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.

How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices?

Academics are increasingly subject to a range of ‘metrics’, attempts to produce a quantitative measure of the reach and impact of research (and, increasingly, teaching). Research metrics include measures at the level of the individual, such as the h-index (a measure of an individuals’ research output and the extent to which it is cited), at the level of individual papers such as numbers of downloads or numbers of citations, and at the level of journals such as the ISI ‘journal impact factor’, worked out on the basis of citation rates across a journal’s outputs. Newer metrics – ‘altmetrics’ – try, in addition, to capture the wider range of ways in which research publications can have an impact in the virtual world, producing measures based on numbers of views, downloads, saves, shares and recommendations online. All these metrics are becoming increasingly important in recruitment to academic positions, promotion, and of course assessment of academic departments via research assessment exercises such as the REF.

The existence and influence of such metrics has a range of effects on academics’ writing practices. They impact, for instance, on the selection of journals to write for, genres to write in and topics to focus on. Academics are increasingly expected to engage in self-promotional virtual practices including maintaining professional webpages and academic social networking, and these activities can have a direct effect on the newer altmetric quantitative indicators.

The second of four interactive workshops takes place this week, exploring the ways in which quantitative indicators informed by digital technologies are influencing academics’ writing practices.We will report on preliminary findings from the Academics’ Writing project and attendees will have the opportunity to discuss their own experiences of using and being measured via metrics.

Workshop title: Designing the academic self: How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices at UK universities?

Date: Tuesday 16 Feb 2016, 1.00 – 3.00 pm

Venue: Lancaster University, Charles Carter A15

This series of workshops is run with support from the Northwest Doctoral Training Centre, and is free and open to doctoral students, staff and researchers from Lancaster, Liverpool, and Manchester Universities. Please register your attendance via Eventbrite. For dates and themes of the whole series of workshops, click here.