What does it mean for academic papers to be available freely?


To me? A great deal. In December I started to work in independent practice and in December, for the first time in  many years I lost the ability to access freely academic journals. An interesting position to be in and one experienced by the majority of healthcare professionals working outside of academia or the NHS. Even within the NHS reduced  access is a frustration for healthcare professionals who, on completion of postgraduate studies linked with a University, are more limited in what they can access.

Therefore it was with real interest that I followed up a number of tweets last week about Sci-Hub which was established in 2011 and, until now, has passed me by completely. What follows is a precis of the story published in sciencealert.com, and bigthink.com.  Sci-Hub was created by Russian neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan as a consequence of her frustration at her inability to access articles without having to pay. Does this resonate with you? You find an abstract that looks promising, follow the link and are met with a request for payment?

Here is something I have been reflecting on prompted by this story. I was looking for a paper last week and to access it for 24 hours would have cost me $40 (£27.57p). Now here’s the thing – I receive fairly regular request from said journal to carry out article reviews. I am required to do this free of charge within 10 working days. During those 10 days I receive reminders of the approaching deadline and if I miss it I receive an email pointing out how I am holding up the review process. If I decline to undertake the review I am automatically directed to a webpage asking me to suggest alternative reviewers from my professional network. Hmmm.

Alexandra Elbakyan moved way beyond my frustration and established what is in effect a pirate repository of over 48 million journal articles. How does it work? You type in the URL of the paper you are seeking and the full text of the paper appears – it works I searched for one of my papers and the full text was there in seconds.

Behind the scenes your request is first routed to similar pirate site LibGen and if they don’t have it… well you know you are told to never share logins or password – anonymous academics have donated theirs to Sci-Hub enabling it to access journals that otherwise sit behind paywalls. The neat thing is that if it accesses a paper in this way Sci-hub then sends a copy of the paper to LibGen to increase their repository.

Needless to say Alexandra Elbankyan is the subject to a law suit  in the US brought by Elsevier and was ordered to close the site down in December. However it is still up and running. In fighting the injunction Alexandra has cited article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which states that: ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

The points made in her letter to the judge in her defence are really worth reading. Having published in academic journals, chaired an editorial board of a professional journal and published books I understand the different perspectives. However it is my current position of being effectively locked out of the world of academic publishing that makes me cheer for the tenacity of Alexandra Elbankyan and what she is fighting for – the democratisation of knowledge.

Some of the greatest beneficiaries of this fight will be people in developing countries but a thought I will share which is closer to home and focused on practice rather than academic publishing- if we are committed to evidence informed practice and the rapid translation of research into practice what will happen within an increasingly fragmented health economy where no one working in the independent or voluntary sectors, like me, has access to the evidence?

The photo used in this post was taken by Aleski Tappura and downloaded from Unsplash.com



Wednesday exploration: TED Talks

DSCN2331Welcome to another Wednesday Exploration. This week we journey into the global world of TED, a world I know we will visit on a number of occasions over the coming year due to the sheer breadth of inspiration to be found there.

To start off, a brief introduction to TED which is probably best know as the home of TED Talks, does that ring a bell? TED describes itself as ‘a clearing house of free knowledge from the worlds most inspired thinkers’ and whether you’re a health researcher or working in clinical practice there are TED Talks for you. Some will support your personal development, some will give you inspiration and others will expand your horizons.  I can say honestly that I have laughed, cried and been astounded whilst watching Ted talks

If you would like to find out about the different aspects of TED’s work like the TEDx conferences run throughout the UK you can do this via the website. But for today I am going to focus on the talks of which there are now over 2,000. All are freely available online and last no longer than 18 minutes and therefore great to tune in to when you need a bit of down time or a cup of coffee. You can create a log in and bookmark those that you find helpful so that you can keep revisiting or sharing them.

To help you navigate through the library you can search either via curated Playlists, of which there are over 100, or by topic. The playlists are structured under the following headings

  • A better you
  • TED at a glance
  • Technology
  • Entertainment
  • Art and design
  • Science and medicine
  • Culture
  • Global issues
  • Business and work

To whet your appetite one of the playlists found in ‘A better you’ is Where do ideas come from? the 8 talks in the playlist include: where do good ideas come from; your elusive creative genius; how to start a movement; how to get your ideas to spread; where does creativity hide; when ideas have sex; embrace the remix; 4 lessons in creativity.

Other playlists include All kinds of minds. which comprises 9 talks focused on ‘powerful stories shattering preconceived notions about mental illness and posing provocative questions’ and How to be a great leader  which ‘offers surprising, nuanced approaches on how to inspire and empower others to do their very best’.

For anyone who needs to speak in public the 8 talks within the Before Public Speaking playlist are well worth watching. One of my favourites within this list is Julian Treasure’s talk on How to speak so that people want to listen.

You can follow TED on all of the usual social media channels and sign up for an email alert when a new talk is released.

Here’s a suggestion, if you want to experience the world of TED you might start by exploring the 20 most popular talks of all time which will give you a really good idea of the range and diversity of the talks.

Tempting as it may be I’m not going to link to any more as part of the fun is in exploring for yourself. If you already use TED talks or decide to have an explore I would love to know which ones you enjoy.


The EPIC model: Explore


Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 12.48.05The focus of todays post is on the first component of the EPIC model for emergent health researchers:

Explore to develop and increase your understanding of the health research community.

What does this mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines explore as, to travel through an unfamiliar area to learn about it which is an apt definition for exploring the world of health research. For most healthcare professionals this world presents an unfamiliar landscape. One which may have been encountered briefly during undergraduate study but even that brief sojourn was more likely to have been into the world of academic research, an important part of the landscape but not the whole picture.

The world of health research is rich and multifaceted and it is appropriate that entry into this world starts with a process of exploration, a time to venture into different areas, have a look around, get lost and find yourself. This kind of purposeful wandering will help to increase your knowledge and understanding of all of the different parts of the community, how they interface and connect. You will start to identify specific aspects and communities which are of more interest to you, those which resonate and are aligned to your values and it will require you to start wearing the mantle of someone interested in research.

If you are wondering if this is necessary here are some questions to ponder. At an organisation level:

  • How much do you know about the research community within your organisation?
  • Who is your Director of Research and your Research and Development manager and what do they do?
  • What are the research strengths of your organisation
  • What funding is available within your organisation to support research capability building?
  • What is in your organisations research strategy, does it have one?

Looking at the wider community

  • What are the research strengths of your local Universities?
  • Do you have a CLAHRC in your area and if so what are the opportunities for linking in with its work
  • Do you have an Academic Health Science Network what does it do?
  • What seminars are being held over the coming 6 months that you could attend?
  • What do you know about the work of the medical research charities relevant to your area of practice?
  • What does your professional body do to support research

I could go on but hopefully you get the gist.

Why is exploration important to emergent health researchers? To answer this question I’m going to draw upon the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which, as I mentioned in the previous post, identifies the knowledge, attributes and behaviours of successful researchers. Whilst the RDF is aimed at researchers at doctoral level and beyond it is possible to map the process of exploration onto the framework to give you some idea of the knowledge, attributes and behaviours you will start to develop and acquire through the process of exploration.

The reason I’m doing this is to enable you to see their alignment with that of developing as a researcher, it is not just about methods, study design and data analysis. To remind you the framework is divided into 4 domains and each domain has 3 sub-domains, (the titles at the top of each column).

1.Knowledge and intellectual abilities

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2.Personal effectiveness

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3.Research Governance and organisation

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4.Engagement influence and impact

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So as you can see from the above you can start developing relevant skills and expertise at a very early stage in your research journey by getting to understand the workings of the community you are wanting to join, asking questions about how it works, what drives it and finding out about opportunities to engage with it.

How will it help you? Increasing your knowledge and understanding of the research community, its stakeholders and the things which drive it will become your launchpad for greater engagement. It will support you in championing research within your team and it will place you in a stronger position when applying for competitive bursaries and fellowships. For example you may consider applying for a Health Education England Internship, an NIHR funded place on a Masters in Clinical Research or funding from a medical research charity to support academic fees. What will make your application stand out?

In the section which asks why you are making the application you will be able to write it with reference to your organisations research strategy and explain how the skills you will develop will support delivery of the strategy. You might be able to say that you are actively involved in a research special interest group you have joined or that you have attended Trust research events.

If you are shortlisted for interview you will be able to demonstrates your enthusiasm for research. As an emergent researcher you may not be able to provide evidence of presentations or publications on your CV but what if you were able to demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of your research community, evidence of attending seminars, webinars or workshops? You suddenly have something to talk about in the interview.

So there we go, an introduction to Explore. In the next post I will expand upon this by looking at some of the specific things you can do as an explorer in this area of your research development.

The Heart Language of Health Research


I was listening to a presentation recently from Dr Dee Abimbola  talking about the brilliant work she is leading in Liverpool to support the development of dementia champions from black and ethic minority groups within the City. Dee used a term which resonated with me when she spoke about the importance of the champions speaking peoples’ “heart language”.

You know how some phrases you hear just grab your attention, make a connection and send your mind spinning off into another orbit? Well this one not only landed with me but distracted me. I’m sure the rest of the presentation was great but my mind had gone else where, pondering the possibilities of a heart language, wondering what one is and where the phrase came from.

Where would we be with search engines? Looking it up it is (of course) a quote from Nelson Mandela:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language,that goes to his heart”

Which started me thinking about the heart language of researchers and the research community. What is the language that goes to our hearts? A language that goes to my heart as a researcher is one that touches fundamental values I hold about why research is important to me. This is not about the impact of my research on others it is something far more personal than that. It is about my relationship with it.

It isn’t the language I use in textbooks or academic papers, in fact when I think about it, it isn’t a language I use very often in public as it is subsumed and silenced by the conventions surrounding research, formal presentations and academic publishing. Why is that?

I am sure that all researchers have a research heart language and it is one that is given voice when the community comes together, not in the formal halls where presentations are given, but in the informal spaces where people meet to talk about new ideas, forge new collaborations or just share their experiences.

It appears, occasionally, when any researcher is asked to talk about why they do research. Even if you haven’t a clue what they are talking about, on such occasions, you will not only hear it but you will sense it.  It is a language that is bubbling to be freed and, on being given the right prompt, ‘tell me about your research’ bursts forth. You may also witness the moment when it is reigned in if it becomes apparent that language isn’t shared. If you are a researcher you will no doubt have caught yourself connecting with your heart language getting swept away by it and then seeing ‘the look’ on someone’s face as you realise it was a polite enquiry.

The heart language of research is exciting and driven by passion. There is a shift in dynamic, the pace picks up, the heart beats faster, the conversation becomes animated. The language is no longer about study design, statistics, data analysis it is the language of possibility, of deep connection, where the boundaries of new knowledge are stretched and the passion that drives researchers is voiced.

This is the language that energies and sustains us and the reason why anyone undertaking research values occasions when they come together as part of a community speaking to their heart language. I think it is also the language that needs a greater public voice if, as a community, we want to inspire others to engage with research.

‘Cutting to the chase’ & ‘bottom lining’ your research?

Early spring blossom

One of the things I am loving about writing a blog is thinking in a bit more detail than usual about the words and phrases we use and exploring how they have come into common parlance. Why does the lens this week fall onto ‘cutting to the chase’ and ‘bottom lining’? Well a number of reasons really, firstly the British Library has announced the winner of its competition #sharemythesis and secondly I am in the midst of reviewing conference abstracts.

Both challenging researchers in different ways to be incredibly focused in the way they communicate their research. The former requiring you to summarise the importance of your PhD in a tweet of 140 characters or less, the latter being able to communicate your research in 250 words in a way which engages the reviewer, convinces them about the quality of the work you have undertaken and encourages them to select your work to present to a wider audience.

But cutting to the chase and bottom lining is not just about character or word count it is about being able to identify and distill the essence of your work. This is as much about thinking as it is about writing.

As researchers we are required to communicate our work in many different ways. The same plot, the same journey, the same end point but different representations. Some fast paced and direct with little time for sharing the nuances and subtleties of the landscape, others conducted at a more leisurely pace with time to pause and reflect on the way, to recount the detail and share the perspective.

For this post however, let’s think about the fast and direct route, the one that cuts to the chase and presents the bottom line. In case you are wondering, the etymology of cutting to the chase? The chase scene in silent movies was the bit where all the action took place, and screenwriters often tried to prolong the build up to the big scene. Studio executives used the phrase ‘cut to the chase’ to mean ‘get to the interesting bit’, stopping messing around and get on with it. Now we use it to as a means of communicating ‘get to the point’. And if you are interested in bottom lining – it comes from the word of accounting and refers to the profit left after everything had been calculated, so therefore the most important piece of information.

As someone who, at the start of their academic career, was in receipt of many a heavily edited text with comments like, ‘try to reduce the flowery language’ I know from personal experience the challenges associated with the ‘short version’.  We invest a great deal of time and energy in our research, we love the detail and nuance, we have thought about it a lot, and it is hard to let it go. We feel the need to explain the detail so that people can really understand what we are doing and why. Whilst we may find it hard to let go developing the skill of bottom lining is a valuable skill to develop so that in the situations when it is required we are able to ‘cut to the chase’ and not left floundering.

So if you want to test how good you are at cutting to the chase or bottom lining your research- can you summarise why your PhD or your research project is important in 140 characters? An interesting challenge.

Can I? So this in from my PhD: To understand how effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is we must understand & measure what is important to patients. Have a go it’s fun and it will challenge you to really think about the bottom line for your research.

“Share your news”

For a number of years I kept bees, hence the photo accompanying this post, and spent many a happy time sitting under a tree on a sunny day watching the comings and going of the hive. Bees flying in ladened with pollen and full of news. Their complex waggle dance alerting others to the locations of the richest sources of pollen and nectar, a sharing which ensured the continued growth of the community and honey reserves to see the colony, and of course the happy beekeeper, through winter.

So why the focus on sharing the news and growing communities in this post? Last week I co-facilitated a workshop on effective networking and collaboration for health and social care researchers and have been reflecting on the perspectives we explored during the day. The differing views and challenges people voiced; differing approaches adopted; feelings about what is involved; why some people enjoy it and others find it nerve-racking; how much time people were prepared to invest in it; what kind of networking takes people out of their comfort zone and the oft voiced challenge for clinicians when required to network with members of the academic community.

One of the topics explored was the need to move from a general approach to networking, defined as interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts, to a more strategic approach, defined as networking with a defined goal. To network strategically mean to think carefully about our career progression and aspirations and the kinds of networks we need to cultivate and sustain to support our progression. For some this led to a feeling of discomfort associated with the perceived need for self-promotion, especially when adding intent to the relationships you seek to forge and the networks you aim to join.

For anyone challenged by the perceived egocentricity of such networking a presentation by the shy connector offers a differing perspective – “It’s not about selling yourself, it’s about helping others, it’s not about becoming popular it’s about learning and sharing.” Sustaining networks requires a level of mutuality, whether it is with an individual or group such reciprocity is essential for researchers seeking to develop their networks into more formal research collaborations.

Mid week I was listening to an interview with Dr Matthew Green talking about the coffee-house culture in London in the late 1700s. A vibrant, buzzing scene in which politics, philosophy, the arts and science were debated freely.  He described how the usual welcome when someone entered a coffee-house was ‘share your news’. Joining the discussion and the community was as much about giving as it was about receiving.

Whatever your perspective, networking is a fundamental skill for researchers at all stages of their career and the foundation upon which research collaborations are built. Successful collaboration requires investment in time, resources and trust and rarely happens by chance. Relationships are forged over time and require nurturing by all concerned. The people we meet, the conversations we have with others which spark ideas, the person whose world view opens a new window on something we have been grappling with for a long time. Each time we connect there is potential but only if this is a two way process.

For those just starting out on a research career publications or presentations may be sparse but active involvement and participation in relevant networks, provides visibility and something to write about which demonstrates the efforts being made to become part of the research community. It shows that you are starting to make a contribution which is an important statement. For any clinician concerned about networking in an academic community do not under estimate the contribution you have to make informed by your clinical skills and expertise.

So perhaps, when we think about our networking activities as researchers, a fundamental question to ask ourselves is what news are we sharing and contributing. As we enter a workshop or meeting or join a twitter chat are we sharing our news or solely taking away the news shared freely by others. Are we sitting on a piece of information which we know would be helpful to the discussion. To develop effective networks skills getting used to sharing your news is an important skill to nurture.