onsdag 10 augusti 2016

On writing (academic papers)

My last two blog posts have been about the texts I have worked on during the first half of this year and I have definitely upped the game compared to, well, forever. This blog post constitutes another take on writing but this time in the form of a reflection on writing in general and on my writing in particular. This text also ties back to a question I got on Facebook in relation to the previous two blog posts: "What's your magic trick for being so productive?".

Well, a first take on answering that question is that I haven't always been. I was reminded of that when I was the opponent at Per Fors' licentiate seminar before the summer. His way of writing reminded me of mine way back when I was a ph.d. student (as well as later). The "culprit" in my case (and perhaps in Per's) was excessive freedom from any constraints. This had in Per's case resulted in four articles about wildly different topics and with very little overlap (World Systems Theory, gamification, eco-ethics, entrepreneurship). I was perhaps not that wild but I recognise the pattern and the result is the same - "opening new doors" = having to read up on a new corpus for each new article you want to write. The alternative is leveraging what you already have and aiming for "pursuing the next step" (i.e. breadth vs depth). I would have wanted someone to have told me this when I was a ph.d. student because that would have saved me a lot of time (and some anguish). Not all doors are worth opening compared to returning to an already-opened door.

One example of a new door I opened happened only six or seven years ago and it is unfortunately and in retrospect a perfect example of wasted time. I happened to stumble upon this really interesting Chinese student who had been in Sweden for half a year while writing up his master's thesis about Internet censorship in China (my colleague and next door neighbour Leif Dahlberg had been his Swedish advisor/support person). I guess most people aren't aware of the fact that the Chinese state forces Internet Service Providers to hire personnel to police and censor their own Internet fora (discussion groups etc.).

This Chinese student had studied the actual censors and had interviewed them about their jobs, about their lives and about their opinions in regards to Internet content and the censorship they themselves performed on a daily basis. Most censors were recent university graduates and many had originally had high hopes for being able to "reform the Internt from within" and "raise the bar" (e.g. create more rather than less space for discussions). That didn't happen though and some had become disillusioned or even depressed. They worked and lived in dorm-like set-ups and did nothing but scan Internet discussions all day long and give each discussion a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" (censor, pull off the Internet). The master's student was particularly interested in the censors' self image and things like that and I do believe his thesis topic was unique. Even the hackneyed google-translated version I read had parts that were fascinating, even riveting, as were the implications.

We decided to team up and find an angle from which to write an English-language academic article together. I was super-ambitious and printed a couple of hundred of pages of texts/articles about the Internet in China and about Internet censorship in China and elsewhere, but, it became too much and nothing came out of it in the end (but I could perhaps be convinced to write a full blog post about it at some point). The whole project just demanded too much time - too much time to sink into a single article (no matter how interesting the subject matter was). That's the risk you take when you stray too far away from subject matters you have already worked on and are on top of; the cost-benefit ratio can turn sour (cost = immense amounts of time, benefit = one single article).

I nowadays try to stay away from blunders like that and the blunder in question was to do something radically different, something with little or no overlap with what I had already done before and that demanded me to become an expert on something I hardly knew anything at all about beforehand. Or rather, I would approach the whole thing differently today and my first priority would be to try to identify a third person to cooperate with and who could help make the article happen. Who do I know, or, who could I get to know that knows about and have written about these (or related) topics? I don't have to be the first (or the second) author, the important thing is rather to make sure it happen (instead of wasting time on running down blind alleys). For each writing project, each person involved should bring something to the table and we should in hindsight have invited a third person to the Internet censorship table. Since it's my great fortune to be good at the craft of structuring and crafting texts, I can more or less always bring something to the table. Writing a blog is also a great way to practice your ability to write... everybody should have one... :-)

When I was a ph.d. student I wrote almost everything by myself. That has changed totally since and I find that cooperating with others is generally a good idea. I of course realise that the chances of being able to team up with others are much better if you are a professor compared to being a ph.d. student. 1) You just have better networks and 2) a better feeling for what ideas or empirical material is exciting or "good enough" to turn into a paper. You also 3) have a much better feeling for how long it takes to write a paper and are of course also 4) better at the actual craft of writing academic papers. Since you 5) know more and have read more, you are also more versatile and better at covering (or covering up) various rather just a few academic areas and 6) on taking on various roles in a writing project. Finally you are 7) of course also much more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses and that is in itself a strength.

Here I will shift to discuss my collaboration with Elina Eriksson since I have written numerous texts together with her by now. As I wrote in the previous blog post, we have together worked on no less than 10 texts during the spring term and we most often together take on the roles of first-and-second-author when we write texts together with others. A particularly dicy period for us happened in mid-May when we managed to submit no less than four articles to two different conferences in less than a week. We submitted two articles to the 8th conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016) on May 15 and then submitted two more full articles to the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI’16) on May 19. The fact that the two latter articles were later rejected does not distract from the feat of managing to submit them both only four days after the previous deadline.

These four papers had three, five, five and fifteen co-authors respectively and me and Elina were the first-and-second authors of three of the papers and the first-and-third authors of the last paper. There was furthermore no overlap at all between the 20 co-authors we cooperated with (e.g. each person we collaborated with was a co-author on only one of these four papers). For these four papers, me and Elina were thus "the spiders in the web", pulling people together and in general just making things happen. So what's the secret sauce? There just has to be processes and habits in place to make it all happen, right? Right.

I'm not sure exactly how many "writing projects" me and Elina have cooperated on by now. Taking into account conference papers, workshop proposals, position papers and research grant applications, I estimate that we have worked on at least 20 or 25 during the last few years (as well as many other projects for example concerning teaching) and we have a process in place that is both flexible and structured and that helps us get things out of the door.

It usually starts with a shared Google document. The next step is a meta-text in the form of a list with different nested levels: "We should first do this. This consists of three things of which the first is..." Kind of like the outline of a computer program now that I come to think of it. Here's an example from a text we are working on right now:

Other things we discuss early and recurrently in the writing process is: Who is going to be the first author (will take ultimate responsibility for the writing project)? What's the core/the basic point we want to get across? Which different parts does the project (text) consist of? Do they fit together? Do they work towards the point we are trying to make with this paper? How long should each part be? Who will take responsibility for the different parts (or for having the first pass at the different parts)? Do the transitions between the different parts in the text work? What should we start working on right now and what can wait until later? When will we meet next? What should have been done by then?

While there are many parts to writing a text as well as different roles (from generating ideas to correcting spelling mistakes and working with the formatting of the paper), me and Elina can each cover several of these roles but we also have specific complementary abilities and skills. I'm more crippled by a blank sheet of paper (harbouring endless possibilities - but which should I choose and where should I start (.o0 feeling anxiety)) while Elina quickly can squeeze out something that sometimes is good and sometimes half-assed.  It has happened more than once that she jots down something I don't quite agree with, thereby forcing me to immediately engage in, clarify and correct her "outrageous" draft. She doesn't necessarily write a great text at the first pass, but it's a start and it gets us going. I am on the other hand better at producing precise and beautifully elaborated formulations that clarify, develop and embellish a sentence or a paragraph. But sometimes I overwork the text and the sentences become too long, awkward or cumbersome by making use of (too many) parentheses or obliquely sprouting obscure references to decades-old popular culture or stories from the bible or whatever. Then Elina swoops in and cleans up or just points out problematic passages or aspects of my overworked messiness. Other functions/roles can be performed by both of us, for example moving a text along from a commented meta-text (see the example above) to a perfectly functional running text.

Since me and Elina have a well-oiled process in place for cranking out texts, it is nowadays easy for us to accept the responsibility (first-and-second authorship) for a new paper or a workshop proposal. We are becoming (or have already become) a high-powered writing duo. While many parts of the process as described above is in place also when I work with others people (for example with my colleague Björn Hedin), it has not matured to the level of my writing partnership with Elina due to the simple fact that mine and Björn's research interests overlap to a lesser extent than mine and Elina's. Also (and therefore), me and Björn just haven't written anywhere near as much together as me and Elina have.

One final reflection is that I have for the longest of times noted that my way of approaching a writing project has changed radically compared to when I was a ph.d. student. Back then I just sat down and started to write. Then I went back and rewrote. Sometimes I wrote similar things in more than one place and I then had to at a late-ish point in time compare, move, edit and reconcile different parts of the text. It happened more than once that I submitted an abstract (paper proposal) that later turned out to be unworkable (too ambitious, too complicated, required me read up on new areas etc.). A lot of work went into writing each text.

Nowadays I instead spend a lot of time planning and thinking and only then progressively start to extend the text according to the plan (going from a sketch to meta-text about what I want to say in this and in that section of the text and then extending it to running text). I nowadays always plan (or at least sketch out) the whole paper before I write an abstract (see for example this and this abstract (paper). I even plan more or less how long the different parts of a text should be before I start to write them. It might sound burdensome but it in fact exactly the opposite - it is liberating! It is much easier to write the "background" or the "methods" part of the paper if you have already decided how many pages you are aiming for compared to having a blank sheet in front of you, pondering at what granularity you should describe your research methods. I have thus switched from writing (for example my ph.d thesis) in a bottom-up manner to nowadays always writing my texts by way of a top-down process. This can at times make it frustrating and difficult for me to work with people who have a more bottom-up-ish way of working. Either we work my way (structured) or their way (in which case I let go and don't contribute as much). Or we don't work together at all and that too works for me.

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