The view from outside the hole looking back in …

In the darkness of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote “If you are going through hell, keep going…”

Sunday 15th November, 2020

After one of my conference or journal papers is accepted for publication, I take an evening or two to tidy up all my research notes and bind them into a folder. Perhaps it is for posterity: I don’t know. Either way, most of my research notes are hand-written. I love the feel of paper, my pens, pencils and steel rulers.

This evening was more like therapy, perhaps a sort of closure.

This journal paper was written from a place in my doctoral journey that was darker and lonelier than anything I have ever experienced before. The three volumes of notes that chronicle this time are the story of what it was like to get lost and know that you were lost. It is a view from outside the hole looking back in …

The paper started as the literature review that drove my PGR9 Confirmation of Candidature. That is an examination where a doctoral student’s research plan is examined and approved if it meets the required standards. A doctoral student then becomes a doctoral candidate. The research and writing for this paper commenced on 10th May 2017, a few months before I went to Sweden. Somewhere along the way, it turned into a Systematic Mapping Study, possibly because that type of literature review somehow became “fashionable”. It then drifted off to finally become something that was “informed by a Systematic Mapping Study..” when it was first submitted to the Journal of Systems and Software in November 2018. I was getting lost …

On March 14th 2019, we received a sound rejection by the editor and reviewers. They questioned so many aspects of the paper, but their feedback was the tongue-lashing I needed. The core problem I already knew I had was that the study was reporting nothing of interest. The field of fault diagnostics is so diverse that it is almost impossible to discern trends or patterns there. That is not what a mapping study is supposed to report; we had nothing of significance. I had disagreed with the decision to support our analysis with ISO 25010 Quality Attributes, but as a student under supervision, I went along with the advice I received.

During the re-write after the rejection, which took over a year, I fought my way back out of the hole. I pushed hard for the evaluation this time to be based on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level categories, something that made much more sense to me. This was my research and I learnt how to own it and push back graciously. I had also loathed the Elsevier LaTeX template we were given by the editors for for the draft version. It has a horrible layout and awful citation formats that even my co-author Professor Stephen MacDonell queried. So, I pushed through harder and found a much better Elsevier template, a more beautiful document for my tired eyes.

Exactly a year to the day after the first submission, we submitted again on 19th November 2019. You can see emails from Roopak and Stephen in these volumes, the frustration they felt with me and how much the writing was holding back other important research. Roopak stood by me, always creative. Stephen remained ever-encouraging, often helping to identify and tame the “elephant in the room” that lay at the core of the paper’s problems.

The acceptance of the paper by the editors on 25th March 2020 with only minor revisions was to break this drought. Looking at the final published version you can see how beautiful the paper looks. As I write this on 15th November 2020, the paper has been downloaded and read 53 times. That is such an encouragement.

Would I write a literature review like this again? No, never. If I did, it would have to be done totally differently. I love the background literature reading and writing I craft for my journal and conference papers, but would I ever do a survey paper like this again? I hope not.

I came to university to write about the things I was learning to build, to report the original (and hopefully novel ) research we were doing. I found the task of surveying the research of others to be soul-destroying, day-and-night, month after month. Mapping all their minutiae, counting their often tenuous trends, that’s not what I signed up for. Without my Christian faith, this paper could have driven me down a horrible one-way path that I might not have made my way out of.

My usual cry of “I love this stuff” was silenced for a long time by this work. Outwardly, I kept cheery, still loving the hours of teaching and working alongside all my colleagues and friends at AUT. However inwardly, the writing of this paper killed something precious.

Was it worth it academically? Yes: the literature review is still a rite-of-passage for all doctoral candidates. Is it a good paper now? Yes, it is a contribution to my field that is accepted by my peers, reporting results that I can stand by and defend.

Was it worth it emotionally? Yes: but in future would I ever let one of my students get into such a hole and be so broken for so long? Heaven forbid: definitely not. Was it a fault of my supervisors? No, definitely not because I have to own my own research. This is my journey and I am responsible for how it is walked. They cannot walk this or write this path for me.

Do I love this stuff now? Yes, it is a paper to cherish, a battle fought not well but fought to the end. That quote from Winston Churchill lifted and sustained me so often. During the darkness of World War II, he wrote: “If you are going through hell, keep going…”

So true.. and now I love this stuff again….

The view from the trenches with my faithful Rockweather Crew …

Author: Rockweather

I am a writer, musician, teacher, and researcher at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in Auckland, New Zealand.

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