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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.

I think it’s psychosomatic.

Yesterday I felt elated at it being the first day of the new year, the year of 2013.

The year in which I will turn 23.

The year in which I will submit my thesis, have my viva, and gain my PhD.

The year in which I will start jobhunting in earnest, and hopefully land in a decent first post.

The year in which, after nearly 20 years in full time education, I will cease to be a student, at least officially.

Yesterday the rain that had been drizzling miserably over a cold and overcast London finally stopped. The sky was clear and the air clean and crisp.

Yesterday I felt hopeful that good things will happen this year.

Perhaps that feeling is yet to return.

But for the time being, today, I feel sick. I’ve spent the last 10 days or so, since Christmas, pushing myself to the limits of my sanity trying to rewrite Chapter 1 of my thesis. Surprisingly, the process proved less difficult than I had anticipated, and although I am only about 85% finished today (I had hoped it would be fully written by now), I have come into the campus to type up and send to my supervisors what I have written.

I am not at my desk in the office.

For some reason I feel estranged from it, and from the people I know will be there today. And if not today, then tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. They will have to come in eventually.

They’re not bad people. They just make me feel sick.

I’ve come to feel sensitive at the mention of names, places, things. Some of them remind me of the past, and some of them remind me of things inside my head. Things that may or may not exist, but that stay with me and make me feel sick anyway.

It feels like a kind of knot in my stomach that makes it impossible to eat, like my appetite has dwindled slowly to nothing. Throwing up doesn’t seem to be out of the question. I’m sitting in relative darkness in a deserted corner of a computer lab. I’m feeling sick, and also the constant, numbing pressure to stop procrastinating and type.

I’m probably going to be here until 4 or 5 this afternoon.

I can’t afford to procrastinate.

Other things have happened, too. A paper I had under review for the last 3 months came back with the request to revise and resubmit. Apparently the two reviewers were in almost direct disagreement; one was positive, the other suggested rejection. The comments were fair, I’m not taking it personally, but nevertheless the prospect of revisiting the same material to make revisions, and then going through another round of the holding-my-breath-for-the-decision process after resubmission, is daunting. It’s making me feel sick.

My viva is in July. Before, it felt like July 2013 was light years away. Now the calendar doesn’t say “2011” or “2012” any more. The neat little 2013 in my diary pages that I will work my way through as I write – I flick through them like one of those flipbook animations. The time is going to pass so quickly, I’m going to be confused, baffled, bamboozled. I’m not going to know where the days have gone.

I feel sick in my stomach, and half asleep in this dreary darkness of a deserted computer lab. The tap-tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is the only sound I hear.

I’m going to start typing now.

I’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

In retrospect, I was wrong about last Monday. It’s actually today that’s manic. Today I have to:

  • Type up a letter for the landlord’s solicitor
  • Photocopy a stack of receipts
  • Set up my last study and start data collection
  • Type up a case file on my external examiner for my supervisor
  • Type of an abstract to append to my next paper and submit it to its journal
  • Catch up with my supervisor
  • Book train tickets for a conference in December
  • Draft out the next section of my thesis

But you know what? I got into the office at 7:30am today and got straight to work. And so far everything’s been panning out fine.

It’s times like these I remember this is the reason I love doing my PhD. Because I like it when I make it work.

I’m meandering a bit but I’m on my way out of the maze.

Today I am at a point where I have completed all trivial ‘bits and pieces’ of work that have plagued me over the summer: Things like writing and submitting conference abstracts (which take a hell of a long time to get right, despite being only 250 words), registering for conferences (these also take a long time because of bureaucratic funding applications, forms, committees, and authorising people being on leave), preparing lecture slides (the set I did for a 2-hour talk took 2 whole weeks to perfect, twice as long as I had thought originally), setting up and completing side projects (these drag on for weeks when your heart isn’t in them), rewriting papers (that were rejected by particular epistemologically biased journals), and PROCRASTINATING (no explanation required). So, for the last 8 weeks I’ve been madly rushing to get these ‘bits and pieces’ done, as much as is possible between cyberdistractions and periods of inspirationlessness, often beating myself up for not going fast enough.

Now the bulk of it is over, done, complete; for better or worse. Now I have a little time left to make the decision I’ve been expertly avoiding, evading, and escaping from for 2 years: Where is my research going? What am I going to do next?

And then this is the part where I run from my office, screaming and flailing my arms, unable to endure the incredulity of not knowing what to do for a second longer, and finally losing all tangible hope that I could ever come up with a theoretically meaningful concluding study for my thesis. I wander around, dazed and muttering to myself, for several days, before I am escorted by a pair of men in white coats to some pristine relaxation resort in the countryside, where I spend the rest of my days swinging from deep, inconsolable despair to insane, nonsensical mania at my miserably failed PhD.

It is almost a pity the reality is so much tamer!

In reality there are no mad outbursts, no fits of rage, no (happy?) endings in psychiatric wards. In reality there is just calm little me, calmly working myself into a sweat at how I can calmly finish my thesis while staying calm, all the while staying calm, calm, calm. No drama. Just need to make calm decisions, even though there is so little time.

I remember some of the things I said before about hope, and hard work. Those were probably some of the best reflections I’ve made about my experiences in this thing. Hope and hard work are the two things that have always carried me through the crises, the binges, the periods of sadness, and the moments of madness. I’ve afforded myself the opportunities to take to my bed, indulge in self-pity and wallow in laziness, but after that I’ve willed myself to get up, tidy up, and get back to work. Since it hasn’t killed me I guess it will make me stronger. And it will make you stronger, too!

In finally coming to a point where I can’t procrastinate any longer, I suppose only hope and hard work can save me now.

This feels like a tight corner, where there is no room to move – a corner whose walls have been edging inwards bit by bit ever since I started, and which have finally wedged me right in. I can’t move anywhere until I decide, and I can’t decide until I think about it, and I can’t think about it until I stop procrastinating! This is why I love procrastinating so much. Because it lets us do fun little things while the big important stuff gets put on the waiting list.

Today is one day when hope and hard work must come to the rescue and push me to finally name my next move.

Today I’m going to choose to have hope, and I’m going to choose to work hard. And I’m going to choose to be happy because those two things are going to carry me through to the end of this great journey.

Friend of WikiLeaks

July 2020
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The Final Countdown

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