Including illustrations in your article or book

Most social scientists accept the value of visual data. You can use them to illustrate a particular point, and they also serve as forms of evidence in their own right. So including them in your published work can make sense, but it isn’t always easy.

Originally, I planned to use about a dozen illustrations in my book on British work camp systems. There are hundreds of images of work camps, labour colonies, training farms and instructional centres, so my main problem at that stage was choosing which images to use, in agreement with the publisher. Then came the crunch: negotiating with copyright holders.

Most of the photographic images are under the control of large firms. You may have heard of some: Getty and Corbis, for instance, own the copyright of many photographs originally commissioned by the press, while Francis Frith specialises in old postcard collections (yes, postcards – of work camps).

Still others belong to libraries and archives. Sometimes the archivist does not know who holds copyright; sometimes they don’t reply, or apparently have never heard of the image, which, of course, you have found on their website.

Almost all of these organisations charge for their services. Some don’t, including the fabulous British Museum. Others do: Newham Library has several images of the 1906 Triangle Camp, taken when unemployed Londoners squatted and worked a patch of waste land in order to show that they were not idle; they charge £5 to scan each image, £40 for UK reproduction and £80 for worldwide use – in short, £125 for the first edition of the book using the image, and £120 for subsequent editions.

This isn’t a lot, and it is certainly less than most big private companies charge. But what it means is that a dozen images will cost far more than you will ever receive in royalties. And working your way through the procedures is loaded with risk and uncertainty: if you tick the wrong box on – say – paperback sales in Samoa, and pay the wrong fee, what happens next? I was not keen to find out.

In the end, after talking with the publisher, I gave up. We decided to use an image on the front cover of men at an International Voluntary Service camp in South Wales; it’s a good photo, but we chose it partly because the IVS archivist happily provided the image for free, and even wanted to know which format we would prefer.

What is really frustrating is that several other people offered images for free. The photo at the head of the blog shows young women and men at the David Eder training farm, run by a Zionist youth movement for members who wanted to prepare for life on a Kibbutz. It is one of a fantastic series of images given to me by Allen Bordoley, whose uncle attended the farm, and who himself knows and helped interview several trainees.

I could, I suppose, simply have used the images that came for free. That would, though, have strongly biassed the story. No images of women (Getty hold the copyright to a fine picture of women standing in line outside the Lapsewood Home Training Centre, brooms and dustpans held out for inspection), for example. None of the major Instructional Centres, or the local government labour colonies.

But it would have included a letter from Wigmore Instructional Centre. It was written by Hughie Edwards, an unemployed Welshman, on tree bark, and was given to me by his nephew. Hughie wrote:

Dear Maw, Just a few lines hoping you are ok the same as I am. I am sending you a photo of the South Wales boys and myself, it was taken up the forest. Well, I will only be here for a week next Wednesday. And overleaf: This bark was out of a tree in July 4th 1934 in Wigmore.

Wigmore hughie edwards2

Does this tell us something useful about trainees’ experiences in the work camps? Right now, I’m annoyed with myself for giving up so easily.

Neo-liberalism: an over-worked concept?

Neo-liberalism has to be one of the most frequently used terms in the social sciences. Barely mentioned at the end of the 1980s, it was pretty popular by the turn of the century, and is now commonplace. But what does it mean – and particularly why is it so common in educational research?

I should probably start by justifying my claim that the term is commonly used. A text search of the Journal of Education Policy since 1997 shows 196 items that use the word ‘neo-liberal’, and 53 in the British Educational Research Journal. This may reflect a British tendency to engage in policy commentary, as there were only 23 such items in the Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, and only five in the American Educational Research Journal.

If I had enough time, I’d look systematically at how the word is used. But here are my impressions, based on ways in which I’ve noticed people using the terms at conferences and in their publications.

First, and foremost, neo-liberalism is usually denotes something bad; it is a highly normative term, and it is almost always meant to be derogatory. The (usually unstated) understanding is that neo-liberalism is to be contrasted with social democratic welfarism, which is the implied positive to neo-liberalism’s negative.

Second, the word is rarely defined. In a review of 148 articles on neo-liberalism in politics and development journals in 2009, two political scientists found not one that focused on the definition and usage of the term. The same is true of many other social sciences, and if there is any such definitional discussion in educational studies, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Third, people who use the term rarely provide any references to neo-liberal writers and thinkers. Like Stephen Ball in his recent book, if they identify any sources at all, then the reference is to thinkers who share their negative view of neo-liberalism. This strikes me as poor scholarship, and something we criticise our students for when they do the same. But not naming the writers means that you don’t need to discuss their ideas.

Fourth, you then don’t need to discuss how they came to exert any influence. Neo-liberalism is an abstraction. Like ‘globalised/globalisation’, it serves as a floating adjective, or a disembodied force.Neo-liberal stuff happens. Well, yes, perhaps it does, but why did these ideas become popular and who puts them into practice? Who resists them, or fails to resist them, and why?

And finally, the term is so loose that it gets applied to any policy or approach one chooses. New Labour in Britain, Merkel in Germany, Clinton and Bush, the World Bank and Alex Salmond – all can be viewed, and have been, through the furry lens of neo-liberalism.

Of course, these are all generalisations. I’ve come across plenty of exceptions, such as Simon Marginson’s powerful analyses of markets in higher education: he references Milton Friedman, the anti-Keynesian who led the Chicago School of Economics (who defined himself, if anything, as a ‘classical liberal’ – nothing ‘neo’ about him!).  And Marginson sort of defines the term, if rather loosely, as a ‘discourse’ that promotes the role of markets. Otherwise, he neatly fits my portrait, using ‘neo-liberal’ as a floating adjective (most frequently, ‘neo-liberal discourse’ and ‘neo-liberal imaginary’).

In an interesting paper some years ago, the Marxist Chris Harman said that the problem with ‘neo-liberalism’ was that it obscured an important distinction: it became unclear whether the author or protester who used the term was objecting to capitalism as such, or only to a particular regime of capitalism. Harman himself doubted whether neo-liberalism really had any substance, arguing that there was little evidence of a rolling-back of the state, and plenty of evidence of continued faith in Keynesian government spending funded by borrowing.

Without buying into all of Harman’s critique, I think he hit on something important. Slippery concepts serve a purpose, and neo-liberalism is nothing if not slippery. It allows us to scorn that which we are against without scrutinising why these ideas found any purchase, and without saying what we would like to see instead: weak scholarship and watery politics.

An unsolicited invitation from an open access journal

I’ve just received the following email:

I have had an opportunity to read your paper “An Anti-Urban Education? Work Camps and Ideals of the Land in Interwar Britain” in Rural History and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field. . . . I am the editorial assistant of Review of European Studies (RES). RES is an open-access, international, double-blind peer-reviewed journal published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education. It aims to promote excellence through dissemination of high-quality research findings, specialist knowledge, and discussion of professional issues that reflect the diversity of this field. The journal publishes a broad range of papers from culture, history, art, sociology, religion, politics, laws, education, psychology and economics. RES takes a broad view of European issues and also encourages submissions which are with international perspective.

I checked this out. According to its website, RES is indexed in SCOPUS, which is a reputable bibliographic database. It is published by a company called the Canadian Center of Science and Education, which lists the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education as a member. So far, so good.

Less encouragingly, it turns out that the Center charges a minimum of $US 200 an article; the email did not mention an author processing charge. Moreover, the Center’s products have featured in Jeffrey Beall’s highly-regarded list of questionable publishers, and some of its journals have featured in prominent plagiarism allegations. So I won’t be submitting a paper to RER.

For some background on the ‘dark side’ of academic publishing, see this report in Nature:

And if you want to read my paper on anti-urban work camp movements, you can request a copy here:



Social media and social capital

I am constantly surprised by just how new the new media are. This was brought home to me today while I worked on the next edition of my book on social capital.

James Coleman was dead before the first ever SMS message was sent on 3 December 1992, and Pierre Bourdieu did not live to see the integration of cameras into mobile phones. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In short, the main lines of the debate over social capital were laid down long before today’s highly mediated social connections came into being.

It isn’t surprising that most early writing about digitised social bonds was highly speculative, and often pessimistic. During our early discussions over what later became an edited book of critical perspectives on social capital, Tom Schuller used to alarm me with his descriptions of an atomised society of individuals, each plugged into their own Walkman, and sharing nothing of their tastes with their neighbours.

Social research invariably lags behind innovative forms of behaviour, and only now can we see a significant body of evidence about how people understand relationships that are mediated by networks such as Facebook. Most of this early evidence comes from western societies, particularly the United States, and quite a lot is based on studies of highly educated young people who are still at college. And for both ethical and practical reasons, we still have relatively little evidence of the dark side of the new social media.

I’m still reviewing this growing mountain of research. At this stage, I reckon that most of the empirical studies suggest that most young people use social media partly to maintain existing social bonds (for example, with old school friends now studying elsewhere, or between young emigrants and their friends back ‘home’) and partly to exchange hot information with a wider and more disparate network. In short, social media can in these cases help sustain existing bonds, while extending them for specific purposes.

If this is born out by subsequent studies, then we don’t need to worry too much about the future social capital of our societies. It will change somewhat in composition, but the underlying bonds of reciprocity and trust will still be there. Sometimes people will use these networks to spread ill-will and hatred rather than enlightenment and joy, but that is also true of face-to-face ties, as you can hear for yourself in almost any pub. Every nationalist knows that it helps to bind people together if you can also give them someone to hate.

This is, then, a rather dull conclusion. It is unlikely to satisfy critics like Sherry Turkle, a veteran student of digital cultures who now laments the corrosive effects of email and texting for giving us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, undermining the reciprocity and learning that occur through face-to-face interaction, compromising our privacy, and favouring novelty over substance.

But I see it as offering some clear pointers to the future of regulation over social media, the development of appropriate rules of ‘netiquette’, and the extension of social media across existing digital divides between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor. If social media can indeed help build social capital, we should do it in ways that are inclusive and socially sustainable.

My entry in Who’s Who

This morning, I opened a letter asking me to confirm my proposed entry in Who’s Who. It comprised six lines, with a mixture of contact details, website, and job title. I had to correct any errors, then sign, date and return the form, to an address in Berlin.

This is, of course, another dodgy ‘publisher’, targeting academics and presumably businesses. On the letter head, the word’s Who’s Who are in capitals; below that, in very small print indeed, is the qualifier: In (European) Commerce and Industry. And in very, very small print it emerges that there is a charge of €399, and that the signed form confirming my details is deemed to be a formal order for this service.

Right at the very bottom of the letter are the company’s contact details and – ominously – the ‘Venue of Litigation’. I tried searching for the company – Buchvertrieb Wockel – but could not find a website. Their address is shared with a hairdresser and a Chinese restaurant.

A flattering invitation

It’s always nice to be praised. An email arrived today inviting me to speak at a conference, telling me that ‘your unique, inspirational message will be the perfect way to kick off the congress’. It goes further, describing the conference as an ‘historic event to celebrate the milestone achievement derived from you’. And it also invited me to join the conference committee. Wow!

This all sounds great. The event is in Wuhan, in China, which sounds a nice place to visit. And according to the website, I’ll also be able to hear several other ‘renowned speakers’, from Johns Hopkins, the University of Alberta, and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It sounds ideal – but there’s a catch. My inspirational message is being requested for a conference on HIV. However you stretch it, this is not my area. And there is a nice big fee –the early bird rate for speakers is quoted at $2,149 – as well as some rather ominous talk of membership, with a fee that has to be ‘updated’. Just to add to the confusion, the invitation talks about the 4th Annual Symposia of HIV (HIV-2013), but the website lists the event on those dates as the 3rd Annual World Congress of Microbes.

So is this just another dodgy invitation? A simple mistake (I am not, sadly, the only John Field in academic)? Or an over-enthusiastic conference administrator, hoping that my swollen male pride will overcome my lack of expertise, and persuade me to share my unique inspirational message with a bunch of microbe or HIV specialists?  

At first glance, I guess you might think this is kosher. The website lists many academics on the organising committee, including a reader in maths at Strathclyde University, a reader in pathology from Cambridge University, and a professor of food studies at Ulster University. I’ve not contacted them to ask whether they really are involved with this organisation, but given that their expertise has nothing much to do with HIV or microbes, this conference – if it exists – is unlikely to be a quality event.

Dropping out of MOOCs

Today’s Times Higher Education carried a report on completion rates in MOOCs, which it estimated at under 7 per cent. Like other products of cheap and rapid digitisation, MOOCs are often seen as a game-changer, threatening to send traditional universities the way of Borders and HMV, and forcing the rest to review their fundamental approach to learning and teaching. It is easy to see, then, why we might think that MOOC drop-out matters.

In fact, I think MOOC drop-out matters. But I’m not going to draw firm conclusions from the THE article, for two reasons. The first is that it is based on what is clearly a small and limited study. Katy Jordan, the researcher whose work is reported, found completion data for 29 MOOCs, which she took from quite different sources (including news reports, university data, and academic presentations). She found completion rates varied widely, between under 1% to almost 19%.

The first thing to say is that this is a small sample, and it may or may not be representative. The different sources may or may not report completion in the same ways. And where did the ‘average’ of under 7% come from? THE doesn’t say, but it looks to me as though someone – I guess THE – has taken the sum of 29 completion rates and divided it by 29. So the second thing to say is that the student cohorts will vary widely in size, and unless you weight for that, then you can’t really reach a meaningful average.

Katy Jordan’s findings are interesting pointers, but do not yet provide a firm basis for judging completion rates. And this is no criticism – she has been entirely open about her sources and analysis, and is presenting her findings as part of a very interesting series of reflections based on her experiences as a MOOC participant. As usual, the question is how the findings are reported, and what use other people will then make of a half-remembered headline.

And even if MOOC completion rates did average out at 7% or less, so what? My answer is that we have no idea whether it matters or not. MOOCs are still very new, and we have only the haziest idea of what learners are doing, and what they have in mind when they click to register on a MOOC . While we do have some ideas from earlier research on drop-out which should make us cautious about drawing firm conclusions, MOOCs are new enough to make me cautious about extrapolating from earlier studies.

What we can say pretty confidently is that open and distance learning tend to show lower completion rates than face to face learning, often dramatically so. This is why the Open University invests so much time and trouble in working out how to engage and support its students. We also know that headline completion rates are lower in part-time than full-time higher education; but any researcher would be careful about drawing conclusions, as we don’t know what learner intentions were when enrolling.

When it comes to MOOCs, entirely new considerations come into play. The clue to why is in the word ‘Open’: anyone can enrol, but we don’t have a clue as to why they have done so. They might be potential learners shopping around, or they might be academics wondering what MOOCs are about. They might want to look at one bit of the MOOC and not others, or lurk and browse rather than complete the whole course. We don’t know whether the ‘drop-outs’ are actually people who register for several courses and end up completing the one that interests them. They might be bored schoolchildren looking for help with a project, or prisoners in one of our more luxurious gaols wanting to pass the time.

So until we know far more about learner aspirations and behaviour – and indeed whether all those who enrol are learners – we don’t know whether drop-out matters. Turbulent completion rates may be annoying for institutions, who would no doubt prefer as much predictability and routine as possible, but I think they are probably inherent in the very open-ness of a MOOC. They could probably be reduced through charging higher fees.

One final thought: why don’t institutions who provide MOOCs publish their completion rates?

Katy Jordan’s blog is at:

The THE article is at:

Getting involved in policy making – a researcher’s guide

I have no patience with supposedly ‘critical’ education researchers whose critical activity consists of writing academic papers and moaning in the common room, but who make no contribution to policy or practice. I do, though, sympathise with colleagues who would like to contribute to policy making, but don’t know where to begin.

So here is my own advice for someone starting out. Other people will have more experience than I do, or different experience, and will have different and probably better ideas. My own experience is mainly UK-based, with more limited involvement at European level (and a couple of brief activities for OECD), and this will colour my views.

But what colours my views more than anything is a belief that educational research matters. That’s why I do it – the REF, scholarly conferences, travel, book royalties (!), all the rest, are in the end just fluff in the navel. So – deep breath – here is my own unlucky list of thirteen.

  1. Policy makers are busy people, surrounded by other people who are clamouring for their attention. You can’t just write great papers for top journals and wait to be noticed. In my case, getting invitations to do policy work came about because I had spent years working with practitioner groups and providers. They passed my name on to other people who decided to invite me on to working parties and inquiries.
  2. Try writing an accessible summary of your research findings. You can self-publish the result electronically, as a PDF, or in hard copy, as a pamphlet or as an article in a professional journal. I’ve always found this a useful exercise, as it forces me to think hard about whether this piece of research really does matter as much as I thought it did, at least to anyone other than fellow specialists.
  3. Learn from more experienced colleagues. Your immediate colleagues might want to keep their contacts and skills to themselves, but others won’t be so possessive, and they speak and write about it freely. I really wish I’d read something like the LSE Impact Blog at an earlier stage – it would have helped me avoid quite a few mistakes.
  4. If someone senior asks you to stand in for them at a meeting, see it as a potential opportunity rather than a burden. Obviously, this depends on what the meeting is. But one of my early encounters with the world of local government happened when my head of department was too busy to attend a meeting in the council offices, and he couldn’t find a senior lecturer in time to ask them.
  5. Policy making is a complex business, and it takes place at different levels. I started out by being asked to do things with local government, trade unions, and voluntary organisations. Working with national ministries and quangos came along much later, and is much rarer. If you want to get involved in policy advice, then build relationships with people at these local levels.
  6. Your networks will change over time. In my case, people I used to socialise with over a beer or see around the town centre later became eminent leaders of important national agencies. Meanwhile, some senior civil servants retired, and with them went my connections to their department. Quangos come and go, and the chief executives of major organisations can be fired – though perhaps it is worse when, as in one colleague’s case, they get bound up in a major scandal and refuse to leave. So don’t just build new networks, but refresh them from time to time.
  7. Do research as though it matters. Bear in mind that policy makers tend to see the world in terms of their electorate’s concerns. In my case, most of my research is on adult learning and higher education. I don’t see my topic as an opportunity for linguistic inventiveness or complex theoretical exegesis: for me, adult learning is something that matters profoundly in people’s lives, from the moment that they leave school through to their life as elders. So I have no qualms about working with people who can improve the learning experiences of men and women who are trying to better their lot and that of their communities.
  8. Accept your limitations.Your research probably won’t lead to immediate changes, and unless you are part of a large collaborative team, your research will address one small but important aspect of a much broader policy issue. The good news is that if you do get involved in policy dialogue, you will probably be seen as the best person to find and summarise other people’s research.
  9. Accept that policy makers are different from us. Before making decisions, they look at lots of different types of evidence – such as opinion polls and election results, their experience of trying to handle this topic in the past, how the budget process works, their familiarty with media coverage, what they think their own boss might say about it – along with the findings of our research.
  10. You get more respect from them if you respect their expertise in turn, or at any rate that has been my experience. Most public administrators and many elected politicians are bright, highly educated, and experienced people, and in general I’ve found that they also have principles. Respecting this does not mean that you share all their values and priorities, but it is a lot better than assuming that they are foolish or corrupt.
  11. At the same time, though, you do have to develop a thick skin. We all have our own war stories. I got pasted in public by an elected politician who attacked my use of the term ‘manual workers’. She found the word ‘manual’ sexist. When I said that it derived from the Latin word for ‘hand’ and had nothing to do with ‘man’, she added that I was ‘pompous and elitist’ as well. I sulked, until a wiser and older colleague gently told me to get over myself. But this experience, if not unique, isn’t typical.
  12. So I had to learn how to communicate. Often, policy makers come from a very similar education and socio-cultural milieu to us. Others don’t. Coming from the solid middle of the middle class, I needed to develop skills for engaging with the powerful and privileged, and with those who represent the interests of the least privileged and most stigmatised communities. But both can help shape other people’s lives, and we need to influence them.
  13. Learn more about the world of policy. Forget Yes, Minister or The Thick of It. If you’re at all like me, you won’t have much direct experience of making and delivering policy. I did work briefly on a secondment for Sheffield City Council, as a research officer, but otherwise I have little direct insight into the lifeworld of the politician or civil servant or leader of a large NGO. I’ve had to read and listen; some of Geoff Mulgan’s reflections on his time in Whitehall proved helpful in giving me some insights into this well-known but little understood world (

A paper on one of my own encounters with policy making is available at: