Playing the ‘A’ game: Opening up the black-box of academic publishing

If, like me, you are new to the academic publishing game, have you ever wondered what happens to your work once your tightly crossed fingers have pushed the ‘submit’ button on the impersonal manuscript submission site? Where does it go? What decisions are being made about your paper submission ‘on the other side’? I was offered the chance last week to attend a Paper Development Masterclass at the Centre for Professional Service Firms, Cass Business School (City University London). This masterclass was designed to offer early career researchers a peek inside this publishing black-box.

The day began with a panel discussion led by editors from the ‘A’ ranked journals Human Relations (HR), Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), Journal of Management Studies (JMS) and Journal of Professions and Organization (JPO). The discussion centred on the decision-making process of how editors, and then reviewers, decide whether or not to publish your blood, sweat and tears. Although there were some differences between how each journal made their decisions, there were many similarities that, taken together, can be read as sound advice for PhD students looking to publish their thesis work in top journals that address organisation, professions, work and management research.

Firstly though, let’s set the scene. The editor-in-chief at HR describes a week in the life of a journal editor:

Every Monday morning, at around lunchtime, I receive this week’s abstracts. I skim the abstracts, thinking: Do they fit the journal in terms of style and scope? HR is interested in studying social relations in and around work – does the abstract address issues concerning this area? If I think it does, I will offer the paper to one of my team of editors[1]. Therefore, for me, the abstract is the most important part of the submitted paper.

My associate editors will then read the paper in more detail before deciding if it should be given a ‘desk rejection’ (i.e. a straight-out rejection, with no offer of a review and resubmit). My editors are asking themselves, can this manuscript be made into a publishable paper with reasonable effort? There is a 50% chance the paper will get rejected within 7 days of submission.

If the paper is successful, it will get sent to 3 referees [or ‘reviewers’]. The key words listed on the paper help me locate preferable referees. Once these referees have reviewed the paper, a mutual decision will be made in 10 weeks. Although there is a high rate of rejection at this stage, those who have submitted a paper should at least receive detailed, constructive feedback about how to improve their paper, or what the areas of concern are for the referee.


Therefore, before submitting your manuscript, it’s worth thinking about what questions the reviewers will be asking themselves as they read your paper. The editors provided the following advice [paraphrased]:

  • Does this paper fit with the journal’s tradition and debates? Tip: Think about which journal would be good for your paper. Firstly, look at who sits on the editorial board – are you familiar with their work? Do any of the papers you read publish in this journal? Do you read, and like reading, the journal? What do the special issues address?  If you are really not sure if your paper is appropriate for the journal, you can email and ask the editor, but be prepared for a lukewarm response – the editors are careful not to lead the person on after just reading an emailed abstract.
  • Has this paper got a meaningful point? What is this paper all about? Tip: State your meaning and purpose of the paper directly and clearly in the abstract. What is the gap/problem you are trying to address?
  • Is the language clear? [N.B. The editors are not as concerned with grammatical accuracy but more about what the author is trying to say] Tip: Get your paper read by others to check for clarity, i.e. at conferences, or by your supervisor and PhD peers.
  • Does this paper have a genuine motivation? Who is this going to be of interest to? Tip: Again, state this clearly in your introduction: ‘This is interesting to/for…’
  • Are there some basic problems with methods? If it’s a qualitative study, is there enough data? If it’s quantitative, have you used the correct statistical analysis? Tip: Pay adequate attention to your methods section and make sure you have provided a detailed description and rationale of how you have analysed the data.
  • What is this paper’s contribution to theory? What are the findings? Tip: Again, state clearly what your actually findings are and what it means for the audience. Don’t forget, your findings can inspire other researchers outside of your specific area.

The editors also provided advice on what happens once a paper is either accepted or rejected [again, paraphrased]:

What happens if your paper is accepted but the reviewers suggest amendments? Most journal reviewers will give you their comments in a written email. You should look to read, think about and address every single line of their comments. You can accept those comments you think are insightful or useful, and make the necessary amendments, or reject them if you do not agree. Write a cover letter to explain your rationale for why you did or did not make the amendments – use this cover letter to engage in a conversation to make sure the reviewer feels like they have been listened to. Get someone to read through your amended paper. It should not be sent out unchanged because most journals will use the same reviewers again!

What happens if your paper is rejected? There may be the usual feelings of anger and denial, but once you have got a handle on this, read through the feedback – you will find lots of positives. You could readjust it for another journal. If you do, make sure you take on board the suggestions for improvements.

Finally, the editors made the point that it is important to be realistic when aiming to publish in these ‘A’ journals[2]. The success rate of getting your work actually published is quite low. For example, the editor of HR noted that they receive around 500 submissions a year, and 85% of these get rejected. JMS receive between 900 and 1000 papers annually and only 3-4% are published.

Although I found this panel discussion illuminating, for myself and other PhD students, I can see how these stats can seem incredibly disheartening. However, the editors stressed that they were keen to consider submissions from PhD students because their work is often some of the most interesting, ground breaking and contemporary work to read. Also, the editors acknowledged that publishing in ‘A’ journals isn’t the be all and end all for guaranteeing employment post-PhD: making sure the person applying is well suited to the research project and has the desired capacities to work with the project team is more important for employers than 10 publications in ‘A’ journals. I’ll withhold my judgement on that until my time comes to apply for jobs… but in the mean time, there’s no harm in aiming high!

[1] JMS differs slightly from HR in that you are allowed to specify who you want your editors to be, or not be. It’s worth having a look at who sits on the board and, if you request them, make sure you cite their work!

[2] This discussion is specific to these particular journals that are ranked as ‘top’ journals. So, although the figures may seem dispiriting to the reader, many other journals are less competitive with higher acceptance rates.

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The [insert force of nature here] is nigh: Rethinking the future of Higher Education with Complexity Theory

Despite the individual themes that have marketed each HE conference I have attended recently, all the keynotes seem to be addressing the same issue: how will educators respond to the influence of technology that is challenging/threatening the landscape of HE in the 21st Century?

At the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference (July 3-4 2013, University of Warwick), the keynote, Chief Education Strategist at the publisher Pearson, Sir Michael Barber, gripped the 400+ audience with the title of his speech: ‘An Avalanche is Coming’. This report, headed up by Barber, aims to challenge the current complacency of educators’ responses to the changes that are occurring globally: shifting power and (developing) global leadership in Asia, climate change, economic uncertainty, the higher cost of a ‘university degree’ but lower perceived value, and, most importantly for HE, how technology is ‘weakening’ the walls of the traditional university through the introduction of competition from alternative education opportunities.

The influence of technology and globalisation on economic sectors began decades ago, and now it is time for the education sector to feel the force. Others in education have likened this pressure to a landslide or a tornado. Whatever dramatic force of nature metaphor we use, the idea behind it is that while the landscape of HE may still appear smooth and solid on the surface, underneath little changes are occurring. Momentum has been steadily gathering and when, not if, this movement comes crashing in, ‘standing still is not an option’ because, if we do, ‘an avalanche of change will sweep the system away’[1].  Boom. The landscape of HE will be forever altered.

So how to react? Barber argues that instead of viewing this technological onslaught as a threat, those involved in HE need to positively anticipate this change. In fact, the opportunities for British education are much greater if universities mobilise partnerships in government, education, industry and society. Leadership and innovation need to be at the heart of universities’ mission in order to best harness the power of globalisation and technology and tackle the huge issues facing the next generations. A radical and urgent transformation is needed in HE to realise these capacities, but anxiety, complacency and perhaps fear are presenting themselves as barriers to this call to ‘ponder anew’ HE’s role in contemporary society.

After a recent introductory lecture on complexity theory in education, I thought Barber’s words resonated with some of the ideas current researchers interested in complexity theory and education are discussing. Furthermore, some writers have used complexity theory and the thermodynamic models of Ilya Prigogine to conceptualise revolutions and, indeed, the subheading in Barber’s report refers to this – ‘Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’. So I thought it’d be fun to have a play with some of Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara and Rebecca Luce-Kapler’s[2] work on education and complex worlds. I start with a disclaimer that as I have only read a few articles about complexity theory, in this blog post I am merely skipping about and making daisy chains in the foothills of this theory and would love to hear from others who are more committed and have bought the OS map to use their work in more depth.

So complexity theory is a way of investigating and considering a phenomenon that is resistant to, or unhelpfully seen as, a reductionistic analysis. Complexity theory begins with distinguishing between a complicated system and one that is complex. A complicated system would consider the behaviour of things, such as washing machines and cars, as linear, rational objects that are the predictable sum of their parts. This mechanical, reductionist way of thinking, with cause and effect at the heart of it, has often been adopted in Western science to understand how most phenomena work and behave.

Complex systems, on the other hand, are NOT reducible to the sum of their parts. For example, the human body and weather systems are complex systems:

The human body arises from, but is something more than, the interactions of a heart, a brain, and other organs. These organs in turn, are comprised of and supersede collections of living cells and neurons. And so on. (Davis et al, 2000, p. 55). 

These systems are reacting to dynamic, nonlinear interactions from other parts that are unpredictable and, quite likely, invisible.

I want to take this perspective and use it to problematise current understandings of HE institutions, such as universities. Let’s say that universities are seen as complicated systems: it could be argued they are management-orientated and highly regulated, bureaucratic institutions. Their focus on skills-based conceptions of learning commodifies knowledge, champions the individual leaner and positions learning as a result of deliberate planning. They are (trying to be) predictable and rational.

Instead, if we were to envisage universities for the next generation as complex adaptive systems – or, in fact, complex learning systems – we can begin to locate universities in an ecology of interdependent, unfolding events. A complex learning system is one:

where learning is understood as a process through which a unity becomes capable of more flexible, more creative activity that enables the unity to maintain its fit to its ever evolving context. (Davis and Sumara, 2006, p. 92)[3]

In line with complexity theory then, such a system is characterised by its ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances: the emergence of endless possibilities, continual uncertainty and disordering dynamics can enable a system to transform. It is only through this disorder that a healthy system can function – disturbances are always needed if there is going to be learning. So the disturbance by partnerships, by competition, by the Internet and by developments in Asia can be envisioned as positive disturbances that have the ability to transform the systems of HE. Therefore, instead of complicated systems that can run down, complex learning systems can defy entropy and spontaneously generate order.

I think I may now be playing with laws of thermodynamics that are far beyond my understanding but what is most important here, I think, is this idea of uncertainty. We don’t – we can’t – know what technology advances will hold for the education sector. The rapid innovation of technology has, at its essence, this element of the unknown and the unpredictable and, with it, an interdependent (unknown) influence on educational practices. So, if we can think of ways to keep open these tensions and disturbances, to encourage educators to attune to emerging ideas and possible actions, and to work positively in uncertainty, then we can seize Barber’s challenge, rather than remain complacent.

Surely then, this is a healthier way to conceptualise the future of HE. However, I’m sure that in our neoliberal era of accountability, the idea of a self-organising system seems just too radical. This would present more of a challenge than one would possibly like to imagine. But it’s nice to mess about and make those daisy chains!

[1] Cited from the Preface and Executive Summary of Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi (2013). An Avalanche Is Coming Higher education and the revolution ahead. Institute for Public Policy Research.

[2] Davis, B., Sumara, D., and Luce-Kapler, R., 2000. Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., London.

[3] Davis, B., and Sumara, D., 2006. Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mawah, NJ.

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Writing it right: Getting back to basics

The time has come. I am committing words to Word and beginning the official drafting of my thesis. The main aim of my thesis is to present, in writing, an original piece of research. In my case, I have been tracing the social connections of professionals in an emerging organisation in order to explore their knowledge practices. For six months, I have followed engineers and the objects of their practice in a renewable energy organisation, gathering transcribed interviews, jotting down observations and writing-up descriptions.  As I draw all of this written data together to start my thesis writing, I am reminded of one of Latour’s[1] (2005) questions: what are we actually doing when we trace these social connections?

In answer to his own query, he states that we trace social connections by writing down accounts. But what is an ‘account’? Latour maintains that an account is a text, written on paper that is read by a (normally small!) number of people. He contends that this writing of a textual account should not be sniffed at as:

the simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction.  No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. p. 136-7

Although Latour admits that the social scientist should not be concerned with ‘good style’ when writing their account, as we are rarely likely to achieve the skill of a poet or a playwright, I can’t help but think differently as a PhD student. When it comes to submitting your thesis you know the examiner’s critical gaze is judging not only how ‘good’ the account is in tracing the social connections but also the accuracy of the grammar, the exactness of the punctuation marks and how successfully the style engages the reader.

At this stage in your education, it is assumed by many (both supervisors and students) that the main capacity required to draft this staggering tome – one’s dexterity of the English language – is finely honed and primed for use at a moment’s notice. Passive or active verb structure turmoil, semi colon or colon anxiety, and second person pronoun confusion should be the least of the student’s worries at this point. Shouldn’t  learning the rules of grammar and punctuation belong to the English classes of our early school years?

Yet I have noticed that friends and colleagues seem to have had different experiences of learning grammar and punctuation at school. Then, when we come to actually writing one of the most important documents of our careers, we seem to have varying levels of understanding as to what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation[2]. If we take to heart Latour’s counsel, ‘that good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it’ (p.124), I feel there is a need to ensure PhD students are equipped with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation during their PhD journey – and this level of training should not be sniffed at either. After all, in qualitative work, the written word and the ‘thick description’ is the essence of your thesis. This grammatical top-up can be as simple and effective as a couple of day-workshops. For example, at Stirling we have the option of attending workshops focused on writing for each particular year of our PhD (an external trainer at Grammatology runs these for us). These are by far the most useful training days I have been on as a PhD student. And I can now go forth on my academic journey having learnt that you never start a sentence with a conjunction…

[1] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] I know I am still learning how to be grammatically ‘correct’ in my writing, but I like to think I have an awareness of when a sentence ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ right. I can thank my 5th grade English teacher for this – Ms B. had a penchant for endless grammatical workbook exercises.

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Witching hour comes to University of Stirling

I do love a good conference. And I’m happy to say I wasn’t let down by this year’s 8th International Researching Work and Learning conference “The visible and invisible in work and learning”, held, I’m proud to say, at our university’s Management Centre. The Wallace Monument towered over the venue, reminding those well travelled that they were, indeed, in Scotland [they did need this visual reminder – it was warm and sunny].

When I’m at a conference, and especially because they are often in the niche field of researching work, learning, and higher education, I often think we must look not dissimilar to the hotel convention in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (not least, at this conference, because of our mutterings about the ‘invisible’). Except, in place of our scratchy wigs, we are marked-out by our purple lanyards. Instead of sighing with relief when we free our toeless feet in the safe confines of the conference venue, we sigh instead with unadulterated satisfaction as we let free our epistemological and ontological chatterings and postulations, secure in the knowledge that we are in kindred company. And we don’t smell out the children, we just smell out the coffee breaks. Or, in this case, the Arbroath Smokies cooking during the publisher’s complimentary drinks hour:

Arbroath Smokies

Back to this conference. Firstly, I admit that I was star-struck with the big names that appeared (I’m still new to this…): Paul Hager, David Boud, Barbara Czarniawska, Yrjö Engeström, to name but a few. But the real interest lay, for me anyway, in the sessions that were attempting to answer the question: How do we ‘catch’ practice (in Ann Reich and colleague’s terminology)? There seems to be so much written about the ‘practice turn’ but a lot less on how empirical work is actually carried out using a practice-based perspective. The method pieces were what people wanted to hear about.

Dr Maja Korica, for example, gave an illuminating presentation about the methodological practices of making the work practices of chief execs in the NHS visible (and yet by doing so, necessarily leaving other practices in the shadows). She used intensive work shadowing as the method du jour, but noted that a single method was inadequate to do justice to the work’s complexity and called for ‘ecologies of visibilities’, or multiple methods, to make such a study rigorous.

Other presenters affirmed this need for multiple methods. Ann Reich presented her audience with a list of researchers currently doing practice research along with the methods they used to ‘catch’ practice. The list was ethnography-heavy: a few had used Davide Nicolini’s  Interview to the Double technique, some analysed organizational documents to catch organizational practice memory, and others studied regimes of familiarity.

In one of my next blogs I will sketch out how I have used a ‘methodological bundle’ to try to make visible the work practices of my engineers. Bet you just can’t wait!

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What’s trending in Higher Education ethnography?

I have just returned from an international gathering of HE researchers who convened in Prague to present and discuss their latest ethnographic works (Ethnographies of Higher Education conference, May 22-25, 2013 – jointly organised by Centre for Higher Education Studies, Prague, Institute of Sociology of Academy of Sciences of CR and University of Pardubice). Jimmy was in his element in Prague – apparently 40% of the Czech population are dog owners: more than in France, and less posh.

ImageOver the few days, a couple of themes kept popping up that I thought would be interesting to share.

Firstly, a few topics that are currently being studied using ethnographic approaches:

–       How do universities manage interdisciplinarity in research activity? What does it mean to be an interdisciplinary researcher, and what qualities should we be supporting in our colleagues if we are truly aspiring to be interdisciplinary? (John Taylor: Liverpool University)

–       How do we promote a culture of entrepreneurship in university courses? What works and what doesn’t when trying to encourage creativity and innovation in everyday practice, not just for economic gain? (Sarah Robinson: Aarhus University)

–       How do we understand everyday student life in a post-conflict society? (Katrine Scott: Lund University)

–       What does cheating mean now in HE – who is cheating who in academia? What role does the teacher play in encouraging cheating? (Petr Pabian: University of Pardubice) 

The opportunities and challenges of conducting ethnographic research using virtual worlds

A number of studies used Facebook as a ‘site’ to conduct an ethnographic study. The information added and stored on this social media tool could provide a wealth of data for researchers interested in understanding student experiences, for example, in LGBT communities, or in first year student groups. Interestingly, UK researchers experienced more success with gaining ethical consent from ethical boards than colleagues in the US. But how is an ethnographic study actually conducted if participant observation is mediated through a computer? Discussions centred around insider/outsider issues: most researchers use Facebook in their private lives so how did they consider issues of sharing their profiles and intimate lives with participants? What levels of access should both parties be granted? Do you combine virtual communication with face-to-face interviews? Eve Stirling at Sheffield University gave a very compelling account about how such research could work.

What can be classified as an ethnographic study in HE?

To be honest, I was surprised at the number of talks that claimed to be of an ethnographic nature but were, in fact, designed as qualitative studies using interviews and focus groups. Because HE researchers often lecture, advise, and consult students in HE settings alongside their research endeavours, I felt that they justified this association with students as an immersion into the field they were studying, and then this was enough contact to claim a prolonged period of time as a critical observer. However, I felt this was not doing ethnographic methodology justice and was surprised at how people in the audience did not seem to contest this claim. Maybe at the next conference I’ll have enough confidence to stand on my soapbox and share this opinion and not just write about it in my blog!


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Conference Alert!

I am very excited to announce that my research network, ProPEL, is hosting their Second International Conference, Professional Matters: materialities and virtualities of professional learning, next year at University of Stirling, 25-27 June 2014.

The key strength of the conference is its promotion of a multi-professional and interdisciplinary audience. Social work, teaching, nursing, police, social scientists, management, law, art – the range of professional disciplines is impressively represented. I know I am biased but last year’s conference was a huge success and I can honestly say those who attended raved about the community that gathered as well as the quality of presentations. Last year’s keynote speakers included Prof. Hilary Sommerlad, Prof. Julia Evetts and Prof. John Urry, who, although he gave a great talk about The Tourist Gaze, referred a little too much about the end of the world for my liking and left me in need of more than just a whiskey ‘tasting’ that evening…captivating nonetheless!

In June 2014, we are proud to announce as our keynotes:

  • Professor Yrjö Engeström
  • Dr Beverly Metcalfe
  • Professor Mats Alvesson

Check out the call for abstracts and the conference theme – abstracts are due November this year, so plenty of time to have a mull over what to submit this summer…

Hope to see you there!

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Practicing What I Preach

Despite being recommended to me countless times, I have never kept a research journal. As my previous projects have normally been relatively brief in duration, I’ve relied on my memory, untidy scrawlings on papers and half-finished sentences to keep my records and reflections straight. However, for a six-month stint gathering vast amounts of data in a fast-paced organisation, I realised I needed to change my practice of recording my enquiries. I needed to follow the advice of one of the key theorists I am drawing from, Bruno Latour.

I am looking to Latour’s writing on actor-network theory[1] to help me understand how knowing is produced and performed in organisations. Latour’s work, among others, is useful for such an inquiry because he asks us to focus on all the little things that people do at work and, most likely, take for granted. Along this line, questions I was asking included: how do engineers arrange their desk space? Why do they have two monitor screens on their desk? How do they prioritise their emails? Do they allow email pop-ups? Do they screen their incoming phone calls?

By tracing how different things (such as documents, technologies, people, spaces, processes and software programmes) are distributed and arranged in certain ways, this micro-level focus can help us understand how things come together to work in practice and thus produce instances of knowing. This takes the focus away from understanding the individual as containing an ostensive, cognitive skill and towards the idea that knowing is intrinsically linked to practice and materials: to fluid action; to a performance of ‘things’ that is local and temporary.

In order for a social scientist to achieve this micro-level focus, Latour advises us to slow down and record everything, no matter how small or mundane – ‘from now on everything is data’. His well-quoted maxim is ‘to follow the actor’, an ‘actor’ being some one or some thing that, put simply, exerts force. He warns us, this following will be ‘agonizingly slow’!

To help me do this in the work place, I kept a daily report on Word on my laptop (instead of the four separate notebooks Latour recommends). I described the day’s interviews, meetings and observations and recorded noises, reflections, feelings and paraphrased conversations. I used a template[2] that consisted of the headings Observations, Academic notes, and Personal notes and subheadings including Objects and human relations involved, Theoretical links and Mistakes I made.

This allowed me to record the day’s events with an element of consistency and encouraged me to give a more complete account of my day. It also meant I didn’t rely on memory recall when it came to analysis. Recall is a dangerous method to rely on because it is notoriously inaccurate[3]. I think, as a researcher, there is the tendency that as the temporal and spatial distance from the event increases, the more likely we are to start taking the account for granted, rendering silent all the materials that gather, or have been gathered, to perform the event. The daily report was intended to remind me of all the traces I had followed throughout the six months and thus keep them visible for my analysis.

However, some days I couldn’t be bothered to complete the report as I felt nothing of interest had happened that day – I was tired; I had lots of other reports filled out, missing one wouldn’t matter. But then I’d pull myself up; Latour would’ve looked at me in that ‘I’m not cross, but I am disappointed in you’ way. After all, he did warn me: ‘If you don’t want to take notes and to write them down well, don’t try to get into sociology: it’s the only way there is to become slightly more objective’.

I was falling into the same trap as my participants. When I asked the participants if I could attend their meetings that day with them, they would often agree but comment ‘it’s a shame you couldn’t have come to the meetings on Monday, they were so much more interesting, Paul was getting so mad at George over the Hailey’s contract’. They equated drama, incidents and external meetings as being more ‘useful’ and ‘of interest’ to my study. They couldn’t conceive that the routine, the mundane, the taken for granted was not only of interest to me, it was crucial in understanding the bigger picture.

So every day I duly filled out the daily report, even if I felt my reflections were mundane and the only profound ‘Mistakes I made’ that day was spilling my coffee all over the desk I was sitting at. Hopefully, I will be thanking myself, and Latour, for these reports when I come to start my analysis next month.

[1] Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Adapted from one used in Schultze, U. 2000. A confessional account of an ethnography about knowledge work, MIS Quarterly, 24(1), pp. 3-41.

[3] For example, see psychological studies that suggest the dangers of memory recall in eyewitness testimonies (e.g. Loftus, 1979).


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