Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Visiting Card

On Friday, at the department's monthly brunch meeting, I will be presenting an ambitious idea I call Writing Process Reengineering. I have written about it before and I am grateful for the feedback I have received. It is related to the Sixteen Week Challenge, for example, and one of our work-life balance researchers has cautioned me not to leave it as an individual self-management project (which will only cause stress). In this post I want to say something about how to make publishing an integrated, social part of the department's intellectual life.

If writing really were a purely individual matter, there would be little a department head or research director could do to "support" the process. Just giving researchers more time is unlikely to affect written output (mainly because of the truth of Parkinson's Law). On the other hand, research managers don't have time to micro-manage writing processes in the manner I am going to suggest. Enter the middleman.

I am happy to be a specifiable feature of the writing process at our department. All the researchers and PhD students have access to the Resident Writing Consultant (a title I bumped into in this description a similar function in a law firm). Hiring someone specifically to support the task of presenting research in good English is a good way to send the message that publishing is important. It is not just a demand to produce deliverables; it is an allocation of resources to the end of increasing production.

Writing Process Reengineering (WPR) takes the function of the writing consultant to a new level. It is of course an (only half ironic) allusion to Business Process Reengineering (BPR), an infamous consulting product from the 1990s. It was seen by many as a revival of Taylorist ideas, i.e., "scientific management". Indeed, the idea of the "scientific management of science" resonates nicely with Steve Fuller's idea that philosophy of science should be realized in science policy, and should be based on the scientific study of science.

An in-house editor, glorified as a resident writing consultant, is in a great position implement a variety of collective projects to foster academic publishing and build writing competences. At the brunch, I will be presenting something I am calling Project Palinurus, which will hopefully run every semester, bringing together a group of about five researchers who want to discipline their writing process.

Like BPR, the important thing is to define your goals and clarify your resource situation. How many papers do you want to submit to which journals over a given sixteen-week period? And how many hours do you have to devote to that project? You then work out a realistic process by which to achieve your goal under the constraints specified. This takes a little bit of planning and a lot of discipline. It is selling the planning part that is difficult, at least in my experience, and that will be my challenge on Friday.

A department can encourage process management among its writers by offering incentives. These could take the form of reduced teaching load for those who commit themselves to well-defined writing goals to be realized through explicit plans over a specified sixteen week period. These "first class researchers" (shades of Taylor!) should meet once a week to share experiences and remind each other why they are doing it. As I have said before, I am firmly convinced that a significant benefit of hiring an in-house writing consultant consists of a Hawthorne effect.

I should add a little self-promotion here. My department has worked out a way of offering my services, both as editor of the work of individuals and consultant to whole departments. I have put together both a one-day and a two-day departmental seminar on international publication based on my experiences. There is also a way of "retaining" my services. If you are interested, you can use the contact details in the image above, or click on the link under my name on the sidebar.

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