Category Archives: Postgraduate supervision

On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

Several friends in recent weeks have contacted me about whether or not they should consider doing a PhD – and the first question I always ask is “why?”. How they answer that has a huge impact on how I answer their own question. However, it has made me realise that although I have written many bits and pieces about the changing character of a PhD, I have never pulled them all together into a single place. This reflection is therefore in part a summary of how I see PhDs as having changed since I completed all 642 pages of my own thesis in 1979 (having started in 1976). I hope that the insights I have gained in the 41 years since then may be of value not only to those considering doing a PhD, but also more widely to others engaged in the supervision and management of doctoral research in universities.

In summary, whilst there continue to be some brilliant students who complete outstanding theses within three years, the sad truth is that over the last 25 years the PhD has become significantly devalued and corrupted. It is time for fundamental change in PhD “production”.

I say this with enormous regret, since I see the PhD process as being of huge value and importance. It is, though, the only conclusion I can reach after having supervised 28 MPhil and PhD students since the mid-1980s (across different disciplines, and most as the only or first PhD supervisor), having examined PhDs in some 25 universities in 11 countries, having served for a decade on the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (2004-14), and having also held various other roles relating to postgraduate research and training.

The following inter-related issues seem to be of most importance:

Not all PhDs are equal

There are huge differences in the requirements for and the quality of PhDs, not only between different countries, but also within countries, and even between departments in the same university. This is despite the use of external examiners who are meant to be arbiters of equivalence, and also despite the observation that most universities have fairly similar broad criteria for a PhD that focus on the advancement of knowledge through theoretical and empirical work. Imagine, for example, my shock when I was asked to agree to a PhD being awarded, thinking as I do that usually some 6 months of empirical field research is required for a good PhD in my field(s), only to be told that two weeks in the field was deemed to be sufficient by the university in question. The quality of expected intellectual curiosity, analytical acuity, conceptual ability, quantity of work, linguistic capability, and many other factors all vary hugely. The best PhDs remain outstanding pieces of research, but that cannot be said of all. Sadly, almost anyone with some ability can now be awarded a PhD at some university, even without resorting to some of the corrupt practices outlined further below.

Money talks and grade inflation

Grade inflation is well known at the undergraduate level (see for example Richmond, 2018; Lambert, 2019), but it has also happened at the Master’s level and even with PhDs. Unfortunately many (although again I stress not all) Master’s courses are poorly taught, and often seem to be mainly a means for universities to make as much money as possible from students willing to pay to differentiate themselves from their peers by having an additional Master’s qualification. This is a global phenomenon, but happens even in some UK universities that have a good reputation, which enables them to attract numerous higher fee-paying students from oversees. As undergraduate degrees become of lower value, it makes increasing sense for those students who can afford it to opt to get a step ahead by doing a Master’s degree – regardless of its quality. I have heard far too many stories of students paying to do a Master’s degree in a presitigious university, fully aware of the poor reputation of the teaching on the course, but still choosing to do so because of its perceived future benefit for their careers. Sadly there is a conspiracy of silence over this, because few students are willing to say publicly how poor the courses are, because that would immediately devalue them and thus their own status. Likewise no academic is likely to say that they teach a poor course, even if they rarely actually teach much of it themselves because they are too busy doing research and instead leave most of the teaching load to teaching assistants. The same is increasingly happening at the doctoral level. Universities are desperate for the much larger funds that PhD students bring – especially from overseas – and having accepted students they will do almost anything to ensure that they pass in one way or another. This can only lead to a lowering of quality.

The duration of a PhD

In the distant past, PhDs could unfortunately sometimes become a lifetime’s work, although they were never really intended to be this, and it has always been possible to complete an excellent PhD within three years. The expected duration of a PhD also varies somewhat between countries with different academic traditions. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards in the UK, Research Councils with their concerns to show value-for-money put increasing pressure on universities to limit the term of a PhD to a maximum of 4 years. Today, many universities insist that students must submit within four years, and failure to do so means that a degree is not awarded. In part this is driven by competition in league tables that include completion rates in their calculations, but it has also unfortunately often had the effect of reducing the quality of work submitted. In my experience, students who come from different academic traditions and more disadvantaged backgrounds often find it very difficult to adjust to starting a PhD in the UK, and I know that several of my own students in the past who completed very good PhDs would simply not have been able to do this within the 4-year limit now imposed. That would have been a shame, because they produced excellent PhDs and have gone on to do great things.

The pre-requisites for doing a PhD

It may seem strange for some to think that in the 1970s I went straight from doing an undergraduate degree to completing a PhD successfully. Now in the UK, most students must have at least one Master’s degree before starting, and even then they still have to do large amounts of postgraduate training especially in their first years of a PhD. In part this reflects the grade inflation that has so beset the sector over the last quarter of a century, with many people saying that Master’s degrees now are about the same standard that undergraduate degrees were from the “best” universities only a few years ago. However, it also reflects the increasing complexity of PhDs, and the requirement for postgraduates who wish to teach to gain relevant skills and training for their future academic career whilst doing their PhDs. Nevertheless, I still believe that a well-supervised, well-educated, outstanding undergraduate should be able to embark on a PhD without the necessity of spending time completing a Master’s qualification just for the sake of the certificate, especially when it is poorly taught and not necessarily of direct relevance to the topic of their proposed PhD.

Many other prospective students also seem to think that just because they have gained a Master’s degree somewhere (indeed anywhere in the world) that means they are undoubtedly capable of getting a PhD. This is very far from the truth. Only a few Master’s students in my experience have the inellectual curiosity and acuity successfully to complete a high quality PhD.

The challenges of part-time PhDs

I was recently asked if I thought that someone could successfully complete a PhD whilst also holding down a full-time job elsewhere. I responded quite simply “no”! It is extremely difficult if not impossible to do this and to submit a good thesis within a reasonable time period. Part-time degrees are meant to imply just that, namely that the student is also doing part-time paid work as well (not full-time), and if a full-time PhD is meant to be 3-4 years in length, then a part-time one, working >20 hours a week on it would require dedicated commitment for seven years which is a very tough order. I stand by this statement, and find it almost incredulous that some people can think of working 40-50 hours a week in paid employment and also do a PhD – especially when I feel that good PhD students should be committed to working at least 50 hours a week on their research for three entire years (with a few short holiday breaks). Yet many people still sadly do seem to think that they can complete a PhD with only a minimal amount of effort. This sadly just goes to show how the status of a PhD has fallen over the last half century!

There was definitely a time, though, in the mid-2000s when I very much championed the cause of part-time distance-based PhDs, and encouraged several people living in various parts of the world to join our ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) research community whilst working part-time in paid employment. This placed heavy burdens on them, and also on me as a supervisor, but it taught me a huge amount. None of them found it at all easy – and some found it very, very tough. However, they succeeded. Back in 2007 I therefore drafted a paper based on these experiences, although somehow never bothered to make the small number of revisions requested by a journal editor for it to be published. Having re-read it recently, I still think it has something of interest to say to those who are thinking of embarking on such a mode of PhD research and am now making it available here for anyone who might be interested – although it is undoubtedly somewhat dated.

Whose PhD actually is it?

I, perhaps too simplistically, still believe that in most cases a PhD should be the work of a single person, who actually does all, or certainly the vast majority, of it, from the research, fieldwork and analysis, to the writing up and presentation. To be sure things are sometimes more complex in laboratory sciences, or on expeditions when team work is essential, but even then the actual PhD should remain largely the work of one person – supported and guided by a supervisor (or a supervisory team) – and the precise amount contributed by others clearly stated. Not so long ago, supervisors worked carefully with their students, regularly going through manuscripts and helping them improve the quality of their academic writing. This is especially important when working with students from different cultures and academic traditions, and whose first language may not be the language in which the PhD has to be written. In the past, I often found myself spending a whole day going through a 10,000 word chapter for a student, and suggesting revisions to the text that could improve it. Increasingly, though, academics are discouraged from assisting students with developing these academic linguistic skills, because they don’t have the time to do it, because they are told that this is specialist work for support services to do, or because students who are accepted to do a PhD should already have these skills; sometimes students even object to supervisors commenting in detail about such things as sentence structure and written style, even though such comments are designed to help them develop these relevant skills!

A very specific, but increasingly common, issue arises when students send their draft work to an external “proof reader” before submitting it (there are many examples of companies offering this service, such as Scribendi, ProofReading, or Oxbridge Proofreading). It is relatively easy for a supervior to see when this happens, because there appears to be a dramatic, overnight, improvement in the quality of a student’s written work. It is, though, exceedingly difficult to know how much of a manuscrpt is actually written by the student, and how much by the “proof reader”. Given that having a PhD in a given language is meant to be indicative of the academic abilities of a person in that language, it seems to me that any substantial revision by someone other than a supervisor suggesting revisions to a draft is unacceptable.

At a further extreme, there are very clear examples of students getting a “friend” to do some of the work for them, such as doing the statistical calculations, drafting figures, preparing the templates, or even rewriting parts of it. If a thesis is meant to be a student’s own work, then these practices are likewise not acceptable. I remember drawing more than 50 figures with stencils and a Rotring pen for my own thesis, each of which took at least a day to complete – and that was without all of the computer generated graphs as well (which took some time to do back in the 1970s)!

Corruption within the system.

There are indeed many good supervisors, PhD students and management systems to support them across the world, but it also needs to be recognised that there are also many poor systems and outright corruption that must be rooted out, not least in my own country, the UK. Some dubious practices have already been suggested above, but these pale into significance when compared with the following examples.

Poor supervision and problematic examination boards

Sadly, there remain too many examples of poor doctoral supervision, although in my experience almost every academic I know well is hugely committed to this role, and sees it as a central and enjoyable part of their work. It is after all the main means through which new blood is brought into the system! Nevertheless, I am personally aware that the following practices still occur, and I am sure there are many others as well:

  • One of the main complaints is that some supervisors only rarely see their students. This has always been the case, but I know of cases where students have still had to complete their theses with only a handful of supervisory meetings over three years, and have been discouraged from making formal complaints about this because their supervisor is a “good academic researcher” and colleague in a department. Most students in such situations are also under severe pressure, not least because supervisors are often required as referees in their subsequent job applications, and in disciplines where supervisors are expected to be named authors on papers to make a complaint would severely handicap the submission of future publications from their theses.
  • Other supervisors have been known to use their students’ work primarily to build their own career and without giving them the credit for their original research [Partly for this reason, I have never asked to be an author on my students’ papers, and only ever write joint papers with them when I do a substantial amount of the actual research].
  • Some supervisors have tried to prevent their students from submitting their theses – occasionally right at the last minute – even when they themselves haven’t made the time to read and comment on final drafts. [It should always be up to the student to decide when a thesis is submitted].
  • Others are willing to take on large numbers of doctoral students for the prestige and income they generate, but know they don’t have time to supervise them all properly; the weakest often fail to swim and eventually drop out.
  • When it comes to the examination, it is sadly often the case that supervisors tend to try to find “softer” examiners for “weaker” candidates.
  • As an external examiner, I have also encountered very strong (and indeed quite upsetting) pressure from internal committees to change my mind; at least I won’t be asked to be an external again for such universities! [Increasingly, I have found myself warning universities that I will make judgements according to the standards that I consider appropriate, and when I suspect that a candidate may be weak I do not accept the invitation to be an external examiner. I have also been known to give my honest opinion of a piece of work, whilst adding the caveat that I don’t know the normal standard acceptable in an institution/country, and I would of course be willing to discuss the matter further].
  • I have recently been made aware of the term “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”, which is apparently quite common in certain parts of the world, particularly for undergraduates, but also occasionally for postgraduate degrees as well. I have to admit to being shocked that I hadn’t known of this term until the last few years – perhaps this shows just how naïve I am! It is, though, an issue that must be addressed – and the complexities involved mean that this is not necessarily always as easy as might at first sight be thought.

Fortunately, systems are being put in place by many universities to reduce such practices, but they do still exist, and tighter mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce poor supervisory and examination practices.

Student corruption

Much has been said and written before about problems with the supervisory process, but a few doctoral students are also themselves engaged in clearly corrupt practices. The extent of such corruption globally is unknown (although see Osipian, 2012; Denisova-Schmidt, 2018), but some inappropriate practices with which I am familiar include:

  • Paying someone to write part or all of a thesis. There is a fine line between this and the increasingly common use of “copy editors” noted above, but the widespread and sophisticated use by universities of plagiarism detecting software (such as Turnitin) has meant that those students who don’t have the time (or ability) to write their theses are now turning to professional dissertation and thesis writing services (see for example, Study Aid Essays, British Hub, UK Top Consultant, WritePaperForMe). One of these brazenly advertises its services as follows:

For 9 Years … has supported over 3,000 undergraduate, postgraduate & doctorate students with original custom essays, proposals, reports, literature reviews, full dissertations and statistical analysis in a wide range of subject areas

  • Arranging for a friend who will be supportive to serve as the external examiner. This should be precluded by the systems a university has in place for the appointment of examiners, but I even know of a case where it appears there was collusion between the student and the supervisor to ensure that a favourable friendly examiner was appointed.
  • Unfounded malicious accusations by students against their supervisors with the intent of ensuring that they are awarded their doctorates. Although these cases are rare, it is easy for a student to blame a supervisor for their own failings. Despite the apparent power relationships in favour of supervisors, some universities are so concerned about the “bad press” that can follow in such circumstances that they tend to find ways through which the student can succeed, even when the consequent standard is low.
  • The giving of lavish gifts by a student to their supervisor. This can be hugely complex, especially because gift giving has varying meanings and significance in different cultures. Nevertheless, it can be very problematic for a supervisor to accept expensive gifts from a postgraduate student before the award of the degree, even when there is no devious intent behind it [Gifts of appreciation after the award of a degree do, though, still seem appropriate should a student wish to give them].
  • I know several examples where doctoral students have not done the empirical field research themselves, but have instead paid for assistants to do it on their behalf, and do not acknowledge or admit such “help” in the text of a thesis. Given that I expect a thesis to be “all the student’s work” (see above), I cannot condone this practice, but I am aware that it seems to be acceptable by some universities in certain circumstances. Translation also represents a challenge, and I confess that in the past I have usually insisted that students learnt a language of the country in which they were doing their research.
  • I have not myself encountered cases where thesis data have been fraudulently “created”, but notorious examples exist, and the scale of this problem is undoubtedly greater than many people care to admit, not only in postgraduate research but also more widely in academia (see Hopf, Mehta and Matlin, 2019).

Many of these dimensions of corruption are extremely difficult to prove, but universities should recognise that they exist, and should do more to prevent them. In a nutshell, as less-able people seek to gain doctorates, the likelihood of fraud and corruption undoubtedly increases.

This is not only morally wrong, but it is also unfair on those many students who work extremely hard to achieve a PhD, it devalues the worth of PhDs in general, and it contributes yet further to a lowering of the overall quality of academic research.

A positive conclusion

Despite the above comments, I like to believe that most supervisors and doctoral students work collaboratively and well together, and that many truly original and excellent theses continue to be crafted across the world. Working with able postgraduates has certainly been one of the real joys of my academic career although there is no doubt that supervisory relationships are among the most fraught and challenging of any in academia. It is truly a blessing to see how the careers of most of those students who I have had the privilege to supervise have flourished and blossomed, and it is a joy to keep in touch with so many of them.

In the 2000s, recognising the need for me to give greater clarity about what was involved in doing a PhD in our ICT4D Collective, and to help students undertstand my own expectations of the superviosry process, I produced two documents. Having looked at them again, it is evident that they need some updating (they were last updated in 2007 and 2008), but I still stand by almost everything contained within them, and so am posting them here as a guide for potential students (and interested others) to what I try to practise as far as supervision is concerned:

The first of these emphasises that a good PhD should not be a life-work – that will come later! Instead, I have found that it is often easier to see a PhD primarily as something that provides evidence of the achievement of a key set of seven academic skills (slightly adapted below):

  • Being thoroughly conversant with the key intellectual debates in a particular subject area, and using this to provide a conceptual framework for the thesis
  • Being able to identify important novel issues from these that will form the focus of their research, and developing these into a clear aim
  • Being able to design a relevant methodology to undertake rigorous empirical work that will add to our collective knowledge in that research field
  • Then using this to undertake research and gain empirical evidence in a particular place or places
  • Analysing the results of that field research in the context of the theoretical or conceptual framework
  • Writing this up clearly and effectively in an interesting way
  • Drawing relevant conclusions that move knowledge forward, and (for the field of ICT4D) make new practical recommendations in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Over the years, I have come to realise that students have varying strengths and weaknesses in achieving each of these. Many have difficulties in engaging theoretically and developing an approprioate conceptual framework, whilst the majority find the empirical field research most enjoyable. Nevertheless, a good prior degree should enable the first four of these elements to be done relatively easily. Unfortunately, some students can only get this far, and find it impossible satisfactorily to analyse the data, which results in an overly descriptive and thus problematic thesis.

I do hope that these reflections may be of help and interest to those embarking on a research degree – although I have very deliberately not answered the question that I posed at the beginning! That’s up to you, but I hope that what I have written will help you answer it!

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ICT4D Collective and Centre recognised as world’s 10th top science and technology think tank

ICT4D-72dpiforwebI am deeply humbled that the ICT4D Collective and Research Centre that we tentatively created at Royal Holloway, University of London, back in 2004 has just been recognised as the world’s 10th top Science and Technology Think Tank in the 2012 Global GoTo Think Tank Report launched at the World Bank and the United Nations in New York last week.  This accolade is all the more special because the ranking is based very largely on peer review, and therefore reflects the opinions of many people in the field who I respect enormously.  More than 1950 experts and peer institutions participated in the ranking process for the report which was produced by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Boy on streetThe Collective was established above all else to bring together colleagues who are committed to undertaking the highest possible quality of research in the interests primarily of poor people and marginalised communities.  Its work is premised on the assumption that ICTs can indeed be used to support poor people, but that we need to work tirelessly to overcome the obstacles that prevent this happening.

LogoIn 2007, we were delighted that the Collective and Centre was given the status of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, and although I am now only an Emeritus Professor at Royal Holloway, I am very privileged that for the time being I retain this title while also serving as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation.  It is great to be able to draw on my past research and teaching experience in this new role, to help governments across the Commonwealth use ICTs effectively and appropriately for their development agendas.

Then, in 2009 Royal Holloway, University of London, formalised the position of the ICT4D Collective by creating a new multidisciplinary research centre on ICT4D, that brought together expertise primarily from the schools and departments of Geography, Computer Science, Management and Mathematics (Information Security), with contributions also from colleagues in Earth Sciences, Politics and International Relations, and Information Services.  This provides really excellent opportunities to develop new research at the exciting boundaries between disciplines.

Scholars 1Over the eight years of the existence of the ICT4D Collective, we have focused on a wide range of activities, but have particularly sought to serve the wider interests of all researchers and practitioners working in the field of ICT4D.  We were thus delighted to host the 2010 ICTD conference, which brought more than 500 colleagues to our campus, and we were immensely grateful to the generous sponsorship from global institutions that enabled us to provide scholarships for people to attend from across the world (pictured above).  We have also focused much attention on supporting doctoral researchers, and it is excellent to see them now flourishing in their subsequent careers.

LanzhouMost recently, under new leadership, the Centre is continuing to thrive, and has launched an exciting ICT4D strand within its established Master’s programme on Practising Sustainable Development.  In 2012, a Branch of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was also established at Lanzhou University in China, reflecting the growing collaboration between our two institutions, and recognising the huge importance that China is increasingly playing not only in terms of the practical implementation of ICT initiatives, but also into research in this area.

A huge thank you to all who suggested that the ICT4D Collective and Centre should be recognised in this way.  It is a massive spur to us all to keep up the work that we have been doing, and to share it more effectively with all those interested in, and committed to, using ICTs to support poor people and marginalised communities.

The top 20 ranking of Think Tanks in Science and Technology from the 2012 Global GoTo Think Tank Report is given below:

1. MIT Science, Technology, and Society Program (STS) (United States)
2. Max Planck Institute (Germany)
3. RAND Corporation (United States)
4. Center for Development Research (ZEF) (Germany )
5. Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) (United States)
6. Battelle Memorial Institute (United States)
7. Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) (United States)
8. Institute for Future Technology (IFTECH) (Japan)
9. Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) (United States)
10. Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) (United Kingdom)
11. Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) (United Kingdom)
12. Institute for Basic Research (IBR) (United States)
13. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (South Africa)
14. African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) (Kenya)
15. Bertelsmann Foundation (Germany)
16. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) (Austria)
17. Energy and Resources Institute (India)
18. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) (India)
19. Santa Fe Institute (SFI) (United States)
20. African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS) (Kenya)

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On critical thinking…

thinker smallI overheard a strange and depressing conversation about critical thinking at last month’s otherwise excellent Online Educa conference in Berlin. Ever since then it has been nagging away at my mind.  So many of those involved in the conversation seemed to have a conceptualisation of critical thinking that is so totally at odds with my own!  For many of them, critical thinking seemed to be something destructive, a form of negative criticism of the works of others. Critical thinking, in their views, was all too often damaging, destroying the confidence of young academics, and a means through which supervisors impose and re-enforce power relations over their doctoral students.  This is so alarmingly different from my own perspective, that I feel I should share some of my thoughts here, not only to contribute to the debate, but also so that others may perhaps gain some insight into alternative views of critical thinking.  Here, then, are my list of the ten most important aspects of critical thinking.

  1. First, critical thinking is something hugely positive. It should be very far from the negative caricature summarised above.
  2. It is a way of creating new knowledges, rather than simply encouraging the regurgitation of accepted truths.  All too often, universities across the world today focus on teaching students accepted truths that they then learn and regurgitate in examinations, rather than liberating them to think for themselves.
  3. Critical thinking is therefore hugely creative, a way of encouraging people to craft new ideas that will hopefully better explain, or help us to understand, the world in which we live.
  4. It is fundamentally concerned with questioning and challenging accepted norms and arguments, weighing them up both through the power of reason and logic, but also through empirical experience to see which, for the moment, can continue to be accepted as approximations to some truth.
  5. My notions of critical thinking derive heavily from my engagement with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and especially the writings of Jürgen Habermas (notably Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied, 1963, and Erkenntnis und Interesse. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1968).  In particular, for me, Critical Theory provides two important underpinnings for critical thinking: its emphasis on the interests behind all knowledges, and its focus on emancipation.
    • There is no such thing as value free science.  All science or knowledge, is created by individuals, or groups of sentient people, for particular purposes.  We must therefore understand these interests, and indeed our own interests, if we are to reach agreement on the extent to which such ideas can be accepted as accounting for any particular observations of reality.  Critical thinking is in part about understanding the interests underlying any claim to knowledge.
    • The ultimate purpose of critical thinking is about emancipation, both for the individual thinker, but also perhaps more importantly for the wider community of which that thinker is a part.
  6. Critical thinking is self-reflective, requiring a conscious consideration of how and why a particular set of thoughts comes into being.  In this sense, it is an ancient tradition, going back at least to Socrates, but being developed by scholars such as Dewey (Moral Principles in Education, SIU Press, 1909), and more recently Glaser (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University, 1941) and Ennis (Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1996).
  7. Critical thinking is committed to action. This, again, derives in part from my own commitment to Critical Theory, but it emphasises that thinkers must also be actors.  Unless knowledge is shared, in a sense liberated from the confines of the thinker’s own body, then its creation is a purely selfish, indeed arrogant process.  If society permits some of its members to be set apart for thinking (most usually in universities), then it is incumbent on those thinkers to ensure that the outputs of their thinking are indeed used for the betterment of society.
  8. Critical thinking involves serendipitous rigour (about which I have written elsewhere).  We need both to be rigorous in ensuring that we create places for serendipity, and likewise be rigorous in how we respond to serendipitous occurrences.  Serendipity is essential to the creative aspect of critical thinking.
  9. Critical thinking requires clarity of method.  I do not want to be prescriptive in defining any single particular set of methods, not least because many such lists already exist (Glaser, 1941; Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, CUP, 2001), but most of these focus on the importance of reason, logic, judgement, argument, inference and analysis.
  10. Finally, for me critical thinking is fundamentally about those who are privileged enough to be thinkers, using their thinking skills to enhance society and not just selfishly for themselves; it is, in particular, to use such thinking to help and enable the poorest and most marginalised individuals to improve their lives.  This is not just about action (point 7 above), but about action committed to a particular social and political cause.

There are, of course, many other aspects of critical thinking, but reflecting on that conversation in Berlin, these seem to me to be the most pertinent responses. Let me conclude, though, with a quotation from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin, 1966, p.21), “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they wont think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.  I used this years ago as the introduction to one of my chapters in The Place of Geography and it still seems as pertinent now as it did then!

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Filed under Geography, Higher Education, Postgraduate supervision, Universities

ACU Session at WISE 2011: Doctorates, development and the brain drain

I was delighted to be able to help the Association of Commonwealth Universities run a workshop on “Doctorates, development and and brain drain” at the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) held in Doha from 1st-3rd November.  This focused on four key themes:

  • the purposes of a PhD and the characteristics of those who have PhDs
  • the quality of a PhD; do we need standards?
  • alternative modes of delivery for doctorates
  • the brain drain

Although the number of participants was small, the discussion was highly interesting, and the mind map below attempts to capture what we discussed (click WISE 2011 for a .pdf version).

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On publishing in ICT4D

During the recent ICTD2010 conference, Hari kindly brought together a group of us to discuss academic publishing in the field of ICT4D.  Each speaker was to talk for about ten minutes, directing our ‘advice’ primarily towards those who may be less experienced in academic publishing.  Whilst I absolutely love seeing, holding and smelling the first copy of one of my new books, or reading one of my new papers in an academic journal, or seeing authors that I respect referencing one of my publications in their own work, I now recognise that a system that I once admired has become fundamentally, perhaps fatally, flawed.  There is sadly much that is not really scholarly and little at all that is value free in the world of academic publishing today.  It does not foster the excellence or originality that it is  intended to achieve.  All too often it leads instead to a morass of mediocrity and replication.

Two comments in the distant past still haunt me:

  • when my first academic paper was published, a friend and colleague said “congratulations, but you don’t expect anyone will read it do you”; and
  • a senior colleague in a government department once said to me: “I don’t ever read academic papers, I get consultants to provide a short synthesis of them for me”.

The reality of academic publishing is that very few papers are ever actually read, and few people are ever influenced by what is written in journals.

Some of the most challenging problems to do with academic publishing are:

  • Academic journals are fundamentally a way to ensure professional exclusivity.  They are a means through which one group of academics excludes others from participating in their ‘mysteries’.  Thus ‘apprentices’ have to learn the rituals and obey the rules if they wish to belong to this exclusive and privileged club.
  • Because of the need for authors to obey the rules, journals all too frequently fail to promote the very innovation that is meant to be their life blood.  There is a real danger that referees or editors will reject papers that are too innovative or fail to abide by the logics and requirements of a particular journal’s editorial board.
  • Many citation cartels exist, whereby in order to boost their rankings in citation indices, academics agree to cite each other’s papers in their own works.
  • There are also real issues surrounding the dominance of the English language, and far too few journal editors or reviewers are willing to pay heed to different cultural traditions of academic writing style.  We should do much more to enable people from different linguistic backgrounds to get their papers published in the ‘top’ journals.
  • Peer review is by no means the innocent, quality control exercise it is meant to be.  Far too often academics use it as a way of preventing ideas that are contrary to their own from being published.
  • Citation indices usually only incorporate the more prestigious journals, and thus often omit the more innovative and cutting edge papers.
  • The emphasis on quantity rather than quality of publication means that vast numbers of dreadful papers are submitted to journals – and it is very frustrating for editors and referees to have to sift through the dross!

The net outcome of these is that far too many papers that are published are mediocre and tend to replicate existing knowledge.  Moreover, many of these problems have become exacerbated over the last 20 years as academic publication in ‘top’ journals has become such an important part of research assessment exercises.

I offered five key tips for less experienced academics who wish to succeed in this environment:

  • The most important tip is that one must realise that academic publishing is a game.  New academics therefore have to learn the rules and play by them – if they want to achieve success in terms that the profession’s gatekeepers have defined.  Once your career is established, then you are in a position to try to change the rules!
  • Write something that is reasonably good and then submit it to a journal.  Referees are bound to suggest revisions, and so don’t be hurt by the comments.  Use them, alongside your own developing ideas, to improve the paper and resubmit it – in most cases it will eventually be published (as long as it is reasonably good in the first place!)
  • Publish less, but publish better; focus on quality rather than quantity.  When I was head of department, I remember encouraging colleagues to make sure that they published just two or three papers a year in major journals, and a book every three to four years.
  • Remember that few people actually read academic journals. If you want your ideas to have an impact, it is therefore essential that you make them available in different formats and contexts – as, for example, through your own blog
  • Only ever agree to have your supervisor’s name as an author on the paper if she or he has actually written a substantial amount of it!  Good academics don’t need to have their names on your research – although it is always nice to recognise their advice in an acknowledgement.

Two final points are worth mentioning.  The first is that publishing in a multidisciplinary field such as ICT4D is fraught with a particular set of additional difficulties.  Where academic success is defined in large part through publication in prestigious journals, most academics seek to publish their work in their own discipline’s top-ranked  journals.  It is thus more prestigious for a computer scientist working in ICT4D to publish in a top computer science journal than in a new ICT4D journal. Those who edit cross-disciplinary journals often therefore find that the papers that are submitted to them are those that have been rejected by other more mainstream journals.  Consequently, papers published in multidisciplinary journals are often of less good quality than those in the major single disciplinary journals.  This does, though, provide editors of multidisciplinary journals with an opportunity to be innovative and creative in what and how they publish. Moreover, it is incumbent on those working in the field to support new journals that are indeed trying to break the mould of traditional academic arrogance and exclusivity.

Finally, we need to explore alternative modalities of publishing.  Those of us working in the field of ICT4D should seek to use ICTs creatively to enable multiple voices from many different backgrounds to share their research findings.  However, we still need to find appropriate business models to enable more open and free publication options to be created.  Traditionally, journal publishers have added considerable value to the publication process, not least through funding the editorial and publication process.  Such costs remain to be covered, and few ‘free’ journals have yet actually enabled high quality original academic papers to be widely disseminated. We also need to work creatively with existing publishers, since they have much to offer the publication process.

For some of my more detailed reflections on peer review see:

[For the presentations by Geoff Walsham, Cathy Urquhart and Shirin Madon as well as the full discussion see the video “Publishing ICT4D Research available from ICTD2010 videos and photos]

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Analysis in Geographical Research

There are many books that provide students with detailed accounts of the methods that they can use in geographical research, but very few that give much guidance on analysis.  Hence, whilst students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – can often undertake a competent piece of empirical data collection, all too often they come unstuck when it comes to how to analyse the data.  This note is therefore intended to provide a quick checklist of tips to help with analysis in geographical research, and it is derived particularly from my experiences in helping PhD students to grapple with these issues.

  • Do not be beguiled into thinking that there is one definitive way to analyse data – there are many different types of analysis.  Thus, positivist approaches focus on ‘explanation’ and ‘prediction’, whereas hermeneutic approaches focus on ‘understanding’; some critical approaches tend to focus on encouraging ’emancipation’.   Whichever approach one adopts, though, there are certain key principles that can generally help to guide analysis.
  • Analysis is the way in which researchers choose to make sense of the data. All good research will have some kind of analytical framework, which makes clear to the reader how the author has tried to interpret diversity in the empirical data.
  • Analysis must refer back to the conceptual/theoretical framework of the research.  Research is about moving knowledge forward.  Hence, the analytical chapters of a thesis, must show how the empirical data gathered has enabled the author to make sense of questions raised by the literatures examined in the conceptual or theoretical introductory chapters to a thesis.  Analytical chapters must have just as comprehensive a bibliography as the methodological and theoretical chapters.
  • Analysis should focus on the ‘why?’ questions.  All too often, students tend to concentrate on descriptive questions, such as ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ when gathering data, without then going on to ask ‘why?’.  Unless ‘why?’ is asked, it becomes very difficult to explain or understand  what is actually going on.  This applies just as much to asking why particular geomorphological structures are shaped as they are, as to asking why people behave in the ways that they do.  ‘How?’ questions fall between these two extremes – they can be used to ‘explain’ ‘how’ something works, but I do still prefer to read about ‘Why?’ as well.
  • It can be helpful to think about ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’ variables when trying to shape an analytical framework.  Particularly when working within a positivist approach, it is useful  to think about one group of variables (the independent ones) explaining the variation and differences in the pattern of the ‘dependent’ ones.
  • It is very important to have a good idea about the analytical framework before going out ‘into the field’ to collect data.  Unless one has some idea in advance about how the data are actually to be analysed, there is a danger that much redundant data could be gathered or that it will not be possible actually to explain or understand it.  Remember the ‘Why?’ questions!  This raises important issues to do with the balance between ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ approaches.  Very little research is either purely deductive or inductive, and there is always an exciting interplay between theoretical and empirical work.  Even when the research is heavily inductive, a focus on consistently asking ‘why?’ questions in the field can help to ensure  rigorous analysis.
  • Analysis is about imposing structure.  Very often when one is immersed in exploring the data gathered in empirical fieldwork it is difficult to see any structure in it.  Sometimes it is therefore useful to step back and try to look at it in a different way.  Asking (and answering!) a simple question, such as ‘What are the three main factors that help to explain this?’, can help to impose structure.

I do hope this is all helpful advice.  Please add comments below about the things that you find helpful in undertaking analysis.

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25 years of PowerPoint

For some excellent advice on how not to use PowerPoint, see Max Atkinson’s recent article ‘celebrating’ 25 years of PowerPoint in the BBC’s online magazine.  It contains some great tips!

The BBC magazine also has a  selection of amusing PowerPoint experiences – 10 good ones, and ten bad!

Born on the 14th if August 1984, PowerPoint is still going strong – quite a testimony to the way our lives have been transformed by computer technologies.

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… on serendipitous rigour

Rhinefield-House-smallFor a while now, I have been thinking around the notion of ‘serendipitous rigour’ – which might at first sight appear to be a contradiction in terms.  However, sitting in the luxurious wasteland of the New Forest at the EPSRC Think Free retreat, I have discovered that others are also grappling with this notion.

So, herewith some interconnected  thoughts:

  • there is value in bringing together the concepts of ‘serendipity’ and ‘rigour’ – and in encouraging research practices based upon their intersection
  • serendipity can be defined as the effect whereby someone  accidentally discovers something fortunate or beneficial, particularly while looking for something else entirely – it is therefore crucial for creativity and the advancement of knowledge [note the origins of ‘serendipity’ in the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557, from which Horace Walpole coined the word]
  • the addition of the notion of rigour to that of serendipity is important for two reasons in that
    • we rigorously need to create ‘places’ where we can actually foster such serendipity, and
    • we also need rigorously to take advantage and benefit from the opportunities that serendipity provides

By encouraging the promulgation of serendipitous rigour, we may be able to escape the shackles and confines of our sterile academic milieu, and develop new concepts and practices that could make the world a better place

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Innovative global networking…

How’s this for a story?  Told to me by one of my PhD students…

A colleague in Ethiopia had just bought a MP3 player, but found some data already on it – so guessed it had been stolen! He could not translate the data, so sent it to a friend in the UK. Thinking it might be Korean, this friend then asked a Korean colleague in the UK to see if the owner’s name might be somewhere in the data – and it was! So the name was swiftly dispatched back to Ethiopia, together with the name of a primary school that was mentioned in the files. Armed with this information, the challenge was then to find out whether that person was actually still in Ethiopia. Via the school the Korean owner was tracked down and eventually they were able to meet up in person so that the MP3 player and the original owner could be reunited!

Lots of ideas come out of this: theft, friendship, digital music, linguisitic diversity, space-time and the inteconnected world, the lives of machines…

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The Iringa Cage

…overheard in Dar es Salaam, two European professors talking about “The Iringa Cage”…

This is a metal cage somewhere in Iringa, central Tanzania, where European PhD students are sent if they are having difficulty in completing their theses.  The cage is kitted out with a computer and high bandwidth internet connectivity, so that students can access all of the digital resources that they  require.  The students are placed in the cage, and if they want to eat they must produce text!  Every page they write is sent to their supervisor electronically, who then authorises food to be delivered – providing the written work is of sufficient quality.  A minimum of 5 pages must be produced every day, and the cage is floodlit at night until these pages have been completed and authorised.  Only then is the student allowed to sleep.  Students are allowed out of the cage for one day every ten days or 50 pages.

Sounds like an innovative ICT solution to the problem of thesis completion…

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