Posts By / Matthew Bennett

What’s in a star?

On Thursday I chaired the last of the mock REF panels bringing to close the first of two summative mock exercises we are running in the final year of REF preparation before the big submission a year from now.  In fact in about 12 months it will be all done, game over with nothing to do but wait a year for the results.  In many ways I am looking forward to that point so that we can focus our energies elsewhere, but in the meantime we are in the final push.  It is also this phase of the process that causes most anxiety for staff since it is the year in which ones’ outputs are held up to close scrutiny, graded and selected for final submission.  The processes by which this is done are set out in the BU Codes of Practice for REF.  But one can’t escape from the fact that having ones’ research outputs scrutinized and discussed is not for some a pleasant process.  I share this with you since my own outputs are part of the process to.

Feedback from the mock on an individual’s outputs is being provided by the UoA Leader following the assessment panel and I have heard some cries of annoyance, anguish and anger as that feedback has been given.  I know for a fact that many staff are disappointed to only have outputs graded at 1* or 2* and have taken this as demotivating and in some cases as an insult to all their hard work and endeavour.  I feel for you all, some of my own outputs have been graded no more than 2*.  But it is worth reflecting on just what that actually means.

According to REF-2014 criteria 1* equates to work ‘that is recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’.  You can’t escape from the fact that to have nationally recognized work is something to be proud of.  Equally the 2* criteria states that the output ‘is recognized internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ to have work graded as such should also be no disappointment.  To get something rated at 4* requires it to be ‘world-leading’ and only papers which are literally the ‘best of the best’ are going to get such a grading.  So while it might be disappointing to only have work graded at 1* or 2* no one should be disappointed in such an outcome; easy to say and very much the truth, but I do understand that people may feel disappointed none the less.

I suppose the question that this begs in many peoples minds is what quality threshold will we apply for the submission?  The honest answer is that I don’t know yet and I certainly would not be disclosing our tactics on an open blog!  It is something that our REF Academic Steering Group will consider in detail this year before a decision is made in the spring as set out in the BU Codes of Practice.  There is a trade-off between submitting a small selection of outputs of the highest quality and submitting a wider selection, and consequently more staff, which says something more balanced about our research.  The current funding algorithm only funds the part of our quality profile that is 3* or above, but in truth the funding algorithm which will follow the results of REF-2014 won’t be announced until the spring of 2015 and will be informed by the next compressive spending review in 2014 and the REF-2014 results due out in December of that year.  In short your guess is as good as mine!  I have always said that our submission is about ‘glory not gold’ and is therefore about enhancing our reputation first and foremost rather than about money.

In the meantime don’t be put off by the having outputs rated at 1* or 2* star, be proud to be part of the process, to be publishing and creating new knowledge which is lets face it a fantastic feeling!

Open Access – Again

Check out the video from PhD comics  which can be found on the PGR pages of the blog; it is fantastic!  If you want to understand Open Access it is one of the best over views I have seen and is also amusing to!  Is this the shortest post ever?  Wow its been a bad week!

What do you do dad?

It has been a busy week and it is fast disappearing and I have yet to post this week.  I also need to get this in before the week’s end since its earth science week!

This is the week when it’s safe to admit ones love of checked shirts, woolly jumpers, rocks, dinosaurs, fossils and mud!  More seriously it is one of the many public engagement weeks focused on specific disciplines which are emerging; it just happens to be mine this week!  Although in practice I don’t always admit to being a geologist, having be first trained as physical geography I do think of myself as one.  My true love is the study of landscape – geomorphology – which lies at the intersection of geology and geography and is a love that endures to this day.  Reconstructing ancient landscape is my thing, whether they are landscapes of ice or the landscapes that our ancestors once walked across.  As a child my imagination rendered forts and castles, linked to tales of derring-do, from the rocks and cliffs before me.  As I grew up I found that geomorphology allowed me to play the same games of imagination, but instead of tales of adventure, the aim was to build pictures of ancient landscape based on geological evidence, which had to be first found and then interpreted.  The creations of my imagination may now be a little more sophisticated than those of my youth, shaped by evidence and scripted in the language of geology, but imagination spawned by landscape still holds as the central core of what geology means to me.  Imagination, innovation, creative expression are the things that lie at the core of all research whether geological or not and are worth celebrating when one can in my view.

My parting shot is to share with you the punch line of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about geology.  Picture the first window in which a parent is doing homework with their child and they are arguing about maths.  “Why do I need to know about maths” the son cries.  The parent responds “well you need maths for all jobs”.  Predictably the son responds no you don’t so the parent asks the son to name a job that doesn’t.  The child responds ‘geologist’ to which the parent says ‘well that’s not a proper job is it!’  But still it’s a job I love!

 

 

The power of resubmission?

Check this out: rejection can help your citations!  This sounds a little counter intuitive but is one of the conclusions of a piece of work published in Science recently by Calcagno and colleagues.  They have done this huge network based study of submission patterns within the biological sciences across some 923 journals involving some 80 thousand articles.    Some of their conclusions are obvious, scientists aspire to high impact journals and resubmit successively to lower impact journals when rejected, but others are not.  The paper’s particular focus is on the pattern of resubmission between journals when a manuscript is rejected.  The network of resubmissions is impressive and forms clear academic clusters.  Interestingly high impact journals publish proportionally more articles that had been resubmitted from another journal suggesting that even the best journals receive manuscripts rejected by others.  This makes sense to me, for example my own Science paper in 2009 was first rejected by Nature.  But the really interesting bit is that resubmission can actually enhance the impact of a paper post-publication in terms of citations.  The question is why?  Do good papers just shine through or is there something else?  The authors suggest that in fact this may be a reflection of the contribution of editors and reviewers to a paper enhancing that paper even if they ultimately reject it.  I like this because ambition and aspiration to the top journals, even if one fails in the attempt, gets its reward in the end!  Interestingly the survey also shows that authors are often very conservative in their journal choices placing material where they are confident it will be published.  In fact 75% of outputs in the survey are published where they were first submitted.  One could argue, however, that in being conservative we are in fact in some cases doing our work a disservice and that by exposing our work to risk of rejection it may often end having more impact.  One final parting shot from this great little paper; if you switch journal or discipline networks during the resubmission cascade your paper will do worse in terms of its post-publication impact.  Any way check it out a great study!

Back in the Office

I know this is old news and I will post something more interesting later in the week, but I thought I should just give a quick update for those that have been following my office-less experiment.  The headline is clear its finished after four weeks as a homeless PVC!

In terms of experience? Well to be honest it’s been mixed.  Could I do without my office and remain productive?  Yes is the simple answer.  Do I want to?  Not so sure on that score!  Initially it worked well since I had a bit more time free in my calendar, the atrium and other public work spaces were quieter, I also worked at home a bit and crucially I met lots of people and made some connections which all felt useful.  Towards the end the atrium in particular became almost impossible to find a seat in, let alone do any work, and my calendar was so full that I had little free time to meet people around the campus.  I learnt a bit about mobile working and how our IT systems aren’t really up to it for prolonged periods and also that we need more public work spaces apart from those around the coffee shops.  These are all issues that I will try to feed in as appropriate to our estates and IT plans when I get a chance over the coming months since mobile working is a legitimate choice and preference for many and may increase in the future.

Anyway the experiment is now officially over as I ease back into the comfort of my office, stretch my feet out beneath the desk, enjoy a decent computer screen, reach for my favourite mug and stare at the pictures of arctic landscapes on the wall.  But please feel free to continue to stop me and talk as I move about the campus and I intend to continue to find time in the coming months to adopt a more mobile pattern of working and to continue to let people know where I am working!

Terraces, sandcastles and footprints: ten years at BU

Ten years ago almost to the day I arrived at BU as a Professor in Environmental & Geographical Sciences and was installed in one of the rabbit-hutch offices in Dorset House.  Great office one of the best I ever had and it will forever be linked in my mind with the Formula for the Perfect Sandcastle, the Luck Equation and the growth of Landscan Investigations which was the contaminated land consultancy I used to run out of what was, in those days, Conservation Sciences.  My first year at BU is filled with memories of having to teach a course on Meteorology & Climate Change, something I had not done before; the trauma of buying and selling a house and moving my family to Bournemouth; the birth of my youngest son; and field work that summer in Iceland, Canada and Mexico.  So, while in a reflective mood and given the big changes to the Talbot Campus this summer, what are the big difference at BU ten years on?

When I first started just after RAE-2001 my task was to drive research development, in fact my job description at the time said I had to get the Environmental & Geographical Group to the equivalent of a Grade 4 Department by the next RAE.  For those that don’t remember the old RAE currency, this was a big ask at the time but was achieved with the unit being the most improved within BU in RAE-2008.  The campus was very much as it is now except that there was an empty space where Kimmeridge House is today, the new wing of Christchurch House had yet to be built, but otherwise it was very similar in feel and character as it is today.  Perhaps that is why the summer works seem so transformational?  I played a small role in shaping the campus early on by rescuing the Russell-Cotes Geological Terrace from a heap in a council yard and bringing it to campus to form the centre piece of the front entrance.  I remain very proud of what was achieved here and still think the vision of the original museum curator to create the display in the first place and the decision by the University to support my desire to rescue it, was a fantastic commitment to our rich geological heritage.

In my time I have experience three Vice Chancellors, being appointed originally by Gillian Slater.  I enjoyed the Paul Curran era since I understood, respected and appreciated his drive to make BU a more research active institution.  Those were the days of the Releasing Research and Enterprise Potential which I remember fondly and at its height touched over 50% of staff here at BU.  Since then I have contributed to the birth of Fusion, an elegant concept which epitomises for me much of what a modern university should be about; the creation of new knowledge, its application within society through practice combining to educate the next generation of innovators and decision-makers.  Ten years on there are still challenges to face and work to be done as we continue to transform BU together; an institution and more importantly a body of staff who I am still very proud to be part of.

What’s in a list?

Deciding the order of authors on a team based paper can be challenging: who should be included and in what order?  What constitutes a contribution worthy of authorship rather than a simple acknowledgement?  Feelings can run high and sadly I have fallen out with people over such matters, which in hindsight and the passage of time was just plain stupid.  But at the end of the day does authorship order really matter?  Does a reader actually care who did what?

It is a subject covered by Sebastian Frische writing in Nature this week.  This whole question resonates with me at the moment.  In the last year I have started to publish with a new set of collaborators who introduced me to an authorship code I had never heard of before – call me a naïve geologist if you like!  My approach to authorship over the years has, with a few notable exceptions, always been based on a simple principle of inclusion if you were in the field, contributed to the debate you where an author irrespective of whether you actually pulled your weight in the analysis or write-up.  He or she who does the most work and drives a paper forward goes first and the order there after reflects the level of contribution.  A simple model based on simple principles.  Last year I was introduced to the concept of the last author however.  My new colleagues hold this position to be one of real prestige – the senior seat – and a view I now find to be widely held in some disciplines.  It is something which I have to admit has past me by despite over twenty years of research.  I always worked on the principle that to be lost in the ‘et al.’ was never a good thing!  I have adopted this new approach in recent papers, but it leaves me intrigued to know what other conventions around authorship I am not aware off?  In fact I would love to hear from my colleagues on this subject.

But to be honest to what extent does it really matter, after all an author is an author?  In the context of REF it doesn’t with the Panel Criteria and Working Methods making no mention of authorship order or contribution.  Sebastian Frische argues that it does to new academics trying to build a reputation and he draws the interesting analogy to the film industry where the credit list is vital to ones CV and the ability to get work in the future.  In fact, he goes as far as to suggest that one vehicle is for academic networks, such as ResearchGate (which is currently sweeping through my own collaborator network), or academia.edu should allow authors to express their contribution to a given paper providing the equivalent of a credit list.  I have to admit that to me this sounds like a potential for discord between authors.  But in truth does it not go against the very principle that research – with the exception of the sole scholar – is by its very nature collaborative.  In a football team all players receive a cup winner’s medal whether they scored a goal or saved a vital penalty.  All contribute to the victory and all should be recognized equally?  So in truth I am far from convinced.  What do you think?

 

 

 

Bells, Offices & Rejection

I can’t admit to having had a good morning so far; the fire alarm was being test continuously for over 30 minutes when I first got in, my emails are down and I have a long day of meetings in front of me!  Anyway, I hear you all asking about the great ‘office-less experiment’, well I would if it was not for the bells ringing in my head!

In fact it is going very well.  I had three productive days last week working in the various coffee shops around campus and met a lot of people I wouldn’t normally have and performed a few introductions to connect people up afterwards.  The feedback has also been very positive and the support fantastic.  On a personal level I have found it quite hard work and have to admit to being a bit tired at the end last week.  The laptop screen is a bit small, our IT systems did not cover themselves in glory and the phone reception in the atrium is frustrating, but despite these slight irritations I had a very productive week.  So far this week I had a day solid of meetings Monday and a ULT away day in Christchurch, but the atrium beckons again later today.

On a different note, yesterday was not the greatest of days – the away day was fine, but then I got the news that a paper I had submitted a couple of weeks ago to Science had been bounced.  Rejection is never easy to deal with, even when you are half expecting it and is the norm with the most prestigious journal of them all.  Somehow I had convinced myself that this paper stood a chance, but no it was dammed by the phrase ‘most suitable for a specialist journal’.  I shouldn’t be that surprised, to stand a chance in Nature or Science one has to have something that is truly headline grabbing – goldfish eats boy!  But still rejection is not great and I thought I would share my feeling on it.

I used to do these sessions on the Releasing Research & Enterprise Potential on dealing with paper rejection in which I used to say that the true test is ‘how one deals with things in adversity’.  I do believe that this is true and within half an hour of circulating the rejection letter to my co-authors we had agreed a new destination for the paper and I will start the task of re-formatting the paper this evening.  Despite this I must admit to having a bit less bounce today than usual even if the set back in the greater scale of things is trivial.  Perhaps it is the prospect of the having to do more work to re-cast it for the new destination, or the memory of the early mornings and late evenings (working around the day-job) at the end of August spent shaping the paper.  No doubt by lunch time when the bells have stopped ringing in my ears I will feel more positive.  Rejection is part of academic life, you win some and you lose some, but let’s be honest it is the bit that sucks!

Beyond the Office?

What’s in an office?  Furniture, a favourite mug, pictures of ones’ family, a pile of unanswered correspondence, a stack of marking and a shelf or two of books?  Some of us are lucky enough at BU to have our own office, others have to share, while others prefer to work at home on a corner of the dining room table or in a room the more pretentious of us call a study.  Besides my office I have a work room at home too.  It’s in the roof and you can hear the rain on the skylight, a sound I find delightful and elemental – nature’s music.  We justify these spaces by the need to ‘think’ and that creative thoughts need peace and quiet or that we need our academic possessions around us.  Maybe this is all true, but I very rarely refer to the books on my shelves these days, since it quicker now to look online and most of my academic library is stored on my hard drive.  Yes I value the calm, the routine of going to my office, the isolation from distraction it provides but it is exactly that, isolating.

I have worked in shared offices, in fact I wrote my PhD and a book more recently in one and have shared offices at times throughout my academic career.  The power of concentration overcomes most distractions, although I myself am a distraction to others, muttering to myself as I write, re-casting sentences by reading them out loud, getting up to pace and then sit down to write some more.  But to be office-less is perhaps a step further?  I supervise students from the US and I am always surprised when a deadline approaches and they reply ‘off to the Starbucks to work’.  And work they do deliver, with music in their ears, coffee to hand, in the middle of the bustle of daily life; I am not sure I could do this?

But in truth what is actually stopping me from trying?  You see people commuting on the train, working hard, making me feel guilty as I idly stare out of the window.  How can they work in such conditions?  I often rationalise it unfairly by saying ‘well they are not doing anything creative or that requires deep thought’, but this is just nonsense.  In truth you can work anywhere given a focus.  I just prefer to run to the isolation of my office and as a result I am less productive and perhaps more isolated.

The recurrent theme here is isolation;  your office isolates you from the world around, a defence mechanism to keep out the hassle and the distractions, but there is a down side.  Over the last year or so in my current role I have tried to find ways of keeping in daily contact with academics throughout BU to be a conduit for their concerns and to listen to their needs.  In truth, I am always interested in and keen to talk about research – my own if anyone will listen, but chiefly other peoples if they are prepared to tell.  So this Wednesday I am about to abandon my office for a month – an office sabbatical if you like – as an experiment into being office-less and to try to enhance my own level of engagement.  Wherever possible my meetings have been switched out of the Office of the Vice Chancellor and between times I will hang out and try to work in the coffee shops and open access spaces across both campuses.  The purpose, well to see what it is like to be office-less for a start, to fight the isolation provided by ones office and ultimately to see if it enhances my accessibility to the people I represent – the academics that make our University strong.  So when you see me about, huddled in the corner of the coffee shop, feel free to stop and talk!

Women in Research

The University is in the process of applying for membership of the Athena SWAN Charter a processing being led by Professor Tiantian Zhang (Head of Graduate School).  Athena’s aims for- the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research and involves the University accepting six key charter principles, namely:

i.     To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organization
ii.     To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organization
iii.     The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organization will examine
iv.     The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organization will address
v.     The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organization recognizes
vi.     There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organization

This development is a welcome one and an important step forward for a modern and progressive University such as ours.  The need to support and promote women in research is clear and I am sure that few would argue against this but if in doubt the need was elegantly made by a recent report published by the Royal Society of Chemistry on the ‘Chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention’.  One of the striking figures from this report is that only 12% of third year female PhD students want a career in academia and that young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men.  This set me thinking about the issues more generally and much of what is identified in the report based on a review of Chemistry Department is no doubt relevant across all research sectors.  In particular I was struck by the phrase ‘women do not wish to pursue an academic career . . . because they perceived the rewards on offer insufficient to overcome the challenges and compromise entailed’.  The career being: to all-consuming, leading to compromise and sacrifice in other aspects of life; overly competitive and insecure in terms of tenure especially while post-docing; and poorly supported in terms of sound and fair advice which is often unduly negative.  It was the last point that made stop and think most; what sort of advice do we provide, what sort of role models do we project and how do we encourage, mentor and support future academics of whatever gender?  There is a lot in this and I would be interested in your views on this subject, especially from our own graduate students.

 

 

 

 

Impact factors or further thoughts on where do I publish?

I came across this brilliant paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this weekend.  An elegantly written plea for research to be assessed on its quality not the impact factor of the journal in which it is published.  As the authors state ‘we must forego using impact factors as a proxy for excellence and replace them with in-depth analyses of the science produced.’  As the article outlines impact factors where developed by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) originally as an aid to librarians making decision about which journals to purchase.  Today it is part of the decision making process for many academics that surrounds where to publish being held as a proxy for journal prestige.  As the Eve and her colleagues point out ‘the least important paper published in a journal shares the impact factor with the most important papers in the same journal’, and therefore the impact factor of a journal may not accurately reflect the quality of all the work within it and as such is a flawed proxy.

You only have to go back a couple of years to find a fierce debate about the use of bibliometrics within REF2014, something which has been reduced in the final submission framework to a few select units of assessment where citation date will be used.  In fact the REF codes make an explicit statement that quality assessment of an output will be made on the basis of the quality of the research not any perceived journal ranking system whether it be impact factors or the ABS list (Association of Business Schools).  This is to be applauded, but can you take natural journal prejudices, based on things like the ABS list, impact factors or for that matter subject convention, out of the academics undertaking the reviews?  Having now chaired one of our mock assessment panels I am left wondering whether you can?  It will pose a serious challenge to the objectivity and veracity of the REF if one can’t.

Despite this reservation the plea made by Eve and her colleagues is to be welcomed; research should be published where it is best suited, will get read by the people who need to read it within ones discipline, where it will encourage debate and in turn drive further research.  It does not make the decision of where to publish any easier for early career academics, but I would encourage all those involved in providing advice to them, to read the impassioned plea made by Eve and her colleagues and move from default references to impact factors and ranking lists.

Dementia

Most of us know someone touched by dementia – a friend, relative or loved one.  As the average age of our population grows ever older, the chances are some of us will be affected.

As such dementia is emerging as a new strategic priority for BU, with investment from our HEIF funds to create the Bournemouth University Dementia Institute, or BUDI as the team like to call it.  The team is growing rapidly working on a range of funded dementia projects with more in the pipeline. Working with the Director of BUDI Anthea Innes, Lee-Ann Fenge, Sue Barker, Vanessa Healsip, Michele Board have recently completed a review of Higher Education Dementia Curriculums on behalf of the Higher Education Dementia Network.  Work that reflects Anthea’s previous experience leading masters and undergraduate programmes in Dementia Studies and the dementia focus of social work and nursing colleagues within the School of Health and Social Care.  A number of research and knowledge exchange projects are underway including:

  • An ongoing programme of work funded by Bournemouth Borough Council involves the BUDI team delivering a range of activities via two different programmes; a ‘cupcake club’ and a technology group.  The evaluation report isn’t due until February 2013 so a lot is happening over the autumn months.
  • A BU Research Development Grant enabled an early collaboration between the Schools of Tourism and Health and Social Care.  This project led by Anthea Innes (HSC) and Stephen Page (Tourism) is currently being written up for publication and dissemination.  It is the first study to conceptualise ‘Dementia Friendly Tourism’ as an area worth investigation to try and improve the leisure opportunities for those with dementia and their families; but the project will also produce recommendations to  help advise tourism and leisure providers to enhance their provision to promote inclusion of those with dementia.
  • An international study GRIID (Gateway Rural International Initiatives in Dementia), involving partners from Australia, Canada, India, Sweden and the UK is also in the writing up stages following a policy synthesis and survey of Alzheimer Disease International (www.adi.co.uk) members.
  • European work is on-going too, focused on Malta where Anthea has long established links working on improving the quality of care offered in Maltese hospital wards
  • A multi-site NIHR project has just commenced exploring site loss and dementia for people who continue to live at home.  This is a collaboration between the Universities of York, BU, Cambridge, Worcester and consumer organisations; the Housing and Dementia Research Consortium (HDRC); Pocklington Trust supported by the Alzheimer Society and the Macular Disease Society

But this is just the start with money being committed by many of large funding agencies this is a societal theme of the moment.  BU is part of a large FP7 grant application currently first reserve for funding, and BU is coordinating a multimillion ESRC grant application with 12 other institution due for submission this autumn.  Working locally is also very much on the agenda.  Staff in BUDI are working for example in partnership with commissioners and clinicians across Dorset to secure funding via the NHS South of England Dementia Challenge fund with BU as the evaluator for a number of innovative local projects proposed by those delivering dementia care every day.

BUDI launched 16 May 2012 just three months ago and the progress is impressive, but there is also a long way to go to achieve its objectives of making a real contribution to improving the lives of those with dementia and those who provide support whether they be family or paid clinicians and carers.  This is not just an initiative launched from HSC but a cross BU one and I am delighted to announce the secondment of Samuel Nyman (Psychology, DEC) to BUDI to strengthen its work force and continue his existing collaboration with Anthea which includes a match funded BU PhD Studentship with Anthea Innes and Marilyn Cash which is looking at the role of gaming technology to support older men with dementia in rural areas.  BUDI is looking for staff who wish to engage from across BU and is truly multidisciplinary in its approach and reach.  There may be other who are interested in similar secondments and I would encourage them to get in touch with Anthea.  DEC and Tourism are already involved with BUDI contributing staff and time but there is huge scope for others to get involved for example in the Media School.  Why not drop Anthea a line and get in touch?

Also starting in September is Patricia McParland as BUDI Project Manager or Engagement Consultant, a post-doc appointment is pending, PhD student Ben Hicks will start soon and we will be advertising for an Associate Director for BUDI soon.  BUDI has the full support of UET and is receiving strategic investment to make things happen quickly; dementia is of the moment as illustrated by the Prime Minister Dementia Challenge launched earlier this year and it’s for BU to cease this moment.  BUDI offers the opportunity to have a real impact, to make a difference in our society, to develop practice and research and to do it quickly.  Please get involved and get in touch with Anthea or myself directly.

 

Displacement, Orwell & Academic Prose

Displacement is a wonderful thing!  I have millions of pressing emails, a paper to revise and several strategy documents to perfect but I have had the pleasure this evening of hunting my book shelves for a lost book, well four in fact.  The books in question are penguin editions of the George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.  I found the first three quickly, but the fourth was elusive lost behind a double stack of paperbacks ranging from a Quiet Flame, Solo, Trinity Six, Death Zone, Outliers, Frozen in Time amongst many others, which gives just a hint of the lack of order on my shelves and the eclectic nature of my reading habits.  Most of my shelves are double, or in some cases triple, stacked with book cases in the living room, bedrooms, on the landing and in my office in the roof!  So why the fuss about Orwell’s collected essays?  Well my mother – a former English teacher, turned academic – set me reading Orwell’s journalism (which is far better than his more famous novels in my humble opinion) in my late teens as a model of good written style.  With titles like Boy’s Weeklies, The Decline of the English Murder, Death of an Elephant, Good Bad Books and What is Science who could resist?  The piece I was actually looking for was Politics and the English Language in which Orwell spells out his rules for good prose, basically five simple rules to good style.  Sadly, and to my amazement, you can find these rules on the Internet now; in fact on the British Council web site as guidance for foreign students wanting to write good English!

I have always consciously, and now largely unconsciously, followed these rules when I can and they are pasted at the end for those who are interested.  Any way I was put in mind of these rules last week while on leave and reading a book entitled Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword published by Harvard University Press.  The book is a classy piece of work on writing good academic prose and is based on an exhaustive survey of over a thousand academic papers across ten disciplines and amusingly a survey of leading academic style guides and self-help books.  This thought provoking book provides useful information for social scientists, scientist, lawyers and psychologists; in fact all flavours of researcher.  The central thesis is about choice; the choice of academics in the matter of style, to challenge the stifling prose of academic convention!  Off course this is going to appeal to me and is elegantly summed up by ‘choice is the stylish writer’s best weapon against the numbing forces of conformity and inertia’ (p. 30).  I think you get the idea that I quite like this book and I would recommend it to both seasoned and novice academic writers, but in truth Orwell’s rules will always reign supreme with me!

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word-out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell, Politics & the English Language, p169 Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters Volume 4, Penguin 1970