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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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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.

This post isn’t about the history of PhDs since mediaeval times. I would rather write an 80,000 word thesis than post about that – I’m that sick of them.

There’s a lot of talk these days – as there always has been – on women in science and the ‘fact’ that we are too stupid to ever succeed in it, because we’re women. Well, apart from being female, I am also blessed to be young, and, as we all know, young women are doubly stupid when it comes to science, because, well, we’re young.

I’m fortunate not to have to hear a lot of crap about the ‘inappropriateness’ of my gender for being a science researcher, mainly because my area is psychology rather than the life or physical sciences, which are notoriously male-dominated. In psychology – at least within the bubble of academia – departmental staff are pretty much split even, and among psychology students, there is actually a female majority, often even on modules that might be expected to appeal more to males, like evolutionary or cognitive psychology. I feel comfortably at home as a female psychologist.

And yet, I am still not free of stigmatization: Because of my age.

I began my PhD when I was 20 (“What? Really?” comes the response). The reason for this is that I had finished my degree early, because I had started it early, aged 17, and I had done that because I finished school early, because I started when I was 4. It’s all quite complicated and not worth explaining here, because it doesn’t really matter. As they say, what matters is that we’re here, we’re together, and every day brings us closer to a cure. Or whatever.

Anyway, I was 20 when I started. I had a first class degree and I’d been accepted onto a research programme, so there seemed little point in waiting around, doing a masters degree. Come to think of it, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t, because while researching for my masters dissertation I might have cottoned on to the fact that research is inherently boring, and never have come to grad school, and never have come this close to getting my PhD, and therefore never be able to get a job in academia.

Well. Actually. Maybe I went wrong after all.

Over the last few years I have always worked in an environment in which everyone is always older than me. Even people who have come fresh from degrees have an MSc and are at least 24 when they start. In my case, the youngest fellow PhD student I’ve met was 25 when she started, and she was deregistered in her first year for not being able to meet required standards. As for the rest of my colleagues – they’re well into their 30s, if not their 40s or even 50s, and many of them are married, have children, and even had whole other careers (like a PhD in theoretical physics) before they decided to study psychology.

They mean well, but many of the people I work with – including the many women – have, at some point or other, made insensitive comments about my age, such as about me being ‘too young’ to be doing PhD research, being a ‘little girl’, and telling me they don’t mean to patronise me BUT…[insert patronising comment of choice here].

I’ve come to accept that having assumptions made about me is unavoidable in everyday life outside of academia. For example, I once walked into an O2 shop to buy credit for my mobile phone. While taking the cash and printing out the vouchers, the assistants tend to make small talk with you to distract from the fact that you’re being kept waiting. This happened to be in June, when most schools and universities have exam weeks.

“So, studying for exams then?” Asked the guy behind the counter.

“Yes…kind of,” I said, trying to avoid the tediousness of explaining that annual monitoring reviews are technically a type of exam for PhD students.

“A levels?” Asked the guy.

“What?”

“A level exams…you know, when you’re 16?”

I was too startled to be angry. “No, I’m actually-”

“-GCSEs?” he butted in.

“What?”

“GCSEs…are you in sixth form?”

“I’m actually at university,” I said, starting to feel irritated.

“Oh, sorry,” he apologised, starting to look sheepish. “You must be revising hard.”

“I’m doing a PhD…you know, like research?”

At this point the guy went beetroot red – and must have been relieved to finally tear off the printed vouchers before he made any more embarrassing assumptions. Actually, he was probably glad to see me on my way before I might tell him I’m actually a child-genius-turned-professor-of-rocket-science-from-Yale, or some such thing.

I was just glad to have my vouchers.

This sort of thing I can bear in life – but the fact that others in the same boat as me, in academia, doing research, do the same thing, does make me mad. You may be a forty-something mother of two teenagers with a defunct career in architecture out there in the real world, but when we’re working in this lab together we are colleagues, peers, and equals, and the fact that I am 22 years old bears no relation to that. I am competent in my research and that it what is required of me. As long as I meet this requirement, my age is irrelevant.

Just as there ought not to be such a thing as ‘too old to do a PhD’, nor should there be such a thing as ‘too young’. I am not a ‘little girl’. I don’t appreciate being patronised by people who are my equals in academia just because they were born 25 years before I was.

It’s time to cut the crap on women and younger researchers having no place in academia, being too stupid to understand science, and showing no potential to succeed.

We need to focus on the brains, not the boobs, and definitely not the years.

Now that he’s spoken, I’m reminded that I am, actually, trying to finish my PhD, and that I should probably get on with it.

So what’s happened in the fortnight since I returned to the office?

I had resolved to begin drafting out chapters and collecting my last bit of data immediately, but for a few different reasons, I haven’t been moving as quickly as I’d hoped. Firstly, I confess there’s been some procrastination. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by all the different things that need my attention that I can’t decide which one I should start with and how I should go about finishing. So all of them stay unattended to, and I wallow in the misery of feeling inefficient and incapable.

Secondly, I’ve realised it’s meaningless to start collecting data immediately, because since university students comprise my target population, I’d be wasting my time in searching for them when the semester has only just started. Undergraduates are milling around everywhere at the moment, like headless chickens, trying to find lecture theatres, working out timetabling abbreviations (“What does ‘TBA’ mean? What does ‘TBA’ mean??” one was screeching yesterday) and getting frustrated upon finding out they actually need to reach into their pocket, extract their student card, and swipe it on the card reader before the automatic door will open for them. What a drag. So I’m waiting till next week before I start my hopefully-not-much-longer-than-6-weeks surveying.

Another reason I can’t seem to move faster with my work is this feeling of not being ready. Chatting with a resident postdoc yesterday, I suddenly realised how unaccustomed I am to talking about my ‘thesis’, my ‘examiners’, my ‘viva’, and my ‘career’. These are things that happen towards the tail end of PhDs. I’ve become so used to being at the beginning and in the middle of my PhD, I can’t get my head around the end of it. What’s it like to actually have a fully written, edited, proofed and bound thesis? What’s it like to come face to face with your examiners? And have a viva? And, God forbid, what about my career? I’ve been a full time student since the age of four – I don’t know a thing about careers! I guess this is what causes many a PhD student nearing completion to dilly-dally and drag their feet, feeling comfortable with the way things are and needing a little more time to consider what they want to do next.

But we just don’t live in a world like that any more. We don’t have time to dilly-dally. While we’re dilly-dallying, other PhD go-getters, who aren’t necessarily smarter than us, but just more ambitious, are already out there, throwing themselves into competitive jobs, publishing, presenting, networking, globetrotting and getting promoted.

What a drag.

And then there’s this talk of postdocs. I always thought I’d take up a lectureship at the end of my PhD, and live happily ever after. Now I’m not so sure. I like research, and there are continuations of my PhD research that I’d like to do after I finish. And with all respect to lecturers, at least the ones I’ve seen, they work long hours for average pay and spend so much time managing ‘unskilled’ research methods courses they hardly have a moment to do research or even teach on specialist courses. I’m not sure I want that – I don’t want to have done all this research I’m really interested in, only to spend the next 3 to 6 years of my life teaching undergrads what a variable is. I respect that someone’s got to do it. I just don’t want it to be me.

Oh, woe to us on the brink of thesis submission. There is just so much confusion.

Friend of WikiLeaks

November 2018
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The Final Countdown

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