to publish their research irrespective of where they live, how much money they have or where they work or study etc. (This is big problem I have with author publication fees for open access—I suspect that they are a deterrent to many people who might otherwise submit to them).
People should be able to know, in some way or another, whether the research meets certain standards of good quality. 1 and 2 are no use if the research is not good, or even worse, damaging. This is problem for those who might advocate the abolition of journals (and peer review) in favour of “just publish it on your website”.
Researchers have a duty to ensure that their research reaches the people who might benefit most from it. This may involve writing it up in another form. (As an aside I’ve just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science so I have a heightened sense of concern about the ways in which journalists ‘disseminate’ research findings).
At first glance it appears that these principles are in some degree of conflict. However, I am starting to think that the world’s universities have the resources and infrastructure to provide ‘a free at the point of access or contribution’ system which bypasses the traditional print publishers altogether. This would mean a substantial change in academic culture. You never know it might lead the publishers to rethink their mays. They might start selling my article for £1 for 20 pages instead of £25. It’s not free, but it is much more reasonable—someone might actually buy my work for £1. By the way I would want 20p of that plus a contribution to the editors and reviewers!