impact factors; panic buying; REF; well-being psychology; and more

We can’t take impact factors as read

With reference to the correspondence between Jerome Carson and Andrew Tolmie (The Psychologist, April 2012) I think it is now time that impact factors are abandoned when it comes to making decisions about an academic’s career, the value of a journal, or the weight of a contribution to the Research Excellence Framework. There are now so many objections to impact factors as a measure that they are rendered useless for these purposes. Below I list nine such evidence-based objections:

I    Not all journals are covered by these databases.
I    Different databases provide different results.
I    Different classes of journals (e.g. science versus social sciences, and particularly those in the arts) are not comparable.
I    The rankings of journals by experts do not always correlate with rankings by impact factors.
I    Authors do not always agree that their most influential papers have the highest impact factors.
I    Most publications in the sciences and social sciences are joint publications: it is not possible to work out the impact factors for each author in jointly authored publications.
I    Journal impact factors are based upon the means of non-normal distributions – and thus they are a psychometric nonsense unless this
is accounted for. It usually isn’t.
I    Measuring impact factors to three decimal places again suggests spurious precision, and again this is nonsense.
I    Measuring impact over a two-year period in all disciplines is a further nonsense – and, while improvements in this respect are achieved by five-year impact factors, these five-year ones are still subject to the criticisms of the two-year ones raised above.

There are more objections, but let these suffice for the present. Psychologists on promotion/ appointments committees should be ashamed of themselves if they allow themselves and other members of the committee to take impact factors as read.

Professor James Hartley
Keele University 


Social norms and alcohol consumption

As someone who works in the social norms field I noted with interest several references to the social norms approach to behaviour change in the April 2012 edition of The Psychologist. The first of these was the Behavioural Insight Team’s report on ways to reduce fraud and debt, and the second was an article by Daniel Regan on brief alcohol interventions. The latter raises the issue of the ‘boomerang effect’, which refers to the possibility that some students may increase their alcohol consumption to match what (as a result of a social norms intervention) they see to be the norm for their campus. Mr Regan comments that this issue merits further attention.

With the increasing use of the social norms approach in educational settings and elsewhere in Europe, I certainly agree that there needs a fuller understanding of the processes through which social norms interventions operate. However I also think it is worth noting several facts that are relevant to the issues highlighted in the aforementioned article.

Firstly, there is a lack of evidence from the literature that any such boomerang effects have ever actually happened in social norms-based alcohol and drug interventions. Secondly, a competently executed social norms intervention would not in any case advertise the fact that a specific level of drinking was the norm. That is, rather than disseminating a message along the lines of ‘Most students here drink alcohol once a week’ a social norms intervention would state ‘Most students here drink alcohol no more than once a week’, or some variation thereof. This use of phrases such as ‘no more than’ or ‘less than’ communicates to the target population that these norms are an upper limit, not a goal to be aspired to.

The article also raises the issue of alcohol industry funding of social norms programmes. Alcohol industry funding of substance misuse research is indeed an ongoing issue in the field. In addition, the nature of social norms interventions does make them especially appealing to the alcohol industry, as the approach is based on focusing on the positive and healthy behaviours of the majority, rather than demonising the whole group because of the unhealthy extremes of the minority. However to address the concerns of the rather nebulous ‘cynics in the audience’ cited by Mr Regan it is important to stress that the article cited from 2004 does refer specifically to American college campuses. It is not representative of current work under way at campuses in Europe, or indeed in the growing number of community-based projects.

On a final note, research in the field suggests that the tendency of young adults to apparently overestimate the alcohol consumption of their peers may in part be fuelled by the media, who when discussing alcohol use in this group often include a stock image of drunken young people – much like the image used in the article in The Psychologist.

Dr John McAlaney
University of Bradford


Supervising assistant psychologists

I was saddened reading the letter  about the supervision of assistant psychologists in the private sector (April 2012). As the NHS/social services and the private sector are required to work in partnership in service delivery, it is important that the private sector is not stereotyped, as there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples in all sectors. As Head of Psychology for Autism Care UK – the leading provider of autism and specialist support services in the UK (see www.autismcareuk.com), I wish to reassure the authors that their concerns, in my experience, are not representative of the private sector as a whole. We are accredited by the National Autistic Society and a recognised provider of services to the NHS and social services.

Candidates for assistant psychologist posts should study the job description and check before or at interview, that the post is not masquerading as a replacement for qualified clinical psychology input. Assistant psychologists working with us are not only formally supervised weekly but also work with the supervisor in assessment, training, therapy, consultancy, even though I work part-time only. They are generously funded to attend CPD events in spite of the economic situation (see Grant, 2011 for an example) to ensure their development and provide up-to-date service provision. They do not have to remind people of their status as this is clearly communicated to the other staff on induction and misperceptions corrected.

Private organisations cannot be compelled to follow BPS guidelines, but they would be wise to follow such good practice. Chartered psychologists/registered practitioner psychologists are answerable to the BPS/HPC if they fail to fulfil their supervisory duties or fail to ensure that assistant psychologists work within their range of competence. Our mission statement for people we serve is ‘a life
of happiness, dignity, achievement and inclusion’. Assistant psychologists, the future of our profession, also deserve no less.
Dr Waseem Alladin
Autism Care UK

Grant, P. (2011, November). Practise what you preach! CBT Today [Magazine of the BABBCP], p.23.


A well-being niche to tap into?

The landscape of the psychology profession is changing drastically. The health and the well-being of the nation is also changing very quickly. Many people are seriously depressed and anxious, and I think we offer very good services for these individuals.

But what about people who need help to sleep well, live with chronic pain, lose weight or stop smoking? With most of these issues there is frequently an underlying issue or anxiety or depression, and they can even be symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, I argue that these issues are ‘industrial health problems’ that need unique attention and that we as psychologists could benefit from specialising in.
What do you do if you want to lose weight? Say you are just a normal person struggling to shed the pounds due to comfort eating or low self esteem? Who would have you as a client? Would it be a trained psychologist? No, you are probably more likely to go to see the local hypnotherapist or even try acupuncture.

I am not knocking the many people with no qualifications in psychology who become ‘Master Hypnotherapists’ (hypnotherapy sadly has absolutely no regulation, by the way). Many of these high street therapists are very caring and very good. I do however, think it is a shame that high-calibre psychology graduates (like one I know, who got a first in Psychology and a distinction in her MSc in Psychology) can end up doing clerical jobs for insurance companies, when they could be tapping into this client base themselves.

Is there a niche here for graduates and psychologists, and
the BPS itself, to tap into? I am sure that many members would embrace the chance to go on courses to get a certificate in sleep psychology or weight loss psychology, for example. Most importantly, I believe that well-being psychology could eventually be an area of specialisation in its own right.

To get the ball rolling, I would like to ask people what they think of well-being psychology becoming a recognised specialism and whether they might be interested in working more closely with the psychology of smoking cessation, weight loss, sleep or chronic pain. I am passionate about what I do and would help this field to grow with pleasure.

I am happy to lead the discussion and would welcome readers’ e-mails. If there is enough interest, I would be happy to collaborate with the BPS to establish more CPD for people interested in working in the field  – it may just be workshops initially, but there may end up being accredited MSc courses that train people up to work in this area.

Amy McClelland
Independent Psychologist
[email protected]


Guest Column – The real world
What did you do in the Great Tanker Strike? As soon as Francis Maude told you not to panic, did you go out and immediately panic? Did you fill your car and everything else you could with petrol? Certainly the media suggested that there was ‘pandemonium at the pumps’ and that the public response had created a problem that wasn’t there. From mad mobs last August to a panicky public in March, doesn’t this just demonstrate the irrationality of the masses?

Well no, it doesn’t. If anything, it demonstrates just the opposite.
First of all, as Hardin argued in a famous Science article in 1968, where people pursue unbridled individual self-interest they will destroy collective resources – what he called ‘the tragedy of the commons’. By contrast, as a wealth of recent research has shown, when people think of themselves on a collective level, then they characteristically help each other, support each other and coordinate their behaviour with others. Whereas I might moderate my appetites for the sake of ‘us’ I am less likely to do it for ‘you’.

In short, shortages of petrol and other communal resources are due to too little group psychology, not too much. In this respect the government intervention was far from helpful. Among many things one might say about Francis Maude’s advice, it was notable for being posed entirely at people as individuals: it was about ‘you’ not ‘we’, it was about personal need not communal priorities, it sought to influence behaviour by reference to individual interests not to social norms. It set neighbour against neighbour rather than bringing them together. It implied that if you don’t buy up petrol it will soon be sitting in next door’s garage…And that raises a second point. In the context of all that was said, what people then actually did could hardly be characterised as ‘panic’ in the sense of an emotional and thoughtless reflex. If you believe that everyone else is going to do something irrational (like buy petrol even when they don’t need to), then it makes perfect sense for you to do likewise. If there is to be a long queue at the pumps, you cannot afford to be last. So, joining the queue is not an emotional response or a wild impulse; it is a perfectly sensible calculation. As so often, what affects our behaviour is less what we think ourselves (there is no crisis) than what we think others think (they all think there is a crisis). It could be that our belief concerning others’ thoughts is wrong, but it is not irrational.

That then raises the question of how we find out about other minds. Well certainly, in interpersonal interaction and in small groups we may glean information from these others themselves. But when it comes to larger communities such as one’s town or even nation (what Benedict Anderson called an ‘imagined community’) we are dependent on what leaders tell us and what the media show us. As far as the media are concerned, a crisis always demands more space than ordinary life, a petrol station with long queues is interesting whereas a petrol station without is not. And so there is an ‘availability bias’ that makes the rush to the pumps seem more prevalent than it actually is. When incompetent politicians reinforce the same perception, the problem deepens.

But when we layer on top a widespread cultural belief in collective irrationality and mass panic then you have the perfect storm.

So certainly, let’s point a finger at the media. Let’s point a finger at the government. But let us also look to ourselves as peddlers of beliefs that create the very phenomena they purport merely to describe. 

Steve Reicher is at the University of St Andrews. Alex Haslam is at the University of Exeter. Share your views on this and other ‘real world’ psychological issues – e-mail [email protected].
An archive of columns can be found at www.bbcprisonstudy.org.uk


Support for social anxiety

As someone who suffered from social anxiety during my undergraduate and postgraduate student years, and is now involved in university teaching, I read Phil Topham and Graham Russell’s article about social anxiety in higher education (April 2012) with interest. I found the discussion on barriers to identification and management in students of social anxiety, something that could mitigate its impact on student learning and quality of life, particularly interesting. I also think the distinction between pedagogic and psychological/ therapeutic needs of the student is a useful one.

I agree with the authors that time spent at university can be particularly challenging for students with social anxiety issues. It certainly fits with my experience that, whilst some staff can be very understanding and helpful, others are not, either through not recognising the problem, or through viewing it as some kind of irrevocable character flaw.

A student’s time at university represents a good opportunity for them to get help to solve these problems, so that they do not blight their later life and impact on their future success and opportunities, and it is important that this opportunity is not missed.

I think a suitable approach would involve coordinated efforts between teaching staff and university counselling services, working together with the student to develop a suitable programme to support their well-being and learning. However, I think there are many barriers to overcome.

The ratio of staff to students at undergraduate level presents a challenge; and despite attempts to address this, it is still the case that students can remain fairly anonymous and can go off the radar if they get into difficulties. Non-attendance at lectures and seminars can easily be put down to laziness or reflecting aspects of the ‘student lifestyle’.

Ideally, I feel that university teaching staff should also receive training to help them identify students with social anxiety, and to address some of the misperceptions that they might hold about social anxiety, as well as to manage their own emotional reactions to dealing with these students, which at times may include frustration and anger. Working with a student with social anxiety difficulties is actually something that involves considerable skill and perseverance on the part of staff – but can ultimatelyI imagine be very rewarding.

I was lucky that I had an excellent supervisor for my PhD who was able to strike that delicate balance between supporting and pushing me without pushing me too hard, always retaining great patience. I now hold a Research Associate post at the University of Manchester contributing to a programme of work that aims to help primary care patients with depression and long-term physical conditions. It would be great to know that many more students would have
the benefit of such support.

Dr Charlotte Garrett
University of Manchester


Dr Lynne Millward (1962–2012)

With great sadness we have to report the death of Dr Lynne Millward who died in March after a very short battle with cancer. Lynne, a Reader in psychology, joined the University of Surrey in 1993 initially as a research fellow before taking up a lectureship in October of that year. She had previously worked as an occupational psychologist for Walpole Ltd after having taken her PhD at Kent and BA at Exeter.

One of her first tasks was working with Dr Peter Wood to set up Surrey’s MSc in Occupational and Organisational Psychology which became a very popular course and is still going strong nearly 20 years later. In recent years she took over as Course Director for the undergraduate psychology degree injecting new energy into the course and steering it through a major restructuring. Lynne produced a body of research on, among other things the nature of the ‘psychological contract’ at work and returning to work after childbirth.

She authored a number of textbooks including the popular Understanding Occupational and Organisational Psychology (Sage) and was a regular contributor of chapters to other people’s books. However, it is for her relationship with colleagues and students that she will be most remembered. She was extremely generous with her time and support and prioritised the students making sure that they were able to grow and develop and that they had a good experience of university; many even receivede-mails late into the evening to answer their questions and deal with their worries. Lynne often did qualitative social research, and these students’ comments say more about her than we can:

‘She was a huge part of my university career and we frequently
met up to discuss both academic and personal issues. She was not just a member of staff to me, but a friend...  Lynne was an amazing woman, whom I came to love dearly.’

‘Lynne was held in very high regard not only by our year group,
but by everyone that I knew who had the pleasure of meeting her.’

Lynne was a great colleague who committed herself fully to everything she did and could be called upon to do anything. She was also great fun, enthusiastic about life and had an energy that was infectious. She was a single parent and leaves behind three children, Oli, Darcy and Oscar.

She is very much missed by colleagues and students alike.
Professor Chris Fife-Schaw
University of Surrey


Improving expert witness reports

Professor Jane Ireland’s study Evaluating Expert Witness Psychological Reports: Exploring Quality (see tinyurl.com/bn2o99c) aimed to assess the quality of psychological assessments presented to the Family Courts. The author concluded that one fifth of the psychologists were not qualified to provide an opinion. She raised concern about expert witnesses not maintaining a clinical practice and about the choice of methods and quality of the writing. For example, 29 per cent of reports were considered to present insufficient facts for the opinions given.

Efforts to improve the quality of evidence presented to the courts are to be welcomed. In an American study on common errors in forensic reports, similar results to Professor Ireland’s were found, with 56 per cent of 62 reports from qualified professionals containing opinions without sufficient explanation (Grisso, 2010).

It seems unlikely, therefore that simple checks for qualifications are sufficient to guarantee high-quality reports. Other measures are needed.

Many of Professor Ireland’s recommendations are sensible and would, if implemented, be a good impetus for improving quality. Peer reviews of reports would be an excellent way of building in quality control; so would regular feedback from solicitors and judges. Education for the judiciary and for experts is another key recommendation. Other measures such as funding research into the scientific bases for forensic methods and developing speciality tools have been proposed by Heilbrun and Brooks (2010).

Professor Ireland makes two large assumptions about how to improve the quality of expert reports. The first is that the expert should be ‘engaging in work other than assessment’. However, she has not carried out a comparative study of reports by psychologists who work full time in court assessment with those who maintain their practice in other areas, so we do not know if there would be any differences in the quality of the reports from these two groups.

Furthermore, her assumption is somewhat illogical. Skills in one area of practice do not translate into skills in a different area. For example, providing cognitive behaviour therapy for agoraphobia does not enable one to do IQ testing. Whilst I would agree that if you are going to make treatment recommendations, it helps to have some experience of providing treatment, I do not think that a requirement for all psychologists who provide expert witness services to offer other clinical services as well would improve the quality of expert witness reports. What is far more likely to improve the quality of these reports is more recognition of the value of good assessment skills in their own right, as a specialist area of practice.

The second assumption is that psychologists who ‘continue to hold contracts with relevant health, government or educational bodies’ are more likely to remain up to date. To make such a statement, Professor Ireland would need to compare the continuing professional development activities of psychologists with such contracts with those who do not have such contracts. No such data is contained in her report. It is ironic to see that she has given herself permission to reach this conclusion based on no data at all, when she is criticising other psychologists for the same issue of reaching unfounded conclusions in their expert reports.

Dr Kari Carstairs

Grisso, T. (2010). Guidance for improving forensic reports: A review of common errors. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 2.  Available at http://web.me.com/gregdeclue/Site/Forensic_Training_and_Education_files/...
Heilbrun, K. & Brooks, S. (2010). Forensic psychology and forensic science: A proposed agenda for the next decade. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 16, 219–253.

Guest Column  – Survival guide
In psychology departments up and down the country, there is a sense of presentiment. We hear the sound of distant thundering hooves. The Research Excellence Framework is coming. Just when we’ve got used to the RAE, everything is changing. Because with the REF comes Impact Assessment. Under the new framework, Impact will count for 20 per cent of an institution’s score, with Output counting for 65 per cent, and Environment 15 per cent.

The definition of Impact is surprisingly narrow. For instance,
my blogging has led to contacts with policymakers, journalists, and academics in other areas, with invitations to write for a much wider audience than is typically reached by academic journals. This, however, does not count as Impact, because I can’t trace a path from a specific piece of published research to an impact on policy. My mainstream research that has led to the development of language assessments is more promising, but there is concern as to how I am to produce hard evidence of economic or social benefit.

My main objection to the impact agenda is, however, more prosaic. I am concerned at the amount of time that will be invested in preparing impact case studies, and the increases in number of administrators that this entails. In my department, several people have already put time into producing draft case studies, which have then been picked over by a group of top academics. I’m sure Oxford is not unusual in this regard: give academics a task such as this and they will devote considerable brainpower and creativity to making the best possible case. We have two more years to go. How many more professor-hours will be expended on Impact case studies?

HEFCE has anticipated such objections and had an independent evaluation of the pilot studies. This included an evaluation of the burden on academic and administrative staff, which found: ‘At the most general level, it took an average of 57 staff-days for an institution to coordinate and prepare a full submission.’ However, this statement was qualified by acknowledgement of the huge range, both in amount of time given to the pilots, and number of case studies included. The average amount of effort per case study for those producing ten or fewer cases was 5.9 staff-days, dropping to 2.7 staff-days for those producing more than ten. One conclusion was telling: ‘…people were settling to the idea that there needed to be a strong and substantial contribution by senior research administrators, and their support staff, to minimise the burden on key academic staff.’ UCL recently advertised for three editorial consultants on a salary of £32,055–£38,744 per annum to work on their REF impact statements.

Another conclusion of the report is that people doing the impact case studies found it worthwhile, and felt the time spent was justified by the benefits. A somewhat cynical view is indicated by those who reported: ‘A much better sense of what will be required in order to detail the nature and extent of research impacts, and how to avoid at least some of the potential pitfalls in preparing submissions’. In other words, you will be ahead of the game when the real exercise takes place for the REF.

I suggest that those who are on REF panels should do their own private rankings of higher education institutions and put them in a sealed envelope now. After the REF results are announced, they can compare the outcome with their predictions. Then we will be able to see whether the huge amounts of time and money spent on this exercise have been worthwhile.

Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, blogging at http://deevybee.blogspot.com. This column aims to prompt debate surrounding surviving and thriving in academia and research.

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