The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract? (some thoughts from a reviewer)

by Richard Davies

Dr Richard Davies, co-convenor of SRHE’s Academic Practice network, ran a network event on 26 January 2022 ‘What makes a good SRHE Conference abstract?’. A regular reviewer for the SRHE Conference, Richard also asked colleagues what they look for in a good paper for the conference and shared the findings in a well-attended event.

Writing a submission for a conference is a skill – distinct from writing for journals or public engagement. It is perhaps most like an erudite blog. In the case of the SRHE conference, you have 750 words to show the reviewer that your proposed presentation is (a) worth conference delegates’ attention, and (b) a better fit for this conference than others (we get more submissions than the conference programme can accommodate so it is a bit competitive!).

Think of it as a short paper, not an abstract

It is difficult to summarise a 5-6000 word paper in 750 words and cover literature, methodology, data and findings. As a reviewer, I often find myself unsatisfied with the result. It is better to think of this as a short paper, that you can present in 15 minutes at the conference. This means focussing on a specific element of your study which can be communicated in 750 words and following the argument of that focus through precise methodology, a portion of your data, and final conclusions. Sure, tell the reviewers this is part of a large study, but you are focusing on a specific element of it. The short paper will then, if well written, be clear and internally coherent. If I find a submission is neither clear nor coherent, then I would usually suggest rejecting because if I cannot make sense of it then I will assume delegates will not be able to as well.

Practical point: get a friend or colleague to read the short paper – do they understand what you are saying? They don’t have to be an expert in higher education or even research. As reviewers, most of us regularly read non-UK English texts, as an international society we are not expecting standard English – just clarity to understand the points the author is making. Whether UK-based or international, we are not experts in different countries’ higher education systems and so do not assume the reviewer’s prior knowledge of the higher education system you are discussing

Reviewer’s judgement

Although we work to a set of criteria, as with most academic work, there is an element of judgement, and reviewers take a view of your submission as a whole. We want to know: will this be of interest to SRHE conference delegates? Will it raise questions and stimulate discussion? In my own area of philosophy of education, a submission might be philosophically important but not explicitly about higher education; as a result I would tend to suggest it be rejected. It might be suitable for a conference but not this conference.

Practical point: check you are explicitly talking about higher education and how your paper addresses an interesting area of research or practice. Make sure the link is clear – don’t just assume the reviewers will make the connection. Even if we can, we will be wary of suggesting acceptance.

Checking against the criteria

The ‘Call for Papers’ sets out the assessment criteria against which we review submissions. As a reviewer, I read the paper and form a broad opinion, I then review with a focus on each specific criterion. Each submission is different and will meet each criterion (or not) in a different way and to varying degrees. As a reviewer, I interpret the criterion in the light of the purpose and methodology of the submission. As well as clarity and suitability for the conference, I also think about the rigour with which it has been written. This includes engagement with relevant literature, the methodology/methods and the quality of the way the data (if any) are used. I want to know that this paper builds on previous work but adds some original perspective and contribution. I want to know that the study has been conducted methodically and that the author has deliberated about it. Where there are no data, either because it is not an empirical study or the paper reports the initial phases of what will be an empirical study, I want to know that the author’s argument is reasonable and illuminates significant issues in higher education.

Practical point: reviewers use the criteria to assess and ‘score’ submissions. It is worth going through the criteria and making sure that you are sure that it is clear how you have addressed each one. If you haven’t got data yet, then say so and say why you think the work is worth presenting at this early stage.

Positive news

SRHE welcomes submissions from all areas of research and evaluation in higher education, not just those with lots of data! Each submission is reviewed by two people and then moderated, and further reviewed, if necessary, by network convenors – so you are not dependent on one reviewer’s assessment. Reviewers aim to be constructive in their feedback and to uphold the high standard of presentations we see at the conference, highlighting areas of potential improvement for both accepted and rejected submissions.

Finally, the SRHE conference does receive more submissions than can be accepted, and so some good papers don’t make it. Getting rejected is not a rejection of your study (or you); sometimes it is about clarity of the submission, and sometimes it is just lack of space at the conference.

Dr Richard Davies is an academic, educationalist and informal educator. He is primarily concerned with helping other academics develop their research on teaching and learning in higher education. His own research is primarily in philosophical approaches to higher educational policy and practice. He co-convenes SRHE’s AP (Academic Practice) Network – you can find out more about the network by clicking here.

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Academia: the beautiful game ?

By Rob Cuthbert

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

(Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool Football Club)

The SRHE 2018 Research Conference in December was full of academics with a passion which Bill Shankly would have recognised. Perhaps not all the kind of people who would have taken their partner on a birthday outing to see Rochdale reserves on a rainy weekday evening, but certainly many of the kind of people who went home from the conference for a Christmas they would fill with reading, writing and reviewing. Academia and football are both common pursuits worldwide; can we make something of the parallels? Continue reading

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A new approach to the assessment of learning outcomes in Japanese Universities

by Toru Hayashi

In recent years Japanese universities have faced unprecedented demands for developing student learning and have rapidly reformed courses to introduce active learning and practical internships. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan (MEXT) states that: ‘Amid the rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad surrounding universities, expectations and demands towards universities, Continue reading

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‘Academics in the arena’ – showcasing conferences research at SRHE 2017

Emily Henderson writes on fulfilling her dream of convening a symposium on conferences research at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference.

This post was first published on Emily’s blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

When we set out to create an academic blog on conferences, it was in part because conferences research is so disparate – in terms of discipline and geographical location. The Conference Inference blog has provided us with a wonderful platform to share research and comment on conferences over the course of 2017, including from a fantastic array of guest contributors – and we will be thinking more about this first year in our 1-year anniversary celebrations in early 2018. However this post reports back from a very special treat – namely, five papers on conferences grouped together in the same room at a conference! The symposium, entitled ‘Academics in the Arena: Foregrounding Academic Conferences as Sites for Higher Education Research’ (see information here, pp. 25-27) brought together a variety of critical perspectives on conferences, along with a discussant contribution from Helen Perkins, Director of SRHE (Society for Research in Higher Education).

The first paper presented early analysis from an ongoing research project on fictional representations of conferences by Conference Inference co-editor Emily F Henderson and guest contributor Pauline Reynolds (see Pauline’s guest post). The paper, entitled ‘“Novel delegates”: representations of academic identities in fictional conferences’, focused in particular on academic identities at conferences as they are portrayed in novels, short stories and graphic novels. Fictional conferences act to both equalise and reproduce academic hierarchy; delegates are homogenised as masses and crowds, uniformly badged and seated, just as delegate-professors are singled out for VIP treatment and delegate-students are denied access to certain spaces and conversations. Continue reading

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Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient

By Rob Cuthbert – Editor, SRHE News

The SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2014 invites us to reflect on Inspiring future generations: embracing plurality and difference in higher education: ‘Within the HE research community we have the capacity, the history, the knowledge and the expertise to inform and shape the transformation of the higher education sector globally into an innovative, multi-faceted system; one with new and different sources of funding, with diverse modes of participation and one more responsive to the changing needs and expectations of people, institutions and societies.’ Quite right: inspiration is a benefit we expect of Conference every year. We have it in ourselves to be the best, but there are always temptations to be otherwise, with the lure of funds and reputation sometimes suggesting unethical short cuts. SRHE Vice-President Roger Brown, who in his latest book bemoaned the kind of marketisation where it appears that everything is for sale, has recently warned that ‘The pursuit of status will be the death of the university as we know it.’

Reports of ethical lapses are usually tales of individual transgression and recent European research on unethical behaviour suggests that too many academics admit to some of the behaviours of which they disapprove. But even this pales by comparison to an academic scandal at one of the US’s leading universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Continue reading