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Appalachians Pride


A very short one, but here’s a great example of applied sociolinguistics, courtesy of Kirk Hazen’s West Virginia Dialect Project!

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Categories: Uncategorized

Academia and citations


A colleague of mine on Facebook just shared this interesting link about citation practices in academia. The basic gist of it is that although a ton of articles are published annually, very few of them are cited. And even if an article is cited, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually been read. This means that the vast majority of articles go unheeded (and consequently uncited). Taken together, the article then argues that:

[The impacts] of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are miniscule.

In defense of these claims, the article links to a paper by Larivière and Gingras which looks at the proportion of papers cited once between 1900-2007, as well as a few other measures of citation concentration. With specific reference to Humanities, the authors make the following point:

The very low percentage of articles cited at least once may be a reflection of the tendency of humanities researchers to cite books instead of articles. All in all, these data strongly show that, in all fields except HUM, fewer and fewer of the published papers go unnoticed and uncited and, consequently, science is increasingly drawing on the stock of published papers.

So…. in all other fields the authors look at (Natural Sciences and Engineering, Medicine, and Social Sciences), an increasing publications are being cited at least once and citations are expanding out beyond a narrow group of papers. This will probably get only better since the landscape of dissemination has changed quite considerably in the timeframe the authors look at (1900-2007). Even in the past eight years, a whole bunch of resources have emerged which make it even easier to share one’s work. For example, the cut-off of 2007 is a few years before social media sites like academia.edu (2008) and orcid.org (2012) were published, before social bibliographic programes like Mendeley (2008) came along, and just on the cusp of resources like Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and Zotero (2006).

To get back to the results, the fact that the LSE blog has taken only one wee bit of the study and ignored the more general picture of increasing citation counts in other fields is a bit odd, especially when the authors of the paper come to the conclusion that:

Though many factors certainly contribute to the observed trends, two things are clear: researchers are not increasingly relying on recent science, nor are citations limited to fewer papers or journals (my emphasis).

I always tell my students to make sure that their evidence points in the same direction as the claims they’re making. Just sayin’. Although perhaps to be fair, the blog does say “82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once.” That said, this point kind of overlooks the fact that citations practices are a bit different in this field compared with, say, sciences. In humanities (I’m reliably informed by literature colleagues) the book is king; journal articles are seen as a bit of a sideshow really. This gets a bit frustrating given that within sociolinguistics, articles are pretty important. But anyway, a more relevant point here is that even if journal articles in the humanities aren’t cited, that doesn’t mean that the research in them isn’t covered elsewhere (in a book, for example). The research gets out there, but in a different format.

Anyway, moving on. The LSE blog then makes the (startlingly bold) claim that:

Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioner’s decision-making. However, it is widely acknowledged practitioners rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policy-maker, or senior business leader who ever reads any peer-reviewed papers, even in recognized journals like Nature, Science or The Lancet.

I’m sure that many academics do actually want to influence decision-making. But I’m perhaps a bit more skeptical of the last claim that research articles definitely aren’t read by policy makers etc (again, I tell my students to avoid subjective reporting as objective fact). Of course, it’s an easy argument to make that work put behind pay walls limits access (as the LSE blog does and as I do in my recent chapter on some of these issues), but with the Open Access movement, pre-print publication and so on, the barriers to accessing research outputs are slowly being lowered. Add to that the increasing social media presence many academics are taking on (see my upcoming chapter for details), there are certainly many more avenues for potential impact.

To address the issue of ‘low dissemination count’, the blog calls for ‘brevity’ in research outreach, either in summary papers or press releases through the media. In more detail:

No decision-maker would ever ask for summaries regarding publications and discussions in academic journals. If academics want to have impact on policy makers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has never been easy for scholars. This in spite of the fact that media firms have developed many innovative business models to help scholars reach out.

I think this is dangerous for a couple of reasons. ‘Brevity’ gets rid of a lot of the detail that’s important in academic research, with its conditions and caveats. What you gain in ‘accessibility’ you (potentially) lose in rigour and robustness. The media is, for all its benefits, an unreliable source of dissemination and one where academics have very little control over the final product. Why on earth would a policy maker want to rely on a journalist’s interpretation of a piece of research that said journalist probably knocked up in an hour or so (just to make a deadline mind)?

But quite why its academics’ responsibility to do all the leg work is kind of beyond me. Surely those making decisions, decisions which will affect peoples’ lives, have a responsibility to have all the facts at hand so they can make informed decisions? Do we want to be half-arsing summaries of our research by just going for the ‘juicy details’ to satisfy some policy-wig who has the attention span of a hyper-active hamster? I’m not sure we do…

Moreover, who is to say that one’s research will even end up influencing policy? Only research which aligns with the priorities is likely to be taken up (essentially, research which helps the policy maker spin support their story). Can you imagine a piece of research commissioned by the Government which goes against their plans having an effect of changing public policy?

The last point in the article that I do (kind of) agree with is the need to reassess scholars’ performance. As Andrew Pettigrew has argued several times, adopting a ‘portfolio’ model of research activity could be a way to go. So instead of just focusing on published journal articles, things like scholars’ effect on policy implementation and design, contribution to public debates etc should form part of evaluating scholarly contribution. But such evaluation and measurement makes me uncomfortable, since it sets fairly arbitrary standards and ultimately creates a culture of distrust within academia. And what if an academic doesn’t do this kind of sexy, flavour of the month work? That should be ok. Universities should value knowledge of whatever stripe, not simply prioritise research which speaks to the most current funding call.

This all might seem a very down in the dumps kind of post, but it needed be. We now have ever more tools at our disposal to wrest control back and communicate our research on our terms, and we need to remember that. Perhaps more important, we need to get our voices out there and contribute to ongoing discussions about knowledge¹. We may be ignored, but better to speak up and be ignored than stay silent and remove all possibility of being heard.

The Social Linguist

1. Although I freely admit this may be a conversational dead end – all the moaning in the world by academics about RAE/REF didn’t change anything…

Media treatment of Birmingham English changing?

September 23, 2014 1 comment

As the new series of the Birmingham-based drama Peaky Blinders quickly approaches, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about Birmingham English. Historically, this variety has been quite hard done by, variously accused of being slow, dim-witted, and intellectually lacking. Given that Birmingham English is an urban variety, such attitudes are not especially surprising, and much of the perception studies out there have confirmed that B.E. is a very poorly received variety, so much so that the BBC Voices project rated the Birmingham English dead last for social attractiveness (out of 34 varieties!).

So you can imagine my surprise this morning when I read a BBC article about B.E. which said:

As Cillian Murphy dropped his soft Irish lilt for Tommy Shelby’s understated Brummie, he demonstrated that the accent could be serious, subtle and spoken by sharp-minded people.

I’m not suggesting that this quote represents a whole-sale shift in attitudes towards B.E., but if you subscribe to the notion that the media impacts and shapes our attitudes, then it’s hard to see it as anything but a small step in the right direction.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized

How do you use social media in your research?

April 29, 2014 2 comments

/shiftsaboutnervously

So…. This blog thing… Um… Wow, has it really been four months since I last updated? Eek. That’s eh… that’s not so good. Wow.

I know I keep on saying that I should get back on the wagon with the blog, and I have had a few bits and pieces I’ve wanted to write about, but it’s been hard finding time, especially during the semester. Beyond teaching (oh, and a recent promotion!), there’s also been lots of upheaval outside of university (getting engaged, buying a house, having knee surgery etc etc), all of which has been a bit of a major distraction from regular updates.

In any event, I do actually have something I wanted to write about today and I figured that while I’m laid up at home recovering from my op (nothing serious; a torn meniscus and chrodroplasty, taken care of in day surgery), I could use the time productively in my research. Hurrah!

I think I’ve said before on the blog that I’m currently working on a volume (with Dave Sayers, Sheffield Hallam University) about the application of sociolinguistic research outside of academia. We think it’s a pretty big area of research that’s not really been talked about too much over the years, and with the importance of ‘impact’ ever rising within funding councils, we’re looking to show how sociolinguistics can be leveraged and applied beyond the immediate university context.

My chapter focuses on the use of social and traditional media in the reporting of sociolinguistic research and the advantages and disadvantaged each method has. But I’m also interested in finding out about how sociolinguists have used social media in their research. So if you’re a (ir)regular user of Facebook, Twitter, forums, personal research blogs, research blogs you’ve made for a funder, or any other form of social media, I’m hoping you might be able to take the time to answer a few questions:

  1. What forms of social media do you use in your research (Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc)?
  2. How useful has social media been to you?
  3. What have been the primary functions you’ve used social media for (research findings, general language discussion etc)?
  4. How have funders responded to your use of social media?
  5. How effective has social media been in facilitating knowledge dissemination?
  6. How effective has social media been in developing stakeholder/end user/general public engagement?
  7. Anything else you’d like to add about social media?

Ideally, I’d like to examine in my chapter not only the pros and cons of traditional/social media, but also how it’s actually been used by sociolinguists, as a kind of ‘how to’. Feel free to put your comments down below, or alternatively, fire off an email to robert.lawson AT bcu.ac.uk

The Social Linguist

DUM DUM DUM!!!!! IT’S HERE!!!!

January 28, 2014 2 comments

A *long* time ago, I touted the idea of a new edited volume about new sociolinguistic research in Scotland. It was partly an idea in response to the fact that it was back in 2003 (over ten years ago now) that the last edited volume about language use in Scotland had been published, and in the interim, there had been an awful lot of work that had been published about language in this (that?) part of the world.

After some mucking around with EUP, I submitted the proposal to Palgrave Macmillan and they liked it so much they gave me a contract. So with a contract, a set of contributors and a bunch of ideas in mind, everything all of a sudden seemed to be going quite smoothly after a fairly rocky start. During my year in Pittsburgh, I was able to spend a good amount of time focused on getting the volume finished, and along with help from a bunch of reviewers and my girlfriend Rebecca (who proof read every single chapter for me. Twice.), I was able to get the book finished and sent into Palgrave around April last year. After that, there was a flurry of correcting proofs (bizarrely, the copy editor changed all the semi-colons to commas, some of which had to be semi-colons in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct…), doing the marketing material, checking final versions of the chapters, checking the index was correct, and all sorts of miscellaneous bits and pieces you overlook when thinking about what’s involved in getting an edited volume finished, I received an email saying that everything was all done and dusted and that the final version would be at my house within the next two days.

And lo and behold, the final product is here!

ImageFifteen glorious chapters! 336 pages of awesomeness! A whole 5.5×8.75×1 (inches) of knowledge ready to be dropped! Pictures! Maps! Graphs! Words! Commas! It’s all here and it’s all fantastic.

It’s now available to buy via Amazon (hardback – £55) or Palgrave (hardback – £70), and hopefully if it does well enough, it’ll come out in paperback and come down to a bit more of an affordable price.

But because I have a bunch of author copies that I don’t need, I’ll be giving away a copy to three random people who either ‘like’ or ‘share’ this post on facebook, twitter or wordpress. Free books are always a good thing!

Obviously, a project like this isn’t just the culmination of one person’s efforts, so I’d like to take the opportunity to publicly thank all the contributors who wrote a chapter, all the reviewers who gave helpful feedback on the chapters, Palgrave (and especially Olivia Middleton, Nicola Lennon and Philip Tye) for giving me the opportunity to publish this project, all the people in Pittsburgh who were supportive as the book was coming close to completion, and particularly my girlfriend Rebecca, who was unwavering in her support and love through all the tribulations writing and editing brings.

The Social Linguist

P.S. Thanks again to Rebecca for proof-reading my blog post and finding at least two mistakes on her first read through…

Categories: Uncategorized

Weetos Faux Pas

December 22, 2012 1 comment

A few days ago, Weetabix decided to release updated packaging for their Weetos cereal. What they ended up doing verged on (apparently unintended) comedy gold …

Weetos-BigBaws

As you can see, the idea Weetabix was going for was to use cartoon characters to embody a range of positive qualities that the characters got by eating Weetos. So we have Buck Wild, Jean Pa Pow and… Big Baws. Now, this might not have caused a fuss in most places in the UK, but it did in Scotland because ‘baws’ means ‘testicles’ (colloquially, ‘balls’). It’s ‘baws’ because of a historical process of what’s known as L-vocalisation led to the /l/ being weakened and ultimately elided. It appears in a bunch of Scots words like fu’ (‘full’), wa’ (‘wall’) and ca’ (call), and it’s generally a very distinctive Scots feature (if you read Oor Wullie, you’ll see lots of it. Here, for example, he says ‘forgotten a’ aboot this’ in the seventh panel.). L-vocalisation tends to appear with back vowels rather than front vowels (although it does seem to be spreading in words like milk and bible).

Now Weetabix’s defence was that ‘Big Baws’ was supposed to be read as ‘Big Boss’, but I don’t think that explanation holds much water, for the following reason. Generally, the pronunciation of plural nouns marked with <s> varies depending on whether the segment preceding -s is voiced or voiceless. For example, the -s at the end of claps is pronounced [s] but it’s pronounced [z] at the end of clubs. Same with flags and flaps or capes and cabs. This is because the <s> ‘takes on’ the voicing of the preceding segement. If the segment is voiceless, the <s> will be voiceless as well. With words that end in <s> that are not plurals (like boss, floss, moss etc), however, generally these have [s], not [z].

In a word like ‘baws’, we have [w] (a voiced labio-velar approximant), which would suggest that the following <s> should also be voiced (going by the above reasoning). In that case, the pronunciation should be [bɔz], not [bɔs]. But <w> only appears in the orthography, not in the pronunciation, so then maybe Weetabix thought that since ‘baws’ ends in <s> but is preceded like a vowel (like moss and floss etc), it should be voiceless [s] (as you can see, I’m giving Weetabix a lot of credit for their phonological theory work here). In that case, ‘baws’ would be pronounced [bɔs], and the ‘baws~boss’ link becomes clear, despite the differences in orthography.

But alas, we have words like caws and saws and gnaws and yaws and draws and, well, you get the idea. All of these words have [z] at the end. Going by simple analogy, then, someone at Weetabix should have realised that the <s> in baws should be pronounced [z] and not [s] and that they could never get to [bɔs] by spelling it <baws>.

My theory is that they knew what ‘baws’ meant in Scotland and just decided to run with it, in the hope that the amount of publicity they would receive from the fallout would be worth the short term disadvantages (and to date, ‘weetos big baws’ yields over 40,000 hits on Google. Not a great amount, but when that’s nearly 25% of the hits for just ‘weetos’, it’s a sizable amount).

You’d have to say that Weetabix has big baws indeed….

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized

Putting Scottish accents in movies: A Brave step?


A few days ago, I was approached by The Sun to comment on the use of the word pish in the new Pixar movie Brave (I’ve no idea if the story made it to press or not…). Anyway, if you’ve missed this, Brave is a fairytale story set in medieval Scotland and most of the voice actors are, quite surprisingly, Scottish. Apparently, however, using Scottish accents in a movie is quite a bold move (going by the fact that Trainspotting was famously subtitled for non-Scots audiences), and there has been a bit of a buzz going around about this. The Guardian, for example, had a bit to say about the use of Scots in the movie, but my favourite quote had to be from the director Mark Andrews who said:

When people speak in a Scottish accent, it comes very specifically out of the mouth

Seriously, where else would you expect it to come out of?? Ok, so I know that sometimes Scots are accused of taking out of their backsides, but that’s besides the point…

I have to say, though, that while it’s great that a whole (American) movie is being done using Scottish accents, I can’t help the niggling feeling that it’s drawing on a romanticised notion of Scotland as the land of strong men and bonny lassies (something I’ve already written about here), and I worry about how far it’s simply going to entrench these views in a new generation of movie-goers. Even from the trailer, there were about half a dozen cultural cliches I saw that made me wince.

But I think that the movie demonstrates just how powerful the social meaning of accents can be. The BBC wrote about this a while ago in an article about fantasy movies using English accents and it’s obvious that Hollywood draws on particular cultural ideologies which are indexed by specific varieties. In a brilliant send up of this, Eddie Izzard did a famous sketch of Darth Vader with an English accent, which shows just how ridiculous Star Wars would have been without James Earl Jones.

-The Social Linguist