Tag Archives: academic writing

How to make sure people care about your research

No-one cares about your research. Particularly if it’s your PhD (or any other kind of doctorate). In fact if someone knows it’s the latter, or you mention it, they probably care less, or at least have alarm bells ringing that you’re about to launch into a prolonged account of your scholarship woes, the fact your supervisor hasn’t replied to any emails for 17 hours now, the horrible ethics committee, and the impossibility of writing only 100,000 words when it’s taken you 7 years and you’ve just got so much to say…

Even more of concern is the journal reviewer, or assessor of your grant proposal who is put off and frustrated before they’ve finished reading the first paragraph.

Fear not, for help is at hand! Fortunately, there is a really easy and effective way to avoid all these problems. Admittedly, this assumes your research does actually matter in some way, in the sense that it connects with something wider and non-trivial.

My solution will cost you nothing: no hard currency, no bitcoins, and no sleepless nights. Probably not even any extra words. In fact you may end up telling and selling the story of your research in fewer words than before! All it takes is a bit of trust, and a few minutes of your time.

My solution is this: when introducing your research, use a sequence that follows a ‘so’ logic rather than a ‘why?’ logic. This may well involve reversing the order of your ideas and sentences. If so, rejoice! – because this means you’ve already had all the right ideas, made all the right connections. You just need to turn it all upside down.

So what on earth is a ‘so’ logic, or a ‘why?’ logic, and why do these matter?

A ‘why’ logic is based on a sequence of sentences where each sentence is followed by one that explains the first. Example:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

This looks great, right? It’s clear, follows a nice logical order, and explains to the reader why your research is important. I’ll admit, it’s not bad. Just I think it could be better. What’s really going on in the sequence above is an unwritten conversation with the reader. Let’s look at it again, this time with the silent responses inserted:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[So what?]

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yeah. And? Why should I care about that?]

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Oh! Now I get it!]

Look at it from the reader’s point of view. You first sentence left them unconvinced, and probably rang all the alarm bells of dread, foreboding the terrors I outlined at the beginning of this post. Only after pushing you twice for more information, are they rewarded with something that they actually ‘get’, and might even care about. To them your research, in only three sentences, has been an uphill slog, full of doubt, experienced as some kind of puzzle that leaves them guessing. After each sentence they are left asking themselves: “why?”. This is the reason I call this a ‘why?’ logic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can swap ‘why?’ for ‘so’. And we barely have to change a word. In fact we delete quite a few!

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

In this logic, you start with the idea that the reader really ‘got’ in the first scenario. The thing that matters most universally, directly and immediately to your readers. The kind of thing that they will accept as obvious, perhaps even unquestionable. There’s nothing wrong with showing a reader that you are both on the same wavelength. Take a shared assumption about something that you know to be a common concern. Something you don’t have to convince them to care about. Exploit what’s already there between you!

Then simply follow up with a sentence that leads from that towards your research, in a gradually narrowing down. What’s happening this time, is something more like this:

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Absolutely! You sound like a sensible sort of person who knows what I care about. I’m curious. Tell me more].

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yes. That makes sense.]

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[Seriously?! Wow! That’s wonderful! It’s just what we need. And it sounds very focused too. Tell me all about it in intricate detail!]

At each step you carry the reader with you, and one sentence follows on from the next exploiting this. Sentence 1 [brilliant!] so…. sentence 2 [amazeballs!] so… sentence 3 [no way! Where’s that Novel prize nomination form?]

That’s it. It may take you more than 3 sentences (hopefully not too many more, though).

Give it a try. I dare you. What have you got to lose?

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the influence of Martyn Hammersley’s framework for reading ethnographic research (see my video and podcast), Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s miraculous ‘tiny texts’ approach to writing abstracts, the group of UTS Doctor of Education students based in Hong Kong, and Lee Williamson from UTS’ Research Office. Without you all this would never have come to fruition.come to fruition.

A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

I was talking with a colleague recently who described an interaction with one of her students who had been rejected from a journal. The response of her supervisors sounded really interesting, so I asked if she’d mind forwarding the emails onto me for a blog post. Which she kindly did! There’s a lot here that is useful in thinking about how to respond when you get rejected. I should point out this is in a country where many students complete a PhD through publications, and in this case the article was written by the student, with all the supervisors helping her and named as authors.

First the student wrote to her supervisors

Dear supervisors,

At last I have got response from the journal regarding my second manuscript. Unfortunately they are not interested to publish it.

I´m very disappointed about that. I can agree with a lot of the comments, it is useful for me in the future process but it has taken over 6 months to deliver that answer and right now I don´t have so much positive energy to restart the work.

I think I can interpret their comments (at least from the first reviewer) as if I rewrite the manuscript I can try to resubmit it but I´m not really sure if that is their suggestion.

Then one supervisor replied, cc’ing the others

Thank you for your email. Yes that is somewhat disappointing, but from the comments, perhaps it is good that it isn¹t published in its current form: because from what the reviewers saw, I don¹t think the paper did full justice to your work and your thinking! Better to have a stronger paper published, even if it is later.

I have had similarly prickly experiences, particularly in this journal, with reviewers who really want accounts of research to feel as if the research was quantitative (a bit like reviewer 1 worrying about interpretation in ethnographic research etc).

On the plus side:

  1. Both reviewers appear to have read your paper in quite a bit of detail! (which is not always the case)
  2. Both reviewers have offered well-written comments that are quite easy to understand (which is not always the case)
  3. There is lots in the comments that will help to improve the paper.

I think both the reviewers offer largely helpful comments – they are not fighting the kind of story you want to tell, or questioning its importance. They do want to know more concrete detail about the study methods, want a clearer alignment between the question, theory, findings and discussion, and a very clear argument as to what is new and why it matters. They are all very achievable without having to go back and do more analysis!

I think the process now should be to wait a few days until you feel a bit less fed up, and then to start:

  1. Thinking of alternative journals (although R1 seemed to invite this the journal is definitely not asking for a resubmission as I interpret the email). XXX might be one possibility. Or YYY?
  1. Coming up with your own to-do list in terms of changes you think are worth making to the paper – and perhaps differentiating those that are small/easy, and those that require a bit more thought and work. You can also list those points the reviewers made that you¹re not so bothered about and don¹t want to make big changes.

So, when you¹re feeling you have the energy to take it up again, there are my suggestions 🙂

Then another supervisor added her voice

I understand that it feels a bit disappointing, particularly since they kept you waiting so long for the decision. But I can only echo what [Supervisor 1] is suggesting, once you have worked through the comments, your paper will be much stronger.  I think you should let it sit while you are completing the paper on the [different analysis], you are in a good flow with that one at the moment! And we should think of an alternative journal, I agree, we need to aim for one that is included in Web if Science.

And then a third supervisor added his voice

This is the kind of experience that is not only sometimes happening, but rather a rule than an exception. And just as S1 and S2 state; it will in the end improve the paper. But I do agree they could have given us this feedback at least half a year earlier….

I also think S2’s advice is right; go on with the paper on [different analysis] and let this paper rest (just like a wine; it will become better with time and maturation – ask your husband!).

So let this experience take its time and aim for a journal that is indexed in Web if Science, although the IF is not too important.

Then the student replies

Thanks for the support!

I totally agree with you all and as I said, the comments from the reviewers are very good for me in the future process and also for my paper regarding the [different analysis]. I  struggle with the same issues here I guess; clear arguments for the study, evidence for my findings and how to discuss that much more clear.

Brief comment from me

What I like here is:

  1. That we end up with the student being able to take the rejection letter as a way to identify some things that she needs to look out for in another paper
  2. That S3 normalises this kind of experience
  3. That S2 provides very concrete suggestions in terms of not getting distracted by the rejection when work is going well on another paper
  4. That S1 finds positive things to appreciate in the reviewers’ comments, even though it was a rejection
  5. That the student felt comfortable sharing this, and got such strong and immediate support.

10 easy ways to make sure you have no publication record when you finish your PhD and forever after

Since posting this I have created a slideshow highlighting some of the key points, along with those from the subsequent post about not getting read or cited.

There is a lot of pressure on doctoral students and early career academics to publish. Want even the slightest chance of getting job? Publish. Want anyone other than your examiners to read your work? Publish. Want to actually contribute to knowledge? Publish. What to do the ethical thing and deliver what was promised to the people who funded your work, or those who contributed to it through support, helping with data etc? Publish.

Now, some of you may wish to do those things, but in my experience there seem to be plenty of people out there who don’t. They see publication as the ultimate stain their good reputation, the catastrophe to end all catastrophes, the academic apocalypse. They are the publishaphobes.

Well there is good news! By following these few and easy rules, you too can make sure your work gathers dust on library shelves (or better still in the basement), so that no-one ever reads it, and the labour of love that has invaded the last 3+ years of your life can all come to nothing more than some letters before or after your name. Perhaps the non-publishing option makes sense because you’re an intellectual fraud and are afraid of getting found out.

1. Keep your papers locked away in your computer / desk drawer

By far the easiest way to make sure you never have anything published is to never actually send anything off for review. Reasons for this may be fear of critical feedback and perfectionism (see below), but it’s worth making this simple but powerful point: NOT sending your paper (or book proposal etc) off is the only 100% safe guarantee to make sure you NEVER get published. Simples. When you wonder how those stellar professors, or the students / postdocs who seem to be on a fast-track to tenured jobs and academic stardom got so many publications, the answer is: they sent lots of stuff off for review (notwithstanding all the rejections they got along the way).

2. Wait until your paper is perfect before you submit it

You’ve realised that you have to submit something in order for it to get published. Well done you! But you know it’s good to be good to stand a chance, so you’re going to let it sit for a while and come back and tweak it later. You know you don’t take rejection or harsh feedback well, so better to get it perfect first, right? WRONG. Perfectionism is the enemy of publication. you’ll never write anything perfect so stop trying.

3. Send half-baked crap off while suffering EOS

The perfect counterpart to perfectionism. Or should that be imperfect? Pat Thomson has written an excellent blog post; about ‘early onset satisfaction’ (EOS) – a bad thing for writing and writers: “feeling too happy with a piece of writing meant that you didn’t rewrite and rewrite as often and as hard as you ought to” (the phrase being attributed to Mem Fox). Pat recalls a time when she was reviewing an article for a journal and came to the conclusion that the author had been struck with EOS, and probably hadn’t given it to anyone else to read, or ‘if they had, I’d have taken bets that they hadn’t asked anyone to ask them the hard questions – like – so what, and why should I care?’. Atta boy! Way to go! The peer review process isn’t 100% foolproof, so there is a small chance that someone will publish the rubbish that your bout of EOS has duped you into regarding as brilliant; but by and large reviewers will pick it up and ensure a quick and firm rejection (or major revisions). Phew!

4. Be crushed by rejection and negative feedback

Second only to not sending your written work out is this: sending it out, but then buckling completely when it gets rejected. There must be hundreds of (potentially) good papers stuck in limbo because their authors are defeated by something as inconsequential as rejection from one or more journals. So the editors and reviewers didn’t like your paper? EITHER: yes, they’ve pronounced true judgement on your intellectual worthlessness and the irrelevance of your research (in which case by all means leave your paper to rot in the depths of your hard drive); OR perhaps you went for the wrong journal, need to clarify your argument etc, (in which case get cracking on finding a different journal / making revisions, and get it out there again. no excuses).

5. Ignore word limits and reference styles

A fantastic way to get your paper bounced back to you before the editor has even read a word. The journal has a limit of 4,000 words including references, but your study is special, so all the rules for being succinct and equality of space in the issue should be disregarded just for you. Maybe you’ve used qualitative data so need long quotes from interviews (wow! what a pioneering thing you’re doing! Interviews!). Maybe there’s a lot of literature in your field, so you need 2,000 words just of lit review (wow! no-one else has read as much as you!). Maybe your theoretical framework is complex and requires detailed, lengthy explanation (wow!… [you get the message]). A journal editor worth their salt will open your paper, check the word count and bounce it right back to you if it is over.

Perhaps you’ve actually bothered to think about a key argument, and redrafted your paper so it is now a succinct argument that fits within the word limit (or is even well below it so when the reviewers ask for more explanation you have some room for manoeuvre). But fear not – you can still make sure you get rejected quicksmart. Each journal has a clearly specified reference style. But formatting references is boring. Or maybe you haven’t learned to use Endnote properly. Or maybe you think even though all other academics format their own references, the copyeditors should do this for you. Maybe you think the doi numbers in the new APA 6th reference style can be ignored (because you don’t have them and can’t be arsed to go and look them up for all the references in your bibliography). Way you go! You just got yourself a rejection! [I’m not joking: I foolishly neglected to look up the differences between APA 5th and 6th, and had a paper de-submitted from a journal and was smartly told to get the references right if I wanted my paper to be considered].

6. Pay no regard to the aims, scope, and recent content of the journal

Another brilliant way to avoid your work getting in the public domain is to do everything you can to secure a resounding rejection from the editor. Better still, you can get yourself rejected before your paper even gets sent out for review. By some miracle of accident or adversity you’ve got a paper under the word limit, with correct references. You heard from a friend that the Polynesian Quarterly is a highly respected journal, so you send your paper about political resistance in the slums of Detroit off to the editor. You’re not stupid, you see it isn’t a direct fit, but your research is just so good, they’ll want the paper. And anyway, this journal has a big word limit which you need. BOING! Back it comes with a: thanks, but no thanks (the first of these thanks really means: ‘what were you thinking?! why did you waste my precious time?). Now this is a fairly drastic example, but time and again I hear editors (and experience myself as an editor and reviewer) saying a prime reason for rejection is lack of fit with the journal.

There is a parallel here for book proposals. Your mate published her PhD through Publisher X, so you send your proposal in to them, too. A bigger BOING. Publishers have lists, scope, and priorities just like journals. (Except the fishing ones (often from Germany) who emailed you and said they’d like to publish your PhD; but you’re not considering them, are you?).

(If, on the other hand, you’d like your paper to go out for review, see the end of my previous post on selecting journals).

6. Write one title / abstract, and then a completely different paper

Almost as effective as a complete mismatch between your paper and the journal, is a complete mismatch between your title / abstract, and the main text. If a rejection is what you’re looking for, promising one thing and delivering another is a fairly safe way to go. Set the editor and reviewers up with grand yet specific expectations, but then write something that drifts off course completely and concludes in an utterly surprising way. That way you will confuse, disappoint, frustrate and irritate all the important people in one go.

With book proposals, a great way to get no interest all in your work is to get it send to the wrong sub-department. I did this brilliantly in a recent proposal I sent off to Routledge. The book I had in mind was about professional practice and learning, firmly within established fields of educational research. However my proposal clearly left the first reader at Routledge that it was a book about early childhood development. (It’s about child and family health practices). It got sent to the early childhood people and was swiftly rejected. As of course I would expect. This is not me moaning about Routledge: this is me saying I should have done a better job at making it clear where my work is located academically.

7. Give it all away for free

Please note: a number of people have taken issue with the points I make below. I won’t edit them here, so that the replies and comments make sense. But I will re-quote from the journal submission process to clarify what it is I am warning about. I am essentially saying that you need to make sure you can tick this box: “Confirm that the manuscript has been submitted solely to this journal and is not published, in press, or submitted elsewhere.” I have approved and published the replies because I think it’s important to be open and to be clear that there are different views on this matter. What’s really crucial is that you think carefully and seek informed advice.

Publishers publish to make money. They’re in it for profit. By and large they are not charities. All the big publishers gobbling up all the journals do so because they see there’s money to be made. How do they make their money? Because people or libraries, pay for access to journals, because people want to read them. And why do people want to read them? Because they can read something there that they can’t read elsewhere: something new!

So a great way to avoid anyone ever wanting to publish your work (in book or journal form), is to make sure that it’s all already out there in the public domain, preferably on a blog or academia.edu or a open access conference website. That way, when you’re asked to tick the box about original work, you can’t do so and your publishing treadmill grinds to a sticky, rusty halt. (Yes conference papers that get developed into articles are fine, and your thesis can be turned into a book; but you’ve got to be careful about it).

There’s a middle ground here. Before you finish your PhD, or perhaps shortly afterwards, you’re likely to get an email from a publishing company, saying they’d like to publish your PhD as a book. You’re asked to send your manuscript in, and miraculously, within a short time you’ve got the offer of a contract. No proposal. No reviewers’ comments. Just the offer. Your work will be out there, in a book with an ISBN, for sale on amazon etc within days. Problem is, other academics won’t really take this seriously as an academic book, because they’re not convinced a thorough peer review process was undertaken. I’ve used one of these publishers to publish a report that otherwise would have been printed in-house at my uni. Neither are great academic coups, but the published version is at least available online and reaches a wider audience. It doesn’t count as a book on my CV or for my research output. So if you want to show off your shiny book to your friends, and feel good about having got your work out there, but don’t care about your long term academic reputation and publishing prospects, go ahead.

8. Trap your paper in inter-author disputes

Many of us co-author journal papers with colleagues. If you’re hoping to avoid publication, a strong tactic is to make sure there is no clarity around authorial roles and sign-off. Not discussing what contributions, rights and responsibilities are expected from each author is a great way to start. Then, all being well, your draft can get stuck in limbo as authors keep adding changes, undoing the changes their colleagues have just made, and no-one knows who ultimately says ‘Enough! Let’s just send it off!’.

9. Only the best will do

Other students publish in poxy journals with low impact factors. You, however, are the next Einstein / Piaget / [insert relevant superstar here]. You’re head and shoulders better than all the other students around you who frankly, probably barely even qualify for MENSA, and can write their IQ without using standard form. You don’t want to pollute your academic CV with low- or mid-status journals. High status might not even match your utter brilliance. No, for you, it’s got to be Nature, New Scientist, BMJ, [insert your field’s top journal with uber-high rejection rates here]. Nothing else will do. You can say one thing to your publication track record: byeeeeee! [except it doesn’t exist anyway]

10. Cheat: send your article off to more than on journal at once

When the journal submission system asks you if you’ve sent the same paper off to any other journals, they don’t really care, do they? Luckily for all you publishaphobes out there, sending off the same paper to two (or more) journals at once doesn’t double (or triple) your chances of publication. It annihilates them. If you get found out (and chances are you will, because, guess what, editors talk to each other, know and use the same reviewers etc), not only is your work in an article-shaped coffin, but your the dirt is being piled on the remains of what was (potentially) your academic career. (This point neglects the idiocy of sending the same paper to two journals: they all have different aims, scope, length, styles, conversation histories – you’d have to be pretty naive to think that this is a way to go anyway, even if it wasn’t one of the seven deadly academic sins).

(NB. With book proposals it may be acceptable to make contact with multiple publishers at once, but check with your supervisor and others first as to how this might play; also remember different publishers means your proposal will be different anyway).

To all the publishaphobes have a go at diagnosing your phobia. While I’d secretly love you all to remain as you are and lower the competition in journals and books for the rest of us, I think scholarship will be the better for your participation. To those who are up for it, remember these 10 easy steps, but above all, remember never to take them!