So you’ve not written a lot of journal articles before, if any. Does this matter? Well not necessarily – but it might.
When asked, journal editors almost always report that one of the major reasons for paper rejections is that their writers sound like ‘newbies’. Something about the writing itself gives away the fact that the authors aren’t experienced. So what is it precisely that reveals novice status – and can it be remedied?
Anthony Pare, a Prof at McGill University in Montreal Canada, and Editor of the McGill Journal of Education suggests that it’s helpful to think about writers new to the journal writing game through the use of a TESOL metaphor. It is as if, he proposes, they are not yet native speakers of the genre. What gives them away he says, are
…topics that are far too broad for short papers, the research methodologies are extensive and longitudinal, the theoretical terminology is impenetrable, the parentheses are crammed with citations, and the reference list is half as long as the paper itself. (Pare, 2010, p 30)
Pare notes that these characteristics make the paper more like an assignment or essay than a well argued peer-reviewed paper. Assignments, essays and theses typically need to provide: evidence that their writers understand the topic in its context; an audit trail which shows that they have read all of the relevant literatures and can use/incorporate them appropriately; a demonstration of correct referencing and in text citations; and familiarity with the kinds of conceptual and theoretical resources typically brought to social science problems. Each of these markers of the essay or thesis garners ‘points’ when it is submitted for assessment purposes; lacking them may mean substantial revisions – or worse still, outright failure. These kinds of coverage and display however are not required in a journal article, and indeed to put them in may produce rejection.
It is worth looking at each of these things in a little more detail to understand what Pare means. A journal article – as opposed to an essay – should have:
• a tight focus which allows one (or at most two) ideas to be dealt with, and about three or four major points in the argument to be made
• a synthesis of research literatures not a review. Reference should be made only to the key texts and debates on which the particular paper builds and to which it makes a contribution
• theory, if it is used, should be explained largely in the writer’s own words and as economically as possible, referring only to the particular theoretical aspects that are needed in the paper
• citations which do not crowd out the text; the majority of the word allowance should be devoted to the paper itself, which is after all the contribution.
Pare explains that the reason for these things being absent is likely to be because the writer is not sufficiently familiar with the conventions of the discipline. They are not deep enough into the discourse community to understand the ways that thinking, reasoning and writing are usually conducted. Thus, he suggests, new writers often
… overstress the banal, under-stress the critical, misuse key terms and are soon revealed as newcomers.
Pare argues that there is something that writers can do to address the problem of being new in the field. The answer he proposes is not to rush into premature publication, and to use peers, mentors, conferences and the like to test drive the text and refine it. He also suggests that universities can do a lot more to help aspiring writers become immersed in disciplinary thinking through regular writing focussed seminars, in which doctoral and early career researchers can try out their ideas and writing with more experienced colleagues whose job it is to induct them into the mores of the relevant field.
In the absence of such provision, some postgraduates and early career can and do resort to DIY and set up ongoing writing and reading groups for themselves.
Pare, A (2010) Slow the presses. Concerns about premature publication, in Aitchison, C, Kamler, B and Lee, A (Eds) Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. London Routledge pp 30-46