Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.

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Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?

 

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Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.

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Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.

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When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

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The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

by Eve Kearney

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I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four years with another diploma in my hand and a few more letters after my name.

The past few months have shown me that despite what I was preparing myself for, a PhD is hard.  Sure, it’s not as hard as being a real doctor and saving lives, or starting a family, or moving to a brand new country like so many of my friends are doing right now, but compared to a BA, or even a Masters, it is hard.  Gone are the days of going to class and having your ideas validated, or being graded, or even being able to discuss ideas with your friends – if I want to discuss contemporary masculinities, my fellow PhD friends will want to talk about the Victorian bestseller, or medieval syntax discrepancies.  My supervisor has been nothing but helpful and supportive, but every time I re-read an email draft, making sure it hits the right tone of humour and intelligence, I internally cringe as I hit send, fearing that I’m being too needy or bothering her with my questions – after all, I am a strong, independent, researcher who don’t need no hand-holding…right?

My whole academic career, I knew I wanted to do a PhD – I knew that coming up with original ideas and contributing to my field was for me, and even after I took a year out after my Masters, moving to Canada and starting a new life, the decision to come back to Dublin to work with some incredible people was never difficult. I have been encouraged by countless members of the department that my research ideas are good, and heck, I got As through all of my undergrad, but yet, to this day I’m still not convinced that my thesis is worth dedicating four years of my life to.  Impostor Syndrome is a very real part of academia, and a study as early as 1978 showed that it’s more likely to affect high-achieving females than any other group[1].  Even writing that last sentence made me pause: am I a high-achieving female?  Impostor Syndrome tells me that I’m not, and it tells me that I’ve only gotten this far through luck, or charm, or by fooling everyone around me. Likewise, comparing myself to everyone in the department is a trap that I often fall in to.  It seems that every day, someone is getting a grant, or having a paper published, or jetting off to an exciting conference, while I sit at my desk and try to put together an abstract so that I can keep up.  It’s a real struggle to remember that I am good at what I do, that my research matters, is original, will be a benefit to those who read it in the future.  It feels boastful to say that, but it’s the truth, and I shouldn’t be doing a PhD if I didn’t actually believe it.  I’m only in the third month of my research – papers and conferences will come, and hopefully the feeling of success will come with them.

Wait.  If a PhD is so hard and terrible, why am I even sticking with it? Why do I get out of bed every morning and put in the 9 – 5 on campus?  Because if something is hard, it’s worth doing.  And because I really do love every moment of it. Before I started in September, I pictured the next four years of my life as drinking martinis in the staff bar and using fancy words in conversations with other research students.  While it’s turned out that I’m not actually allowed in the staff bar, and I mispronounce most of the words other people around me are using, it’s turned out better than I imagined.  That feeling you get when everything you’ve been thinking about for weeks just clicks, and suddenly you’re typing a couple of thousand words of inspired greatness is unparalleled, even if it turns out that you end up deleting most of it the next day!  The community I’ve found in UCD and beyond of similarly terrified individuals has been a constant support to me – sure, we’re all quietly competing for publication and funding, but if I’m ever freaking out about something, there’s a list of people I can talk to or grab a pint with, and I know I’m on a lot of lists, too.  The challenge of self-discipline and self-motivation is something I’m finding most difficult, but again, when something goes right and everything makes sense, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth suddenly seems worth it.  And the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that drinking on a weeknight or during the afternoon isn’t irresponsible – it’s “networking”!

I was actually “networking” with one of my friends a couple of weeks ago, an amazing researcher in Trinity working on parasites, and we were lamenting about how none of our research was going how we were hoping.  For me, that’s not being motivated enough, for my friend, it’s none of her experiments going as planned – I definitely have it easy compared to a science PhD!  There was a pause in the conversation, and as I looked around, the thought hit me.  “You know what?” I announced. “To everyone else, the fact that we’re doing a PhD is pretty impressive.  Maybe we just need to be impressed with ourselves?”  We laughed and had another pint, but that idea has stuck with me since.  To answer your question, school is going great, Aunt Jen.  And when I’m finished in four years, I don’t know what I’ll do.  But I know I’ll be impressed with myself.

Maybe.

[1] http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

How your brain plans actions with different body parts

Got your hands full? – How the brain plans actions with different body parts

by Phyllis Mania

STEM editor: Francesca Farina

Imagine you’re carrying a laundry basket in your hand, dutifully pursuing your domestic tasks. You open the door with your knee, press the light switch with your elbow, and pick up a lost sock with your foot. Easy, right? Normally, we perform these kinds of goal-directed movements with our hands. Unsurprisingly, hands are also the most widely studied body part, or so-called effector, in research on action planning. We do know a fair bit about how the brain prepares movements with a hand (not to be confused with movement execution). You see something desirable, say, a chocolate bar, and that image goes from your retina to the visual cortex, which is roughly located at the back of your brain. At the same time, an estimate of where your hand is in space is generated in somatosensory cortex, which is located more frontally. Between these two areas sits an area called posterior parietal cortex (PPC), in an ideal position to bring these two pieces of information – the seen location of the chocolate bar and the felt location of your hand – together (for a detailed description of these so-called coordinate transformations see [1]). From here, the movement plan is sent to primary motor cortex, which directly controls movement execution through the spinal cord. What’s interesting about motor cortex is that it is organised like a map of the body, so the muscles that are next to each other on the “outside” are also controlled by neuronal populations that are next to each other on the “inside”. Put simply, there is a small patch of brain for each body part we have, a phenomenon known as the motor homunculus [2].

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Photo of an EEG, by Gabriele Fischer-Mania

As we all know from everyday experience, it is pretty simple to use a body part other than the hand to perform a purposeful action. But the findings from studies investigating movement planning with different effectors are not clear-cut. Usually, the paradigm used in this kind of research works as follows: The participants look at a centrally presented fixation mark and rest their hand in front of the body midline. Next, a dot indicating the movement goal is presented to the left or right of fixation. The colour of the dot tells the participants, whether they have to use their hand or their eyes to move towards the dot. Only when the fixation mark disappears, the participants are allowed to perform the movement with the desired effector. The delay between the presentation of the goal and the actual movement is important, because muscle activity affects the signal that is measured from the brain (and not in a good way). The subsequent analyses usually focus on this delay period, as the signal emerging throughout is thought to reflect movement preparation. Many studies assessing the activity preceding eye and hand movements have suggested that PPC is organised in an effector-specific manner, with different sub-regions representing different body parts [3]. Other studies report contradicting results, with overlapping activity for hand and eye [4].

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EEG photo, as before.

But here’s the thing: We cannot stare at a door until it finally opens itself and I imagine picking up that lost piece of laundry with my eye to be rather uncomfortable. Put more scientifically, hands and eyes are functionally different. Whereas we use our hands to interact with the environment, our eyes are a key player in perception. This is why my supervisor came up with the idea to compare hands and feet, as virtually all goal-directed actions we typically perform using our hands can also be performed with our feet (e.g., see http://www.mfpa.uk for mouth and foot painting artists). Surprisingly, it turned out that the portion of PPC that was previously thought to be exclusively dedicated to hand movement planning showed virtually the same fMRI activation during foot movement planning [5]. That is, the brain does not seem to differentiate between the two limbs in PPC. Wait, the brain? Whereas fMRI is useful to show us where in the brain something is happening, it does not tell us much about what exactly is going on in neuronal populations. Here, the high temporal resolution of EEG allows for a more detailed investigation of brain activity. During my PhD, I used EEG to look at hands and feet from different angles (literally – I looked at a lot of feet). One way to quantify possible effects is to analyse the signal in the frequency domain. Different cognitive functions have been associated with power changes in different frequency bands. Based on a study that found eye and hand movement planning to be encoded in different frequencies [6], my project focused on identifying a similar effect for foot movements.

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Source: Pixabay

This is not as straightforward as it might sound, because there are a number of things that need to be controlled for: To make a comparison between the two limbs as valid as possible, movements should start from a similar position and end at the same spot. And to avoid expectancy effects, movements with both limbs should alternate randomly. As you can imagine, it is quite challenging to find a comfortable position to complete this task (most participants did still talk to me after the experiment, though). Another important thing to keep in mind is the fact that foot movements are somewhat more sluggish than hand movements, owing to physical differences between the limbs. This circumstance can be accounted for by performing different types of movements; some easy, some difficult. When the presented movement goal is rather big, it’s easier to hit than when it’s smaller. Unsurprisingly, movements to easy targets are faster than movements to difficult targets, an effect that has long been known for the hand [7] but had not been shown for the foot yet. Even though this effect is obviously observed during movement execution, it has been shown to already arise during movement planning [8].

So, taking a closer look at actual movements can also tell us a fair bit about the underlying planning processes. In my case, “looking closer” meant recording hand and foot movements using infrared lights, a procedure called motion capture. Basically the same method is used to create the characters in movies like Avatar and the Hobbit, but rather than making fancy films I used the trajectories to extract kinematic measures like velocity and acceleration. Again, it turned out that hands and feet have more in common than it may seem at first sight. And it makes sense – as we evolved from quadrupeds (i.e., mammals walking on all fours) to bipeds (walking on two feet), the neural pathways that used to control locomotion with all fours likely evolved into the system now controlling skilled hand movements [9].

What’s most fascinating to me is the incredible speed and flexibility with which all of this happens. We hardly ever give a thought to the seemingly simple actions we perform every minute (and it’s useful not to, otherwise we’d probably stand rooted to the spot). Our brain is able to take in such a vast amount of information – visually, auditory, somatosensory – filter it effectively and generate motor commands in the range of milliseconds. And we haven’t even found out a fraction of how all of it works. Or to use a famous quote [10]: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

 [1] Batista, A. (2002). Inner space: Reference frames. Current Biology, 12(11), R380-R383.

[2] Penfield, W., & Boldrey, E. (1937). Somatic motor and sensory representation in the cerebral cortex of man as studied by electrical stimulation. Brain, 60(4), 389-443.

[3] Connolly, J. D., Andersen, R. A., & Goodale, M. A. (2003). FMRI evidence for a ‘parietal reach region’ in the human brain. Experimental Brain Research153(2), 140-145.

[4] Beurze, S. M., Lange, F. P. de, Toni, I., & Medendorp, W. P. (2009). Spatial and Effector Processing in the Human Parietofrontal Network for Reaches and Saccades. Journal of Neurophysiology, 101(6), 3053–3062

[5] Heed, T., Beurze, S. M., Toni, I., Röder, B., & Medendorp, W. P. (2011). Functional rather than effector-specific organization of human posterior parietal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience31(8), 3066-3076.

[6] Van Der Werf, J., Jensen, O., Fries, P., & Medendorp, W. P. (2010). Neuronal synchronization in human posterior parietal cortex during reach planning. Journal of Neuroscience30(4), 1402-1412.

[7] Fitts, P. M. (1954). The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement. Journal of experimental psychology47(6), 381.

[8] Bertucco, M., Cesari, P., & Latash, M. L. (2013). Fitts’ Law in early postural adjustments. Neuroscience231, 61-69.

[9] Georgopoulos, A. P., & Grillner, S. (1989). Visuomotor coordination in reaching and locomotion. Science, 245(4923), 1209–1210.

[10] Pugh, Edward M, quoted in George Pugh (1977). The Biological Origin of Human Values.

 

Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 

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(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012

numeracy-graphic

Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publications.htm

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.

Sources:

[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4] http://www.statlit.org/pdf/1999-Steen-ASCD-Education-Leadership.pdf

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own

by Olivia Wilkinson.

While spending time online you have probably come across a clickbait article about someone who gave up work and went travelling on his or her own to discover the meaning of life. There have been lists of the top 10 reasons to travel on your own, hundreds if not thousands of blogs have been born to document their owners’ solo travel experiences, solo travel tips are just a quick Google search away, and countless articles have been published that extol the virtues of travelling on your own and discovering your true self along the way.

Solo travel for research is rarely cast in this light of self-discovery.  It only hits the news when tragedy occurs, most recently with the killing of an Italian PhD student in Egypt this year, which highlighted the dangers present while conducting fieldwork. In particular, the position of a woman researcher conducting fieldwork can be precarious, with a study finding that 18% of women scientists had experienced sexual harassment during fieldwork. While there have been highly worthwhile academic work published that deal with the position of women in fieldwork scenarios, I want to reflect more generally on what it’s like to be a solo researcher away from home.

My interest is in light of two relatively recent experiences. Firstly, I did my own PhD research in 2014 and 2015 in the Philippines. It’s a wonderful country that I regularly miss, and that I encourage you to visit. But at times I found the experience very difficult. Sitting in a hostel in Manila on the first few days of my trip, I felt small and alone. I Skyped my boyfriend and threatened to buy a flight home for the next day. My self-doubt at the beginning of the lengthy trip was high. I worried that I hadn’t arranged enough interviews and focus groups ahead of time. I worried that the ones I had arranged would fall through. I thought I was not going to come home with enough data to fulfil my PhD requirements. I worried about the travel I would have to do around the country. I felt inferior in comparison to the old hand aid workers I was trying to contact as part of my research. The months ahead of me seemed overwhelming. Instead of buying a flight home, I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did: my worries gave way to excitement and the trip turned out to be a success. Some pre-arranged contacts worked out, some didn’t, but I met new people, organised new interviews and focus groups, and came home having experienced the most intense, but rewarding, months of my research career thus far. In hindsight, I feel I gave myself too hard a time, especially at the beginning, and have learned to be kinder to myself as a result. I hope I can share some of the things I did to calm my worries and feel more confident.

Olivia1

Olivia at the MacArthur Landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte, December 2014.

Guidelines for fieldwork

Secondly, I have recently worked with two other women, Bianca van Bavel and Brynne Gilmore, to bring together a set of guidelines developed by students and for students on the ethical conduct of international fieldwork (supported by the Development Studies Association of Ireland and the Irish Forum for Global Health). The guidelines emerged from conversations with other young researchers who had vastly different experiences of the amount of support they received in completing their fieldwork. After a comprehensive literature review and focus group discussions with other early stage researchers, the eventual set of guidelines we have formed gives highly practical recommendations on going about fieldwork in a responsible and ethical way, which is both safe for the individual researcher and the people they interact with during the research. If you are about to embark on research, or even if you are half way through, I would highly recommend reviewing the guidelines here. What we learned during this experience is how many times young researchers have felt let down by their institutions during their fieldwork, made avoidable mistakes, and generally been ill-prepared for the fieldwork experience. Although I was lucky enough to have a supportive background both personally and through my university, I still found the experience challenging. For those with less than supportive situations, the combination of factors can be extremely limiting.

While I urge you to look through the guidelines for specific advice backed up by the weight of evidence from our research, I will also briefly reflect on some of the key takeaways I personally have from my research experience, looking back with the 20:20 vision of hindsight as I come to the end of my PhD. So, what have I learned?

Tips to remember

Know your boundaries. This is about managing your own expectations as well as other people’s. Understand how likely you are to take risks, and whether you should take those risks. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. For example, are you prepared to take a lengthy bus journey on your own to a place you’ve never been before to talk to one interviewee who might not even show up? What are the risks that you might encounter to get to that one interview? Are they worth it for that particular interview? The answer may be yes, absolutely! But it may also be no and that’s ok. One less interview is not the end of the world.

Don’t be afraid to ask. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young female researcher. I felt, on the one hand, that I had to push quite a bit to underline my seriousness as a researcher. It was another woman, in fact, who belittled my research as just a pet project for my own benefit. On the other hand, however, I felt that I could benefit from this as people were very willing to help me out, assisting me in making further connections, as well as things like figuring out transportation or buying a SIM card. A lot of this was about learning to ask people for help and not thinking I was asking too much or seeming too needy.

Have an itinerary – and tell other people about it. It’s useful to plan your time carefully. You may feel like you have months ahead of you, but it will go quickly. More importantly though you should let others know when and where you will be. Like the advice to hikers before they head into the forest, let someone know when to expect to hear from you. Of course schedules change rapidly and you should take up opportunities when presented with them, but it’s always best to let a few people you trust have a broad idea of when and where you will be.

Know when to take breaks. Fieldwork is really tiring. You spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, waiting on replies to phone calls and emails, and conducting interviews, which is an intensive process. Navigating from place to place in a new environment can be exhausting. You may also stand out a bit. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to hide away and get some down time. Watching trashy TV all weekend (yes, I did this on occasion) is not necessarily a waste of time. You may only have a short amount of time in a certain place and feel pressure to get a lot done, but burn out can happen quickly, especially when you’re on your own, and some time for recuperation is well worth it.

Try to include a scoping trip. I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a month-long scoping trip before my main research trip. I highly recommend it, as it allowed me to not only gain contacts and organise things for my subsequent, longer trip, but also familiarise myself with the places I was intending to stay and learn how to navigate around the islands I would be staying on. This was very useful for my second trip when I was working really hard on my data collection. I was glad to have that familiarity, which made me feel more at ease.

My PhD experience would not have been even half as rewarding without my fieldwork. I personally gained a lot and I hope that I can give back through my research findings. Yet something we underline at the very beginning of the fieldwork guidelines is that international fieldwork is not for everyone. It’s a commitment and there are risks, both of which you need to be aware of from the outset. Inform yourself with our guidelines and other documents out there. If it’s still for you, then I have one last recommendation: remember to enjoy yourself too! Take a weekend off to explore! You deserve it.

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Time for reflection while waiting for a focus group to start, Leyte, March 2015.