Category / News from the PVC

A Request for Help or Coming of Age?

In the distant past I helped to give birth to several textbooks.  I wrote a lot of stuff in the easy days of the 90’s, when life was simpler and sleep was for wimps!  One of these textbooks has endured, the one closest to my heart.  It was written with my PhD twin – he was erosion and I was deposition – a friendship forged in the Cairngorms attempting to paint frozen pebbles on avalanche slopes that has endured for over 25 years.  Glacial Geology was first published in 1996 and a second edition was squeezed out between other projects in 2009.  The book still sells and still manages to delight its authors when found on a dusty shelf in academic bookshops; finding the book shop is the greater challenge these days however.  As a 17 year old the book is not in bad shape and I am intrigued by the idea of keeping it alive so that we can celebrate its twenty first birthday.  Having a tradition view on these things I am taking this landmark as 21 not 18 by the way.  In its life it has seen a lot of change in me, in higher education and in the field to which it provides a general introduction.  This change is the point of the post, in case you had begun to wonder?  My co-author and I have been approached by the publisher about a third edition, which is a daunting prospect given my lack of time, a problem shared by my co-author who holds a similarly challenging role in Wales.  The challenge is worse however since the publisher not only wants a new book, but also a fully interactive e-version with a website and learning resource.  Sadly it is to be a book for the modern digital age when paper and few good pictures are no longer enough.  So sitting in my in-box is a draft proposal from my co-author – curse his efficiency – with some suggestions about how we might approach the e-version; video clips of classic landforms, pod casts of key concepts, interactive diagrams which you can explore with your finger or mouse, and a hyper linked bibliography.  Neither Neil, nor I profess to be experts in this field and that is the purpose of this post, to seek your help.  What would you do?  What would you include? Where are there good examples that we can look at and follow?

Congratulations and Good Luck

February had a good deal of activity around bids being submitted and awarded, with Schools winning consultancy contracts, research grants and organising Short Courses.

For Applied Sciences, congratulations are due to Richard Stillman for his consultancy contract with the Welsh Government, to Mark Maltby for his consultancy contract with Central Bedfordshire Council, to Andrew Ford for his two consultancy contracts with WPA Consultants and Axent Embroidery, to Ralph Clark for his consultancy contract with the Environment Agency, to Phillipa Gillingham and John Stewart for their award from Natural England.  Good luck to Daniel Franklin with his application to the Marine Management Organisation, to Emilie Hardouin for her application to FSBI, and to Rob Britton and Richard Stillman for their proposed consultancy with DEFRA.

For DEC, good luck with the applications submitted by Katherine Appleton to the Humane Research Trust, by Simon Thompson to the Royal Society, and by Tania Humphries-Smith to the HEA. 

For HSC, congratulations are due to Anthea Innes for her award from the NIHR and also good luck with her application to Bournemouth Churches Housing Association, as well as her consultancy training for Gracewell Healthcare together with Michele Board, Vanessa Heaslip and Sue Barker, and finally, for Anthea and Michele Board’s short course with RBCH.  Good luck also to Edwin Van Teijlingen for his application to NIHR.

Congratulations to the Media School for Liam Toms consultancy contract with Kestrel Medical Ltd, to Rebecca Jenkins for her consultancy contract with Craft Strategy Ltd.  Good luck to Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen for their application to ESRC, and to Darren Lilleker, Dan Jackson, Richard Scullion, Einar Thorsen and Shelley Thompson for their application to ESRC, to Julian McDougall and Kris Erickson for their application to The Spencer Foundation, to Carrie Hodges and Janice Denegri-Knott for their application to the British Academy, to Iain MacRury, Chris Williams and Steve Harper for their consultancy bid to SKILLSET, and to Liam Toms with his consultancy bid to Work Research Limited.

For the School of Tourism, congratulations go to Richard Gordon for securing funding for his short courses with the MoD and NEMA, and good luck to Jon Hibbert with his contract to Liz Lean PR Ltd, to Christian Lemmer and Crispin Farbrother with their short course to Wuhan City Vocational College, to Lisa Stuchberry for her contract to NHS Dorset, to Stephen Calver with his contract to Bournemouth Borough Council, and to Nicky Pretty and Lisa Stuchberry for their contract to Godolphin Company.

For applications and bids submitted, a number of people have submitted applications to the European Commission and so good luck to Adrian Newton, Kathy Hodder, Elena Cantarello, Judith DeGroot and Chris Shiel from Applied Sciences who are investigating Bio-regional approaches to sustainability transitions, to Jon Williams, Luciana Esteves and Christos Gatzidis also from Applied Sciences. To Ian Swain who is researching the Mediterranean diet against depression, to Katherine Appleton, Emili Balaguer-Ballester for their separate applications,  all from DEC, and to Abdelhamid Bouchachia (DEC) and Hammadi Nait-Charif (MS) for their application, to Anthea Innes and Michele Board from HSC with their Erasmus application, to Edwin Van Teijlingen also from HSC, to Stuart Allan from the Media School, and to Dimitrios Buhalis, Alessandro Inversini and Katherine King, all from the School of Tourism.

Finally, good luck to Jian Jun Zhang, Xiaosong Yang and Lihua You (all MS) with their application to EPSRC for an award in Human Robot Symbiosis in a shared Nervebot for phantom limb pain, to Jonathan Williams (HSC) for his contract to the International Tennis Federation concerning Lumbo-pelvic-hip motion sharing in tennis players.  In HSC, good luck goes to Keith Brown who is applying for two separate KTPs with Brent Council and Dorset County Council.  Good luck to Venancio Tauringana in the Business School, who has submitted an application to the British Academy’s International Partnership and Mobility Scheme.


Now if I was a master of popular culture, which I am not having spent my youth with my nose in a book or walking on some lonely mountainside then I would be able to link the title to song lyrics or film titles in some witty way.  I have this nagging feeling that I should be able to do this, but have to admit to abject failure in the attempt; may be someone else can help?

The word renegade is an interesting one and for someone who is a natural rebel, tilting at the system, has some appeal.  But some of those systems are important and I find myself having to be an ‘enforcer’ of those systems.  So what systems am I trying to gently remind you of?  Well it is those that pertain to external bidding.  We have uncovered a few renegades recently who are for whatever reason – over enthusiasm is my favoured explanation – have been circumventing our well established systems for dealing with research and knowledge exchange grants.  The process is absolutely clear; all external bids whether they are for teaching, research or knowledge exchange must be costed by RKE Ops, logged on RED our internal funding database, signed off via an APF and subject before acceptance to a contract approval process.  I know that some of you see these systems as ‘bureaucracy’ or interference with academic freedom and another obstacle in the way of you doing your job.  I have heard all of this recently in response to the changes we are making to the APF process, but these systems are in place for good reason and it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of what they are.

Well first off we have a standard costing methodology that ensure that we recover where possible the full cost of a research or knowledge exchange bid and when possible for commercial work make a small profit if this is appropriate.  Staff time needs to be costed as does the overheads that go with it from heat and lighting through to the IT and estate infrastructure we provide.  Even when the total value of an award is limited we need to know the true cost to the organisation of an activity, so that we can acknowledge and accept the implicit cross-subsidy that is occurring.  We also need to capture what we bid for in order to make our statutory returns to HESA and for Schools to monitor performance against both their budget and performance targets as set out in BU2018.  There is also a well-established hierarchy of financial and contractual levels at which different people within the organisation can approve things.  For example, anything above £500k needs a signature from a member of the BU Board.  Contracts need to be vetted to ensure that the terms and conditions are not punitive to staff or the University and that our intellectual freedom and property is being protected and preserved.  This is all routine and standard stuff for RKE Ops and is all taken care of for you; it is not a bureaucracy but a necessary process of making an application for external funding.

In the last three years RKE Ops have established a uniformity of approach and support across BU and are committed to improving the efficiency of their systems and the service they provide.  In fact we are in the process of reviewing both and will be making further changes later in the year to improve the service they offer.  There are occasional log jams, particularly around contract approval, but the more business we do on our own terms and conditions the less these are.  RKE Ops and I work with Legal Services to identify issues and challenges and I am always interested to hear of problems or sources of delay with a view to seeing what can be done to resolve them.  But no system is perfect and I would like to emphasise that ours is no more bureaucratic that of other HEI’s whatever people may say!  So my final parting shot is that these systems are there for a reason, are not an obstacle or an impediment to bidding, are not unusual within the sector and need to be complied with; not to do so is a matter with consequences. 

The renegades are being contacted individually and gently educated in the error of their ways and are I am sure they are just isolated cases, but I do want to reinforce the message.  If you are making an external bid of any sort talk to RKE Ops and they will not only help and support you but will make sure that the correct protocols are followed.

House of Lords & Open Access

Derek Ager wrote an absolutely lovely book called the Nature of the Stratigraphic Record which has become a seminal work within the field of earth history.  He alike n’s the stratigraphic record to the life of a solider in the trenches; long periods when not much happens punctuated by periods of blind terror!  At times I sometimes think this resembles the life of a Pro Vice Chancellor and yesterday was one of the those days of terror.  I gave evidence in front of the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee with respect to Open Access publishing.

They are currently investigating the implementation of the Open Access policy which was endorsed by Government and RCUK funding bodies following publication of the Finch report.  Of particular interest are the issues around article processing charges referred to by the acronym APC’s.  You may recall if you are an avid reader of the blog that the UK has endorsed following the Finch Report so-called Gold Open Access in which the author pays an upfront fee so that the reader can have unrestricted open access on publication.  The exact opposite from the current subscription based model.  The so-called Green Open Access model based on the use of institutional and subject based repositories is favoured by many within the academic community but not directly by government policy.  The cost estimate of the shift to Gold Open Access is variously placed at between £30 and £50 million and imposes an increased burden on already stretched research funds.  In theory in the long term subscript charges should fall but given that the UK contributes just 6% of global published output it is unlikely to happen quickly.  In September 2012 the Government arbitrarily gave £10 million to support 30 research intensive institutions and in November announced interim measures to come into force from April 2013.  Rather than simply support all RCUK grant holders the government adopted a complex algorithm which favours research intensives.  The algorithm calculates ‘direct labour costs’ in RCUK funded projects as a proxy for ‘staff effort’ and uses this to calculate an APC value.  The more ‘effort’ within a grant the more APC’s one apparently requires to publish that work.  So if you have lots of RCUK grants, with lots of staff costs within them you get more cash, irrespective of the quality or nature of that research.  Despite the fact that approximately 20% of BU’s research is RCUK funded and is outstanding we don’t exceed the £10k threshold and therefore will not receive any APC funding.

The obvious result of such a policy is off course to favour research intensive institutions and is yet another unintended driver towards research concentration in the UK.  One of the most useful things that the University Alliance, the mission group to which BU belongs, has ever done is the report it published in June 2011 on the perils concentrating research funding.  This is a beautiful and influential piece of work that demonstrates comprehensively that there is no link between research quality and the size of a research group; quality shines out wherever it is within the sector.  Quality can drive growth, but size does not necessarily drive quality.

So sandwiched between the PVC’s for Oxford and Imperial I felt somewhat out of place but was able to hold my own, and make the points that I wished to make drawing attention to the challenge that institutions like our own, that don’t currently receive APC support, face and to draw attention to issues of research concentration.  So where does that leave our own staff?  It is worth noting that we launched our own APC or Open Access fund two years ago and that demand has grown by 32% over that time and we are committed as an institution to ensuring that our researchers can publish in the most appropriate place for them to be read and cited irrespective of whether it is open access or not.  It is likely that we will double our Open Access Fund again this year and are committed to finding the funds to do so.

Sunday Evening

The house is quiet, tea has been had, the week’s ironing done and I am sitting at my computer reviewing studentship proposals ahead of next Friday’s panel meeting.  I have never liked Sunday evenings – the prospect of the week ahead, the lost weekend and the sense of time passed.  In fact it is safe to say that until my late teens Sunday evenings were always grim since school was something of a challenge.  These day’s Sunday evenings – and today’s is no exception – are full of work displaced from the week before.  It brings back memories of last minute homework panics!  My mood this evening, however, is also not helped because the studentship applications in front of me are not great.

First up the scheme is under-subscribed with just 28 match-funded proposals against 45 possible studentships, although the fully funded proposals are better 11 against 5.  But the real issue for me is that there are few good ones in the pile despite a lot of external funding.  Some School’s appear to have barely bothered; just one application from the School of Tourism for example and just three from the Media School.  DEC has a total of 16 applications which is more impressive and tops the list, while the Business School has 8, although disappointing that there are none with external match-funding.  Aside from these rather disheartening figures, the quality of the proposals is not what it was last year and there are proposals from some very senior Professors in the pile which are not well written.  There are a few proposals from less experienced staff, who are perhaps learning their trade, but these are not the majority.  It is sad to say that many of those with match funding will need to be returned for revision before they can be funded.

Writing a studentship proposal – any short proposal for that matter – is an art and takes thought and effort.  It is certainly not something that can be dashed off in five minutes on a Sunday evening!  There is nothing in my book more insulting than someone who blatantly takes an internal funding call for granted.  They provide the opportunity to hone ones skills in a safe environment, to perfect ones technique for when it matters externally, to impress your colleagues with your skill!  With the exception of a couple in the full-funded pile, where the quality is better generally, I am singularly unimpressed!  I have posted before about the art of the short application – the Weetabix Tie Breaker – and the skills are those of a good journalist who is able to hook the reader in via the first few lines and draw them in to the case.  The art of persuasive writing is in fact an art.  The hook must be followed by a compelling case with a clear rationale and a statement of method that demonstrates that the project is tractable, but above all else the case needs to demonstrate that the project will provide fantastic doctoral training and a launch pad for a student’s career.  Proposals that start with a statement of clumsy aims, with no hook or context, or simply try to bombard the reader with facts to bludgeon them into thinking that this must be important don’t meet the mark.  Proposals that fail to provide the context or make clear how the proposed research will impact on the stated problem also miss the point.  There are one or two good examples of the art of the hook; a couple for example start with some well-posed and provocative questions, but don’t follow through to link the questions to the research that follows and in one case the impact is lost through the use of some appalling syntax.  Others proposals have a mix of listed methods and techniques but no real central hypothesis or question, while in complete contrast some run out of space for any method!  While I am on a roll I will also tackle the problem of the words ‘novel’ and  ‘innovative’ nice adjectives but without any justification for why something is innovative or novel they are completely hollow!  In fact unsupported statements like that are red rag to this bull.  My final point is that other proposals seem unable to look beyond the needs of the match-funder to provide a wider context for the work leaving a depressing prospect for any doctoral student.

A proposal needs to be compelling – hook the reader in the first couple of lines, be clear about what the research will deliver, how it is original and will address the stated problem, why it is societally important, why it is timely and must be done now, how it will be done and what the student will gain by doing the research.  This is all easy to say, but hard to do.  There is more development work to be done here not just in helping individuals develop the skills to seek match-funding, which might help explain the low numbers of proposals, but also to sharpen the skills of the proposal writer.  I have been talking to Staff Development recently about such a programme aimed specifically helping staff to seek match-funding and then to ensuring that it is not wasted.  A bit late for the current round but for next year we will start a programme of support from April onwards.

It is time now to call it a day – warm milk, a book and my bed are calling.  Not a great Sunday evening but what’s new.

Art and Science: a common core?

A friend forwarded a couple of links to me recently about the relationship of science and art and particularly the dynamic that exists between them.  The pieces, one inspired by the other, set a number of thoughts running.  The first was the importance for many scientists/researchers of the scribbled conceptual diagram – in fact I have note books full of them.  Cartoons of reality that help researchers articulate arguments, scope concepts and summarise complex ideas.  In this sense art is a route to clarity of thought which is essential for good science writing, or at least in my humble opinion.  I can hear you questioning whether such cartoons are actual art – scribbled on the back of meeting agendas, squeezed into the margins of note books, on the back of drafts of papers – but I would argue that they are and their elegance in conveying ideas and thoughts process is as real and striking as any painting.

The pieces also made me think about how in the last 18 months I myself have embraced art as a painter.  Until recently I had never painted before in my life but took it up after turning out a half decent picture while painting one day with my boys.  Self-taught through the use of you-tube video clips, websites and a lot of trial and error I have advanced rapidly and exhibited a couple of my pictures last summer for the first time and have got to the stage where I am now brave enough to hang them on my office wall.  It provides me with what a colleague recently described as ‘flow’ relaxation and an hours painting of an evening has done wonders at placing life in better focus.  In fact I would go as far as to say ‘a painting a week keeps the doctor away!’  My art is inspired by my love of landscapes – mountains, hills, ice, snow, the artic and mountaineering in general – the same things which inspires my science and for me the linkage is clear and my art is simply an extension of my love of imagination, ideas and innovation the life blood of good research.  I would be interested to hear what you make of the blog posts in the two links below as well.

Buildings for Fusion?

It is a while since I last posted mainly due to travel, a short trip to South Africa and then a week in Colombia promoting BU’s research and international agenda.  While to some the travel may seem interesting the schedule of meetings and travel logistics has been punishing.  But the reason for writing is not to excuse my lack of diligence with posting on the blog, but more to tell of an amazing building on the EAFIT campus in the city of Medellin.

Outside of the design engineering building at EAFIT

The exterior of this building is far from inspiring three floors of conventional offices sitting above five floors behind an open grill of vertical concrete pillars.  But the content of the five stories are inspired!  They consist of deck of concrete floors and mezzanines open in part to the outside expect for a green wall of vines and creepers between the concrete pillars!  The specification is basic, unlike the over specified buildings one finds at UK HEI’s, but beautifully elegant in design and function.  The floors house part of the Design Engineering School and embody the concept of Fusion, co-creation and put our plush living learning zones to shame!

Living and learning

Staff and students designed the building’s layout and did so around the concept of design function.  On the top floor, of the stack of five, there is a bare concrete level enclosed with glass, with staff offices (glass cubicles) and work stations for staff and students around and lecture theatres to the side.  All structures are modular with low movable white-wipe or glass partitions giving maximum flexibility and preventing expensive refit costs every time something changes.  This is where students co-create their design concepts with staff in a free and interactive environment with few formal barriers or obvious hierarchy.  This floor is also a true learning, living zone with X-Box play stations, TV’s, comfy sofas and refreshments to hand allowing students to rest and play between bouts of work and study.  The aim is to retain students on site and in the design environment.  In fact the provision of table tennis and pool tables, TV’s in most communal spaces was a feature of many of the Colombian Universities we visited, blending living and learning in one space.

Green Walls!

Co-creation in action

The floor or deck below is again enclosed by glass and is full of work stations and higher specification computers turning the designs from the floor above into realistic concepts.  The floor below contains materials testing laboratory and an amazing wall of sample materials – in fact a library of materials samples that students can examine and touch each with a web link to further information.  The floor below is full of robotics and electronics turning designs in to moving objects; students, academic staff, demonstrators and technicians use these spaces freely and together.  Below that on the ground floor is a floor of heavy machinery similar to that found in Tolpuddle House but laid out on one factory floor with staff offices – more flexible glass partitions – on a mezzanine floor above the shop floor.  The ground floor had no walls and is open to the outside, except for a growing wall of climbers; possible because of the climate and creating an elegant integration of indoor and outdoor space.

Material Wall at EAFIT

All the floors connect easily with one another and while the building specification is basic it is in keeping with the design environment and almost certainly much cheaper than the over specified HE buildings which are the norm in the UK.  For me however the inspiring bit is the co-habitation of a space by staff and students committed to the co-creation of innovative design and to the creation of new products at the core of the student experience.  An inspirational building demonstrating and living the principles we aspire to in BU2018 in the form of co-creation in a common and shared learning community within a functional, rather than flash space, with student’s at the core – the epitome of Fusion!


I was also extremely impressed by the Research Centre at Universidad de Antioquia.  A 50,000 metre square building housing all the Universities’ top research groups; only those highly rated in something akin to the REF are provided with space in this cross-disciplinary centre.  The space was completely modular with research groups inhabiting either one or two modules depending on their size.  Most of it was wet labs with postgraduate and staff offices in each module, although some modules contained just offices.  The beauty of a modular structure is that it allows groups to move without expensive refits and provides an equity of space for all groups.  While the modules are in themselves quite claustrophobic on each corner of the building where communal spaces – kitchens and meeting rooms used by all the research groups encouraging inter-disciplinary interaction and collaboration.  Again an inspiring use of space to encourage innovation and collaboration between research groups, built around an efficient and equitable use of space.  It set me thinking about what BU could do around the cross-disciplinary research themes and our need for more space for Postgraduate Research students.  It is worth noting that staff had offices and labs in the Research Centre, but were still grounded in their home Schools and Departments reflecting the fact that all researchers still had to teach and live the research-education duality.  It just struck me that such buildings were inspired ways of breaking down the cellular structure which sometimes inhibits our drive at BU toward collaborative and inter-disciplinary research.

Both these building are inspiring examples of how architecture can support and encourage inter-disciplinary research and in my view at least provides potential role models for BU future estate.

Secondment Opportunities

The BU Dementia Institute (BUDI) is the fastest growing research and knowledge exchange opportunity within BU.  A cross disciplinary institute committed to making a difference in the community in which we live.  Most of us have been touched by Dementia in some way through family or friends and it is one of the most important societal themes that current challenge us.

There are huge opportunities for BU staff to get involved in research and knowledge exchange bids and activity.  It is very much of its moment and growing BUDI fast enough to cope with the demand is a challenge.  BUDI needs staff from across BU to get involved and urgently.  You don’t have to be a health care specialist to particpate, they need psychologists, education experts, marketing and media experts, business and leadership professionals, economists, engineers, data analysts, project managers and computer scientists.  It is truly cross-disciplinary and an ideal way for staff to gain experience of research and knowledge exchange bids.

In support of BUDI I am pleased to announce on before of the Study Leave Committee (Fusion Investment Fund) five dedicated secondment opportunities for BU staff to get involved with BUDI.  Five opportunities for staff to be bought out of their current roles for up to 6 months to get involved directly with BUDI, to lead and contribute to research and knowledge exchange bids which will make a real difference in society.  Potential applicants are encouraged to contact the Director of BUDI Professor Anthea Innes and can apply at any time via the Fusion Investment Fund application form details of which can be found on the staff portal.  Why not get involved and make a difference?





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 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!

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.