28 February 2013

I can't win

Our first trip with the trailer. Picking strawberries to jam.
Most of the time, I'm fending off comments about how 'brave' I am to cycle with my kids.

To begin with, this meant taking my daughter to nursery in a bike seat. Then when she outgrew that, we got a tandem.  And, about that time, she started riding her own bike. Like most parents we assumed she would ride on the pavement (sidewalk to the North American readers).  But that made going places tricky and slow. Since most of our roads are lined with parked cars, this means that often we couldn't see her, and were riding too slow for the traffic flow.  Then, at age 4, she had a fall over the edge of a kerb and onto the road. And declared she wasn't going to ride on the pavement anymore.  We humoured her for a bit, thinking she'd probably go back to riding on the pavement. And gradually we developed the necessary skills to ride with her on the road.  She's never looked back. And at age 6, she's got a pretty good sense of how roads work, and how to cycle them.

But, the 'brave' comments keep coming.  Mostly it's code for 'crazy'.  Or 'bad parent'.  I'm sure the parents trying to drive their kids to school in 4x4s say even worse things.

The thing is, among cycle campaigners, I get flack from the other side. Snide comments about helmets and hiviz.  About how cycling ought to be for 'normal' people.  Not all of this is nasty.  Much of it is well-intentioned like the great people at Spokes, who want to see more pictures of cyclists in 'normal' clothes.

But they're still telling me that I'm doing it wrong.

I can't win.  So, you know what? I'm just gonna ride my bike!  (and keep on campaigning to get more people out there, and to make the roads safer for all of us)

Twitter as an academic search tool = user beware

I'm delighted that journals are using social media to promote journal articles.  It's a brilliant idea.  @T&F_Africa is really pioneering this, at least in my field,   tweeting links to pertinent, if not necessarily recent, articles.  I quite often retweet these to my students.  But the last two times I have followed their links, I've had second thoughts about those retweets.

The first time, it was a link to an article about Islam and the WoT in Mali. Fascinating stuff, and from 2007, so a good background to the current crisis.  But the more I read the paper, the more concerned I became. It's a thoughtful piece, which draws some reasonable conclusions.  But nowhere are we told anything about the author or his research.  We don't know if he's ever visited Mali, if he speaks the languages, if he did research there via a research grant, or while in the US military. The paper is reasonably referenced - albeit entirely to secondary sources -  but I can't judge its value, or robustness, without knowing something about how the analysis was generated.

Today @T&F_Africa  tweeted a link to a paper on 'ethnic terrorism' in Kenya.  Interesting, I thought, if a bit tendentious.  But again, while this paper does give us the author's affiliation, we have no way of judging how much of an 'expert' he is.  Did he spend several months in the field?  or is it 'armchair' research from the comforts of home?  Again, the footnotes seem to be in order, but with no discussion of methodology, I'm left wondering why this author is positioning himself as an 'expert' in this sensitive field.

I don't really blame the authors for these oversights, but what were the editors doing letting articles get published without such basic information?  Do they think about how to strengthen articles? how to make them more robust and effective?

There's a comment somewhere in my twitterstream from an academic saying 'I only ever get boilerplate letters from editors'.  It worries me that this may be becoming standard.  Surely editors have a duty of care to their authors to help them improve articles?

Or am I being too precious, and as long as the footnotes are there, anything goes?