What is the Project About?

In Canadian universities, full-time academics contribute to knowledge production by including a research component—often a notional 40%—among their duties. “Doing research” has become an expanded and intensified responsibility in the past few decades. Critical scholars in Canada and elsewhere have raised concerns about the effects of neoliberal policies and contexts on academics pursuing research agendas, as they struggle to adapt to heightened expectations for accountability and productivity associated with an ever-spreading research culture.

The project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 2017–2021, focuses on the experience of leading academic research projects in the social sciences in what we call “challenging times.”  Its overall aim is to explore the academic experience of the social production of research in the current context of Ontario, Canada.

The core of the project consists of semi-structured, qualitative interviews with academics in selected social science fields (geography and sociology) and adjacent professional fields (education and social work) in a varied selection of Ontario universities. To provide a more nuanced view of the research landscape, we also talk to “key informants,” especially university research administrators, and scrutinize relevant documents from governments, research councils, and universities. Finally, we intend to design educational development initiatives that should be useful for researchers, administrators and student research assistants.

We conducted two pilot studies to inform this project. In Study 1, 12 senior feminist academics in education, sociology and allied fields from six countries provided interviews or written materials in response to questions about their research leadership (Acker & Wagner, 2019). In Study 2, 17 Ontario education academics holding various social justice commitments described their experiences of conducting research (Acker et al., 2018). These studies indicate that external funding has become a key priority for academics, despite the difficulties many experience in acquiring it (Acker, 2018; Acker & Ylijoki, 2018; McGinn et al., 2019). They also suggest that Canadian research practices may differ from those found elsewhere and that there is a need to identify and implement better means of supporting academic researchers and their student assistants to produce excellent research without undue anxiety and inefficiency.

In 2018, we conducted an analysis of research policy documents at various levels (national, provincial, institutional) that might be expected to influence researcher decisions (Campisi et al., 2018). In 2018 and 2019 we conducted 24 interviews with research administrators and other key informants knowledgeable about the research field. We published some of the results from this phase as Acker, McGinn, & Campisi (2019). As of March 2020, we completed 27 interviews with faculty in our four target fields.

There is very little literature that combines notions of researcher identity, leadership, social justice and challenging times in academe. In studying Canadian academic researchers and inserting the findings into international debates, we make a unique contribution to what Brew and Lucas (2009) call the “scholarship of academic research” (p. 7).


Acker, S. (2018, December 6). Fast professors in Canadian academe: Negotiating the research funding imperative. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Research into Higher Education, Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, UK.

Acker, S., McGinn, M. K., & Campisi, C. (2019). The work of university research administrators: Praxis and professionalization. Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, 1(1), 61–85.

Acker, S. & Wagner, A. (2019). Feminist scholars working around the neoliberal university. Gender and Education, 31(1), 62–81

Acker, S., Wagner, A., & McGinn, M.K (2018). Research leaders and student collaborators: Insights from Canada. In L. Gornall, B. Thomas, & L. Sweetman (Eds.), Exploring consensual leadership in higher education: Co-operation, collaboration and partnership (pp. 113–128)London: Bloomsbury Press.

Acker, S. & Ylijoki, O.-H. (2018, July 20). Grant hunting in corporatized universities: Experiences from Canada and Finland. Paper presented at the International Sociological Association Conference, Toronto, ON, Canada.

Brew, A., & Lucas, L. (2009). Introduction. In A. Brew & L. Lucas (Eds.), Academic research and researchers(pp. 1–12)Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Campisi, C., McGinn, M.K., & Acker, S. (2018, May 29). Rock around the clock: Social production in the research policy landscape for social science academics. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education, Regina, SK, Canada.

McGinn, M. K., Acker, S., Vander Kloet, M., & Wagner, A. (2019). Dear SSHRC, what do you want? An epistolary narrative of expertise, identity, and time in grant writing. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 20(1), Art 8.