Are There Writing Clubs For PhD Students And Faculty?: Building An Online Writing Accountability Group

  When writing my thesis in graduate school, my PhD supervisor suggested that I should go to a writing club or a writing resources center at my university (Back in 2007, it was called The University of Western Ontario). Did I do it? No? Why? Because I felt that it would take away from doing my research during my PhD, which was a bit short-sighted but also a very rational thing to do. Why would I spend time on things other than writing my dissertation or papers? Going to a writing center just seemed like a massive side-track.   However, this began a preoccupation with developing a online writing accountability group and peer feedback software that would go on for several years.   This post is about my journey of building an online writing accountability group for PhD Students and Faculty. R3ciprocity.com is a writing resource that mimics the peer review system, and tries to make the natural system of reciprocity that occurs among academics and graduate students more explicit. I am also trying to build in writing accountability measures that will help provide support for graduate students and faculty who do not have access to writing resources. Like me, many academics work remotely or asynchronously which makes visiting in-person writing clubs or accountability groups quite cumbersome.   Why is there a need for an online writing club for PhD students and faculty? Writing is such a central part of our job, most of us struggle with writing on a regular basis, and then we blame ourselves or our students for a lack of productivity or lack of skill at writing. We tell ourselves that anyone that is incapable of writing X numbers of papers before their PhD is completed or before they get tenure is of somehow poor quality.  

Why Do We Need An Online Writing Community? The Challenge Of Academic Writing Is Not Our Skill But A Lack of Supportive Technologies

As the founder of the r3ciprocity.com platform, I wanted to flip this logic on its head. I think it is normal to struggle with writing. I don’t think it is abnormal to feel anxiety or depressed while you write your thesis. I think you are strange if you do not feel anxious when you get feedback from other academics. I think it is the norm – Most people I encounter struggle with the writing aspect of academia. This is strange, because this is our job. Why do you think so many people attempt to go into academia and fail at it? It’s not because they are not bright or that they lack the skill to do so.   Rather, as a Professor of Innovation and Strategy (who studies learning and decision-making in organizations), I think the problem is a lack of available technologies to help academics succeed. A technology is just simply a solution to a problem that we have in the form of a tool, technique, or procedure. If we had better supporting technologies to help us write and enjoy writing, we are likely to perform at a higher level, and as a larger consequence, science will benefit from greater output of knowledge.   Being stuck be yourself writing in solitude on your computer is generally not, we as social animals, are evolutionary programmed to do. Countless academic articles discuss that we do much better in groups. Virtually, the entire fields of Economics and Sociology show that we not only do between when we have support from others but also when we trade/interact with others. We feel much better about ourselves if we are part of a community. Indeed, one could argue that the entire field of management is about thinking how to coordinate resources between people. Consequently, I think most people do better when they have resources and increased connections with others that help them perform.  Even if some of us might thrive without a supportive of community, I think these folks could do better with a writing community and technology resources that accelerate their writing abilities.  

What Factors Contribute To Academic Writing Difficulties?

  From my point of view, there are several factors that I would like to change with our current academic writing environment, and I am making positive steps towards changing how academic writing occurs with the r3ciprocity.com project. I know that this is just a very small step. 🙂 However, I do feel proud of what we have accomplished so far – three years ago none of these resources existed. Now, they do. It is a work in progress, but it is a step in the right direction.   Please note that this blog post is not a lament about the tenure system, academia, or publish or perish. These factors are unlikely to change – academics have been debating these issues for years with their colleagues. Graduate students have struggled with learning how to write, and they will continue to do so. Also, generally, the tenure system actually works quite well. It is a market mechanism that in the very long-run is somewhat reflective of value. It’s not perfect, but it is the best it can be. The alternative – having limited systems for knowledge discovery and knowledge accumulation is far worst.   Rather, I think that our current system needs greater support for academics, graduate students, and faculty to excel and achieve academic performance. To me, it seems like an opportune time for an innovation to solve at least a small amount of these problems, or at least make our writing efforts more fun. As a Professor of Innovation, I teach my students to look for these opportunities to scratch your own itch as there is at least a market of one (yourself) for the innovation. What characteristics of academic writing make it difficult to do for most people?
  1. Academic writing can be mundane because a large component of academic writing is repetitive and involves social isolation. At least for me, I have difficulty writing in large social groups that are noisy and do not allow some time to think.
  2. The link between your efforts and academic outputs is distant. (Given my interest in learning and innovation, the distant link between action and output is quite salient to me). When you write a paragraph, you are unlikely to see it in print in an academic journal for 5 years or more. You have to be very implicitly motivated and if you don’t see any value in these short-term activities, you are unlikely going to put much effort into the activity even if it will net you large long-run benefit. This is akin to weight-loss or smoking-cessation decisions. We all know that “how” to loose weight, but few of us act on that. A large reason is because we do not see intermediate rewards for our day-to-day efforts (See Thaler and Sunstein’s now famous book “Nudge”). If you do not monitor your daily progress in some operational way, it can be difficult to know if you are reaching your targets or whether you are spending too much time working and too little time having fun. 
  3. We may fear disapproval from others or feel anxious about asking others for help. This is especially true for PhD students that may feel a strong power imbalance between faculty and PhD students in completing their work. Assistant professors are too busy getting tenure to help out junior scholars with their writing, and Full Professors are just too busy, period. Fearing feedback either from others or from the journal peer-review system seems to be the conversation of choice for most academics. Almost all of us have war-stories from reviews that we have received on our work. Either the reviews we receive are too scant (“Nice paper!”) or too negative (“This paper is so bad that you can use it as a form of torture.”).
The combination of isolation and working long hours on our ideas, a lack of immediate feedback on our efforts, and fears of disapproval or not achieving tenure or a job creates a problematic situation. There has to be a better way.  

The Birth Of A Simple Writing Club For PhD Students And Faculty

During one of my PhD classes, I was teaching about Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management. Scientific Management is an old field of management that is really about optimizing the amount of time and motion you spend on each task. It does have some warts, but you can think of it as a foundational theory of management.   Difficulty Writing. As part of the class, I had the students record the number of words they wrote every day for a month. Think of it as a small writing club for PhD students, and the students were inputting their efforts into a writing group worksheet. This was not some in-depth experiment, but just a fun in-class activity to illustrate Scientific Management. Something interesting happened – the students were motivated to do so for a few weeks, but one-by-one they stopped the recording the number of words on their own. They got me thinking – why did they stop? They were all smart and ambitious people. If you want to improve your writing, I wrote a great blog post about this that you have to read.   Lack of Reviews. It also bothered me that when I received reviews for conferences and journals that the reviews tended to be highly variable. I remember having a discussion that a fellow PhD student years ago that most people do not put much effort into reviewing, and that reviewing activities are a race to the bottom.   Over the course of several years, I was curious why they stopped recording what they wrote. It also bothered me that people did not put much effort into reviewing. True, some of academics might have been unmotivated to write or review for others. Both of these activities will greatly improve the productivity of academia, but no one did it. Think of it as a big prisoner’s dilemma problem – the optimal course of action is for everyone to cooperate, but cooperation is limited. Having tendencies to cooperate, that simply did not make sense too me.   On a drive home from Disney World with my kids, it hit me. The reason why people struggle with academic writing and often do not provide adequate reviews is that there was not a system in place to help enjoy academic writing, and providing friendly reviews to others was seen as a negative because it took time away from writing their own papers. But, what if we can change that?

Building A Peer Reviewing and Writing Accountability Software For PhD Students And Faculty.

My goal with r3ciprocity.com is to build out a sharing economy proofreading platform where people to get help on their writing. They will get feedback from other people, and that the system motivates people to write. I think if we can design a system that makes writing more social and more fun that we can not only improve our writing experience but also improve science. If we can improve the productivity of PhDs, reduce the anxiety and negative affect we feel during our PhD writing that we can greatly improve the productivity of science as a whole.  

Writing Group Rules: What I Would Like To Do To Improve The Online Writing Accountability On R3ciprocity.com:

  1. Improve the community feel on r3ciprocity.com. One of the things that I think need improvement is community feel of r3ciprocity.com. While I built up a large YouTube community, I really want to improve the community features on the platform. Over the course of the next year or so, I will be making an effort to improve the community feel of the proofreading software. I think it would be nice if people can get to know each other a bit more, and thus, the reviews from others will not feel so scary. 
  2. Add accountability measures and metrics into the proofreading system. Over the past year, we have added email notifications and pop-ups to the platform to improve the accountability of r3ciprocity.com community members, but I want to add even more accountability measures. I also want to add writing metrics and graphs to let you know if you are making progress on your writing.  I want it to feel a lot less like an anonymous software that you are interacting with, but you are interacting with other academic writers and editors around the world. I want it to feel like you are reviewing someone’s work in your hometown (for me, Tallahassee, Florida).
  3. Provide notifications if you have not written any content in a while. I want to add notifications that will to prompt you to write. I want this to improve your writing productivity. 
  4. Make it more humorous and add ways to make our research more fun. I am looking for ways to add humor and make it fun to interact with on a daily basis. To get me to use the proofreading software on a regular basis, I need to laugh.
  5. Add tools that are specific to PhDs and scientists that help with our work. I want to add tools and integrations that help us become more productive.

How Is The Proofreading / Writing Group Software Monetized?

My plan is to ensure that the software uses a ‘freemium’ model. If you interact on the platform and give back by reviewing other people’s work, you keep 100% of the credits you earn on the platform. There will only be a charge for people that want to take money out of the platform. I might eventually add some advertisements, but I think that is pretty far away. But, who knows?

Questions And Answers About r3ciprocity.com That You Must Be Wondering:

1. What About Quality Assurance On r3ciprocity.com

Quality assurance is very important to me. I am always trying to think of ways to improve the quality of reviews on the platform. I think we have made a lot of progress on the platform to ensure quality assurance on the reviews from other. There are three main mechanisms for quality assurance on r3ciprocity.com.
  1. Vetting and selection of people that will proofread and provide feedback. People that want to review or proofread will generally select into doing a good job. Moreover, we have a test review system in which each reviewer has to be vetted and approved by r3ciprocity.com Admin staff. Right now, it is me. 🙂 
  2. A simple system check to make sure that the reviewer / proofreader is providing enough feedback. The system will not allow you to upload a review that has no changes on it. Also, there is a color-coded system that indicates you have made sufficient changes on the document. 
  3. Rating systems and incentives to help continue to do good work and develop proofreading skills. Once you upload your review on r3ciprocity.com, you rate the reviewers work. The reviewer has to maintain an average 4.0 rating to be able to convert credits into money on the platform. 
  4. What about plagiarism or reviewers copying your ideas? I am maintaining a strict policy that reviewers will not be able to use the system if they have a verifiable plagiarism dispute on the platform. We have also built into a mechanism for confidentially, but having the reviewer explicitly opt-in to a confidentially option on the platform.
If you are curious about quality in the sharing economy, you have to watch these videos:  

Implementing A Proofreading Checklist: Proofreaders, What Do You Want In R3ciprocity.com?

  My next task is to implement some form of proofreading checklist or reviewing checklist on the platform. I not only want to improve the writer-side by including more writing mechanisms that improve your productivity, but I also want to make it easier to reviewer other people’s work. One of the easiest and most effective ways to improve an activity is by implementing a checklist. Please watch the YouTube below and let me know what you think the proofreading checklist should look like. A proofreading checklist provides detailed information about what you should check in a paper. Please let me in the comments of the YouTube video how you edit and what are the key areas we should include on this checklist. For me, a lot of it is just cutting out fluff in the paper. Please let me know what your key problems are in each people, so we can build this into the platform. I am also looking for suggestions in how to implement the checklist. Do you want it implemented when the editor uploads the reviewed document, or when the editor downloads the paper to review?  Or, have them go through step by step on the checklist? My goal is to implement this check-list over the next while, be please do let me know what you think about making this proofreading software work. Are there writing clubs for PhD Students and Faculty? I am trying to build one option that will help you out with your writing and getting friendly peer reviews. Thanks for reading this blog-post! I can really use your help with this project. I know it is a crazy idea, but I really do think we can create a writing software that can mimic a PhD writing club that could be helpful for many people. If you want more to read, you might find these blog posts really useful:
  1. Tips For Writing Your PhD Statement of Purpose.
  2. A Step-by-Step Guide To Writing A Research Paper.
  3. An Excellent List Of Grammar Checker Apps.
  4. Designing A System To Prevent Gray Market Paper Writing Services.
  5. A Proofreading Site For Good?

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How Are PhD Students Evaluated? (A Guide On Assessing The Performance Of Grad Students)
How Do You Get Feedback On Your Writing (During A PhD / In Grad School)?
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David Maslach

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