Thursday, May 30, 2013

Academic life, ethics and the importance of record keeping


I've earlier emphasised the importance of keeping all the records of your activity logs and correspondence (both e-mail and paper-based). This is crucial not only for the need of tracing the roots of your evolving thoughts, but also for the protection of your own reputation. Sometimes, you will need to recount particular events, identify what action was following which previous action on what dates, and what were the supporting documents to substantiate your own account of facts.

Very recently, with regard to a published paper of mine, somebody was telling me that I did not acknowledge his workshop in the paper's acknowledgement, even though my paper's empirical findings were earlier presented at his workshop and benefited from the workshop discussions. This was the first time that I had received such a remark.

The thing is, his account was completely groundless, as I did not present my paper's empirical findings at his workshop, but elsewhere in a separate conference session on a different continent three months later (and the conference was of course acknowledged in my paper). He was present in both events (the latter event as an attendant), so it's very possible that he got things mixed up. What I presented at his workshop was a completely different paper, and this was never published - he was informing people at the time about a possible publication project based on workshop papers, so I set this paper aside but no news of the publication proposal since then...

In order to point out his errors, I had to go through all my previous versions of the paper (across more than four-year period), dig out PPT files presented at both events, check the last-save dates, check e-mail correspondences and diary entries and so on. Thankfully, all the records could be found, but all these were really a complete waste of my time because of the person who just did not check the simple fact and could not remember what I actually presented at his own event.

Researchers talk about the importance of vigilantly keeping field diaries, minutes of meetings with interviewees and informants or personal accounts of events, etc. Academics teach their students about the importance of these A to Z of research methods. These are all going to be very important when triangulating your findings and contribute to producing evidence-based research outputs, as these records not only become the field data themselves but also help you establish an accurate account of what happened in the often chaotic field. It is important to apply these basic rules to one’s day-to-day administrative and/or academic life as well outside field research sites. One should avoid as much as possible not to resort to ill-founded or vague memories when making important decisions or remarks. Evidence-based thinking helps.

Well, more on these issues later when the summer term quietens...