Brilliance vs. perseverance in academic writing and work

What does it take to publish academic research? Here is a recent reminder of a truism I have heard again and again and experienced myself:

Brilliance (or something close to it) is, I’d say, about 3 percent of creating a publishable article or monograph. The other 97 percent is patience and the stamina to be able to work, over and over, on something for which the end might not be in sight for a while.

This would be similar to two pieces of helpful advice I received within the first few weeks of starting a sociology Ph.D. program:

-Treat your academic work like a job: have regular hours, goals, and progress.

-Be a chipper and not a binger. Short and continuous efforts lead to better work than last-minute, long sessions to meet a deadline.

Or, we could turn to quotes or stories about Thomas Edison’s work and trying over and over again.

To me, all of this makes more and more sense as you work on research projects. The various stages of academic work – conceiving a viable idea, tracking down data and evidence, scouring the existing literature, analyzing the data, considering the implications, submitting for publication and then going through the review process – can each require a large amount of work and require time to ponder and address. Rushing to meet deadlines can be helpful for structuring time but it does not free up the same kind of mental space to ponder the question at hand. Finding the creative edge in academic work often requires more time, not less.

All of this requires working against an American cultural setting where (1) fast work and efficiency is often prized and (2) creative work is viewed as the result of individual genius. There may be grains of truth in each of these regarding academic research but they can also work against the need to persevere. For example, passing along the above information to undergraduate students can be difficult because their academic modes have prized these two qualities: be individually smart and meet relatively short deadlines. And how much is this perpetuated by college projects that may last 10 weeks at most?

All of this academic patience and stamina takes time to develop and likely exists in various degrees and expressions among academics. But, I imagine it would be hard to get far without at least some of it.

Just how many scientific studies are fraudulent?

I’m not sure whether these figures are high or low regarding how many scientific studies contain midconduct:

Although deception in science is rare, it’s probably more common than many people think. Surveys show that roughly 2 percent of researchers admit to behavior that would constitute misconduct—the big three sins are fabrication of data, fraud, and plagiarism (other forms can include many other actions, including failure to get ethics approval for studies that involve humans). And that’s just those who admit to it—a recent analysis found evidence of problematic figures and images in nearly 4 percent of studies with those graphics, a figure that had quadrupled since 2000.

Here is part of the abstract from the first study cited above (the 2% figure):

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.

Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.

I hope some of the efforts by researchers to address this – through a variety of means – are successful.

Take a look at the rest of the article as well: just as individual scholars feel a lot of pressure to commit fraud, big schools have a lot of money on the line with certain researchers and may not want to admit possible issues.

Will citing the Kindle location, and not the page number, become the norm?

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise contains an interesting bibliographic twist: he sometimes cites Kindle locations, not page numbers. Here is an example: footnote 42 in Chapter 8.

McGrayne, The Theory That Would Not Die, Kindle location 46.

Silver doesn’t do this for every book though he does sometimes say a book is the Kindle edition if he is giving the full citation. Is Silver on to a new trend? Will readers and scholars want Kindle locations?

I think we’re probably a long ways from this becoming standard. The problem is that it requires having all of your books in Kindle form. Ebooks are popular but I’m not sure how far people are willing to go to replace all of their older books with Kindle editions. (Particularly if you are dealing with more esoteric published material.) I could see this happening more for new books which are more likely to be purchased in Kindle form. Or perhaps we are headed for a world where everyone has Kindle access to all major books (a subscription service? An expanded Project Gutenberg?) on their phone, tablet, or computer and looking up a Kindle location becomes really easy.

Perhaps this won’t really matter until I see it in a student research paper…

Report calls for more study of how “kids navigate social networks”

A new report suggests we don’t know much about how kids use social networks and thus, we need more research:

A recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Kids Online: A new research agenda for understanding social networking forums, has identified that we don’t actually know enough about how pre-teens use online social networking. The researchers, Dr. Sarah Grime and Dr. Deborah Fields, have done a good job in helping us recognize that younger children are engaged in a range of different ways with online social networks, but that our knowledge and understanding of what that means and how it impacts on their lives is pretty much underdone. GeekDads, of course, will have thoughts about how and why our children are playing and engaging with technology and networks in the ways they do, but this doesn’t give the people who make the rules and set the policy agendas the big picture that they need.

Essentially, Kids Online is a research report that calls for more research into children’s use of social networks. But the report does demonstrate very clearly why this is required. And at the rate that technology is changing and advancing, we need to work cleverly if we are to have the type of data and analysis that we need as parents to guide our decision making around technology and our children. We are all out there trying our best to facilitate healthy, dynamic, educational and exciting experiences for our children when it comes to tech, but there are not enough people exploring what that looks like. As the report says:

“Research on Internet use in the home has consistently demonstrated that family dynamics play a crucial role in children’s and parents’ activities and experiences online. We need further research on the role of parental limits, rules, and restrictions on children’s social networking as well as how families, siblings, peers, and schools influence children’s online social networking.”

I would go further: we need more research of how people of all ages navigate social networks. This doesn’t mean just looking at what activities users participate in online, how often they update information, or how many or what kinds of friends they have. These pieces of information give an outline of social network site usage. However, we need more comprehensive views how exactly social interaction online works, develops, and interacts in feedback loops with the offline and online worlds.

Let me give an example. Suppose an eleven year old joins Facebook. What happens then? Sure, they gain friends and develop a profile but how does this change and develop over the first days, weeks, and months? How does the eleven year old describe the process of social interaction? How do their friends, online and offline, describe this interaction? Where do they learn how to act and not act on Facebook? Do the social networks online overlap completely with offline networks and if so or if not, how does this affect the offline network? How does the eleven year old start seeing all social interaction differently? Does it change their interaction patterns for years to come or can they somewhat compartmentalize the Facebook experience?

This sort of research would take a lot of time and would be difficult to do with large groups. To do it well, a researcher would have two options: an ethnographic approach or to gain access to the keys to someone’s Facebook account to be able to observe everything that happens. Of course, Facebook itself could provide this information…

NYT lays out three options for how personal religious faith could influence sociological work

At the end of a column looking at this summer’s public debate over research findings from sociologist Mark Regnerus, the writer suggests there are three ways personal religious faith could influence a sociologist’s work:

So if there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers.

First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure.

Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history.

Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.

Option one presented here seems to be the one that would probably be most acceptable to the broader scientific community. Lots of researchers have personal interests that help guide them to particular areas of study but then we tend to assume (or hope), a la Weber’s arguments about value-free sociology, that the findings will not necessarily be influenced by these personal interests. At the same time, some might argue that completely separating personal life and research results may be a modernist dream.

I suspect options two and three wouldn’t get as much broad support.

It would also be interesting to see how this would play out if we weren’t talking about personal religious beliefs but other personal beliefs. For example, Jonathan Haidt has been looking at politics within social psychology and thinking about how these personal (and more collective) beliefs might influence a whole field.

Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.

New Microsoft lab in New York City to study social media and social science

Microsoft is opening up a new laboratory in New York City that will focus on the intersection of social media and social science:

Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City, headed by ex-Yahoo senior scientists. The star crop of researchers includes sociologist and network theorist Duncan Watts, computational scientist David Pennock, and machine learning expert John Langford…

Microsoft’s research hubs are behind several of the company’s successful products. The Kinect and Bing were both developed for years as research projects before Microsoft turned them into products…

The NYC lab recruits bring in mathematical and computation tools that could work magic with existing social media research already underway at Microsoft Research, led by folks like Gen-fluxer danah boyd. “I would say that the highly simplified version of what happens is that data scientists do patterns and ethnographers tell stories,” boyd tells Fast Company. While Microsoft Research New England has strengths in qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics, “We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us,” boyd explained in a blog post announcing the NYC labs.

Data available via social networks like Twitter and Facebook finally offer a discrete measure of how people interact with one another, and how influence flows through their web of social links. As Watts explains it: “We want to understand how these phenomena work, we have to take a very large scale view of the world but have to refine our viewing a very fine grained way.”

Microsoft has hired 15 founding members (8 of those names are public), but that number is likely to grow in the coming months “like a university department in good times,” Chayes said. (Microsoft Research’s other units vary in size from 40 to 400 members of staff). The lab will draw on collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Princeton, New York University, and Columbia who’ve expressed an interest in working with the NYC labs.

This sounds like a fascinating opportunity to bring together a number of notable researchers across disciplines to tackle new issues and data.

I wonder how many academics would bristle at this news simply because of the connection to Microsoft, the supposedly big bad company that has tried to force its way in the computing world and is seen less favorably than “cooler” firms like Yahoo, Google, and Apple. At the same time, it is only with the resources available at these sorts of companies that you could put together labs like this and grant employees (Google is particularly famous for this) time to do their own creative work. How much of the work in this lab will be expected to be funneled into Microsoft products versus the general world of academia? Well-known researchers like danah boyd and Duncan Watts have made it work in the past but how different is it to work for a corporation versus an academic institution? I assume there must be some nice perks, including salary…