Academics’ workplace writing: findings from 2 years of research

On 28th February, Karin, David and I presented at the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre’s seminar series, on key findings from our project. The abstract and slides can be seen below:

Abstract: For the past 2 years, the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project have been working closely with academics across disciplines and institutions to develop a better understanding of the variety of writing activities academics do in their workplaces, looking especially at how changes in the context of Higher Education influence those writing practices. In this talk, we outline key findings from the project, particularly in relation to managerial practices, digital communication, and locating writing practices in time and space. We will also touch on how screencapture of real-life writing practices have added extra layers to our understanding of the writing process.

Slides can be found here

The importance of being REF-able

The project has a short article published on the excellent LSE Impact blog, on the importance of being REF-able, as part of the Accelerated Academy series. In it, we discuss the interaction between research evaluation frameworks and academics’ individual career goals, their sense of scholarly identity, and their disciplinary norms and practices. In the week or so since it was published, it’s been retweeted and shared many times, and I’ve been asked for links and hard copies via ResearchGate. Perhaps it has touched on something close to the heart of those working in academia? The article can be found here.

What do academics do all day (and night)?

Earlier this year, the project team did a series of impact events at universities in the north of England, where we talked, among other things, about the range of different writing tasks the academics we interviewed engaged in. The types of writing our participants did extended to 64 different genres, not of all of which fitted neatly into the usual understanding of how the academic role is sliced up, as discussed here. There was such interest in this aspect of our findings that we then did a talk on it for a sharing practice event here at Lancaster, the slides for which can be found here. The audiences at these events nodded and chipped in with their own experience, which was generally similar. The impression that emerges is one of being under pressure, of having a lot to do, and of seldom having enough head space to work on anything that requires intellectual graft.

When I stumbled across this list, called “What is my lecturer doing?” by Sarah Uckelman at Durham University, I noticed considerable overlap between her work day and those described by our participants; both feature things like preparing lectures, writing module descriptors, giving feedback on student assignments, writing exam papers, and writing reference letters. Uckelman’s list is not intended to focus on writing in the way that ours does, so she includes things like ‘going to the library’, but the fact that so many of the activities on her list involve writing underlines the centrality of writing to academic work. Sarah’s list also echoes our findings about writing stretching well beyond the working day and beyond the boundaries of the office.

How does Uckelman’s or our list compare with your own range of professional writing? What sorts of writing do you spend most time on? Have we missed any genres that academics commonly engage in?

Academics on strike

A two-day strike was held this week by academics in the UCU (University and College Union) in protest at differentials in pay increases between vice-chancellors and the rest of the the academic workforce, the gender pay gap, and the casualisation of staff contracts.

I suspect the general public does not have a great deal of sympathy, since the popular perception seems to be that academics are handsomely paid, enjoy long holidays, including having the entire summer off, and know very little about how things work in the “real world” anyway. Just the other day, someone (who works in a university, but not as an academic) said to me, “Academics have lots of down time, don’t they?”

This notion might stem from the fact that academics are often not in their office or don’t work fixed hours. But they may be teaching, or conducting research in a lab or in the field. They may be at a conference in another city or country. They may be examining at another university, or giving a talk, or attending a meeting. Or, our research suggests, they may be at home writing, since they often feel that their offices are not conducive to the concentration required for scholarly writing. Academic work is far more diverse than those looking in from the outside may realise. Every academic I’ve met since I began my current role seems extraordinarily busy and they can’t all be exaggerating. They work in the evenings, they get up at 5.00 am to work on journal papers before the working day begins, they mark at weekends, and they take work on holiday.

Academics in the UK are a relatively privileged bunch. We’re well educated, we enjoy a modicum of social status, and we are certainly not at the bottom of the heap in terms of socio-cultural advantages, but as Rosalind Gill (2014) points out, we ignore the increasing workloads, precariousness and stress of academic work at our peril, for once this culture creeps into the domain of the relatively privileged, it won’t be long before it is accepted as the norm everywhere.


Gill, R. (2014). Academics, cultural workers and critical labour studies. Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(1), 12-30.

Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens

Tuesday 24th May sees the Academics’ Writing project’s fourth and final workshop on the role of metrics in academic life. This time, we have invited two expert speakers to talk about what responsible metrics might look like in the context of both REF and TEF. The speakers are Professor Paul Ashwin of Lancaster University and Professor James Wilsdon of the University of Sheffield.

Metrics evoke a mixed reaction across the higher education community. A commitment to using data to inform decisions makes some enthusiastic about the prospect of granular, real-time analysis of our activities. Yet we only have to look at the blunt use of metrics such as
journal impact factors, h-indices and grant income targets, to be reminded 
of the pitfalls. Some of the most precious qualities of academic culture
 resist simple quantification, and individual indicators often struggle to do justice to the richness and plurality of our work.

Across both research and teaching, metrics are receiving greater emphasis from policymakers and managers. The November 2015 HE green paper outlines a new regulatory architecture, including the replacement of HEFCE with a new Office for Students, and the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Metrics are portrayed as crucial to the TEF, albeit with some scope for expert judgement alongside, and there are now fierce arguments raging across the sector about whether we need a TEF at all, and if so, how it should be designed, and what mix of quantitative indicators it should employ.

Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods. How to exercise that power to more positive ends was the focus of The Metric Tide, a recent UK review of the role of metrics in research management and assessment. The Metric Tide sets out a framework for responsible metrics, and makes a series of recommendations for researchers, university managers, funders, policymakers and publishers.

In this seminar, James Wilsdon, who chaired The Metric Tide, will outline its main findings, and reflect on ongoing efforts to influence debates about UK research policy and funding, including over the design of the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is currently the focus of a further review by Lord Stern.

Paul Ashwin, in the context of the proposed TEF, will examine the challenges of developing measures of teaching quality that do not simply reflect institutional prestige.

Both speakers will consider what a culture of ‘responsible metrics’ might look like for research and teaching, and the opportunities and obstacles to achieving this.

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, and was chair of the UK’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. He is now chairing a European Commission expert group on the future of altmetrics.

Paul Ashwin is professor of higher education at the Lancaster University and a co-investigator in the ESRC/HEFCE funded Centre for Global Higher Education.

This talk is part of the Designing the Academic Self series, sponsored by the Academics Writing project, which is part of the Literacy research Centre at Lancaster and the Northwest Doctoral Training Center and is open to early career researchers and doctoral students from Lancaster, Manchester and Liverpool universities.  To book your place, visit Eventbrite. 


Dissemination events

As we reach the end of the first phase of the Academics Writing project, we are holding a series of dissemination meetings to share interim findings from the research and to invite responses and comments from those whose working lives the research may impact upon.

Because we have been asking our participants not only about scholarly writing, but also about teaching- and admin-related writing, there are interesting data about how academics decide what to prioritise among their workloads, the range of digital platforms and devices they use for writing, and how they create a space for themselves, both physically and psychologically, to get to the writing that really matters to them.

All of which has implications for how we prepare new researchers for their role, and for how their working hours and spaces are organised. Thus, the dissemination meetings are targeted not only at academics, but also at those involved in the professional development or training of early career researchers and doctoral students; those working in research management and support; those responsible for academics’ work spaces, and anyone with an interest in academic writing.

The meetings are on the 18th of March and the 19th and 22nd of April at universities around the North of England. If you’d like to attend, get in touch with Sharon on for more information. and we’ll send you details.