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Helen Kara. Opening Up the Craft of Research.

April 26, 2013

Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners Book Cover

Research is not the preserve of academics. Working out which trains to catch or what ingredients are needed in a new recipe and where to find them are examples of research that is a constant part of our everyday life.

There are times, however, when the research becomes more demanding, for example making sense of a quick survey for customer or patient satisfaction. Fiction and non-fiction writing may need to pull together information from books, the internet, documents, films, photographs etc, and then present it in a readable form.

Most books laying out the principles of research have been written for masters and doctoral level, making the concept of research seem out of reach for anyone wishing to make their own small contribution to the world’s collective knowledge.

Helen Kara is an independent researcher who has recognised this deficiency. Although the book is largely written for the social science/health studies market, there is a great deal that anyone wanting do any type of research can take away from it. For example there is advice on how to plan and manage your project (including time management and looking after yourself), as well as where to find all sorts of different information. The book is also full of bite-sized handy hints to ease the research process along.

The interview is also an insight into the process of non-fiction writing. Helen’s very frank and open account, makes it clear that writing can be far from straightforward. It is possible to see the determination and inventiveness needed to overcome obstacles and the management skills required to keep everything on track. All qualities required by writers, no matter what their background.

I’d like you to tell me a bit about your background?

I did my first degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics. I wanted to work with children and young people, but when I finished university I had a bit of an overdraft and no relevant experience. So I spent four years in London as a training administrator, for big, City companies. It was very useful because I learnt a lot about things, like time management and being professional, that have stood me in good stead ever since. At the same time I did voluntary work in a night shelter in Soho with homeless young people. Once I’d paid off my overdraft, that experience enabled me to get a job with the London Borough of Lambeth as a residential social worker, working with teenagers in Brixton. So I did that for five years. After that, I moved to the Midlands and started working at a volunteer bureau part-time. By this time I’d also retrained as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. I did that for about five years from home and accidentally became a researcher in 1999. I’ve been an independent researcher since then and a writer.

Why did you decide to write a book for busy practitioners, because there are plenty of books out there on the subject? What makes yours so different?

Good question. During the last year of my doctorate, in 2006, I realised I wanted to write a book on research methods. It’s like writing a cookbook, there’s no point just writing another how-to cookbook; you need to be to writing about Mongolian vegetarian cookery or something to get noticed. It took me five years to come up with the angle that I thought would work. In those five years I was working as an independent researcher in social care and health, alongside health visitors, midwives, social workers and nursery workers – all sorts of people.

Because they knew I was a researcher, more and more often someone would say, ’Could we just have five minutes afterwards. I want to pick your brains’. They’d probably be doing something like a dissertation for their Masters and got stuck somewhere, or they had a load of data they had collected for a satisfaction survey and needed to know what to do with it. So I would try to point them in the right direction and give them some guidance. The book really came about because of the number of times this happened. I heard so much from practitioners about what a struggle they had with the whole process of research without the right sort of training, support or background. It made me realise there might be a market for a book like the one I’ve written.

How did you know where to pitch the level of the book?

I didn’t know exactly at the start. It’s potentially a broad readership and so pitching it right is hard. But I had a lot of help from my publisher. I was really lucky to work with The Policy Press I chose them primarily because they are a not-for-profit organisation that is interested in publishing, rather than just making money. They have very good guidelines on their website for potential authors, to take you through how to put a proposal together that is likely to be something they want to work with.

I had co-written a book before, with a different publisher, so I had some experience from that and some experience in the publishing industry from my copyediting and proofreading work. I was able to use this experience to get the help and support that I needed when pitching the book. So I put together a proposal and, in the course of that, I talked to several practitioners I knew, saying I was thinking of writing this book and asking what they thought. I canvassed opinion from quite a few people and got quite a few answers. Then some of the people I spoke to went off and canvassed other people, off their own bats, and came back to me with more information. That was very useful.

Then I did the proposal and I said to the Policy Press, ‘Look I’m not sure exactly where to pitch this book. It’s very broad. It’s very difficult.’ They said, ‘Ok, we’ll help you,’ and they sent my proposal out to five peer reviewers. They always do send proposals out for peer review, but the number of peer reviewers and the type of them varies depends on the type of book. Rather than being for academic research, this one’s for people like teachers, health workers and counsellors. So I think what Policy Press did was send the peer review out to people in different sectors (healthcare, social work, education etc), although, because the peer reviewing is anonymous, I can’t be sure. But the comments that came back were very useful. Some reviewers were more in favour than others. But whether they were in favour or not, they all made really helpful comments and gave wonderful input that helped me focus the book to where it is now.

While you were writing the book, did you have the resources you could call on so that you could keep the book on track and at the right level?

Yes and no. The big struggle I had was getting hold of academic journals. It looked, for a while, as if I was not going to be able to get behind the paywalls. That would have been a great shame, because there was stuff there that I really needed. In theory I could have gone and read at the British Library, but in practice that would have meant me spending days and days in London, which would have cost money in travel and accommodation, and I don’t have a budget for that. I was trying really hard to get a fellowship at the Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University, which would have given me access, and I did succeed, but only after the book had gone to press. So that was a problem which I managed to get round reasonably okay because there is quite a bit of open access literature. I bought some books, because I had to. But the publisher gave me a small advance which covered the cost of those, and also my friends in academia were very helpful in providing PDFs for me. But that was my biggest problem. Getting at those resources.

Were there other resources you are able to call on, having already spoken about friends that were able to help?

Not particularly. It was a difficult personal time. I got the go-ahead to write the book in June 2011, and I’m very organised so I worked out a plan of how many words a week I needed to do. It was quite a tight deadline because Policy Press were very keen to get it out, and so was I. But my mother-in-law fell ill in September 2011 and died a week later, and then three days after her funeral my father-in-law had a massive heart attack and was in hospital for several weeks, during which he had a triple bypass. He was just about back on his feet and out of hospital by Christmas and my first draft deadline was the end of January. So that was really tight. The typescript then had to go for review again, and I only had six weeks, from the middle of March to the end of April, for the second draft. In fact slightly less, because the reviewer’s comments were late. Then in the first week of April, within three days of each other, an uncle and an aunt died, one on each side of my family. So the last week of April involved two family funerals at different ends of the country. The last day of April was my final deadline.

I did meet my deadlines, but I think, partly because I’d got so much stuff going on personally, I didn’t do much brain picking or accessing social media during the process. It was a real struggle to get the book written and keep everything going and give enough support to my partner and my family. So I was rather inwardly focused. I was either writing or doing family stuff. There wasn’t much time for anything else.

So you were trying to write your book, while all sorts of things were happening at the same time and you had to manage all of this. The issue of time management is relevant to anyone who writes, so would you go through how you deal with time management issues? How do you build in for problems occurring and if they did, how did you work around them?

My method for doing a first draft is word count per week. That works for me, although for some people it’s better to do the word count per day or spend a given amount of time. Everybody will have a different way of doing it. So you have to experiment as a writer to see what suits you best.

I was aiming at about 5,000 words a week, when I was doing the first draft of this book. So at 80,000 words that’s about 16 weeks. That’s just getting the words down. I didn’t start from the beginning of chapter 1 and keep writing until I got to the end of chapter 1, I wrote whichever bits I wanted to write next (there is a bit about this in the book). It was a case of come hell or high water, I was going to do this. I think there was only one week where I got behind with the word count and I had to catch up the next week. That was the week my father-in-law had his triple bypass. So every other week, while people were dying or I was going to funerals, I kept the work on track. I really just did it by not having a life. I work two days a week so I had to keep that going. The the rest of the time I was home, I would write, look after my family, look after my partner and write.

One thing I didn’t do, which is in the book (probably because it’s always easier to tell someone else to do it), is to look after myself as well. That is important because if you don’t look after yourself, then you can’t write. I do try to take that sort of advice myself when I can, but when you’re in the type of situation I was in, there were times where there was a choice of looking after myself or getting my word count done. On a mental level getting my word count done actually is a way of looking after myself and the sooner I had the book out the sooner I could get some rest. So being able to look after yourself is not always so clear cut. It is a constant juggling act, because I think anyone who doesn’t write doesn’t realise how writing any book can be so demanding. They think it’s all about being able to sit and look at the nice view out the window and do a bit of writing here and there.

In a way, related to time management is the question of how you keep all your information organised so that you can work with it, because this is another aspect of research that’s relevant for any type of writer.

I like to keep control of all my information electronically. I’m very keyboard dependent, probably because I type at 90 words a minute. I can’t write with a pen any more, I can barely write a cheque or a birthday card.

So for example, when I read a book I make notes and keep them in a Word document. I keep the citation reference in that document too. I’m still using stuff that I did in my Masters degree, which I did in 1999 and finished in 2001. Because of the way I catalogued it, I can still find it easily. I do it all in Word and nest it all in folders. I have a huge folder called ‘work’ and I have subfolders within subfolders. The only problem is, I’m the only one who can find things in it, but it works for me.

There is software out there that can help you keep on top of this sort of thing but it’s not something I’ve checked out yet. It can be difficult to keep track of information, because the amount you can gather off the Internet is expanding so quickly. But again Twitter brings me some useful bits of information about how to do that and storing tweets through Storify is another thing I find very useful.

So you never throw anything away.

I’ll keep links to webpages. Okay they break sometimes, but usually they’re still there when I go back to them. I keep them if I come across a web page that I think will be interesting.

At the moment I’m gathering stuff for my new book from the web, picking up links from Twitter, from the papers online, all sorts of other sources. I grab the link, copy it and paste it into a document I call ‘notes and links’. At the moment that is very rough and fragmented, but it means I can just chuck all sorts of things in when I think of them. For example, if I’m talking to someone and I have a thought, the minute I get the chance, I jot it down in a document so it’s there when I go back to it, when I’m ready to pay attention to it. So yes, I never throw anything away, but I also make sure I keep it where I can find it.

So you like to have access to and use social media?

I would have liked to use it more and I’m certainly intending to use it more for my next book, which will be on creative research methods in practice. I’m certainly using it as a resource, because Twitter brings you stuff, and I’ve read several research blogs that were very useful for information links, thoughts, ideas. I’ve also harvested a lot from the web, not in terms of plagiarism or stealing content, but in terms of finding resources for different sections. For example, a lot of what’s in the chapter on secondary data is about how to find data on the World Wide Web. So I spent a lot of time on the Web looking for what was there for that chapter, such as information about online social science data archives in different countries. I didn’t know what was out there until I started looking. I couldn’t find the information collated anywhere online or offline, so I created the lists of resources which are in the book from looking at all the different websites and looking at different countries through the Web searches and recording what I found.

The Web was also useful for testing my ideas. For example, I’m quite good at time management and I’ve put a lot in the book about time management, but before I finalised that section I went and looked for what was out there by just searching on ‘time management’. That helped me to see whether there were any sub-topics I’d missed, so it was very useful.

Secondary data is very useful, but how can you be sure of its quality?

You can’t always. But what you do need to do is assess the quality of it and say what you judge its quality to be and why. Sometimes you can judge its quality, because some providers of secondary data care about the status of that data and they will say what their sample sizes and return rates were (if it was a survey), what they’ve left out, how they did the analysis, why they have presented it as they have, and so on. They give you an enormous amount of background information so you can look at it and think, ‘Ok I’m confident about that, and this is why.’ Others just give you a spreadsheet with nothing else and then you have to make your own judgement about how robust you think that data is. But again you need to explain on what basis you’ve made that decision and why. Then it’s up to your readers to decide for themselves as to whether your judgement is up to scratch.

You mentioned the difficulty of getting hold of articles in journals, because outside of an academic institution, some journals are closed access. So is this a good argument for open source material?

I think there are a lot of good arguments for open source material, not least that a lot of research is paid for by taxpayers’ money and therefore taxpayers ought to be able to read the results. So yes I think it would be a good thing. At the moment I’m fortunate enough to have access to that information, because I’m now an associate research fellow, which is posh academic for volunteer. So I do a bit of work for the Third Sector Research Centre and in return I get access to these journals. Which is fine, but actually I think I should have access anyway.

I’ve blogged on this subject for the Policy Press.

You talk about drawing on grey literature and ephemera in the book. Would you describe what grey literature and ephemera are, how they can be used and where you find them?

Grey literature is literature that is professional, but not published academic work, so it might be government policy, reports produced by organisations, guidance documents, that kind of thing.

Ephemera can be texts which are designed to be disposable. I use the word texts because they’re not always hardcopy documents. They can be things like leaflets or flyers for an event or service, which are handed out and looked at maybe a couple of times, then maybe thrown in the bin, but not designed to be kept in a library or catalogued. Documents such as diaries or World War Two ration books also come under this category.

Electronic texts such as tweets are ephemera and sometimes people choose to archive them. Historical researchers and contemporary researchers may do this. Tweets can be collected in something like Storify and then curated and made into narratives, which I find quite fascinating. Then they can be preserved for later use in publicity, research, and so on.

I think it’s interesting that you ask me about ephemera and grey literature in the same question, because I think they have some parallels. Some types of grey literature can be a bit ephemeral and others are much more solid and closer to the academic end of the conventionally published end of literature. So I think perhaps there is a continuum that links ephemera to the non-ephemeral.

There are an enormous amount of resources, not just academic papers, a researcher can draw on.

There certainly are. There are dissertations and theses full of interesting stuff that are often put online for everyone to read. However most of the time they can be very hard to find. Some universities require you to sign away the copyright of your dissertation or thesis, even though (a) you’re paying to do it and (b) it’s your own original work. That makes me very cross. I was lucky when I did my thesis, because I was running a limited company for my research business, and the company paid for my PhD. That was a legitimate business cost, because as a professional researcher it was part of my continuing professional development. I never intended to self-fund, but someone at the institution where I did my Master’s degree didn’t fill in a form correctly so I couldn’t apply for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council as I’d originally intended. But it worked out well, partly because I was going to the Open University anyway and it wasn’t very expensive at the time, and partly because it meant I could retain ownership of the copyright in my thesis.

The OU did try to take that copyright away from me, and if I hadn’t paid through my business I probably wouldn’t have been able to stop that happening. But as it was, I got my partner, who is my co-director in the company, to write a letter on our headed paper saying, ‘I’m very sorry, but we can’t sign away the copyright because this company is paying for the thesis and we need to retain the copyright for the business.’ And luckily the OU agreed. A limited company is a legal entity in its own right and therefore the company became the owner of the copyright in my work. But luckily for me, I’m a 100% owner of my research business. This meant I was able to put my whole thesis online on the company website. Unfortunately a lot of people aren’t in the position to do this and therefore we lose all that learning because only a limited amount of people have access to it, although some universities are beginning to make them available now.

Academics don’t have much time for dissertations or theses and I can see their point because effectively they’re just training documents. They’re not in the same league as journal papers, but at the same time there is often a lot of good stuff out there sitting on shelves. My thesis was accessed quite a lot and I’ve received quite a few comments from people saying, ’Thank you very much for putting your thesis up on the website. I’ve been using it and I’ll be citing it. I really appreciate you making it available.’ These are emails from people I don’t know, often from other countries, who’ve just accessed the website because they were interested in it. I don’t think it’s the world’s best thesis by any means, but if some people have found it useful, and that’s just one thesis, on one website which has not been search engine optimised at all, and people are finding it and using it, why can’t we do that with all the others?

So what you’re talking about in your thesis is resonating with someone else?

Yes it’s like a conversation, it works in pretty much the same way as the conversation were having now, but it’s happening online. It’s like the ones we have on Twitter that are more like actual conversations. But then there are the more fragmented conversations that go on online and sometimes it’s a case of something I’ve said in my thesis that someone else picks up after reading it, then uses it for something they’re doing.

If a dozen people in one year have emailed me about it, then how many other people have read it and not commented? So I’ve effectively had conversations with people that commented on my thesis, I’ve never met them, I don’t know who they are and I wouldn’t recognise them if I met them in the street, but we’re having conversations.

We’ve talked about collecting information via the Internet and about secondary data, but of course it’s also possible to collect information directly, for example through interviews. So what about the ethics involved in that? A writer may go out to do an interview much in the same way that I’m interviewing you today, so what sort of ethics do you think should apply to that?

Writing ethics are different from research ethics. It’s something I’ve certainly begun to think about recently because last year I joined the board of the Social Research Association and at the November meeting I was given lead responsibility for ethics. I’ve been interested in ethics for quite a long time and I’ve written a bit about it. There’s something about it in my thesis and also in the book, and I’m brewing an idea for an ethics paper. But I do think there are differences between different types of ethics, for example, medical ethics, journalistic ethics, blog ethics are all a little bit different. The ethics of working online is something we really haven’t bottomed out yet. But essentially I’m giving you this interview because I trust you, I like you and we’re friends. I think a lot of ethics works like that, even though academically we don’t really like to admit it.

There’s something about trust and not betraying trust. I think your understanding of that in saying to me, before you started the interview, that you are going to send me the transcript of the interview for me to look at so I can edit it so we can get it how we want it to go out before it’s published, is a very strong ethical position. Journalists don’t do this. So you’re not a journalist, you’re a blogger and you’re choosing your own ethical stance. Nobody has imposed that on you, you’ve chosen that’s how you want to work. This is one of the reasons I trust you, because you choose to work in that sort of way.

I suppose another way of looking at this, for researchers, is to extract any information from data you’ve gathered as much as you can, because people don’t really want to be interviewed again or have more questions asked, if they think you’ve finished with them. Let’s face it, how many questionnaires do you get in your e-mail inbox over all sorts of different things? How many people stop you in the street with clipboards? We’re all fed up of it. So any data you have, you need to make maximum use of. It’s actually a good argument for using secondary data. In fact it is possible to do a doctorate entirely based on secondary data and in many ways this is pretty much what a lot of literature doctorates do. In fact it’s beginning to be recognised that we got so much data in the world already that the attitude now is let’s start with what we’ve got and only collect more if we need it. So if you need facts and figures about something then start by looking at secondary data.

Thinking about writing a document or writing. Certainly a lot of people who do research believe in the need to keep editing. What is your attitude towards constantly editing?

You absolutely do need to edit. For example my first draft is what the writer Caroline Smailes calls the ‘vomit draft’. I think it’s a great expression, because you just have to get words out, it doesn’t matter how you do it or what it looks like. I said something about this in the book. When I’m writing first drafts, I write a few paragraphs and then add things in capitals that probably say something like, ‘SAY MORE ABOUT THIS’, because at that time I know I should be saying more about a particular thing I’ve written about, but I can’t think what it is I need to say just at that moment. So it means I can move on and write something else and then come back to it later. When I do come back to it a few days or weeks later, I’ve often got much more idea of what it is I need to do. There is absolutely no point sitting there trying to rack my brains thinking what it is I need to be writing next. If I spend ages trying to write missing paragraphs I lose the flow of the writing. So it’s learning to flow with it and let it move on. It’s learning to let it splurge out onto the page and not worry. But eventually you will have to edit it.

Editing is about crafting words into something that the reader is going to want to read. As a writer you need to have your readers in mind, at the first draft stage, in that you need to know who your audience is. But when you’re editing, you really need to be thinking about what do your readers want from this? How can you make it a good experience for them? This applies to fiction or non-fiction. Obviously they’re going to want different things from fiction, for example if you’re going to write a bodice ripper, the reader is going to want to feel all sorts of excitement and fear and relief at different points, so you have to adjust your writing to make that happen. If you’re writing a non-fiction reference book, like the one I’ve just done, your readers are going to want to be able to find information quickly and read it easily.

When I wrote my book I wanted to help my readers. If I pontificate in long academic words, it’s not going to be any use to my readers, most of whom aren’t academics but who need to do some research.

How do you know when to stop researching?

You never really stop. Research usually throws up more questions than it answers. It’s like an octopus multiplying, one piece of research can lead you in eight different directions, and then each of those research avenues could lead you in another eight directions, and so on. But how you stop with each particular piece of research is down to being able to collect the right amount of data. This is very easy to say and a lot harder to do. But you only really need enough data to answer the question.

A lot of novice researchers think that the more data you collect, the better. This is not true. You actually do better with less data, as long as it’s there to answer the questions you’re investigating. I did three half-day sessions of data collection for my Ph.D, with four people in each session, and that was it. That yielded about 60,000 words of data, and I then interrogated that data in several different ways. So it’s not the case that more is better. You just need enough.

Finally you made the comment in your book ‘research is not a sprint, it’s a marathon’ and the same could be said for writing.

Yes you certainly could. I’ve written loads of books that have never been published and will never be good enough to be published. But I was learning as I wrote them. I don’t think any writing is ever wasted for writers. I don’t think it matters how many drafts you do, because you’re just getting better all the time. Eventually you do get to a point where you can write a book that you can be proud of and I’m proud of the book I’ve written. I was proud of it even before I got all the good feedback and reviews I’ve had in the last few months. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to write a better book next time. I hope the next book will be different, but also good.

I do think of myself as a writer now and that feels great.

Helen Kara

Helen Kara


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