Academics Writing conference at the SRHE, 13 January 2017

The end-of-project conference was held at the SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) in London on Friday 13 January 2017, with the aim of sharing  our methods and findings with the wider research community, and hearing the views of those who attended on some of the issues we have investigated.

People came from far and wide to join the conversation, and we were delighted with both the level of interest in the project and the stimulating nature of the discussion. Many people came to speak to us individually during the day to ask us about specific aspects of the project, to challenge us, to tell us about their own research in similar areas, and to share their experiences with writing, many of which resonated with what we found through the project.

We promised that we would make the slides and audio podcasts of the presentations available, so they can be found here.

Session 1:        What’s going on for academics, writing? An introduction to the project and context, by Karin Tusting


Session 2:        Managerialism and its effects on academics’ writing  by Sharon McCulloch


Session 3:        Space, time and boundaries by Mary Hamilton and Karin Tusting


Session 4:        Affect: how people experience and respond to change by David Barton


Session 5:        Challenging methods for literacy research: reflections from our methods by Ibrar Bhatt


We would like to thank everyone who came to the event for their thought-provoking questions and comments. We would also like to thank Theresa Lillis, who acted as our discussant, the SRHE staff who helped to make the day run smoothly, and our project administrative manager here at Lancaster, Dee Daglish, whose hard work made the conference possible.

Please do stay in touch with us by commenting or emailing us at Lancaster. We will post information about further events, publications and the like on this blog, so you may want to bookmark it.

Writing that counts or writing that is counted?

At the beginning of December, I went to Leiden in the Netherlands to present a paper on behalf of the Academics Writing project. The conference was the Accelerated Academy, which brings together scholars from across Europe, mainly from STS (Science and Technology Studies) but also from other disciplines, to share research about the acceleration of higher education and the increased use of metrics for research evaluation. Clips of some sessions from the Prague conference in 2015 can be found here.

Our paper focused on the tensions that have emerged from the project around the REF. The UK’s national research evaluation exercise pushes academics in competing directions in their writing. The REF and institutional policies around it drive academics to write more and better journal articles in each REF period, and this has become an overarching goal for academics’ writing practices: to publish enough and to target the right journals is to keep their job, to get promoted and to be considered successful. But not all academics really want to publish this sort of journal article, or at least not at the expense of other genres. Historians value monographs, but these take a long time to write and because four research outputs can be submitted to the REF, four has become something of a magic number. Four monographs in a single REF period would be more or less impossible, but departments expect at least four publications, so historians are pushed towards writing journal articles. For Marketing academics, four translates as four-star; their ultimate target for publishing. They are encouraged to publish in four-star journals, which they see as a.) unrealistically difficult and b.) pushing them out of their discipline. If it’s too hard to get into a four-star marketing journal, one can always aim for a four-star management journal.

Finally, although since 2014 the REF rewards writing for impact beyond academia, writing for non-academic audiences was widely perceived by our respondents to be of secondary importance to writing for peer-reviewed, high-impact journals. Many were interested in writing for the media, writing blog posts, tweeting and the like, but didn’t feel that their institutions valued these genres. This view is unsurprising given the relentless counting and evaluating by universities of writing that is aimed primarily at other academics.

How academics feel about social justice

There is plenty of evidence that academics embrace social justice in principle (who wouldn’t?), and also that they try to put this into practice in large numbers, engaging in civic engagement activities on top of their usual workload, for no reward and often in the face of active disincentives (Bond & Patterson, 2005; Watermeyer, 2015), but to what extent do notions of social justice actually motivate what they do? And do they share a common understanding of what social justice means?

These were the questions addressed by our recent paper at the Higher Education Close Up (HECU8) conference at Lancaster University, Historians don’t set out to change people’s lives. The Academics’ Writing project didn’t set out to find out about social justice, but we asked the academics who participated in our study about what shaped their writing and how they interpreted the idea of ‘impact’ as outlined in the REF since 2014 .

You can find our slides here and can read the associated paper here.

Paper presented at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference

The project team delivered a paper this weekend at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference at the University of Sheffield on the role of relationships in academic writing and identity. We drew on data from phase 1 of the project, in which participants talked about the importance of relationships in their writing practices.

Digital technologies such as Skype and Google Docs (plus many more digital platforms) made collaboration on writing easier and faster, but many of our participants told us that meeting face-to-face brought benefits that online communication could not by making it easier to build trust, to get others’ cooperation when leading a project, and to communicate in a second language, as many academics do. The social dimension of writing, as discussed by Uta Papen and Virginie Theriault in their presentation on writing retreats at the same conference, meant that being able to combine chat and coffee with writing made the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Academics talked about the “learning all the time” from conversations with others around writing, and this continued throughout their careers. Even senior academics spoke about the need for informal support networks to enable them to learn from their peers. This highlights the need for universities to foster a culture in which such informal relationships and networks can thrive.

These days, many universities are removing boundaries between student and staff spaces, and replacing staff common rooms with open seating areas accessible to all. This reduces the places where academics can talk in confidence about their research aspirations, about the inevitable rejection of papers from journals, and about the pleasures and pains of creating knowledge. Furthermore, workload pressures often mean that academics struggle to find time to chat informally about writing and the emotions it stirs up. This should be taken seriously given the role that relationships play in nurturing a writing culture and facilitating learning, not only about writing, but also about who we are as academics and team members.

The slides from our talk can be viewed here.

Holding our disciplinary ground

I had the pleasure of going to Ann Arbor last week to present at the International Writing Across the Curriculum conference on behalf of the Academics Writing project. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan. It’s a lovely college town where, it seems, people have a passion for gardening and also apparently don’t lock their doors at night.

ann arbor garden

Our presentation focused on the ways in which academics’ disciplinary writing practices have been affected by changes at managerial level, particularly the REF. For some disciplines, the picture is rather bleak. For example, in Marketing, our participants were forced to aim their scholarly writing at specific target journals prescribed by the Association of Business Schools’ benign-sounding Academic Journal Guide, which ranks business and management journals according to their supposed quality.

Only 5 of the journals ranked highest (4-star) by the ABS guide in 2015 were in Marketing, making it a very small target to aim for. There is also a perception that most of these journals are US-based, and publish mainly quantitative work.

Here’s a taste of what our participants in working in Marketing departments in England said about this:

“Now it’s not just four star journals. It’s four star journals in marketing. Now the four star journals in marketing […] are US based four star journals. I think there were only 16. I can’t remember what the figure was but it was such an unbelievably low figure, of UK academics getting published last REF into US four star journals.” Charles, lecturer in Marketing

“Now I target management journals, which is one way of hitting a four star.” Diane, professor in Marketing

michigan league

There is much to comment on here about the primary purpose of publishing research, the effect of attempting to measure quality in this manner, the level of autonomy academics enjoy (or not) regarding what and where to publish, cultural differences, disciplinary boundaries, and much more. The other disciplines in our study are experiencing their own sets of pressures related to disciplinary values and practices, which you can find out more about by checking out the slides from the talk.


Many of the other presentations at the iWAC conference were pedagogically-oriented, focusing on improving students’ writing in the disciplines, but this still provided an opportunity to consider what it is that we are preparing our students for; what disciplinary writing actually looks like in the context of contemporary higher education.

Academics’ experiences of professional networked learning

The project team have been presenting our findings on academics’ experiences of professional networked learning at the 2016 Networked Learning Conference. The slides can be found here: NLC10may2016_slides

It was a thought-provoking conference overall, with many sessions, including Helen Beetham‘s and Magda Bober‘s talk, echoing some of the themes that have emerged from our research. Helen talked about the disaggregation of professional roles in academia, including the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional time and identities. This is a major concern for our own participants – almost without exception, people talked about the pressure / drive to check email using portable digital devices, even when when not ‘at work’, and about concerns around the ways their identity could be constructed online. Magda talked about the ways in which students and staff in HE use mobile devices, and the symbolic meanings these held for these two groups.

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.

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: