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Supporting early career researchers in ways that count

Sharing perspectives at the Johannesburg Conversazione

The numbers moving from PhDs into a career in academia are shrinking, and the challenges to pursuing a career in research appear to be rising. So how can early career researchers best develop a body of published research, and what can the scholarly community do to better support people as they move into becoming published authors?

This was the theme of the latest ‘Conversazione’ – an evening of discussion between early career researchers from the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and medicine and leading figures from learned societies, universities, research development agencies, publishing, and related industries. One attendee, Michael Taster, PhD student at the University of Sheffield, outlines some of the top talking points and shares his reflections from the event.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the first conversazione to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Drawing on my own research (and also my experiences of the previous conversazione held in London) I was excited to discover how the perspectives of South African-based early career researchers would compare and contrast those based in the UK. In this respect I was not disappointed.

“In many ways the early career researcher experience in the UK and South Africa are not dissimilar”

In the constantly expanding and globalizing world of higher education, the need to stand out and to develop a profile around both oneself as a researcher and one’s research, seems to have become universal. A key part of this process is publishing in appropriate journals and addressing the right audiences.

“There was a common demand from early career researchers at both events for basic information regarding the publication process”

An understanding of the “rules of the game” was seen by all participants to be vital for avoiding simple mistakes that might prevent good research from being published. It is therefore pleasing, to see that academic publishers and learned societies are both increasingly focusing their efforts on demystifying this process by providing useful general advice, such as that featured on the Taylor and Francis Author Services website, but also by providing greater assistance for scholars at the journal level. A good example of the latter being, the Regional Studies Association’s early career mentored paper section, which provides funding and support for early career researchers looking to publish in the association’s open access journal, Regional Studies Regional Science.

“There are very few occasions when early career researchers have the opportunity to meet and share their perspective with publishers, research funders or even journal editors.”

For me, this need for information underscored the importance of events such as these. The ability to see scholarly communications as a dynamic system, rather than simply a series of atomized processes leading towards journal publications, I hope, was a valuable outcome of this process for all of those involved in the conversazione.

“One of the main barriers facing researchers seeking to publish outside of Europe and North America is spatial proximity”

If in some respects this converzaione was similar to its London counterpart, there were also notable differences. Having traveled from my home institution, the University of Sheffield (UK), I was very aware of the sheer distance I had covered to attend this event. This might seem a banal observation, but it reflects the fact that one of the main barriers facing researchers seeking to publish outside of Europe and North America, where the majority of the world’s major academic publishers and journals are situated, is spatial proximity.

“Promoting diversity across the scholarly communication process would be a step towards redressing this imbalance”

Being distant from publishers, conferences, editorial and peer review boards, makes it harder to develop an understanding of the institutional, social and subject norms, or more bluntly those “rules of the game” that underpin academic publishing. It seems that promoting diversity across the scholarly communication process, particularly in journal editorial and peer review boards, would be a step towards redressing this imbalance and encouraging the free flow of this institutional knowledge.

“Another aspect of this divide was made apparent by the different ways early career researchers talked about their own research”

For early career researchers in the UK, there was often a general sense that their research had both a national and international significance that is reflected in their ability to publish in leading journals. In contrast, a recurring theme of the debate in Johannesburg, was a strong sense that African and South African research was denied this quality. Or in other words, writing for the top journals required research to be produced in explicitly western traditions. This perhaps highlights a need and an opportunity for publishers to develop journals that give a legitimate voice to research traditions outside of Europe and North America.

“Divergences between early career researcher experiences seem to stem from specific state relations to research.” 

During the London conversazione much of the debate revolved around the impact of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). Early career researchers often viewed their research through this lens and were concerned with demonstrating the value of their research according to REF criteria. In Johannesburg state sponsored incentives to increase South Africa’s share of global research publications formed the backdrop for a debate that often focused on pathways to publication in top ranked journals. Whereas open access and new research communications practices were frequently raised in London, they appeared to have less resonance in Johannesburg, where traditional journal formats appeared to be a priority.

“Whilst there are many commonalities within global research systems, it is still a very varied regional system.” 

We should therefore be mindful that changes being driven by scholars and publishers in European and North American contexts, could potentially have unintended consequences for those working in different research environments, where quite simply they play by different rules.


Michael Taster is a current PhD research student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. He is the current recipient of the ESRC White Rose DTC Collaborative PhD Studentship from the University of Sheffield and the Regional Studies Association (RSA), which is sponsored by Taylor & Francis. He has an MA in Town and Regional Planning from the University of Sheffield, and undertook a BA and MSt in Classical Archaeology at Oxford University.