Friday, May 29, 2009

The Last of Sixteen Weeks

We have once again reached the end of the sixteen working weeks. I have to admit that I haven't been quite as focused on my own writing, especially near the end, as I would have liked. Nor have I have been jogging as much as I would have liked. But the whole point of this period is precisely to allow for such assessments.

Let me quickly describe how this is supposed to work again.

There are seventeen weeks from the middle of of August til one week before Christmas. The challenge is to plan a writing process for those weeks long before you go on summer vacation.

Here's how to go about it. First, scratch one week for vacation. For most people, this will coincide with the fall break, or Week 42 here in Denmark, leaving 8 weeks on either side. Next, scratch the weekends; plan to have fun; plan to relax. That leaves sixteen five-day working weeks. Divide each day into two three-hour sessions.

A writing schedule should never dominate a whole day. The standard solution is to write in the morning (9 til noon) and then do other things. If you can only write in the afternoon or in the evening, that's fine, but then you need to make sure you leave some other part of your day free to do the things that "normal" people do in the evenings. Otherwise you are asking for burnout.

In any case, at most one of the two daily sessions should be devoted to your writing. Some quick math: 5 times 16 is 80 sessions. 80 times 3 is 240 hours. The most intense "writing semester" I recommend, then, without knowing anything more about your research practices, is to devote 240 hours specifically to publishing your results. (You have to find your optimal intensity, however; it could 160 or 320 hours, i.e., 2-hour sessions, or 4-hour sessions.)

My challenge to you is to decide over the next few weeks what you might use those hours for. You have to be realistic, of course. So if you know you are going to do a lot of teaching, consider 3 sessions a week (144 hours), or even just one (48 hours). But keep in mind that you already have half your day free for teaching and administrative work. As part of your planning, try to find out exactly when your teaching will take place. If you know you will be doing some individual supervision, book the time into your calender now. You can always move it a around a bit as needed, but there is nothing wrong with asking your students to respect your schedule. Your final plan can obviously only be made when all these unknowns become knowns.

Now, schedule your writing time. Put it in your calender, preferably in a repeating pattern: every day, every other day, or once a week. In addition, I have begun to recommend putting in a short session, 15-30-minutes at the start of the days you can't reserve a full 2 or 3-hour writing session on. That way you are writing every day.

In order to use your writing time effectively, you have to have something to write about. You don't have know exactly what you want to say, but you have to know what your want to talk about. Your writing schedule needs to map onto the outline of one or two papers or chapters that you plan to write. Part of planning a writing process is planning the written product. So write an abstract and make an outline for each project (chapter or paper).

That's it. The hard part, of course, will be sticking to your schedule. But you can't begin to do that until you make one.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Practical Professors

I'm still working on my review of Michèle Lamont's How Professors Think, which I'm having a hard time getting into. Here are a couple of passages that, I think, reveal why.

They usually have a month or so to study the applications and accompanying material and come up with rankings. In most cases, this reading and evaluating is "squeezed" into a schedule already overpacked with teaching; communicating formally and informally with colleagues; meeting with and advising graduate students; serving on departmental, university-wide, and professional committees; doing research; and writing books and papers. Many panelists say they use time usually spent with their families to evaluate proposals, which often consumes weekends. For instance, a sociologist explains that he spent a whole weeked reading his eighteen proposals, allotting forty minutes to each. (40, my emphasis)

The first part is an established fact (she cites relevant sociological studies): academics are very busy. But the second part (which I have italicized) reports on the results of her own research and suggests that she takes her informants pretty much at their word. But there is reason to think that academics aren't very good at estimating the amount of time they spend at particular tasks, nor even distinguishing real busy-ness from passive worrying. I haven't found anything to suggest that Lamont is critical or skeptical about her informants' responses.

One gets the sense that this book isn't so much about "academic judgment" (as the subtitle suggests) as academic self-esteem:

They invest themselves in decisions and share excitement with others. They reach "good enough" decisions instead of ideal ones, because they have to get the job done in the time allotted. They go home usually feeling that they have risen to the occasion, betraying neither "the system" nor themselves. They have stood for principles, but not so rigidly that they could not reach consensus. For them, panels are an opportunity to be influential, and to be appreciated. (240-1)

Not so much how professors think but how they feel when they are asked to assess the proposed research of others. They react to this task as problematic (to borrow a formulation of Dewey's); they are pragmatists about "fair evaluation"; the "truth" about the quality of each proposal is "what works" to get them through the assignment of evaluating it (240).

My problem with this is that they share their pragmatism with Lamont. At bottom, I'm not sure she reaches her conclusion on the basis of her evidence, but is, in a sense, an apologist for the somewhat (and perhaps seriously) compromised ("squeezed") process of research evaluation. She doesn't presume to have any privileged point of view from which to make such a judgment. In a sense, the evaluators, whose job it is to judge, are trying to be equally unpresumptuous.

There is something wrong here. But I'm still trying to identify exactly what that is.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Maureen Dowd

As I'm writing this, the story about Maureen Dowd's plagiarism of Josh Marshall is that she lifted the 43-word paragraph from a friend's email, who lifted it from Marshall's blog.

While he doesn't condone the behaviour, Jack Shafer at Slate takes the opportunity to praise Dowd's response to the charges. Most importantly, he says, she doesn't claim that what she has done is not plagiarism (as many who are caught do) and is "taking her lumps".

Unfortunately, Clark Hoyt, the public editor at the NYTimes has gone ahead and denied it for her: "I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right." This is odd because the only thing that could be wrong with presenting someone else's words (whether another writer's or a friend's) as your own is that it is plagiarism. The NYTpicker rightly jumps on Hoyt for it here) and rightly demands an answer to a further question, raised by Dowd's account. Has the NYTimes asked Dowd for a copy of the email of correspondence during which the mistake was made?

At first I agreed with Shafer, that Dowd was doing the right thing after having done the wrong thing. I.e., I believed that she was owning up. But she actually changed her story, which went from plagiarize her friend "in conversation" to plagiarizing his/her email. Either way, she was, I would argue, trying to avoid taking the hit (and her lumps) directly.

I have some questions. Did she ask permission? If so, why did her friend not protect her friend's reputation by owning up to the source?

There is no excuse for using someone else's words in your writing without proper attribution. It may have been a mistake, an intentional act of theft, or it may have been an intential act based on utter ignorance of the academic and journalistic standards. I think the Dowd example shows that you should never try to explain your plagiarism in a way that tries to take the punch out of the charge by obscuring the trail. (E.g., "I didn't plagiarize Dowd. I plagiarized a friend who plagiarized Dowd.")

One thing I've noticed about plagiarism throughout the past few years is that doing it often inspires your peers to take the gloves off in their criticism of you. Note Dan Kennedy's (though his gloves were actually already off) and Hadley Freeman's pieces in the Guardian. The latter is especially telling. A solid case of plagiarism, even one that everyone agrees is minor, allows a fashion writer to call a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist "dumbo". It really does allow that.

Update: I think it's significant that Time connects the charge to "grumblings" about Dowd's lack of originality (a charge also makes by Dan Kennedy) in terms of her tendency to quote at length.

Update 2: Jon Friedman makes a related observation that resonates with my own experience with plagiarism. "An accusation of plagiarism is merely a symptom of Dowd's recent penchant for relying on clever, witty and pithy observations. What's missing is the substance to back them up. Her approach smacks of laziness."

Update 3: I like Dan Kennedy's stick-to-it-ness.

Update 4: The always informative Language Log analysis.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New York Times Plagiarism Case

Just a quick note on Maureen Dowd's plagiarism of Josh Marshall. TPM (the plagiarized site) has the details. The issue at this point seems to be whether it's a "big deal" or not.

I want to point out that the correction turns what was previously presented as Dowd's analysis into a quotation of existing commentary. It comes to have the same function as the preceding paragraph rather than the one that follows.

In academic writing (and, I would argue, in opinion pieces) that is a big deal. It is not just the failure to attribute the idea to Josh Marshall that is important. It's the failure to acknowledge that it isn't part of your own analysis. I think that's why she chose the "a friend gave me the line" excuse. In its original form, the paragraph was clearly not supposed to be citing another's commentary but presenting Dowd's.

I think the correction is a bit too minimalistic in this light as well. She should have corrected to it to read, "I agree with Josh Marshall when he says..."

In academic writing it is very tempting to turn a quote into your own prose, i.e., passing from the literature review to your own contribution a bit sooner. But it's also very, very wrong.

Basics

Jonathan has written a good post about "the scholarship base". It suggests that a research project has an invisible supporting "mass", or what Hemingway would call a "dignity of movement". Research results are not something you can just produce to order. You have to be working on your base. Every now and then, something emerges, and you can then spend some time getting it into shape for publication. Most of the time, however, you are maintaining your knowledge base.

I think this insight is an important one, also for university administrators to recognize. Slow and steady does it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

MacGuffin

I learned a new word on the weekend while reading movie reviews. MacGuffin: "an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance" (Merriam-Webster). Slavoj Zizek has put it to use in analyzing the Iraq war. Alfred Hitchcock described it as follows:

the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever. (Screen Online)

The idea that the Maltese Falcon "lacks intrinsic importance" in The Maltese Falcon is counterintuitive enough to justify a bit of scrutiny. But perhaps the fact that it turns out to be a fake is the telling point. That fact does not really matter to the plot. The story could have developed in exactly the same way if the statuette had really been priceless. The fact that it is worthless only serves to mock the ambition of the bad guys, I suppose. When Spade describes the falcon as "the stuff that dreams are made of" he is, of course, also describing a MacGuffin.

Academic writing is neither dreaming nor mere story-telling. Still, I wonder if we can identify a MacGuffinesque element in academic texts, i.e., an object that moves the argument along while being of "no importance whatsoever" to the writer and reader. In a story, we must accept that the characters are very interested in the object, but we must not ourselves be interested in it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Alternative Media (2)

I wanted to write a post about the Social Science Research Network this morning, but it doesn't look like I'll get around to it. My basic suggestion, however, is to use this form of self-publishing for work that you would consider letting a publisher like VDM have instead. It's much more likely to have an impact there and doesn't look like an attempt to bulk up your list of publications. (You would list it as a working paper.) Also, as far as I know, publishing an early version of a paper with SSRN does not hinder your ability to publish in a more prestigious journal at a later date. But that's what I wanted to look into before writing this post. I'll return to this issue soon, I hope.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Objectivity

There's a promising discussion going on over at orgtheory.net. It just gave me an "Aha!" moment that I wanted to note down.

Objects are the things that concepts condition our experience of. (Concepts can be understood as "conditions of the possibilty of experiencing things as objects" to use a roughly Kantian formulation.)

Now, in science we are tempted to think of objects as having "properties". Physics, for example, studies, well, "physical objects" and it measures, e.g., their mass and velocity. But couldn't mass and velocity themselves be considered the "objects" of physics? The things-as-such (Dinge an sich) ... billiard balls and planets ... it doesn't say anything "about". Physics does not represent the solar system or a billiard table. It represents the relevant masses in motion.

Would this solve any philosophical (metaphysical) problems about science? I think I'm going to have look back into the old realism/anti-realism debates.

Alternative Media (1)

Peer-reviewed journals are not the only game in town. One of my authors recently received an email from VDM Verlag offering to publish her master's thesis. It sounded a little too easy, so I had a look around and found a few online discussions that confirmed my suspicions (or at least expressed some of them as well). The Leiter Reports thread is representative. VDM appears to be a new kind of vanity press.

Vanity presses actually build on practices already adopted by ordinary publishers. Many small university presses rely on research foundations to support the publication of monographs. Authors typically get funding to publish the results they have arrived at while working on a grant from the same foundation. In principle, these books are subject to the same editorial controls as any other book, but since the publisher's costs are covered there is little risk and, therefore, some measure of "moral hazard".

Many perfectly good (but often somewhat stuffy) dissertations are published by a still more legitimate mechanism used by some of the prestigious publishing houses. On this model, the publisher accepts a manuscript (often a lightly revised dissertation) which is then published as a high-quality hardback and sold at a very high price. The book is normally bought be every major library in the world (normally exhausting much of the first printing). No one expects very many individuals to buy it and it is only if the reviews and general interest subsequently exists that a more affordable paperback is put out. Otherwise, the book remains, largely unread, on the shelves of the world's libraries. Here the publishers and the libraries are serving the important function of documenting what a particular scholar knows at a particular time, preserving that knowledge for future scholars even if the present interest is not sufficient to justify publication as a "business proposition".

It is this good idea—that some books should be published even in the absence of a "market" for them—that has led naturally to the emergence of the vanity press. The business model is easy to understand: instead of being selective about what they publish, these publishers either charge their authors for the cost of printing the books or count on them buying a sufficient number of copies (either to sell or to give away to friends) or both. The only editorial oversight here is the author's, yes, vanity.

This is not to be confused with so-called "author-pays" open access journals, some of which are perfectly respectable operations (though I don't know of any high-ranked journals in the field of management that use this approach). Here the low cost of on-line publication makes it possible to charge only a small fee for the service of processing a text. This fee is usually only paid by the authors whose texts are published. There is the temptation to establish a "pay-for-play" racket, which is essentially a vanity press for journal articles, but with a sufficient amount of submissions there is no reason to go there.

VDM apparently solicits manuscripts that are otherwise unlikely ever to become books. They contact authors who have written master's theses, i.e., often texts that the authors had not yet thought of publishing. Once accepted, a few copies are printed and sent to the author (in some cases also to a few libraries); the rest is sold on a print-on-demand basis. The books are reputed to be very expensive, though they are produced at almost no cost. VDM seems to be counting on selling a few copies of books from a very large catalogue, no doubt because the reader has some pretty direct relation to the author.

I don't recommend publishing in this way. On Friday I'll have a look at some better alternatives to peer-reviewed journals.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How Professors Think

The good people at Harvard University Press sent me a copy of Michèle Lamont's How Professors Think to review recently. This isn't yet that review (I haven't finished reading the book) but I do want to bring the book to the attention of my readers. This post is sort of a preview of the review. A trailer.

Lamont has set out to discover how the profesors who serve on the funding panels of major American research foundations evaluate the quality of the proposals they are asked to consider. In a word, she is trying trying to understand what they mean by excellence in research. To this end, she has interviewed 49 panelists over a two year period. Some were interviewed twice (66 interviews with panelists in all). Most of the interviews, which lasted about 90 minutes, were conducted over the phone using an "open-ended and inductive interviewing technique ... to identify and explore the taken-for-granted criteria that panel members rely on to draw boundaries between deserving and undeserving research projects" (253). In addition to this she conducted 15 interviews with people who could provide her with information about the decision-making processes of the panels she was studying. She was also able to observe three of the panels at work, i.e., sit in on their deliberations.

These methodological concerns are important when assessing the book's significance overall and, for me, important in deciding how to read it. It is a very interesting book, after all, so it is important to keep its conclusions in perspective. As she points out (257-8), the study is limited to multi-disciplinary, grant review panels, and is "based on a limited number of interviews". I would add as a limitation that the interview setting was chosen on highly pragmatic grounds. "Face-to-face interviews were conducted with panelists located within driving distance of my university" (253). Early on, she points out that her perspective might be a bit biased by her "insider" status as a tenured Harvard professor (16) and I note that there is a remarkable likeness between her own pragmatism and the pragmatism she ascribes to her interview subjects. The fact that she interacted more intimately with professors in the neighbourhood of Harvard is not, I think, wholly unimportant.

Perhaps the most striking passage so far:

Responses ranged from the highly developed and coherent to the off-the-cuff, unreflective, and inchoate. Participant's frank appraisals of their own and others' fields offer a unique window into what academics—and academia—are all about. My analysis uncovers a world that is understood only partially and generally imperfectly, even by most members of the academic community, let alone the general public. (15)

The idea that the "frankness" of interview subjects offers a "window" (a transparent view into) how the panels work is of course questionable. But I think it will be more constructive (and in line with my own pragmatism) to say that this book is really a reflection on evaluation by a member of the community that undertakes those evaluations (and, as she notes, gets funded on the basis of them). The book might also have been been called How I Think. The interviews offered not so much a window into a world Lamont stands outside (along with her readers) as a mirror before which she is able to reflect on her own principles of judgment. It offers the reader the same thing and, from what I have read so far, it's a very good mirror indeed.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Grammar of Author-Date (4)

On Wednesday, I suggested that Foucault 1972 was not the best reference for the claim that "organizational members structure their experience of reality through discourse". By "Foucault 1972" I presumed we* meant "The Discourse on Language", which was published as a postscript to Pantheon's 1972 publication of the The Archaeology of Knowledge. But we might also have mean that whole book.

Jonathan was right (in the comments) to point out that that is a pretty narrow claim to attribute to a whole book. I would add that the claim is not made anywhere in the book. And this is where the demand for a page reference becomes important; that, at least, would make it possible to decide whether I'm right about this. As I read him, Foucault is not talking about how individuals (and certainly not "members" of "organizations") structure their experience. Revisiting the book tonight, I want to say that Foucault's point is that subjective experience is utterly unstructured by discourse. What Foucault is interested in what makes people able or unable to speak of their experiences, not what conditions them to have those experiences.

Compare a claim like "people construct their reality in social interactions" which would standardly be referenced to Berger & Luckmann 1966 (i.e., The Social Construction of Reality). Now, that whole book is certainly an argument for the claim being referenced. But if we add simply "through language", we would be obliged to tell the reader where in Berger and Luckmann's book they make that claim, and this would give us an opportunity to be a bit more precise. Is language a necessary part of the construction of reality? Is it something we merely sometimes use to that end?

Now, suppose we had said "through discourse". At this point I would begin to hesitate. How much did Berger and Luckmann actually say about "discourse" and did they mean by that in 1966 what we post-Foucauldians mean by that today? That's probably how the reference to Foucault 1972 came into play. We wanted to say "discourse" and we wanted to mean what Foucault meant. We then forgot that Foucault hadn't made the claim we were making.

____________
*This is such a small detail that I'm not mentioning names. So I'm just assuming we're all in this together. You and I, dear readers, and the authors who wrote the original sentence.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Grammar of Author-Date (3)

Consider the following claim, which has been published in a perfectly good management journal:

Organizations are accomplished linguistically and are enacted discursively. Through discourse, organizational members structure their experience of reality (Foucault, 1972) and make sense of their experience in doing so (Weick, 1995).

Weick 1995 is Sensemaking in Organizations, which is familiar to organization theorists. Foucault 1972 is listed in the bibliography as follows:

Foucault, M. (1972). The order of discourse. New York: Pantheon Books.

But Pantheon did not publish a book called The Order of Discourse in 1972. Pantheon published The Archeology of Knowledge in that year, and it included as a postscript a translation of Foucault's L'ordre du discours, which was published in 1971 by Gallimard. But the title of the postscript was "The Discourse on Language". Needless to say, you should avoid this kind of mistake in your referencing.

But there are more serious problems here, which have to do with the way the sentence brings together "discourse" and "organization". Foucault does not write about organizations and Weick does not really write about discourse. Consider the following sentences, which can be analyzed straightforwardly out of the second sentence quoted above:

Organizational members structure their experience of reality through discourse (Foucault, 1972).

Organizational members make sense of their experience by structuring their experience of reality through discourse (Weick, 1995).

When referencing, make sure that the text you cite actually makes the claim you want it to support. There is no shortage of texts out there that make the connection that is needed here, and these text of course also site Foucault and Weick. In this case, I think the references are only intended to fix the meaning of the words "make sense" (Weick 1995) and "discourse" (Foucault 1972). They are not intended as support for the claim being made.

More on this on Friday.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Grammar of Author-Date (2)

Consider the following sentences:

Stress-related sick leave is related to organizational complexity in important ways (Smith 1999).

Smith's study (1999) indicated that there are important connections between organizational complexity and stress-related sick leave.

The reference refers to the same text in both cases, but notice that it does very different work. In the second sentence, we are merely refering to the object (Smith's paper) that we are describing; we are making a claim only about what Smith said, not what is true in the world. We can go on to criticize Smith's study if we choose. In the first sentence, by contrast, we are citing Smith's study as support for a claim about the world that we want the reader to accept. We are implicitly saying that Smith was right. We are saying that we believe him and that we think the reader should believe him too.

Notice how this can be gleaned from the grammar of the sentence. In the first sentence the reference cites support for a whole sentence, a statement of fact. In the second sentence the reference only guides our interpretation of the words "Smith's study".

I raise this because I sometimes get the sense that authors use references as in the first sentence when they only really intend the meaning of the second. That is, when pressed about the truth of the claim they will say, "Well, that's what Smith said." It's important here not to give referencing the magical power to turn anything that has been written down into truth. Some studies (especially meta-studies) do allow you to support statements of fact. Others you really only want to use as part of a larger argument for that fact.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Grammar of Author-Date

I sometimes say that the Chicago Manual of Style has an answer to every question. While that's an exageration, of course, I did just find it taking a position on a point of finer detail that I think vaguely about from time to time:

An author-date citation, like any other bibliographic citation, is a noun form; it denotes a work, not a person ... A locution such as "in Smith 1999," though technically proper, is awkward and best avoided. Reword—for example, "Smith's study (1999) indicates that ..." (16.115)

The CMoS calls this a "syntactic consideration", which is to say that it goes to the logic of referencing, and I want to spend a few posts on that subject.

Suppose that Joe Smith once discovered that there is a positive link between organizational complexity and stress-related sick leave and that he published a paper presenting this finding in 1999. If you want to cite this paper, you need to put it on your reference list (more on that later). Once this has been done, as the CMoS points out, you have created a noun, in fact, a proper name, but not of a person. It's the name of a thing—a text, a "work".

"Joe Smith" is the name of the author. And "Smith 1999" is the name of the text. As the CMoS points out, you can, technically speaking, use "Smith 1999" straighforwardly in a sentence.

Smith 1999 is a study of organizational complexity and its connection to stress-related sick leave.

Let me stress that this is not good style, it is just okay grammar. And here's the subtle syntactical point: the following sentence is grammatically wrong.

Smith (1999) is a study of organizational complexity and its connection to stress-related sick leave.

By putting the date in brackets the single noun "Smith 1999" is actually converted into two separate nouns, both of which are short forms that depend on context to make sense. It actually says:

Joe Smith (Smith 1999) is a study of organizational complexity and its connection to stress-related sick leave.

And that's not true, of course. Joe is not a study (he is a 'student' of the subject). And the reference is in a strange position so that we don't really know what it's saying. We've essentially made nonsense of this sentence.

I suspect that a great deal of writing in organization theory (and no doubt also other fields) is rendered nonsensical because too many writers don't understand the syntax of author-date references. The purpose of a reference is to refer, of course, and a successful act of referring is one that indicates exactly that thing, or part of a thing, that you want point out to the reader. Over the next few posts I want to show just how precisely that can actually be done.