100 Papers

This is as close as I’ll come to an academic year in review

In 2019 I took part in the #100papers challenge. The idea is that you aim to read (fully) 100 scientific papers in a year. 

As I understand it, the challenge was born from the #365papers challenge. Some fools well-intentioned folks aim for averaging a paper a day for a year, and others thought “I’ll be lucky if I manage a third of it”. With both #365papers and #100papers, the idea is that you’ll commit to reading more if you’re publicly tracking it, and maybe also read more widely. I knew that #365papers would not be achievable for me, but #100papers might have been within my grasp (spoilers, it wasn’t). 

I really like setting myself challenges. I’ve done a variety of photography and reading challenges over the years. Tracking the papers that I read on Twitter is innately appealing to me. I also wanted to put a potted summary or key outcome from each paper onto my tweets to force me to read the papers instead of cheating the essence of the challenge by skimming. 

I have a pretty good work-life balance. I set aside a day a week to devote to research and I manage to keep that day protected about 60% of the time I’d say. How many papers did I read in their entirety in 2019? 

40. I read 40 papers cover to cover. 

I have some thoughts about this exercise. Firstly, I don’t think this is The Way to read papers. Something I noticed about reading whole papers was how pointless it often is. I teach students to be selective about how they approach papers, and when I was trying to find out how someone set up a study or I wanted an overview of a particular field, I wasn’t sitting down to read a whole paper, I was flicking to the relevant parts of various papers. So my first big takeaway is that reading whole papers isn’t something that I would prioritise over strategic paper skimming. 

With that being said, there is something quite meditative and indulgent about reading a whole paper. There were some very fun papers like Jenny Scoles’ one on messy boundary objects where the narrative itself is enjoyable. 

(There was also this deeply enjoyable rant where you could feel the authors’ visceral hatred of the right-brain-thinking myth.)

And I also really liked having the Twitter thread of all the papers I’d read, and the ability to jump back into that thread to share with people was massively useful. Bauer et al 2017, alongside reading Invisible Women, has changed my research practice quite considerably this year: 

The performative aspect of talking about the papers I’m reading online was also interesting. I think you can track what projects I was working on with this twitter thread. You can see when I started reading up on our Widening Participation cluster for example, and I like some of the conversations the spawned from the thread. 

In 2020, I’m probably not going to do the challenge again, but I’ll certainly be posting a papers thread, maybe #paperswotiread or something along those lines. The target of 100 fully read papers is not feasible for me, and if its not feasible for me, I’m not comfortable advertising it to those academics who may be following me. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how I model what I view as ‘good’ academic practice, and I’m trying to make positive choices. So I’ll be doing something like this in 2020, just without the targets.  

If We Should Dress for Sun or Snow

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus.

Before Christmas I got very into the Groundhog Day musical soundtrack, particularly If I Had My Time Again, which is my new favourite shower sing-along. I was also thinking a lot about academic workload last year, and how the varying pressures of the academic role can be challenging.

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus. It’s been difficult to keep on top of things, and I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I’d let things creep into the evenings.

There were two articles recently that my mind kept returning to. One is Dr Anderson’s widow speaking out about academic workload, and this article about email’s influence on workload. Particularly on Monday when I was attending an Echo 360 community meet-up about learning analytics.

I had good reasons for wanting to go to this community meet-up. I’m interested in analytics, and I’m the PI on our university’s evaluation project so a little networking is always valuable. I’m also in the rare academic position of having some spare money floating around so it all seemed worthwhile. Except there was a very west-of-Scotland sounding voice in the back of my head wondering if I’m worth spending that money on. Who am I to go to That London to talk to people? Shouldn’t I be slaving over a hot laptop?

On the other side of this, I’ve also spent a little bit of my evenings this week working on a Shiny app. Now I want to emphasise that ‘a little bit’ in this context literally means five or ten minutes here and there when an idea comes to me, but it’s still very much useful time. And yet I’ve been frustrated that I haven’t been able to spend more time on it.

A couple of months ago I had a devil’s advocate style debate with my good colleague Ian about how much these kind of extracurricular activities should contribute to our CVs. We kept circling back to how much the open science and open data analysis movements favour those people with the spare time to dedicate to this kind of work. If all your work is on proprietary data, you maybe can only contribute to things like a github repository in your spare time. And if when you get home you start doing the childcare, or can’t get away with not cleaning the house because you prefer to spend that time tweaking a package. What if all your hours out of work are spent on other tasks, and when you have that lightning moment of “ah – I should use enquo()!” you can’t immediately go to your laptop to check it out?

There are many people much busier than me who manage to contribute way more than me. Those people should be applauded. And we should definitely still value the amazing resources people put online. I think it is our responsibility as academics to support ourselves (and our managers too).

All this is a round-about way of saying that having a little bit less time to make-up for my business has highlighted to me how very important it is to protect time for the things that are important in your work. During one of our protected analysis times today I started a new package which I hope will be able to be incorporated into a shiny app I’m planning for our students. Tomorrow’s my first Writing Friday since before Christmas.  This is the way to do it. And yes, my emails have been slipping in the mean-time. Let ’em.

We should believe we are worth the time.

(And also I managed to go to work today wearing two different earrings and no one pointed it out. That’s not relevant but it amused me greatly.)

Productive Wastage

I’m often accused of being productive, which is not how I think of myself. Instead, I spend time on things I never think will be finished . . .

I’m often accused of being productive which I find hysterical because I have had to dedicate a whole cupboard to my unfinished crafting projects and my list of ‘started’ papers is longer than my list of actual finished ones, never mind just the published ones.

Some colleagues and I were discussing productivity on Friday and one of my accusers said she’d read that the key to productivity was focussing on the process and not the end product. When I describe my work process I often say that I hate ‘kidding myself’. If I’m not going to do the thing that I’m supposed to do I don’t sit staring at it, instead I do something else. For example, my NSS package happened when I was supposed to be addressing some reviewers’ comments for our assessment paper. And on Friday, when I was supposed to be addressing those comments again, I went home and played Assassin’s Creed because it had had been a bit of a difficult week and the freedom to say “bugger it” is one of academia’s greatest perks. (Never underestimate the power of ‘bugger it’ when talking about productivity). I don’t kid myself about the work I’m doing.

I have never considered my ‘don’t kid yourself’ motto in terms of ‘process’, but it might actually be a more useful way to conceptualise it. I like exploring different processes. I usually have a little chunk of something I’ve tried before – you want to know about ‘play’? Well one Monday afternoon I randomly did a lit review for the beginning of a paper, here it is. You’d like to know how to make an R Package, well one week I wrote a data package for fun. While there is an end product for these things, I don’t necessarily bother with them.

One of the greatest examples of this is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month takes place in November each year and encourages everyone to write a 50,000 word novel. I love NaNoWrimo and have taken part several times, and finished only once. NaNoWriMo does not care about the final product. A common solution to writer’s block is to have ninja’s jump through the window, which will take at least ten pages to resolve before you have to get back to wherever you were doing. To me, this is the ultimate test of process.

I’ve been idly playing with my own idea for 2018 and I decided to announce the name with this blog post – I’ll be writing “Love in the Time of Elk Cloner” this year, and I probably won’t finish, given that November has a lot of marking for me, but that’s not the point. The point is that I will work on those skills, and exercise my creative muscles, and next time someone needs something a bit left-field written, I’ll be ready.

So, academics and technical folks – this is my recommendation for being productive like me – waste more time on stuff that won’t be finished, especially ridiculous novels with barely thought out premises. If you want to give it a shot, you can start NaNoWriMo with me this year. Follow me over there.

Dear Readers

Dear readers,

I have confession to make. In 2017 I did not publish a single paper. In fact in 2018 so far I’ve only had one paper accepted. That’s worrying for someone whose job is ‘researcher’. Someone whose worth is often judged by the length of the publication section of their CV.

It’s fair to say I’m quietly shitting myself about this and it’s been the source of great existential angst.

First of all – there are lots of ways to explain and justify why my publications section is light at the moment, but I should not. I am trying, very hard, to internalise the message that I am more than my publication count, and I don’t want to spend time justifying why I haven’t met an arbitrary target. Suffice to say there’s little I would have done differently.

Instead I want to talk about some of the steps I’ve taken to change this.

Over the last six weeks I’ve adopted a practice I’ve called ‘Writing Fridays’. This is where I’ve blocked off the whole of a Friday simply to write. In this period, I wrote and submitted a short paper, did major revisions on another paper, and published my first preprint. Writing Fridays has been successful enough for me to decide to maintain the practice.

I remember once taking a workplace personality test, most likely an MBTI rip off (see the book for my feelings on this), and whatever my type was called (Eldritch Abomination?), the test made this prediction. “Whenever someone knocks on your door for help you’ll drop everything to do it, even if there’s somebody already talking to you mid-crisis. You just want to be needed.” It’s one of the few times personality tests have really ‘got’ me. I am very guilty of this behaviour.

For me, writing is not about finding ‘time’ but about finding and protecting the mental space to write. I need a whole day set aside, with no meetings, with no expectation that I’ll also be supporting students and colleagues. That support is a hugely valuable part of my role, and I love doing it, but for me writing papers is an expensive mental activity. By blocking off one day in the week I’ve been much more productive at what is actually a core part of my role. I think when I return to work next term, I will be very explicit about my office hours being Monday-Thursday.

The next step has been about more positive about feedback. I’ve spoken about feedback a lot on this blog, and my challenges with it. So part of that, and part of making my work more accessible, has been publishing my first pre-print.

Pre-prints are inarguably a good thing, but somehow in my head only hard science is ‘deserving’ of pre-prints. The kind of fluffy science I do is somehow trying to hide behind pre-printing. This is yet another example of my own internalised prejudices about the kind of work I do. For example, I am more than happy to share a git repository for example about the NSS analysis even though it’s an unfinished flow of consciousness, but my carefully collected thoughts about Discipline Based Educational Research in two fields I know well feels . . . it feels presumptuous.

I hope the pre-print gets feedback, and I hope I listen to it.

And finally, I have been keen to keep a record of my other activities. All academics should be recording their publications and activities for ref. At Edinburgh we use a tool called Pure for this (pure dead brilliant so it is). In pure there’s a category for publications > other> multi media forms. This blog lives there, so do other types of entry.

Let’s be clear. This blog doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t count towards my ref eligible publications. But the other types of publication do matter, and we have the facility to record it. We should be tracking all of our activity, especially as publications become more contentious.

But for now it’s time for me to take some annual leave. I’ve uninstalled outlook from my phone, I’m going to work very hard at forgetting about work, and I’m going to come back to it more productive.

We all have dreams 😉

A Dangerous Demographic

I have a bit of a thing for adverts on the internet, because I love looking at how an algorithm decides what I like. (See the book, chapter 11).

But there’s an advert I’m getting a lot lately, and I can’t get it out of my head. The advert is about three minutes long, and thankfully skippable, and it plays in front of every YouTube video I watch. Doing my daily yoga? Advert. Watching a group of gamers murder and mutilate one another (virtually)? Advert.

Towards the end of the ad, the presenter says “Imagine . . . never having to worry about that time consuming process of creating courses and coaching programmes.”

Hold up. Wait. Insert record-scratch noise.

Never having to create a course again?


This advert is for a service which will provide you ‘content’ for a price. They seem to be mostly selling blog posts and ‘top 10 tips’ lists. They seem to be talking mainly about ‘coaching’ services, but I can’t get that phrase out my head. “Never have to create a course again”.

Off the top of my head, I’ve been involved in the creation of about 25 courses in higher education. Four of them have been courses which were owned by me, and that I would have to do the bulk of the delivery for. I think that gives me an unusual perspective on course design.

There’s a part of me that very much wants to write a dystopian future novel about a higher education environment where the educators purchase the materials of the course from the same place that sells the answers to the assignments to the students. Yes – I think the next logical step for essay mills is for course creation.

I am being a little flippant here, as I actually think essay mills are one of the greatest failures of higher education. It horrifies me that we have a whole cohort of students, a marketable population who value product over process. I don’t think this company is interested particularly in writing university courses, but I am certain they wouldn’t object to me using the content I might purchase for them in such a way. In fact, I think they would even start working to develop content in that area, if they thought people would pay for it.

It’s interesting that this ad comes up on YouTube because some people on the platform have been paid to promote essay mills in their own content. It’s also interesting that no matter how many times I tell YouTube I don’t like the advert, it continues to show it to me. Something in that algorithm is overriding the information I myself give to Google. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about me specifically that the company wants to reach. Since GDPR, I’ve had some truly weird and wonderful adverts, including a company who thinks I’m in the market to buy a bulk order of silicone processors (Google Ads thinks I like Business and Productivity Software, Business News and Business Services as well as Computer Components which . . . is kind of disappointing, Google). And I have seen an unfortunate resurgence in the amount of adverts to the all important 30+ woman demographic which means that pregnancy testing companies think I spend all day urinating. (Asides from all the research implications, this has been the biggest issue I have with GDPR. I had JUST trained Google out of this).

What really, really worries me – if that I fit into a demographic here. I know that Google Ads aren’t that clever. And I know how essay mills sell. They say that essay assignments are unfair, are impossible to be marked unless you know the system, and they say they have PhD students waiting to write for you. They talk about unemployed professors wanting to get one over a system that wronged them.

I look at staff who are fighting for pensions, and yet will be punished for this year’s poor NSS scores. I remember the incredulous face of a colleague when I described how that overall satisfaction is actually calculated. I think of the papers which demonstrate that department, not university, not subject, but that little culture of people in a building – is the greatest contributor to variation in the NSS scores.

I wonder how many of those departments, those unhappy and stressed people, who are told that leaving academia is weak and shameful, and I wonder . . .

When they click a YouTube link, do they hear Imagine . . . never having to worry about that time consuming process of creating courses.