Archive for the 'Social research methods' Category

Ethics and the role of judgement

Kara, Helen

Helen Kara

Helen Kara is the author of Research ethics in the real world: Euro-Western and indigenous perspectives, out today.

“I have been fascinated by ethics since long before I became a researcher. Like most of my contemporaries (and no doubt many others too), I was brought up to believe that fairness was worth striving for.

Working for the statutory and third sectors in the 1980s and 90s involved a lot of talk about equal opportunities (as it was termed in those days). These raised questions that interested me from an early age. What is fair? What is equal? Who decides?

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article last month suggesting that scholars should stop citing the work of ‘bad people’ (everyone from sexual harassers to fully paid-up Nazis). The basis of this article was a judgement that if someone is identified as a ‘bad person’, we can all stop citing their work, and so, presumably, feel pleased with ourselves for making the world a slightly better place. This approach is problematic in a number of ways. First, it is actually only possible to stop citing the work of people you know to be in some way ‘bad’. If someone has been convicted of a heinous crime then, arguably, fair enough – though not all convictions are safe. If they have been accused of a crime? That is even more problematic if you subscribe to the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. And whatever criteria you use, you can’t escape the fact that you are still likely to cite some ‘bad people’: from criminals who go uncaught to people who are just generally unpleasant.

Also, findings from research conducted in horrific ways by some of the very worst of ‘bad people’ have been later used to save lives. There is a wide difference of opinion about whether this can ever be justified. Some scholars think not; it is simply too repugnant to be OK to use such data in any circumstances. Others think that the harm has been done, and cannot be undone, so why not use the existing results for good?

Research ethics committees have to make judgements about ethical aspects of research, and these too can be really challenging. People who sit on research ethics committees are generally people who work hard to be ethical and to help others think and act ethically. However, committee members may be constrained by institutional and/or legislative requirements.

“How can any social researcher judge whether or not a participant has a mental health problem, or uses illicit drugs, or lives with a chronic but invisible disability?”

A few days after the Chronicle ran its article, I heard about a student’s ethical approval application being rejected on several grounds, one of which was that they could not guarantee individual participants would not be members of vulnerable groups. While the application may have had a number of flaws, this ground for rejection worries me deeply. How can any social researcher judge whether or not a participant has a mental health problem, or uses illicit drugs, or lives with a chronic but invisible disability? These factors are not self-evident, and I cannot see how it would be ethical to ask every potential participant a string of intrusive personal questions to find out. Also, if we did that, it would exclude people from participating in research: people who are already marginalised, who may rarely have the chance to be listened to attentively by another human being, and whose voices are insufficiently heard in the wider world.

“…part of the answer is for us all to learn to think and act more ethically.”

I can see that both the judgement advocated in the article, and the judgement made by the committee, were intended to be ethical. I think I have demonstrated that in each case, the situation is too complex to be effectively addressed by such a straightforward judgement. What, then, are we to do? In my view, part of the answer is for us all to learn to think and act more ethically. It may help if we remember that research is built on academic foundations of elitism and exclusion. Of course there may at times still be occasional grounds for exclusion, but in general might it not be more worthwhile to work towards more inclusive research practice? Rather than trying to complete the impossible task of compiling a definitive list of ‘bad people’ to exclude, we could judge worthy of inclusion more scholars of colour, queer scholars, scholars with disabilities, scholars from Indigenous communities, and so on. And perhaps we could judge the perspectives of so-called ‘vulnerable people’ as valuable, for they may have a great deal to teach us, if only we can learn to listen.

 

Research ethics in the real world [FC] RGBResearch ethics in the real world by Helen Kara is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £17.59.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Bristol University Press and Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

‘Ain’t no such things as half-way crooks’: political discourses and structural duplicity in the troubled families agenda

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ by Stephen Crossley came out in April

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problemdiscusses the National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015 to 2020 interim findings, ‘dirty data’, his approach and methodology and the purpose of academic research.

Academics from different disciplines are often expected to demonstrate the impact of their research and this impact can be expected to relate to demonstrable changes in policy and/or practice. Such aims can lead to research being commissioned and published that is amenable to the interests of policy-makers and politicians. But there can be dangers in this, especially in the UK at the current time where many academics would not feel comfortable aligning themselves with some of the policies being pursued or advocated by our government or other powerful institutions.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu railed against ‘lackey intellectuals’ (Stabile and Morooka, 2010: 329) who put themselves in the service of neoliberal governments and, along with his long-time collaborator Loïc Wacquant, referred to such individuals as ‘defector[s] from the academic world entered into the service of the dominant, whose mission is to give an academic veneer to the political projects of the new state and business nobility’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001: 1).

“Sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’”

In studying the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) for my PhD and for Troublemakers, I wanted to adopt a different approach. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu and Wacquant, as well as other sociologists who have urged researchers to remember whose side they are on and to ‘study up’, I decided that ‘muckraking’ sociological approach would be appropriate. Gary T. Marx argued for a ‘muckraking sociology’ which, using the tools of social science, could help to unearth ‘dirty data’. Marx, like many others, proposed that sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’ (1972: 4).

Writing in the 1970s, but with continuing relevance, he argued that muckraking research should help to document and publicise ‘the gap between values and actual practices and in questioning established orthodoxies’ (Marx, 1972: 2), and could be of benefit to those groups seeking change. Such research, Marx argued, could ‘give us a clearer picture of our world, stripped of protective verbiage and without the usual selective perceptions (and misperceptions)’ (1972: 4–5). In a passage particularly relevant to an examination of the TFP and its emphasis on ‘hands-on’ practical support for disadvantaged families, while marginalising structural inequalities and poverty, Marx argued that muckraking research ‘can expose the fallacies in certain common sense beliefs about social problems and show how certain ideas rationalize an unsatisfactory status quo’ (1972: 5) He goes on suggest that:

Such research uses the tools of social science to document unintended (or officially unacknowledged) consequences of social action, inequality, poverty, racism, exploitation, opportunism, neglect, denial of dignity, hypocrisy, inconsistency, manipulation, wasted resources and the displacement of an organization’s stated goals in favour of self-perpetuation. It may show how, and the extent to which, a dominant or more powerful class, race, group or stratum takes advantage of, misuses, mistreats, or ignores a subordinate group, often in the face of an ideology that claims it does exactly the opposite.

Such an approach has been particularly fruitful in studying the TFP. Research by myself and other academics have unearthed a large amount of ‘dirty data’ relating to the programme ‘whose revelation would be discrediting or costly’ to the government and that goes beyond incidental or minor inconsistencies, errors of judgement or ‘soft-core discrepancies’ (Marx, 1984: 79).

“The government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.”

In 2011, at the launch of the programme, the government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.

It had evidence that, around seven years earlier, there were around 120,000 families that were experiencing ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as poverty, material deprivation, poor housing, and poor maternal mental health. The government claimed that the programme ‘turned around’ the lives of 99% of the 120,000 ‘troubled families it originally set out to work with. It didn’t.

Families that turned themselves around with no contact with the programme were counted in the TFP figures. Families could, in some circumstances, be classed as having been ‘turned around’ by a child reaching school leaving age. The effectiveness of the ‘family intervention’ model, on which the TFP is based, had, in the words of David Gregg, been ‘sexed up’. Research was carried out without appropriate ethical procedures. Statistics and surveys that formed the basis of the need for ‘radical reform’ were invented. Local authorities were effectively threatened with naming and shaming if they didn’t ‘turn around’ 100% of their families in the first phase of the project. Local authority officers on the programme complained of staff from DCLG phoning them up to complain about slow progress. It was alleged that the government attempted to ‘suppress’ the official evaluation of the programme when it failed to provide them with the support it was expecting. Researchers who critiqued the programme had their competence and their integrity publicly called into question. A parliamentary committee accused the DCLG (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) of obfuscation and evasion in its lack of co-operation with an inquiry into the programme.

While I was carrying out my research, I was reminded of Mobb Deep’s assertion that there ‘aint’ no such things as half-way crooks’. In more academic terms, Bourdieu (1985: 738) argued that ‘political discourses have a sort of structural duplicity’, and the ‘troubled families’ agenda is a clear-cut example of this. It relies on deceit and duplicity at all levels, and the catalogue of inconsistencies, contradictions and falsehoods listed above cannot be put down to individual errors of judgement or mere coincidence.

Troublemakers focuses attempts to explicate and lay bare the overblown claims of the programme, the underhandedness, political chicanery and ‘structural duplicity’ that has been evident throughout the programme, and the symbolical importance of the programme at a time of wider state restructuring. It is, in short, an attempt to rake all, or as much as possible in a little over 200 pages, of the muck associated with the TFP into a single heap.

References

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (2001) NewLiberalSpeak: Notes on the new planetary vulgate, Radical Philosophy, 105: 2-5.

Marx, G.T. (1972) (ed.) Muckraking Sociology: Research as Social Criticism, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Stabile, C.A. and Morooka, J. (2010) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse To Choose The Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17 (3-4): 326-348.

Troublemakers FCTroublemakers by Stephen Crossley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Is the new impact agenda the excuse you’ve been waiting for to use your research to make a difference?

Sharon Wright and Peter Dwyer, researching the impacts of Universal Credit since 2013 as part of the collaborative ESRC Welfare Conditionality project, reflect on their recent experience of contributing to the Universal Credit debate, to argue that impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.

Dr. Sharon Wright

Prof. Peter Dwyer

The news that research impact will account for a quarter of a unit’s score for the REF2021 research excellence rankings has piqued the interest of cash-hungry University leaders across the country.

With the most significant and far reaching impacts bringing in around £324k, pressure is building for academics to strike into uncharted knowledge-exchange territory to secure elusive high-earning 4* impact case studies.

But if the thought of money as a motivator leaves you cold – and the more familiar competing pressures of teaching, administration and research offer space for little else – is there an alternative way of looking at the new drive for impact?

“Impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.”

In October 2017, Universal Credit (UC) hit the headlines with public outrage at claimants unable to afford to eat and at risk of losing their homes because of the built-in delay of 6 weeks for the first payment.

One of the greatest injustices is that Universal Credit was sold to the electorate as a reform aimed at simplifying the system and making work pay, and as such, it was originally welcomed widely. However, design flaws are being exposed as contributing to rising foodbank use, homelessness and destitution.

House of Commons

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, has been resistant to calls for urgent action to restore UC in line with its original policy aims. On 18th October 2017, a unanimous group of opposition MPs won the landmark House of Commons vote, 299 to zero, to ‘pause and fix’ the Universal Credit roll-out.

Decisive to the vote and the ongoing debate, were SNP MP Neil Gray’s authoritative parliamentary speeches, which used cutting edge research evidence, including our article on ‘Ubiquitous Conditionality’, alongside the experiences of his constituents to substantiate compelling arguments for reform:

“The Government should review the cuts to the work allowances, which are acting as a disincentive to work and making work pay less; review the cuts to housing benefit, which are driving up rent arrears […]; and review the cuts to employment support, which are denying help to those who need it most, and they should fully review and then scrap the disgusting sanctioning policy, which could have cost the life of my constituent, Mr Moran, and has cost the lives of others. That was the subject of an excellent paper by Sharon Wright of Glasgow University and Peter Dwyer of the University of York in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.” Read the full transcript of the debate here. 

How did we achieve this impact? Sharon met with Neil Gray on a panel discussing ‘Rethinking Poverty’ at the SNP Conference in Glasgow. Following this, she watched a clip of Neil’s first Universal Credit speech and let him know that our research published in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (including the article that was featured in a free collection at the time) backed up several of the points he had made. Via Twitter and email, Sharon sent Neil a link to our recent blog and responded to a follow-up query with additional research evidence. Neil then used the evidence in his subsequent speeches and said:

“Academic and well researched evidence on the impact of
Universal Credit is crucial for persuading government to
change its mind and fix the system as it is being rolled out.

Neil Gray

Sharon’s research and input has been invaluable for me in
setting out the case that I have in the House of Commons.
The government can try to dismiss or ignore political debate,
but personal testimony and independent academia is harder
to ignore.

I hope Sharon and others will continue to look at issues like
the social security ‘reforms’ so that government policy can
be effectively challenged and hopefully overturned, to help
people who desperately need that support.”

As an impact activity, the process was quick, easy and direct. The result was Neil’s exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.

“…exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.”

The focus throughout was straight-forwardly on the issues that matter. For us as academics, the current importance placed on impact activities offers legitimacy to carve out the necessary time to do exactly what we have always wanted to do – proactively engage with policy makers, in a policy field where robust evidence has gone against the grain of dominant political preferences, to use research to make a difference.

 

Universal Credit, ubiquitous conditionality and its implications for social citizenship from The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, is FREE to read on Ingenta until 31 December 2017.

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Image: UK Parliament, ‘House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen’s Speech‘ Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

Am I a patient?

Alan Cribb unravels the transition from an epidemiological approach to a philosophical approach to healthcare he discusses in his new book – Healthcare in transition – by examining how his identification, or not, as a patient impacts on his research.

Whilst working as an academic I tend not to identify myself as a patient. 

In the last few years one of the themes of my work has been patient-centred or person-centred healthcare, and I have just completed Healthcare in transition, a book in which I tried to tease out some of the elements of, and tensions within, this idea. But I have never self-identified as a patient in my writing and I only occasionally do so in my face to face encounters with trusted colleagues and in what feel like safe spaces to me.

In some ways this is odd. I am not simply a patient in a notional sense – like very many people, I have regular interactions with medical consultants and other health professionals, I follow a regime of treatment and I have health-related conditions that challenge my identity and frame the way I organise my life. So why not self-identify as a patient in my academic work?

“Why not self-identity as a patient in my academic work?”

Partly it is probably just about privacy or for reasons of self-protection – not to invite threatening line of enquiry from others. But it feels as if it is about something more than that. First and foremost it seems presumptuous. It feels like I have been invited to the meeting with one ticket – as a researcher – but now I am claiming to have a further ticket and am expecting to vote twice!

This sense of cheating applies however I think about what counts as a patient, and I have to confess that I am confused about this. In health services research, for example, it is now a methodological and ethical norm to worry about the inclusion of either patient perspectives or patients in some fuller sense. But there is a spectrum of attitudes and practices in response to this norm.

In some cases – and this is to exaggerate for effect – ‘patients’ is treated as a kind of self-fulfilling marginal category, such that if people happen to have any other source of relevant expertise – they are health professionals, or researchers, or activists or even heavily engaged in a peer led patient group then they will to some extent be disqualified as ‘patients’.

This attitude stems from an understandable concern that the identity of patients isn’t colonised and misrepresented by powerful voices but, at the same time – certainly in this exaggerated sense – it risks reproducing a deficit view of patients.

“I feel either disqualified or under qualified.”

At the other end of the spectrum there are strong patient voices and groups who will not only lobby for involvement in research but will themselves lead research and will challenge prevailing orthodoxies – for example, questioning not only the practices of patient involvement but also the ways in which research agendas are set and research is conducted and so on. These kinds of patient voices play an important role and can be inspirational. But there is also a danger here – again at the extreme – that the identity of patient itself becomes professionalised and owned by a few well-organised people.

The first account coincides with my worry about being presumptuous. I need to be cautious about saying I am speaking as a patient, especially with any implication that it is on behalf of other patients, when I already have a hearing as an academic.

But I am equally ruled out on the second account. I have not taken any special steps to become an expert patient; nor do I have any particular credentials to claim a quasi-professional status in this regard. For me to act as if I had would be to cheat.

In short, I feel either disqualified or under qualified. But the issue of my patient identity will not go away completely. It seems unavoidable because even not mentioning it feels like a significant choice. In some contexts there are temptations to mention it – because for certain audiences it may add a sense of authenticity and credibility. In other contexts there are temptations not to mention it – because, for example, some clinicians or others may worry about what axe I have to grind and see it as a source of ‘bias’.

How far this issue is seen to be of importance, and in what respects, is arguably a function of the kind of research we are talking about and also of disciplinary assumptions and conventions. But for anyone who thinks ‘reflexivity’ matters it does seem to be a question worth asking.

If I am being reflexive as an academic then I can treat my identity as a source of problems or limitations that need to be acknowledged, or as a source of legitimacy or authority, or sometimes as a combination of both. This seems as relevant to patient identity as to other aspects of identity. On this account there seems to be something seriously lacking in my approach to date.

Healthcare in transition by Alan Cribb is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £17.59.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

What makes for a strong Voluntary Sector Review paper? Eight points to consider

Rob Macmillan, Nick Acheson and Bernard Harris, editors of the international Voluntary Sector Review journal, present 8 tips for submitting a strong paper. 

Rob Macmillan, Nick Acheson and Bernard Harris

As editors of Voluntary Sector Review (VSR), we attract a wide range of international article submissions, covering the whole range of topics around voluntary and community action, non-profit organisations and civil society. We often reflect on what makes for a strong paper.

Full-length research articles in VSR, normally no longer than 8,000 words in length, may focus on empirical findings, methodological issues, scholarly or theoretical inquiry, and applied analysis of relevance to practitioners and decision makers. We welcome submissions from all parts of the globe, and encourage all of our authors to highlight the international implications of their work.

We know that the whole process of submitting a paper can be daunting and onerous for authors – something you’ve been working on for a while has finally been given over for an external judgement of its potential value. Preparing a good paper for submission is an art rather than a science, and through our experience as editors and authors we have drawn together a list of eight helpful points to consider before you submit your paper.

1. What is the paper about and why is it important?

Be very clear on what the paper is about, starting with a clear statement of the issue that it addresses, together with an explanation of why the issue is of interest to and important for readers of the journal. You need to provide good reasons for readers to read on and subsequently remember your article.

2. Critical understanding of the literature

Embed the issue the paper addresses in the relevant literature, with a critical understanding of the most important and influential previous articles and books in this area.

3. Intellectual, theoretical, policy or practice context

Make sure you set out clearly the intellectual, theoretical, policy or practice context that informs the article.

4. Methods

Where you are reporting empirical findings, make sure the research design, data collection methods and analysis techniques used are described in sufficient detail for readers to be able to understand how the study might be replicated, and on what basis the conclusions are being drawn. Where prior literature provides the basis for the article (in addition to or instead of empirical findings), explain how it was sourced, selected and reviewed.

5. Key findings

Set out the key findings relevant to the issue addressed in the article in a systematic way, relating them to earlier work covered in the literature review. Authors often try to say too much here, overloading their submission with empirical findings such that the point of the article is obscured in empirical detail.

6. Contribution to knowledge

Identify the extent and ways in which the findings and discussion contribute to new empirical knowledge about the issue or better theoretical understanding of the topic. There is a balance to be struck here: be confident in the conclusions you draw, but don’t overstate the case.

7. Implications for future research, policy or practice

Draw out the implications of the study for future research, policy or practice – in the country which is the primary focus of the article, but also more broadly where appropriate.

8. Argument, structure, and signposting

Finally, check to see whether there is a clear, well-signposted, structure and thread of argument running through the paper, so that readers can quickly gain a secure sense of the paper’s development from introduction to conclusion.

On receipt of a submission, we will always make an initial editorial judgement before we send a paper out for review, and we may ask you to revise the paper before doing so. We encourage reviewers to provide constructive feedback to authors in order to help improve papers, and we will provide guidance on how to proceed if the decision is one of ‘revise and resubmit’. The peer review process can be exacting but it is rigorous and invariably leads to better quality papers.

We would encourage you to get in touch if you have an idea for a paper but are not sure of its suitability. We’ll always aim to provide helpful guidance, though, of course, we cannot provide any guarantees of publication.

If you would like to submit a paper you can find the Journal’s aims and scope, and instructions for authors on the Voluntary Sector Review website. You will also find further information about submitting Policy and Practice articles, along with details of the relevant editors for these sections.

 

More about Voluntary Sector Review

To submit an article consult our instructions for authors.

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Academic Work, Fast and Slow

Should academics strive to be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’? Helen Kara, author of Research and evaluation for busy students and practitioners, argues that there is not one, clear answer. 

Helen Kara

In recent years there has been an increasingly heated debate, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, about whether academia is – or should be – ‘fast’ or ‘slow’.

This is linked to other discourses about speed such as Slow Food and Slow Cities.

Some commentators aver that the pace of life in academia is speeding up because of managerialism, the REF and its equivalents in other countries, and the ensuing pressure to conduct and publish interesting research with significant results. All of this, in addition to the increasing casualisation of employment in academia, and the increasing speed of digital communication, has led to toxic working conditions that cause academics to have breakdowns and burn out.

This doesn’t only affect academics, but also non-academics doing academic work such as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Also, to some academics’ surprise, this doesn’t only apply in academia, but also in the public sector more widely, and parts of the private sector too. Perhaps this is because, as the saying goes, the speed of change is faster than it’s ever been before, yet it will never be this slow again.

Continue reading ‘Academic Work, Fast and Slow’

Open access: A publisher’s perspective

Julia Mortimer, Journals Director at Bristol University Press/Policy Press, explores the benefits, opportunities and challenges of open access (OA), one of the most significant publishing developments since the invention of the printing press.  

Julia Mortimer

Julia Mortimer

 

Unleashing potential

There have been extraordinary benefits from OA in furthering scientific endeavour, innovation, business development and public knowledge. Lives have been saved because medical research and datasets have been openly available. Digital access has made this all possible and has enabled research outputs to reach a broader audience beyond a paywall.

For Policy Press, and the newly created Bristol University Press, as a not-for-profit publisher with a social mission, OA is crucial in helping the work we publish have a greater impact on society and for public good.

Just some of the benefits to authors are:

Visibility & impact: OA makes research more widely and easily visible to researchers, practitioners and policy makers.

Usage: A number of studies and reports have shown that OA journal articles are viewed more often than articles available only to subscribers (See this article in the BMJ for example).

Collaboration: OA publication fosters greater dialogue across disciplinary and geographical boundaries.

Social Justice: OA reduces inequalities in access to knowledge due to lack of institutional funding. Continue reading ‘Open access: A publisher’s perspective’


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