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Hiding Your Research Behind A Paywall Is Immoral

Thumbs up to Mike Taylor, a research associate at the University of Bristol who wrote this great article on the Guardian Higher Education Network this week. The gist is that many scientists publish their research in journals that require subscription payments, blocking the majority of interested readers from accessing their work. Keeping their research behind these types of ‘paywalls’ can’t be justified given that scientists’ job is to produce knowledge and make it freely available to all. The current ‘lack of prestige’ associated with open access publishing outlets must end; Scientists publishing in high-impact paywalled journals for their own career advancement must end; and we must fundamentally change academic culture to focus on free and open availability of knowledge for all people.

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My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

Disclaimer: No particular logic was employed in entitling or composing this post. I take no responsibility for any confusion, incredulity, or insanity that may result from reading it.

Today is such a blah sort of day. For those of you who may still be at the start of your PhDs, trust me, towards the end, just about every day will be a blah sort of day. That means you will have a seemingly endless number of things to do, but, rather than worry and try to keep up with them as you did in the beginning, you will take on a relaxed, apathetic kind of attitude that will still ensure you get things done eventually, but will freak out everyone around you in the process. It being a blah day, however, you will not care much about this, and will continue blahing around until there is blah no more.

This being my first and, so far, only time doing a PhD, I am still uncertain of how this actually works, but I will make sure I continue blogging about it to inform future generations of PhD-goers.

I had a quick-catch-up-before-Christmas-and-the-foreseeable-future meeting with my third supervisor on Saturday (yes, we occasionally come in to the office on weekends…academia is such a passionate place) and in all honesty I came out with more questions than when I went in. So many different things to chase up, look up, finish up. I have a meeting with my second supervisor tomorrow. No doubt that’s going to be just as chaotic, stirring up another list of things to do and not doing much to resolve others. Why is it that after two and a half years of virtually non-stop work and countless attempts at early preparation and drafting, my last few months of being a PhD student seem more hectic than ever? Sometimes I get the feeling I have the completely wrong idea of when this is going to end – it doesn’t end when you enter write-up, not when you submit, not when you have your viva, not even when you do your corrections, but when you get your certificate in the post. When you’ve got your certificate in the post, that’s it, you’ve got your PhD. That’s when all the PhD-related chaos finally comes to an end.

Of course, that’s when the postdoc-related chaos begins. But I don’t fancy writing about that right now.

Today is a blah sort of day. I have more on my ever-rolling To-Do list than I did last week, even though I thought the opposite would be the case. For my supervisory meeting tomorrow, I have to re-run all my analyses ready to show my supervisor, and track down some admin forms for her. For my other supervisors, I have a list of things to run after from our meeting on the weekend – mainly papers and other literature, but I also have to do the reading and actually work some kind of interpretation into my analysis, because field research is only ever quasi-experimental. Oh, the joys of social science!

Apart from all that, I also have to do that little job that’s been pushed back continuously for several months now…what was it again? Ah yes, writing my thesis.

Too bad you can’t write blah blah blah in that.

Yep.

I have already blogged about the similarities (according to a woman I once met at a conference) between PhDs and childbirth, though having munched my way through such a massive meal for no apparent reason, I see now the resemblance is uncanny. All these months, I’ve been eating fairly normally – lost a little weight, even – and now suddenly I seem to have an appetite that will not be satisfied. Graduation cravings, maybe?

More than that, though, as I was eating, I came to realise how much a PhD is a two-sided coin. I started this thing thinking it was all good – higher research makes you smarter, more analytical, more open-minded, and it helps you get a good paying job. A PhD, for those of us wanting to work in academia at least, is essentially a work visa to anywhere in the world.

These are all good things.

And yet, in bittersweet contradiction, PhDs make you stupid. I was reading the label on the back of a package of cookies yesterday, and at first misread the allergy warning as saying ‘Contains EEG [electroencephalography, a method of measuring electrical activity in the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp]’. “What?” I thought, and looked again. Then I realised it said ‘Contains EGG’. My immediate reaction? “That’s not how you write ‘EEG’!” It took a full minute or so before it dawned on me the damn word was egg.

My research isn’t even remotely related to EEG.

Then there’s the mad train of thought I had with my tacos. They put the mincemeat at the bottom of the shell, then add the lettuce, tomato, and cheese on top, putting each layer on top of the one under it, building upwards vertically. It looks better that way, yet when you take a bite out of the top, it contains only the salad fillings, because the meat is at the bottom. In order to get a quantity of all fillings in one mouthful, you then have to turn your head sideways and take a bite out of the side, which, as I found, leads to the nasty affliction known as taco rash on one side of the mouth, particularly after you bite in this way through five consecutive tacos. To solve this problem I set about creating a magnum opus (yes, this comes closer to being a magnum opus than my PhD thesis) – the ergonomically constructed taco. This involved setting the taco shell down sideways, spreading the mincemeat evenly across the whole bottom side, then layering each of the salad fillings evenly over it to create a homogeneously distributed filling mass.

Seriously, this is the kind of stuff I waste my (dubious) intelligence on.

Yesterday I had five tacos for dinner. Plus some cookies from the cookie packet warning me that they contain EEG brain waves. I am supposed to be a clever, sensible scientist with my wits about me. But that just isn’t the case. I have rarely come across a researcher or academic who did not, at some point, exhibit some noteworthy eccentricity or other. Because that is the nature of academia – it teaches sensibility, researches sensibility, yet it is seldom graced by sensible people.

Here’s to embracing the insanity…

I went to a conference in Wales yesterday. Apart from learning some interesting things about the research area it concerned, it also dawned on me that I was the only person out of a hundred or so delegates to turn up to this respectable scholarly gathering, taking place in a posh hotel in the countryside, in hiking gear.

This was a necessity, since the posh hotel in the countryside that hosted the conference was located, literally, at the top of a steep, rugged hill, surrounded by soft Welsh mist floating eerily over the adjacent golf course. It was damn cold. There weren’t even any pavements or trails for pedestrians, since anyone posh enough to stay in the hotel would have to be posh enough to have a posh car in which to drive up the steep, winding roads twisting and turning in all directions to the entrance, and posh enough to need one of those guys in tophats and tailcoats to run out and collect the carkeys for parking.

So, this is what led to me turning up to this posh hotel and to my posh seminar on the second floor to present my paper in my very unposh waterproof hiking trousers, windbreaker, and trainers.

I feel very self-conscious, still, at being a bit of a spectacle amongst all my high-heeled, tailored-suited peers.

Today I feel…dazed. Conferences – even one-day events – seem to have a dazing effect on me and I sit at my desk in the office the next day staring blankly at my surroundings, at my colleagues who smile at me politely and try not to let on that they think I’m probably mad, and wonder whether this is all going to be worth it in the end.

As a psychologist who thinks she almost has her PhD, I’m conscious that I’m being a little conceited when I say I can redefine chaos theory. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I can redefine chaos theory.

Right now, less than 6 months away from the (scheduled) end of my PhD, I am up to my neck in data, analyses and literature that need reading, re-reading, interpreting and writing, up to my eyeballs in anxiety about how I’m actually going to put my thesis together and have a fighting chance of passing my viva in July, and just about buried under my incredulity at being asked to teach a workshop series for 11 weeks next semester to a group of rowdy undergraduates. On top of all that, I also increasingly need to think about my life after my PhD (assuming I actually finish my PhD at some point, which still seems impossible at times) and keep up with a host of irritating errands that seem to keep popping up…like eating and sleeping. And showering. I seem to need to keep showering. According to my mum, these bizarre errands form part of something known as ‘everyday life’.

Huh.

Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that apart from the chaos of all of the above, I very often feel at a loss with regards to my work because my mind is in a state of chaos as well. This is especially annoying when my supervisors, whom I otherwise adore, tell me with apparent admiration that I am such an organised person. Actually, I have been told I am organised by quite a few people since I started grad school – at least two of my lab colleagues, a professor in another department whose research methods seminars I took for a semester, two of my three supervisors, the Dean of my department, and that bloke from Queensland who processed my passport renewal application at the Aussie high commission in London a couple years ago.

I’m telling you, people, I may seem the picture of organisation on the outside, but my mind is like a minefield littered haphazardly with all manner of academic and non-academic junk such that the phenomenological Me wandering through it in a vain attempt to understand myself and the significance of my work (if it has any significance at all) has frequently to jump, hop, swerve and somersault through the mess in order to navigate it, and even so does not make much progress in comprehending it.

I mean, a mind that can even produce a sentence like the one just above has got to be in for trouble when it comes to writing a thesis – a long, complex document that desperately requires a clear, logical, flowing structure and narrative.

More chaos to be added to my week:

Tuesday: A day trip to Wales to present a paper at a conference. I SWEAR I’m not doing any more of these until I have submitted my thesis!!!

Wednesday: Spending all day running my final analyses and probably getting confused and frustrated.

Thursday: More work on analyses.

Friday: Writing up the analyses and sending off the data files, output, and notes to my supervisor in advance of our meeting next week.

The weekend: Resolving to work on my thesis, but more likely finding something otherwise educational to do by way of active procrastination and convincing myself I’m still being productive…like reading some more of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, as I did this weekend.

Well, bring on the chaos! Let’s finish this thing!

I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

My lab colleagues, though I am sure they have problems of their own, wander into the office at half past ten to find, though I am sure they take it for granted, that the kitchen is clean and freshly disinfected, the printer cartridge has been replaced, the heating adjusted, and the door propped open so newcomers don’t have to punch the keycode in. All these things are done by a certain lab fairy, who gets in 3 hours earlier than them because she has to submit her thesis in May. Sometimes, she feels a little bitter towards them.

labfairy

“And I shall cast a spell on thee, and thy experiments shall fail!”

And however much I’ve lived and breathed psychology for the best part of a decade, there are days when my humanness gets the better of me, and I fall prey to feeling lonely and sorry for myself because nobody understands me, everything is failing, and it’s such a cruel, unfair world. These are my vices, my biases, the things that get me down. These are the things that make me worried, withdrawn, and grumpy on the inside of my stoic scientist exterior.

Despite the fact that I will, I hope, finish my PhD in relatively record time, it feels like I have been working in these labs forever. My exclusive love relationship with my research has become more of a love-hate relationship of late, and, today, this seems to have morphed into a hate-only affair.

It’s normal, though a little unhealthy, but I’m going to confess: Today I hate my thesis. I hate every aspect of it – its topic, its style, its content, its ideas. Not only do they make me feel nauseous, I find them inherently repulsive. Strangely, this maddening repulsion manifests in my behaviour as a bittersweet kind of screw-it attitude, which makes me laugh disturbingly when things go wrong, sometimes do things wrong on purpose, and, most of all, my colleagues look at me as if I’m a rabid flesh-eating alien.

crazy-student

“I swear, dude, I’m like, totally fine!”

In my (probably biased and naive) mind, this research will never amount to anything, and, in comparison to the research of many of my colleagues and postdocs in this place, is inferior, boring, and useless. It’s also profoundly bizarre – located at the crossroads of psychology and a mismatched spectrum of other social sciences, it sits awkwardly in the middle of the road, no doubt liable to be squashed to bits by oncoming traffic. Other people’s research seems so simple, so elegant, so…neat. Mine, on the other hand, struggles to fit into any box. It’s difficult even for me to describe it in a way that makes sense, let alone explain how it might be useful for anything. I think it might have something to do with the fact that my work is wholly non-experimental, which is unusual in my department, which houses a string of high-tech labs up and down the hall just outside, where most of my colleagues spend the days running bamboozling, wires-coming-out-of-their-ears experiments and having experimental meetings to talk about experimental stuff. Because of my epistemological stance and patched-together interdisciplinary locatedness, I am a bit of an outsider! I guess I can’t blame them for being indifferent towards me.

Life is inherently unfair. I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that if we – all of us together – resolved to eradicate injustice and inequality, we could do it. But, at this point at least, this is only likely to happen in an ideal world. PhDs are no exception to unfairness. Other people will have sexier research, geekier equipment, more celebrated publications than you. Their achievements will outshine yours and will be trumpeted louder and farther afield. There won’t necessarily be a justifiable reason for any of this – it will just be. You will try your best to soldier on in the academic jungle, but there will be times when you just think, screw it.
You will run away and hide in a cave – or, more likely, under your bed or at a bar – and sulk for a while. It will seem like the end of the world and a return to academia will feel like an absolute no-go.

Then, I think, you will resolve to come out again, and find a way to go on.

Everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear . . . but we must work. -Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

Yes, dear Chekhov, work we must!

In what seems like an impossible task (and there are many such tasks, along the road to PhDs), we must not fail to see the opportunities, the positivities, and the little things that make us smile. While we are labouring over drafts of hundreds of thousands of words, correcting, editing, rewriting altogether, while our experiments are failing and our software malfunctioning, while, because we live in the quiet, timeless bubble of academia, life seems to pass us by- there is hope.

We will work hard, and we will keep up hope, and one day, not so far away, we will accomplish what we set out to achieve.

 

And now it’s time for another whine at the frustrating state of women in science!

Scanning the ‘women in science’ news this morning hoping to come across an uplifting story, I instead found this article reporting a study done at the University of California-Davis on women’s participation at scientific conferences.

According to the study, which involved reviewing the conference programmes of a series of annual conferences in physical anthropology and primatology, fewer women spoke or presented than men, even though these sciences are traditionally female-dominated. Also:

  • Women were only half as likely to present in a symposium organised by a man than at one organised by a woman;
  • Participating women dominated the poster sessions while men were far more likely to give oral presentations or symposia.

If this level of inequality exists in a female-dominated field like primatology, goodness knows what’s happening at male-dominated science conferences…but hang on, we already know that!

Sometimes, whatever way you look at it, you lose.

Of course, it’s only more demoralising to hear about our own kind toting the line for ‘traditional’ gender roles, like Carla Bruni did the other day. I’m squirming in my incredulity at one of the highest-paid catwalk models with chauffeurs and cleaning staff telling us we don’t need to be feminist. Sure, Carla, if I were 6 feet tall and had maids to make my breakfast and clean my mansion, I’d sit around at home and give interviews to Vogue magazine too.

But then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Because even if we are provided for, does that legitimise girls growing up to stay at home? To look after the children, cook and clean, and do the ironing? To never feel curiosity to learn, to study, to be challenged? We live in the 21st century – when there is maternity leave at workplaces, more options for childcare, and maybe even a few decent men who don’t mind helping with housework. It’s more than possible – it’s necessary – for women to work, and not to work at some low-paid unrewarding post, but in some academic or industrial sector that fosters their curiosity and pushes them to aim higher.

We need more women in science, more women speaking at science conferences, more women in trade and in industry, doing jobs men are doing now, and doing it better than them.

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!