Episode 5

Published on:

1st Nov 2023

(S6E5) Virtual Cafés, Real Conversations: Findings from our Research Culture Cafés

In our weekly Research Culture Uncovered conversations we are asking what is Research Culture and why does it matter? In this episode of Season 6, Emma Spary discusses how research culture cafes can help institutions better understand their current research culture.

Emma explains how we created an open and inclusive environment where people could share their lived experiences of the research culture at the University of Leeds. How this enabled us to uncover both the positives and the challenges of our culture. She shares some of the main findings, and highlights the impact of these cafes in gathering valuable insights and data that informed the university's approach to enhancing their research culture.

The main points include:

  • Importance of open, honest, and transparent conversations about research culture
  • Focus on both positive aspects and challenges of research culture
  • Generating ideas for improving research culture
  • How research culture cafes work
  • Some of our results and outcomes of the research culture cafes
  • Open sharing of findings to participants and non-participants
  • A direct link between our findings and our ongoing work

All of our episodes can be accessed via the following playlists:

Follow us on twitter: @ResDevLeeds (new episodes are announced here), @OpenResLeeds@ResCultureLeeds 

Connect to us on LinkedIn: @ResearchUncoveredPodcast (new episodes are announced here)

Leeds Research Culture links:



Welcome to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be. You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.

Emma Spary:

Hi, it's Emma, and as a quick intro production, I lead the researcher development and culture team at the University of Leeds. My podcast episodes focus on different aspects of research leadership in research culture, and today I'm going to be talking about an initiative we tried here at Leeds that really helped us to solidify our research culture aims, and one that we're going to continue, as there is still so much more to learn. So I'm going to be talking about our research culture cafes. So let's start at the beginning. Be brave. That was all I needed to hear from our Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. When I first put forward this work, we already knew that research culture was a priority for our institution. But in order for us to understand what our research culture work needed, it was really important for us to get a clear understanding of what our current culture looked like.

Emma Spary:

And we were only going to be able to do that through having open, honest, and transparent conversations with the people experiencing our research culture on a daily basis. And we tried various approaches. We held focus groups, we sent out surveys. And whilst they all gave us small amounts of knowledge, we certainly weren't getting the levels of engagement that we felt we needed. Our surveys in particular were suffering from really low response rates, so we felt we needed a more personal approach to really dig into the information that we needed to inform our approach. So, as I've already said, we knew that research culture was a priority for us, but we didn't know how much of a priority that was going to be. And were we actually trying to improve something that was already great, or were there certain areas of research culture that maybe needed more improving than others? And that's where the cafes came in, our research culture cafes. Now, I'm using the term research culture cafes quite loosely here, because just as we were about to launch them, we did go into lockdown.

Emma Spary:

So our cafes became virtual events, but a bit more on that later. The main aim for us was to create an open, inclusive, and supportive environment where people could come together and share their lived experiences of the culture at the University of Leeds. And in order to do that, we needed to find a format that was going to be easy and reproducible, but also one that allowed us to structure the conversations in a way that provided us with both the positives and the negatives. So I took the format of the welcome trust this was already being used, and I adapted it to help us focus on the questions that we were really interested in. It was also really important that we could show how these discussions were going to result in real change, that they weren't just going to be discussions that would get written up, filed away and forgotten. So I made sure that at each stage of the process, our contributors could see that progress was being made and the input that they were having. So how did the cafes actually work? Well, I've said they needed to be easy and reproducible. So they're an hour long and they focus around three simple questions what are we already doing? Well, what are the challenges we're facing? And importantly, what ideas do we have for change by asking what we're already doing? Well, it's an opportunity to find out where all those small pockets of really good practice are happening and whether or not we can take some of those and build on them across the institution.

Emma Spary:

We already know there's a lot of great stuff out there, we just don't necessarily know where it is. And this was an opportunity for people to come forward and tell us about the great things that they were doing. But we also needed to address the less positive aspects of our culture. If we really want to change the culture that we're working in, then we need to understand all of the ugly sides of it. So how do we ensure we give enough space to raise some of these challenges? But we also didn't want the cafes to become one big open arena for moaning, so they had to be empowering and positive. And that's why we always finish on what ideas do we have to improve our culture. And these can be really simple things that individuals are doing within their own groups or they can be those bigger institutional changes. Now, an hour isn't long, so we make sure the discussions are held in small groups with a maximum of ten people, which means we're often running multiple different groups within the same hour.

Emma Spary:

My facilitators from the team have to be absolutely fantastic because not only do they have to keep track of the conversation, but they're also taking notes in the background and ensuring that everybody gets an opportunity to speak. We do have a few ground rules that we introduce right at the start of the cafes and this is really just to help people understand how they work and also to help guide the conversation and set the tone for these open discussions. The first thing is that the facilitators are there to guide the conversation. They're not part of the conversation. They will often ask follow up questions as point of clarification, but they're certainly not there to raise topics or guide or direct the conversation in one particular direction. We do take notes, a lot of notes, actually, but these are always anonymized and we don't require any form of official registration for the cafes, so people can attend remotely and anonymously if they wish. It's also much easier in an online format for people to turn up with their cameras off. But actually having said that, most people are quite happy to attend with their cameras on to share their views.

Emma Spary:

But we're always clear that none of our notes are attributed in any way. The facilitators are also there to ensure that everybody gets an opportunity to speak and this can be really challenging when you're online. So we also include the opportunity to put things in the chat or to add things to our anonymous padlet, which is open all of the time. We do ask participants to avoid bringing in very personal examples or specific queries that they're dealing with, but we do make the offer that we're happy to continue to have those conversations outside of the cafe session. And finally, we ask participants to respect one another. We are sharing experiences and not everyone is going to agree. So by asking people to respect what they hear and to respect the confidentiality, it helps to create that sharing environment. Now we originally tried to split the 1 hour into three chunks of around 15 minutes for each question.

Emma Spary:

And as you can probably imagine, that didn't go too well. We always find that the most amount of time is spent on question two around the challenges and the issues that we're facing. So we make sure we always start question one as the positive. What is working well? What should we be doing more of so that we don't get drawn straight into the negatives? So, after the cafes had been running for about twelve months, we had so much more data than we ever got through our surveys. And importantly, this data was really informative. It enabled us to see where we were already making progress and where we had examples of good practice. And then we had that whole list of things that we could take forward and we had a really clear picture of where we needed to improve. So all of the findings from the cafe were written up and openly shared, remembering that they are anonymized so that everybody who had been on a cafe could see what was coming out from some of the other events and people who hadn't attended a cafe could see the types of things people were bringing in and the discussions that we were having.

Emma Spary:

All of the findings were written up and then we started to theme them around common areas. And whilst the findings were not entirely surprising, they really did help us to focus on where those priority areas should be. So as I said at the beginning, it was really important to me when I started the cafes that I knew they were going to go somewhere. This wasn't just going to be a report that we handed over to a committee that was never actually acted on. So I'm really pleased that our cafes became a core component of our research culture work. And out of the findings of the cafes, we pulled together our initial five research culture themed areas which were around personal development, reward and recognition, open research and impact, responsible research and innovation, a collegiate and supportive environment, and equity, diversity and inclusion in research. And these themes were used by our interim research culture group to draft a strategic paper to our Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. And in this paper we asked for a dedicated academic lead and we got the creation of our Dean for Research Culture role and it also led to the publishing of our interim research culture statement.

Emma Spary:

So straight away, everyone who had contributed to the cafes could see how their contributions were already starting to make a difference. So I thought it was only fair to share with you some of the findings of our cafes, and I'm sure most of these won't be any surprise to our listeners. Working in research culture, the first thing was around the representation of the roles that we saw. We had such a wide variety of people turning up for the cafes, from postgraduate researchers, early career researchers, through to lecturers and senior academic staff. We had professional service colleagues from the library, IIT research support and some of our faculty research support staff as well. I just pulled out one or two quotes that people gave us in the cafes about the cafes they were actually attending. So one was opportunities like this, where we get to be heard and known that our contributions will be used and valued, are a really great starting point. And another participant said that they'd actually been on several similar discussions run by external facilitators, and if the cafe had been run in that format, they wouldn't have attended.

Emma Spary:

They really liked the fact that it was being run by a university department which said to them that the university was really taking this seriously. So some of the positives that we heard about were around the ten days development for ECRs, our early career researchers, giving them the opportunity to invest in their own professional development, that people felt they had good training and support when they were writing funding applications and acknowledging the interdisciplinary nature of our work. And also the support that they got from our research support colleagues. The doctoral college was highlighted as a space for our postgraduate researchers to gain recognition and celebration of their successes. And there was a feeling that partnership and collaborative working had improved hugely over the last few years. Because we were in the pandemic at the time, people were already seeing benefits to remote working and helping them to get better work life balances. The university's approach to equity, diversity and inclusion was highlighted frequently with a belief that it really mattered and that there was a drive for improvement, and finally, that the knowledge and experience of our professional service staff was being recognized and appreciated more than it had been previously. But it wasn't all positive.

Emma Spary:

And this really wouldn't be our Research Culture Uncovered podcast if I didn't share some of the less positive findings. The first one was the understanding of research culture itself, whether it was something only for academics and researchers. So we have worked really hard to try and show people that everybody involved in the delivery or the support of the delivery of research is crucial to our research culture work communication came up a lot, communication often being absent or very top down and this can lead to unclear mixed messages and also feeds mistrust. People reported hearing things about teams or departments from colleagues in other areas rather than their direct line management. There was a recognition that a lot of the ongoing university internal activities and initiatives were run by volunteers, often driven by one person, so when that person leaves, the initiative stops and they weren't properly recognized or rewarded for their efforts. We also highlighted a lack of good leadership and management which coupled with power imbalances, led to the belief that current line managers or supervisors had the power to make or break your career. The pressure to publish or perish, and how this was a detrimental and often alienating aspect of the wider research culture and that it really did contribute to the negative competitive research environments that people were working in. And finally the lack of progression or promotion in professional service and support roles that we needed to do more to level the playing field.

Emma Spary:

When we asked people for examples of ideas and projects that we could take forward, we were really amazed. The first one was establishing research culture at Leeds, so providing people with more guidance and more direction that would help to improve the research culture and an understanding that culture involves people and that some form of social interaction is needed, it isn't just a written document. So we managed to address that one by creating a research culture community which is hosted in Ms teams and has over 600 members. Everything that we do to support research culture is shared within this team and it's open to anyone to join. There was also an idea to recognize people and reward them for undertaking additional responsibilities to support research culture either through workloads or through the recognition scheme. And this year we did manage to take this one forward and we awarded eleven one off payments to our early career researchers who have been instrumental in joining our research culture groups and helping us to move some of these projects forward as we were signatories to Dora. Could we set a positive example against the wider environment by looking at how we used research metrics for reward and recognition and recruitment and an acknowledgement that publishing pressure is particularly acute at the postdoctoral stage? Can we challenge the assumption that outstanding research is all about getting papers into the top journals and I'm really pleased on this one that we published our Responsible Research Metrics statement and I'll drop a link to all of these in the show notes. And finally, how could we help researchers to create networks across and beyond the university, particularly for our postgraduate researcher community? Could we help them to create a way to engage with each other in a similar way to our early career researcher networks where our postgraduate researchers can come together to discuss their challenges and ideas? And our doctoral college have now set up a postgraduate researcher community, again using Ms teams.

Emma Spary:

But it is a space for all of our postgraduates to come together and share their ideas and have those discussions. Now the cafes are still ongoing, we have tweaked them a little bit. We've tried new things to try and keep people engaged, we've tried theming them around particular topics that align to those five areas we identified. And now we're trying in person cafes with the added sweetener of tea, coffee and cake. But I think it's fair to say we're still learning. Some of the cafes are really well attended and some aren't, but we don't yet have enough data to show us whether or not there's any correlation. So the cafes are going to continue. We currently run six a year with all the dates published in advance so people can see what topics are coming up, they can see whether or not they're being held online or whether they're ones where you can drop in for the cake.

Emma Spary:

But the cafes themselves have started to evolve and it's not necessarily now about us showing where those initial problems are. They've moved on to how we're progressing. Are people starting to see a change in our culture given that we've done quite a lot of work in this area in the last twelve to 18 months? We have our new Dean for Research Culture and we have our Research Culture team and the publication of our Research Culture strategy. But is this actually filtering down to the people that we are hoping to benefit from these initiatives? And are we getting the engagement from those individuals to help us drive our culture? We know that culture can never be driven from the top down and that it involves the collective effort of everybody involved in delivering and supporting research. So we will continue to run our cafes, we will continue to listen and learn, we will continue to put forward ideas to the institution and the sector, and hopefully we will continue to have cake. So for any institutions that are starting this work or wondering about ways to engage their research community, I would say be brave. Try the Research Culture Cafe format, because big change really can start with the very simplest of conversations.


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About the Podcast

Research Culture Uncovered
Changing Research Culture through conversations
At the University of Leeds, we believe that all members of our research community play a crucial role in developing and promoting a positive and inclusive research culture. Across the globe, the urgent need for a better Research Culture in Higher Education is widely accepted – but how do you make it happen? This weekly podcast focuses on our ideas, approaches and learning as we contribute to the University's attempt to create a Research Culture in which everyone can thrive. Whether you undertake, lead, fund or benefit from research - these are the conversations to listen to if you want to explore what a positive Research Culture is and why it matters.

Unless specified in the episode shownotes, Research Culture Uncovered © 2023 by Research Culturosity, University of Leeds is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. This license requires that reusers give credit to the creator. If you remix, adapt, or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms. Some episodes may be licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0, please check before use.

About your hosts

Emma Spary

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I moved into development after several years as an independent researcher and now lead the team providing professional and career development for all researchers and those supporting research. I am passionate about research culture and supporting people. I lead our Concordat implementation work and was part of the national Concordat writing group. I represent Leeds as a member of Researchers14, the N8PDRA group and UKRI’s Alternative Uses Group.

Taryn Bell

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I work as a Researcher Development Adviser at the University of Leeds. My focus is on career development, with a particular focus on supporting funding and fellowships. I previously worked at the University of York as their Fellowship Coordinator, developing and growing the University's community of early career fellows. Get in touch if you'd like to learn more (T.L.Bell@leeds.ac.uk)!

Katie Jones

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I am a Researcher Development and Culture Project Officer at the University of Leeds, where I lead projects within the Researcher Development and Culture Team. My role involves managing projects that enhance the development of researchers and foster a positive research culture across the University and the higher education sector.

Tony Bromley

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I've worked in the area of the development of researchers for 20 years, including at the national and international level. I was lead author of the UK sector researcher development impact framework charged with evaluating the over £20M per year investment of UK research councils in researcher development. I have convened the international Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) conference for a number of years and have published on researcher development evaluation and pedagogy. All the details are on www.tonybromley.com !! Also why not take a look at https://conferences.leeds.ac.uk/reds/

Ged Hall

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I've worked for almost 20 years in researcher development, careers guidance and academic skills development. For the last decade I've focused on the area of research impact. This has included organisational development projects and professional development for individual researchers and groups. I co-authored the Engaged for Impact Strategy and am heavily involved in its implementation, across the University of Leeds, to build a healthy impact culture. For 10 years after my PhD, I was a consultant in the utility sector, which included being broker between academia and my clients.

Ruth Winden

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After many years running my own careers consultancy business I made the transition to researcher development leading our careers provision. My background is in career coaching, facilitation and group-based coaching, and I have a special interest in cohort-based coaching programmes which help researchers manage their careers proactively and transition into any sector and role of their choice.

Nick Sheppard

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I have worked in scholarly communications for over 15 years, currently as Open Research Advisor at the University of Leeds. I am interested in effective dissemination of research through sustainable models of open access, including underlying data, and potential synergies with open education and Open Educational Resources (OER), particularly underlying technology, software and interoperability of systems.