writing a journal article? start with the So What question

I’m running another writing course soon in Iceland and have been sorting through potential pre-reading material. In my file of pdfs I came across an editorial written by Neil Selwyn in the journal Learning, Media and Technology. The piece is called ‘So What?’… a question every journal article needs to answer‘.

It’s pretty apparent that Selwyn was tired of getting papers that weren’t suitable for his journal. In his three years as Editor he’d obviously seen a lot of unsuitable submissions – and he really, really didn’t want to see any more. You can hear his frustration in his very clear delineation of what is and isn’t acceptable for his journal….

These ‘proof of concept’ and ‘best practice’ studies of the application of specific digital devices and practices in particular educational settings are clearly necessary and worthwhile stages in the development of any educational technology. Yet work of this kind does not translate automatically into scholarly, academic writing. A social science journal such as Learning Media & Technology is not looking to publish endless variations on describing the potential of ‘gadget X + classroom Y’. Instead, we are looking to publish articles that have substantially more to say about the ‘wider picture’ of education, technology and society. What some submitting authors perhaps fail to recognise is that the most significant aspect of their work is not the actual piece of technology or new media under scrutiny.

So, no simple descriptions of practice then. Not for Selwyn. No talking up new toys either.

In order to help prospective authors get to the So What of their paper, Selwyn suggests that they consider these questions:

What is the relevance of the article to practice – or any other aspect of the real world?

What is the relevance of the article to policy?

What is the relevance of the article to other academic research and writing?

What is the relevance of the article to theory?

Selwyn unpacks these questions in relation to his particular journal, but as headlines  to think about, they are a pretty good guide for anyone writing a scholarly journal article. A scholarly paper has to have something to say – it’s got to make a point – about something that the target journal readers will be interested in, something of some significance.

As Selwyn puts it:

 … the general point (is) that successful articles tend to be those that display having a good awareness of what they ‘are about’ – i.e., what their primary audiences are, and their value to these audiences. These articles are clearly aware of their broader significance and generalisability. These articles are mindful of the warrant of their data, and the limitations and parameters of their argument. These articles avoid making sweeping statements and refrain from reaching speculative or unjustifiable conclusions. These articles move beyond description to deeper forms of discussion, analysis and debate. In short these articles have something to say!

This is pretty helpful advice for everyone, but especially for people who are not yet experienced in writing papers for publication. I do hope that they are helpful for the participants of my forthcoming course in Iceland !

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in journal, Neil Selwyn, so what, take home message and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to writing a journal article? start with the So What question

  1. Hello may name is Patrícia and I follow your blog and your articles have been very useful for me while struggling with academic writing and in the last months of my Phd about wellbeing in dementia…I was just wondering….do you have plans to come to Portugal for a course?
    Happy New year
    Best regards


  2. francesbell says:

    Such a useful post Pat. And have a lovely time in Iceland – not a lot of daylight but the chance of Aurora Borealis 🙂


  3. Jane S says:

    The ‘So what?’ (alt. version, ‘Who cares?’) question is endlessly useful, plus its watchword, ‘relevance.’
    ‘So what?’ makes you re-evaluate the warrant for your research, your theory and writing, or the drift of your argument.
    I ask myself rhetorical questions, peppered through my thesis draft. If these aren’t clearly and satisfactorily answered then I know I’m not staying on track but wandering off into the bush.
    And however proud you are of a well-wrought para., sentence or *aperçu*, if it contributes nothing of value then out it goes.
    Selwyn’s free access advice is worth downloading. His excellent recommendation, to avoid “sweeping statements and refrain from reaching speculative or unjustifiable conclusions [… & …] move beyond description to deeper forms of discussion, analysis and debate,” should be written in stone for every researcher ~ not just for those in the field of social science.


    • The rhetorical Q.s serving as a feedback system is a good mechanism. “if in doubt leave it out” is one I learned (the hard way) while writing my 1st paper with supervisor. Hard to achieve (is my idea / paragraph / etc .. clear, is it relevant? and if yes, relevant to whom?) but helpful for sure.

      Thanks for your comment and thanks Pat for the always great-read posts.


  4. browney237 says:

    I am starting to Plan my Honours Thesis so your post and reference to Selwyn’s article is timely.


  5. Thanks for the blog. I have read several self-help books and articles on writing. But, for me the most helpful bit of advice is “Don’t bury your lead.” Write that lead in the title or in the first few sentences of an article or chapter. It’s good for the reader and especially good for the author.


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