January 30 2019

Creating a supportive research culture

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. Since joining the Middlesex University Business School, Anne-Wil has been working with colleagues to foster a more supportive and collaborative research culture. Here, she outlines some of the strategies that have proven successful.

After spending thirteen years in Australia at the University of Melbourne as PhD director, Assistant Dean RHD and Associate Dean Research, I was looking for a new challenge. Rather than join another traditional research university, I wanted to work somewhere where I felt I could make a real difference. Middlesex University Business School in London fit the bill perfectly, with its strong focus on research that matters – both to society and to its students – and a vision that focuses squarely on “transforming potential into success.”

Middlesex is a post-1992 university. Hence initially its main focus had been on its teaching mission. However, over the years its research performance continued to grow. In 2014 it was ranked #38 on the REF power ranking for Business & Management in the UK (out of 101 universities). It was the 2nd ranked post-1992, very narrowly pipped by Portsmouth. It also outranked a lot of “red-brick” universities and even a few Russell group universities. Even so, its strong academic staff potential meant that there was considerable scope to improve even further; in 2014 I was therefore appointed to help transform its research potential into success.

Collective research support initiatives

Working closely with Deans Anna Kyprianou and Joshua Castellino, Research Deans Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett and Departmental Research leaders we set out to provide an even more supportive environment for research in the Business School, actively fostering a collaborative rather than a competitive research culture. This didn’t mean spending bucket-loads of money, but rather to develop a range of targeted, but strategic initiatives. In addition to the “standard fare” of research allowances, conference funding, a research leave scheme, departmental research seminars, and departmental newsletters, this included:

  • Research Facilitation Funding: Academics can apply for seed-corn funding (up to £2,500) for developing impact, small research projects, knowledge transfer, and larger funding proposals, as well as feeding research into teaching. To date over fifty projects have been supported.
  • Research Clusters: Support to develop new and existing research groupings within the Business School and across the University to facilitate collaboration in funding applications, research networks, impact, knowledge exchange and published outputs. 
  • Research lunches/coffees/teas: An informal – walk in walk out – monthly platform to discuss anything related to research. Features updates by the Research Dean, Research & Cluster Leaders, and Q&A. Allows academics to get to know colleagues [especially outside their own department] and find research collaborators.
  • Staff development groups: 6-weekly opt-in meetings for five groups of 5-8 academics, with the specific group size and composition varying depending on availability. These meetings are explicitly multi-purpose/­flexible in format. We provide feedback on each other’s draft papers, research ideas, and R&Rs. However, meetings also serve as a forum to meet new colleagues, solicit advice, and have (un)scheduled discussions on any academic topics. Every round is supported by a follow-up email with collated resources related to the topics discussed in the five meetings. This means everyone benefits from the discussions in each of the groups even if they haven’t been able to attend one of the rounds.
  • Research methods skills development: A range of research methods training courses on topics such as action research, multi-dimensional scaling, econometric methods, working with big data. Usually organized by one of the Research Clusters.
  • Wider academic skills development seminars on topics such as Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success, Publishing in Management Education journals and How to ensure your research achieves the impact it deserves.

Individual support for academic career development

These collective events are supplemented with individual career development meetings for junior staff, as well as “on-tap” email support for quick questions and advice on anything related to academic work. From March 2016 onwards, these efforts have been supported by my blog on all things academia, with postings in the following categories: Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Announcements, Classic Papers, Conferences, CYGNA, From my Inbox, Middlesex, Positive Academia, Publish or Perish Tips, Research Focus, and That’s Interesting. In the first three years the blog has seen more than 170 postings, including guest posts by some of my co-authors and Middlesex colleagues.

Taking it to the next level: Writing bootcamp

In 2018, we decided to take to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising a Friday-to-Sunday off-site writing boot camp. This boot camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July with another twenty-three academics.

The feedback provided by the attendees illustrates that the supportive atmosphere in which these events were run was much appreciated. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each other’s papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cutthroat competition!


“I really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and ‘informal’/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-camp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally.”

 “The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia Network

A lot of my female Middlesex colleagues are also participating in CYGNA, a network supporting female academics in the broad area of Business & Management. CYGNA is meeting five times a year at different London-based universities for half-day events, with seminars focusing on academic and personal development as well as plenty of opportunities for networking.

A quick overview of all the topics covered can be found here. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In May 2019 we’ll have our first “branch” meeting in Leeds and we will celebrate our 5th year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp at Middlesex University in September 2019.

A bumper year for international research rankings

Obviously it is impossible to conclusively establish a direct link between investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have dramatically improved their position in the two major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking and the ARWU Shanghai ranking.

Times Higher Education – Success all around

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time three years ago when the list was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in 2017, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in 2018 and to the low 400s of the same band in 2019. We are hoping to rank in the top-400 in the 2020 ranking, which will come out in September 2019.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2019

Likewise, we entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age when it was expanded from 100 to 150 universities in June 2016. Although we have been ranked in the 101-150 band for the last three years, we have moved up within that band every year. It therefore looks like we are on track to be ranked in the top-100 in June 2019. We might even become the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking.

In the 2019 THE ranking, Middlesex also ranked for the first time in no less than three of the four main disciplines that we are active in: Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities and Clinical, Pre-clini­cal & Health, with a world-wide top-300 ranking for the Social Sciences. We also ranked in four of the five specialised subject rankings that THE publishes: Computer Science, Business & Economics, Education, and Psychology, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Law because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology

We are the only post-92, and one of only ten universities in the UK overall, to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting Middlesex’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women’s empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website, harzing.com

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