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.

SRHE conference paper on disciplines in Higher Education

Last month (December 2015) I delivered a couple of papers at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. One of them was on this project’s findings so far. The Powerpoint is below:

One of the things I discussed with my audience was the strange things happening to disciplines in Higher Education, and the new disciplinary identities emerging. Since identities permeate academics’ writing practices for research, teaching, and even admin work, the paper generated a lot of interest and discussion. Some of these were also tweeted about:

Designing the Academic Self

Social media, metrics, preprints, websites – much of our academic identity is now tied up in how we mediate ourselves online. So what should we be thinking about and what should we do?

The Academics Writing Project, in conjunction with Lancaster’s Literacy Research Centre and the North West Doctoral Training Centre  is running a series of interactive workshops for PhD students and early career researchers on the use of social media and metrics, called Designing the Academic Self. The workshops are open to doctoral students, staff and researchers from Lancaster and Manchester Universities.

Friday 29 January 2016, 13.00-15.00

Bowland North


Session 1: Who does the Internet think you are?

Sharon McCulloch, Diane Potts, and Tanya Williamson, Lancaster University

Rescheduled from Dec 2015 – please note that this session is on a Friday.

You must register to ensure a place.

Tuesday 16 Feb 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 2: How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices in UK universities?

Sharon McCulloch and Karin Tusting, Lancaster University

You must register to ensure a place.

Tuesday 26 April 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 3: What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Masud Khokhar and Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Tuesday 24 May 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 4: Metrics through a critical lens


The first workshop, Who does the Internet think you are? is a discussion of if and how emerging academics can be pro-active in creating or ‘designing’ a coherent online presence, including practical matters such as selecting your online name and keywords, as well as the pros and cons of commonly used sites for showcasing academic work. Click here to register for the first workshop.

By the end of the four Designing the academic self sessions, attendees will have a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of metrics and how such tools can extend the audience for one’s work; of evolving academic writing practices in the face of new modes of dissemination and measurement; and of the critical questions such changes are provoking.

The only linguist in the room

On 15th September, I presented some early findings from the Academics Writing project at the Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society.  The slides from the presentation can be found here. The conference was jointly organised by Lancaster University, the University of Cambridge, University College Dublin and the London School of Economics, and was hosted by Lancaster’s department of Organisation, Work & Technology. In this sense, it was an interdisciplinary event, with talks by academics from economics, history, political science, social anthropology and other social sciences. I was, to my knowledge, the only linguist in the room. However, the Academics Writing project is also interdisciplinary to some extent, and the conference theme Organisational Practices within Contemporary Landscapes seemed closely related to our own exploration of writing practices in universities as workplaces. So off I went, to boldy go where no linguist has gone before…

Like Karin, when she presented at the European Conference on Literacy, and David, at the International Conference on Language in the Media, I noticed many nods of recognition from the audience, suggesting that our findings resonate with others’ research in related areas and/or with their personal experience as academics. However, I was also asked a question that really got us thinking: “You’ve started from assumption that things have changed, but how do you know they have?” I was particularly thrown by this question because the presentation focused on academics’ use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, ResearchGate and the like, most of which only came into existence in the last decade. For a linguist, the mode or genre of language use is an integral part of the literacy practice being enacted, and it wouldn’t make sense to claim that language itself is separable from this. In this sense, we cannot claim that academics’ writing has remained unchanged aside from the fact that it now occurs on these digital platforms. The constraints and affordances of these platforms, both materially and socio-culturally, must influence the nature of what is written. Our data supports this view.

Our data also shows that the use of these platforms is influenced by pressures relating to indisputable changes in higher education, such as the pressure to demonstrate impact beyond the academy, and the importance of metrics in assessing academics’ contribution to knowledge (or perhaps, more accurately, their value to their department and institution).

But perhaps there has been no radical transformation. Academics have always networked. They have always disseminated their research. So perhaps little has changed at a structural level. Will we look back one day and wonder what the fuss was about? Or do we need to pay attention to even small changes, lest gradual erosion washes away the ground beneath us? What do you think?


Conference talks this month

Conference season is upon us, and the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation team is sharing early insights on different aspects of our data analysis. This week, Karin is presenting a paper entitled The University as a Workplace: New Directions in the Study of Academic Writing at the BAAL annual meeting at Aston University in Birmingham on the 4th of September.

On the 8th of September, David is presenting on The Mediatisation of the Literacy Practices of Academic Knowledge Production at the 6th International Conference on Language in the Media in at the University of Hamburg.

Finally, on the 15th September, Sharon is giving a paper on the use of techno-biographic interviews and what they can reveal about academic identity at the Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society at Lancaster University’s Management School.

We will post links to the slides shortly.