I’ve recently been in Iceland working on an academic writing course. The participants were doctoral researchers. They came with data that they wanted to turn into a peer reviewed paper. The majority of them were doing PhDs by publication so writing a paper was a high stakes activity.
Some of the workshop participants were writing for a local readership and intended to put their paper into an Icelandic journal. This was important. We always have to consider who needs to know about our research, and where they are. It’s not always a matter of packing up our data knapsack and heading for the highest ranked international journal in the field. Local is often good. Many researchers decide to publish locally as well as internationally so that their research findings can enter into local conversations. Writing for local readers often means that research results influence practice or policy and make a real difference pretty quickly.
However, the PhD by publication in Iceland requires that the majority of published papers are in international journals. This meant that many of the Icelandic participants were aiming for journals outside of their location. And they had an initial thinking problem related to their place and its specificity.
All of the workshop group had done research at home, in Iceland. Some of them had looked at Icelandic policy changes. Others had looked at issues that were of particular interest in the Nordic context, such as the social challenges produced by increasing culturally diverse populations. A few were looking at specific Arctic sustainability projects and programmes. The problem they all faced was how to make their topic interesting to the international readers served by the journals they wanted to write for.
It had been relatively easy to make the initial case for their research at home… There was a local niche they were going to fill. No one in Iceland had looked at the particular issue before. The issue was a high priority or contentious in Iceland, and there was a need for ongoing research. But this rationale wouldn’t work for international readers. The question we therefore had to grapple with was this: Under what circumstances would international readers find a paper about Iceland interesting? Readers would need a point of connection, and they’d need some help from the writer to see that the particularities of Iceland were also relevant to them.
Now this is a problem for lots of people, not just those for those in the workshop. What will non-local readers be interested in? It’s a bit of a head shift to stop thinking about what the research means at home to think about what it means abroad. This is because the message that is relevant at home is not necessarily the one that is of most interest elsewhere.
An example I often use in writing workshops concerns a paper I once had to review. The paper looked at the way in which reflective teaching practice had been introduced into a country which had previously not used this approach. The author had conducted action research and wanted to show that this local innovation had produced better teachers, with more capacity to adapt their practice to diverse students. But the paper that they had written argued that reflective practice was A Good Thing For Teachers. The problem was that the paper had been submitted to a journal where all of the international readers took the value of reflection and reflective practice as their starting point. Arguing that reflection was a good thing was not new news to them. In fact, it was a ho-hum. It was the wrong argument. Readers would have been interested in a paper which discussed the introduction of Western methods in the particular location, and the possibilities, positives and potential difficulties that might arise when doing so. The paper the author had written was one that audiences at home needed to read. It wasn’t tailored for the international audience.
So this was the problem for a lot of the Icelandic doctoral researchers in the workshop. International readers would not simply be interested in another discussion about neoliberal policy, or about the need for action on sustainability – unless the Icelandic case offered something that they didn’t know, or was of particular interest.
This meant that the workshop participants had to answer these two questions first of all:
(1) What argument is of interest to local readers?
(2) Is this of interest internationally?
If the answer was that something different was needed for an international audience, then the writer had to consider what in their particular situation might extend beyond the local. They had to imagine the international reader saying “so what? ” and have an answer to it. In order to generate the points of connection between their local situation and the international, the potential article writers had to know what international readers of the proposed journal already knew. They had to be on top of the debates and discussions in the journal, as well as the international field more generally, in order to locate their study in a way that readers would find interesting.
So the additional question they had to consider was:
(3) what is it about the Icelandic example that offers something new and/or different to the journal’s readers?
They had to think about whether their paper spoke to a debate, addressed a common misconception, filled in a blank space, disrupted something taken for granted. They had to find the warrant for their paper in the international context.
In our workshop, and in more than one instance, the writers realised that international readers could learn something positive from the Icelandic experience. This wasn’t what they had first thought might be the case. Instead of simply being the exotic volcanic ‘other’, they had things to show and tell that were potentially applicable to scholarship in other much more well published localities! This meant that they were able to begin writing their papers knowing that readers would indeed want to read a paper about their place.