Archive for October, 2012

I posted last week about my academic writing goals for November. Now I’m going to try to come up with a timetable and a more precise plan. I’m long-term ill (progressive MS-like illness), and severely disabled as a result, so I can’t put in vast amounts of time. But I can focus attention and my limited good patches on those areas I want to make most progress in, and that’s my plan. I’ll tend to be working in short bursts in the evenings, but hope to manage to do what I want to do at those times.

First up are my two PhD-derived papers, which I need to finish and submit soon. Both are rewrites of existing work, so shouldn’t take too long in theory. So those are my first goals. I’ll aim to have both in a near-submission state by November 15th, though I may need to do more work after to rework the style for the intended journals, since each journal has its own rules about layout style, number formats, and footnote and reference formats. Paper 1 looks at professionals and book use in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scotland. Paper 2 is a comparison of reading habits in Scotland and England at this time. Paper 2 is shorter, so I should try to have that ready for submission sooner, say November 8th. This way both papers should be submitted in November.

My third paper priority for November is my paper based on my MPhil dissertation, which looked at regality court records (sort of equivalent to English manorial court, but more powerful, and very large geographic area) for Melrose in Roxburghshire, south-east Scotland, in 1657-1706. I’ve already edited down my dissertation drastically to get near to academic journal paper length. What I need to do is finish reading books and papers about comparable research, and arguing effectively for where my research fits in, and what its contribution is. I can start doing the reading early in November, and take it slowly (as with other things due to the neurological illness I can only tackle reading in short bursts), and then aim to finish this, let’s call it Paper 3, by November 22nd. That will be aiming to reach pre-submission stage, where I might still need to do more work re formatting, journal house style etc.

The other thing that I mentioned in my goals post was to move my text adventure game onwards. It’s a historical whodunnit, set at Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders in the fifteenth century. I’ve set up the geography of the place, with rooms you can wander around as a player, but where I really need to work is to move on the plot. That’s a slow process. Text adventures are interactive, and there’s more writing and reaction to provide than in a traditional piece of fiction. But if I work on this slowly, throughout the month, I should be able to edge things onwards, one step at a time. This game will not be finished in November, but I will aim to have moved the plot and interaction on substantially by November 30th, to carry on with it at a later date.

So those are my more precise goals with deadlines, and an order/strategy for working through them in my limited time. Fingers crossed it works!

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NaNoWriMo is a well-established annual event now, with lots of people signing up to write novels in the 30 days of November. Others use the month for smaller projects though, like PicoWriMo, and some use it for an academic writing blitz. That’s my plan.

I have a couple of journal papers I need to finish soon to submit well ahead of the April 2013 open access deadline. Again I’m in favour of open access, but not the way it is being implemented by the UK Government and Research Councils. If I don’t submit these papers soon I’ll be unable to publish them, or will be greatly restricted in where I can publish, and would have to pay a hefty article processing charge (to cover the open access cost implications for the journal publishers) out of my own pocket. This APC cost varies by journal, sometimes as low (!) as 500 pounds, but can be 2000 pounds or higher. And as an independent scholar without access to university support – beyond my honorary research fellowship which I’m very grateful for – I must pay this myself. Ouch. These two papers are the remaining ones derived directly from my PhD research, and since that was AHRC-funded, it comes under the new UK open access rules which apply to anything submitted after April 2013. Hence my looming deadline.

Another top priority for blitzing in November is a long-standing journal paper I’ve been working on, based on my MPhil dissertation looking at Melrose regality court records between 1657 and 1706. I was very proud of this dissertation, and was the first student in that taught PG Masters course to get a distinction. When I look back on it I still think it’s good work, and worthy of being published in a good journal. So that’s my plan. I’m trimming a much-longer-than-journal-papers dissertation down to journal length, properly contextualising it in the wider research context, and doing the necessary reading to bring myself up to date. This paper doesn’t have the open access deadline problem, because I self-funded my PG Masters and can thus publish the findings in any academic journal, without restriction, and without needing to pay a hefty up-front APC cost from April onwards.

I have a few more journal papers in preparation but they can wait until after November. Another thing I want to look at in November is the text adventure game I’m currently writing. I’ve made a good start on it, and have mind-mapped the overall plot structure, but need to start filling in more detail and move it on. Text adventures are a form of fiction, but interactive, where you control the central character, so it’s quite an exciting medium to write in. I’m writing my game in Inform 7.

Apart from these things I’ve a couple of short non-fiction articles to move forward, and want to blitz them in the month too. They shouldn’t take very long, and are fun little projects to work on.

I’m quite excited by these writing plans. Autumn is my favourite time of year, and it always feels like a fresh start and I feel quite energised by it. So this year I will turn that energy into something useful.

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The Guardian today posted a gallery of old map images, to tie in with a book newly out looking at maps charting the development of cities. There’s also a related podcast, where map experts Simon Garfield and Jerry Brotton talk about Maps from Ptolemy to Google.

I used maps a lot in my taught postgraduate MPhil degree which was studying Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Maps are a wonderful tool for viewing changing urban layouts, and understanding how towns worked in the past, figuring out the relationship between different areas and different functions, and also the relationship between a town and its surrounding hinterlands. Of course we relied on maps being created in the first place and still surviving today. I remember once finding a reference in the town council minutes to a map created of Montrose in Angus in the 1740s, but the map couldn’t be found now in the local archives. It may be lurking somewhere still though, as part of the unprocessed Montrose burgh collection held locally, and if it survived would be a fascinating glimpse into what the town looked like then.

There are lots of collections of old maps online. As a Scottish researcher I particularly like the National Library of Scotland’s digitised maps collection. This includes large area maps, for counties and countryside, as well as town plans, such as John Wood’s famous ones from the 1820s. Wood’s town plans capture Scottish towns in a period of considerable change, where old medieval structures and roads were often being transformed to a new urban layout. He also surveyed a number of more recently-established towns, which had quite a different physical layout from those with a medieval legacy.

I studied an Open University senior honours art history course last year, purely for fun, and for my end of course project I analysed Barbari’s groundbreaking plan of Venice circa 1500. There are various surviving prints of this map around the world. I saw one in the Museo Correr in Venice, the civic museum in the Piazza San Marco. And my jaw hit the floor when I walked into the room. This is a map on a massive scale, spread across six printed sheets, over a total area of 135 by 282 cm. The level of detail is staggering, but hard to appreciate when you’re standing at a distance from the map. Luckily there is a good digitised copy, thanks to a modern Venetian architect. I would recommend checking this out.

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A blog post yesterday on the Thesis Whisperer website argued strongly against PhD students writing from day one, as is advocated by at least some lecturers and supervisors. This proved to be quite a contentious post, and the comments after it showed a split pretty much down the middle. But some people, like me, appreciated the viewpoint, and were largely in favour of it.

When I started my second go at a PhD, having had to leave a full-time science one after falling seriously ill, I was determined to make the best possible use of my second chance. And that included being as efficient a student as possible, and making the most of my productivity. I wrote my history PhD literature review in the first three months, and then went straight on to start historical research in the archives. This was despite me being a part-time PhD student the second time around, and increasingly severely disabled as time went on. When I’d been a full-time science student it was normal to spend the first year reading and writing a literature review. That meant that when I fell ill in that first year, and deteriorated rapidly, I had made little concrete progress early on. Wasn’t going to let that happen the second time! But beyond the quick literature review I wrote very little in my history PhD before the halfway stage. Most of my creative processes went on in my head, as I focused on doing the archival research.

One of the history lecturers advocated the write every day from day one approach, and I strongly disagreed with him. Partly that was from my own personal circumstances, being so severely ill and disabled that I just didn’t have the time or energy to devote to that activity. But also it was that I needed to be doing other things for my PhD, and they had to take priority at that stage. And I think in productivity terms that can apply to more people than just me.

One point I definitely agreed with in the Thesis Whisperer post is that writing can be best done after ideas have had a chance to germinate, and that takes time. When I look back at my writing in the first year of the history PhD much of it – though not that literature review, which survived largely unscathed – is naive not because it was badly written but because it was written too early, before I’d had a chance to think things through properly. This is a lesson that I’ve applied in my post-PhD research and writings. I might scribble notes or create mind-maps on my iPad as I start each new piece of research. But I don’t do any more formal writing until I’m well advanced working through the primary sources, and my brain has had a good chance to think about things.

A counter-argument to that is that writing is a creative process, and I agree that you can come out with ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise when you start to write. But there’s a limit to how effective this can be early on in the thinking/ideas stage, and I would argue strongly that writing is more effective creatively later on than at the start. Some people will be different in this respect, for example finding brain-dump style writing very helpful in their early thought processes. But I’m not one of them. If I try brain-dumping before I’m far enough through the research and thinking stages I just produce gibberish of no worth.

One point I made in my comment on the Thesis Whisperer blog post is that I found writing my humanities PhD thesis very hard. I started writing up about halfway through the six years I was allowed as a part-time student, and the time that I ended up taking in the end. But I don’t think my writing difficulties then were due to my delaying starting the thesis writing, but rather that I was still struggling to work out my ideas and find my best voice. I was working through a process that took time, and starting writing early wouldn’t have helped significantly, because ultimately I needed to figure out the ideas in my head, and that took a while.

The Thesis Whisperer post was not so sure about how different – or not – the writing process in a science PhD was from a humanities PhD. I have an unusual perspective on this, having been both a science and a humanities PhD student. There are differences in the approach to the thesis, particularly structural, which meant that a university training course I went on which advocated the science model of writing the thesis, even for humanities students, really exasperated me and didn’t help me at all with my humanities thesis writing. A science PhD thesis is much more in the style of a traditional formal report, whereas a humanities PhD tends to be more abstract and layered, at least in my experience. But there are also similarities. Both sets of students work through the literature review stage, then generally do research and/or experiments, before writing up. Some write up sooner, but for me as a history PhD student the second-time around there was very much a three-stage process to the PhD: literature review, archival research with primary sources, and writing up the thesis. And it wasn’t so hugely different from my experiences as a science student.

Would I have done things differently if I hadn’t been ill and so restricted? I don’t think so. I was lucky that my first PhD supervisor, for the science PhD I had to leave, wasn’t a write-every-day type, and gave me more freedom to choose how best to work for me. I like to think that if I’d have been able to continue with that full-time PhD I would have discovered a way of working for me that’s not so dissimilar from how I tackled my part-time history PhD, and how I’m now doing things as a post-doc / honorary research fellow turning my research into more academic papers.

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So often the iPad is assumed to be a content consumption device, rather than a productivity tool. However since I got my iPad I’ve found it very useful for research and academic purposes. I wish I’d had it when I was doing my PhD, especially writing up the thesis. Unfortunately the iPad only came out after my successful viva! And even then it took me quite a long time to get one, only getting an iPad 2 many months after it was released.

The app I find most useful of all productivity-wise is iThoughtsHD. This is a mind mapping app, but can be used by people who don’t generally mind map. It’s great for brainstorming, and getting ideas down fast. I find that I get things down more quickly and creatively using this app than I did before without it, and that means I get more things done more quickly and better. I have a mind map open for each academic journal article that I’m working on. I also have an overall to-do list / possible research areas one. And I have a few other mind maps on the go just for jotting down ideas.

My other favourite productivity app is WriteRoom which is a distraction-free writing tool. There are others like it, but I think it was the first of its kind, and I like it a lot. It lets you focus on writing, getting the text down, rather than worrying about layout and font. I’ll often copy the structure of my mind map / brainstorm from iThoughtsHD into WriteRoom, and then work from there. I find this an easy way of writing up papers and articles. You can customise WriteRoom’s display. I like green text on a black background – very 80s!

I think the best PDF app on the iPad is Goodreader. It works well with all different kinds of PDFs, and you can annotate, even with a stylus if you buy one of those. I bought a cheap stylus from Amazon, one with a squidgy foam end that writes pretty well on the screen. And I can then scribble all over the PDF files on my iPad. For example I’m currently turning my PG Masters dissertation into an academic journal paper, and recently made great headway scribbling all over the PDF of the latest version with my stylus.

Two other apps that I recommend for following academic/research types are Feedler RSS for following interesting blogs, and Flipboard for turning Twitter feeds and others into a very dynamic and easy to scan magazine-type interface. I follow a lot of historians and archivists on Twitter, and it’s nice to be able to use Flipboard to quickly scan their interesting posts.

Also there’s a blog dedicated to using the iPad as an academic/productivity tool. See academiPad.

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[This is a blog post I originally posted on Google+ some months ago. But it’s still relevant now, not least for me as I try to beat the deadline to submit certain papers, or I’d have to pay a very hefty fee to have them published under the required open access rules.]

I’ve been increasingly concerned by the UK government and research councils’ plans to switch to insisting on open access for UK-funded research output. On the one hand I think open access to academic journals is a very good thing. But I have grave doubts about the model they’ve chosen. It’s not going to stop institutions having to subscribe at great cost to journals, otherwise they’d miss international contributions. And there is going to be an additional cost added, pushed primarily onto authors, for paying for open access provision. Estimates of this new cost vary, and the cost will vary by journal, but 2000 pounds per article is frequently talked about. The trouble is this money has to come from somewhere. For people in university environments or applying for new research grants it’s possible that their employer or funder will support them, although this will put a greater financial burden on the public purse which the taxpayer will ultimately have to pay for eventually. But there is also a long tradition of independent research, particularly in the arts and humanities, and many independent scholars who do not have access to such funding support for publishing costs. Such scholars may have benefited from research council support during their PhD, as I did with my AHRC-funded part-time PhD. Thus any output from their theses falls under this new scheme. But they did not get extra money to pay for unanticipated future publishing costs. So they will have to shoulder any such costs out of their own pocket. This is going to badly reduce the number of such scholars who can afford to publish, and they will also be restricted in terms of which journals they are even allowed to publish in. It’s hardly good for the future of scholarly publishing and getting your research “out there”. Incidentally don’t assume that funded PhD people got large pots of money and can afford to pay 2000 pounds per article, especially if non-university employed. My AHRC award paid for my tuititon fees directly to the university. Only in the last couple of years of my part-time PhD did I get a very small maintenance grant. There is nothing left over to pay for these new publishing costs. And if you do hope to work in academia it’s ever so important to publish. But can everyone afford to?

For the UK Research Councils’ announcement about this new policy see here.

And for concerns expressed recently (October 2012) by the President of the Royal Historical Society see here.

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I’ve just created this blog as a repository for my general musings on academic issues, historical research things etc. I have quite a few blogs already, to do with my genealogy interests, such as for my one-name study and my one-place studies. But I haven’t had anywhere dedicated to blogging about my academic research and writings, and I think it would be good to have that here.

I will be blogging occasionally, as the mood strikes me. I’m not planning on sticking to a specific pre-planned timetable. And I’ll also be blogging on a variety of issues, from academic writing as I turn my research into more journal papers, and research in archives, and time management etc. So rather a mixed bag.

My historical research specialises in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and is a mix of social, cultural and reading history. I also have a postgraduate taught Masters degree in cultural and urban histories, so there may be some urban history touched on here too. My PhD looked at reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820, using a variety of sources, such as evidence for reading in the context of daily lives (particularly diaries and memoirs), library borrowing records, and evidence for book ownership.

I’m getting increasingly intrigued with the modern digital revolution in publishing and reading, and may blog some thoughts about that here. My PhD specialism is much earlier, but I’m interested in all aspects of reading history, and the current changes are quite exciting from an academic viewpoint, as well as a reader’s. This growing interest of mine also ties in with my prior computer science background, where I was a graduate and postgraduate student before studying various history degrees.

So that’s my introduction. Shortly I’m going to resurrect a couple of blog posts that I’ve made on my Google+ account about academic-related issues. After that though it will be new material here, as and when I feel like writing it.

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